A dark wood sign with white trimming and wording saying: "Church of Christ meets here. Bible study - Sunday 9:30 AM and Wednesday 7:00 PM. Worship Sunday 10:30 AM and 6:00 PM"
Date of establishment: 1906 (Active for 118 years)

Current Data

Churches of Christ emerged in the first major division of the Stone-Campbell Movement at the end of the nineteenth century as those who maintained a strict understanding of the directives and silences of the Bible. By 1906 the United States Bureau of the Census in a special religious census had distinguished Churches of Christ as a separate entity from Disciples of Christ. Advocacy of missionary organizations (societies), both home and foreign, and the use of instrumental music in worship — “innovations” that leaders of Churches of Christ vehemently opposed — furnished the immediate causes of separation. Churches of Christ count approximately 1,300,000 members in the United States, more than 1,000,000 in Africa, an estimated 1,000,000 in India, and perhaps 50,000 in Central and South America. Total membership in the world exceeds 3,000,000.

In the United States the majority of members are located in the mid-section of the country from Pittsburgh to El Paso, with the northern border extending from Pittsburgh through Indianapolis, St. Louis, Wichita, and Albuquerque, and the southern through Atlanta, Montgomery, Baton Rouge, Houston, and San Antonio. More than 28 percent of members of Churches of Christ live in Texas (293,000) and Tennessee (170,000). Tennessee claims the highest percentage of members of Churches of Christ in relation to population. About 5,000 members reside in New England, about 20,000 in the Middle Atlantic states, 160,000 in the South Atlantic states, 170,000 in the upper Midwest, 46,000 in the Rocky Mountain states, and 86,000 on the Pacific rim.

The total number of congregations of Churches of Christ in the United States and territories exceeds 13,000. These congregations average approximately 100 members. There are 60 congregations with more than 1,000 members, and 250 with between 500 and 1,000 members.

Mainstream Churches of Christ account for about 75 percent of the congregations and 87 percent of the membership. The remaining churches comprise four major groupings. For the most part these groups depart from the consensus in practices rather than in theological perspectives. The largest group had separated by 1960, with 2,055 churches identifying themselves as noninstitutional. They oppose parachurch organizations of all kinds and eschew special ministries and related facilities. About 1,100 congregations oppose the use of church classes, arguing that the assembly should not be divided even for children. About 550 congregations oppose use of multiple communion cups, some of these also opposing classes. Another group of about 130 congregations emphasize mutual edification by various leaders in the churches and oppose one person doing most of the preaching. Congregations in these four groupings are smaller in size, and many do not recognize the validity of the other groups.

About 1,240 congregations of Churches of Christ have predominantly African American membership, with about 172,000 members. The number of independent Spanish-speaking congregations in the United States is 240 with about 10,000 members, most in Texas, Puerto Rico, and California. Korean, Chinese, Haitian, Filipino, and Japanese congregations exist in smaller numbers. Many congregations, especially in heavily populated regions, have a rich diversity of membership from varied racial, ethnic, educational, professional, non-professional, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Into the early 1990s the churches influenced by the Crossroads congregation in Gainesville, Florida, and the Boston Church of Christ in Boston, Massachusetts, were counted as congregations of the Churches of Christ. Since that time they have designated themselves an independent group — the International Church of Christ (ICOC). Until the end of 2002 Kip McKean led the ICOC. After an internal struggle, Al Baird and Bob Gempel of the Los Angeles Church of Christ emerged at the top of a more complex leadership structure. More prerogative is being given to the local congregations, though the ICOC maintains a hierarchical and structured ecclesiology emphasizing evangelism and one-on-one discipling. Leaders in mainstream Churches of Christ dispute their polity and methods. The ICOC claims 430 congregations located mostly in major cities throughout the world, with about 135,000 members.

Organizational Structure

Churches of Christ from the beginning have maintained no formal organizational structures larger than the local congregations and no official journals or vehicles declaring sanctioned positions. Church leaders and preachers are highly entrepreneurial. Consensus views do, however, often emerge through the influence of opinion leaders who express themselves in journals, at lectureships, or at area preacher meetings and other gatherings. Until the 1980s, editors, especially of the Gospel Advocate (1855–) and the Firm Foundation (1884–), were significant molders of consensus views. Journal editors promoted standard commitments and criticized views and proposals that deviated from normative positions. Since the 1980s lectureship speakers and leaders at Christian universities have been more influential than editors. B. C. Goodpasture (1895-1977), editor of the Gospel Advocate in the mid-twentieth century, characterized the methods through which consensus and deviations in the churches are achieved as “a wild democracy.” Those who lose in consensus battles develop new constituencies and communication channels.

