21 May, 2024

THROWBACK THURSDAY: ‘Barton W. Stone—Champion of the Word’ (1962)

by | 9 May, 2024 | 0 comments

Let’s hear from Sam E. Stone for a second consecutive week. Sam became editor of Christian Standard about 15 years after writing this piece on Restoration Movement pioneer Barton W. Stone (no relation).  

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Barton W. StoneChampion of the Word  

The Bible was his criterion for faith, for name, and for fellowship 

By Sam Stone Jr. 
Oct. 6, 1962; p. 5 

If the early leaders of the Restoration movement are like men engaged in a race, it might be said that Barton Warren Stone took an early lead, but was later passed by Alexander Campbell. 

In life as in racing, most observers give major attention to the person who finishes in first place. Only passing recognition comes to the one who is second. This has been true in the failure of the Restora­tion movement to appreciate Stone.  

Many persons who have studied Stone’s life have seemingly done so with the hope of finding historical sanction for current changes in theology and polity. By analogy to journeying in an automobile, one might say that the liberal “backseat drivers” of this century are trying to make Stone turn left! W. G. West, for example, terms him an early· example of American left-wing Protestantism.1 

It seems easy to overlook the fact that Stone was a pioneer in attempting to re­store New Testament Christianity. This early reformer had no road map of carefully developed Restoration principles by which to be guided. That he failed to understand many of the implications of the Biblical restoration movement which he led impugns neither his honesty nor his devotion to the Bible.  

The Bible was Barton Stone’s constant companion.2 It was the core of faith and the source of truth in his religious ex­perience. He believed it to be inspired by the Holy Spirit and a sufficient rule of faith and practice for the church. Whatever may have been his doubts or doctrinal deviations, his variance from the truth is due to misunderstanding, not unbelief.  

The influence of Stone upon the Restora­tion movement may be better understood by a survey of his life. In viewing him, we shall attempt to present his convictions in the context of the influential events which helped formulate those convictions.  


Barton Warren Stone is the only one of the four principal leaders in the early period of Restoration history who was born in America.3 Born in the state of Maryland, a Church of England stronghold, Stone received a strong Protestant heritage. Soon after his birth, on December 24, 1772, his mother had him sprinkled. His father died when he was only three.  

At the close of the Revolutionary War, the Anglican clergy, no longer supported by taxation, left the area. A spiritual famine followed. Mrs. Stone moved her large family to Pittsylvania County, Virginia, when Barton was seven. The horrors of war left their mark upon the boy; he became a pacifist. 

While in his late teens, the young man received an inheritance which he wisely decided to invest in education. Interested in law, Stone traveled to Guilford, North Carolina, to the log cabin school of David Caldwell. On February 1, 1790, he began his study there. 

In the course of his life’s education the pioneer preacher mastered not only the natural sciences and mathematics but, in later years, English, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. 

Stone found that Presbyterian religious influences dominated Caldwell’s school. Earlier in life he had seen and heard both Baptist and Methodist preachers. From what he observed of their converts, Stone said, “I was particularly interested to hear . . . their experience. . . . Some were delivered by a dream, a vision, or some uncommon appearance of light, some by a voice spoken to them.”4 

At this period each of these three religious groups insisted upon a convert’s having a miraculous experience to indicate that God had saved him. 

Stone often went to hear James McGready speak. The popular McGready was a hellfire and brimstone preacher. While he felt that angels could not describe the glories of heaven, he himself “felt equal to the task of picturing the long torment of sinners in hell.”5 

A strong inner debate preceded Stone’s decision to embrace religion. But when he did seek salvation, he had no satisfying experience. A year of inner struggle followed. In the spring of 1791 Stone heard William Hodge, another Presbyterian, who used, however, quite a different approach from that of McGready. 

Hodge preached, “God is love,” and this truth warmed the heart of the troubled student. Alone in the woods Stone yielded his life to Christ. “I loved Him—I adored Him—I praised Him aloud in the silent night and in the echoing grove around.”6 

Stone added: 

I confessed to the Lord my sin and folly in disbelieving His Word so long—and in following so long the devices of men. I now saw that a poor sinner was as much authorized to believe in Jesus at first, as at last—that now was the accepted time and day of salvation.7 


With this Stone joined the Presbyterian church. Yet as West indicates, “at the very moment he formally accepted Calvinism, he had begun to break with it by rejecting its conventional pattern of agonizing struggle for immediate commitment to the founder of Christianity.”8 

Convinced by his gifted instructor, David Caldwell, that he need not have a miraculous call to the ministry, Barton Stone soon decided to make preaching his life’s work. As a candidate for the ministry he was assigned to prepare a paper on the Trinity. Understanding this concept in the light of the Bible became a real problem for Stone. Confused by Unitarian writings, he was greatly disturbed about what the Bible did teach about God. He was not pressed in his examination to hold a precise Presbyterian view, however, since his regional presbytery included several “unorthodox” ministers.9 

After a period of doubt and uncertainty about the Trinity and other portions of the Confession, Stone came to the time of ordination. He had sought in vain to harmonize the Calvinistic theory of election and predestination with the “whosoever will” of the New Testament. 

“In this state of mind, the day appointed for my ordination found me,” he later declared.10 “I had determined to tell the Presbytery honestly the state of my mind, and to request them to defer my ordination until I should be better informed and settled.”11 

(One cannot help but contrast Stone’s frank confession of reservations about the church’s creed with the evasive answers and “mental reservations” used by those today who do not believe what their church maintains but only wish to remain within its ministry.) 

When Stone told the presiding officials about his dilemma, they asked him how far he was willing to receive the Confession. Learning that he would make it subservient to the Bible, they proceeded with the ceremony. When the candidate was asked if he received the Confession of Faith, he replied, “As far as I see it consistent with the Word of God.” This demonstrates clearly Stone’s high regard for the authority of Scripture. 

