Misrepresenting Christians in history

Oh! The scandal and shame!

No, not really. The Disciples of Christ, generally, have a pretty good sense of humor about stuff, which may be one reason why their rather small national sect has produced three presidents: James Garfield, the only preacher and first college president to be elected, Lyndon B. Johnson, whose family ranch hosts a chapel, and Ronald Reagan, who also attended one of the sect’s colleges (Eureka College) but fell a way a bit near the end.*

The fact that Reagan and Johnson could both be Disciples is a tribute to the wide door the church has for membership.

A hardy band of Disciples still participate in a list-serv discussion of church matters, DOCDISC (a list-serv is an ancient e-mail group discussion software set, used to avoid the public nature of alt.net discussions, substituting mass e-mails for bulletin board posts; read about it in your paleontology texts, kids).

A recent post pointed to a comic book biography of Ronald Reagan at Slate.com (okay, “graphic biography”) and lamented the inaccurate way the sect was portrayed (see section 1, page 12):

Panel from Slate.com bio of Reagan, showing his baptism at Disciples of Christ Church

Did you spot the problems?

The original post at DOCDISC complained first about the baptism. Horrors! It shows baptism by sprinkling! Well, not even sprinkling — more like a smearing on the forehead of young Ronald. Everybody knows Disiples dip! It should show baptism by immersion.

Once the tongue-in-cheek nature of the complaint became clear, other complaints surfaced. See the table of prayer votive candles over the left shoulder of the preacher? Some Disciples congregations have a rather high service, but no one knew of any so close to Catholicism as to host such a thing. One preacher whose father had been the pastor in the church in question suggested the sanctuary was a little fancy for the way the original was. And several suggested that the stole the pastor wears in the drawing is fancier by far than those used by most Disciples preachers (many Disciples preachers avoid such clerical garb altogether).

These are serious theological issues for Christians. The Disciples and what are now known as the Churches of Christ split in the early 20th century over the issue of musical instruments in worship, the Disciples being cool with all sorts of music, the Churches of Christ opting for a capella only, as they interpret one verse in scripture. In American colonial times, Anabaptists were reviled for their advocacy of immersion baptism and adult baptism — in Europe such advocates were disembowelled, but in American colonies only a few were hanged, and a few others sentenced to death by wolves (though some with this penalty, like Roger Williams, couldn’t find the wolves once put out into the wilderness, and had to found Rhode Island instead).

Even serious issues deserve a humorous look from time to time. Laughter eases the brain, makes it open to learning and creating. There are only about a million people in the U.S. who claim to be Disciples of Christ; we could probably use a lot more Christians with a good sense of humor.

We could use a lot more presidents with a good sense of humor, too.   (The “graphic biography” from Slate.com is a pretty good shtick, for Reagan’s life — anybody know how it works in the classroom?)


* I don’t think Reagan ever attended a service at National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C., the closest Disciples church to the White House. If anyone knows differently, please let me know.

3 Responses to Misrepresenting Christians in history

  1. […] “Misrepresenting Christians in history” (actually, about a graphic biography of Ronald Reagan) […]


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    I subscribe to the list-serv, and yes, the people who first noticed the “graphic biography” made it clear it was tongue-in-cheek.

    BTW, Disciples don’t assign ministers from any central authority today. A lot of these splits in the Stone-Campbell movement become very silly over time. I’ve run into any number of Church of Christ people surprised to discover that their sect doesn’t allow musical instruments in the service, because their congregation does . . . maybe we should treat more sectarian issues with more tongue-in-cheek.


  3. onlycrook says:

    Are you sure the complaints were tongue in cheek? I grew up in an independent Christian church (we split off from the Disciples because they wanted to have a central church which could assign ministers, and our congregation was too independent for that), and the one thing we took seriously was doctrine. That’s why there were three major splits in the first place. The founder, Alexander Campbell, seriously tried to figure out exactly what was allowed/not allowed in worship based on the New Testament. One of my friends once said that when I left the church, I threw out the baby and kept the bathwater. He said that because I still can’t stand to see an infant get sprinkled–it should be adult baptism, because that’s Biblical.


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