Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
November 17, 1960
NUMBER 28, PAGE 1,12-13a

Some Interesting Historical Parallels

Cecil Willis, Akron, Ohio

The name of Isaac Errett will not register with the average member of the church today as significantly as the names of Thomas Campbell, his son, Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, Walter Scott, James O'Kelly, Abner Jones, Elias Smith, "Raccoon" John Smith and other leading lights of the Restoration Movement of the last century. And this oblivion of Isaac Errett is not altogether undeserved. For while the above mentioned worthy and honorable men are significant to us because of their gallant efforts to restore New Testament Christianity to their own age, Errett's significance is not so honorable. While it is true that Errett did considerable good work in the early years of his life and of the life of the Restoration Movement, the activities of his later life so overshadowed and counterbalanced these early years that they are largely forgotten by historians. It is frightening to observe the frequency with which aged men undo, in the last few years of their life, all the good they spent their early life establishing. The brilliant Alexander Campbell either instigated or at least permitted the seeds to be sown and to germinate that would head the Restoration effort he had aided and abetted down the road to digression till it would result in a religious institution (the modern Disciples of Christ) showing little similarity to the New Testament church Campbell sought to build up. Many men today who showed great strength for righteousness in earlier years are now undermining their own work by leading in a new digression. There are strong men among us, who know the truth and preach the truth, but who are not doing all they can to stem the tide of this new digression. I cannot prevent a shudder when I reflect on how these men must be portrayed by future historians, not even to contemplate God's judgment of them. Much of the good of their early life will be lost in the weakness of their later years. It also is true that God forgets the good of bygone years when one fails to be faithful till death. We might all here take due warning.

I say the good of Errett's early life has largely been forgotten by historians. I cannot prevent myself from thinking of Errett with sadness. He has been called the "Father of the Digression." I am not so sure he deserves the stigma of fathering the digression alone, for others certainly will bear equal responsibility with him for the digressive seed ideas. However, I doubt that any one man could be named who did more to popularize the digressive trends than did Errett.

Errett may be referred to as one of the second generation reformers. He did do considerable work with Alexander Campbell in the twelve northeastern counties of Ohio, called the Western Reserve. But Errett was a good deal younger than Campbell. In fact, Errett was quite a lot younger than most of the other men who helped get under way the Restoration effort in this country. The early efforts of Errett are overshadowed by the efforts of more mature men, and by those of the more brilliant Campbell.

But one must never forget that Errett was a popular preacher. The popular preacher can be a tremendous asset or a terrible liability to any cause. As one reads the pages of Errett's life (J. S. Lamar, Memoirs of Isaac Errett, 2 Volumes), he finds him always moving about to another place that will pay just a little bit more. He was not a financially independent man, as was Campbell, but he was a financially ambitious man. And wherever he goes, we find the people flocking about him. But more significantly, we find him, wherever he goes, liberalizing the gospel. And it seems that he took pride in being the inventor of this innovation or that. He was among the first to permit women preachers. He considered himself to be one of the first "settled pastors." I see no stigma in being "settled," but I do in a preacher being a "pastor." He was the first to permit himself to be called "Reverend," when he posted the engraved name plate "Rev. I. Errett" to the door of his office.

Not only was Errett responsible for these innovations just mentioned, but he also set the wrong pattern for scriptural interpretation. Modern innovationists are yet following this pattern which he set. He interpreted scripture to suit his purpose whatever the occasion, and no circumstance or difficult occasion could arise but that promoter Errett could find some sentence, phrase or word in the Bible that he could distort to be applicable to the need of the moment. Once he was asked to deliver the "dedication sermon" for a remodeled building at Lisbon, Ohio. Of course, no preacher of Errett's ilk would think of using a building until it had properly been dedicated. Errett was sure there must be some passage that would just fit his need for the "dedication sermon" if only he could locate it. Though with some difficulty, finally he found just what he needed. The words of Jesus, "Behold I make all things new" were just a perfect text for a sermon with which to dedicate a remodeled building!

A few years later, while Errett lived in Cincinnati, the Central Church where W. T. Moore preached, built a $140,000 building, which brethren at that time considered an outrage and an exploitation of the Lord's money. Errett and Moore did not live to see their spiritual descendents of today with buildings costing $1,000,000 and more make their measly efforts in extravagance look like those of a little boy rashly spending his pennies. W. T. Moore was a liberal among liberals. So he followed the pattern of interpretation set by Errett years before at Lisbon. W. T. Moore's dedication sermon was "taken from" (and I use these words in their literal sense) Jesus' words spoken on the cross and recorded in Jno. 19:30, "It is finished." And you can just imagine how he applied this passage on that memorable occasion! These men blatantly applied scripture to suit their own purpose. This also, apparently, is the rule of interpretation followed by those who obviously want to be remembered by historians as the "leaders of a new digression." They do not hesitate to distort a passage if it will help a floundering cause. Witness some of the misapplication and lifting out of context of passages by those desperately seeking some verse that looks like a forty-second cousin to a passage authorizing a benevolent society or a sponsoring church.

The American Christian Missionary Society was started in Cincinnati in October, 1849. Campbell was then 62 years old. Though Campbell lived to do considerable more work, he already was beginning to fail somewhat. Campbell had worked hard to get a society formed for a union of the evangelistic efforts of the churches. From about 1842 onward, he had written several articles in his paper, the Millennial Harbinger, defending the right of churches to function in concerted action through the society. His defence in one word would be "Expediency." And like organizations of today are being defended similarly. The humanly devised benevolent societies are being called "expedients."