In the Context of the Stone-Campbell Movement

Perspectives of early leaders among Churches of Christ represented trajectories in the Stone-Campbell Movement that were already present in the beginning. Some of these trajectories could be traced to Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, and Barton W. Stone, while others were minority views of secondary leaders. In preserving certain beliefs and practices of Campbell, Scott, and Stone, these early leaders of Churches of Christ could in part justify their claim that they were the true heirs of the Movement while Disciples had departed from the “old paths” by encouraging innovation.

Although they may have read few writings of the pioneers, early leaders in Churches of Christ emphasized foundational principles of Stone, Campbell, and Scott, including unity grounded in New Testament precepts, evangelism, baptism as immersion for the remission of sins, millennialism, opposition to credalism and theological constructs, anticlericalism, literalistic grammatico-historical hermeneutics, congregational independence, leadership by elders and deacons rather than settled ministers, membership initiative, unadorned buildings, simple worship services, straightforward preaching, pure life, and weekly observation of the Lord’s Supper. Most trajectories in the Stone-Campbell Movement have emphasized the ancient order of Alexander Campbell and the ancient gospel of Walter Scott — ecclesiology and soteriology.

Thought shapers in Churches of Christ did not, however, follow Stone, Campbell, and Scott in seeking unity with other groups and in opening toward denominational cooperation or some semblance of inclusivism. Likewise they became much more suspicious of congregational cooperation than the major early leaders. They restricted the work of the Holy Spirit to a role in the inspiration of Scripture and tended to be more suspicious of advanced education. In these tendencies they took up certain teachings of Arthur Crihfield, John R. Howard, and Matthias Winans — criticized from the beginning by Stone, Campbell, and Scott — including a bare-bones presentation of the plan of salvation, mechanistic Bible interpretation, a word-alone view of the work of the Holy Spirit, a radical anticlericalism, an extreme understanding of congregational independence, radical exclusivism, and constant intramural and extramural debating.

Churches of Christ, therefore, did not simply replicate early trajectories. In addition, disparate outlooks anticipated future conflicts among those identified as Churches of Christ in 1906.


The 1906 Federal Census provided the Churches of Christ with a decisive, self-conscious acceptance of separation from the Christian Church (or Disciples of Christ). “Church of Christ” had been employed as a self-designation by restorationist churches from the beginning, but from the latter part of the nineteenth century became increasingly the appellation of those congregations opposed to mission societies and instruments in worship. Signs of stresses and strains accelerated in the Stone-Campbell Movement after the Civil War. Churches troubled by innovations began seeking fellowship of likeminded congregations, as is clear in the Gospel Advocate, edited by David Lipscomb, and the Firm Foundation, edited by Austin McGary. The Christian Standard, edited by Isaac Errett in Cincinnati, became the journal for more “progressive” churches. In Indianapolis, Benjamin Franklin (1812-1878), editor of American Christian Review from 1856 until his death, at first actively promoted mission societies, but by the 1870s saw that various leaders had conceived new visions for ministry and church life that he was not prepared to accept. Daniel Sommer, his successor, agitated for a break with the progressives, especially in his “Sand Creek Address and Declaration” of 1889. By 1901 David Sylvester Ligon in his “Portraiture of Gospel Preachers” had printed pictures of 260 preachers he considered faithful leaders and promoters of the movement, including significant beginning fathers, such as Stone, the Campbells, Scott, Smith, and others.

