The Restoration Movement: Christians and Disciples in Pursuit of the New Testament Church

We begin the second part of our series on American Denominationalism by examining those denominations that originated in the United States.

Read other articles from this series on American Denominations and Other Religious Movements.

The first denomination we will examine was an attempt to be an anti-denomination, that is, they were trying not to form another denomination but to exist simply as New Testament Christians. Because of this, they tried to avoid using a denominational name and merely called themselves “Christians” or “Disciples,” names we see the New Testament giving to followers of Jesus. Consequently, there is considerable confusion over what to call this group since they used numerous names. Historians call the broad movement the “Restoration Movement” because they sought to restore the church to its primitive, New Testament ways.

What is the Restoration Movement?

The Restoration movement is a Christian movement that originated in the early years of America’s history (1790-1825). The group followed two ideals:

  • Mere Biblicism: their devotion to Scripture alone and to the New Testament ideal church led them to reject what they considered to be the trappings of human-centered denominations, worship, and faith.
  • Christian Unity: they had a strong concern for Christian unity and thus rejected denominational division.

Their zealous commitment to these ideals led their leaders to embrace the following characteristics:

  • A high emphasis on the importance of the autonomy of the local congregation.
  • A rejection of extra-congregational entities, such as missionary societies or denominational conventions.
  • A common liturgy that emphasized baptism “for the remission of sins,” the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and a rejection of instrumental worship.
  • A rejection of Calvinism, as well as a deep suspicion of emotionally intense conversions.

In time the combination of their anti-denominational attitude and their unique liturgy ironically generated the founding of another denomination. Today, we know them under a number of names: the “Churches of Christ,” the “Disciples of Christ,” and the “Christian Churches” are the most popular.

A Brief History of the Restoration Movement

The opening decades of the American Republic witnessed a proliferation of new religious movements in America, many of which were related to Christianity in varying degrees. A general mood of anti-traditionalism and its rejection of the Old World spilled over into many American churches. Several Christian leaders saw the absence of an official state church as a golden opportunity to restore the Christian church to its original, primitive ways based upon a plain reading of Scripture. The push to “restore” the true church was born.

The Restoration Movement had multiple origins as leaders from numerous denominations came to embrace the vision of “restoration.” In the 1790s John O’Kelley, a Methodist leader, formed a group of “Christians” who rejected ties to British Methodism. In New England two former Baptists, Elias Smith and Abner Jones, founded a connection of churches based upon restorationist ideals. Former Presbyterians Barton Stone in Kentucky and Alexander Campbell in Pennsylvania founded separate movements along similar lines. Stone called his group the “Christians,” while Campbell’s group was called the “Disciples,” names designed to reflect their reliance upon sticking as close to Scripture as possible. It was these latter two groups that grew significantly throughout the 1810s and 20s. Both groups independently developed similar features, including the following:

  1. An emphasis on the autonomy of the local congregations as the focal point of God’s work in the world. Restorationist churches were bent on preserving local church autonomy and therefore they rejected any extra-congregational church entity, such as missionary societies or conventions.
  2. A weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
  3. An emphasis on believer’s baptism by immersion “for the remission of sins.” Though they rejected the notion of “baptismal regeneration” as unscriptural and Roman Catholic, restorationist churches drew a very close relationship between faith, the rite of baptism, and salvation.
  4. A rejection of instrumental worship during corporate worship. They pointed out that the New Testament nowhere explicitly prescribes the use of instruments in worship. Thus, instruments should not be used in church services today; Christians should rather thus sing a cappella (i.e. without instrumental accompaniment) in their praises to God. (Old Testament worship employed instruments, but restorationists noted that those commands were associated with the liturgy of the Jewish temple, an institution that has been abrogated since Christ’s first advent).
  5. Theologically, most restorationists rejected Calvinism and the use of creeds or confessions. Calvinism was an Old World faith, and creeds and confessions of all forms were thought to be divisive and denominational rather than unifying.
  6. Significantly, many early restorationists (especially Barton Stone) were deeply suspicious of the doctrine of the Trinity because they found it a mysterious doctrine that is contrary to reason. They also did not find the term “Trinity” in Scripture. Campbell, however, was much more affirming of the doctrine and wrote essays defending Trinitarian theology while sharply criticizing Unitarianism.
  7. Some early restorationists rejected the emotionalism of revivals, opting instead for a rationalistic and objective understanding of conversion that emphasized mere trust in the facts of the gospel as the prerequisite for salvation.

