The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ):
A History and Characteristic Beliefs
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is totally American in its origins. Most churches were carried to the new America from other countries, but we were started in America in the early 1800s. Our historical beginnings took place generally in the 1800-1830 time period, and we remain one of the larger denominations with only American origins.
The CC (DC) was begun from two different directions. Our heritage is vested in Barton Stone in Kentucky, on the one hand, and in Thomas and Alexander Campbell in Pennsylvania, on the other hand. The CC (DC) came into existence along the new American frontier. It was a rugged and rough existence for those hardy souls who ventured into it. The living was primitive, the settlements sparse, the people were both simple and adventuresome, and those who survived were fiercely independent people who existed by their own efforts. As people moved into the frontier and a few of them settled into one place, they first set about to clear land and establish home sites. Their next effort was to establish a church, and finally came schools.
The frontier people were not well educated. Sometimes people in a community who could read and write were considered well educated. People who were college educated were highly respected for their intellectual accomplishments. They were the teachers, preachers, lawyers, physicians, etc. who were the leaders in society.
Organized religion at the time was structured and rigid, but it was not well represented in the wild frontier. There, religion was sought but seldom was it well organized. This is the setting into which both Barton Stone and the Campbells “inadvertently” established what has become the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Barton Stone was born in Maryland in 1772. He was a descendent of a former Governor of Maryland so he came from a family of some means. His father died when he was a child and his mother moved the family to southern Virginia near the North Carolina border. He attended David Caldwell’s Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina, and completed the classical course of study at the age of 21. He planned to study law but he did much searching while in college and was converted to Christianity. When he finished college, he chose the ministry over law and was licensed to preach when he was 24. Two years later, he was ordained in the Presbyterian Church and his first ministry was at Cane Ridge, Kentucky on the edge of the new frontier.
A revival movement was taking place at the turn of the 19th century. It was something new in Christian existence, a period of concentrated worship and celebration usually lasting for several days. In 1801, a revival was held at Cane Ridge that has been said to have attracted 20,000-35,000 people. Ministers from several churches participated in leading the revival and it had a strong impact on Barton Stone. Many of the people in attendance were not Presbyterians, but they gathered in love to worship together. It was here that Stone started to have questions, along with four of his colleagues, about whether they were doing the right thing by being Presbyterian ministers. The Presbyterian Church at that time was very structured and rigid. As an example, ministers were subject to dismissal if they offered Communion to people who were not Presbyterians or who were even members of another branch of the Presbyterian Church.
Because of their desire for Christian unity and their belief that organized religion was separating Christians, Stone and his four colleagues withdrew from the Presbyterian Church shortly after the Cane Ridge revival and formed the Springfield Presbytery. In less than a year, they realized they were forming another organization that might divide Christians, so they disbanded it and penned “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery.” For several years, Stone continued working in that geographic area through a rather loose organization known only as the Christian Church. In addition to his ministry, Stone wrote and published a newspaper, taught school, etc. to support himself.
Thomas and Alexander Campbell
Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell’s father, was a Presbyterian minister in Ireland. He was a small man of large intellect and great Christian commitment who found the church in Ireland too divisive for his comfort. His church had divided several times and he yearned for a more inclusive Christian experience. He was a well-educated man, having received his education in Scotland, and in 1807, he came to America and settled in Washington, Pennsylvania in the new frontier to serve as a Presbyterian minister. The next year, Thomas Campbell’s family, including son Alexander, started to America. Off the coast of Scotland, however, their ship ran aground and the weather was not conducive to continuing by the time it could be repaired. As a result, the Campbell family spent that year in Scotland and young Alexander attended the University of Glasgow. The next year, when the weather cleared, the family boarded another ship and completed the trip to America.
During the two years Thomas Campbell was in America alone, he found himself in trouble with his church. He had been assigned to a church, but people of many different religious backgrounds attended the worship services. In sparsely populated areas, the people attended whatever church was available to them. Thomas Campbell felt that people should be able to come together in worship and they should be able to participate together in the Lord’s Supper, regardless of their backgrounds and denominational membership. Since he had offered Communion to people who were not a part of his branch of the Presbyterian Church (the Old Light Anti-Burgher Seceder Presbyterian Church), he and the church mutually agreed on his separation as a minister in the church.
