A church’s new multisite campus. A town steeped in history. The grave of a Restoration Movement pioneer’s wife. A reflection on what this frontier preacher stood for, and the message we still proclaim today.
There she was. Her stone lying on its back, broken and weathered among scores of neglected reminders of lives long since past. The inscription was hard to read because of a combination of age, moss, and dirt, but careful examination gave witness to the precious soul long forgotten to so many.
Wife of Elder B.W. Stone
Died Apr. 23, 1857
Aged 64 years, 7 ms. 28 ds.
Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.
The cemetery seemed ancient, but the sound of the traffic from the interstate on the other side of the tree line stole the peace the place deserved. This was Mark Twain’s graveyard—not the one he is buried in but the one he wrote about in Tom Sawyer. Here is where he visualized the death of Doc Robinson at the hands of Injun Joe. A crooked sign a few yards away recounts the folklore.
For me, the moment marked the end of a journey to rediscover the history of a man I had long taken for granted, a man described in a professor’s monotone at 7 a.m. in Restoration history class. The man’s name was Barton Warren Stone.
The rich history revealed itself by accident. Hannibal, Missouri, had become the sixth location of The Crossing, a Christian church with its roots deep in the soil of the Restoration Movement. The town is steeped in history and folklore made famous by its most famous citizen. The church participated in that history by making its home in the Orpheum Theater, restoring it from sad disrepair to its former glory. This restoration whetted an appetite for more history about the theater and the town. That search revealed that Barton Stone, an early leader of what came to be called the Restoration Movement, the pastor of the Cane Ridge revival, and a key player in the Second Great Awakening, left this world from Hannibal. He died at the house of their daughter, Amanda Bowen, on First Street with Celia beside him. Alexander Campbell visited a few months later:
Here he [Campbell] visited Mr. Bowen, son-in-law of B. W. Stone, and entered with deep feeling the apartment in which a few months before (November, 1844) the latter [Stone] had closed his useful life. He [Stone] was at the time on a visit to Missouri, and after holding several meetings was taken ill upon his way back to Illinois. His faith and hope and patience never shone more brightly than amidst the sufferings of his last hours. Calling his friends and such of his children as were present around him, he admonished and exhorted them to live to the glory of God, giving to each one individually the most affectionate counsels. . . . Quoting and commenting on some passages of Scripture, he said: “My strength fails, but God is my strength and my portion for ever.” Then requesting to be placed in an arm chair, and conversing on the love of God, he reclined his head on the shoulder of his son Barton, and fell asleep in the Lord. Mr. Campbell, with his strong personal attachments, greatly regretted the death of one who had been, as he said, “the honored instrument of bringing many out of the ranks of human traditions, and putting into their hands the Book of books as their only confession of faith and rule of life.”
—Memoirs of Alexander Campbell by Robert Richardson
Barton Stone had married Celia in Gallatin, Tennessee, after his first wife of nine years died in childbirth; the second marriage produced four sons and two daughters. The family moved to Jacksonville, Illinois, because of their opposition to slavery and their passion to bring the gospel to the frontier. The Mississippi River was the boundary of the American frontier, and the Stones were two of its first missionaries: preaching, ordaining pastors, and planting new churches.
Becoming ill after a meeting of church leaders just north of Columbia, Missouri, Stone made it back to Hannibal and the home of his daughter, Amanda, before expiring. He was buried on the farm in Jacksonville, and then reburied after Celia decided to sell the farm and move to Hannibal near her daughter. His grave today is at the Cane Ridge Meeting House in Paris, Kentucky.
Amanda’s children were Barton, Sam, and Will Bowen. They were friends of Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), who recalled childhood antics and fun times with his friends in his autobiography. Clemens remained friends with the Bowens into adulthood. Barton and Sam were the riverboat captains who trained Samuel to be a steamboat pilot. Long after Clemens left the area he remained friendly with them. How interesting it was to learn Mark Twain’s greatest friends were Barton Stone’s grandchildren!
In 1852, Alexander Campbell visited Hannibal a second time. Clemens records his memories and impressions about the event in his autobiography:
“Once the celebrated founder of the, at that time, new and widespread sect called Campbellites arrived in our village from Kentucky, and it made a prodigious excitement.” He went on to explain that the preaching of the “illustrious Alexander Campbell” could not be contained in any one building, because most people would be turned away. [Instead, Campbell] had to preach in the town square in the open air. (See a fuller description in The Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by Charles Neider, 1906.)
The roots of restoration run deep in Hannibal. The original church organized and met in a log schoolhouse just across the street from The Crossing at the Orpheum Theater. The church was organized in 1843, the year before Stone’s death, with Amanda’s family being its most dedicated members. It’s amazing to think that nearly 170 years later, the hopes and dreams Barton and Celia Stone shared are alive and well just across the street!
The cemetery might be neglected, the marker broken and fallen, and the story fairly obscure, but the rich history is inspirational. Heaven knows the message that consumed the hearts and lives of the Stones—a message fanned into flame at Cane Ridge and held up so many generations ago in Hannibal—is still burning brightly in this Missouri town, in the surrounding area, and around the world.
Jerry Harris is senior pastor at The Crossing, Quincy, Illinois.
About the Crossing
The Crossing, according to Jerry Harris, pastor, is “one church in six locations” with a combined average weekend attendance of more than 5,000. In addition to the church’s original location in Quincy, Illinois, members of The Crossing meet in Macomb, Kirksville, and Pittsfield, Illinois, and Kirksville and Hannibal, Missouri. The Hannibal location, described in this article, was launched in a YMCA building on May 1, 2011, and moved to the renovated Orpheum Theater on April 29, 2012. More than 600 worship there on a typical Sunday. For more information, see thecrossing.net.