Saturday, August 12, 2017

"The Lord's Supper" in The Christian Messenger, 1831

John Allen Gano (1805-1887, pictured at left) was a protege of Barton W. Stone and served as a prominent leader among the "Stoneite" Christians in Kentucky and nearby states. His career as an evangelist covered the sixty years from 1827 to 1887, during which time Gano baptized more than 10,000 people. [1]

In 1831, Gano wrote two pieces about the Lord's Supper for The Christian Messenger, a monthly that Stone had published from Georgetown, Kentucky beginning in 1826. His second piece, a letter to the editor, was a response to an opponent named John G. Ellis. After Gano published a letter of rejoinder, Ellis then wrote in response to Gano's rejoinder. Thus, in their exchange the two men wrote a total of four pieces.

On occasion, Editor Stone himself would briefly weigh in on the topic and the discussion between Gano and Ellis. This post will review and comment on the entire discussion as it unfolded and on the outcome of the exchange.

1. John Allen Gano on "The Lord's Supper" 

Gano's initial article, titled simply "The Lord's Supper," appeared in the Messenger dated February 1831. He began by raising the question of frequency: "How often," he asked, "is it the privilege and duty of the Christians, to attend to the Lord's Supper?" He noted that when Jesus instituted the Supper in Luke 22:19, he said to his apostles "this do in remembrance of me." But clearly, that command did not address the question of frequency.

Gano assumed that "the gospel system is perfect, that its laws and commands are perfect" and that Christians are thereby "thoroughly furnished." Consequently, he wrote,
we feel disposed to examine farther, and if not from the lips of the Saviour, from the practice of his apostles at least, learn the proper understanding of this command, and the attention due to it.
From there, Gano observed that according to Acts 2:42, "breaking of bread," which he equated with the Lord's Supper, was one of the "acts of public worship" listed in that verse in which the earliest Christians at Jerusalem participated. From Acts 20:7, he concluded that not only did the first-century church assemble "upon the first day of the week," they did so in order "to break bread," that is, to observe the Lord's Supper.

Gano added that Paul's instructions to the church at ancient Corinth reinforces the basic point. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul repeatedly corrects and warns the congregation because of their abuse of the Lord's Supper. But, wrote Gano, "how could they abuse that, which they did not attend to?" In other words, the specific way in which Paul addresses the problem underscores weekly observance of the Lord's Supper as the New Testament pattern:
Let us imagine one thus addresses his congregation, "Friends, when you come together, it is not to hear preaching, for one sleeps, another laughs, and another talks." Would not such a reproof or admonition plainly prove, that they did come, or ought to have come together to hear preaching? If so, the language of the passage just cited, being similar in form, this conclusion irresistibly follows; That [the earliest Christians] met every first day; when they did meet it was to eat the Lord's Supper; therefore [Christians in all times] eat it every first day of the week.  
In fact, he argued, based on the relevant New Testament passages, someone could just as easily deny that the first day of the week is when Christians are to assemble as he could deny that the primary purpose of the assembly is to share in the Lord's Supper.

Gano bolstered his case by referring to "the History of the Christian Church, for the first three centuries of its existence so far as it has come to us." He emphasized that early Christian tradition is "not inspired" and that all believers should establish their faith and practice on "the Bible alone." Nevertheless, for comparison's sake, early Christian history establishes that believers "assembled on the first day of the week, sung hymns, prayed, commemorated the death and resurrection of the Lord."

Finally, Gano responded to the possible objection that weekly observance of the Lord's Supper would make it all too common, and that its repeated practice would descend into cold formalism. Gano replied that this danger is connected to anything that Christians do repeatedly, since "every act of religious worship not attended to in the Spirit of Christ, is mere form." On the other hand, if the Lord, by the inspired teaching of this apostles, has taught us to break bread upon the first day of the week, then "assuredly it becomes us humbly to obey."

2. Barton W. Stone's Remarks

Immediately following Gano's article, Stone added a few of his own "Remarks." As if he anticipated a negative response from some who read the Messenger, Stone commented that Gano's arguments were "plausible, if not convincing to all." Further, he invited those who "may think differently" to "communicate for the C. Messenger the result of their investigation," yet always in "the meekness and gentleness of Christ." He also encouraged Gano "to continue for the Messenger his exhibitions of truth."

3. A Response from John G. Ellis

The very next issue of The Christian Messenger, dated March, 1831, included a letter sent from Dry Creek in Campbell County, Kentucky. The writer, a certain John G. Ellis, asserted that Gano's position on the Lord's Supper was "dangerous to Christian liberty." [2] What was the problem?

Ellis noted that Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:26, "For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death until he come." This language, he insisted, denies any restriction of the Supper to the first day of the week.

