A Brief History of the Churches of Christ and the Restoration Movement

Every great religious movement has a cultural and historical setting that helped to shape and
define its character and personality. This is certainly true for the Restoration Movement of the
early 1800s that gave birth to the Churches of Christ. This effort to bring religious unity by
restoring the doctrine and practice of the New Testament church has three major roots:

  1. The Great Awakening. The first religious revival in America took place in the 1730s and
    1740s. The second great revival began in the late 1700s in Tennessee, Kentucky, and
    Ohio. This renewed interest in religion led many new believer searching for a church
    they could join. Often their frontier location did not offer them a church like the one
    they had belonged to back east. Therefore, they were open to investigating the Bible in
    order to find a church like the one mentioned in the New Testament. One of the leading
    revival preachers was Barton W. Stone, a former Presbyterian minister in Kentucky. He
    became one of the founders of the Restoration Movement.
  2. The American Experience. The early 1800s were years of triumph for America and
    democracy. The Constitution was ratified in 1789 and produced the unity needed to
    save the nation from what would have been certain disintegration and failure. Much of
    the religious journalism of the early 1800s compared the Bible to the Constitution. What
    the Constitution had done to unite bickering states, the Bible could do to unite the
    various denominations and churches. Another important date is 1803, the year of the
    Louisiana Purchase. This opened up new land and new possibilities. As new communities
    formed, often there were not enough members of nay religious group to form a
    congregation, so frequently they banded together. This led to religious discussions that
    attempted to establish common ground and unity.
  3. Age of Reason and Enlightenment. The 1700s are known as the Age of Reason. The
    scientific method had shown that the universe operates according to unalterable laws
    and logical patterns. It was the age of Galileo, Descartes, Isaac Newton, and Francis
    Bacon. It was during the period that the Scottish philosopher John Locke wrote his
    essay, “The Reasonableness of Christianity.” He claimed that religious unity could be
    achieved by logical reasoning and agreement on the essentials: that Jesus was the
    Messiah and that we must obey His clear commands. One of the leaders of the
    Restoration Movement, Alexander Campbell, was a student of John Locke. Under the
    influence of the Age of Reason, the Bible became more mechanical, more precise, more
    personal, and less mysterious.

It was this background that gave birth to the Restoration Movement. The frontier unity
movement was led by Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander, Presbyterians from
Pennsylvania and Barton W. Stone, a Presbyterian from Kentucky. This movement encouraged
Christians to drop their denominations’ names: “We are Christians only, but not the only
Christians.” The leaders of the Restoration Movement believed that with a rational approach it
would be possible to duplicate the patterns of the church of the first century. In order to
minimize division over matters of opinion, they began to value the following theme: “We will
speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.”

By the 1850s, the plea for unity of believers on the basis of the Bible alone had captured the
imagination and allegiance of several hundred thousand Christians from Maine to Texas, and
they were one of the fastest growing Christian groups in America. Unfortunately, this new unity
and restoration movement itself struggled to maintain unity amidst widespread growth and
diversifying interpretation of scripture. In the next few decades following the Civil War, it
divided into three major factions: (1) the Disciples of Christ, (2) the Christian Church, and (3) the
Church of Christ.