Close this search box.

Review of James L. Gorman, Among the Early Evangelicals: The Transatlantic Origins of the Stone-Campbell Movement

Author: McGarvey Ice
Published: Summer–Fall 2018

MD 9.2

Article Type: Review Article

JAMES L. GORMAN. Among the Early Evangelicals: The Transatlantic Origins of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2017. 240 pp. $22.99.

James Gorman’s thesis is that the eighteenth-century transatlantic evangelical missions movement furnished the ideological and theological commitments that compelled the Campbell tributary of what became the Stone-Campbell Movement (SCM). Whereas historians often explain Thomas and Alexander Campbell against the contours of American democracy and freedom, or against European rhetorical or Reformation theological backgrounds, Gorman proposes to revise this historiography by proving their indebtedness to “earlier evangelical missions” rather than “anything uniquely American” (23). He seeks to recover how Thomas and Alexander Campbell understood a vital missionary imperative to be a raison d’être for their ministry. He further demonstrates that Thomas Campbell modeled the Christian Association of Washington, PA, on his earlier work on behalf of English and Irish missionary societies. Whatever shape the Campbell reform movement took once it was underway on the Western Reserve, it began as a conscious outgrowth and transplant of the ideals of the transatlantic evangelical missionary movement.

Gorman marshals evidence to warrant his revision by carefully defining and then describing the transatlantic evangelical missionary movement. Historically, these evangelicals are Protestants formed by English Puritanism, Scottish Presbyterianism, high-church Anglicanism, and continental Pietism (17–18). Theologically, they are committed to biblicism, conversionism, activism, and crucicentrism (18). That these evangelicals sought to propagate their commitments through missionary means and methods is obvious. Gorman, however, scrutinizes how these evangelicals formed and were formed by a certain kind of interdenominational and cross-confessional culture of propagating the Christian gospel. That is, they were mission-minded in a certain way and manifested distinguishable and traceable habits and practices. Gorman systematically narrates how this theological rationale and methodological program constituted the culture’s defining habits and rituals. They cooperated across denominational lines; they were committed to advancing the “simple” or “primitive” gospel ahead of sectarian distinctives; they widely used methods such as itinerant preaching, voluntary associations, and meetings; and they made ample use of printing technology to supplement the spoken word.

Gorman reviews the formation, rituals, and activities of the London Missionary Society, how it was the “sister society” (22) of the Ulster group, and how in his leadership of this group Thomas Campbell was censured by his Synod. The contours of this story and Thomas’s ministry at Ahorey, which Gorman recounts in detail, frame Thomas Campbell’s Pennsylvania ministry and Alexander Campbell’s developing convictions. He also places the leading personalities Alexander encountered in Glasgow in 1808–1809 within the contexts of the missionary movement. In each of these aspects Gorman describes how the Campbells’ evangelical missionary activity in western Pennsylvania and the upper Ohio Valley was nested within a transatlantic context with roots in Ahorey, Glasgow, and London.

Gorman demonstrates first how primitivism, restoration, unity, millennialism, and mission interlocked within the program of the missionary movement and then how they cohered in the thought and actions of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, specifically in the Declaration and Address. He argues that the Christian Association of Washington manifests all these themes in its operation as a trans-congregational (and theoretically trans-denominational) voluntary missionary association. This contexture is chronologically and theologically prior to, first, Alexander’s movement within Baptist circles, and second, his subsequent critique of the excesses and abuses of American evangelical missionary societies. This, Gorman argues, ought to frame any understanding of Campbell’s anti-society polemic in Christian Baptist.

Gorman moves beyond the upstream influences to describe how this polemic impacted Campbell’s contemporaries and heirs. As Alexander Campbell rose to prominence, he subsumed his earlier indebtedness to the missionary culture, and in this historians followed Campbell’s lead when explaining his posture toward societies. Gorman brings the study full circle to his proposed revision of the two-Campbell historiography, which portrays Campbell’s 1820s polemic over against the moderation he espoused before assuming the presidency of the American Christian Missionary Society in 1849. Gorman argues that this model ignores the true “first” Campbell. He contends there are “three” Campbells, and the first is rooted firmly in the interlocking web of cultural habits and animating theological visions of the transatlantic missionary movement.

Future historians will have to account for Gorman’s research and how it reframes a common historiographical approach. This book will become essential reading for any who propose to teach SCM history. It will be useful for university and seminary students. Missio Dei readers will appreciate Gorman’s concluding reflections, which have import for those who want to understand that missions was not an afterthought or a secondary concern in the earliest formative moments of the Campbells’ ministry. Indeed, missions was not merely part of but constituted the warp and woof of their ministry. Any who would fashion a theology of SCM missions will want to inform their work first with Gorman’s historiographical nuance and also with his detailed and thorough research. In a similar fashion ministers will benefit from Gorman’s study of how the Campbells conducted their ministry of the word.

Gorman argues throughout from primary sources, both archival and print, bringing them into critical dialogue with a range of scholarship. Stylistically, he proceeds steadily, with purpose and clarity and without unnecessary repetition. He does not stray from his argument; each chapter is laid out plainly and each section builds his argument in sequence. While careful readers will appreciate his footnotes, they will also wish for a thorough index.

McGarvey Ice

Director of Special Collections and Archives

Assistant Professor of Library Science

Abilene Christian University

Abilene, Texas, USA

Close this search box.