by Michael D. “Mike” Greene
It was 1831. Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and the Indian Wars and the first people’s president was in the White House. The nation had flexed its muscle in winning a second war with England, a dominating world power of the day.
The regions of the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys were at peace and prospering. The War of 1812 existed only in memory.
While the seeds of Civil War had been sown in the institution of slavery, the reality was some years away. Some saw so much promise in the future that, like Campbell, they were sure the millennium, which they understood as a protracted period of peace and prosperity during which the gospel would conquer the world was at hand, if not already upon them.
During this period of peace, the efforts of the Campbells, Walter Scott, and others to restore the ancient order and the ancient gospel in the northern areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky were meeting with great success.
In like manner, the efforts of Barton Stone and his fellow laborers to go back to the Bible as the only rule of faith and practice was spreading like wildfire through a dry stubble through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Ohio.
Both groups had as a part of their message, the unity of all believers. That had been the impetus for Thomas Campbell as well as Barton Stone in leaving the faith of their fathers and seeking a purer form of Christianity.
How do we bring together the believers? How do we achieve the unity Jesus prayed for? The answer for both Stone and Campbell and their followers was going back beyond the Protestant Reformation, beyond Rome, all the way to Jerusalem, all the way back to the Bible. It was found in restoring the New Testament church in the modern age.
In time, the geographical area covered by the efforts of these respective groups began to overlap. Preachers from the two groups began to correspond with and engage in evangelistic efforts together.
Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone had met in Georgetown, Kentucky in 1824 and had formed a positive opinion of each other and had between 1824 and 1831 become familiar with the efforts each was making in their respective works.
As the contact between these two groups preaching the same basic message with an emphasis on unity grew, many wondered if unity between the two groups could be possible. Was their pleading for unity an unattainable dream or could it be a reality? Discussions of unity between the two groups were heard. In time the discussions became action.
Not far from the town of Lexington, Kentucky was the Great Crossings church whose minister was John T. Johnson, a reformer, as Campbell and his followers were then called. Nearby was the Georgetown church which was served by Barton W. Stone.
Those associated with Stone were called Christians. Conversations toward unity between the two ministers and their congregations were gaining momentum. “Raccoon” John Smith, a capable preacher among the Reformers, was invited to Great Crossings to hold a meeting in November, 1831. These three men and John Rogers, one of Stone’s warmest co-laborers pledged to write and preach in favor of union between the two groups.
A meeting to discuss union was scheduled for Christmas Day, 1831. The Hill Street Christian church in Lexington opened their new building for the occasion. A large crowd of Reformers and Christians assembled.
It was determined that Stone would speak for the Christians and Smith for the Reformers. Smith felt this was the most importation and solemn occasion that had occurred in the history of the current efforts at unity and reformation.
Aware of the significance of the occasion and sensitive to the feelings of all present, Smith arose and spoke with eloquence and love and said among other things:
“While there is but one faith, there may be ten thousand opinions; and hence if Christians are ever to be one, they must be one in faith, and not in opinion. When certain subjects arise. . . speak of them in the words of the Scriptures, and no offense will be given, and no pride of doctrine will be encouraged. We may even come, in the end, by thus speaking the same things, to think the same things. . . “
“Let us, then, my brethren, be no longer Campbellites or Stoneites, 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.”
When he sat down Stone arose, his heart full of love and “after speaking for some time in a strain of irresistible tenderness” brought the discussion to a close by saying: “I have not one objection to the ground laid down by him as the true scriptural basis of union among the people of God; and I am willing to give him, now and here my hand.”
Stone extended a warm hand of fellowship to Smith. It was grasped in the spirit it was extended. Others in the room did likewise. A song arose and all present “confirmed the union.”
On the next Lord’s Day joint communion was held and for all practical purposes the union was complete. John Rogers and John Smith were sent forth to visit the churches and solidify the union.
One group had not gone over to the other. Both agreed to work together in the cause of union, to meet on the Bible as common ground and preach the Gospel and not opinions. A great brotherhood was born.
While there were growing pains, the Christians and Reformers began an extended period of peace and growth in the common cause of New Testament Christianity as the only means to Christian Union.
Extensive use of the accounts of the unity meeting were used from the following sources:
William, John Agustus, Life of Elder John Smith, 1956, Gospel Advocate, Nashville, TN, 367-378
Murch, James DeForest, Christians Only, 1962, Standard Publishing Company, Cincinnati, OH, 109-113.