Furthermore, while Acts 20:7 indicates that "the disciples came together to break bread," these words should not be understood as a reference to "communion" since "neither wine nor cup is once named." Instead, here the breaking of bread should be understood in the same sense as it appears in Acts 27:35. According to that verse, Paul "took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all; and when he had broken it, he began to eat." Ellis pointed out that both passages include breaking bread, while neither passage mentions cup or wine. If one verse refers to the Lord's Supper, why not the other?

Ellis asserted that Acts 2 presents the same ambiguity. According to Gano's interpretation, the "breaking of bread" in verse 42 supposedly refers to the Lord's Supper, while "breaking bread from house to house" in verse 46 supposedly means the regular sharing of common meals among the earliest Christians.

Regarding 1 Corinthians 11, Ellis pointed out that the chapter nowhere specifies that the church at Corinth typically gathered "on the first day of the week." It is certainly true, wrote Ellis, "that Paul in these verses specially refers to the Lord's supper." Yet, Paul does not specifically mention "a special day." Moreover, none of stories of institution in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, or Luke indicate that the disciples did or should eat the Lord's Supper every Sunday. Ellis concluded,
Seeing this is the fact my Christian brethren, let us be careful not to take the suppositions of poor erring man, though he may possess all the acquired knowledge of the world. . . . I assure my Christian brethren, that I am firm in the belief, that if I were honestly and conscientiously to celebrate the Lord's supper every day in the week, there is not a passage in the good word of God, that forbids it. On the contrary, it tells me "as often as you do this . . . "  . . . I am certain that [the] Lawgiver, and his law will ultimately prevail over human wisdom, self aggrandizement, and tradition of fallible man. 
4. Gano's Rejoinder

As one might expect, the very next issue of the Messenger, dated April 1831, contains a rejoinder to Ellis.

By way of review, Gano observes that his original piece set out to show "that the Holy Scriptures do authorize and require the breaking of bread, or celebration of the Lord's Supper every first day of the week."  Contrary to Ellis's suggestion, he denies that his article endangers Christian liberty. It is true the gospel means freedom from many things, including sin, condemnation, Jewish ritual, etc. Nevertheless, the gospel does not mean freedom "from Christ, his laws, authority and service." Although free, Christians "are bound to obey" their Lord.

With that, Gano sets out to answer the particulars of Ellis's letter. He begins with Ellis's contention that Acts 20:7 does not refer to the Lord's Supper. This is supposedly true "because the cup and wine are not mentioned." Yet Ellis assumes that 1 Corinthians 11:30 does refer to the Supper even though "the words drink, cup and wine" are likewise missing, an obvious inconsistency in the argument.

Next, Gano argues, contra Ellis, that if the language of "breaking bread" in Acts 27:35 does not refer to the Lord's Supper, this is no reason to conclude that all such language never refers to the Supper. Gano asserts that the differences "can only be understood by attending particularly to the context." Do not the various contexts of Acts 2:42, 20:7, and 27:35 reveal different meanings? Are there not clear differences between giving thanks at one's dinner table at home, compared to giving thanks at the Lord's table in the Christian assembly?

Besides, if in the Scriptures all instances of "breaking bread" are the same, then how can we resist the conclusion that the Lord has no say, and that mere humans have the authority "to decide the whole matter" regarding frequency? Does not Ellis's position "at once introduce confusion and disorder?"

Gano suggests that 1 Corinthians 16:2 further clarifies the matter: "On the first day of every week, let each of you lay somewhat by itself, according as he may have prospered, putting it in the treasury." He regards this the best translation of the verse, which "proves they met every first day at Corinth." This verse, when combined with Paul's instructions about the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, and with Acts 20:7, points to an established order, an order that prevailed during the time when "Jesus alone reigned among his professed followers." Gano concludes his response to Ellis by asking:
Is there a single passage of scripture, that speaks of monthly meetings by name? Is there any authority in the word of God for communing only every three months, or once a year? Is not this remembering a crucified Saviour in his institution very seldom? who is to determine, when we shall eat the supper, if the apostles have not? If a majority of each church are to determine, do the minority eat oftener or seldomer, without being considered disorderly? My object is information from the Bible, for the truth's sake, under the humbling sense I feel of my limited abilities, and information.
5. Ellis's Response to Gano's Rejoinder

The June 1831 issue of The Christian Messenger contains a second letter from John G. Ellis. Apparently, he was not persuaded by what Gano had written in defense of his article on "The Lord's Supper." And Ellis wanted to publish a follow-up statement of his own.

Ellis maintained that weekly observance of the Lord's Supper is not a scriptural precept, making the words of 1 Corinthians 11:26--"for as often as ye eat this bread"--the centerpiece of his argument.

