A Look at Religious Journals among Brethren


     The aim of this material is not to focus on any particular religious publication produced by brethren, but to make some general observations. I want it also clear at the very outset that I am not altogether opposed to religious publications, be they hard copy (paper publications) or electronic (Web sites). History, I believe, shows that religious papers have played a major role, good and bad, and also have some attendant dangers I would like to share with you.

     The believed inception of religious journals, as such. To consider the origin and evolution of papers among brethren we must begin with Elias Smith. Smith was born June 17, 1769 and became associated with the Baptist Church. When Smith was twenty-four, he studied himself out of Calvinism, universalism (later to return), and denominationalism. Smith professed to be a Christian only (The Life and Conversion of Elias Smith, by Elias Smith, pg. 298). He and nine others met in a school house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was at this time (1803) that Smith wrote the following:

     "When our number was some short of twenty, we agreed to consider ourselves a church of Christ, owning him as our only Master, Lord, and Lawgiver, and we agreed to consider ourselves Christians, without the addition of any unscriptural name" (The Life and Conversion of Elias Smith, pg. 313, 314).

     Smith was full of zeal and wanted to teach people the gospel on a large scale. Smith conceived of a means of reaching many people, a religious paper and on September 1, 1808, Herald of Gospel Liberty became a reality with its first published issue. The Herald of Gospel Liberty had only two hundred and seventy-four subscribers, but would grow to one thousand five hundred by 1814. Smith and a number of historians view the Herald of Gospel Liberty as the very first religious journal (it was published weekly for most of its existence). The subscription cost was $1.00 a year. "Each issue," historian Earl West mentions, "had four pages and each page was nine by eleven inches in size, three columns to a page" (The Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 1, pg. 15).

     An important point I wish to make now and return to later is that each paper beginning with the Herald of Gospel Liberty to the present, has had a goal and design in mind. The motto for the Herald of Gospel Liberty was simply "From the realms far distant, and from chimes unknown; We make the knowledge of our King your own" (motto across the top of the first issue).

     Beginning with the Herald of Gospel Liberty in 1808 until the present day, there have been many religious journals among brethren. An item of historic significance is an article written by Ben Franklin titled, "Now and Twenty Years Ago," which appeared in the American Christian Review (Vol. 10, No. 13, pg. 100) in March of 1867. In this material, Franklin compares churches of Christ in 1867 to the overall statistics of 1847. Franklin mentions points of comparison that he viewed to be indicative of the strength of the "brotherhood." He wrote that the "church" had between one hundred and fifty thousand and two hundred thousand members in 1847, but an estimated five hundred thousand members in 1867. He also mentioned that in 1847 there were only about nine monthly papers and one weekly, but in 1867 Franklin said there were twenty-five religious journals associated with brethren. Historians have no way to accurately state the exact number of religious papers there have been until the present; however, the number is multitudinous. Most of these publication ventures have been owned and operated by an individual or a group of brethren as opposed to a local church.

     Each religious magazine has an agenda or goal. In stating each publication has a goal, this is not to necessarily fault the editors. Some of these designs have been very noble.

     The Gospel Advocate is one of the better known magazines among "churches of Christ." The Gospel Advocate was begun by Tolbert Fanning and William Lipscomb in 1855. Regarding the original purpose of the Gospel Advocate Fanning wrote:

     "In establishing 'the Gospel Advocate,' I determine by the help of the Lord, to give the subject of cooperation a thorough examination. I do not pretend to say how it has been brought about, but I have for years believed that a change must take place in our views of cooperation, before we can labor to each other's advantage or to the honor of God" ("Cooperation," Gospel Advocate, Vol. 1, No. 4, October, 1885, pg. 110). (Another initial purpose of the Gospel Advocate was to challenge mechanical instruments of music in worship.)

     The Christian-Evangelist, established in 1882, had a distinct goal. The editor, J. H. Garrison, used the paper to promote liberalism. The Christian-Evangelist sought to be a means to advocating the doctrine of the pious unbaptized should be saved. The Spiritual Sword, of our time, was begun in an effort to "wipe out anti-cooperation" churches (churches that insist on no centralized control or unscriptural pooling of resources by churches). The last couple decades of the Spiritual Sword have been spent attempting to close the flood gates of the anti-authority movement within institutional churches of Christ that the Spiritual Sword helped to open wide (The Spiritual Sword is now a quarterly publication of the Getwell Church of Christ, Memphis, Tn). One magazine of note among non-institutional churches of Christ of the last two decades has been Christianity Magazine. Historians will agree, I believe, that Christianity Magazine did more to advance the cause of unity in diversity than any single publication (the main effort resided in successive articles that covered almost a year and one half that were written by Ed Harrell, one of the editors, without any written opposition from the associate editors, Dee Bowman, Paul Earnhart, Sewell Hall, and Brent Lewis).  (To read more, click on "Christianity Magazine, a Closer Look".)

     The influence of religious journals. Historian Earl West wrote, "The chief forces of opinion and policy in the brotherhood have always been the brotherhood publications….Churches all over the nation reflect the attitudes and opinions of the papers that are most read" (The Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 2, pg. 461). Following the Civil War, the Gospel Advocate was the champion paper for the South. The Christian Standard, begun in 1866, having Isaac Errett as its editor, greatly influenced the people of the North. Many other publications of influence such as The American Christian Review, Lard's Quarterly, and the Millennial Harbinger could be mentioned, all of which made their own historic contributions.

