The two Restoration Movements led respectively by Barton W. Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell came into increasing contact with each other in Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky throughout the 1820s. Their interactions brought the realization that they had a great deal in common, with their commitment to Scripture as their only guide and common call to unify Christians around the primitive NT church. Despite some differences that existed, members of both movements began to question why they did not unite their efforts.
Of course, there were practical obstacles to union in that neither group had any sort of denominational structure; it had to happen organically, in each community. That stirred in some places as early as 1828, with more following over the next few years. The real spark occurred in Lexington, Kentucky on New Year’s Eve and Day of 1831/32.
More than any other single figure, John T. Johnson was responsible for the event. Johnson was a lawyer by training, a former Congressman and the brother of Vice President Richard M. Johnson, But he renounced politics for the pulpit, becoming a preacher associated with Campbell’s Disciples in Kentucky. He and Stone both lived in Georgetown, Kentucky at the same time and were friends. In November 1831, Stone preached in a meeting at Johnson’s church, and the 2 men discussed the possibility of unity. They were soon joined by 2 others, the colorfully named “Raccoon” John Smith and John Rogers. The 4 men agreed to call a general meeting to see if unity was desired. One was held in Georgetown in late December 1831. Over a few days, several speakers from both movements spoke. Many did not favor quick union, but a gradual process that would allow them to grow together naturally. A second meeting was then scheduled over New Year’s weekend in Lexington.
On New Year’s Day, 1832, the meeting house in Lexington was filled to capacity. The two elected to speak were Smith, a leader among the Disciples, and Stone. They were instructed to give their views of union freely but without reference to party distinctions. Smith spoke first. He began by stating that God has only one people, with one book, and exhorts them all to be one family. Jesus did not pray for an amalgamation of sects but for the union of his people. He openly admitted that there were differences between the 2 groups, but the controversies had been argued for centuries and the points of disagreement were not part of the gospel. The answer, then, was in using the language of Scripture, avoiding speculation, and in having love for one another.
After pleading for unity on that basis, Smith famously concluded his speech: Let us then, my brethren, be no longer Campbellites or Stoneites, or New Lights or Old Lights, or any other kind of lights, but let us all come to the Bible, and to the Bible alone as the only book in the world that can give us all the Light we need.
Stone then followed, stating that he agreed with Smith’s statement. I have not one objection to the ground laid down by him as the true source of union among the people of God; and I am willing to give him, now and here, my hand. He then turned and offered to Smith a hand trebling with rapture and brotherly love, and it was grasped by a hand full of honest pledges of fellowship, and the union was virtually accomplished. The next day—Sunday—the 2 groups took the Lord’s Supper together, seemingly sealing the union. It was now proposed that all who felt willing to unite on these principles should express that willingness by giving one another the hand of fellowship; and elders and teachers hastened forward and joined their hands and hearts in joyful accord. A song arose, and brethren and sisters, with many tearful greetings, ratified and confirmed the union. On Lord’s day, they broke the loaf together, in that sweet and solemn communion, again pledged to each other their brotherly love. (All quotes are from the “Life of Elder John Smith.”)
In the aftermath, Smith and John Rogers, formerly of the 2 different movements were commissioned to travel the country, tell people what happened, and promote union locally, which they spent 3 years doing. Stone wrote in his Christian Messenger that it spread like fire in dry stubble—but we should not overstate how easily it came about. Many on both sides viewed it as giving up things they held dear: some other “Christian” groups, those with roots in the New England and O’Kelly movements, felt Campbell was too cold and rationalistic and did not participate in the union; Campbell himself thought it premature but saw nothing to do but bit them Godspeed, and he eventually came around.
The result was a period of remarkable growth. Numerous journals—at least 28 different ones in the 1830s alone, with thousands of readers—contributed to this. The first colleges were established by members of the Movement: Bacon College in 1836, Franklin College in 1845, and, most notably, Campbell’s Bethany College in 1840. By the start of the Civil War, there were some 200 thousand members, with at least 1,000 in 17 different states.
How was it possible for such different groups to even consider coming together? It was primarily because there was a will for unity. Those involved believed that union was God’s will—as it is. They loved one another as God’s people despite their flaws. They realized that part of restoring the New Testament church was restoring the unity that was God’s ideal, as Jesus prayed in John 17. May God grant us that same desire.