This article was written as a supplement to our Wednesday night class, “Story of the Churches of Christ.” Join us Wednesdays at 6:30PM as we look at our heritage, consider our past, and look toward the future.
Last week, we learned that the Restoration Movement, the American religious movement that developed into Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (Also called “Independent Christian Churches”) began with the convergence of two very different groups of Christians. The mutual commitment to unity among Barton W. Stone’s “Christians” and Thomas and Alexander Campbell’s “Disciples” led to the merging of several congregations at the local level, until eventually the Stone and Campbell movements became the “Stone-Campbell Movement”, or the “Restoration Movement.”
As Dr. Douglas A. Foster mentioned in the video series, Stone and Campbell differed radically in their theology, and Churches of Christ have largely inherited the theological tradition of Alexander Campbell. Consequently, Barton W. Stone has become somewhat of a forgotten father of the Churches of Christ.
So I’ve put together this little supplement to help us understand Stone and his world. In many ways, Stone’s conversion from traditional Presbyterianism reflected a larger conversion happening across the landscape of American religion, particularly in America’s frontier. Historians refer to this conversion as the “Second Great Awakening.”
Barton’s Theological Difficulties
Barton W. Stone was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1798; however, he already harbored some doubts about the Presbyterian doctrines outlined in Westminster Confession of Faith. His primary difficulties were over classical Trinitarianism, which he found to be confusing and nonsensical, and the doctrine of election. This latter teaching stated that God had predestined certain people for salvation, and that the only way for a person to know if they had been so elected was for God’s spirit to first convict them of their sins, and then for them to undergo a conversion experience sometime later—often a matter of months. Stone had been converted in such a manner. Preaching had convinced him that he was a sinner, destined for condemnation. After several weeks of depression, Stone attended a gospel meeting and listen to a sermon based on the text “God is love.” He was deeply affected by the sermon, and experienced a deep warming of his heart and a sense of enlightenment, like his “mind was absorbed in the doctrine.” However, he continued to be troubled by the implications of election. How was it that the God who wanted all to come to know him would make it possible that only some should have the ability to come to faith?
The Revival of the West
In 1801, Stone attended a large tent revival in Logan County, KY. At this time, Kentucky was still the American frontier, and the Great Revival movement was making its way across the country. At the time, religious life had been in decline. As settlers made their ways west to found small settlements, it was often the case that they came from different denominational backgrounds. A town might have a few Presbyterians, some Methodists, and perhaps a handful of Baptists all worshipping separately. This sectarianism was met by a general malaise of religious complacency. This may be due to the rather harsh Calvanist doctrine of election that had troubled Stone. People who had not experienced a major movement of supernatural conversion assumed that, if there was a God, God had doomed them anyway.
Stone’s experiences of the revival at Logan County could not be more different. Thousands of people were gathering together to worship and observe communion. At this time, they were nearly all Presbyterians, though similar meeting were occurring in other denominations. Importantly, Stone witnessed what he perceived to be the power of the Holy Spirit, affecting people who heard and were convicted by the gospel message. He saw people “falling.” Falling had become a fairly standard feature of Presbyterian revivals. Stone describes seeing people falling in his diary from the Logan County revival: “Many, very many fell down, as men slain in battle, and continued for hours together in an apparently breathless and motionless state—sometimes for a few moments reviving, and exhibiting symptoms of life by a deep groan, or piercing shriek, or by a prayer for mercy most fervently uttered.”
Falling was, for Stone and thousands of others across the frontier, evidence that the Spirit of God was converting people, and most importantly, converting people immediately. This was not a protracted period of contrition followed by a warming of the soul—the usual evidence that God had elected a person for salvation. These were men, women, and children who were hearing the Gospel of Christ being preached, and in a matter of hours—less even!—being so affected by the gospel that they were giving their lives to Christ. “With astonishment,” he wrote, “did I hear men, women and children declaring the wonderful works of God, and the glorious mysteries of the gospel.” Hearing the way that those so converted were speaking the truth of the gospel, Stone was convinced that these people had been delivered.
Stone thus began making plans for another communion service revival to take place in August of 1801 at his home of Cane Ridge, Kentucky.