R. L. Roberts and Richard T. Hughes have argued that a significant majority of the preachers who eventually ministered in Churches of Christ grew up among those who were either from the Stone movement or influenced by them. This may have been the case in Tennessee and Alabama, but less so in Kentucky and even decreasingly so north of the Ohio River and into Arkansas and Texas. In 1836 Tolbert Fanning spent several months traveling to the northeast with Alexander Campbell and was especially influenced by him. In turn Fanning decisively influenced David Lipscomb, who had come from a Baptist background through contact with restorationists in the Stone orbit. Many early preachers who influenced later leaders of Churches of Christ had been Baptists and embraced restorationism through Campbell’s writing in the Christian Baptist and later the Millennial Harbinger. One such influential regional leader was Justus M. Barnes of Alabama, a graduate of Bethany College.

Hughes is correct to identify predispositions from Stone that continue in Churches of Christ through Lipscomb and others, though many of these traits may be found in the same region among preachers influenced by “Raccoon” John Smith and other Baptists who, like him, became allied with Alexander Campbell. Stone was particularly interested in a plain style of life that avoided ostentation and government involvement. He also embraced pacifism and millennialism, more specifically a form of historical premillennialism. This complex of commitments Hughes labels “apocalyptic.” Lipscomb appears to fit the apocalyptic mold, yet many commitments of Campbell may also be found in Lipscomb and others, especially his emphasis on literalistic adherence to the ancient order, the role of baptism in remission of sins, and a more empirically rationalistic hermeneutic. Stone was much more a child of the Second Great Awakening with its emotional aspects than Alexander Campbell or Lipscomb.

David Edwin Harrell, Jr., clearly established the “sectional” and social origins of Churches of Christ. In 1906, 159,658 members were assigned to Churches of Christ out of 1,142,359 in the larger Stone-Campbell Movement. Most of these 159,658 lived in Tennessee, northern Alabama and Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas. North of the Ohio River only Indiana could count more than 5,000. Furthermore, whereas the whole movement in 1906 was predominantly rural, Churches of Christ were even more so. The leadership continued to support minimally organized church life and worship, and simplicity in church buildings, sermonizing, and teaching. In the manner of the “holiness” prohibitions of the second awakening they opposed drinking alcohol, dancing, card playing, frivolous activities on Sunday, theater attendance, extravagant clothing, and cosmetics. They emphasized abstaining from the ways of denominations or sectarians, as well as from “the world.” They often denounced societal improvement like that promoted by the social gospel, emphasizing rather what they perceived to be practical, individualistic biblical morality.

Leaders among Churches of Christ at the beginning of the twentieth century shared many concerns with rising fundamentalism. They argued for the full inspiration of the Bible, its literal interpretation, and use of Bible commentaries that adhered to these views. Prominent preachers resisted evolution, higher criticism, the social gospel, and “worldly” morality. In contrast to a majority of fundamentalists, Churches of Christ remained adamantly anti-Calvinistic in soteriology. Sermons were more rationally structured, depicting salvation as obedience to the proclaimed facts of the gospel rather than as the result of an emotional, Spirit-initiated conversion. Churches of Christ claimed to replicate the church of the New Testament and to realize the kingdom of God through the advance of the earthly church. Leaders were rapidly moving away from ideas of a radical premillennial inbreaking of God through the reign of his Son on the earth. In these ways they differed from both fundamentalism and evangelicalism as defined at the end of the twentieth century.

From the perspective of Churches of Christ, the 1906 division preserved preaching focused on the New Testament church and the gospel plan of salvation. In respect to the church, they emphasized the external features regarding congregational independence, rule by elders and deacons, simplicity in worship, and lessons on concrete contrasts with the church polity and procedures of other religious groups. The initiatives for church growth lay with the local church officers and members as well as with the preachers. Lessons on the gospel plan of salvation emphasized the human actions of hearing, believing, repenting, confessing, and being baptized. Evangelistic preaching was cogently organized and didactically presented as contrasted with the approaches to salvation of the American Protestant churches, especially those in the rural sectors. Leaders in Churches of Christ argued against modern pastor systems, ornamentation in both buildings and worship, ministerial alliances, parachurch organizations, higher criticism of the Bible, evolution, dispensational premillennialism, public involvement of women in church leadership and worship, worldly morals, and member support of private help organizations such as the Red Cross.

