Thursday, January 04, 2018

Early Beginnings of the Disciples in North Carolina

Meta Chestnutt Sager (1863-1948), the subject of my dissertation, grew up among the Christian Churches of eastern North Carolina. As a way of identifying and exploring her religious roots, I wrote the following description of the early Restoration Movement in that part of the United States.

At least four factors contributed to the beginning and growth of the Restoration Movement in North Carolina. The first relates to the former Presbyterian minister Barton W. Stone and the "Christian" movement that he led during the decades that followed the famous great revival in 1801 at Cane Ridge, Kentucky.

Within three years after that event, Stone and a few other like-minded leaders had completely broken away from their denomination. In 1804, they published a droll apology, "The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery," long considered a founding document of the Restoration Movement. Among Stone's friends and proteges was Joseph Thomas, a Kentuckian widely known for his distinctive attire, a white suit and vest for which he was dubbed "the White Pilgrim." Between 1811 and 1815, Thomas preached the "Christian" message at various points in North Carolina, converting and making an indelible impression on many whose descendants would someday join hands with the Disciples of Christ.[1]

A second factor was the influence of Alexander Campbell's popular monthly magazines. On June 19-20, 1820, at Mount Pleasant, Ohio, Campbell engaged in a public debate against John Walker, a Presbyterian minister. The primary point of contention was infant baptism by sprinkling, the Presbyterian view, versus believer's baptism by immersion, a position held by Campbell. Not long afterward, an edition of the debate was prepared and published. The first 1,000 copies of the book sold quickly, and a second printing of 3,000 copies soon followed. As Campbell's biographer, Robert Richardson, explains, the public reaction to religious controversy in print did much to spur Campbell to consider the possibilities of leadership through publication:
Having realized in publishing the Debate with Mr. Walker the power of the press to disseminate his view, as he was now in consequence often receiving letters of inquiry and solicitation for visits and preaching from many quarters, he began to think of issuing, in monthly parts, a work specially devoted to the interests of the proposed Reformation.  . . . It was not until after he saw the effect of the debated into which he was reluctantly drawn with Mr. Walker that he began to take new views of his position, and to cherish, for the first time, the hope that something might be done upon a more extended scale to rouse the people from their spiritual lethargy.[2]
Campbell launched The Christian Baptist in 1823, and replaced it with The Millennial Harbinger in 1830. Not long after Campbell began publishing The Christian Baptist, he noticed that a growing number of his subscribers lived in the Tar Heel State. An item from a writer in North Carolina appeared in the pages of Campbell's journal as early as 1826.[3]

Third, fully aware of the interest shown by believers in North Carolina, Thomas Campbell, Alexander's father, made a trip there in 1833. The elder Campbell conducted a lecture tour and met many of those who were sympathetic to his distinctive religious outlook. His visit seems to have inspired especially B. F. Hall. In 1833, the Dover Baptist Association in northeastern Virginia expelled a number of congregations because of their sympathy for Campbellite teaching. Hall had been a member of one of those congregations. Upon coming to North Carolina, he railed against creeds and systems of church discipline, and taught that anyone who loved the Lord, believed in Jesus Christ, and wished to be baptized, should immediately receive the ordinance and be recognized a member of the church, the blood-washed body for whom Christ died.[4]

Hall's message appealed to, among others, the erstwhile followers of James O'Kelly. In 1792, O'Kelly led the first schism in American Methodism. The breakaway group first called themselves Republican Methodists. But standing by their commitment to the authority of the Scriptures, they searched for a name that was biblically approved. In the course of their meetings, they considered and debated several resolutions. Finally, a young man named Rice Haggard convinced the group to call themselves simply Christians. The conference unanimously adopted the proposal, and from that time on they wore no other name. Congregations of this group were known as Christian churches.[5]

In North Carolina, Free Will Baptists in particular subscribed to Alexander Campbell's publications and attended Thomas Campbell's lectures. Consequently, a large number of Free Will Baptists in the state united with the Disciples of Christ during the 1830s and 40s. In fact, of the twenty-six ministers on the very first register of Disciples in North Carolina, twenty-four of them, a full 92 percent, had formerly identified as Free Will Baptists. Many in the state considered Thomas Campbell's visit of 1833-34 the birth of a distinctive Disciple presence there.[6]

