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Restorationism is an attitude that typifies a religious movement which sees itself as a rediscovery and establishment of the original form of Christianity. The term has been used to describe several comparably motivated Christian religious movements, some of which originated in the British Isles, but which only began to prosper in the eastern United States and then in the American frontier, in the 19th century in the wake of the Second Great Awakening.

More generally, this attitude is referred to as Primitivism (which describes many movements attempting to return to early Christianity, including Baptists, Sabbatarian Church of God, Noahide Nazarenes, and before them, the Anabaptists). However, the religious movements referred to as Restorationists ordinarily:

  • sought a restoration of primitive Christianity
  • originated as distinct movements primarily in the United States
  • originated between approximately 1795 and 1881;
  • originally tended to resist identification as a Protestant church, or
  • may include any movement with a goal or perspective reminiscent of the 19th century restorationists


Leading up to the 19th century, the Calvinist and Wesleyan revival, called the Great Awakening, had established the Congregationalist, the Presbyterian, the Baptist, and the new Methodist churches on competitive footing for social influence in the new nation. However, as that great "revival of religion" began to wane, a new era of secularism began to overwhelm the social gains that had been experienced by Evangelical churches. Furthermore, that revival had popularized the strong opinion that Evangelical religions were weakened and divided, primarily due to unreasonable loyalty to creeds and doctrines which made salvation, and Christian unity, seem unattainable.

The Second Great Awakening made its way across the frontier territories, fed by intense longing for a prominent place for God in the life of the new nation, a new liberal attitude toward fresh interpretations of the Bible, and a contagious experience of zeal for authentic spirituality. As these revivals spread, they gathered converts to the Protestant sects of the time. However, the revivals eventually moved freely across denominational lines, with practically identical results, and went farther than ever toward breaking down the allegiances which kept adherents to these denominations loyal to their own. Consequently, the revivals were accompanied by a growing dissatisfaction with Evangelical churches and especially with the doctrine of Calvinism, which was nominally accepted or at least tolerated in most Evangelical churches at the time.

A protest against Protestantism

Restorationists were not content with mere cooperation between denominations. The leaders of these movements did not believe that God intended to simply fatten the old institutions, and perpetuate the old divisions, with the revivals. They perceived the new religious awakening as the dawning, or at least the harbinger, of a new age. Restorationists sought to re-establish or renew the whole Christian church on the pattern they held to be set forth in the New Testament. They had little regard for the creeds developed over time in Catholicism and Protestantism, which they claimed kept Christianity divided. Some even counted the Bible as a casualty of ancient corruption, leaving it also in need of correction.

The Protestant Reformation came about through a kind of restorationist impulse to repair the Church and return it to its original obedient pattern. But the Protestant reform movements, including the Puritans, accepted that history does have some "jurisdiction", according to historian Richard T. Hughes. Mark Noll similarly says that Protestants "apprehend the Bible's treasures as mediated through history." The Protestants believed that they must respect history, as interpreted through faith. Even John Calvin made the bold (if, in context, enigmatic) claim that the past is a "living magisterium". In contrast, restorationists sought to transcend history, to rebel against the "jurisdiction" of past historical development, in order to be free to embrace what they understood to be the heavenly pattern originally revealed to Christ's apostles, which is the Kingdom of God.

Restorationist organizations include Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, The Evangelical Christian Church in Canada, Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses and others. These are widely disparate groups, and they may appear to have few similarities. But when regarded in terms of the restorationist theme, their common relationship stands out. All of these denominations arose from the belief that the true pattern of the Christian religion died out many years before and was finally restored by their churches. Some believe that they embody this restoration exclusively; others understand themselves as conforming to a rediscovered pattern of original Christianity that is now found in many churches, including their own.


Restorationism draws attention to the reason it exists, which is sometimes called the Great Apostasy, or the fallen state of traditional Christianity. Because of its divisions, errors, and compromises with the world, the corrupted church fell out of line with the church founded by Jesus. If there were no apostasy-at-large and a church on the true-and-legitimate pattern was present, there would be no need for a Restoration. Thus, Restorationists can be compared to one another in their conviction that there has been an apostasy, which they undertook to correct.

Some who adopt the restorationists' basic standpoint simply abandoned certain features of their own tradition, in favor of beliefs that have frequently appeared in other primitivist movements in the past. Typical of such non-traditional views might be adult baptism by immersion, congregationalism, indifference toward trinitarianism, disbelief in hell, lay ministers, non-substitutionary theories of atonement, free-will conversion, and often an elevated role for women.

In some cases, these groups believe that the Great Apostasy's departure from essential Christianity was so total and disastrous as to render futile any plan to remodel Christianity on existing foundations, necessitating a restoration so radical that the only feature familiar to traditional Christians is the name of Jesus the Christ.

Restoration Movement

Of these movements, the most optimistic about the then-present state of Christianity was the "Stone-Campbell" Restoration Movement. Others sometimes refer to the followers of this movement as Campbellites; but the movement itself never adopted the term, which it considers disparaging. These churches strongly prefer to avoid applying to themselves any of the labels of convenience, which divide Christians from one another, calling themselves instead by generic New Testament names, such as Disciples of Christ, the Christian Church,The Evangelical Christian Church in Canada, or Church of Christ. They brought together many from Baptist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches, and other Christians across a spectrum of Evangelical and also Unitarian Christianity, at first with astounding success. But, as the movement progressed, it developed non-negotiable distinctives of its own, sometimes referred to disapprovingly as unwritten creeds and fractured into three major groups—each of which has become a recognizable denomination. Perhaps, no movement more typifies the Second Great Awakening than the anti-denominational movement, the Restoration Movement.