Thomas Campbell had done a lot of thinking about the church, religion, and the way he thought the church should function. He was very concerned that the body of Christians was segmented and his idea was to bring everyone together in unity without elements to keep them apart. Following his separation from the Presbyterian Church, he and some of his followers formed the Christian Association of Washington County, Pennsylvania. In 1809, he wrote the “Declaration and Address” regarding his beliefs for the Christian Association of Washington, in which he stated that “the Church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.” He was preparing to have it printed when his family arrived from Ireland.
During the time he attended the University of Glasgow, Alexander Campbell, then in his late teens, had spent time in discussion with ministers on the faculty who were asking the same kinds of questions that Thomas Campbell and Barton Stone were asking themselves. Alexander was influenced by these discussions and he had decided that he would become a minister. He had also decided he could not do it as a part of the Presbyterian Church and he dreaded having to tell his father that he was going to withdraw from the church. When Thomas and Alexander began talking, however, they discovered that they had independently come to the same position. Alexander preached his first sermon in 1810. Although Thomas Campbell remained influential, Alexander became the orator and writer, the spokesman for the Campbells, and the leader of the church.
The Christian Association of Washington built the Brush Run Church in Pennsylvania. Always wanting to avoid separations, unsuccessful attempts were made to merge back into the Presbyterian Church. They did merge with a Baptist organization in 1813 and remained there for 16 or 17 years. Eventually, however, they recognized that there were too many differences in their beliefs and the Campbells and their followers started working within a loose organization they called the Disciples of Christ. This was similar to what Barton Stone was doing in Kentucky.
Alexander Campbell was a farmer, writer, orator, debater, preacher, and traveler. He traveled throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and into other southern and midwestern states spreading the word of the Disciples of Christ.
The Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell Union
Through his travels, Alexander Campbell eventually became aware of Barton Stone and his work. This was around 1830 and he recognized that the two organizations they represented stood for the same basic religious beliefs.
Campbell and Stone were much alike in many ways. They were both charismatic leaders with strong personalities. There were some differences in their beliefs over which they publicly argued, but they were so close on what they believed and so devout in their commitments to Christian unity there was no way to keep their movements apart indefinitely. Stone’s emphatic statement that “Christian unity is our polar star” was of enormous influence to Campbell and the Disciples of Christ. As previously noted, Barton Stone called his organization the Christian Church and Alexander Campbell called his the Disciples of Christ. They knew they would merge the organizations and they struggled to find a name expansive enough to cover all they believed. As testament to the strength of the independent wills of Stone and Campbell, they never could agree and the church we know today as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is merely a combination of the two names. In spite of their differences, on January 1, 1832, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell formally merged their organizations in Lexington, Kentucky.
When they merged in 1832, the Christian Church included some 10,000 members and the Disciples of Christ some 12,000. From that original 22,000, the merged church grew to 190,000 by the time of the Civil War and to 1,120,000 by 1900.
The Early Growth of the Church
The movement known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) grew a great deal in the 30 years leading up to the Civil War. Although Alexander Campbell emerged as the primary leader of the CC (DC) following the merger, both Stone and Campbell were true disciples who were totally committed to their beliefs. They both continued their evangelical efforts, but there were also others who shared their enthusiasm and were instrumental in the early growth of the new movement.
The CC (DC) message was carried through regular publications, pamphlets, newsletters, etc., and there were a number of evangelists who traveled throughout the country preaching, baptizing, and establishing new churches. The philosophy of the CC (DC) was consistent with the attitude of independence and expansion found on the new frontier, so the preaching often found willing listeners. In addition to Stone and Campbell, some of those influential in the early growth of the church were Raccoon John Smith, Walter Scott, John T. Johnson, John Rogers, and others.
The CC (DC) has a more visible presence in some areas of the country than in others. It is understandable why that presence would be greater in the areas surrounding the homes of Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, but it also spread to other areas through evangelical efforts in established areas and the movement to the west, which included many CC (DC) advocates, as the country was settled.