Fourth and finally, the Restoration Movement in North Carolina also grew as a result of the leadership of Dr. John Tomline Walsh. In 1852, Walsh, originally from Virginia, became the first educator-evangelist employed to work among the Disciples in North Carolina. Walsh had formerly published The Southern Review from Richmond, Virginia. In 1848, he established a medical college in Philadelphia and taught anatomy and physiology. His broad experience, active mind, and devotion to the Disciple cause made him the ideal person for the task of helping the churches to grow in size and in number.[7]


[1] Robert M. Calhoon, "Disciples of Christ," in Encyclopedia of North Carolina, ed. William S. Powell (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 342. The story of early Restorationism in America, of which the Stone Movement was a part, is told by Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 67-81. A good overview of the basic theological outlook of American restorationist leaders can be found E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), ch. 14.

[2] Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, Vol. II (Indianapolis: Religious Book Service, 1898), 48-49.

[3] J. C. "Extract of a letter from a friend in North Carolina, to the editor, dated September 10, 1826," The Christian Baptist 4, no. 5 (December 4, 1826), 104-06.

[4] Calhoon, "Disciples of Christ," 342. For a brief sketch of Hall's influence in the first generation of the Restoration in America, see Charles L. Woodall, "Hall, Benjamin Franklin," in Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, 380.

[5] Wilbur E. MacClenney, The Life of Rev. James O'Kelly (Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton, 1910), 115-16. For more on the critical role played by Haggard, see my article, "Rice Haggard: Unsung Hero of the Restoration," Gospel Advocate (March 1997), 26-31.

[6] Thomas Campbell's letters home during this trip are in Alexander Campbell, Memoirs of Elder Thomas Campbell, together with a Brief Memoir of Mrs. Jane Campbell (Cincinnati: H. S. Bosworth, 1861), 152-164. Interestingly, these letters point to an experience far different from a religious triumph. The elder Campbell mostly laments his separation from his wife and family, and focuses on the consolation he receives from the Lord.

[7] Much of the description here relies on the outline of developments provided by Griffith A. Hamlin, "Educational Activities of the Disciples of Christ in North Carolina, 1852-1902," The North Carolina Historical Review 33, no. 3 (July 1956), 313-315. Regarding Free Will Baptist history in North Carolina, according to sources like H. L. McBeth, "Free Will Baptists," in Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 452-53, Maryland-born minister Paul Palmer, of Arminian persuasion, first established what came to be known as Free Will Baptist churches in North Carolina, beginning in the 1720s. But J. M. Barfield and Thad Harrison, History of the Free Will Baptists of North Carolina, rev. ed., J. O. Fort (Ayden, NC: Free Will Baptist Press, 1960), 38-39, point to origins as early as the late 1600s. For detailed information regarding the Disciple annexation of Free Will Baptist congregations in North Carolina, see George W. Stevenson, "Some Light on a Confused Period of Free Will Baptist History," The Free Will Baptist 76, no. 38 (Sept. 27, 1961), 3-4.


Greg Lamberth said...

You commented on Legacy Churches back in 2012 and I'm despartly trying to get some follow-up.

HELP! I'm looking for more literature or research about the concept of a small church in an isolated rural community being a (my words) "Mooring Church" for those in the community. Can you point me to anything?? PLEASE.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi, Greg. When I read your comment, for some reason my mind recalled a book I studied many years ago by the great Lyle E. Schaller titled "Choices for Churches" (Abingdon Press, 1990). Why did I think of it? I pulled it off the shelf and noticed that the last chapter is titled "The Rural Church and the Sixty-Mile City." That book, and especially that chapter, might be important reading for you. One of Schaller's themes is that churches sometimes have more possibilities open to them than they realize. So in this book, Schaller is pointing to various alternatives that church leaders may have overlooked. I do not know how changes in American society, demographics, etc., might make the book seem dated. However, my experience is that Schaller's observations tend to hold up quite well. Blessings.