The Christians and Disciples of Christ
The Christians and Disciples of Christ
The Christians and Disciples of Christ
The Christian Movement. As the new nation ventured into the unknown territory of religious pluralism, many Protestant leaders decried the appearance of sectarian rivalry, which they saw as counterproductive to larger evangelical goals and as contrary to the ecumenical ideal of the apostolic church. The “Christian” movement answered sectarianism with a call to unity, to be achieved by shedding denominational tags and restoring the church on primitive, New Testament grounds. Christian groups emerged in New England and in the Southern backcountry, but the movement’s appeal was particularly concentrated in the Trans-Appalachian West.
Barton Stone. Shortly after the Cane Ridge camp meeting, Barton Stone and other Kentucky revivalists began to chafe under the rigidity of Presbyterian doctrine and polity, so they devised an alternative system that was radically congregational in form and decidedly Arminian in theology. In 1803 they organized into a separate presbytery, but a year later even that institutional tie became unbearable. Publishing the “Last Will and Testament of the Presbytery of Springfield,” the group called themselves simply Christians and rejected all contrived creeds in favor of the New Testament as the only guide. Within a short time it was apparent that individual interpretation of biblical truths could lead to anarchy. As Stone wrote, “Some of us were verging on fanaticism; some were so disgusted at the spirit of opposition against us, and the evils of division, that they were almost led to doubt the truth of religion in toto; and some were earnestly breathing after perfection in holiness.” A few of the latter group drifted off into the Shakers, while others returned to the safety of traditional denominations. Under Stone’s leadership, the remainder formed the core of an influential movement. As related in his periodical The Christian Messenger, Stone preached the rational means by which an individual comes to believe in the testimony of the gospel, has faith in the promise of salvation, and is thereby reconciled to God. In his theology, reason was full partner to evangelical Protestantism, and the church was a voluntary association of autonomous individuals. The message struck a responsive chord among settlers in the states bordering the Mississippi River, and by the late 1820s the Christians numbered more than twelve thousand.
Thomas and Alexander Campbell. The Stonites were not alone in their emphasis on Christian unity through restorationism. In 1809 Thomas Campbell, a Seceder Presbyterian minister in Western Pennsylvania, withdrew from his church and formed a nondenominational “Christian Association of Washington (Pennsylvania).” In the association’s “Declaration and Address” Campbell expressed a simple maxim of the movement: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Since “the church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one,” all that was necessary to achieve the brotherhood intended by the New Testament was to remove human innovations from the churches. That same year Campbell’s son Alexander arrived from studies at the University of Glasgow. The Christian Association constituted itself into Brush Run Church and licensed Alexander Campbell as preacher. Because the congregation affirmed believer’s baptism, it aligned with the Baptists until 1827 (though under the rubric of “Reformers”).
Religious Populism. In their ministry the Campbells stressed the reclamation of “the ancient order of things,” as prescribed by the New Testament. According to their investigation, the Scriptures enjoined the observance of weekly communion, local congregational autonomy, equality between laity and minister, and baptism by immersion. Although the Stonites may have differed in their priorities, a first principle among all the “Christians” was the exaltation of the individual’s authority to interpret the New Testament. No institution or collectivity could mediate gospel truths since it was the individual who would be held accountable on the day of judgement. As the historian Nathan Hatch has written, “A remarkable number of people awoke one morning to find it self-evident that the priesthood of all believers meant just that—religion of, by, and for the people.” This religious populism was the most widespread legacy of the Christian movement, becoming part of the ethos of the age rather than simply a denominational trait.
Disciples of Christ. Alexander Campbell’s ideas continued to claim adherents and churches in northeastern
Ohio and Western Pennsylvania under the auspices of the Mahoning Baptist Association. In 1827 those affiliated with Campbell severed ties with the Baptists and called themselves Disciples of Christ. (Opponents referred to the group as Campbellites to belittle them as merely a personality cult.) The followers of Campbell and Stone might never have merged, nor their movement taken shape, had it not been for Walter Scott. Scott, a schoolteacher, had migrated to the United States from Scotland in 1818. Embracing restorationism, he became an evangelist for Campbell in 1821. Six years later he had a vision of his own. Scott took Campbell’s theology and distilled it to six points: faith, repentance, baptism, remission of sins, gift of the Holy Spirit, and eternal life. The first three were what an individual does upon conversion; the last three were what God does in response. No longer did salvation entail a subjective experience of conversion, related before a congregation or minister and then evaluated by them as to its validity. Instead, the gospel offered an objective plan of salvation, requiring obedience to simple tenets. Combining the final two elements, Scott preached the “five-finger exercise” with great success in northeastern Ohio. Scott’s ministry spanned three decades, during which time he estimated that he had won a thousand converts a year.