In the early 1900s many preachers were without a college education. Yet they were well schooled in the English Bible and in various religious journals. A small number, however, did earn college degrees, and the percentage increased after World War II. At the beginning of the twenty-first century more than 90 percent had either college degrees or certificates from schools of preaching. Individual congregations of Churches of Christ determine who shall minister in their churches. Larger congregations tend to demand more experience and education than smaller ones. No formal ordination ceremony of preachers occurs, though some are legally ordained by the attestation of the elders of the congregation to fulfill state requirements in regard to performing marriages. Prior to World War II congregations employed only a preaching minister, if any at all. Since the 1950s larger congregations added, in order of frequency, ministers for youth, education, involvement, family, college students, and counseling. In some cases ministers have a dual role, for example, family and involvement minister.

Preachers from the beginning encouraged a deep commitment to the life of the congregation and a developed personal spiritual life, to be cultivated through regular attendance at assemblies of the churches on Sunday mornings and nights. Midweek gatherings became increasingly popular in the 1940s and consisted of teaching sessions for all ages. Daily reading of the Scriptures, family devotionals, dedicated giving, a personal prayer life, and a concern for those less fortunate were also encouraged. While some early preachers in Churches of Christ could be characterized as wranglers, many of them were deeply religious persons who encouraged others to develop a Christ-like life.

Membership in Churches of Christ grew rapidly. Twenty years after the 1906 census the numbers almost doubled to 317,937. By 1936 they had almost tripled from the earliest count to 433,714. Most of the growth occurred in rural areas and in the region running from Knoxville, Tennessee, to El Paso, Texas. Centers of concentration of membership developed around Nashville, Huntsville, Louisville, Shreveport, Memphis, Jonesboro, Little Rock, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, Abilene, Lubbock, and Los Angeles.

Sources of Church Growth

For much of the twentieth century the main avenue for growth was the gospel meeting. Patterned after the revivals of the awakenings and the later protracted meetings, these meetings were characterized by reasoned teaching rather than emotionalism, Churches of Christ usually avoiding the term “revival.” Almost every preacher held gospel meetings, an indication of the continued understanding of the minister as evangelist. Pay was never a primary concern, so that every church regardless of how large or small had a gospel meeting at least annually. Most new churches were planted by first holding a gospel meeting. Preachers who became especially known in the early and mid-twentieth century for holding such meetings include Theophilus Brown Larimore, David Lipscomb, James A. Harding, Thomas Wesley Brents, Jefferson Davis Tant, Robertson Lafayette Whiteside, Charles Ready Nichol, Nicholas Brodie Hardeman, Gus Nichols, Grover Cleveland Brewer, Marshall Keeble, Foy E. Wallace, Jr., Horace Wooton Busby, Sr., and Homer Hailey.

By the 1930s gospel meetings tended to last two weeks through three Sundays. Meetings typically began with a focus on the church: its name, its identity, its officers, and its worship. Other common themes included undenominational Christianity and the “Restoration Plea.” In the second week sermons shifted to a focus on the gospel plan of salvation — usually one night each on hearing, believing, repenting, confessing, and being baptized. The final sermons detailed the contrasting joys of heaven and tortures of hell. At the close of the sermon an invitation song was sung and people were exhorted either to be baptized or to commit themselves to faithful church involvement anew (“being restored”).

These gospel meetings were highly successful in raising the level of awareness of spiritual matters in the churches and the communities in which they were held. These were special times for spiritual formation of youth, encouragement to active church involvement and leadership among the adults, and decisions to preach the gospel among young men. While gospel meetings still persist in some circles, they have become less common because of competition with movies, television, organized public school and professional sports activities, and the wide-ranging social opportunities that increasing affluence and the automobile made possible in the south-central United States.

In the 1960s, perhaps recognizing the success of major campaigns like those of Billy Graham, churches in larger cities held citywide campaigns in major auditoriums and sports stadiums. Favorite speakers were Jimmy Allen, professor of Bible at Harding College, and Batsell Barrett Baxter, chair of the Bible department at David Lipscomb College. These efforts declined in the 1980s. Campaigns also flourished in areas in which Churches of Christ were few and small, mostly in the northern tier of states from coast to coast. Campaigners went from door to door, teaching when possible, with preaching at night in a church building or other public facility. Campaigners were often college students. Andy T. Ritchie, who taught Bible at Harding, pioneered in these campaigns, and Owen D. Olbricht has continued them since 1964. Most colleges affiliated with Churches of Christ in the late twentieth century began sponsoring annual “Spring Break” and summer campaigns to involve students in national and international evangelism.

