By Calvin Warpula
In 1809 when Thomas Campbell wrote the Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington [Pennsylvania], he had no plan to start a separate church. He strongly opposed sectarianism and all human creeds and promoted unity among all believers in Christ on the basis of the Scriptures only. His son, Alexander, who arrived from Ireland later that year, agreed with and supported his father’s views.
On Saturday, May 4, 1811, at its semiannual meeting, the Christian Association decided to transform itself into a local church because its calls for unity based on Scripture had been rejected by the denominations. Thomas Campbell was elected elder, four deacons were chosen, and Alexander Campbell was licensed to preach. The men called the new church The First Christian Church of the Christian Association of Washington and agreed to observe weekly Communion, which they believed was a New Testament practice. The Campbells had observed Communion taken weekly by the Haldane churches in Scotland. The next day, Sunday, the church met for worship in a log cabin at Crossroads and Brush Run in Washington County, Pennsylvania.
The Brush Run Church Building
The congregation decided to build its own meetinghouse in a brush run on William Gilchrist’s farm, about two miles from where that stream joined Buffalo Creek. This was two miles southwest of West Middletown, Pennsylvania, and 12 miles east of what was later the Campbell homestead in Bethany, Virginia (now West Virginia). Gilchrist, one of the four deacons, transferred 2 acres to the church for a $1 bill of sale. John Boyd, who ran a sawmill nearby, was hired to construct a simple 18-by-36-foot frame building with clapboarding. It had rough seats and no means of heat. The building was a post and beam structure assembled with wooden pins, which meant it could be taken down and moved.
On June 16, 1811, the church of about 30 members held its first service in the still unfinished Brush Run building. Alexander Campbell preached from Job 8:7, “Though thy beginning was small, yet thy latter end should greatly increase” (King James Version). Prophetic words those!
The Question of Baptism
On July 4, 1811, three people who had never been baptized requested that Thomas Campbell immerse them. Although the elder Campbell had not been immersed, he agreed with the request and baptized them in the deep water of Buffalo Creek near Bethany. Campbell did not advocate the immersion of pedobaptists because he believed it would discredit their infant baptism and “de-Christianize” them.
On March 13, 1812, when Alexander Campbell and his wife, Margaret, welcomed their first child, Jane, they faced the question of whether to baptize her. He devoted two months of serious study to the question and concluded New Testament baptism was an immersion of believers.
Alexander Campbell contacted his friend, Matthias Luce, a Baptist preacher of Amity, Pennsylvania, and requested that he immerse him on a simple confession of faith in Jesus without mention of the Philadelphia Confession of Faith or any confession of religious experience that the Baptists usually required. Luce agreed to the unusual request and the date was set for Wednesday, June 11, 1812, in Buffalo Creek, the same site Thomas Campbell had immersed three people the previous year.
By that time, Thomas Campbell and his wife, Jane, also desired immersion. At the baptismal site, both Campbell men preached for a total of seven hours on the meaning of baptism. Luce then immersed Thomas and Jane Campbell, Alexander and Margaret Campbell, Dorothea Campbell, and James and Sarah Hanen on the basis of faith in Jesus.
At the next meeting of the Brush Run church on Sunday, June 16, 13 more members requested immersion. Before long, nearly all the Brush Run worshippers were immersed, although a few individuals deserted the church because of this new emphasis on immersion.
Affiliating with the Baptists
In the fall of 1815, the Redstone Baptist Association, at the urging of Matthias Luce and others, invited the Brush Run church to join them. After much discussion, Brush Run accepted the invitation, although the only practice in common with the Baptists was immersion. The Campbells prepared an 8- to 10-page letter stating their views and “that we should be allowed to teach and preach whatever we learned from the Holy Scriptures, regardless of any creed or formula in Christendom.” After some discussion and objections, the Redstone Association agreed by “a considerable majority” to accept them into membership.
In 1815, Alexander Campbell raised $1,000 to build the Regular Baptist Church, the first church building of any denomination in Wellsburg (formerly Charlestown), Virginia (now West Virginia). In 1823, this congregation became the second church of the reform movement when Alexander Campbell and 30 others from the Brush Run church transferred their membership here. Under Campbell’s leadership, the congregation began to commune weekly and by 1830 had dropped the Baptist name. This congregation is still meeting today and is known as Wellsburg Christian Church.
