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History of the Disciples of Christ

How the Disciples of Christ Evolved from the Stone-Campbell Movement

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Alexander Campbell

Public Domain

The Disciples of Christ, also known as the Christian Church, evolved from two separate movements, in two different states, led by three different ministers. What brought them together was a common goal: restoration of the church to the ideals and practices of Christianity in the first century A.D.

While this goal initially led to unity, differences over the years caused splits into three separate restoration groups.

The Disciples' Roots in Pennsylvania

In western Pennsylvania, Presbyterian minister Thomas Campbell (1763-1854), frustrated with the differences among Christian denominations, proposed uniting Christians under the principles of the New Testament church. That was in 1809.

Campbell's son Alexander (1788-1866), also a Presbyterian minister, agreed with his father on the need to do away with differences among faith groups.

They named their breakaway church Disciples of Christ to shed denominational disagreements. Alexander Campbell began carrying the movement through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia.

The Disciples' Beginnings in Kentucky

About the same time, minister Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) was breaking away from the Presbyterian church in Kentucky. He found that he could no longer follow their doctrines. Stone chose to rely solely on the Bible for theology, in the footsteps of the early church.

Stone took the name "Christians" for members of his church, to remove denominational labels. It's unclear whether the leaders of these two simultaneous movements were aware of each other's work, but Stone and Alexander Campbell finally met in Georgetown, Kentucky in 1824.

The two leaders shared many areas of agreement. Both wanted to restore the authority of the Bible and get back to the ways of the New Testament church. Opponents called Stone's followers "New Lights" or "Stoneites," while Campbell's critics dubbed his people "Reformers" or "Campbellites."

The Disciples, Christians Unite, Divide

The two groups merged in 1832 in Lexington, Kentucky. From that time, they became the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ. Originally, Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell saw much in common in their desires for restoration to New Testament ways.

However, for many members of the Disciples, following the example of the first century church meant strict observance of what was written in the Bible. If it wasn't there, they didn't want to add it. Those members objected to instrumental music and organized missionary activity because they couldn't find these in the Book of Acts or other New Testament writings.

Dissension went on for decades, leading to a split in 1906. The breakaway group, which reorganized as the Churches of Christ, uses a cappella, or unaccompanied singing only.

Yet another split began in 1926 and culminated in 1971 when the Disciples restructured. Those 3,000 breakaway congregations became known as Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, or Independent Christian Churches, since they reject denominationalism. That group separated because it felt the Disciples were leaning toward liberalism and modernism.

Obviously, the similarity in names has led to much confusion. Scholars generally classify the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as liberal, Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in the middle, and Churches of Christ as conservative.

(Sources: Disciples.org, bible.acu.edu, and therestorationmovement.com.)

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