Religious debates provided another means of getting the attention of persons, especially in small cities and rural communities. Debating became popular in regions where Churches of Christ were strong, and more than 12,000 have been documented. Joe S. Warlick (1866-1941) alone claimed more than 400. Debates continued through World War II, but declined after that. Most preachers in Churches of Christ in the first half of the twentieth century had engaged in one or more debates. Though gospel meetings were not designed specifically as evangelistic efforts, often preachers held them immediately after the debate, resulting in conversions. Some preachers, notably Warlick and Jefferson Davis Tant (1861-1941), did see debates as a primary means to evangelize.

Radio programs became a means of evangelism since the early days of the medium. Hall Calhoun (1863-1935) in the 1930s preached daily on radio station WLAC in Nashville. After World War II, with the proliferation of stations, programs sponsored by Churches of Christ could be heard in many small towns in regions where they were strong. Generally an individual congregation arranged for the programs, though they sometimes received funds from other churches. No funds were solicited from listeners. Some of these programs later were broadcast on television or television cable stations. These programs were perceived as opportunities for teaching and usually had a didactic quality.

In the early 1950s James Walter Nichols (1927-1973) and James D. Willeford (1916-1992) proposed a national network radio program. Because of the antipathy toward parachurch organizations in Churches of Christ, however, it was not clear how this might be achieved. The Fifth and Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, took full charge of the program The Herald of Truth, and requested that other congregations assist. The program began with the greeting, “The Churches of Christ salute you.” Persons were employed to raise funds among the churches. After a time Batsell Barrett Baxter of Nashville became the featured speaker. Baxter employed a direct, conversational style and approached topics more as teaching than exhortation. The Herald of Truth later entered television broadcasting and other forms of media. Other congregations began additional regional and national programs, including “Amazing Grace,” sponsored by the Madison, Tennessee, Church of Christ, and “The International Gospel Hour,” first sponsored by the Walnut Street Church of Christ in Texarkana, Texas, and later by the Church of Christ in West Fayetteville, Tennessee.


Churches were planted abroad in much the same manner as in the United States, that is, by entrepreneurial effort. Persons wishing to evangelize in a foreign land proceeded to solicit support from churches and individuals. At first, these funds were often sent directly to the missionary. By the 1950s it became standard practice for a missionary to seek out a sponsoring congregation. All funds solicited were then sent to that church; the church in turn sent them to the missionary. In this way the missionary was much more likely to receive funds regularly. Some missionaries still operate without a sponsoring congregation, and some receive funds directly as well as through a sponsoring congregation.

John Moody McCaleb (1861-1953) began work in Japan in 1892 and continued until 1941, becoming the best-known early missionary in Churches of Christ. In the division between Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ, McCaleb cast his lot with Churches of Christ and became a prototype for later missionaries through reports he published in journals and books. Missions in Japan received much attention between the World Wars and afterward. Though a core of congregations and educational efforts resulted, numbers remain small with about 4,000 members.

Don Carlos Janes (1877-1944) of Louisville, Kentucky, though not a missionary himself, became the leading promoter of missions in the first four decades of the twentieth century. Traveling constantly, visiting churches, and writing letters, Janes recruited missionaries and found support for them. His articles appeared in most of the prominent journals as well as in his Boosters’ Bulletin and Missionary Messenger, encouraging churches to plant congregations in foreign countries and support missionaries. Janes collected and disbursed money for missionaries and arranged their travel to and from mission points. Various teachers in the colleges, especially David Lipscomb College, also encouraged mission efforts.

By the turn of the twentieth century missionary efforts began in Africa through the work of John Sherriff (1864-1935) from New Zealand. William Newton Short and J. D. Merritt followed in the 1920s. After World War II several different persons entered Africa, sometimes as mission teams. George Stuart Benson (1898-1991) and family arrived in China in 1925, followed by Emmett Lackey Broadus (1896-1942) in 1927.

