By James B. North
Thomas Campbell, a member of the Old Light, Anti-Burgher, Seceder Presbyterian sect in Northern Ireland reacted negatively toward the religious divisions he experienced there. This was one reason he came to America in 1807, but he soon discovered that the American frontier had partisan divisions about as rife as those back home.
Leaving the Presbyterians in 1808, he led a group of about 20 friends to form in 1809 the Christian Association of Washington (Pennsylvania). Their goal was not to become a new church, but merely an association to promote simple evangelical Christianity free of human inventions and opinions. “Union in Truth” was their motto—they were devoted to the union of all Christian believers as well as the truth of the Scriptures as God’s authoritative voice.
Barton W. Stone had started a similar group in Kentucky a few years earlier, and they took as their name Christian Church, or Church of Christ. Under the influence of Alexander Campbell, son of Thomas, the Campbell Movement often used the label of Disciples of Christ. These two groups merged about 1832, often referred to as the Restoration Movement—a movement to restore simple original New Testament Christianity.
However, it is significant to note that Stone and Campbell were not the only people who caught this vision. They were the two major groups that coalesced into the Restoration Movement, but other groups shared these same principles.
Fifteen years before Thomas Campbell came to America, James O’Kelly became disenchanted with his denomination, the Methodists. He felt that Bishop Francis Asbury had too much dictatorial power, so he separated from them in 1792.
Initially called the Republican Methodists, by 1794 his group called themselves Christians. They took the Bible as their only rule and guide and allowed complete autonomy to each congregation. They had an annual convention, but they insisted it was advisory only, with no authority over churches or preachers.
William Guirey was a Methodist around Philadelphia, but he became an active preacher after the time of O’Kelly, since he did not learn of him until later. A mission trip to Jamaica in 1794 made him disgusted with episcopacy, the form of church government used by both the Anglicans and Methodists. So he left the Methodists and studied his Bible to determine correct biblical doctrine and organization.
He then looked for a denomination that fit the biblical pattern. Finding none, he became an independent evangelist on the Atlantic coast, ultimately winding up in Georgia where he discovered and joined forces with a church of the O’Kelly Movement.
In 1801 Abner Jones, a Baptist preacher in Vermont, became convinced his denomination was not sufficiently biblical. Specifically, he could find no biblical support for the name Baptist, he questioned their doctrine of predestination, and he concluded there was no scriptural warrant for the regional organizations known as associations of churches. Thus he started a new church, calling it simply Christian Church. He secured ordination for himself in 1802 by going to some Free Will Baptists, but he insisted he wanted to be ordained not as a Baptist, only as a Christian minister.
He was soon joined by Elias Smith, another Baptist minister in New England, who had come to doubt the system of using a creed as a standard of faith, such as the Baptists’ Philadelphia Confession of Faith, put together in 1742. Together Smith and Jones established a number of churches throughout New England, ultimately developing into a loose body known as the Christian Connection.
The twin principles of these movements (union and truth) soon attracted other interested followers. Chester Bullard was a Methodist medical doctor in southwestern Virginia who read some of Alexander Campbell’s writings. Stimulated by Campbell’s words, Bullard requested baptism by immersion, but his Methodist church discouraged it. Undissuaded, Bullard left that congregation to form a new one. In the next decade or so he had formed six or seven churches in Virginia and neighboring North Carolina.
Even though influenced by Campbell’s writings, he was not originally interested in working with that group because of what he saw as Campbell’s abrasive personality. By the end of the 1830s, however, he learned that Campbell was not as irascible as earlier assumed. Bullard and Campbell first met in 1840 when the Virginia Christians had a statewide convention, and the “Bullardites” blended with the Campbell Movement from this time on.
In 1810 John Wright organized a Free Will Baptist church near Salem, Indiana. Soon there were 10 churches organized as the Blue River Baptist Association. Then in 1819 the original Blue River Baptist Church became simply the Church of Christ at Blue River. The members preferred to be known as Disciples, Friends, or simply Christians. In 1821 the association dissolved to become just an annual meeting.
Meanwhile Joseph Hostetler had begun receiving copies of Alexander Campbell’s magazine, The Christian Baptist, in the 1820s. He was a German Baptist, also known as Dunkards. Influenced by Campbell’s writings, he tried to get the Dunkard Association to not set up governing rules for the body. When he refused to be bound by their creed in 1826, the association scheduled him for a heresy trial for the next year. But he defended himself so well that the entire association adopted his views and dissolved the association.
Absalom Littell also lived in southern Indiana, just north of Louisville. He was part of the Silver Creek Baptist Association, but he also began receiving Campbell’s Christian Baptist in the 1820s. By 1829 the Silver Creek Church voted to be governed only by the Word of God rather than the traditional Articles of Faith. In 1836 the entire association dropped the Articles, and the next year they dissolved the association and became only an annual meeting.
When John Wright learned of the reformation going on among the Dunkards, he suggested a union between their two groups. This was implemented in 1827, the combined group now going by the name of “Christian.” When members of the Stone Movement began moving from Kentucky into southern Indiana, contact soon developed between these “New Light Christians” and the Wright-Hostetler groups. At a meeting in Edinburg, Bartholomew County, in July 1828 the disparate groups all came together in joining their efforts.
These developments were not limited to the United States. By the 1830s some of Alexander Campbell’s writings were circulating in England and Scotland. Men like William Jones and James Wallis, influenced by the Scotch Baptist commitment to restore New Testament Christianity, withdrew from the Scotch Baptist churches and began to form Churches of Christ. By the 1840s immigrants from England were going to Australia and New Zealand where they also planted Churches of Christ.
Although today the term “Stone-Campbell Movement” has become a common term, the fact is that there were numerous individuals who had the same vision. Their goal was to restore simple New Testament Christianity, free from denominational structures, man-made doctrines, and human opinions.
For more than two centuries this Restoration Movement has stood as a connecting bond to call people out of denominational sectarianism into the simple brotherhood of Christian unity based on biblical authority. As Thomas Campbell originally phrased it, “‘Union in Truth’ is our motto.”
James B. North is professor of history at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.