“Lessons from our Christian Connection Ancestors”
2 Corinthians 5:16-20, from The Message
16-20 Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with God through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness. God has given us the task of telling everyone what God is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; God’s already a friend with you.
This Lent, as we journey toward new life and resurrection, we’re considering our Christian ancestors – our origins.
The first week, we talked about reading the Bible as an act of compassion, and last week, we explored our Congregational heritage.
This week, I’m going to introduce you to the Christian Connection, anther one of our church’s storied grandparents.
The Christian Connection is a diverse group.
Some describe it as the “Libertarian branch of the United Church of Christ.”
They upheld liberty as a core principle.
As a result of their belief that everyone should be able to come to their own conclusions about the Bible and faith, they ended up in a wide range of places.
Unitarians were welcome among many of their congregations, for example – unitarians being people who believed in one God instead of Trinitarian, being the 3 in one God.
One of those Unitarian members of a Christian Church, Horace Mann, worked with a group of Christians to found Antioch College, the first college to hire a fulltime female faculty member and also admit African American students in 1850 and allow women to study the same curriculum as men.
The Christians also birthed churches like the 7th Day Adventists and the Church of Christ.
Needless to say, they’re difficult to pin down.
Although many denotations formed from these Christian Connection churches, at the beginning, the one thing they agreed on was that denominations like Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational – those were limiting.
They would just call themselves “Christian.”
And this movement to just be “Christian” happened simultaneously in at least 3 different places in the United States.
1. James OKelly – a circuit-riding evangelist who broke from the Methodists (didn’t like bishops or rigid controls). At his core, he was still Weslyan in the sense that he liked Wesley’s idea of the heart being “warmed” by encounters with the holy spirit.
They were first called the Republican Methodists. Within a year, renamed “Christian”.
2. 1800s – N. frontier of New England – Baptists Abner Jones and Elias Smith broke from Baptists, because baptism by immersion, even insistence on baptism itself , “thwarted Gospel freedom.” The name “Baptist” – they said was “partisan and unscriptural.” They called for unity as “Christians”
3. Barton Stone – a “backwoods Kentucky Presbyterian” who organized the most famous camp meeting revival at Cane Ridge in 1801. 10-25K people gathered for a week of energized, over-the-top preaching. Emphasized revival and also preached free salvation.
Found each other through mass media – ex: northern branch Herald of Gospel Liberty, published in 1808 – first religious periodical in USA.
Despite their shared values of freedom an autonomy, or perhaps BECAUSE of their shared values of freedom and autonomy,
They struggled to come together – especially after northern group denounced slavery in 1844.
Despite disagreements – all had in common their love of freedom, passion, and unity in Christ, and so they agreed to loosely affiliate themselves with one another, forming conferences and groups here and there that supported each other.
Their theology was vastly different from church to church, but they were able to unite around their objection to structure.
Many churches rejected putting any belief statements into the bylaws of their congregations.
Some churches refused bylaws as all.
Some early Christian leaders were even known to burn the minutes of Church Council meetings to “prevent some future tyranny of tradition.”
Abner Jones, one of the founders of the Christian movement, said: “Every Xian should be able to follow the dictates of their own conscience. And… Christian character rather than creedal statement or baptismal mode should be the test of church membership or fellowship. We know them by their fruits, not by the doctrines they hold.” (whatever THAT means)
In addition to their radically anti-authoritarian leanings, the Christians emphasized PASSION as superior to intellect.
We don’t usually associate the United Church of Christ with big tent revivals, but that was absolutely a part of the Christian movement.
Part of it might have been the frontier environment.
Frontier life created isolation—when people did come together, emotions could run high.
The isolation of the frontier also had an impact on Christians’ beliefs about clergy.
There were no seminaries on the Western or Northern edges of US territory.
Instead, farmers and ranchers studied the scripture for themselves and preached to one another.
Sometimes, there were traveling evangelists that came through town, but for the most part, people were out in the wilderness, isolated. They had to fend for themselves.
Christian Connection churches balked at the snooty intellectual Congregationalists in New England who insisted on well-educated clergy.
Even in the 1930s, after the merger with the Congregational Church, only 17% of Christian-heritage churches had clergy that had gone to both college and seminary.
For them, scripture was sufficient as a rule of life.
What scripture meant – well, that was up for debate.
But the meaning of the Bible should be discussed by everyone, not just handed down from the pulpit.
This is partly why the Christian churches ended up going in such diverse directions.
Of course total freedom came with a price in some cases.
Since they welcomed everyone—everyone seemed to show up, including criminals and conmen.
They definitely had some odd characters.
One Vermont leader, for example, named himself a minister and declared himself against bathing. He gathered a large congregation of the unwashed (health problems eventually put an end to that).
1854—did try to come together and formulate a summary statement of belief.
But after several days – the chairperson raised large pulpit Bible over his head and said simply “This…is what we believe.”
In the South, Christians tried again, and the Southern American Christian Convention adopted 5 principles in 1866.
1. Christ is the only head of the church.
2. Christian is a sufficient name for the church.
3. The Holy Bible is a sufficient rule of faith and practice.
4. Christian character is the only requirement for membership.
5. The right of private judgment and the liberty of conscience are rights and privileges for all.
N. Christians said they were too credal.
In 1920, miraculously, they merged with the Congregational Church to become the Congregational Christian Church.
Despite their disagreements on the importance of educated clergy, they agreed that even more important than any doctrinal differences was their willingness to walk their Christian journey together.
Which is what, in his own convoluted way, is what I believe the Apostle Paul was trying to communicate in his letter to the Corinthians:
Our differences are not relevant to the larger story of Christ in the world.
Creeds and Holy Doctrine and Books of Order and Books of Discipline are great attempts at clarifying what Christ meant, but ultimately, the nitty gritty details simply aren’t important.
The key pieces are love, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Whether we’re 7th Day Adventists or Church of Christ or United Church of Christ or Unitarian or something altogether different, the message of “Love One Another” is clear as day.
The Message translation today nails it – “God uses us to persuade people to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them.”
That’s not to say that differences never matter. Of course they do.
But part of our work as Christians is uniting anyway.
Finding common ground.
That’s part of who we STILL are, as Christians and as a community of faith.
Today, we will have the privilege of welcoming 9 new members into the church, and one of the questions I’ll ask you is how do you agree?
We don’t have a statement of faith in this church that everyone has to agree to in order to join, but if I had to pin down our doctrine, in addition to “Love God and love your neighbor,” it would be this.
How do we agree? “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity.”
The saying actually comes from another branch of the UCC, which the Rev. Breonna Roberts will preach about next week, but it really fits the Christians, it fits Paul and what he was trying to do with the early church, and it fits us.
What a beautiful way to capture who we are.
We agree – in essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity.
Amen to that.