Union Achieved. Union between the two groups had been broached in each of their publications. In 1832 Disciples and Christians in Kentucky began worshiping together and later united by a handshake. Other congregations followed suit, but there was no compulsion. The adherence to different names was symbolic of the radically voluntarist temper of the Christian movement, yet it was also a portent that “the ancient order of things” was itself subject to varied interpretation. Thomas Campbell, Walter Scott, and Barton Stone all favored the plain name of Christians, but Alexander would not be moved from his conviction that Disciples of Christ had the strongest biblical precedent. Consequently, congregations employed both names until the twentieth century. Regardless, there was much common ground between the followers of Stone and Campbell. Both groups rejected creeds as a bar to fellowship, and the slogan “no creed but the Bible” was a familiar expression of this commitment. Both recognized only two ordinances, the Lord’s supper and adult baptism by immersion. Both opposed “partyism” and advocated the New Testament church as the basis for the union of all Christians. Both rested their fellowship and their attitude toward diversity on the principle of unity in essentials, liberty in nonessentials, and charity in all things. The movement was simple, direct, and inclusive. There were differences in tone—after all, the Stonites had emerged from the fires of the Western revivals, while Campbell was building a theology of Christian rationalism. The Stonites contributed about 10,000 members to the merger, and the Campbellites, another 12,000. The movement spread to other parts of the nation, but its strength continued to be west of the Appalachians. By 1860 the membership had increased to 200,000, putting it in the top five of American denominations.
Peter Cartwright, Methodist Preacher
The quintessential Methodist itinerant in the Trans-Appalachian West was Peter Cartwright, who began riding the circuit in the rough areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Indiana in 1802, at the age of 17. This burly, rugged preacher was famous for his homespun sermons and for his ability to handle every situation that arose in the course of his journeys. Converted at a Kentucky camp meeting and later licensed as a Methodist exhorter, he traveled circuits for twenty-two years. As he later wrote, many of the Methodist preachers in those years could not “conjugate a verb or parse a sentence, and murdered the king’s English almost every lick. But there was a Divine unction attended the word preached, and thousands fell under the mighty power of God, and thus the Methodist Episcopal Church was planted firmly in this Western wilderness.” Unlike many of the early itinerants who were bachelors by necessity, Cartwright was married and had nine children. In fact, his decision to move to Illinois in 1823 was prompted by family concerns, especially a desire to raise his seven daughters and two sons in a free state and to be able to purchase land for their future inheritance. He continued to farm and itinerate for another quarter century. Looking back, Cartwright remembered that his first Illinois district in 1826 “commenced at the mouth of the Ohio river, and extended north hundreds of miles, and was not limited by the white settlements, but extended among the great, unbroken tribes of uncivilized and unchristianized Indians; but now in 1851 how changed was the whole face of the country!” In time-honored fashion, Cartwright contrasted the zeal of former times to the complacency of the present: “When I consider the insurmountable disadvantages and difficulties that the early pioneer Methodist preachers labored under in spreading the gospel in these Western wilds in the great valley of the Mississippi and contrast the disabilities which surrounded them on every hand, with the glorious human advantages that are enjoyed by their present successors, it is confoundingly miraculous to me that our modern preachers cannot preach better, and do more good than they do.” Twice elected to the Illinois legislature, he lost in his bid to the U.S. Congress to Abraham Lincoln. Cartwright’s autobiography, written in 1856 and published a decade later, appeared at a time when Methodism’s dominance in the Trans-Applachian West was unquestioned, despite the fact that controversies over slavery had riven the membership and divided the church. His memories helped to rally Methodists around their early history, which was closely identified with westward expansion, and his portrayal of the “backwoods preacher” in the old frontier contributed to the cultural romanticization of the West. Perhaps his most lasting contribution was to mythologize the vanishing figure of the frontier Methodist circuit rider:
A Methodist preacher in those days, when he felt that God had called him to preach, instead of hunting up a college or Biblical institute, hunted up a hardy pony or a horse, and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely, Bible, Hymn-book, and Discipline, he started…. He went through storms of wind, hail, snow and rain; climbed hills and mountains, traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, swam swollen streams, lay out all night, wet, weary, and hungry, held his horse by the bridle all night, or tied him to a limb, slept with his saddle blanket for a bed, his saddle or saddle-bags for his pillow, and his old big coat or blanket, if he had any, for a covering. Often he slept in dirty cabins, on earthen floors, before the fire; ate roasting ears for bread, drank butter-milk for coffee, or sage tea for imperial; took, with a hearty zest, deer or bear meat, or wild turkey, for breakfast, dinner, and supper if he could get it…. This was old fashioned Methodist fare and fortune.
