A Brief History of the Stone-Campbell Tradition

19th Century Revival
19th Century Revival Meeting.

The American frontier of the early 19th century was brimming with religious fervor. While the human spirit was being awakened in the cities of the United States, there was a special intensity to the revivals of the frontier.

Included in these revivals were churches that now comprise the Stone-Campbell heritage. The name comes from the primary founders of this branch of Christianity. In Kentucky, Barton Warren Stone (1772-1844) was a Presbyterian minister who, along with others, called for a return to simple New Testament Christianity. In fact, Stone believed that followers of Christ should go by no other name than “Christian.” In Pennsylvania and what is now West Virginia, father and son Thomas Campbell (1763-1854) and Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) championed the idea of “one Church of Christ upon earth.” They, too, believed that followers of Christ should not be identified by sectarian names and asked that only “Disciples” be used.

When the Stone and Campbell camps eventually came together, both “Christian” and “Disciples of Christ” were retained as designators.

Stone-Campbell churches fall into the category of Protestant free-church. That is, individual congregations are seen as the pinnacle of church expression, are independent/autonomous organizations, and advocate the separation of church and state.

The Stone-Campbell churches are characterized by a focus on New Testament teaching, shared governance between clergy and laity, baptism by immersion, ecumenism, and the regular celebration of communion during worship.

There was never a monolithic structure for these churches. In North America today, Stone-Campbell churches are found mainly in three groups (or “streams”): Churches of ChristChristian Churches/Churches of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The latter has especially been involved in Christian ecumenism since the beginning of the 20th century.

The three streams are connected through an organization known as the World Convention. Globally, congregations descending from this tradition can be found in over 100 countries.

Disciples of Christ Historical Society archives materials related to all churches in the Stone-Campbell heritage and offers research assistance to interested parties. Disciples History also tells the Stone-Campbell story through this website and other resources.

Notable People

Thomas Campbell was a Presbyterian minister important in the Second Great Awakening of the United States. Born in County Down, northern Ireland, he began a religious reform movement on the American frontier. He was joined in the work by his son Alexander Campbell. Their movement, known as the "Disciples of Christ", merged in 1832 with the similar movement led by Barton W. Stone to form what is now described as the American Restoration Movement (also known as the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement).

Alexander Campbell was an early leader in the Second Great Awakening of the religious movement that has been referred to as the Restoration Movement, or Stone-Campbell Movement. The Campbell wing of the movement was said to begin with his father Thomas Campbell's publication in 1809 in Washington County, Pennsylvania, of The Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington.

Walter Scott was one of the four key early leaders in the Restoration Movement, along with Barton W. Stone, Thomas Campbell and Thomas' son Alexander Campbell. He was a successful evangelist and helped to stabilize the Campbell movement as it was separating from the Baptists.

Barton Warren Stone was an important preacher during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. He was first ordained a Presbyterian minister, then was expelled from the church after the Cane Ridge, Kentucky revival for his stated beliefs in faith as the sole prerequisite for salvation.

Notable Moments

Born Feb 1 in County Down, northern Ireland.

Born December 24, 1772 in Charles county, Maryland.

Born Sept 12 in County Antrim, Ireland

Born in Moffatt, Scotland

From August 6-12, as many as 20,000 people came to Cane Ridge, northeast of Lexington, for a sacramental meeting often remembered as “America’s Pentecost.” For over a year strange occurrences had been reported at revivals in southern and central Kentucky: jerks, barking, “falling down” and piercing shrieks accompanied fervent preaching and singing.

The first of the Stone-Campbell manifestos, Stone and five of his colleagues describe their decision to leave Presbyterianism.

When Thomas Campbell arrived in America in 1807 he discovered a rancor not unlike that which he fled in Ireland. His attempts to bridge the divide between Presbyterian groups were met with censure from his presbytery and synod. He and a few dozen like-minded individuals established the Christian Association of Washington, Pennsylvania to foster evangelical Christianity. The Declaration and Address consists of the purposes, objectives and rationale for the Christian Association. Though inaccessible for most of the first hundred years of the movement it sparked, it was reissued for the 1909 Pittsburgh Centennial Celebration.

  • Bibliography
  • A Future History

    Glenn Thomas Carson  Nashville: Chalice Press, 2005

  • American Congregations, Vol. 2: New Perspectives in the Study of Congregations

    Edited by James P. Wind, James W. Lewis, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994 

  • Baptism: embodiment of the Gospel, Disciples baptismal theology

    Clark M Williamson, St. Louis: Christian Board of Publication, 1987
    Disciples History holding in WorldCat

  • Barton Stone: A Spiritual Biography

    D. Newell Williams  Chalice Press, 2000

  • Congregations: Stories and Structures

    James F. Hopewell, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987