Adventism is a type of Christian eschatology which looks for the Second Coming of Jesus to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, usually in the near future. This view often involves belief that Jesus will return to receive only a small group of those true Christians who are expecting his return, and in anticipation of it have made themselves ready.

Restorationist dates for the Great Apostasy

Restorationism is often criticized for rejecting the traditions followed by the early church, but different restoration groups have treated tradition differently. While some view all the Church Fathers as unreliable witnesses to the original Apostolic Church, others find in the earliest Church Fathers proof that the early church believed and practiced as some Restorationists do, and the late Church Fathers differences as evidences of a gradual or sudden falling away. Common to all Restorationism is the belief that the Church Fathers or post-apostolic church leadership had no authorization to change the church's beliefs and practices, but did so nevertheless.

The Sabbatarians have generally agreed on the approximate date of 135 AD as the start of the apostasy. Justin Martyr in about 160 AD had specifically defended the first day assembly, and so is considered an apostate to Sabbatarians. Nevertheless, the early church history recorded the continued keeping of the Sabbath for creation and Sunday for the Resurrection in Hippolytus's time. They view the apostasy as not complete until the church stopped keeping the Sabbath sometime after Constantine.

The Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement views the Great Apostasy as a gradual process. Ignatius promoted obedience to the Bishop in about 100 AD, which is viewed by some as signalling the introduction of the idea of a professional clergy, who began to elevate themselves over the people, leading by a gradual process of corruption to the prophesied "man of lawlessness." Infant baptism, which restorationists condemned as coercive church membership, is a similar step toward apostasy. They believe that only adult baptism was practiced at least to the time of Tertullian, but that infant baptism was introduced locally around the time of Irenaeus. They often reject notions of original sin which entail a corruption of human nature, and admit only a defilement of mankind's habitual environment, traditions or culture. As do other restorationists, they saw the church-state alliance under Constantine as a kind of taking captive of the church, through the foolishly centralized power of the bishops. And finally, the development of the idea of the supremacy and universal authority of the Bishop of Rome is considered the completing step of the Great Apostasy, from which the Protestant reformation only imperfectly recovered, but most nearly did so among the Anabaptists and the Baptists.

Reconstruction difficulties

A major difficulty in Protestantism lies in its premise that the Reformation was justified in order to re-establish worship according to its biblical pattern. Protestantism seeks to reconstruct Christian worship from the Bible alone, and frees itself from any duty to conform to an attested tradition, or even from any obligation to draw from any historical documentation of traditional practice. This left Protestantism with a stark minimalism on the one hand, and on the other hand a spectrum of more or less borrowing from Catholic tradition. This led to new traditions, which caused the Protestant churches to grow in parallel, away from one another, rather than to come together.

Restorationism sought to solve this Protestant problem by rejecting its basic definition of the issue. The problem is not a matter of outward forms of doctrine and churchliness so much, as of a pattern of spirituality and authenticity. It seeks not so much to return to the Bible (as Protestantism did, in contrast to the magisterium), but to return to a lost interpretation of Christianity itself.

The early Restoration Movement also was guided by leaders who believed that common sense rationalism, dispensing with sectarian loyalties, favorite lies, prejudices and superstition, could restore a clear minded view of history and of Scripture that would guarantee the re-establishment, for the first time in millennia, of real Christian worship and community. Even fundamentalists of the 20th century are a kind of restorationism, in the sense that their interpretation of contemporary events makes the present time seem to be immune to correction by history, or tradition - now the Bible is alive in daily events, in a way that it hasn't been since the first days of the church.

Under the sway of such a mindset, at the outset of these movements, not only were historical documents relating to the early church seldom, if at all, consulted; but, when they were read, if they contradicted the new insights, they seemed only to give evidence of the Great Apostasy, in even the very earliest church doctrines and practices. Thus, with the consensus of history or tradition silenced to an unprecedented degree, the doctrines of these groups are set free to differ without an arbitrating voice to reconcile them. Their various approaches, their new principles of authority, and novel notions of unity, spirituality and worship, have led to a proliferation of interpretations, and intriguing spiritual experiments which prospered in the new American Land of boundless frontiers. Each with their own supporters, who believed that their way was right, the pioneering leaders developed vivid and compelling new portraits of what really is authentic Christianity.

Thus, very far from transcending denominational divisions, restorationism accelerated Protestantism's trend to make schism into a new kind of normalcy. The commonalities of Restorationist splinter groups, such as baptism by immersion and other similarities, are superficial and expressive only of the common temper of the times. But together, these groups typify an epoch in history, at least as radical in its implications for Christianity as the Protestant Reformation had been; and, they are still the fastest growing Christian sects in the world.

See also

  • Restorationist (Church of Christ-Elijah)
  • Primitive Apostolic Christianity

External links


  • ISBN 0-252-01538-X The American Quest for the Primitive Church - Richard T. Hughes, editor

This article was forked from Wikipedia on April 1, 2006.

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