Disciples of Christ

views updated May 21 2018


DISCIPLES OF CHRIST . The Disciples of Christ is an American-born religious group formed in 1832 by the merger of the Christian movement led by Barton Stone with the "Reforming Baptists," headed by Thomas and Alexander Campbell. Most of the early leaders of the movement, including Stone and the Campbells, had been Presbyterians, but they imbibed deeply of the spirit of religious freedom in the wake of the American Revolution. Stone was one of the leaders of the Kentucky revival at the turn of the nineteenth century. Distressed by Presbyterian opposition to the revival, in 1804 he and five other ministers left the church, announcing their plan to be "Christians only" in "The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery."

Thomas Campbell came to America in 1807, having been a Presbyterian minister in Northern Ireland. Disturbed by the sectarian spirit of the American church, Campbell clashed with the synod, and in 1809 he was suspended from the ministry. Campbell and a few of his supporters almost immediately formed the Christian Association of Washington (Pennsylvania), and Campbell wrote a fifty-six page explanation of his views, called the Declaration and Addre ss. Thomas Campbell's son, Alexander, arrived in America shortly after the publication of the Declaration and Address. Twenty-one years old at the time, Alexander Campbell had been influenced by the reforming ideas of Scottish evangelist Robert Haldane while spending a year in Glasgow, and he immediately embraced his father's independent position. He quickly rose to the leadership of the movement. The Campbells joined with Baptist associations from 1815 until 1830 and were known by the name Reformers.

Preaching similar pleas for Christian union and in frequent contact with one another in Kentucky, the Stone and Campbell movements sealed a remarkably successful union in 1832. Alexander Campbell and his followers generally favored the name Disciples of Christ, while the Stone churches continued to use the name Christian Church. Many local congregations were called Churches of Christ. All three names have been used throughout the movement's history. The new church spread rapidly with the westward migration of population; at the time of the union in 1832 it was estimated to have 22,000 members, and by 1860 that figure had grown to nearly 200,000.

Two ideas undergird Disciples thought, both of them highly attractive amid the optimism on the American frontier in the 1830s. First was an emphasis on Christian union. Second was an appeal for the "restoration of the ancient order of things" as a means of attaining unity. The battle cry of the movement, stated in 1809 by Thomas Campbell, was "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent."

The Disciples were Arminian, believing in freedom of the will, and they were revivalistic, although never given to extreme enthusiasm. They held traditional views on most questions and were most visibly set apart by their restorationist views on the local church. They organized autonomous congregations presided over by elders and deacons and emphasized weekly observance of the Lord's Supper. In the early years of the movement, Alexander Campbell was caustically anti-institutional, but by the 1840s antimission sentiment abated. Most early Disciples were also strong postmillennialists, believing that the second coming of Christ would be ushered in by the world reformation begun by Luther and capped by their own restoration movement.

In addition to the Campbells and Stone, the most prominent early leader of the Disciples was another Scottish Presbyterian minister, Walter Scott, who is credited with formulating the "five-finger" plan of salvationfaith, repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, and gift of the Holy Spiritwhich was preached by a generation of pioneer Disciples evangelists. The Disciples were slow in developing denominational institutions; consequently, the most powerful leaders of the movement were editors of religious journals. Alexander Campbell edited the Christian Baptist from 1823 to 1830 and the Millennial Harbinger from 1830 until 1864, just two years before his death. Stone, Scott, and scores of other preachers also published papers that tied the loose-knit movement together.

While conceiving of themselves as a protest against sectarian division, the Disciples quickly became a part of the denominational competition in the American Midwest and South. Alexander Campbell's influence among the Baptists was particularly strong, and in some parts of the West, the Disciples devastated Baptist associations. The church spread rapidly westward from Ohio and Kentucky and as far south as Tennessee and Texas.

The years after the Civil War form a second era in Disciples history. By 1866, all of the first generation leaders of the church were dead, and dramatic shifts in power occurred within the church. The Disciples continued to grow rapidly; the religious census of 1906 listed around 1,150,000 members in the movement. But the census also revealed that a major schism had taken place within the church. Deep sectional and sociological tensions had begun to appear shortly after the Civil War.

In spite of the facts that the Disciples were strongest in the border areas and that most of the church's leaders had urged moderation during the slavery controversy, Disciples were seriously divided by the Civil War. In 1863, northern Disciples passed a resolution of loyalty to the Union at the meeting of the American Christian Missionary Society, which had been formed in 1849. Southern Disciples were deeply angered. Although most Disciples argued that the church could not divide because it had no denominational apparatus, in the years after the Civil War northern and southern newspapers and other institutions became increasingly antagonistic. In the census of 1906 the most conservative wing of the movement (which was almost entirely southern) was identified separately and designated the Churches of Christ.

