Go with me to the early 19th century, to a devout Presbyterian minister and his godly, scholarly son, lately come separately to America. Disenchanted with the sectarianism which choked their church, they determined by God’s grace to do better.
This country became their Promised Land – a territory ruled by sectarian giants who lived in churches with great walls, but ripe nonetheless for the vengeance of the Lord, and ready to yield their spoils to the simple People of God.
Soon the trumpets sounded, the foes were thrown into confusion and turmoil, and the breezes hummed with the arrows of the invaders. Any adversary who waved his ordination papers or theological diplomas soon found that Alexander Campbell favored them as targets for his sharpest darts.
The Virginia (now West Virginia) planter-scholar was sufficiently endowed financially to spend much time doing the things he enjoyed most. From his analytical mind and immense vocabulary flowed an impressive volume of teaching. Campbell published two papers, The Christian Baptistand The Millennial Harbinger. His public debates were impressive and always well-attended. He was in constant demand as a speaker throughout the bustling and ever-expanding land.
The Campbells and their comrades-in-arms made their own contribution to American Christianity (and to posterity worldwide). But they were by no means alone. More than a dozen such “restoration movements” began during these same years in America. Churches springing from this native stock dot the land today. And although each considers itself unique, if the worshippers ever bother to investigate one another they usually discover a number of their “distinctive” beliefs and practices to be held in common.
God had indeed prepared the soil for the movement these men led, just as he prepares hearts and times throughout history. A spirit of expectancy prevailed throughout the land. Health-movements sprang up, back-to-nature advocates flourished. There were social utopian dreamers and planners of communes. Campbell named his major journal The Millennial Harbinger, and he published it for nearly 40 years. The same expectant atmosphere breathed life into America’s own “prophetic” movements, three of which grew up to become the Seventh-day Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).
Spiritual revival swept the land, wielding an influence so great it is remembered as the Second Great Awakening. When historians write of that revival, they nearly always speak of Cane Ridge, Kentucky. There the magnetism of fervent preaching drew people from many walks of life. With conviction of sin came strange physical demonstrations. Men and women jumped and jerked, “barked,” shouted, and fell to the ground.
The primary preacher at Cane Ridge was a young Presbyterian minister named Barton Warren Stone. Charged with evangelistic fervor, Stone denounced denominational divisions and called for a return to primitive Christianity. He taught his converts to call themselves simply “Christians.” Armed with an outstanding intellect, Alexander Campbell was pursuing similar goals, identifying his people as “disciples of Christ.” Later the two groups joined forces, fusing Stone’s passion for religious revival with Campbell’s for rational reform.
Today three groups of churches stand as descendants of the work of these men. One of these, the Disciples of Christ, is a fully-organized denomination. Two others, the independent Christian Churches and the Churches of Christ, have no formal denominational organization and are fundamentally alike except for the use of instrumental music in worship.