2. Barton Stone: A Progressive, Open-Minded, Free Thinker

istoneb001p1From: Foster, Blowers, Dunnavant, Williams, The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, (Eerdmans Press, 2004), p. 700-720 and Cummins, The Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation (St. Louis: Chalice Press), 23-37.

Soon after Methodists James O’Kelly and Rice Haggard and Baptists Elias Smith and Abner Jones were inspired by the spirit of liberty to begin movements in the East to unite and restore the Church to its primitive New Testament roots, Presbyterian Barton Warren Stone (1772-1844) began to lead a similar movement in the West. Stone, whose movement began out of the southern revivalism late eighteen and early nineteen century, is recognized as one of the founding fathers of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Preparing to be a lawyer at North Carolina’s very first college known as the Guilford Academy or David Caldwell’s Log College, Stone was influenced by fellow students, among them James McGready, who were preparing to be pastors. It was this influence, and a sermon on God’s love by William Hodge, that precipitated his conversion experience and his call to ministry. Because he was raised as a Presbyterian, Stone joined the Presbyterian Church.

Stone was a progressive, open-minded, free thinker who was not afraid to question tradition. If the tradition, whether it be a confession of faith or a widely accepted doctrine, was not in accord with his simple interpretation of scripture, one could bet that Stone would question it, if not reject it completely. Consequently, Stone had problems with and questioned the orthodox teachings of the Church such as: the Trinity, Atonement and Infant Baptism. Stone also questioned civil laws that were not in accord with scripture such as slavery. As early as 1800, Stone would present a resolution declaring slavery “a moral evil, very heinous and consequently sufficient to exclude…[those who continue to practice it]…from privileges of the church.”

His struggles with Presbyterian doctrines led him to temporarily leave the ministry. He traveled to Georgia to live with his brother Matthew. In January 1795, he taught languages in Wilkes County Georgia at a Methodist school founded by Hope Hull. Hull was at the conference in Baltimore when James O’Kelly made his motion to give Methodist ministers and congregations more freedom in appointments. Although Hull never left the Methodist church, he sympathized with O’Kelly and his attempts to bring more democracy to the Methodist Church. This relationship with Hull inspired Stone to return to the ministry.

After he was licensed by the Orange Presbytery near Hillsborough, North Carolina, Stone served as pastor in the “lower counties” of North Carolina before traveling west through Virginia into Tennessee and then to Kentucky where he met and married his wife Elizabeth. It was there that Stone began his ministry at Concord and Cane Ridge in 1796. Both churches grew, and Stone was ordained at Cane Ridge by the Transylvania Presbytery on October 4, 1798.

Although he was not accustomed to the emotional fervor that was created by the “camp-meeting” style revivals that were growing in popularity in the West, the revivals intrigued Stone’s open mind. The revivals, which originated in Scotland, lasted three days or more and each attracted thousands of people. The revivals were ecumenical in nature as Presbyterians would invite Baptist and Methodist ministers to preach. While several ministers preached, the congregants would be overcome with emotion. They would shout or as Stone described it “bark.” Some would weep or laugh uncontrollably while others would fall the ground, “slain in the spirit.” When Stone learned that his classmates from the Guilford Academy, William Hodge and James McGready were leading revivals near the Tennessee-Kentucky border, Stone traveled 200 miles to attend one of the camp meetings.

With the emotional outbursts, Stone witnessed many conversions. Ordinary people, when giving the chance to accept Christ, did so in a way that had a lasting impact on Stone. Although he did not participate in or understand the “fanatical” aspects of the revival, he believed the conversions were genuine. Therefore, when he arrived back at Concord and Cane Ridge, Stone began planning his own similar camp-meeting style revivals. The Concord Revival was held on the first Sunday in June, 1801 with 5,000 to 6,000 people attending. Along with Stone and six other Presbyterians, a Methodist also preached during the event that lasted for five days. Subsequent revivals were held in Lexington and Indian Creek. There, Stone preached to over 10,000 that had gathered.


The Cane Ridge Revival was held August 6-11, 1801. It is estimated that between 12,000 and 20,000 people attended. This figure represented about ten percent of the population of Kentucky. There were an estimated 300 to 1,000 conversions. Between 18 and 40 ministers preached including Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist.  An African-American minister also preached. Like the previous revivals, the behavior of the attendees was extravagant with “dancing, barking, falling and jerking.” However, the excessive and unusual behavior, according to Stone, did not discredit the sincere and genuine conversions.

The spontaneous conversions that Stone witnessed not only at Cane Ridge, but also at the other revivals conflicted with the strict Calvinism (predestination, election, reprobation) of the Presbyterianism. Witnessing ordinary people, all people—rich, poor, slave, free, black and white—come to faith in Christ also reaffirmed his scriptural belief that Christ died for all, and salvation can be revealed to all; not just the elect. He believed that all have the power to accept the grace of Christ and be saved. Presbyterians at the time did not believe revivals were necessary since God was going to save who God willed regardless. The conversions of Cane Ridge reinforced Stone’s trust in the Bible over any human-made confession (Westminster or otherwise). The inclusion of Baptists and Methodists, not only in the shared preaching responsibilities, but at the communion table during the Cain Ridge Revival, also reaffirmed his belief in Christian unity. However it greatly disturbed the orthodox Presbyterians who believed communion was only reserved for the elect, and the Presbyterian table was only reserved for Presbyterians.