Campbell called the Cincinnati convention that formed the American Christian Missionary Society. For some reason he did not attend. It was reported he was ill. Others have thought he was not sure of the outcome of the meeting, and stayed away for that reason, though I see no reason for this conclusion. But be that as it may, the brethren assembled established the society. To show their esteem and respect for Alexander Campbell, even though he was not present, they elected him the first president.

However, the promotion and erection of this human institution touched off a tremendous controversy, as such institutions will always do. Thomas Campbell, Barton W. Stone and many others of the old men were already dead and gone. Alexander Campbell was old and tired. Someone with more strength and vigor would have to carry the load of selling a questioning brotherhood on both the scripturalness and wisdom of this new society.

There are always a few ambitious men ready to climb any ladder available, just so long as it points "Up." Take a look at the many young men today attempting to climb the ladder of success in one mighty leap by simply stating "I have no hobbies" meaning "I endorse benevolent societies, sponsoring churches and will not be Anti-anything-else-you-want-to-do."

Isaac Errett was such a man. He waded into the battle. He already was quite experienced at defending unscriptural practices, having attempted to defend the above mentioned innovations. In like manner, a number of brethren today have gained quite a reputation in the same field, so that any church that is asked to find its human institutions in the Bible simply calls in the old experienced "institutional-authority-finders." These men can find all kinds of unusual and unexpected things in the Bible. If you have any trouble finding out who these "wizards" of our time are, just read the debate accounts and note who the wonder-workers are that are called in to find all these different institutions in the word "expediency."

Isaac Errett made his reputation by presenting a popular defense for the missionary society and other attendant innovations. Were it not for his prominence here, he would be a forgotten personage. It is because of this role that he has been called the "Father of the Digression."

The "Antis" of Errett's day had control of about all the religious papers. The Millennial Harbinger under W. K. Pendleton (Campbell's son-in-law), after Campbell's death in 1866, continued only until 1870. After a 40 year life span, the Millennial Harbinger died. Moses E. Lard was publishing his Quarterly during the 60's, but he could be counted on to make, at best, only a half-hearted defense of the societies. This would never do the needed job of selling the brotherhood on them. Benjamin Franklin with the American Christian Review, and David Lipscomb with the Gospel Advocate could be expected to be opposed to the society. So a new paper was needed, thought the institutionalists. The institutional brethren of that day needed a printed organ to go along with their musical organ. So the Christian Standard was started in 1866. Without doubt the purpose of this paper was to provide the needed punch to make the society a going concern.

But a paper must have an editor. "Who can and will do the needed job?" was a question raised. The "monied" brethren would supply the needed funds. And Errett, the popular and ambitious brother saw the open door. So he became editor of the Christian Standard, putting him in the ideal position to lead the digressive element.

With a few words about the importance of Errett's editorial position, we will close this article. In a later article or so we will say more about his work in the editorial chair of the Christian Standard. Papers, like men, can be instrumental of good or evil. A man can be the servant of God or the servant of the Devil. By multiplying one's words by thousands through the printed page, one can be either of tremendous service to truth or of terrible detriment to the cause of truth. He who sits in the editorial seat of any religious journal read by many had better be doubly careful. He had better have no ambition but the presentation of truthful messages. However, if one's aims are self-aggrandizement, I know of no place to receive more honor and exaltation than as an editor. There are always some little people who think they exalt themselves just by getting a few lines on the pages of one of these great journals. Knowing the tendency of some editors to print everything highly complimentary of themselves, these men know just how to write to get their article printed. Brag on the editor! Tell what a great man he is, and what a tremendous service he is performing! Brother, you can get all of that you want to write printed in a certain journal whose initials are GA. I have been forced to turn away in disgust as I have read article after article after article bragging, bragging, bragging on B. C. Goodpasture upon completion of his 20th year as editor of the Gospel Advocate. These articles would have been sufficiently disgusting in themselves, but were made a hundred times more so when I consider the fact that every last one of them was either personally selected by the man whom they have intended to extol, or at least was permitted to be injected into the paper by the editor. One would have thought that if the tiniest bit of modesty had been in the man, these glowing commendations would have given place to something containing spiritual teaching. But on and on and on they came, seemingly in an unending stream. Each writer apparently felt compelled to try to outdo all the preceding ones. But enough of this. Papers can be used by their editor for self-aggrandizement, if they be so disposed.

The potential of a paper and the importance of an editor was emphasized to me several years ago while in a conversation with Dr. Walter Sikes, Head of the Philosophy Department at the school of Religion, Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana. Dr. Sikes is a former Abilene Christian College Professor (if I am not mistaken) who chanced to walk in the steps of the man about whom we are writing, Isaac Errett. These steps led him farther and farther away from what I believe to be the truth of God, till today Dr. Sikes is affiliated with the most liberal wing of the Disciples of Christ, the institutional outgrowth of Errett's liberalistic trends.

While I was in his office one day, Dr. Sikes stated to me that he was in favor of the Disciples of Christ developing some form of central government, perhaps similar to the Methodist Conference. When I questioned the scripturalness of such, he replied something like this: "There is a certain amount of power in any religious body that somebody is going to control. Would it not be better if these powers were controlled by men appointed to these responsible positions by delegates of the churches, rather than by men who simply, by one maneuver or another, are able to get into these positions of responsibility? For example, would it not be better if the Gospel Advocate, indeed a powerful paper, were in the hands of a brotherhood appointed man, rather than in the hands of B. C. Goodpasture, merely one who had the money to buy his way in, and to pull enough financial strings to get into this responsible position?" I must admit, pragmatically this argument had some credence. However, scripturally speaking, it did not. But this emphasized to me the responsibility of one serving as editor of a religious journal.

With his appointment as editor of the newly founded Christian Standard, Isaac Errett found himself in this situation — with power to abuse or properly to use. We will later see what disposition he made of this power.