It was this spirit which pervaded the great revival at Cane Ridge. This famous highlight of Stone’s ministry took place in August, 1801, at the Kentucky church where he was preaching. Crowds estimated at twenty-five thousand attended the weeklong gathering. Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian ministers preached—sometimes as many as seven at once. The revival was characterized by extreme physical manifestations attending conviction on the part of the hearers. Such emotional expressions were common in this frontier land and, while Stone did not accept the “excesses” of the movement, he did not explicitly condemn any particular activity.”12 

The presbytery frowned upon this expression of revival, however. The resultant tension, combined with the doctrinal differences already existing between Stone and his superiors, made a clash unavoidable. 

One of Stone’s co-workers, Richard McNemar, was censured by the presbytery for allegedly holding Arminian views. The case was sent to the synod at Lexington. While the synod was in session, McNemar, Stone, and three others wrote a paper of protest. Soon after this all five men were expelled by the synod. 

This led to their forming the “Springfield Presbytery,” a body that had an interesting, though brief, life (only nine months). Its leaders wrote an apology to defend their organization and justify its existence. Stone is acknowledged as the “theological spokesman” for the group by many historians.13 It is significant to note that this was taking place four years before Thomas Campbell arrived in the United States, and six years before he wrote his famous Declaration and Address. 

The presbytery was dissolved in June, 1804, because it “savoured of a party spirit.” Dissolution was effected through the cleverly written Last Will and Testament. This document, one of the milestones in early restoration history, recognized the need for the Springfield Presbytery to die and “sink into union with the Body of Christ at large.” It considers the Bible as the “only sure guide to heaven.” 


Stone’s understanding of the Scripture also grew. He came to see the New Testament plan of salvation. At the Concord, Kentucky, church in 1806 the pioneer preacher used the words of Peter in Acts 2:38 to instruct the “mourners.” The exhortation met with a poor response because, as Stone later commented, they were wholly unprepared for such instruction. 

Stone himself was immersed at about this time following conversations with a Baptist minister. 

The subject of baptism seems to have been given little emphasis by Stone until it was introduced again through his contact with Alexander Campbell. Thence until his death he insisted upon the Biblical requirements for salvation. 

 Campbell and Stone met in Georgetown, Kentucky, in 1824. Campbell’s biographer states that they “formed an agreeable personal acquaintance” which “became still more intimate during subsequent visits.”14 The two great men differed on several points, however. 

Unity was a major concern with Stone, while Campbell seems to have been especially insistent on the necessity of the Biblical pattern for the church. Some magnify this difference of emphasis out of proportion, insisting that Stone’s plea for unity was based only on love without requiring faith in Christ and His Word. A careful survey of available sources indicates that this was not Stone’s position. 

About the name of Christ’s followers, Campbell and Stone disagreed. Stone held that Christian was the divinely given name (basing his argument on Acts 11:26), while Campbell preferred disciple (because of its frequent use in the New Testament). Despite these differences Stone crusaded for a union of the two forces. He did this especially through the pages of the periodical which he had begun to publish, the Christian Messenger

Though most of the Christians connected with both Campbell and Stone did unite, the two men continued serious discussion of their differences. A vital point of study was the Trinity, the subject which had disturbed Stone in his early days. “Stone believed that Christ was not God, but the Son of God,” suggests one historian.15 

It must be acknowledged, however, that Stone did seek to maintain a strictly Biblical faith. His denial of the Trinity was not based on a denial of Scripture but on his charge that the position itself was not Biblical.16 Though Campbell felt that Stone was in error on the point he still recognized him as a believer in Christ. 

Some declare that Stone made Christian character the only basis for determining if a man is a Christian. These suggest that Stone was a “significant forerunner of one phase of the ecumenical movement in our country.”17 West describes the movement led by Campbell and Stone as a “native American denomination.”18 

How foreign these expressions would seem to Barton Stone, a man who wanted unity not by forging organizational chains but by fusing Christian hearts into “the Body of Christ at large.” Those who share Stone’s regard for the Bible as the sole authority in religion cannot relegate matters of faith to an ecclesiastical conference table. 

In describing Barton Warren Stone, Tolbert Fanning declared, “If justice is ever done to his memory, he will be regarded as the first great American reformer—the first man, who, to much purpose, pleaded the ground that the Bible, without note, commentary or creed, must destroy anti-Christian powers, and eventually conquer the world.”19 END 

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1 W. G. West, Barton Warren Stone (Nashville: The Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1954) p. ix. 

2 B. W. Stone, The Biography of Elder B. W. Stone (Cincinnati: J. A. and U. P. James, 1847) p. 31. 

3 Thomas and Alexander Campbell migrated to America from Ireland, while Walter Scott, also from Ireland, came to this country some years later. 

4 Stone, op. cit., p. 5. 

5 West, op. cit., p. 7. 

6 Stone, op. cit., p. 11. 

7 Ibid. 

8 West, op. cit., p. 12. 

9 Orvel C. Crowder, “Elder Stone and the Unity of the Spirit,” Christian Standard, February 22, 1958, p. 3. 

10 Stone, op. cit., p. 29. 

11 Ibid. 

12 West, op. cit., p. 39. 

13 Ibid., p. 80. 

14 Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1956 ed.) p. 200 (II). 

15 West, op. cit., p. 84. 

16 James W. Mathes, Works of Elder B. W. Stone (Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach, Keys and Company, 1859) p. 51. 

17 West, op. cit., p. ix. 

18 Ibid., p. 214. 

19 Earl Irvin West, The Search for the Ancient Order (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1949) p. 35 (I). 


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