By Jim Tune
Barton Warren Stone was one of the foremost leaders for religious freedom on the western frontier during the first half of the 19th century. He led a movement with goals many—including me—are still pursuing today.
Barton Stone was born in Maryland in 1772 and as a boy decided to become a preacher. At age 19 he was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian church. In 1801, Stone moved to Cane Ridge, Kentucky. As he took up his preaching ministry, he discovered that some of the things he read in his Bible seemed inconsistent with the strong Calvinist doctrines being taught in the Presbyterian church. Stone concluded that one should be guided by the Scriptures only, and so he emerged as a leader of a fledgling reform movement that finally prompted Stone and several other preachers to leave the Presbyterian church.
By 1804, Stone’s appeal for Christian unity on the basis of only the Bible was gaining momentum. Stone and others began wearing the name “Christian.” Their appeal: denounce human institutions and creeds, and be known as “Christians only.” They preached sermons that cultivated the seedbed for what eventually became known as the Restoration Movement.
The movement’s chief characteristic: the desire to embrace the beliefs, polity, and practices of primitive Christianity as revealed in the New Testament. Its goal: uniting all Christians. Stone and the Christians with him rejected the idea that the church could legitimately be divided into a variety of denominations determining their own body of belief, polity, and practice.
Union with the Body of Christ
At first this young “back to the Bible” movement was opposed by prominent denominational leaders, but Stone recorded that by the 1820s the plea for “New Testament Christianity” spread “like fire in dry stubble.”
One of the most important religious documents of that era was The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, which came out of Stone’s early efforts to champion religious freedom. It was written in 1804 and signed by Stone and five other men, all of them Presbyterian ministers who had broken with their ecclesiastical body, the Synod of Kentucky, and had started their own presbytery, the Springfield Presbytery. It was not, however, an official organization, but a loose collection of churches and preachers who sought to exercise their freedom in Christ by thinking and acting for themselves.
In this document they repudiated the right of human creeds and traditions to govern them in religious matters and questioned the authority of organized human institutions, such as synods and presbyteries. Five of the 12 items it proclaimed are:
• “We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”
• “We will, that our name of distinction, with its Reverend title, be forgotten, that there be but one Lord over God’s heritage, and his name one.”
• “We will, that our power of making laws for the government of the church, and executing them by delegated authority, forever cease; that the people may have free course to the Bible, and adopt the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.”
• “We will, that each particular church, as a body, actuated by the same spirit, choose her own preacher, and support him by a free-will offering, without a written call or subscription—admit members—remove offenses; and never henceforth delegate her right of government to any man or set of men whatever.”
• “We will, that the people henceforth take the Bible as the only sure guide to heaven; and as many are offended with other books, which stand in competition with it, may cast them into the fire if they choose; for it is better to enter into life having one book, than having many to be cast into hell.”
The document closes with an appeal for all Christians to practice mutual love and to work for the unity of the people of God.
It is my opinion that the very essence of this short document is in the Imprimis, meaning “in the first place,” whose text is the first bulleted point above: “We will that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the body of Christ at large. . . .” This indicates that almost from the outset the Stone movement had a deep concern for Christian unity and, just as importantly, religious freedom.
A Great Heritage
It is a great heritage, and one of which we should be proud: free and yet cooperative; Christians only but not the only Christians. The ideas expressed in The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery gave encouragement to many people who were dissatisfied with division in the church and sparked a movement of “Christians only” who wanted to become independent New Testament truth-seekers. Could it not be so again in this generation of cynicism and religious confusion?
In 1826, Stone became editor of the Christian Messenger, a 24-page periodical that had Christian unity as its central theme. In the first issue Stone wrote:
It is frequently asked, why so much zeal in the present day, against authoritative creeds, party names, and party spirits? I answered for myself: because I am assured, they stand in the way of Christian union, and are contrary to the will of God.
It is again asked, why so zealous for Christian union? I answer, because I fervently believe that Jesus fervently prayed to his Father, that believers might all be one—that the world might believe in him as sent by the Father. I also firmly believe, that the will of God is that all should be one; else he would not have so frequently enjoined upon them, that they should be perfectly united in one, and that there be no divisions among them—he would not have so severely discountenanced disunion, by saying that such as were disunited were carnal, and walked as men.
When I go back to the Bible, I am persuaded that the overwhelming testimony of the New Testament is that Christian unity is found in common acceptance of Christ. As people are drawn to him, they are drawn to one another. Certainly, though, this assumes that the center is the Lord as revealed in Scripture,.and allegiance to him accords with the Bible. The early disciples were “one new man in Christ.” Old hostilities were broken down. Wedges that would have driven others apart could not separate them, for what bound them together was stronger than any force that could rip them asunder.
Ephesians 4:4-6 speaks of the common experience shared by these Christians. They were all part of Christ, and thus members in the same body. They all possessed the same Holy Spirit, given by God to all his children. All lived for the same goal—the hope made possible by him who conquered death. They all had the same faith and trust in Jesus as Lord of their lives. They all had been buried with him in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:1-4). This served to knit them together as nothing else could. How could those who shared in such realities be divided? Their lives were caught up into the God life, which, by its very nature, is united.
Barton W. Stone was a man with a vision—the New Testament church restored and united—and he boldly worked toward that vision throughout his life. Later generations would struggle with the implications of this vision and how to implement it. But a worthwhile vision is always worth the struggle.
For me it inspires a love for my heritage and a determination to continue the work! The need of the hour is for men and women who will catch the vision and give themselves, with prayer and unrestrained effort, to be God’s people used by him to accomplish his purpose.
Jim Tune is senior minister of Churchill Meadows Christian Church in Toronto, Canada. He is founder and director of Impact Canada, a national church planting organization, and serves as a contributing editor for CHRISTIAN STANDARD.