Three months after the Cane Ridge revival, the controversy began to swell. Within a couple of years Presbyteries began meeting and charging ministers participating in the revivals with heresy as they disapproved the preaching of a message that Christ died for all instead of the just the elect. At the Lexington Synod meeting in September 1803, the members were in the midst of drawing up a resolution to formally try Robert McNemar. The meeting was interrupted as Barton Stone, McNemar and three other ministers came into the room and read a formal statement protesting the actions of the Synod and announcing their immediate withdrawal. The statement read: “We bid you adieu until through the providence of God it seems good to your rev. body to adopt a more liberal plan, respecting human Creeds and confessions.” After failed attempts by the Synod to reconcile, as the five desired to remain Presbyterian if diversity would be allowed, the five were suspended from their pulpits.

The newly declared body, which only consisted of the five dissenting ministers, named themselves the “Springfield Presbytery” at Springfield, Ohio, near Cincinnati. They claimed the Bible as their only guide and renounced all creeds that denied people the right to question and disprove doctrines by scripture. On January 31, 1804, the group wrote a hundred page justification of their existence. The part written by Stone stated their theological beliefs which included: opposition to all confessions and creeds; Christ died for all people; faith is belief of testimony; the gospel is the only rule of faith; and belief that all Christians should be united. Stone wrote:

The Christian Church has long been divided into many different sects. Each has a creed, confession of faith or brief statement of doctrine…The people have no privilege to examine it by scripture and prove it to be wrong…If any should do this he is cast out as a heretic…Is it not better to clear away all the rubbish of human opinion and build the church on the rock of ages?…Creeds split the church…Christians would be united if human creeds were laid aside…

The Springfield Presbytery only lasted for nine months as the ministers decided that if they were going to be independent of orthodox Presbyterianism, a separate presbytery was not needed. Believing firmly in the unity of all Christians, they were also against growing another splinter group. McNemar met the group with a document that would become one of the founding documents of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) when they met for the last time at Cane Ridge in June, 1804. The “whimsically phased” document was called The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery. Stone and his colleagues also committed “to take no other name than Christians,” noting that this was the first name given by God to the followers of Christ (Acts 11:26).

In 1805, several former members, including McNemar, joined the Shaker movement. Soon after, the remaining members, except for Stone, returned to Presbyterianism. Stone was the only one who remained faithful to the Christian movement; hence, he has been named the founder of the Christian Church. Stone subsequently published several controversial articles on doctrines such as the Trinity and Atonement.

Stone lost his wife, Elizabeth, in 1810, but he boarded their four daughters and continued to establish churches in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. In 1811, he married is wife’s cousin, Celia and soon moved to Tennessee to live near Celia’s widowed mother. His time in Tennessee resulted in a break from ministry and a seven-year cessation of his writings as he worked on Celia’s family farm and raised two boys.

It was years later before Stone returned to Kentucky. He was appointed principal of the Rittenhouse Academy in Georgetown in 1819 which provided much needed income. While he was principal, he also established a Christian church that quickly grew to over 200 members. Recognizing his gifts for ministry and his contribution to the Christian Church movement, leaders of several Christian churches in Northern Kentucky met and agreed to support him and his family financially so he could devote 100% of his time to ministry. However, shortly after, the United States entered a major economic depression, and the promised funds never materialized. At the age of 50, he had to turn once again to “hard labor” on the farm.

Despite the economic recession, the movement that Stone started continued to grow. By 1819, the Christian Church in the West numbered 16,000 with churches in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Ohio, and Indiana. The movement also extended into North Carolina and Virginia. Many of the members were new converts and joined the Christian churches by profession of faith and believer’s baptism by immersion. However, a large number came from transfer of membership from Baptist churches in response to the Christians’ belief to unify the church on the Bible alone without creeds and confessions.

Stone met Alexander Campbell in 1824. Campbell, who had started a parallel movement against creeds in Pennsylvania, was preaching throughout Kentucky calling for Baptists to reject the Philadelphia Confession of faith. By the end of the decade one-fourth to one-third of all Kentucky Baptists joined the Campbell reformers movement. Although Stone did not agree with all of Campbell’s teaching, Stone worked hard during this time appealing to Campbell to unite with the Christian churches. The efforts of Stone and others to achieve unity was widely successful in Kentucky; however, many Christians in Ohio and Indiana, who rejected Campbell’s teaching on the remission of sins did not choose to unite.

By 1834, after inheriting 2 slaves that he immediately freed, Stone worked to move his family and the former slaves to Illinois where the former slaves could live in a free society. This action exemplified Stone’s progressive, open mind, his belief that Christ truly love all and died for all, his belief in the unity of all Christians, whether they be slave or free, and his belief in the scriptures over any creed, confession, civil law or cultural norm. He continued to struggle for these beliefs until his death in 1844. His body is currently at rest in the cemetery at Cane Ridge.

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