by Michael D “Mike” Greene
Conducting a critical examination of another’s beliefs is easily done. Conducting a critical examination of one’s own beliefs is another matter. When such an examination is conducted, making changes in long held and cherished beliefs is even more difficult.
But such was the difficulty the early leaders of the Restoration Movement faced as they examined every belief for its consistency with New Testament teaching. This was certainly true for Barton W. Stone and his understanding of baptism, its proper subject, mode and purpose.
Due to careful study and critical examination of long held practices, by 1807, immersion of believers had become the accepted baptismal practice for Barton Stone and the Christians. But what of the purpose of baptism?
“The subject of baptism now engaged the attention of the people very generally, and some, with myself, began to conclude that it was ordained for the remission of sins and ought to be administered in the name of Jesus to all believing penitents.” /1
However, his first efforts at preaching his new found understanding to penitent believers at the mourner’s bench and urging them to comply, met with little success, so Stone let the matter drop. At this point he was not fully led into the spirit of the doctrine until “it was revived by Brother Alexander Campbell, some years later.”/2
In 1821, Stone was preaching in a meeting in Millersville, Kentucky. John I. Rogers gives the following account of the meeting:
“Many professed religion, and many more, who were at the mourner’s bench, refused to be comforted. After laboring with the mourners until a late hour of the night, without being able to comfort them, Brother Stone arose and thus addressed the audience: ‘Brethren, something must be wrong; we have been laboring with these mourners earnestly, and they are deeply penitent; why have they not found relief?… the cause must be that we do not preach as the apostles did on the day of Pentecost. Those who were ‘pierced to the heart’ were promptly told what to do for the remission of sins. And ‘they that gladly received the word were baptized, and the same day about three thousand were added to them’… When Brother Stone sat down, we were all completely confounded… I thought the dear old brother was beside himself. The speech was a perfect damper on the meeting. The people knew not what to make of it. On a few other occasions, Brother Stone repeated about the same language, with the same effect. At length he concluded the people were by no means prepared for the doctrine and gave it up.” /3
At this point one can see that Stone’s study of the word had led him to an understanding of baptism being “for remission of sins,” but making application of that truth was proving difficult. While believer’s immersion was the norm, what was its purpose? How did it relate to salvation?
In 1824, Alexander Campbell came to Georgetown, Kentucky and he and Stone met for the first time. They were very much aware of one another’s labors. A mutually beneficial and affectionate association began that lasted until Stone’s death in 1844. Of this first meeting Stone remembered:
“When he came to Kentucky, I heard him often in public and in private. I was pleased with his manner and matter. I saw no distinctive feature between the doctrine he preached and that which we preached for many years; except on baptism for remission for sins. Even this I had once received and taught… but had strangely let it go from my mind, till brother Campbell revived it afresh… In a few things I dissented from him, but was agreed to disagree.”/4
As we shall see in a later article, Campbell’s 1821 debate on baptism with a Presbyterian preacher named William MacCalla had a profound effect on the thinking of many in the Restoration Movement. Others among Stone’s Christians and Campbell’s disciples were preaching and practicing baptism “for remission of sins” with much greater effectiveness than Stone.
In 1826, Stone began publishing a periodical which he called The Christian Messenger. It wasn’t long until the purpose of baptism came to be discussed on its pages.
In 1827, in reply to an inquiry from a reader, editor Stone argues forcefully from such passages as Mark 16:15-16, Acts 2:38, 22:16 and 1 Peter 3:21, that baptism is for remission of sins and therefore “a means of salvation.”
Further “baptism saves in the same manner as the waters of Jordan wash away Naaman’s leprosy… (through) obedience to the divine order.”/5
But the controversy was not over. For several years to follow, Stone would be challenged to defend his beliefs, which he would do on the pages of the Christian Messenger.
And so, Stone’s metamorphosis with respect to baptism for remission of sins was more or less complete. Stone had moved from the mourner’s bench and the popular notion of “getting religion” to the Biblical concept of obedience to the gospel as is taught in the New Testament. It had been a difficult journey that spanned some 20 years.
1/ John Rogers, Biography of Elder Barton Warren Stone (Cincinnati: J.A. and V.P. James, 1847), p. 61.
3/John I. Rogers, ed., Autobiography of Elder Samuel Rogers (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1880), p. 58.
4/ John Rogers, p. 75-76.
5/Barton Warren Stone, ed., The Christian Messenger, volume 1, p. 267.