In the time between Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the Declaration of Independence, men like Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and John Locke (1632-1704) emerged during a period historians call The Enlightenment (1600-1800). Bacon’s scientific method and Locke’s common-sense approach to religion created an atmosphere in which the Bible could be read and interpreted using reason. The United States, with its First Amendment, provided fertile ground for these ideas to bloom.
Two events motivated a pair of Presbyterian ministers to throw off the yoke of denominational government, reject creeds, and plant the seeds of Christian unity.
In 1801, Barton Stone was inspired to hold a camp meeting in Cane Ridge, Kentucky after attending a revival at the Red River Presbyterian Church in Logan County, Kentucky. Ten-to-twenty thousand people heard ministers from different denominations preach at Cane Ridge. After witnessing the spiritual awakening produced at these meetings, Stone came to believe people could hear and believe the gospel of their own free will. This went against the Calvinism dominant in the churches of the time. Stone and a group of “revival men” were kicked out of the Presbyterian Church for their teaching. The congregations, led by these men, originally formed their own synod. But after finding no, “such confederacies as modern Church Sessions, Presbyteries, Synods, General Assemblies, etc.” in the Bible, they famously dissolved their group in a document called, The Last Will and Testament of The Springfield Presbytery (1804). They rejected all man-made creeds and councils, called themselves “Christians only,” and assembled as Christian Churches.
In 1807, Thomas Campbell resigned from the Presbyterian Synod of North America after he was censured for offering the Lord’s Supper to Presbyterians who were not members of his particular sect. Campbell turned to the Bible as the only authority in Christ’s church and famously said, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Campbell saw denominational names and creeds as divisive. He wrote a plea for Christian unity based on a common sense understanding of the Bible called the Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington (1809). The churches influenced by Campbell, initially became associated with Baptist groups and eventually were known as Disciples of Christ.
In a country with no state church and free from denominational structures and creeds, the groups influenced by Stone and Campbell began to grow. The appeal of simple Christianity, independent of human tradition, appealed to frontier Americans.
Thomas’s son Alexander Campbell became influential in the movement thanks to a series of debates and a monthly magazine called The Christian Baptist (1823-30). In it, the younger Campbell explained the need to “restore the ancient order of things” to the church. Campbell used the reasoning of Bacon and Locke to expose the faith, worship, and practice of the churches in the New Testament. He called for immersion baptism of believers, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, and autonomous churches with elders and deacons.
Throughout their history, the Christians in the Stone-Campbell movement taught against the Calvinistic idea of a salvation imposed by God without free will. To Calvinists, the Spirit preceded and produced faith and repentance. In 1827, a preacher named Walter Scott simplified the teaching of the Bible regarding salvation into six points. If Man will: believe, repent, and submit to baptism. God will grant: forgiveness of sins, the gift of Holy Spirit, and eternal life. Scott famously used Acts 2:38 in his preaching and baptized 3,000 people in three years.
In 1832, churches from both streams of the movement held a unity meeting in Lexington, Kentucky. Stone shook the hand of John “Raccoon” Smith (representing Campbell) as a sign of union between what then numbered 25,000 Christians. Their alliance would grow to 200,000 in the next 30-years. As a sign of things to come, neither group agreed on a single name for their churches. They continued as Christian Churches and Disciples of Christ, though some began to be known as churches of Christ.
Sources: Reviving The Ancient Faith by Richard T. Hughes and The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement by Douglas A Foster et al.