The Cane Ridge Revival
Stone began organizing the Revival meeting as a communion service—as most of the Presbyterian revival meetings were. Word of the meeting spread throughout the summer across Kentucky, and not only among the Presbyterians. Stone was sure to include Methodist preachers in the organization and preaching. The communion service was therefore intended from the beginning to be ecumenical.
From August 6-12, somewhere around 20,000 people gathered around the little log cabin of the Cane Ridge Meeting House to worship God and hear the gospel preached from the various preachers. Evangelists sometimes took turns speaking, or, when the crowds were so large that not everyone could hear a particular evangelists, several preached at once at various stations around the camp. Most of these preachers were Presbyterians and Methodists, though there were some Baptists. There were also a few African American preachers, and among the attendees were slaves who had come with their owners to the revival. In addition to preachers, participants—especially those who had “fallen,”—often began to speak with enthusiastic conviction of their own experiences of God’s love and grace and exhorting others to surrender their lives to God. Hundreds of people spoke in this way–men, women and children.
20,000 people. The population of Kentucky at the time was 220,095—so nearly a tenth of the state’s population were gathered in the woods that week. Somewhere between 800 and 1,100 people took communion when it was served on Sunday, mostly Presbyterians but also a few Methodists.
The Cane Ridge Revival was the largest and perhaps the most important revival during the Second Great Awakening. It catalyzed several religious movements, not just the Stone-Campbell Movement. It marks a major moment in the history of American Christianity, and, in light of the missions movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, Christianity around the whole world.
The Legacy of the Cane Ridge Revival
The revivals, especially the one at Cane Ridge, shaped the theology of Barton W. Stone and continue to influence churches today. Here are just some of the theological commitments that form the legacy of Cane Ridge.
- God transforms sinners through the Gospel, without a previous work of the Holy Spirit – This is a direct repudiation of the Presbyterian doctrine Stone had experienced. At the revivals, Stone witnessed normal men, women, and children convicted and experiencing transformative faith from hearing the gospel preached. Salvation was not a matter of waiting around to discover if God had elected a person, but rather a matter of hearing and responding to the preached Word of God. God worked through the gospel to make sinners willing to come to Christ. The immediacy of conversion was later emphasized by Walter Scott in his five-finger exercise. A person would be saved by “Faith,” “Repentance,” “Baptism,” “Remission of Sins,” and “Gifts of the Holy Spirit.” (This later evolved to Hear, Believe, Repent, Confess, be baptized).
- God’s Spirit and the Salvation offered in the Gospel transcends sectarianism – We mentioned last week, especially with regard to Thomas Campbell, that various splits within denominations were fragmenting Christianity further and further, and that sectarianism had been transplanted from Europe to American churches. But at the revivals, God seemed to be converting people from all walks of life, through the preaching of Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. This profoundly influenced Stone. At Cane Ridge, Stone and the organizers invited both Presbyterians and Methodists to share in the communion, despite their differences in theology. Stone would later write in the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery of the “Body of Christ at large,” and that “there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling” (quoting Ephesians 4:5). God was working in and among Christians from various denominational backgrounds.
- Religious conversion can be a loud, enthusiastic, spirited experience – This wasn’t so much a revelation for Barton W. Stone as it might be for people worshipping in Churches of Christ today. The theology and shape of worship of Churches of Christ were formed in the post-Enlightenment 19th Alexander Campbell approached the Bible as a book of “facts” and referred to the New Testament as providing a “Constitution” for the church. This is the Enlightenment heritage that has helped Churches of Christ develop a commitment to knowledge, preaching, and the study of scripture. But it has also led to an over-emphasis on the “brain.” Conversion is more than intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. It’s more than being convinced in our minds that certain teachings are true. Conversion is a total realignment of one’s life to God, and moments of conviction or conversion may bring someone to their knees in sorrow or in joy. The Campbell in us might see someone in church raising their hands in praise or responding to God’s grace with visible emotion and think, “Is that really appropriate?” But Stone would see this and say, “Of course. This is the grace of God.”
Video – Cane Ridge Revival
The video below is from the PBS Dateline series “God in America,” episode 2, “A New Eden.” It tells the story of preacher James Finley experiencing the Cane Ridge Revival. Like Stone, Finley struggled with the Calvanist theology of election. This video gives us a glimpse of what it would be like to experience the largest revival in America.
Foster, Douglas A., et. al. eds. The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.
Williams, D. Newell, Barton Stone: A Spiritual Biography. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000.