A History of the Churches of Christ Part 1

Note: Its with Philip’s permission that this is posted here for all. I’ve changed from his original document, several uses of church of Christ to Church of Christ. It’s a pet peeve of mine about our movement.

[Brief note about this blog posting: When I was preparing to teach class on Wednesday night, I was having problems figuring out where to start. Do I start at the Bible? Do I start out with common beliefs in the Church of Christ? To put it simply, I had teacher’s block. It was Wednesday, and I was teaching in less than 8 hours. Not that I wasn’t prepared, but this can be such a delicate subject and it needed to be approached in an appropriate manner. So, I opened up Microsoft Word, and began to type. Realizing that I had more than I needed, I split the history into two 30-min class sessions. This first part contains introductory material and some of the history of Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell. It’s actually very close to what was said Wednesday night. I’ve attempted to leave much of my original text intact. So, there are grammatical errors. Hopefully, I don’t have any errors about our history.]

When trying to figure out what we believe and why, it’s important to look back at where we have been. What has made the Church of Christ the “Church of Christ?” Are we really the “New Testament” church? Do we have roots in other denominations?

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been reading a book that Mike Buckley lent me called “Renewing God’s People – A Concise History of Churches of Christ.” This was published by Abilene Christian University Press. I say that to help you understand that this material was presented from one perspective when there are very well other interpretations of the Church of Christ history. While I was growing up in the Church of Christ, I was surrounded by teachers, ministers, and parents who focused on core aspects of Church of Christ “doctrine.” What is doctrine? Doctrine, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary is “a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief.” By learning about these principles, we were equipped for “spiritual battle” to defend why we did things the way we did. Maybe our history was implied that we are the image of the New Testament church, and that we did everything right. Maybe it is just a misconception I had while growing up. I’m sure that some might say that those things aren’t what they were trying to teach. Taking a look back at the history of the Church of Christ, I have found a new conviction in why I believe what I believe. It has strengthened my positions on beliefs in the church. Just like any person or group, there are skeletons in the closet that we’d rather not talk about, but are necessary to understand why there are there.

For the purpose of this class, I will be going through this information pretty quickly and providing some high points and low points along the way. If you want to know more about the history of the Church of Christ, you can use our church library, the internet, or even wikipedia (which does have several good items concerning the Church of Christ and the restoration movement.). There are four areas that I want to talk about. A Brief History, Pre – Stone-Campbell Movement, Stone-Campbell Movement, post-civil war.

A Brief History

Throughout the history of Christianity, leaders have risen to challenge the principles by which they worship, believe, and live their Christian lives. Martin Luther challenged the Catholic Church with ideas such as grace through faith instead of merit salvation and attempts to bring authority back to sola scripture (“Scripture Alone”). Luther and people who believed what he believed were excommunicated from the Catholic Church and formed a separate body. John Calvin was another individual that wanted reformation of the church. Calvin’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty led him to emphasize the doctrine of predestination. What is predestination? Webster’s dictionary defines predestination as “the doctrine that God in consequence of his foreknowledge of all events infallibly guides those who are destined for salvation.” Another group of reformers were those called the Radical Reformation or “Anabaptists.” They were called Anabaptists because they believed in believer’s baptism. Anabaptists simply means “rebaptizers.” They also wanted to return to the teachings on the New Testament.

When people began coming to America, they brought with them several types of Christianity. Many early pilgrims wanted to be free from religious persecution. This helped to establish a religious melting pot. Because so many different styles of Christianity were represented, not a single group was labeled as the “main” religious group in America. This opened up the way to religious freedom allowing for the people to decide and interpret the Bible for themselves. Through this, many ideas and beliefs came to surface. One of the earliest influences of the Churches of Christ was a man by the name of James O’Kelly. He was a Methodist preacher who began to oppose a church hierarchy. In other words, no central person, group, or headquarters would appoint a minister for a local congregation. O’Kelly and others believed that congregations should be able to do what they want on their own. From this, the group decided to call themselves “Christian.” They also adopted the six “Cardinal principles of the Christian Church.” The first one being “The Lord Jesus Christ is the only Head of the Church.”

Pre-Stone-Campbell Movement

Three men helped shaped the Church of Christ from the protestant denominations. They were Barton Stone, and Thomas and Alexander Campbell (father and son). I want to take a look at these three individuals and their contributions.

Barton Stone lived from 1772 to 1844. Before being ordained (which means to officially invest with ministerial or priestly authority) as a Presbyterian minister, Stone grew up in the Episcopalian, Baptist, and Methodist Churches. He had problems with many of the doctrines that were apart of the Presbyterian Churches. For example, he struggles with the concepts of predestination and the Trinity. One of the events that shaped teaching of Stone was the Cane Ridge revival. At this revival, several thousand people came to hear Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian ministers preach. From this, Stone recognized the need for Christian unity. Also, it help chip away at his thoughts on predestination, through the presence of the Holy Spirit and people coming to know Him. Stone and other ministers took new ideas with them back home. The church there was not very happy. So, before they could be disciplined, they broke off a created a new church, the Presbytery of Springfield. This ended up being ironic. Stone and the others had wanted to create unity. So, what did they do? Start a new church. They released this a year later and came up with “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery.” This document contains many beliefs and statements that would echo down through the years to the Churches of Christ as they stand today.

The people who followed Stone’s movement began calling themselves Christian Churches or Churches of Christ. Stone churches practiced believer’s immersion, but did not exclude those who had been baptized as infants.
Thomas Campbell was another person who believed in the unity of churches. To help give some idea of where we’re at in church history, Thomas Campbell is still in Ireland while Stone churches are forming. Thomas was another one who was persecuted from the Presbyterian Churches. In 1809, Thomas was asked to write out his plan for unity among Christians. It was called the “Declaration and Address.” This made a clear call back to the freedoms found in the New Testament and the basis for Christian unity.

Alexander Campbell, the son of Thomas Campbell, went to the university in Glasgow, Scotland. Over his time there, he made many friends that had broken from the Church of Scotland and formed other churches. They all wanted to return to the practices of the New Testament church. Even though they didn’t agree on everything, some things they did agree on was local church leadership by elders, weekly Lord’s Supper, believer’s baptism by immersion, and opposition to ministerial titles like “Reverend.” The Campbell family finally made it to America in October of 1809.

In 1811, the Brush Run Church was formed where both Thomas and Alexander Campbell shared preaching duties. Alexander got married, and had a child soon after. This comes to another part which helped shaped what we believe. Members of the Brush Run Church questioned the whole infant baptism thing, and wanted to have believer’s baptism. This posed a dilemma for Alexander and his new daughter. Should she be baptized? Should he be baptized? After months of studying, he concluded that biblical baptism was the immersion of believers, not for the sprinkling of infants. Soon after, Thomas and Alexander Campbell and their wives were baptized, followed by the majority of the members of the Brush Run Church. Interestingly, this causes more of a rift between the Campbells and their Presbyterian beliefs, and the Brush Run Church becomes associated with the Redstone Baptist Association.

The heart of baptism became an issue between those in the Campbell movement and the Baptists. This caused the Campbell movement to break off and form their own independent churches. These churches began using the communities name as the name for the church like “Brush Run Church.” Eventually they began calling themselves disciples of Christ.


Merriam-Webster OnLine: http://www.webster.com/
Holloway, Gary and Foster, Douglas A. Renewing God’s People: A Concise History of Churches of Christ. Abilene Christian University Press. 2001

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