Few preachers were as well known in the Stone-Campbell Movement in his day as James Challen (1802-1878). Challen was a skeptic early in his life but he came under the influence of the great Baptist preacher, and frequent correspondent with Alexander Campbell, Dr. James Fishback of Lexington, KY. He was baptized into Christ at the hands of Fishback on January 18, 1823. While a student he was called to preach for the Enon Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Challen had been drinking from the wells Campbell had dug in the pages of the Christian Baptist and by 1828 the Enon Baptist Church had become the Eighth and Walnut Streets Christian Church ... one of the first churches to convert to the Stone-Campbell plea. Alexander Campbell's debate with the Roman Catholic Bishop Purcell would be conducted within this church building. Challen would move as preachers do but he would spend his senior years back in Cincinnati. He was widely published in restoration journals and wrote numerous respected books.
Four years before his death James Challen looked back and reflected on the promises of the "current reformation." In that year of 1874 he still firmly believed in the "plea" but thought that we had, perhaps, lost focus. What was the evidence of this loss of focus. He locates the evidence in two realities:
1) we had failed to unify the Christian world
2) we had failed to convert the world.
For James Challen these were, like for Thomas Campbell in the very beginning, eschatological themes. But to designate them eschatological was not to deem them esoteric rather they were essential to the plea itself.
Though Challen does not use this term it is clear he believes a certain modernism or secularism is invading the disciples plea. What evidence did he have for this ... the growth of belief in a "spiritual millennium!" He scores this notion by point to the two realities of continuing division and the failure to evangelize the world. He writes,
"Each party remains intact; and the more influential and numerous the sect, the more tenacious of the ground they occupy. Even the Baptists and the Disciples can not coalesce ... The spirit of the sect is too strong for the spirit of union."
"Surely the world is not doomed with its unsaved millions ..."
The disciples of Christ have gotten off track according to Challen. We have begun to wrangle among ourselves and we have forgotten the engine that has driven the plea from the beginning: the eschatological Christian hope, THE hope!
That hope, James Challen is crystal clear, was not some nebulous spiritual existence or spiritual millennium. It was nothing short of the "personal advent of the Messiah" and what happens with that advent that "has been the hope of the Church from the beginning."
Now those who believe in a "spiritual millennium" conceived of the message and mission differently. Dying and going immediately to heaven is not the Christian hope. It is not the End of the Story. "It is not our entrance into the invisible world, in spirit, of which the Scriptures speak as the hope of the Gospel. This is not the period of anticipated blessedness reserved for the saints."
Challen stressed that indeed it may be, in some ways, a blessing to be released from the struggle against sin, temptation, and toil. But such a departure that Christians see frequently is a departure to the "intermediate state" and is "never called the hope of the Gospel." According to Challen this distinction was common knowledge in the days when the "plea" spread so "mightily."
Though Paul was, after a long hard fought life, ready to depart. Challen says Paul never believed that that completed his journey. What Paul looked forward to, even if he was in the presence of the Lord, was nothing short of the resurrection from the dead. Citing Philippians 3.11 Challen reminds his readers that Paul "counted all things but loss and of no value, if by any means he might attain the resurrection of the dead." Dying and immediately appearing in the presence of God is not what the Bible means by resurrection of the dead.
When Paul would depart, Challen said, he would be in the same situation as the "SOULS" under the altar in Revelation 6.9-11. Challen stresses the word "soul." Souls minus flesh. He asked a logical question of those who believe in this spiritual millennium, if we are in the place God desires when we enter the "invisible spiritual existence" how do we explain the complaints of the souls who are already there?
"Thus 'the souls' of those who had been slain for the word of God, were seen under the altar by John; and they were waiting for the day when their blood should be avenged on them that dwell on the earth, and until their fellow-servants and their brethren should be killed as they had been, and their number should be completed. To pacify them, and as an earnest of their reward, a white robe was given to each of them. This was a most tender and touching act of sympathy and kindness shown them on the part of the Savior. These heroic witnesses, who had been slain for the word of God, lay beneath the altar, UNFLESHED [my emphasis] and unrobed, restless and anxious for the day of the expectant reward at 'the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.'"
