A Brief History of the Stone-Campbell Tradition

19th Century Revival meeting

The American frontier of the early 19th century was brimming with religious fervor. While the human spirit was being awakened in the cities of the United States, there was a special intensity to the revivals of the frontier.

Included in these revivals were churches that now comprise the Stone-Campbell heritage. The name comes from the primary founders of this branch of Christianity. In Kentucky, Barton Warren Stone (1772-1844) was a Presbyterian minister who, along with others, called for a return to simple New Testament Christianity. In fact, Stone believed that followers of Christ should go by no other name than “Christian.” In Pennsylvania and what is now West Virginia, father and son Thomas Campbell (1763-1854) and Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) championed the idea of “one Church of Christ upon earth.” They, too, believed that followers of Christ should not be identified by sectarian names and asked that only “Disciples” be used.

When the Stone and Campbell camps eventually came together, both “Christian” and “Disciples of Christ” were retained as designators.

Stone-Campbell churches fall into the category of Protestant free-church. That is, individual congregations are seen as the pinnacle of church expression, are independent/autonomous organizations, and advocate the separation of church and state.

The Stone-Campbell churches are characterized by a focus on New Testament teaching, shared governance between clergy and laity, baptism by immersion, ecumenism, and the regular celebration of communion during worship.

There was never a monolithic structure for these churches. In North America today, Stone-Campbell churches are found mainly in three groups (or “streams”): Churches of Christ, Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The latter has especially been involved in Christian ecumenism since the beginning of the 20th century.

The three streams are connected through an organization known as the World Convention. Globally, congregations descending from this tradition can be found in over 100 countries.

Disciples of Christ Historical Society archives materials related to all churches in the Stone-Campbell heritage and offers research assistance to interested parties. Disciples History also tells the Stone-Campbell story through this website and other resources.

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