Although the tensions of the nineteenth century had clear sectional and sociological underpinnings, the debate also had a doctrinal focus. As it became ever more apparent that the hoped-for millennium of peace and unity was not imminent, conservative Disciples lost interest in Christian union as a practical goal, and liberal Disciples increasingly discarded legalistic restorationism as a means of attaining union. The most visible issues that divided churches were support for the missionary society that had been founded in 1849 and the scripturality of the use of instrumental music in worship. The founding of the society (which had Alexander Campbell's tacit approval) seemed to some an abandonment of the anti-institutional principles of the early movement; the society further alienated many southerners because of the passage of political resolutions during the Civil War; finally, the organization was attacked as "unscriptural" by rigid restorationists. The introduction of organs into the churches also rankled conservatives, who considered them symbols of decadence and found no evidence of their presence in the New Testament churches. By 1900, hundreds of conservative local congregations had separated from the movement as independent Churches of Christ.

The most powerful Disciples journal during the late nineteenth century was the Christian Standard, published in Cincinnati, Ohio, by Isaac Errett until his death in 1888. The most influential journal among the conservatives of the South was the Gospel Advocate, edited for over half a century by David Lipscomb in Nashville, Tennessee. By the end of the century, however, leadership of the movement had drifted toward James H. Garrison, who in 1874 became editor of the Saint Louis-based Christian-Evangelist. Garrison was grounded in the nuances of Disciples theology, but he was irenic in spirit and encouraged a new generation of Disciples leaders to take the mainstream of the movement into the center of liberal American Protestantism.

In the early twentieth century the Disciples suffered a second major division and a slowing growth rate. As a new generation of Disciples liberals, particularly a group associated with the University of Chicago, pressed for a more ecumenical view of the Disciples mission and a more liberal understanding of the scriptures, conservative opposition solidified around the Christian Standard. Finally, in the 1920s, the conservatives began withdrawing their support from Disciples organizations and in 1927 established the rival North American Christian Convention. These dissentient conservative congregations remained loosely associated in the Undenominational Fellowship of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. The more liberal wing of the movement adopted the name Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

A full body of boards and commissions developed in the twentieth century, headquartered mostly in Indianapolis and Saint Louis. In 1968 the church restructured into a representative and more centrally controlled organization, losing perhaps one-third of its listed congregations in the move and completing the second schism, which had been in progress since the 1920s.

Disciples have been important leaders in modern ecumenical activities. The Christian Century began as a Disciples journal (founded as the Christian Oracle in 1884), and its editorial corps was long dominated by Disciples. The Disciples have also been prolific builders of universities and colleges, perhaps the most widely known being Texas Christian University, Butler University, Drake University, and Bethany College.

See Also

Campbell, Alexander.


The best general summary of Disciples history is William E. Tucker and Lester G. McAllister's Journey in Faith (Saint Louis, 1975). A sociological interpretation of Disciples history in the nineteenth century can be found in my books Quest for a Christian America (Nashville, 1966) and The Social Source of Division in the Disciples of Christ (Atlanta, 1973). A survey of the movement written by a leader of the conservative Christian churches is James D. Murch's Christians Only (Cincinnati, 1962). A Churches of Christ perspective can be found in Earl I. West's The Search for the Ancient Order, 2 vols. (Indianapolis, 1950). Three older works that remain significant are William T. Moore's A Comprehensive History of the Disciples of Christ (New York, 1909), and two books by Winfred E. Garrison, Religion Follows the Frontier (New York, 1931) and An American Religious Movement (Saint Louis, 1945).

David Edwin Harrell Jr. (1987)

Disciples of Christ

views updated May 21 2018


DISCIPLES OF CHRIST. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Churches of Christ both trace their origins to the Appalachian frontier revivals of 1795 through 1810. Early leaders of the Disciples stressed the need for the reunion of divided Christendom, the restoration of the primitive Church described in the New Testament, and the importance of human freedom in the search for truth, unencumbered by denominational creeds or traditions. One early theorist was Barton Stone, a Presbyterian minister, who was the host of Kentucky's Cane Ridge revival of 1801. Stone separated from his Church in 1804 and created an association of churches in Kentucky and Tennessee. He was soon joined by Alexander Campbell, the son of Thomas Campbell, the Presbyterian minister who had authored the "Dedication and Address" of the Christian Association of Washington in 1809. A key text for the Disciples of Christ, the "Dedication and Address" announced, "Where the scriptures speak, we speak; where the scriptures are silent, we are silent."

