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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 disinterest 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.

This draws attention to a precept implied by Restorationism, sometimes called the Great Apostasy. The Great Apostasy is a term used to describe a general fallen state of traditional Christianity, that it is not a legitimate successor to the church founded by Jesus Christ. 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.

Of these movements, the most optimistic about the then-present state of Christianity was the Restoration Movement, now uncommonly called the Campbellites or, Stone-Campbell Churches. 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, 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.

Less optimistic about the state of Christianity was the Latter Day Saint movement (Mormonism). The Latter Day Saints sought, as the Campbellites did, to restore original Christianity: but they considered the Great Apostasy to be such a disastrous consequence that a new prophet and apostles were required in order to restore God's Kingdom on earth. Joseph Smith, Jr, the movement's founder, claimed to have been chosen by God as that prophet.

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. Another prominent Millerite organization is the Jehovah's Witnesses.

One major difficulty lay in reconstructing forms of church service without reliance upon any historical documentation of tradition. Moreover, differences in doctrine were largely those of interpretation. 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. Thus, in many instances instead of transcending denominational divisions, restorationism fostered them, and more competing groups arose than ever before.

Attempting to reconstruct doctrine from an unknown past led to novelty as well as much quibbling over details. Since the Bible was regarded as the exclusive source of all questions, historical documents relating to the early church were seldom, if at all, consulted. Thus, the doctrines of these groups differ widely. Each leader developed strong opinions on how to interpret scripture, and historical and early theological writings were tended to be ignored since they were assumed to be part of the Great Apostasy. 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.

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