While Campbell’s group operated under the umbrella of a Baptist association in the 1820s, it was clear that they were no ordinary Baptists. By the early 1830s, Campbell’s “Disciples” left the Baptists and merged with Stone’s “Christians” to form a group that took on various names: the “Christian Church” or the “Disciples of Christ” depending on who you asked (I’ll refer to them as “Disciples” for simplicity). The middle third of the 19th century (1830s-1860s) saw the Disciples movement grow significantly, a testimony to the fact that a sizeable number of American church-goers resonated with their views. By the 1860s there were just as many Disciples congregations in the United States as there were Congregational churches and Anglican churches.

As the movement developed and grew, disagreements with other denominations as well as internal disagreements brought about change. Significant disputes arose between Baptists and the Disciples. In fact, their conflict in the 19th century was a significant factor in the formation of Landmark Baptists, who shared some views in common with the Disciples (like the autonomy of the local church and baptism by immersion) but sharply disagreed with them over their views of baptism “for the remission of sins” and their hesitancy to affirm the doctrine of the Trinity clearly.

Disagreements also arose among themselves over various issues. Some Disciples desired to adopt instrumental worship for their services. Others sought to form a missionary sending agency that would facilitate world missions. Later, other leaders of the movement began adopting the tenets of theological liberalism. These disputes (and others) led to a three-fold division in the movement that has remained to this day (see below).

Christian Churches Today

Today there are three main groups that are descendants of the original Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. Their names overlap, which can create confusion among those on the outside.

  • The “Churches of Christ” (a cappella or non-instrumental), which resisted the trend to embrace instrumental worship in the 19th century. Generally, these are the very conservative restorationists. They claim to have 1.6 million members in the United States. Worldwide they number 5 million in 42,000 churches.
  • The Independent “Christian church and Churches of Christ” which embraced instrumental worship but otherwise strongly resemble the a cappella Churches of Christ. They number about one million members in the United States in roughly 6,000 congregations.
  • The “Christian Church (Disciples of Christ),” which represents the more liberal wing of the restoration movement. They boast 700,000 members in 3,600 congregations.

Read other articles from this series on American Denominations and Other Religious Movements.

Quick Facts

Major Founders of the Restoration Movement

  1. Thomas Campbell & Alexander Campbell – father and son duo; Scottish Seceder churchmen who immigrated to America in the early 1800s and were instrumental in the formation of the Restoration Movement.
  2. Barton Stone (1772-1844) – originally an American Presbyterian, Stone founded a “Christian” movement in Kentucky that followed restorationist principles.
  3. Walter Scott (1796-1861) – noted evangelist of the early Restoration Movement

Core Features of the Restoration Movement

  1. Christian unity
  2. Mere Biblicism
  3. The autonomy of the local congregation
  4. Baptism “for the remission of sins”
  5. Noninstrumental worship

Did you know that the following are prominent members and institutions associated with the Churches of Christ?

  1. James A. Garfield (1831-1881) – 20th President of the United States
  2. Max Lucado (b. 1955) – Pastor of Oak Hills Church of Christ (Houston) and best-selling Christian author
  3. Abilene Christian University – private university in Abilene, Texas, founded in 1906.
  4. Texas Christian University (TCU) – private university in Fort Worth, Texas, founded in 1873 by the “Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).”

Robert Caldwell

Robert Caldwell

Associate Professor of Church History at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Dr. Caldwell is an Associate Professor of Church History and teaches in the School of Theology. He is married to Lisa and has two daughters.
Twitter: @rwcaldwell3
Robert Caldwell