We in the Churches of Christ often claim to be part of or heirs of the Restoration Movement, founded by Barton W. Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell. We like to recite various Restoration Movement slogans and give them very nearly the authority of scripture. When we say that we must be “silent where the Bible is silent,” no one questions the truth of the proposition, only its application. The Restoration Movement is very deeply ingrained in our corporate DNA.
And I’m quite a big fan of the Restoration Movement. I wished we’d study it even more. Indeed, I’m confident we’d be spiritually more healthy if we were more knowledgeable of our historical roots.
But then, we have to be honest scholars, and as much as I admire the founders of the Movement, I have to recognize that the principles of the Movement have changed–and changed radically–over the years. We pretend to honor not only Stone and the Campbells, but also Lipscomb, and Sommer, and Boles, but we can’t truly follow them all. They disagree about too many things.
Stone and McNemar
Barton W. Stone and Richard McNemar were Presbyterian ministers working in Illinois. Following the Cane Ridge Revival, they came to reject the strict Calvinism of the day, as they saw men and women by the thousands choosing to follow Jesus as a matter of free will, in response to the preaching of the word by men of differing denominations. Ultimately, they founded a movement operating largely in Western Kentucky known as the Christian Church. In 1832, the Christian Churches began to merge with the Disciples of Christ, founded by Thomas and Alexander Campbell. Here’s the story as told by Leroy Garrett,
- In 1804, Stone and other Presbyterian preachers denounced all sectism, thus leaving the Presbyterian Church and becoming Christians only. Unable to find anyone to immerse them on simple biblical grounds, they baptized each other. They formed an independent prebytery, made up of some seven congregations, but this they soon dissolved, giving birth to the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, in which they willed that their society should die and be swallowed up in the body of Christ at large. It is one of the great documents of our history.
- From 1804 until the late 1820’s this group, calling themselves simply Christians, grew slowly but substantially throughout Kentucky. They may have grown to as many as 10,000 by 1830. Barton Stone was the leader and he suffered much persecution from his Presbyterian friends because of his innovative movement. He was later to say, somewhat humorously, that he especially welcomed association with Alexander Campbell since he could take a lot of calumny that had been his alone to bear. They were often dubbed as “Stoneites”.
- At this time the “Christians” knew little or nothing of the “Reformers” that were associated with the Campbells. The Campbell movement began in 1809 in Pennsylvania and grew almost imperceptibly for the first 15 years, having only three or four congregations. We have seen that it was as part of the Mahoning Association of Baptist Churches in the Western Reserve (part of Ohio) and the evangelism of Walter Scott that the movement began to flower.
- The Campbell movement grew very rapidly in the late 1820’s, moving on down into Kentucky, and they probably numbered about 12,000 by 1830. They were mostly Baptists-“Reformed Baptists”-and they immersed thousands as they moved across the frontier, but they never re-immersed Baptists, As they grew stronger and bolder they were gradually “withdrawn from,” as it were, by the regular Baptists, and so they found themselves a separate communion. They generally called themselves Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ.
- It was now that the “Christians” and “Reformers” began to make contact with each other, for in some cases they would have congregations in the same frontier towns and cities. Stone now lived in Georgetown, Ky., as did John T. Johnson, who left Congress to become an evangelist among the Disciples, influenced as he was by Alexander Campbell, who had begun his forays into Kentucky in 1824. It was that year that Campbell and Stone first met. Raccoon John Smith, whose story we have recounted, also enters the picture at this point, becoming a “Reformed Baptist” under Campbell’s influence. He too was a principal character in the union of the groups.
- It was Stone and Johnson who put together the first “unity meeting” in our Movement’s history there in Georgetown where they were neighbors. For four days their folk met together and resolved to become one people together in the Lord. That was over the Christmas holidays, 1831. A few days later, over the New Year’s weekend, a larger and more extensive gathering was held in Lexington, and so they began the new year, 1832, as a united movement “to unite the Christians in all the sects.”
The earliest Restoration Movement document is the 1808 “Observations on Church Government” and the “Last Will & Testament of the Springfield Presbytery.” Barton W. Stone was a signatory and likely co-author. The gist of the document is to reject any delegation of power by a congregation to a higher authority (such as a presbytery or a denominational superstructure). This document states,
Without this living spirit the most perfect form or set of rules which could be made, though it were even by God himself, could not cement them together in the bonds of love, nor make them one in heart. …
From this view of the matter would it not appear next to impossible, that persons so widely dispersed could be preserved in unity?
How were they fashioned alike? Upon what principle were they united? And by what rules were they obliged to walk? What confession of faith had they as a bond of union? What compendium of doctrines or definite code of laws to be universally subscribed? … We see here that from Christ the head, the living spirit flows to all the members, which fitly or exactly joins, compacts and knits them together in the bonds of love, builds or rears them up, worketh effectually, or exerts and exercises its energy according to the measure or size of every part and ministers proper nourishment to promote the proportionate growth of every member of the body of Christ. This is the sweet anointing oil, the unction from the holy One, the spirit of God, or it is Christ himself by his spirit shed abroad or diffused throughout the whole body, according to the capacity of every member.
The authors offer a dramatically spiritual view of Christianity. The Spirit, alive and living within each Christian, writes the laws of God on the Christians’ hearts. The authors consider the indwelling Spirit therefore to be the true word of God, as compared to the New Testament, which is merely a copy of the word.
The authors reject any notion that better rules or a constitution could ever bring unity to the church. Rather, the Spirit is sufficient, and nothing else is.
At this early stage of the Movement, baptism was uncontroversial. And all the churches were a cappella, as was standard for churches with a Calvinistic heritage in those days. Rather, the effort was to end denominationalism and instead find unity based solely on the New Testament, especially finding unity through the workings of the Spirit. The leaders insisted on congregational autonomy but maintained close contact and loving fellowship with other congregations and leaders.
However, the leaders rejected any notion that unity could be found through uniform rules. Rather, faith in Jesus and a shared indwelling of the Spirit was to be the basis for unity.