Source: Peter Cartwright, Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, the Backwoods Preacher, edited by W. P. Strickland (Cincinnati: Hitchcock & Walden, 1868).
Expounding the Christian System. The Christians and Disciples of Christ contended that sectarian discord was a choice, not an inevitability. However, their shared conviction that restoration entailed certain fundamental truths ultimately turned unity into a secondary goal. In fact, Alexander Campbell became renowned for his theological debates, which served a publicity function but did not foster a spirit of amity. In 1828 Campbell defended Christianity against Robert Owen’s charge that “religion was founded on ignorance and was the chief source of human misery”; his concluding speech at the end of the eight-day debate lasted twelve hours. Campbell’s 1832 pamphlet, titled Delusions: An Analysis of the Book of Mormon, was widely reprinted, and his scathing but insightful explanation of the new church is still quoted by historians today. He also “exposed” Roman Catholic doctrines in a weeklong debate with the Catholic archbishop of Cincinnati in 1837 and critiqued presbyterianism at length in 1843. Campbell himself was meticulous in elucidating his ideas, which he synthesized in 1835 as The Christian System, in reference to the Union of Christians, and a Restoration of Primitive Christianity, as Plead in the Current Reformation. The text covered a range of theological topics and history and illustrated his allegiance to the Enlightenment philosophy of John Locke, combined with “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, as the foundation of all Christian union and communion.” Although detractors accused him of producing exactly what he abhorred—a creed—Campbell replied that a personal statement of faith was a proper exercise of responsible Christianity, as long as the statement was not held up as a condition of union or fellowship. Protests notwithstanding, The Christian System was designed to winnow out error, even in the absence of coercion. The determination of the Campbell-Stone movement to communicate its ideas was demonstrated in its chartering of colleges and its prolific publications—in 1859 three weeklies, twelve monthlies, and one quarterly. Despite the Eastern prejudice that the West reveled in ignorance, the Christian movement revealed a more subtle dynamic at work. Westerners tended to be anti-intellectual in contesting the idea that certain castes had exclusive possession of special knowledge, yet people sought the “uplift” of education and honored biblical scholarship. As Campbell and Stone declared in their writings, just as theological fineries should never stand in the way of Christian union, so learning was the handmaiden of faith, not its superior. In fact, when Campbell organized Bethany College, he instructed that it should not have a professorship of theology since that would imply some had greater access to biblical truths than others.
Sect or Church? After the union, the Christians and Disciples of Christ began to establish “connections” beyond the individual congregations, but the linkage implied no assertion of authority over local churches. Part of the appeal of the movement had been its radical break with previous organizational forms. The members referred to the union of churches as a brotherhood rather than a denomination; they regarded joint efforts between congregations as cooperative rather than associative. Yet Campbell favored an extracongregational network in order to mount projects on a broader scale, especially evangelization. In the 1840s Campbell pressed forward on this theme, and in 1849 the first national convention of the Disciples was held in Cincinnati, though not without dissent. As with other denominations, foreign mission had served as the catalyst for larger institutional imperatives and for eventual division. Given the decentralized basis of authority, the Christians and Disciples of Christ moved cautiously in their efforts to define themselves corporately. Critics took this as a sign of the movement’s weakness, proving that Campbellism was a sect, not an authentic church. Yet the emphasis on voluntarism was a consensual organizational strategy for gathering a community without resorting to dogmatism or authoritarianism. The Christian movement seemed to represent something fresh and unfettered, yet it harkened back to an “ancient order”—and to revolutionary principles. Alexander Campbell wrote that 4 July 1776 was comparable to the Jewish Passover because God had preserved the American people for a special destiny: “This Revolution, taken in all its influences, will make men free indeed.” That is, if the nation lived up to its ideals, its institutions and way of life would be pleasing in the sight of God. Restorationism in a religious context thus meshed with millennial hopes for the secular development of the nation.
Antebellum Religious Tensions. Issues that energized the Christian/Disciples of Christ movement revealed tensions within antebellum Protestantism in general. These included finding the proper balance between authority and freedom in religious matters, searching for harmony in the midst of difference, merging the claims of individual conscience with the need for Christian community, and reconciling evangelical sentiment to common sense, or reason. In its early stages the Christian movement imagined the possibilities of sovereign individuals united in fellowship by their own volition, of theological chaos tamed by people determining their faith for themselves. In the end slavery would capsize its call to unity, just as it did the national Union.
John Boles, The Great Revival 1787–1805 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1972);
Lester G. McAllister and William E. Tucker, Journey in Faith: A History of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1975);
Ralph E. Morrow, “The Great Revival, the West, and the Crisis of the Church,” in The Frontier Re-examined, edited by John F. McDermott (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967).