By Eric Keiper
In 1831, a remarkable event occurred in two cities in the state of Kentucky. Alexander Campbell’s “Disciples” were meeting with Barton Stone’s “Christians.” The purpose of their meeting was to bring the two separate restoration movements together as one. On Christmas weekend of 1831, the first meeting took place in Goergetown, Kentucky. It was followed immediately by another meeting in Lexington, Kentucky on New Year’s weekend. Garret describes it as a “festive occasion with the spirit of Christmas and New Year’s in the air, along with the dream of a united church.”
At first, one might think that this unity was an easy proposition. It’s true that the Campbell and Stone groups both believed in the Bible as the only source for religious authority. In fact, Raccoon John Smith appealed in his closing comments at the Lexington Meeting, “Let us then, my brethren, be no longer Campbellites or Stonites, 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.”
However, the task of achieving unity was much greater than one might imagine. To many, their differences would seem insurmountable. Let’s just look at a few. One might guess already that there was disagreement over the name of believers. “The Stone movement was adamant in wearing the name Christian . . . while Campbell followers preferred Disciples.” There was a “rather serious conflict between Stone and Campbell over the doctrine of the pre-existent Christ. ” “The Christians had an ordained ministry and a higher concept of the ministerial office . . . The Disciples were actually anti-clerical . . .” “The Christians . . . were emotional even to the point of using the mourners bench . . . the Disciples . . . were more rational in their approach . . . and rejected the mourners bench.” “While they were both immersionists, the Christians did not emphasize it like the Disciples did, believing that one could be saved without being immersed and that it was not necessary to Christian communion.” “The Disciples served the [Lord’s] Supper every first day, the Christians observed it on an irregular basis . . .” “The Christians had a broader view of the ministry of the Holy Spirit . . . The Disciples were inclined to limit the Spirit’s influence to the word . . .” “While both were unity conscious, the idea of uniting all men in Christ was predominant with the Christians. The Disciples were more concerned for a restoration of the ancient order.”
Today, we look at these points of difference and may be aghast. Some may not be aware that such differences existed. Others, may be surprised that such a great gap could exist between two groups who claimed to use the Bible as their only guide. One can look at this list of differences and see the formation of points of doctrine that we believe today. However, note that neither side had all the truth. They benefitted greatly from coming together. Both were able to throw aside error and learn from each other. This was because they came together upon the foundational plea of both groups, “the Bible only.”
How did such unity take place. Well, it was “fragile” at the outset. But, in the next 30 years it grew together toward the unity of the faith. One of the most important attitudes that permitted this to happen was a deep desire for unity. It was a commitment that guided brethren with carefulness in the teaching of God’s word and in diligent love towards one another. When Raccoon John Smith rose to speak at the close of the Lexington meeting he exemplified this careful attitude in all he did. “Smith arose with simple dignity, and stood prayerful and self possessed, before the mingling brotherhoods. He felt, as no one else could feel it, the weight of the responsibility that rested on him. A single unscriptural position taken — the least sectarian feeling betrayed — an intemperate word — a proud, unfraternal glance of the eye — might arouse suspicion and prejudice, and blast the hope of union in the very moment it was budding with so many promises. Every eye turned on him, and every ear leaned to catch the slightest tones of his voice.” Do you see the carefulness that brought unity? Do you see the diligence that allowed each group to see the good in the other and cast away their own error? It was an attitude of love combined with a commitment to be unified. I am aware of no better example than Raccoon John Smith at the Lexington meeting to keep the words of Ephesians 4:2-3. “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Do you ever wonder why we lack in the unity department today? Perhaps, we’re not implementing the principles that unified the Restoration Movement — scriptural principles.
Perhaps, now, we go about purposefully causing suspicion and prejudice among brethren. Perhaps, now, we are filled with pride, giving “the unfraternal glance,” and toss flippant “intemperate words” towards brethren. Make no mistake about the truth of God’s Word! When we re- embrace “lowliness,” “meekness,” “longsuffering,” “forbearing love” as we work to the unity of the faith, then we’ll have unity. Maybe with careful words and tempered demeanor we can see the good in one another and cast away our own error. Maybe with humility, love, and truth we can be the answer to the Savior’s prayer, “that they may be one.”
May we all draw from this pivotal point in our history and learn from the good example of faith. References: The Stone Campbell Movement, Revised and Expanded, Garret, Leroy, 1997, College Press,185. As quoted from Williams, “The Life of Elder John Smith,” 183, 193-194.
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