     The authority for the existence of religious publications has been questioned and debated. Some have and do contend that the collective (an organized group of Christians, etc.) work of preaching to the lost and edifying the saved belongs solely to the local church, only when it involves the treasury of the local church (the scriptures are plain in designating the local church as the only entity to so function with the Lord's money, I Tim. 3: 15, Phili. 4: 15, 16). Some have also concluded that it is unscriptural for a privately funded missionary society to exist among brethren. In this vein, religious papers have been pronounced as without authority. Moses E. Lard equated religious journals to the missionary society:

     "I am printing a Quarterly, the avowed object of which is the propagation and defense of the gospel," wrote Lard, "But this Quarterly is unknown to the New Testament. Should I therefore abandoned it?…But this Quarterly has precisely the same origin which the society has - human discretion…and…does the same work" ("A Few Words on Missionary Societies," Lard's Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 2, April, 1867, pg. 151). (Lard did not have any serious problem with papers or the Missionary Society.)  (To read more about the society issue, click on "The Society System".)  

     This stage of our study of "A Look at Religious Journals among Brethren" brings us to the final focus, the structure and party forming features of some journals. Religious papers have basically two types of organizational structure: the one man editor and the editor/associate editor(s)/staff editors/ etc.

     As a matter of historic fact, the journals that have often exerted the greatest control over churches have been the highly structured publications. Allow me to illustrate my point: During the early eighties, I was approached by a staff/recruiting editor of a magazine. They had many preachers listed as "staff editors" (many of whom seldom if ever submitted an article). "You either join us as a staff editor or we will view you as not friendly to our cause" or words to this effect were used by him. "You will find that you will not be able to exist without us," were his later exact words. I am not sure how officially he actually represented the paper, but based on what I had already seen and have observed too many times since in general, his attitude was not shocking to me. Concerned reader, religious journals of this type are a detriment to the cause of Christ! Perhaps these printed efforts began innocently. "Come join us, we have to challenge…that is gaining ground in churches," is the thinking and battle cry often behind the formation of a religious journal. Those who do not elect to join the super-structure are considered as not belonging. Hence, the party making syndrome is fostered and practiced (Phili. 1: 15, 16). In this consideration, this type of publication does great harm and promotes partyism. Some of this type structure solicit monies from individual Christians "in order to increase their free subscriptions." These papers are nothing short of privately supported missionary societies, in view of their purpose, structure, and functionality (see addendum). I have had brethren to actually tell me, "Don, brethren so privately organized can often do a better job of preaching the gospel than the local church can."  (To read more about parties, click on "The Party Spirit".)

     To the converse of the foregoing, the one editor/owner paper is viewed as simply a Christian who is attempting to teach the truth by means of the printed page. He is not after a following or political influence; hence, he does not have a multi-peopled organization. There may be others who submit articles to him to use in his publication, but such does not even have a semblance of the highly organized papers. He teaches the truth on all issues, not just some that may be favorable among certain brethren. Such a simple printed effort does not have resident the ability to enlist the brethren to its cause. Also, there are no "big names" associated with the paper to attract people on this basis. Too many brethren have identified with a paper (a movement) because of its power and not because they are necessarily convicted of the same advocated truths! Such constitutes parties and political groups.

     In closing, electronic magazines (Web sites) are going to become more common and in vogue. A number of churches and also individually owned electronic magazines are making some serious mistakes by accepting free Internet hosting space. As a rule, such acceptance allows the provider to advertise at will on these sites. I have been to church and individually owned sites that had totally inappropriate advertisement on them, often on the home page. One preacher site had an animated graphic of a blond woman asking, "are you lonely" at the top of the home page. When you clicked on the link (I clicked only to investigate, mind you), you were immediately asked about your preferences for a mate, "one of a different gender or one of the same sex" (I have been to church owned sites having the same advertisement). Gambling, pornography sites, etc., are advertised on these religious sites owned by brethren (sometimes just one click away).

     Beloved, the written word being chosen by the Holy Spirit as the medium through which everlasting truth would be revealed and preserved shows the superior advantages offered by this medium. Let us be aware and make use of this potentiality to the glory of God and salvation of souls. However, let us ever be aware of the attendant dangers and abuses of the printed word as discussed in this article.   (To read about Bible Truths, please click on "About Bible Truths".)

     Addendum: By including products for sale or a subscription charge, some of these highly sophisticated structured papers claim they are justified under the heading of "a service for sale." I realize there can be a legitimate situation of services for sale, but such an included feature regarding the type publication described is often a cop out, I am afraid. The argument of a paid service, therefore, the service has a right to exist, can be used to justify almost any unscriptural organization. Anytime an organized entity of Christians is functioning as the local church but is not the local church, there are problems. God knew what he was doing when it set up the local church with its elders to be the organized entity through which Christians would collectively preach, edify, and administer benevolence for needy saints (I Thes. 1: 8; Eph. 4: 16; I Cor. 16: 1, 2, I Tim. 3: 15).