The Beliefs of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
There are a number of beliefs that characterize the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). There is no book of law that must be heeded, but there are characteristic beliefs that define the church. First among those is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Other primary beliefs concern Christian unity (we aren’t the only Christians, but Christians only; we have no creed but Christ), Baptism by immersion, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper open to all Christians, and a strong emphasis on a rational, intellectual approach to scripture, tradition, and experience.
Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone would probably be unhappy to know that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has now become known as a denominational church. Because they were both so committed to the notion of Christian unity, they would surely be particularly disappointed to know that there have been divisions within the church over the years. The first was following the Civil War. The CC (DC), unlike most churches, did not split due to the varying sympathies of the members with the north or south during the Civil War. That may have been primarily due, however, to the fact that there was no formal mechanism through which a division could be decided.
There were obviously differing sympathies, but there were also other differences of opinion within the congregations. Alexander Campbell originally believed that there should be no paid ministry. He moderated on this position later on, but some within the church never did. There was also disagreement over the use of musical instruments in the worship services and over whether or not there should be an organized missionary society. These disagreements continued over the years leading to more and more estrangement but, again, there was no formal way of deciding to divide. The more conservative stance was becoming known as the Churches of Christ and the CC (DC) continued as the more moderate. When the federal government conducted the census count in 1906, the differences were so obvious that the Churches of Christ was recognized as a different church and received a separate count.
The second division, or estrangement, apparently festered over many years and concentrated more on the church organization. Although they remained very much the same, some congregations preferred to retain total local independence and did not wish to recognize the existence of a brotherhood of churches through an organization. Again, there was no vote to divide, but in 1971 the Yearbook of American Churches acknowledged another church category—the Independent Christian Churches.
In spite of these divisions, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) remains committed to the basic concept of Christian unity and takes more formal stands in support of ecumenicity than any other denomination.
The Lord’s Supper
Similar to the notion of Christian unity, the Lord’s Supper has been central to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from the beginning of its development. True to the initial beliefs of Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, and Barton Stone, the CC (DC) offers Communion to all who regard themselves as Christian people. There is no test except within the hearts of those who receive the invitation. Offering Communion to all Christians has a scriptural as well as a moral base. Normally, we refer to I Corinthians 11:28 where it says, “Let man examine himself and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” We interpret that to mean that people can look within themselves, repent of their sins, receive God’s forgiveness, and partake of the Holy Ordinance (the loaf and the cup). We usually say prior to offering communion that “In Christ’s name, all who profess to be Christians are invited to partake.”
Members of the CC (DC) receive Communion at each worship service. Some denominations receive Communion monthly or at other specified times, but Communion remains as a high point in each regular worship service of the CC (DC). It is one of the things by which the church is known. This has a scriptural base, too. Generally, we refer to Acts 20:7 where it says “On the first day of the week when we gather together to break bread.” It may be argued that this scripture does not mandate Communion with each worship service, but it was assumed by our founding fathers that it meant that the first day of each week was the worship day, and breaking bread on that day was common practice.
Some churches believe that at some time during Communion there is a metaphysical transformation and the loaf and the cup actually become the body and blood of Christ. In the CC (DC), Communion is seen as a physical act of remembrance of Jesus Christ, out of which spiritual values come. The emblems we receive do not undergo a transformation and remain only emblems, but the spiritual presence of Christ accompanies it in our minds, bodies, and beliefs.
We may be known for our form of Baptism as much as anything else, but it was not a major issue in the beginning. Neither the Campbells nor Stone considered Baptism by immersion of particular importance when they started their respective movements.
Barton Stone’s position.
When Barton Stone withdrew from the Presbyterian Church after the Cane Ridge revival, the form of Baptism had no role in his decision. Stone studied and commented on many things, but there is little evidence he had an interest in giving much thought to the form of Baptism. A couple of the ministers who withdrew from the Presbyterian Church with Stone had strong feelings in favor of Baptism by immersion and they tried to convince him of its importance. He eventually came to accept it, but he did not take a leadership role in promoting it.
About six years following the Cane Ridge revival, some of the members of the Christian Church asked Stone to baptize them by immersion and he agreed to do it. After that, it became somewhat a standard practice in the Kentucky origins of the church and it was the way Stone baptized from that time on.