He ridiculed Gano's distinction between public and private acts of worship by again referring to Acts 27:37 and commenting: "Here [Gano] wishes to hold out an idea that Paul did not perform an act of public worship on board of the ship, in giving thanks in the presence of 276 people." (What Ellis does not acknowledge is that Gano's distinction was between worship at home and in other private settings, compared to worship in the presence of the gathered church. The story in Acts 27 describes a scene that hardly fits either of Gano's categories).

Ellis denied that Acts 20:7 carried the force of "a command of Christ and his Apostles." He asserted that "if there is a command in all the New Testament to meet every first day of the week, to celebrate the Lord's Supper, I cannot find it."

Not even when using "Campbell's translation" of 1 Corinthians 16:2 can Gano provide "even the shadow of a command to meet every first day of the week, to celebrate the Lord's Supper." All such argument amounts to human "law-making or legislating for the church of Christ." Ellis is quick to note that he believed it was "the duty of christians to meet often together, and to commune or celebrate the Lord's Supper often." What he objected to was the idea that weekly observance of the Lord's Supper should be regarded a matter of following Scripture. Ellis closed with the following:
I can assure my christian brethren that I do not intend to write another sentence for the C.M. nor any other paper on the subject of weekly communion, as I am fully of the opinion that the scriptures authorise no such thing. I wish to invite my C. Brethren to examine minutely what bro. G. and myself have written, and compare it with the word of God. My prayer is that all christians may closely adhere to the word of God, that we may all grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
6. Barton W. Stone's Final "Remarks"

By way of wrapping up the exchange between Gano and Ellis, Editor Stone penned a few concluding remarks. He noted that both men, in private correspondence with Stone, indicated they would not be sending anything more on the subject. Both men were willing to end the discussion, "to rest it with the public to examine, and to decide its claims to truth." Then Stone added,
It must be acknowledged that but little is said in scripture with reference to the weekly communion, but all must acknowledge, that it was the practice in the first centuries of the church. Let us never make this subject a cause of debate and contention amongst us. My mind has been long in the belief that weekly communion was according to truth, yet I could never find sufficient scriptural reasons to convince my brethren that it was a positive command. What satisfied me, could not satisfy them. We are all free, nor would I willingly take away the liberty of one christian.
Two Observations

The exchange between Gano and Ellis in the pages of The Christian Messenger is remarkable on at least two different counts. First, anyone who reads Alexander Campbell's series "On the Breaking of Bread," which appeared in several issues of The Christian Baptist during 1825, will immediately conclude that Gano's 1831 article, "The Lord's Supper," is essentially a digest of Campbell's series. The similarities between the two are striking.

In fact, reading Gano after reading Campbell on this topic is a bit like reading the Gospel of Mark after the Gospel of Matthew. Campbell's series of four articles is significantly longer than Gano's article. But the general correspondence between the two is undeniable. Not only does Gano cite the same passages (Acts 2:42, Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11), which is predictable, he also makes the same kind of inferential arguments. Finally, Gano bolsters his case for every-Sunday observance of the Lord's Supper by citing early Christian history, exactly as Campbell did, including the very same caveats. Even the order of the material is virtually the same. In short, the correspondence between Campbell and Gano is unmistakable. The conclusion that Gano had read Campbell's series, and that his article is essentially a synopsis of Campbell, is irresistible.

Second, anyone who reads the entire exchange between Gano and Ellis is likely to sympathize with Gano, as I do, in his inability to nail down anything in the debate over specific New Testament texts. It appears that two unspoken issues stand behind this frustration. First, unlike Gano, Ellis does not believe that the New Testament contains an implicit outline of worship for Christians, one that specifies a certain day for the assembly as well as specific activities. Second, Gano accepted an approved example in Scripture as carrying the same force of a positive command. Ellis did not. As one might expect, on both of these questions Gano's view corresponds to that of Campbell.


[1] Jerry B. Rushford, "Gano, John Allen (1805-1887)" in Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, 347. Rushford "wrote the book" on Gano, a 1972 master's thesis completed at Abilene Christian College in Abilene, Texas, titled "The Apollos of the West": The Life of John Allen Gano.

[2] John G. Ellis was not as well-known as John Allen Gano. For example, while Gano merits his own article in the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, Ellis's name does not appear in the Index of that work. Still, Ellis does seem to have had an important ministry in Campbell County, Kentucky. For example, in an 1839 issue of The Millennial Harbinger, Ellis apparently responded to a request from Campbell for a status report on the congregations with which Ellis was familiar. His brief description of congregations near Dry Creek in Campbell County, Kentucky, indicates that Ellis had conducted an active ministry among those churches.

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