A Restoration Movement, led primarily by Barton W. Stone, emerged in Kentucky; another Restoration movement, led by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, emerged in southwest Pennsylvania. As these two groups spread, they began to intersect in Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky.
By 1823, Stone’s Christian numbered between 15 and 20 thousand, and few had heard of Alexander Campbell. But that year, he traveled to Kentucky to debate the Presbyterian W. L. McCalla on baptism, taking along several copies of his new journal, the Christian Baptist. In the debate, he connected baptism with the forgiveness of sins for the first time, the view that would ultimately lead to this break with the Baptists. But it was a revelation for the Christians in the West: Alexander’s oratory, his journal, but especially his clear description of the ancient order won over thousands of Stone’s followers.
It is critical to remember that most of these people came from a Calvinistic background, in which a person is only saved if they are predestined for it. For many in that day, this meant it was futile to respond to the gospel—and this theology created an emotional crisis. Accounts of the era describe weeping and waiting—even for years—for some evidence of being part of the elect, some inner, emotional conversion experience. Campbell offered a solution to this dilemma in his debate: in baptism, God grants forgiveness of sins. This became the linchpin of what he called the ancient gospel, and it took root. The McCalla debate was widely read throughout the frontier. The reaction of B. F. Hall, a young preacher among Stone’s people, to reading the debate is characteristic: “I sprang to my feet in an ecstasy, and cried out, ‘Eureka! Eureka! I have found it! I have found it!’ And I had found it…I had found the long lost link in the chain of gospel obedience…I now saw the evidence of remission, which I had never seen before.”
Alexander not only influenced Stone with the ancient gospel, but also what he called the ancient order. Campbell was extremely rational and systematic, leading to his laying out a clear picture of the practice of the primitive church. The Christians, however, were very concerned to preserve freedom, intentionally refusing to develop any definite structure. Their exposure to Campbell after 1823 began to change that, as he applied the restoration principle to the worship and organization of the church, writing at length about such issues in the Christian Baptist. Many of the Stone churches welcomed his portrayal of the early church and adopted it.
As a result, members of both groups started to ask why they were not one. After all, they had so much in common: both were committed to Scripture as the only source of faith and practice; both opposed division and anything that upholds it, like creeds, clergy, and denominational bodies; both reacted to Calvinism, believing the gospel should be preached to all and responded to through believers immersion; both believed the NT church was the ideal, pure and free from corruption; both had restoring that unified church as their goal.
But there were differences, too, that ought not be minimized, even in the tenor of the leaders and their movements. Stone addressed the question of why they were not one in his paper, the Christian Messenger, in 1831. As far as he was concerned, there was no real reason they should not unite; the reluctance was on the part of Campbell’s Reformers. He saw two real reasons for their hesitance. One was the emphasis they respectively placed on immersion: Stone’s group taught the same thing as far as its importance, but they allowed the unimmersed to be members and take the Lord’s Supper, exercising patience with those who were not yet convinced. The second thing—as trivial as it might seem—was the name of the group. Stone’s people had simply used the name “Christian,” just like the other movements that sprang up around the same time. The Campbell group, though often called “Reformers,” preferred to be called “Disciples.” Stone admitted this was a good, scriptural name, but asserted that Campbell used it to avoid confusion with the various “Christians.” This made it a party name in Stone’s mind.
This article produced a response from Campbell and the other articles that followed illustrate the differences between the men and their movements. Stone believed the bottom line of restoration was in personal holiness, that only when they lived like the early Christians could true reform come; in his estimation, Campbell was too cold and rigid on certain doctrines. For his part, Campbell believed Stone and the other “Christian” movements were too lax, perhaps even unorthodox; in his view, restoring the doctrinal details of the NT—the ancient order—would reform the church and bring unity. Stone had a fairly pessimistic view of human nature, viewing human society as in an inevitable decline that only the return of Christ could arrest; Campbell was full of optimism about humanity, with American in particular as a place prepared by God for restoration of the ancient gospel and ultimately the conversion of the world. Stone, with his revival background (remember Cane Ridge?) stressed the emotional side of religion; Campbell was calm, clear, and rational in his teaching, disdaining emotionalism.
The point is that these were emphatically not minor differences: they had contradictory views of humanity, of the church, of the end times. How in the world could these 2 movements consider uniting?