Teaching Restoration History in Congregational Settings: A Roundtable Recap

One of the highlights of my academic year is my annual jaunt to the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference, an interdisciplinary gathering of scholars and ministers from the “Big Three” SCM fellowships. Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to share portions of my dissertation research (Christadelphianism in 2017, the ICOC in 2018) and insights from my Church of Christ Celebrities blog (in 2019). Normally, the conference takes place in the spring semester, and it is typically hosted on the campus of one of the schools affiliated with Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

This year, however, things were a little bit different because of the pandemic. The conference was originally delayed from March until September when the virus first started to spread in the US, and it was moved to an all-online format later on. I was excited that it wasn’t cancelled outright or postponed until next year–fates that overtook some of the other conferences I had on the docket for 2020–but I was also a bit uncertain as to how my panel specifically would translate to Zoom. While most of the sessions at SCJC are traditional paper presentations, panels/study groups, or plenary/keynote sessions, I had put together a less formal roundtable on teaching restoration history in congregational settings. Rather than sequential paper presentations followed by comments from a respondent, participants would take turns answering a handful of general questions from the moderator (yours truly) before opening up the floor to extended discussion with the audience–more of a workshop session than a set of formal presentations.

Fortunately, things went about as smoothly as I could have hoped, with a sizable (though still manageable) turnout and a number of thoughtful questions and comments from the audience. Aside from myself, participants in the session included Joshua Jeffery (assistant professor of history/Diné Studies at Navajo Technical University) and Dr. Adam Petty (historian/documentary editor, Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Three other scholars were at various times attached to the program as well (Dr. Edward J. Robinson, associate professor of history and religion at Texas College; Garrett Best, PhD candidate at Asbury Theological Seminary; and Dr. Carisse Mickey Berryhill, special collections librarian at Abilene Christian University). While Garrett and Dr. Robinson were unable to participate in the live session, Garrett did provide some pre-written responses which I shared with listeners, and Dr. Berryhill was, in the end, able to join in as primus inter pares from the audience.

Although asking the questions, responding with my own answers, and moderating the Q&A did not leave much time to take notes, I did recognize several important themes which cropped up multiple times during the roundtable. First and foremost was the necessity of demonstrating to those in our congregations the relevance and importance of church history–in our contexts specifically, of restoration history–to spiritual growth and formation. Because our listeners are typically not going to be professional historians, they may not necessarily view history as anything more than a curiosity (if even as a curiosity), and so being able to explain why and how church history informs our faith and practice today is critical to shoring up audience engagement. Second, taking stock of your specific teaching context and the preconceptions about church history which your audience (and you!) might bring to the discussion is likewise key. Church members might have some baseline familiarity with certain terms or groups but may not have ever given church history much systematic thought, and so understanding what kinds of questions or objections you are likely to receive can make for a much smoother teaching experience. Last, it is often necessary to unpack certain concepts when teaching in congregational settings that might not necessarily need definition in a more traditional academic environment. For instance, in discussing the early twentieth century division within Churches of Christ over the doctrine of premillennialism, I first needed to explain that there are multiple views on the existence (or not) of a literal millennium, since the amillennial position has so thoroughly come to dominate within our fellowship.

Given that I am teaching graduate level courses on Restoration History and on History/Philosophy of Christian Education this semester, the roundtable provided a nice reminder of the importance of each of those subjects and of the excellent work being done to teach our movement’s history on the “front lines,” so to speak. I am greatly appreciative of all of the behind-the-scenes folks from SCJC and the countless hours they undoubtedly put in to making the conference a success; also of Dr. Doug Foster and his timely comments from the audience at the end of our session. Undoubtedly there are others who should be listed by name here, but at any rate, I am glad that the roundtable did finally take place, and I think the discussion was a productive one.

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