After World War II missions outside the United States accelerated exponentially. Military personnel and civilians involved in the war had become both promoters of missions and missionaries. Japan, Europe, and Korea received the first attention, but soon missionaries were flocking to Africa, Central and South America, Australia, and Southeast Asia. With more than 500 missionaries in foreign fields, interest in mission education grew. George P. Gurganus (1916-1992) established mission programs at Freed-Hardeman, Harding Graduate School, and Abilene Christian, promoting indigenous missions as envisioned by Donald McGavran. He also encouraged mission teams, one of the first of which entered São Paulo, Brazil, in 1967. Leaders among the indigenous peoples in India, Africa, and South America have proceeded to promote training of preachers, planting of churches, and teaching of Bible correspondence courses. Numerous teams of preachers from the United States have spent a month or more in India, evangelizing periodically. Among those who have organized these efforts for almost three decades are Don Browning, Ron Clayton, Charles Scott, and Jerris Bullard. Indigenous Indian preachers have done the majority of the evangelistic work in that country as in Africa, so that there are now more members of Churches of Christ elsewhere than in the United States.

Black Churches

Americans of African descent, both slave and free, were present in congregations of the Stone-Campbell Movement almost from its inception. In the hardening of attitudes that followed the Civil War, black Christians who had previously been part of white congregations, even though they were seated apart, were now systematically excluded or encouraged to form separate, segregated congregations. David Lipscomb protested this practice, advocating full fellowship for all races, to no avail. 

At the beginning of the twentieth century, three prominent black evangelists were writing reports and articles regularly for journals of the Churches of Christ. S. W. Womack (d. 1920) and Alexander Cleveland Campbell (1866-1930) worked in Tennessee and wrote for the “colored page” of the Gospel Advocate. Samuel Robert Cassius (1853-1931) ranged through the Northern, Midwestern, and Western states from his base in the Oklahoma Territory, writing for the Christian Leader as well as the Gospel Advocate and several other publications. Cassius tried to found an “industrial school” at Tohee, Oklahoma, blending Christian instruction with the model of vocational education pioneered by Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. 

In Tennessee two younger men, both also influenced by Washington, were beginning careers of profound and lasting significance. George Philip Bowser (1874-1950), a preacher and journeyman printer, opened a school in Nashville in 1907 along lines that Cassius had earlier proposed, the first of several academies in which he aimed to educate preachers and church workers who would be self-supporting. Already Bowser had begun publishing the Christian Echo, the first avenue of communication among black churches that whites did not control. Although black members participated in integrated Churches of Christ outside the South and some in pockets even in the South, most black members of Churches of Christ gathered in black churches. By 1927 Bowser could list twenty-six independent black congregations with 1,165 members. Marshall Keeble (1878-1968), a son-in-law of Womack who had begun preaching in Nashville in 1897, was traveling as an itinerant evangelist by 1914. After 1920, with full financial support from wealthy whites, Keeble traveled throughout the South and beyond, becoming the most successful evangelist among Churches of Christ. In 1931 alone, Keeble preached in fourteen campaigns, planting six new churches and baptizing 1,071 persons. After 1942 Keeble presided over Nashville Christian Institute, established by his white supporters to train black preachers and church workers. Now he traveled with several young “preacher boys” in tow, extending and amplifying his appeal and raising money for the school as he made converts. From 1939 to 1950 Keeble was also listed as editor of Christian Counselor, published by the Gospel Advocate Company. 

A dark wood sign with white trimming and wording saying: "Church of Christ meets here. Bible study - Sunday 9:30 AM and Wednesday 7:00 PM. Worship Sunday 10:30 AM and 6:00 PM"
Church of Christ sign welcoming all to worship

Both Keeble and Bowser baptized converts who became preachers and trained others to preach. In 1945 Annie Clay Tuggle displayed the portraits and biographies of 103 black preachers in her directory, Our Ministers and Song Leaders of the Church of Christ. A 1974 directory listed 151 Black Preachers of Today, only a sample of the potential total. Bowser’s protégé, Richard Nathaniel Hogan (1902-1997), flourished as an evangelist in the 1930s and after 1939 as minister of the Figueroa Street church in Los Angeles, for many years the largest black congregation in Churches of Christ. After Bowser’s death in 1950, Hogan extended his influence as editor of the Christian Echo. 