It was several years later, however, that Stone himself was immersed. Even though it became a rather universal practice, it still was not made a general test of fellowship. As late as 1827, Stone wrote in one of his publications “It was unanimously agreed that every brother and sister should act in accord with his own faith, that we should not judge one another for being baptized or for not being baptized in this mode.” So, 25 years after he left the Presbyterian Church, Stone was still saying that, although immersion was a common practice in the Christian Church and he accepted it, he still did not have a strong feeling that it was a major issue within the church.
Thomas and Alexander Campbell’s position.
Baptism by immersion was also not a major issue with Thomas Campbell, and initially, it was not an issue with Alexander Campbell. When Thomas Campbell lost standing with the Presbyterian Church, the form of Baptism was not one of the issues. When he wrote his “Declaration and Address”, nowhere in it was Baptism mentioned. At that time, he was still willing to accept infant Baptism or Baptism by some form other than immersion. He took the position that if an adult came into the church who had been baptized as an infant, that they be baptized again by immersion represented a rebaptism and he did not consider it necessary. The form of Baptism at that time was simply not a major issue for either Thomas or Alexander Campbell. When the Brush Run Church was started, some of the people asked to be baptized by immersion, so it was done.
The question of infant Baptism was not faced until 1812 when Alexander Campbell became a father for the first time. Alexander ordered all the books he could find on the topics of infant Baptism and Baptism in general to study the matter. He eventually came to believe that the sprinkling of infants did not constitute Baptism and was the application of an unauthorized form to an incompetent subject. This answered several questions for Alexander Campbell. It meant that he rejected infant Baptism and his father’s notion of rebaptism. Alexander’s thinking prevailed in the family and the entire family was baptized by immersion by a Baptist minister in Buffalo Creek near the Brush Run Church. Although Thomas Campbell may never have been totally convinced, by then Alexander had emerged as the primary leader in the church, and Baptism by immersion became the standard practice.
In Barton Stone’s case and in the case of the Campbells, Baptism by immersion was something that developed slowly rather than being an initial issue. In both cases, the members of their churches may have been more influential on Baptism by immersion and it became a common practice through its own momentum.
Along the frontier, the concept of original sin was fairly common. In other words, all people shared the original sin of Adam’s transgression and people had to be baptized in some form in order to wash away that sin. That belief carried with it no particular form of Baptism and infant Baptism was as acceptable as anything else. There was also the Calvinist view that Christ died for the select and people have little to say about their own destiny since they were selected. The Armenian view, on the other hand, was that Christ died for any who would seek His grace.
The concept of Baptism in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is consistent with the Armenian view and it does not embrace the notion of original sin. Our traditions lead us in the direction that Baptism is a symbolic act in which there is no water regeneration. It follows Walter Scott’s five-finger exercise to salvation. First comes faith, then repentance, Baptism, the remission of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Faith and repentance must precede Baptism, which is the act through which the last two follow.
What does Baptism mean to us?
The fact that our practice is to dip people down into the water and be brought back up again may have several symbolic meanings. One common one is that it is symbolic of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. It symbolizes the washing away of sins, and the person being baptized is brought up out of the water as a new person in Christ—the old person is buried and the new person has repented and intends to walk in the way of Christ. It is our belief that we are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the water itself is symbolic.
At one time, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) may have fairly commonly practiced what is called closed membership—people could not be members without having been baptized by immersion. That has gradually changed so that today most CC (DC) churches practice open membership—people may transfer their membership regardless of the manner in which they were baptized. If the Baptism they received is acceptable to them, it is accepted in most CC (DC) congregations.
Briefly then, our most characteristic beliefs about Baptism are that immersion is the most acceptable form of Baptism, but we do not judge others on this basis. We are not Calvinistic and do not embrace the concept of original sin; we believe in Baptism at the age of consent; Baptism is symbolic and does not carry with it the magic of water regeneration; we baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and Baptism is necessary to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Independence of Thought
Sometimes the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is criticized because it has no formal dogma or specific statement of beliefs to which a person must subscribe in order to become a member.