Under Alexander Campbell, the Restoration Movement in Ohio and Pennsylvania grew rapidly. Although initially operating under the auspices of the Mahonic Baptist Association, the Campbellite churches broke with the Baptists in 1827 and merged with the Stoneite churches in 1832. Both groups shared an aversion to creeds and a desire to convert all people to evangelical Christianity. The new entity laid great stress on education, chartering such institutions as Bethany College in Virginia (now West Virginia) and Franklin College in Tennessee. It also organized church-wide associations such as the American Church Publication Society (1846) and the American Christian Missionary Society (1849), although southern

congregations denounced the latter for infringing on their prerogative to evangelize.

Dividing the Movement

In 1861, most Disciples, who resided in the border states and feared the consequences of war, believed that the Bible permitted slavery and refused to participate in the Civil War. Alexander Campbell was critical of slavery, but strongly opposed abolitionism, favoring gradual emancipation and resettlement. In 1863, however, the American Christian Missionary Society passed a resolution condemning Southern secession, an action denounced by southern leaders like Tolbert Fanning. Campbell's death in 1866 removed one potential source of unity. In the next thirty years, other divisions surfaced over full-time paid preachers, the practice of open communion, and the use of instrumental music in church services (all of which were favored by many congregations in the north), which steadily pushed members of the future Churches of Christ away from the Disciples of Christ. Although formal separation was not acknowledged until 1906, actual separation preceded this event by at least ten years.

The Disciples took an activist stance during the nineteenth century, establishing the Christian Women's Board of Missions (1874), which worked in Central and South America and Liberia, erecting a number of new colleges and endowing chairs in biblical studies at several state universities. They also organized the National Benevolent Association (1887) and the Board of Ministerial Relief (1895). Between 1870 and 1900, the movement grew from 330,000 to 1,125,000.

The Modernist Controversy

During the early twentieth century, the Disciples were forced to grapple with modernist theology, which had gained a following in the Campbell Institute at the Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago. J. W. McGarvey, President of the College of the Bible in Lexington, Kentucky, launched a series of bitter attacks on modernism, which culminated in a dispute with younger faculty at his own institution in 1917. Equally divisive was the clash over the Federated Church Movement between 1905 and 1914, which aroused hostility because it represented a denial of the Disciples' earlier stance against denominationalism and because of the increasing identification of the Federal Council of Churches with modernism and social justice. A flashpoint on this issue was the Disciples' Monterrey mission in Mexico; many members objected to a 1918 interdenominational agreement that called upon them to surrender this activity to the Methodists. Finally, the questions of open membership and the admission of the unimmersed to full membership drove conservatives to launch a series of efforts in 1918 to defend "orthodoxy," criticizing trends in the newly established United Christian Missionary Society and attempting to pass resolutions that liberals claimed were "creedal."

After 1926, conservative congregations largely abandoned efforts to reform the Church's organizational structure, forming an independent organization and calling themselves Christian Churches or Churches of Christ. Efforts during the 1930s and 1940s to restore unity to the movement by stressing the common theological roots of all the groups came to nothing. In the 1960s, the Disciples of Christ only accentuated division from the independents with its promotion of "Brotherhood Restructure," advocating a repudiation of historic congregationalism in favor of a more structured national church organization with a delegate convention rather than a mass meeting, a move that cost them roughly one-third of their member congregations.

The Disciples in the Early 2000s

The Disciples of Christ have been very active in the ecumenical movement, but participation in the Federal Council of Churches and later in the National and World Council of Churches has always been rejected by the independent Christian Churches and the Churches of Christ.

Some Disciples have worked with the National Association of Evangelicals, although uneasy with its creedal basis, and with the Consultation on Church Union. There have also been discussions with the United Church of Christ that have resulted in an "ecumenical partnership." Today, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has a very denominational style. It has welcomed women into the ministry and is sympathetic to biblical criticism. Most congregations practice open membership and favor a mission role that assists national churches to grow rather than aggressive evangelism. It attaches considerable importance to social ministry, but takes a relaxed view on moral questions. All the agencies historically established by the Disciples of Christ are controlled by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which has experienced a considerable decline in membership since 1945.

On their part, the Churches of Christ disdain any sort of extra congregational activity or involvement in social issues. They are opposed to instrumental music in church services and to missionary organizations. They are very conservative, with regard to both the Bible and moral issues, oppose women in the ministry, and are very critical of ecumenism. The growth rate in the Churches of Christ has been declining. In 1999, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) had 831,125 members and the Churches of Christ had 1,500,000 members.