Since 1945 black Churches of Christ have expanded in inner cities, especially in Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston. All schools affiliated with Churches of Christ now admit black students, but many black preachers have attended Southwestern Christian College (SWCC) in Terrell, Texas, founded in 1950 to educate black preachers and church leaders in a segregated environment. At that time only Pepperdine College admitted black students. SWCC remains a predominantly black college. Black Churches of Christ sponsor an annual national lectureship and youth conference and a biannual evangelistic crusade.

Education and Scholarship

When division became “official” in 1906, several colleges were clearly associated with Churches of Christ. Tolbert Fanning (1810-1874), who founded Franklin College (1845-1866) near Nashville, Tennessee, set the pattern with a curriculum modeled after that of Bethany College, founded by Alexander Campbell in 1840. Colleges existing in 1906 include Burritt College (Spencer, Tennessee, 1849-1939), Georgie Robertson Christian College (1897-1907, the immediate predecessor of Freed-Hardeman), Nashville Bible School (1891–, now Lipscomb University), Potter Bible School (1901), Thorpe Spring (1873-1931), Western Bible and Literary College (1905-1916, a forerunner of Harding), and Abilene Christian (1906–). Some suspicion of formal education persisted among the churches, but a clear majority favored an educated constituency and ministry. These institutions were not dedicated solely to training preachers, but from the beginning they were designed as liberal arts colleges. Campbell argued that education was important to understanding the Scriptures, a conviction that continues.

Nashville Bible School, founded by David Lipscomb and James A. Harding, had trained many leading preachers by 1906, and especially future educators. Colleges and universities founded more recently, including Pepperdine (1937–), Harding (1922–), Faulkner (1942–, formerly Alabama Christian), Florida College (1946–), Oklahoma Christian (1949–), Ohio Valley (1956–), York (1956–), Lubbock Christian (1957–), and Rochester (1959–). Graduate programs, especially offering degrees in Bible, were launched beginning with Pepperdine in 1944, then Abilene Christian (1953) and Harding Graduate School (1954). Several of the other schools now offer graduate programs. In the 1960s, in part because of a preacher shortage but also because of government assistance available to veterans, unaccredited preaching schools were established, including Sunset School of Preaching (Lubbock, Texas, 1961), Brown Trail School of Preaching (Hurst, Texas, 1963), and White’s Ferry Road School of Preaching (West Monroe, Louisiana, 1964). Sunset has now become Sunset International Bible Institute. These schools, after the pattern of the Herald of Truth, are under the control of a single congregation that in turn receives contributions from other congregations. The number of students in these schools has steadily declined in recent years so that several no longer exist, including White’s Ferry Road.


Churches of Christ have been faced with numerous controversies from the beginning. Along with objection to mission organizations and instrumental music was also an objection to located preachers, that is, preachers who work full time for one congregation. The polemic against located ministers was especially strong in the writing of Austin McGary (1846-1928) of Texas in the 1880s. David Lipscomb shared McGary’s view. Not until the early decades of the twentieth century did some churches appoint ministers to do most of the preaching, and many churches did not employ preachers until after World War II. Some leaders, especially Daniel Sommer (1850-1940) and, later, Carl Ketcherside (1908-1989), asserted that all capable men of the congregation should share in preaching and teaching or, as they called it, mutual ministry.

Premillennialism emerged as a major point of controversy after 1910. Prior to that time many leaders in Churches of Christ were moderate historical premillennialists, though not advocating any specific interpretations. As dispensational premillennialism emphasizing the rapture, the national restoration of the Jewish people, the future of the church, and the battle of Armageddon developed among fundamentalists, leaders in Churches of Christ generally retreated from millenarian ideas. Preachers such as Foy E. Wallace, Jr. (1896-1979), in effect pushed premillennial advocates such as Robert Henry Boll into a separate fellowship. In the late twentieth century premillennial Churches of Christ have asked not to be distinguished from mainstream Churches of Christ in Mac Lynn’s directory, Churches of Christ in the United States.

In the 1950s a significant group opposed the creation of extra-congregational institutions that they believed were unscriptural and undermined the prerogatives and responsibilities of local churches and individual Christians. They opposed the rapid increase in such church-sponsored programs and services as children’s homes, homes for the elderly, campus ministries, gymnasiums, kitchen facilities, parachurch organizations such as the Herald of Truth, and community service centers designed to care for the needy. These continuing controversies resulted in a group of churches usually designated noninstitutional, with Florida College as a center for training preachers.