One of the most vehement criticisms can be found in a book entitled The Old Log House: A History and Defense of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The book was published by the Cumberland Presbyterian Publishing House in 1880 and it was written by T. C. Blake, D.D. The book goes through 264 pages of dismissing the beliefs of the Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Congregationalist, and Campbellite (CC/DC) churches.
Blake pointed out in his book that what he called the Campbellites have no creed. In his words, “As to the system of doctrines to which they adhere, it is exceedingly difficult, on many points, to tell; for they have no written Creed—no book which gives their doctrines in a systematic form.” At another point, he said, “Who, for instance, knows the sentiments of that Church . . .? No one on earth! They do not even know themselves!”
Blake did not understand that it was the existence of creeds and the rigidity of required thought that caused Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell to withdraw from the organized church and set out on a movement that gave to the members both a freedom and a responsibility for study and inquiry. No, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) does not have a written creed, a specific dogma, or an unbending set of requirements that are a test of fellowship. It believes in Christian unity; it invites all Christians to Communion, but does not require it; it embraces Baptism by immersion, but it isn’t the only way a person can become a member; and it invites its members to disagree, but not to be disagreeable.
The Organization of the Church
At one point, Alexander Campbell did not subscribe to a paid ministry, and he did not support an organizational context for the church. He married a lady of some family means, so it was not difficult for Alexander to afford to carry out his ministry without the benefit of compensation. Later in his ministerial life, he accepted the notion that there was a need for an organizational structure to promote order and that it could be necessary for the church to recognize a paid ministry.
For many years, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) operated within a loose structure that consisted more of open, town hall-type meetings. The meetings were places where debate and worship could take place, but there was no representative nature whereby decisions could be reached. It wasn’t until 1968 that a representative assembly was put into place. This change was called Restructure and it generated a great deal of discord for several years. Eventually, it was accepted and now the church is organized into three manifestations—Congregational, Regional, and General. None of these manifestations speaks for another. Rather, they speak TO one another rather than FOR one another.
Most congregations within the church are independent in the matter of owning and holding title to property, calling ministers, the allocation of financial resources, study materials to be used, etc. The Regional manifestations have regional boards made up of representatives from the various congregations. The board calls a Regional Minister who is compensated, and the Regional body of the church, through a representative assembly, elects a Moderator, other officers, and the board members. The third is the General manifestation, including the General Assembly which is international. Similar to the Regional organization, the Moderator, other officers, and General Board members are elected by a representative General Assembly. The Board, in turn, selects a General Minister and President and other professional staff members. General units such as homeland ministries, overseas ministries, higher education, a ministerial pension fund, benevolent work, etc. are also a part of the General manifestation.
Within the congregations of the church, a minister (or ministers) is chosen by the membership. The regional and/or general manifestations of the church are typically consulted for assistance in identifying suitable ministers, but the final decision is made at the congregational level. The ordained or licensed minister is not the only person with a ministerial portfolio. Others in the church, principally elected elders, may preside at Communion or receive new members.
Elders and deacons are elected by the members of the congregation for specific periods of time, and they serve in varied roles. Typical roles are for the elders to be in frequent consultation with the minister to assist in caring for the congregation and maintaining the spiritual orientation of the church. They usually offer the prayer at the Communion table and sometimes participate in other ways in the worship services. The deacons assist the elders and the minister. They usually participate in worship services by serving Communion to the congregation, receiving tithes and offerings, and greeting members and visitors to the services.
To carry out the business of the congregation, the elders, deacons, and other elected officers serve on a church board and make decisions on behalf of the congregation. An elected board of trustees is usually the official corporate body for the church to hold title to property and perform other legal acts.
The birth of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) took place nearly simultaneously and independently at two places 200 years ago. Although it may not yet have achieved the ultimate goal envisioned by its founders, it will always remain committed to that goal and strive daily toward it. It resists unbending structure and it functions in a democratic manner characteristic of the United States of America in which it was born. It is a New Testament church, which recognizes Jesus Christ as the Son of God. It is a church that does not fear a wrathful God but, rather, offers thanks to a loving God who gave us His Son.
This brief history was prepared in 2002 by Gary D. Chamberlin. It was prepared for the members and potential members of Park Hill Christian Church, North Little Rock, Arkansas, and is intended only as an introduction to the background of the church.