In 1816, Alexander Campbell in his “Sermon on the Law” preached that the law and its authority are not binding in the messianic kingdom. This sermon produced uproar in the association and raised a storm of persecution against Campbell because Baptists believed the entire Bible, except the ceremonial parts, was binding on Christians.
On June 19 and 20, 1820, in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, Alexander gained favor with the Baptists of Ohio when he debated John Walker, a Presbyterian, on the subjects and actions of baptism. Two months later, on August 30, Sidney Rigdon and Adamson Bentley, Baptist preachers in the Western Reserve (in Ohio), led in the formation of the Mahoning Baptist Association.
From 1823 to 1830, Alexander Campbell published the iconoclastic journal, The Christian Baptist. He proposed calling his paper The Christian but Walter Scott encouraged him to add the word Baptist so he could have more influence among Baptist churches.
The uneasy, conflictive alliance of Brush Run with the Redstone Baptist Association continued until September 1823, when influential leaders in the association conspired to dispel Alexander Campbell from the association. Campbell outmaneuvered them by announcing he was no longer a member of the Brush Run church and thus not under the jurisdiction of the association. A few weeks before, on August 31, having foreseen the coming storm, he and about 30 others from Brush Run had transferred membership to the Wellsburg church. By 1824, Brush Run was expelled from the association.
In 1824, the Wellsburg church accepted the invitation of Rigdon and Bentley to join the Mahoning Baptist Association. The Mahoning Association’s positions were freer of dogmatism than Redstone’s and more in line with Campbell’s views. Most of the Brush Run congregation had transferred membership to the Wellsburg church, although services continued to be held at Brush Run until 1828.
Uniting with the Christians Movement
In 1830, under the influence of Alexander Campbell, who had come to view all associations as sectarian, the Mahoning
Baptist Association dissolved. The churches aligned with Campbell through the preaching influence of Walter Scott, who had been the association’s evangelist for three years. Campbell never was a traditional Baptist and by 1830 he had dropped use of that name, since the Baptists had largely disowned him. In 1829, Campbell founded the church in Bethany with the name “Church of Christ.” He preferred the members being called disciples of Christ because disciples was used throughout the gospels and the book of Acts and it was not used by any other group.
The dissolution of the Mahoning Baptist Association left Thomas and Alexander Campbell, and their 12,000 followers, free to join with the 10,000 Christians in the movement of Barton Warren Stone of Kentucky. This historic union was culminated on Sunday, January 1, 1832, in Lexington, Kentucky.
In 1842, the Brush Run building was sold, torn down, and re-erected in West Middletown, Pennsylvania, where it was used successively as a blacksmith shop, a post office, a barn, and a stable. In 1909, the Centennial Commission of the Disciples of Christ, meeting 30 miles away in Pittsburgh, instituted a program to reconstruct the remaining timbers into the old meetinghouse on the Campbell homestead in Bethany. The building deteriorated and its remains were finally removed. A small stone marker has been placed at the site of the Brush Run church. Presently, a committee is leading an effort to rebuild the Brush Run building on its original foundation at the site.
Today, the reform movement initiated by the Campbells and Stone has spread across the world. The “three sisters” of the movement—the Disciples of Christ, the Christian churches/churches of Christ, and the a cappella churches of Christ—number approximately 22,000 congregations and 3 million members in the United States. In July 2010, at the World Convention of Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, it was announced there are 14 million members worldwide.
The Campbells’ vision of nonsectarian, noncreedal Christianity has grown from its small beginning of 30 members to a worldwide fellowship numbering many millions. Alexander Campbell’s first Brush Run sermon proved to be prophetic: “Though thy beginning was small, yet thy latter end should greatly increase.”
Addendum: Harold Doster, a Disciple of Christ minister, is working on a committee to reconstruct the Brush Run Church on its original site. He has been a student of Brush Run since 1948. The reconstruction will be in place by 2012. Write Harold C. Doster, 73 Westward Lane, Blue Ridge, GA 30513 or call (706) 633-6221.
Calvin Warpula, a frequent writer for One Body and participant in the Restoration Forums, began preaching among churches of Christ when he was 15. Since 2007 he has served as preaching minister with West University Church of Christ in Houston, Texas. Contact him at email@example.com.
May 4, 2011, marked the 200th anniversary of the historic Brush Run Church. This article first appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of One Body. Used with permission.