John Muir’s father, on his farm in Wisconsin, was a Campbellite. And so, about 150 years later, was I. What does this mean?
Following the teachings of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, participants in the “Restoration Movement” wanted to “restore” Christianity to its pure Biblical basis. There were to be no doctrines or creeds that were not specifically in the Bible; the Bible alone was to be their basis of faith. You will find modern churches that identify with this tradition, usually called Churches of Christ. The Disciples of Christ denomination began from this tradition but has branched out to no longer be fundamentalists. And among the Churches of Christ, you have to look carefully for the true, utterly pure Campbellites. I was a member of a Church of Christ sect that insisted that you should use a single cup for communion, and the churches that used multiple cups (a separate cup for each communicant) were “erring brethren.” You couldn’t tell from the church signs which church was which; the signs did not say “We use only one cup/multiple cups in communion.” While this seems like a trivial controversy, it was deeply important to us, and we spent a lot of time, sermon after sermon, denouncing the erring brethren. How many hours of my life I wasted on this!
Of course, Campbellites reject the label. They, as I did, claim that they are followers of Jesus, not the Campbells.
But us Campbellites clung to many doctrines that were NOT in the Bible at all. One example: we claimed that no instrumental music could be used during church services. Such a command is not found anywhere in the Bible. The Bible does not even say, “You cannot do anything during a church service that is not specifically authorized by Scripture.” We just made that crap up.
Another, and I believe more important, example of non-Scriptural assertions of Campbellites is, or was, what John Muir’s father tried to indoctrinate his son John to believe. He believed that the entire world, including the natural world, the forests and its trees and birds and soils, was fallen and evil, and we should not celebrate it. He actively tried to get his son John to NOT love the natural world. Fortunately, he failed, and we had John Muir to lead us into an era of conservation awareness. Search the Bible all you want, but you will never find any reference to the natural world to be the realm of Satan, or that loving the natural world is a sin. Just read Psalm 104 and try to tell me that the love of nature is a sin. Just try it. Since I do not expect any Campbellites to read this essay, I expect no response to this challenge. Campbellites live in a little isolated world in which they, and they alone, are faithful to God, and perhaps more recently to worship Donald Trump instead of God.
I have a particularly vivid and painful memory in regard to this specific belief. The Bible tells about how the old heavens and the old earth will be destroyed, and a new heaven and a new earth will be created. As a lover of nature, I was overjoyed to hear this. The forests and flowered hillsides I loved so much would not be destroyed forever but be recreated without the taint of human sin that currently fouls them. When I was asked to give a sermon, our “evangelist” was sitting in the front row paging through his Bible. I did not know at the time that he was planning to lambast me about this horrible belief—the idea that anything in the world, even the forests and wildflowers, could possibly be good.
The next week he delivered a sermon that was directed specifically at me. He said that “certain teachers” (translation: me) actually said that God would create a new earth. Then he went through a really contorted and wicked line of reasoning. He said, the old earth was the Old Testament, since before Jesus our earth (or dwelling) was the Old Covenant. The new earth, therefore, had to be Jesus’ new covenant. Anyone who believed that it would be a literal new earth, with trees and stuff, was utterly wrong and bound for hell. Gee, thanks, Bob Sanders.
You can imagine the effect that this had on me, as a high school student. To be utterly shamed as not only an infidel but a heretic in front of the congregation which I loved very much! I was utterly depressed by it. Some people would interpret what he did as verbal child abuse. I believe this form of verbal child abuse continues today in fundamentalist churches. Of course, it turns out he was wrong about this, and about almost everything else.
Thank God, if there is one, that I am no longer a Campbellite, and that I revere the work and memory of John Muir.