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Church of Christ

General history of Churches of Christ
Who are the Churches of Christ?

by Dr. Tom Olbricht
Pepperdine University

The Churches of Christ in America result from an indigenous American movement seeking to restore the gospel and church of the New Testament. For this reason the term "Restoration Movement" has been employed as a self designation, though this particular phraseology is not widely employed to identify these churches by outsiders. Three sizable constituencies now exist from the late eighteenth century beginnings: (1) The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), (2) The Independent Christian Churches, and (3) The Churches of Christ.1

The Churches of Christ are the conservative wing of the first major split in the movement and were identified as autonomous by the Federal Census Bureau in 1906. The Independent Christian Churches first moved toward a separate, more conservative conclave within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 1927, and withdrew officially in the late 1960s. Churches of Christ have approximately 2,000,000 members throughout the world, most of whom are in the United States.2 The majority in the United States are located in the region running from Pittsburgh to El Paso with the north border extending from Pittsburgh through Indianapolis, St. Louis, Wichita and Albuquerque, and the southern through Atlanta, Montgomery, Baton Rouge, Houston, and San Antonio.

The roots of the Restoration Movement extend backward to the period after the Revolutionary War in which several Americans with religious interests grew restless over autocratic structures, European control and theology, and denominational boundaries. These pressures revamped the mainline churches, but also resulted in independent constituencies springing up in various regions. Four such independent groups in (1) Virginia, (2) New England, (3) Kentucky and (4) Pennsylvania--West Virginia--Ohio, played a role in the crystallization of the restoration movement in the 1830's. The contributions of the constituencies in Virginia and New England were contributory rather than direct.

In Virginia in the 1780's, a group of Methodist ministers led by James O'Kelly (1757-1826) sought freedom from supervision so that Methodist circuit riders could determine their own itinerary.3 For a time it seemed they would succeed, but the outcome was that preaching assignments were placed in the hands of the Bishop. Those who favored self determination broke away, founding the Republican Methodist Church. In 1794 they changed the name of the body to the Christian Church.4 Before the turn of the century preachers from this movement were traveling into the Carolinas and making their way through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and Tennessee. They also went west to the Ohio River and migrated into Ohio and Indiana.

In New England, especially in the newly developing regions of New Hampshire and Vermont, persons of Baptist heritage, chiefly Abner Jones (1772-1841) and Elias Smith (1769-1846), formed new churches.5 They went by the name Christian, or Christian Connexion. They championed defeat of tax support for establishment ministers (Congregational), and rejected the Calvinistic features of Puritan theology in regard to election and predestination. The Bible was heralded, especially the New Testament, as the only source of authority and faith. In their opinion, Christians should cut adrift from historical encrustations so as to create the New Testament church in its first century purity.6 They started migrating westward after 1810, into upper New York, where they became especially strong, then Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.

The two most important tributaries for the larger movement resulted from the work of Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) and the two Campbells, Thomas (1763-1854) and Alexander (1788-1866) father and son.

At the turn of the century the second great awakening titillated the Kentucky and Ohio frontiers. Camp meetings sprang up throughout the region, the largest being the 1801 extravaganza at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, northeast of Lexington. Denominational barriers crumbled and the call to struggle followed by conversion, diluted traditional election theology. As the months wore on, some of the preachers, especially among the Presbyterians, favored the ecumenical savor. They thereupon formed an independent presbytery. Not too long after, carrying their interests to their logical conclusions, they dissolved the Springfield Presbytery in order to "sink into union with the body of Christ at large."7 These leaders found many frontiersmen ready to embrace their sentiments and rapid growth ensued. Barton W. Stone, born in Maryland, and then lived in North Carolina before migrating to Kentucky, eventually emerged as the chief spokesman.

In 1807 Thomas Campbell, born in North Ireland of Scottish descent, arrived in Pennsylvania, settling in Washington County. Long a Presbyterian minister, he exerted considerable energy in the land of his nativity in a struggle to unify dissident Presbyterian groups. His efforts at similar rapprochement in Pennsylvania resulted in litigation to oust him from the his presbytery. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, he resigned and with others of like-mind, formed the Christian Association of Washington, Pennsylvania.

In 1809, his gifted son Alexander arrived with the rest of Thomas' family from a stint at the University of Glasgow. Out of the Campbell's efforts, churches were formed in the region around Pittsburgh. After 1816, the Campbell's joined with Baptist ministers of the Redstone and later the Mahoning Associations, winning several Ohio and Kentucky Baptist churches to their outlooks.8 The Campbells envisioned a mass exodus of believers from sectarian Protestantism so as to become one body, one New Testament church.

Early in the 1830's the churches from the Stone and Campbell groups commenced merging in Kentucky. The amalgamation expanded to churches in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. Several churches from the New England Jones-Smith, and Virginia O'Kelly movement also became a part of the Stone-Campbell merger. After the Civil War the Christian Connexion churches which did not merge established headquarters in Dayton, Ohio.9 In 1931 they merged with the Congregational Church, then with the Evangelical and Reformed Church, to form in 1957 the United Church of Christ.