Dunnavant, Anthony L., ed. Cane Ridge in Context: Perspectives on Barton W. Stone and the Revival. Nashville, Tenn.: Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1992.

Dunnavant, Anthony L., Richard T. Hughes, and Paul M. Blowers. Founding Vocation and Future Vision: The Self-Understanding of the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ. St. Louis, Mo: Chalice Press, 1999.

Hughes, Richard T. Restoring the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996.

McAllister, Lester G., and William E. Tucker. Journey in Faith: A History of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). St. Louis, Mo: Bethany Press, 1975.

Webb, Henry E. In Search of Christian Unity: A History of the Restoration Movement. Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing, 1990.


See alsoChristianity ; Denominationalism ; Protestantism ; Religion and Religious Affiliation .

Disciples of Christ

views updated May 14 2018


The Disciples of Christ was organized formally in 1832, but the denomination's essential doctrines and practices first appeared in eighteenth-century Scotland among Restorationists—Christians who undertook to restore the faith and practice described in the New Testament, casting aside ideas and practices developed both by the Catholic Church and by the most powerful churches formed by the Protestant Reformation. The Scottish leaders of this movement were John Glas (1695-1773); Robert Sandeman (1718–1771); and later, the Haldane brothers, Robert Alexander (1764–1842) and James Alexander (1768–1851).

The two most important founders of the Disciples, Barton W. Stone (1772–1844) and Alexander Campbell (1788–1866), developed their views independently. Stone, a native of Maryland, was converted in North Carolina by the Presbyterian revivalist James McGready (1763–1817), whom he followed to Kentucky. After participating in McGready's Logan County Camp Meeting in 1800, Stone became principal organizer of the legendary Cane Ridge Meeting near Lexington in 1801, perhaps the single most important event in the history of American Christianity. Operating mainly outside the rules and regulations of the Kentucky Presbytery, Stone and his allies formed the secessionist Springfield Presbytery in 1803, only to disband it the following year. Calling themselves simply "Christians," they spread their independent congregations throughout Kentucky and eastern Ohio.

Alexander Campbell was, like his father, Thomas (1763–1854), a native of northern Ireland. Thomas arrived in Pennsylvania in 1807; he was preparing to secede from the Presbyterian Church when Alexander joined him in 1809, fresh from theological studies in Scotland. Father and son led in the formation of the Christian Association of Washington, Pennsylvania, affirming congregational independence, baptism by immersion, and insistence on the Christian scriptures (the New Testament) as the sole guide to belief and practice: "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent" (Ahlstrom, Religious History, p. 447). From 1813 to 1827 the Campbells affiliated with a Baptist Association and Alexander, a prolific writer and spirited controversialist, reached a wide audience as editor of the Christian Baptist (1823–1829). One of the many gifted preachers drawn to the Campbellites was Walter Scott (1796–1861), another immigrant from Scotland who converted to Haldanean principles while teaching in George Forrester's academy in Pittsburgh. By 1830 the Disciples were fully committed to revivals, the equality of congregational members with their ministers, and a straightforward scheme of salvation—affirmation of faith, repentance, and baptism by immersion. Many of them were taking a lively interest in the supposed approach of a millennial Second Coming.

Conceived as a movement to restore original Christianity and thereby unite all Christians under a single banner, the Disciples of Christ nevertheless learned that some organization above the congregational level was necessary. Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, recognizing that their purposes were virtually the same, drew their followers together in 1832; thus, an antidenominational movement formed another denomination. The American frontier proved especially hospitable to the formation of new religious organizations, and America's pursuit of egalitarian democracy especially favored congregational independence and self-government. But also essential to the religious efflorescence of the early nineteenth century was the Second Great Awakening, which began in the long-settled eastern states, with theological ideas imported and adopted from Britain and especially Scotland.

See alsoProfessions: Clergy; Religion: Overview; Revivals and Revivalism .


Ahlstrom, Sidney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972.

Harrell, David Edwin, Jr. A Social History of the Disciples of Christ. Vol. 1: Quest for a Christian America: The Disciples of Christ and American Society to 1866. Nashville, Tenn.: Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1966.

Robert McColley

Disciples of Christ

views updated Jun 08 2018

Disciples of Christ US Protestant church, claiming to derive all its beliefs from the Bible. It strives to return to the purity of the Scriptures. Beginning in the 19th-century religious revival movements of frontier America, there is no single founder and no creed but Christ. There are c.1.2 million members.