“We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one Body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.” So begins The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, a document printed in Lexington, Kentucky in 1804 and signed by six Presbyterians. Who were these men and what were the circumstances that gave birth to this watermark document, which many say began the American Restoration Movement?
Of the six signers of the Last Will one name captures our attention; Barton Warren Stone. Stone, who some believe to be the author of the document, became a leader in the effort to go back to the Bible in all matters of faith and practice now known as the Restoration Movement.
Barton Warren Stone was born in Port Tobacco, Maryland on December 24, 1772. His father, John Stone died when he was very young. His mother, Mary Warren Stone moved her large family to Virginia. There, Stone was exposed to the talk of liberty and the fight for liberty as he witnessed the effects of the Revolutionary War as the final battles of the war were fought not far from his home. Later in life he recalled the immorality associated with the soldiers as they returned from the war. He came to see war and conflict as a great evil.
He “drank deeply into the spirit of liberty, and was so warmed by the soul-inspiring draughts, that I could not hear the name of British or tories, without feeling a rush of blood through the whole system. Such prejudices, formed in youth, are with difficulty ever removed. I confess their magic influence to this advanced day of my life, especially when the name tory is mentioned – so many injuries, fresh in my recollection, attach to that name.”/1
These impressions never left him and their influence was felt as religious conflict raged about him in his adult years.
Stone had four or five years of schooling and from the days that he learned to read, he loved books and learning. In many schools of the day, a Bible would be found among the few textbooks. Stone became familiar with its contents as the Bible was constantly read in school. Although religion was a big part of frontier life, Stone was not reared in a particularly religious home. However, he was not disinterested in spiritual matters and gave attention to the various traveling preachers who came to the back woods of Virginia to preach and make converts. From these preachers of differing denominational loyalties, Stone did not receive the relief he sought, but discouragement. “My mind was much agitated … but being ignorant of what I ought to do, I became discouraged, and quit praying, and engaged in the youthful sports of the day.”/2 No doubt this early exposure to religious division also made lasting impressions on Stone’s mind.
When he was fifteen, Stone decided to invest his part of his father’s estate in more education. In February, 1790, he enrolled in David Caldwell’s log cabin college in Guilford, North Carolina to study law. To his surprise he found a place where religion was a constant subject of discussion. He determined to leave that school for another but was prevented from doing so by a storm. He decided to stay and attend to his own business of getting his education.
James McGready, a Calvinistic Presbyterian preacher in the mold of Jonathan Edwards, came again to the community. His hell fire and damnation sermons left Stone “without an encouraging word.” Stone reasoned he was among the damned, but was willing to seek religion. This he did without success. His unfruitful pursuit drove him into a state of melancholy and despair. In time, another Presbyterian preacher, William Hodge came preaching God’s love for all. This seemed a new doctrine to Stone. After a period of personal, intense Bible study, Stone came to see “that a poor sinner was as much authorized to believe in Jesus at first, as at last – that now was the accepted salvation, and day of salvation.”/3
Stone, having “got religion,” finished his course of study and with his spiritual desires renewed, expressed his desire to preach. With David Caldwell’s encouragement, he became a candidate for the ministry. Before he could be ordained he became confused with many of the speculations and doctrines of Calvinism, which he could not reconcile with the Scriptures. He then determined to seek another profession and headed to Georgia to teach in a school near Washington, Georgia. While there his faith revived and he decided again to pursue the ministry. He returned to North Carolina where he received license to preach from the Presbytery.
In May of 1796, at the ripe old age of 24, Stone joined the migration west across the mountains to seek his destiny on the frontier. He traveled, preaching as he went, through Knoxville, Tennessee and then to Nashville, “a poor little village hardly worth notice.”/4 At the urging of some fellow preachers and travel companions, Stone determined to move on into Kentucky. He came to Bourbon County, northeast of Lexington, and by invitation became the preacher for the Concord and Cane Ridge Presbyterian churches in Bourbon County near the town of Paris. Here he would spend the next 38 years. He had no idea of the controversy and struggles that awaited him, nor of the impact he would have on millions yet unborn.
1/ Elder John Rogers, The Biography of Eld. Barton Warren Stone, (Cincinnati: J. A. & U.P. James, 1847, as reprinted in the Cane Ridge Reader, edited by Hoke Dickinson, 1972), 3.
2/ Ibid, 5-6.
3/ Ibid, 9.
4/ Ibid, 22.