The family of churches known around the world as Christian Churches, Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ began in the early part of the 19th Century – almost 200 years ago – in both the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
It was a time when churches tended towards legalism, authoritarianism and exclusivism.
Our movement began with a passion for the unity of this rigid and divided church. There was deep conviction that unity could not be achieved without a thorough reformation of the church of those times and that through such reform the life, faith, and order of the ‘New Testament’ church could and should be restored.
The origins of our movement can be traced back to congregations formed in the second half of the 18th Century in the United Kingdom, some of which were amongst those that came together in the first ‘cooperative’ meeting of British Churches of Christ congregations in 1842. Early British leaders included William Jones and James Wallis but they owed much to other reformers of their times.
The movement in the United States focussed around two major leaders in particular – Barton W Stone and Alexander Campbell.
Barton Stone was a Presbyterian minister at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, from 1798 and the revival he organised there in 1801 is considered a significant milestone in the religious history of the USA. The experience was a major factor leading Stone to withdraw from the Presbyterian Synod of Kentucky in 1803 and then in 1804 (reflecting the desire to be ‘simply Christian’) to dissolve the new Springfield Presbytery he had created and ‘sink into union with the Body of Christ at large’. Effectively the ‘Christian Church’ of ‘Christians only, but not the only Christians’ with unity as its ‘polar star’ had been established.
At the time of the 1801 revival the Campbells were still in Ireland. Thomas Campbell, also a Presbyterian Minister, came to the United States in 1807. In 1809 because of what he saw as the scandal of Christian division he formed the Christian Association of Washington (PA) and published a classic document on Christian unity – ‘The Declaration and Address’. The first of the thirteen proposals in this foundation document of the Christian Church includes the statement that the church is ‘essentially, intentionally and constitutionally one’ – which was to become one of our important slogans.
Alexander Campbell arrived in The United States two years after his father and quickly discovered that he shared his father’s views. He became an advocate of these ideals and soon took the lead in the developing reform movement. Attempts to continue to work with the Presbyterians failed and the reformers reluctantly formed their congregation at Brush Run, Pennsylvania, into a separate church in 1811. An attempt to work with the Baptists over the next two decades also failed and by 1830 these ‘Disciples’ were a separate group.
In 1824 Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell met. Their movements came together in the famous handshake of 1832 and a period of definition and consolidation for this united movement followed. The first century was a time of significant growth and the Christian Church became the fifth largest church in the United States.
A fourth pioneer in the United States, Walter Scott made a unique contribution to the movement with his rational evangelistic emphasis. His ‘five finger exercise’ – faith, repentance, baptism, the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit – provided an order in which people could come to Christ and membership in His Church.
In 1847 Alexander Campbell visited the United Kingdom and was president of the Second Cooperative Meeting, affirming in person the links that had been developing across the Atlantic.
The movement wanted to use ‘biblical names for biblical things’. In The United Kingdom ‘Church of Christ’ was the name used and churches in the Commonwealth still usually use this name. By the 1840’s there were Churches of Christ in Australia, Canada and New Zealand and later in India, South Africa and (using current names) Malawi, Thailand, Zimbabwe and Vanuatu. By the time of the their 1909 Centennial Convention, United States churches had established work in The Argentine, China, The (Belgian) Congo, Cuba, Hawaii, India, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, The Philippines, Puerto Rico and Tibet.
However by 1906, congregations currently known in the United States as Churches of Christ (a cappella) had become a distinct group. Throughout the 20th Century they have operated quite separately but there is currently a strong movement to embrace the wider church again. In the decades from the 1920’s to the 1960’s in the United States a further division in the Christian Church occurred culminating in the more liberal and ecumenical group restructuring as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) with those not wishing to be a part of this denomination remaining as ‘independent’ Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.
In the early 1980’s in the United Kingdom the majority of our cooperative churches joined the United Reformed Church (Churches of Christ-Congregational-Presbyterian) and most of the remainder formed the Fellowship of Churches of Christ. There is also a group of ‘Old Path’ (a cappella) churches.
In many other parts of the world some of our family have joined united churches – for example in India, Thailand, Jamaica, Japan, The Philippines and The Congo (Kinshasa). Ironically sections of our family have played a unique part in the ecumenical movement while others have remained apart from and even very critical of it.
In 1930 the first World Convention of Churches of Christ was held to provide our family with an appropriate way of sharing globally. The 16th convention was held in Brighton in 2004, and the next will be in Nashville, Tennesse, USA in 2008. There are now more than 168 countries with congregations relating to our 19th Century heritage and there is a vast network of links within this family. World Convention provides a unique means of building fellowship, understanding and common purpose within this diverse Christian World Communion.
We have dreamed of the church united in essentials, tolerant in non essentials and loving in all things – so that the world might really believe and Christ’s community might come.
This is still our challenge.
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