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Stone and Campbell Unite

by Leroy Garrett

Since both the Stone and Campbell movements had as their aim to “unite the Christians in all the sects,” and were in relative proximity to each other both in time and location, it should be no surprise that they would unite and become one unity movement. But they first had to discover each other, which on a far-flung frontier, where even newspapers were rare, did not come easily. When the Campbells organized their first congregation at Brush Run, near Bethany, Virginia, in 1812, they knew nothing of similar efforts by Barton W. Stone and other “revival Cane Ridge) preachers” down in Kentucky. And when the Campbell people, first called “Reformed Baptists,” were eventually on their own as “Disciples of Christ” by 1829 the Stone people had only begun to get acquainted with them.

Campbell and Stone had first met in Kentucky in 1824, when they began a close friendship that was to last until Stone’s death 20 years later. While they did not work together personally, they carried on a rather vigorous — if sometimes uneasy — correspondence, and not one that would itself encourage a merger of their churches. There might not in fact have been a merger had it been up to Campbell, for he was concerned that his movement might have to bear the criticism of being tainted with Arianism, an opprobrium Stone bore early on in his role as an editor. Campbell was not even present at the merger, while Stone had a leading role. Campbell also thought the merger might be premature, but he eventually gave his blessings to it. It says something about the Movement’s breath of leadership that it was able to effect a union without either Campbell’s presence or (immediate) blessing.

If there were substantive differences between Stone and Campbell while they yet appreciated and accepted each other in fellowship, there were likewise significant differences between their people when they formed their union. The Stone churches called themselves Christians in that Barton Stone saw it as the God-ordained name, while the Campbell people preferred Disciples of Christ. Both used the names Christian Churches and Churches of Christ for their congregations. They differed in modes and intensity of evangelism. The Stone churches were more zealous and emotional in their preaching, still using the mourner’s bench, which was common in that day, and they had numerous evangelists The Disciples were more rational and less emotional, rejected the mourner’s bench, and had neglected evangelism, except for the phenomenal success of Walter Scott.

While both were immersionists, the Christians did not emphasize it like the Disciples did, even though Stone insisted that “There is not one among us out of 500 that has not been immersed.” Stone did not see it as essential to remission of sins, or to church membership, as Campbell appeared to.

The Stone people had an ordained ministry and a higher concept of the ministerial office, and that only the ordained should baptize and serve the Lord’s supper. The Disciples emphasized lay ministry and the priesthood of all believers, and were even anticlerical. In their churches any believer could preach, baptize, and serve communion. From the first Sunday at Brush Run the Disciples had broken bread together in every congregation every first day, while up to the time of the union the Christians had been irregular in their practice.

While both were unity-conscious, the Stone people were more ecumenical than the Disciples, who were more concerned with the restoration of the ancient order of things, at least at the time of the union. This led Robert Richardson, the movement’s first historian, to see the Stone people as preachers and the Campbell folk as teachers. The two churches were about equal in size at the time of the union, around 12,000 - to 14,000 each.

These differences were as formidable as any that were later seen as causes for the divisions that came. The two churches were nevertheless able to effect a union because they acted on the principles that had been set forth in their founding documents a generation earlier. They united on the core gospel, the essentials of the faith, with Christ at the center, allowing for liberty of opinion on marginal issues.

To tell the story of just how the merger happened we add three more names to our list of heroes — John T. Johnson, Raccoon John Smith, and John Rogers, all Kentuckians. These three, along with Barton W. Stone, prayed for it to happen, planned it, executed it, and even confirmed it by two of them — Smith and Rogers — traveling among the churches for three years, bearing glad tidings, We are now a united people, while a third one — Johnson — served as finance chairman to keep the two men going for the three years.

John T. Johnson, eventually known as “the evangelist of Kentucky,” was from a political family, with a brother who served as Vice-President under Martin Van Buren, while he himself was both a state legislator and a U.S congressman. He might have gone much further in politics had he not felt the call to the ministry. Once a talented Baptist minister, he was soon a “Reformed Baptist,” as some of Alexander Campbell’s followers were called. Over period of two decades he baptized an average of 500 annually, giving impetus to the Campbell movement. It was said that it was difficult for one to remain in his seat when Johnson issued the call for repentance and baptism. Campbell, impressed by his power as preacher, attributed his success not only to the simplicity of his message, but to his captivating sincerity. He also referred to the elegance with which Johnson offered thanksgiving at the dining table.

Johnson came to know Stone while both resided in Georgetown, Ky. The two men from the two movements — the “Christians” and the “Reformed Baptists” or Disciples of Christ — prayed about, studied about, and talked bout Christian unity. Joined by Smith and Rogers, and sometimes by still others, they weighed the prospects of a union of their two churches. The passion for union kept growing until there was a kind of pre-union gathering in Georgetown over the Christmas holidays, 1831. It was decided to send out a call for a union meeting the next weekend, New Year’s Day, 1832, a Saturday, at the Hill Street Christian Church in Lexington, Ky. It was estimated that some 300 were in attendance.

It was decided that Barton Stone and Raccoon John Smith should be the speakers, Stone representing his own people and Raccoon the Campbell side. Stone insisted that Raccoon should speak first. While it would have been ideal for the key players to have been Stone and Campbell, it turned out, perhaps by Providence, that Raccoon was the right person at the right place at the right time. With a background of poverty, hardship and tragedy while a Baptist minister, and brought into the reformation by reading Campbell, he was uniquely prepared in heart and mind to be the catalyst and key-noter for such a gathering.

Raccoon was well aware of the responsibility he bore in such a sensitive setting, that the least uncharitable gesture or the slightest sectarian remark could arouse suspicion and prejudice and blast the hope of union at the very hour it was budding into reality. He drew his remarks from Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17, that it is both desirable and practical, and that if our Lord prayed such a prayer it can be realized. In distinguishing between faith and opinion, which alluded to differences between them, he said there are a thousand opinions but one faith, ad that we can never unite on opinions but only upon the one faith which centers in Christ. He noted that when opinions and speculations are made tests of fellowship it always causes division. He said he personally avoided speculative theories by simply letting the Scriptures speak for themselves. We unite upon one faith, not one opinion, he insisted.

He at last made that great plea that is reflective of one of the Movement’s greatest hours, “Let us then, my brethren, be no longer Stoneites or Campbellites, or New Lights or Old Lights, but let us all come to the Bible, and to the Bible alone, as the only book in the world which can give us all the light we need.”

Stone spoke next, and it was mostly a hearty endorsement of what Raccoon had just said. Referencing what had been said about speculation, he admitted he had sometime been speculative in his sermons, and he vowed to do better. He took Raccoon’s hand in his, endorsing the plea he had made, and called for the union of their people. It has been referred to in our history as “the handshake that shook the frontier,” for the Movement, now united, was to grow and prosper. It would number 300,000 by the time of the Civil War, and reach to Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia. And while other major denominations divided during the Civil War, the Churches of Christ/Christian Churches remained one church, one people, which led some leaders to conclude that it would never divide.

On that New Year’s Day, 1832, when their two leaders joined hands and declared the union of their two churches, the first such union in American history, the people rejoiced, praising God and embracing each other, and a hymn of praise broke out among them. What Stone would later describe as “the noblest act of my life” was now a reality. The next day was Lord’s day, and the united church assembled to break bread together. From that day to this — and even back to Brush Run in 1812 — our people have not missed a single Lord’s day in assembling to break bread together, even if not always as a united people.

And that will be our next, a sad and tragic story, A Unity Movement Divides.

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