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Restorationism is not a single religious movement, but a wave of comparably motivated movements that arose in the eastern United States and Canada in the early 19th century in the wake of the Second Great Awakening. These movements attempted to transcend the divisions of Protestant denominationalism, and to restore Christianity according to its original pattern, as they believed it to be.

Leading up to the 19th century, individual study of the Bible proliferated among many people in the United States, but a sizeable number of those curious about the Scriptures were indifferent to the Church and the Christian life. The Second Great Awakening was a series of revivals that made its way especially across the frontier territories, fed by this religious sentiment of intense interest in the Bible, accompanied by lack of interest in, or dissatisfaction with, the Church. As these revivals spread, they gathered converts to one of the Protestant sects of the time such as the Baptists, Methodists, Congregational Church or Presbyterian Church. However, the fact that the revival moved freely across denominational lines, with practically identical results, went farther than ever before toward breaking down the historical allegiances which kept adherents to these denominations loyal to their own and opposed to the others.

Restorationist movements were characterized by a discontent with mere cooperation between denominations. The leaders of these movements did not believe that the revivals were intended by God to simply fatten the old institutions, and perpetuate the old divisions. Restorationism sought to renew the whole Christian church, on the pattern set forth in the New Testament, without regard to the creeds developed over time in Catholicism or Protestantism, which allegedly kept Christianity divided.



Restorationism itself draws attention to the reason why a restoration is needed, sometimes called the Great Apostasy. The Great Apostasy is used to describe a general fallen state of traditional Christianity, that it is not a legitimate successor to 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, a departure from essential Christianity so extensive and disastrous as to render futile any plan to remodel Christianity on existing foundations; necessitating a complete reconstruction, a restoration.

Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement

Of these movements, the most optimistic about the then-present state of Christianity was the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. They are sometimes called Campbellites, but this term was never a name used by them, and has always been considered a term of disrespect. 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, or Church of Christ. They brought together many Presbyterians, Methodists, and other Christians across a spectrum of Evangelical 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. No movement more typifies the Second Great Awakening, than the anti-denominational movement, the Restoration Movement.

Latter Day Saints

Main articles: Latter Day Saint movement, History of the Latter Day Saint movement

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sought, as the Campbellites did, to restore original Christianity: but they were much more pessimistic about the state of Christianity. The Great Apostasy was of such disastrous consequence, the Mormons believed, that a new Prophet and Apostle was required in order for God's Kingdom on earth to be re-established. They claimed that their founder, Joseph Smith, was just such a prophet.

As part of his prophetic mission, Smith published the Book of Mormon, said to be translated from Golden Plates as directed by the angel Moroni. Members of the Latter Day Saint movement (Mormonism) believe that the Book of Mormon contains doctrine of the original church of Jesus Christ given to people who lived on the American continent between about 600 BC and 421 AD. Smith also founded the Church of Christ in 1830, which he and his followers viewed as the restoration of the church created by Christ, since he considered the Great Apostasy a removal of God's Kingdom from the earth.

Millerites and Sabbatarians

Later, the Millerites arose with an even less optimistic view of the state of not only Christianity, but the future of world civilization. From the Millerites descended the Seventh-day Adventists. This group revived apocalyptic teachings anticipating the end of the world, and did not look for the unity of Christendom, but busied themselves in preparation for Christ's return. Millerites sought to restore a prophetic immediacy and uncompromising biblicism that they believed had long been rejected by mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches. The Worldwide Church of God movement belongs to this category because it fused with the Adventists and the Seventh Day churches and spawned, among others, the personal ministry of Herbert W. Armstrong which became the Radio Church of God which became the Worldwide Church of God which then splintered into many other churches and groups while the Worldwide Church of God disassociated itself with the Restoration movements and has made major attempts to join the Protestant branch of Christianity. More recently, the Nazarene (or using the Hebrew word Netzarim) movement claims that Jesus did not intend to replace the Torah, but only to demonstrate how to follow it. The Nazarenes generally hold to Aramaic Primacy, that the Christian New Testament was originally written in Aramaic, not Greek, and make their defense from Semetic languages.

Jehovah's Witnesses

Based largely on Millerite influences, the Jehovah's Witnesses originated, beginning in the 1870s, as a Bible study group led by Charles Taze Russell. Like other Restorationists, the Witnesses believe that some time after the death of the last apostle, the Church generally departed in a Great Apostasy from the original faith in major points. Like the Millerites, the Witnesses believed that the original faith could be restored through an intense, generally literal interpretation of the Bible. The Jehovah's Witnesses focused on the restoration of a number of key doctrinal points evident from their interpretation of the Bible, including the use of the word "Jehovah" in reference to the Biblical deity, a rejection of the Trinity doctrine in favor of strict monotheism, active proselytizing, condemnation of the ingestion or transfusion of blood, and strict neutrality in political affairs.

Restorationist dates for the Great Apostasy

The Latter-day Saints date the apostasy earliest, beginning after the death of the all of the original Twelve Apostles, approximately 100 AD. With this early date, they claim the least need to reconcile known writings and practices of the early church and Church Fathers as these are all considered apostate.

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 about the time of Constantine.

The Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement views the Great Apostasy as most gradual. Ignatius's promotion of obedience to the Bishop in about 100 AD was viewed as the beginning of the process of creating the prophesied "man of lawlessness." Then infant baptism, opposed as an involuntary membership, is considered a great step towards apostasy. They believed it to be started about the time of Irenaeus but unknown to Tertullian. It is finally the church-state alliance under Constantine along with the centralizing power of the Bishop of Rome that is considered the completing step of the Great Apostasy.

Reconstruction difficulties

One major difficulty lay in reconstructing forms of church service without reliance upon any historical documentation of tradition. Attempting to reconstruct doctrine from an unknown past led to novelty as well as much quibbling over details. Since for all groups except The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Quakers, the Bible was regarded as the exclusive source of all answers, historical documents relating to the early church were seldom, if at all, consulted. Thus, the doctrines of these groups differ widely. The differences of how to reconstruct the primitive church without the aid of historical precedent led to a proliferation of interpretations, each of which had its own supporters who believed that their way was right. Each leader developed strong opinions on how to interpret scripture, and historical and early theological writings tended to be ignored since they were assumed to be part of the Great Apostasy.

Moreover, differences in doctrine were largely those of interpretation. Thus, in many instances instead of transcending denominational divisions, restorationism fostered them, and more competing groups arose than ever before. 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, as radical in its implications for Christianity as the Protestant Reformation had been, and are still the fastest growing Christian sects in the world.

See also

External links

  • Mormon Restorationism ( - Topical Guide
  • Mormon Restorationism ( - Joseph Smith: America's Hermetic Prophet
  • Restoration Movement ( - Christian Churches + Churches of Christ + Disciples of Christ
  • Restoration Movements ( - "A Tale of Two Restorations," A comparison of the LDS restoration movement and the Alexander Campbell restoration movement.

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