While Thomas Campbell was separated from his family, establishing himself—and a burgeoning reform movement—in America, they had an eventful 30 months themselves. Their first attempt at a voyage was shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland. That night, while awaiting rescue, Thomas’s 20 year old son Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) made a decision he had often contemplated: he would devote his live to ministry. It was too late in the year to attempt to cross the Atlantic again, so the Campbells settled in Glasgow for 10 months, where Alexander studied at the same University his father had.
The period proved to be extremely influential, as it brought him in contact with a religious movement that advocated a return to primitive Christianity. They practiced congregational independence, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, and believers’ immersion; Alexander never formally joined, but he became increasingly dissatisfied with the Seceder Presbyterians as the result of his association, effectively breaking with them not long before he left.
So young Alexander arrived in the United States in September, 1809 without a church, but with a mission: to give his life to preaching simple New Testament Christianity. Separated by an ocean, father and son had unwittingly begun the same search. Legend has it that when they met, Thomas had the galley proofs of the Declaration and Address in his saddlebags. True or not, Alexander soon read it and endorsed its principles.
Alexander began to study for the ministry under his father, preaching in first sermon in July, 1810. Meanwhile, Thomas organized his Bible study group, the Christian Association, into a church. The Brush Run Church was established in May, 1811 with 30 members, 1 elder (Thomas), and 4 deacons. Two practices that would become distinctive in the Restoration Movement were accepted from the beginning: 1) weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper and 2) immersion. Three people who wanted to be members but who had never been baptized asked Thomas to do it; he did, though he had never been immersed himself and still believed it unnecessary to “rebaptize” any person sprinkled in infancy.
The issue came to a head with the birth of Alexander’s first child: should he baptize her? Should he himself be immersed? After months of study, he concluded the Scriptural pattern was immersion of believers. Thus, in June, 1812, he and seven others—including Thomas—were immersed by Matthias Luce, a Baptist minister. Notably, Alexander refused to submit to the usual Baptist examination as to his candidacy, insisting on a mere confession of faith in Christ. Soon, most of the members at Brush Run followed suit, further separating them from their Presbyterian roots, but bringing them into the orbit of frontier Baptists. After much discussion, the church joined the Redstone Baptist Association in 1815.
Wait a minute—you mean the Campbell movement affiliated with the Baptists? They did for 17 years, in fact. This might seem contrary to the goal of uniting all Christian—how can you be against denominationalism if you are part of a denomination?—but they, especially Thomas, did not see it that way. They felt any visible unity was a step toward ultimate unity and, therefore, to be part of a Baptist Association was preferable to remaining independent. The Campbells spent most of the next 2 decades as Reformers among the Baptists and soon were planting new congregations. But the union was always uneasy; some Baptists were ambivalent from the outset.
Alexander used three major avenues in pleading for his reformation: 1) sermons, which often reflected important differences between him and most Baptists; 2) a paper, the Christian Baptist, which had as its theme “restoration of the ancient order of things” and was soon widely read; and 3) debates, which in particular made him a household name on the frontier. Though reluctant at first, he finally agreed to defend believer’s immersion in debate with the Presbyterian John Walker in 1820. More influential was his second debate, with W.L. Maccalla in 1823, in which he argued for the first time that baptism brings the promise of forgiveness of sins. These were widely published and read, disseminating his ideas.
The growing tension between the Reformers and the Baptists ultimately reached a breaking point. In 1823, the Redstone Association wanted to excommunicate him; they were thwarted by his transfer to the more favorable Mahoning Association, which then experienced remarkable growth. But jealousy and the growing realization that Campbell had un-Baptist views of baptism caused other associations to turn. Eventually, the situation became untenable, and the Mahoning Association dissolved itself in 1830.
In the end, instead of a single Brush Run church with 30 members, the Reformers had churches scattered over 7 states with well over 10,000 members, most former Baptists. But now that they were independent, what would they call themselves? Many preferred the name “Christian”; congregations often went by the community name, like Brush Run Church, and sometimes signs read “Church of Christ” or “Christian Church.” The confusion was partly intentional, as they did not want an exclusive sectarian name. One became increasingly common, however: Disciples of Christ, which was Alexander’s preference; after all, followers of Jesus were called that before they were called Christians!
It also helped mitigate concern about confusion with other “Christian” groups like the movements in New England, Virginia, and the West. But the similarities in outlook and overlap in territory increasingly brought Campbell’s Disciples in contact with Barton W. Stone’s Christians.