Another controversy has to do with an emphasis on God’s grace as promoted by such persons as Kenney Carl Moser (1893-1976), Grover Cleveland Brewer (1884-1956), and others in the 1930s. Only since the 1980s have their views been widely accepted. In the 1980s a heated discussion focused on hermeneutics. Drawing on Thomas Campbell, Churches of Christ historically determined “essentials” in Scripture by seeking commands, examples, and, later, necessary inferences. Some argued that this hermeneutic tended toward legalism, and that it is better to understand Scripture primarily through the lens of the character of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit for determining church and personal life. Traditionalists labeled this approach a “new hermeneutic” and urged rejection of it and the change agents advocating it.

Discussion of the role of women in the life of the church in the 1990s has resulted in women playing larger roles in teaching youth, coordinating youth programs, and serving as college ministers. Not many churches have yet, however, involved women in public worship leadership. More congregations permit praying and teaching in adult classes by both males and females.

Worship also became a major focus in the 1990s. Traditionally a song leader has selected songs with another designated person, often an elder or a preacher, selecting persons to pray, read Scriptures, or serve at the Lord’s Table. In larger congregations names may be printed in a church bulletin or order of worship. A recent development is the worship team, in which a worship leader selects hymns and Scripture readings, then along with several persons with microphones leads the congregation in worship. A majority of churches, however, are indifferent to these arrangements or insist that the practice is not authorized in the New Testament.

As was common among several religious groups at the end of the twentieth century, a small number of Churches of Christ attempted to reinvent the congregation as a community church, identifying as Churches of Christ only secondarily. Those taking this approach point to the success of community evangelical and charismatic churches. For Churches of Christ results have been mixed. Much earlier, leading ministers such as G. C. Brewer had insisted that in order to be undenominational a congregation should simply be identified as “the church” at such and such a location. Some churches, mostly larger ones, have become less exclusive and more cooperative with other religious groups. Other leaders have, predictably, opposed any move toward inclusivism.

The Genius of the Churches of Christ

Churches of Christ have affirmed the centrality of Scripture. They have demanded commitment to church life and the responsibility of all members for the church. They have emphasized church planting and evangelism. They have engaged in a genuine struggle with biblical precedents. They have encouraged personal commitment to the Lord in devotional life and in a biblical ethics and morality with concern for the needy. They have sought strong bonds and networks of community, with knowledge of other members nationally and internationally. Some areas that have caused friction in the body at the beginning of the twenty-first century include a residual legalism, a growing disposition toward evangelicalism in some quarters, and a continuing exclusivism that is coming increasingly under fire.


William S. Banowsky, Mirror of a Movement (1965) • Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement: An Anecdotal History of Three Churches (1981, rev. 1994) • David Edwin Harrell, Jr., Quest for a Christian America: The Disciples of Christ and American Society to 1866 (1966; repr. ed. 2003) • David Edwin Harrell, Jr., The Social Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ, 1865-1900 (1973; repr. ed. 2003) • David Edwin Harrell, Jr., The Churches of Christ in the Twentieth Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith (2000) • Gary Holloway and Douglas A. Foster, Renewing God’s People: A Concise History of Churches of Christ (2001) • Robert E. Hooper, A Distinct People: A History of Churches of Christ in the Twentieth Century (1993) • Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (1996) • Richard T. Hughes and R. L. Roberts, The Churches of Christ (2001) • Mac Lynn, Churches of Christ in the United States 2003 (2003) • Mac Lynn, Churches of Christ around the World (2003) • Thomas H. Olbricht, Hearing God’s Voice: My Life with Scripture in the Churches of Christ (1996) • Richard M. Tristano, The Origins of the Restoration Movement: An Intellectual History (1988) • Earl West, Search for the Ancient Order, 4 vols. (1949, 1950, 1979, 1988) • M. Norvel Young, A History of Colleges Established and Controlled by Members of the Churches of Christ (1949). 


This entry, written by Thomas H. Olbricht, was originally published in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Edited by Douglas A. Foster, Paul M. Blowers, Anthony L. Dunnavant, and D. Newell Williams; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), pages 213-220. Republished with permission.