By 1850 Alexander Campbell, because of his journal editing, book publishing, debating, lecturing, and founding Bethany College, became the best known leader of the movement. His outlooks left a permanent stamp on all his descendants regardless of location on the theological spectrum. His views definitely influenced the Churches of Christ even though the perspectives of David Lipscomb (1831-1917) of Nashville, Tennessee, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, modified certain views.10 Thomas and Alexander Campbell were highly influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment which emphasized reason as opposed to enthusiasm, and exterior constructs in regard to the church, as opposed to inner feeling. They modified their reform views, that is, the heritage of John Calvin (1509-1564), accordingly, though remaining far more reform than they themselves recognized.

The churches of the 1832 merger, usually going by the name Christian Churches, multiplied rapidly, becoming the fastest growing indigenous American church, reaching a million members before 1900. After the Civil War differences going back to the beginning created ruptures in the movement. The first had to do with state and national mission societies. These had wide-spread support.

But regional differences and embitterments over the war and reconstruction led to estrangements. The liberal leaders in the movement gained the upper hand in the mission societies, prompting the conservatives in former Confederate states to withdraw and grow increasingly critical of the societies. In the early 1870's the leadership for the opposition, Tolbert Fanning (1810-1874) and David Lipscomb (1831-1917), lived in Nashville, Tennessee, and published The Gospel Advocate, Fanning beginning in 1855, then Lipscomb who reissued it in 1866 when the war was over.

At a somewhat later date Austin McGary (1846-1928) promoted the opposition in Texas, founding The Firm Foundation in 1884. A dispute over instrumental music likewise defined the differences. By 1895 several of the conservative churches rallied around the The Gospel Advocate.

The major expansion in the Churches of Christ took place in the 1920's and 1930's. Growth plateaued in all regions in the early 1970's. The states with the largest number of members are: Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma, California and Arkansas. Of these states, Tennessee has the largest number of members per capita.11

The Churches of Christ have no organizational structure larger than local congregations and no official journals or ways of declaring consensus positions. The churches and preachers are highly entrepreneurial. Consensus views do often emerge through the influence of Christian universities and religious journals. Editors feature consensus positions, and often highlight articles that propose deviations from well worked through and commonly accepted points of view.
1. The standard histories are: about the Disciples of Christ, William E. Tucker and Lester G. McAllister, Journey in Faith (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1975); the Christian Churches (NACC), James DeForest Murch, Christians Only (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1962) and James B. North, Union in Truth: An Interpretive History of the Restoration Movement (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1994); Churches of Christ, Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids & Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 1996); Earl West, Search for the Ancient Order (Vol. I, Nashville: The Gospel Advocate Co., 1949, Vol. II, Indianapolis: Religious Book Service, 1950, and Vol. III, Indianapolis: Religious Book Service, 1979, Vol. IV, 1988) and Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement: An Anecdotal History of Three Churches (Joplin, Mo.: College Press Publishing Co., 1981, rev. 1994). David Edwin Harrell, Quest For A Christian America: The Disciples Of Christ And American Society To 1866 (Nashville: Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1966) and The Social Sources Of Division In The Disciples Of Christ 1865 1900 (Atlanta: Publishing Systems, 1973). For a survey of recent studies see: Richard T. Hughes, "Twenty-Five Years of Restoration Scholarship: The Churches of Christ," Restoration Quarterly (Part I, 25:4, 1982, 233-256, Part II, 26:1, 1983, 39-64).

See also the recent accurate and fair assessment written by a Roman Catholic: Richard M. Tristano, The Origins of the Restoration Movement: An Intellectual History (Atlanta: Glenmary Research Center, 1988).

2. For a judicious, but perhaps conservative estimate of the demographics of membership of the Churches of Christ, see Mac Lynn, ed., Where the Saints Meet (Austin, Tx: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1983) v-ix, and its more recent successors, Churches of Christ in the United States, the latest edition, 1994.

3. Further details in regard to several of the persons mentioned here may be found in Dictionary of Christianity in America, eds. Daniel G. Reid, Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, and Harry S. Stout. (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1990). Several articles, including the one on the Churches of Christ, are written by Thomas H. Olbricht.

4. Winfred Ernest Garrison and Alfred T. DeGroot, The Disciples of Christ: A History (St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1948) 82-87.

5. Both of these men preached in churches of the Freewill Baptists founded by Benjamin Randall (1749-1808). The Freewill baptists were in turn influenced by Henry Alline (1748-1784). Both Randall and Alline advanced pacifist positions. Jones and Smith also had contact with Noah Worcester (1758-1837), a pioneer peace advocate. Peter Brock, Freedom From War Nonsectarian Pacifism, 14, 17, 37.

6. Thomas H. Olbricht, "Christian Connexion and Unitarian Relations 1800-1844," Restoration Quarterly 9:3, 1966, 160 186.

7. "The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery," in Charles Alexander Young, Historical Documents Advocating Christian Union (Chicago: The Century Company, 1904) 19-26.

8. Garrison and DeGroot, 134-179.

9. Milo True Morrill, A History of the Christian Denomination in America (Dayton: The Christian Publishing Association, 1912).

10. Robert Hooper, Crying in the Wilderness: A Biography of David Lipscomb (Nashville: David Lipscomb College, 1979).

11. See Peter L. Halvorson and William M. Newman, Atlas of Religious Change in America (Atlanta: Glenmary Research Center, 1994) 161-166, 179-181.