What is it that Paul and the "SOULS" under the altar look forward too? According to Challen the Stone-Campbell Movement knew the secret from the early days but was now forgetting ... as evidenced by our disunion and failure in mission. As Challen frames the question
"why these longing desires [of the SOULS], these anxious expectations? Are they not already with the Lamb? Is not their work done? We answer that they have not as yet received their full reward. They have not received ALL [sic] that has been promised them."
The hope of the Gospel was what Paul anticipated, the hope of the Gospel was what the SOULS cried for. But what was, and is, that hope? What is being hoped for is their full "adoption; to wit the redemption of their bodies."
The coming of Jesus brings with it the first resurrection. This will be "the era of resitution." It will usher in the "new heavens and the new earth, and the coming of redemption." Commenting on this restitution, this redemption, James Challen calls it "the jubilee of the ransomed."
"It will be the ushering in of 'the new heavens and new earth,' and the coming of redemption,' for which 'the whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain until now.' It will be the jubilee of the ransomed - the day of release of the captives, ushered in with the sound of the resurrection trumpet, and accompanied with the songs of the redeemed. No day like this has ever dawned upon our sin-cursed earth. It will be a day of restoration of our lost inheritances; of reward of prophets, of martyrs, and all the saintly dead."
That glorious day in which the saints will be raised from the dead, when the SOULS of those departed will be reunited with their redeemed body accompanies full redemption of God's beautiful creation.
"The coming of the Lord will not annihilate the earth, or to depopulate it, but to restore its pristine beauty and order; to make the wilderness and solitary places glad; to bless and renew it; to judge the nations, and to bring them under his government."
Far from annihilating his creation, the advent of Jesus will see him subdue his rebellious creation to his personal rule and authority. "He will come to restore the Jewish race (loved for the father's sake) ..." In fact Jesus will reign from Mount Zion and rule over redeemed creation.
Challen knows full well those who have bought into the platonic spiritual millennium notion will retort by saying these things in Scripture are mere figures or metaphors. And Challen admits that the "Scriptures are full of metaphors and symbols!" But he responds "Ay, surely; but they have their meaning. They rest upon a basis of truth. They refer to things real and veritable. They are not simply rhetoric. They had such power on prophets and apostles as to make them tremble, and to fall as dead men to the ground."
The real problem is not metaphors or symbolic language. The real problem is nothing short than a failure to be believe and a misplaced trust in human progress and technology.
"A spiritual reign before the King comes, is the dream of enthusiasts. It is but an 'old wives fable.' It is the outgrowth of a supposed 'outpouring' connected with revivalism. It is the faith in human progress and of better days, and not a faith in God's Word. It is science run mad, philosophy turned prophet, and human reason as the regenerator of the world. It is as baseless as a dream. It has neither experience, observation, nor revelation to rest upon."
Faith in human progress has, according to Challen, replaced "this great hope." Two things Challen believes are true and cohere with the vision of the hope of resurrection of the dead and the resurrection of the sin ruined creation. The first addresses the two failures he observed in the Stone-Campbell Movement. He says that in light of what God intends to do through Jesus at the Advent then ...
"How little do our schemes of life and enjoyments, our party strife and ambitions for pre-eminence, our spiritual millenniums, our revivals, ... appear, in comparison with the great day of the Lord! And how utterly impotent all known agencies, past or present, to usher it in ... There is an imperial grandeur in the potencies [sic] connected with the advent ..."
Position. Power. Privilege. All of these pale in light of the promises of God. In light of God's work our pettiness and confidence in our own systems is severely misguided Challen declares.
But Challen also sees the Stone Campbell Movement itself was stagnating and no longer performing its goal because it had lost faith in the hope. We exist for unity and from unity flows purpose for mission. Thus Challen reminds his younger readers,
"Never was our plea so mighty and successful as when we kept this great hope constantly before the people ... In connection with the Gospel restored and revived, it will yet prove mighty through God in pulling down the strongholds of error and turning sinners to God ..."
For James Challen the doctrine of the second coming of Christ is directly connected to resurrection of the dead and the salvation of God's creation. In fact Challen claims that this is the Christian hope to which the Gospel itself speaks. Challen rejects the spiritualization of the Christian hope. If resurrection is real then so is our hope of a renewed creation.
Challen published his essay, "The Millennium" in The Christian Quarterly 6 (April 1874), pages 247-255.
I have placed Challen's essay on Hans Rollmann's Restoration Movement page.