Here is the conclusion of our four-part series on Barton W. Stone, as excerpted from Frederick D. Kershner’s 1940 series on six of the “most significant advocates” of the Restoration Movement.
(Click on any of these to read the earlier installments of the series: Part one — part two — part three.)
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“Stars: Message of Barton Stone”
May 4, 1940; p. 7
The first relations of [Alexander] Campbell and [Barton] Stone appear to have been somewhat strained and not altogether cordial. The Kentucky reformer was a little dubious about too much emphasis being placed on water regeneration; while the sage of Bethany was even more disquieted over the Arianism, not to say Pelagianism, of the Cane Ridge revivalist. It is doubtful whether the leaders themselves would have ever gotten together if it had not been for the ground swell of union sentiment from their followers. John Smith, John Rogers and a host of others urged Stone to union, and Campbell was no less pushed along by the churches which [Walter] Scott had brought over on the Western Reserve. This is not to say that the leaders themselves were averse to union; they were not. Nevertheless, there was a certain aloofness which was never entirely overcome. Stone never liked the term “Disciples,” which Alexander Campbell very much preferred, and no agreement was reached on this point even after a lengthy debate in Campbell’s Harbinger and Stone’s Messenger in the course of which Thomas Campbell took sides against his illustrious son without in the least disturbing the convictions of the latter. To this day the appellation “Disciples of Christ” is largely taboo in Indiana and Kentucky where the Stone background is especially noticeable, while the word “Christian” is comparatively little used in western Pennsylvania and throughout the East where the Campbell influence was especially dominant.
Notwithstanding these divergences, the reformation leaders had the highest regard for each other and worked together wholeheartedly for the success of the cause in which they were engaged. Stone himself was of an especially self-effacing nature and always encouraged Campbell and his special projects like the Harbinger and Bethany College by every means in his power. Some of his lieutenants were not so generously inclined, and the mighty Alexander occasionally had trouble with them. John O’Kane, for example, insisted upon doing things pretty much his own way in Indiana, even to the extent of building a local college, which Campbell thought might interfere with raising funds for Bethany. [Note: O’Kane served in the field as an agent raising funds for North-Western Christian University, founded in 1855; it became Butler University in 1877.] As one reads these early records he is impressed with the virility, independence and absolute frankness of the leaders of the day. They called a spade a spade and did not hesitate to disagree with each other whenever they felt so disposed. In spite of these divergences, we are also conscious of an essential and underlying unity, which was all the stronger because it could stand such severe testings.
During the latter part of his life Stone moved from Kentucky to Jacksonville, Ill. He had strong antislavery sentiments, and, despite the war attachments which had grown up in the bluegrass region, there were also some scars, and for a poor preacher land was cheaper in Illinois. Meanwhile his reputation grew apace and the number of his followers multiplied. Some of them still stubbornly insisted upon retaining their title of “New Lights” and vigorously refused to unite with the Campbells. They were in the minority, however, and Stone never argued much with them about the matter. He believed in union, and did not want to do anything that would promote schism.
It must have been a gala occasion when, in 1839, he went over to Indianapolis to help to organize the Indiana co-operative meeting. He was the lion of the gathering in spite of the fact that he had become very deaf and was obviously not in possession of his original powers. The marks of the prophet were stamped upon his face and his very presence had in it something of a genuine benediction. It is no wonder that the Hoosiers never got over their fondness for Barton Stone. Campbell could make greater speeches and write more flaming editorials, but he was not half so lovable a man. After all, that was precisely the strength of Barton W. Stone. He jeopardized his ordination because he wanted to preach freely the love of God. He organized the Springfield Presbytery and later dissolved it for the same reason. The underlying, compelling motive of the divine goodness and affection was at the heart of all his preaching. Moreover, he did not simply preach it, he lived it. It required no sermons from him for his people to know what was fundamental in his message. Stone loved his parishioners, and they loved him in return. He never had much of this world’s substance, but what he had he shared with those about him. His life was much more of a pilgrimage than were those of the more sedate and, on the whole, more fortunate Campbells. Stone never had a home which could compare with the Campbell domicile at Bethany.
At the last, he died while on the move. Although shattered by the palsy, he had gone to Missouri to evangelize with his last breath. He was stricken again and they tried to take him home to Jacksonville. He got only as far as the old homeland of Mark Twain. Here he had to stop, and his tortured, but serene, spirit took its flight. His self-effacement continued after death. Who is it that thinks of Barton Stone when he travels into Hannibal? Yet Stone was at least as fully a significant figure in his own way as was Mark Twain in his.
Barton W. Stone was not by nature designed to be a pioneer leader. In the Freudian language, which has become so popular, there is a touch of the inferiority complex in his make-up. He could never boost himself, never forge ahead of others to take the lead. In the organization of the Springfield Presbytery, Marshall stepped in front of him and directed the movement. Even [David] Purviance, who alone stood with him, occasionally took it upon himself to lecture his leader. But with all his modesty and mildness, Barton Stone possessed a core of intelligent loyalty which compelled him to lead whether he wanted to do so or not. When his best friends went over to the Shaker heresy, he withstood the tide, seeing clearly where it would lead and, when some of his other friends went back to the old creed, he likewise refused to turn his hands on the clock backward and to give up what had been gained by the reformation. Stone had tenacity of purpose in spite of his shrinking disposition; out of such stuff heroes are made.
He put something into the new movement which the Campbells and Scott never could have produced. It is not fair to them to say that they were coldly intellectual, for they were not. But even at their best they lacked the glowing fervor, the incomparable self-effaciveness, the altogether humble spirituality which only Stone could contribute. Whatever of the best type of mysticism or emotionalism the disciples of Christ may possess, they owe to Barton W. Stone more than to any other human teacher.