A tradition of restorationist thinking, despair over denominationalism, and a commitment to religious liberty combined in the young United States to produce 4 movements, emerging almost simultaneously and independently, that looked to Scripture and the faith and practice of the New Testament church as their guide. We noted 2 of these last week: the O’Kelly Christians in the South and the Smith-Jones movement in New England. The most numerous of these grew largely from former Presbyterians and Baptists in Kentucky and Tennessee. It was led by a man named Barton W. Stone (1772-1844).
Stone was sprinkled as an infant, as his family was nominally Episcopalian; during his teens, he attended Baptist and Methodist churches, though he was not particularly religious himself. Determined to be well-educated, he enrolled in David Caldwell’s “log college” in North Carolina in 1790, an excellent institution by the day’s standards. Caldwell was a Presbyterian minister, and religion dominated life at the school. Stone was not much interested in such matters, as they distracted from his studies in law. But when a Presbyterian preacher named James McGready conducted a revival, he decided to seek God.
After a year of internal struggle, Stone felt the call to preach the gospel. He was licensed by the Presbyterians and set out for the west in 1796, settling outside Lexington, Kentucky. Two years later, he sought to be formally ordained. Ordination meant agreeing with the Westminster Confession of Faith—the basic creed of Presbyterians—with which Stone had some misgivings. When asked if he accepted it, he replied, “I do, as far as I see it consistent with the Word of God.” This was a not uncommon reply among revivalists and was accepted. Thus, Stone was ordained and assigned to churches at Cane Ridge and Concord, Kentucky in 1798.
It is helpful here to understand a bit more about the state of religion in early America. We tend to think of the young United States as an ideal “Christian nation” from which we have declined. The truth is more complicated. While many, indeed, came to the New World for religious reasons, religiosity has ebbed and flowed repeatedly since. That’s where the periods historians call the “Great Awakenings” come in. The First Great Awakening was a revival that swept the colonies in the 1730s-40s, with the result that interest in Christianity was stirred up in the decades before the Revolution.
But like many postwar periods, there was another decline after the Revolution. In fact, it might surprise you to know that one historian has called it the “lowest ebb-tide of vitality in the history of American Christianity.” Fewer than 10% claimed membership in any church; deistic works like Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason ridiculed Christianity; the lure of fortune in the west captured even many preachers. As before, however, this was followed by a period of renewal: the Second Great Awakening. It began on the Atlantic coast, but it reached its zenith on the Kentucky frontier. James McGready—the same man who had first stirred Stone – moved to Logan County, where a revival took off in 1799. They held “sacramental meetings,” based on an old Scottish practice, that brought worshippers from afar to eat the Lord’s Supper. These stayed for days at a time, and the “camp meeting” was born.
At Cane Ridge, 200 miles away, Stone was wrestling with 2 problems. One was his growing uncertainty with Calvinistic theology; he would later write that as he preached on human depravity and helplessness while calling those same supposedly helpless people to repent, his spirit “would be chilled at the contradiction.” His second problem was a growing spiritual apathy. He heard talk of revival in Logan County and went to observe their methods, returning determined to try them himself.
Accordingly, in August, 1801, the revivals climaxed at Cane Ridge with a camp meeting unparalleled in American history. The most reliable estimate, from an old quartermaster in attendance, is of as many as 30,000 people present. It continued without a break, night and day, for 6 days. Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians all participated; generally, there were 5 or 6 different preachers going on in different places at once. The Methodists and Presbyterians even joined together in a communion service. According to Stone later, “All united in prayer – all preached the same things – free salvation urged upon all by faith and repentance.”
That blurring of denominational lines—not to mention a gospel of “free salvation for all” that hardly seemed consistent with Calvinism—soon found Stone and his fellows in hot water. Before a heresy trial could be conducted, he and 4 others withdrew from the Synod, forming their own association, the Springfield Presbytery, writing a defense that argued parts of the Westminster Confession were contrary to Scripture. But within 5 months, the men came to believe there was no authority for their organization, either, and so disbanded it with a remarkable document, the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery. I encourage you to go home and google the document for yourself; it is a clear call for restoration and unity that still has great influence on churches of Christ (and with some items that should have more influence on us): Christians should follow the Bible alone; each local congregation should run its own affairs, with no larger organization; we should pray more and dispute less.
What name would these wear, if not Presbyterian? At the suggestion of Rice Haggard—a man who made the same suggestion a decade before to James O’Kelly and happened to be visiting Cane Ridge by one of those wonderful coincidences of history – they agreed to call themselves Christians only. The movement faced some struggles over the next decade, but continued to grow. By the 1820s, there were 12,000 members, mostly in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, and Illinois, characterized by an almost chaotic insistence on Christian liberty, lest anything be an obstacle to unity. While a noble impulse, and understandable given their history, it threatened to undo them. It would thus be left to another independent movement to help provide the Christians some organizing principles.