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Christian Church/Disciples of Christ in 19th Century Indiana

Author: Sheryl D. Vanderstel

In 1836 Indiana, the Christian Church was the newest of the Protestant denominations represented among the state's population. In its formative stages throughout the 1830s, this grassroots denomination grew from separate religious traditions and quickly grew into a major Protestant denomination. A liberal theology promoted a Scripture based faith as well as the end of divisive creeds and doctrines. The Christian Church or Disciples of Christ was one of the first "unity" movements found in America. Although most 21st century Christian Church members see themselves as part of Alexander Campbell's reformation movement, there were at least four groups calling themselves Christians in Indiana before Campbell's followers ever brought his message to the state. These groups, along with Campbell's followers, wanted to restore the church to its early form, without denominational name or dogma. They wanted a faith based on Scripture alone. (Conner: 41; Rudolph: 61)

New Light Christians, probably the largest of the pre-Campbellite Christian groups, grew from a movement that originated in 1790s New England. Followers of Baptist minister Abner Jones chose to name themselves Christians to stress their non-denominational stance. The Bible was their only doctrine. Meanwhile, in the South, a similar movement began with Methodist circuit rider James O'Kelly who felt that the power of the bishop and the restrictions of the Methodist Doctrine were unchristian. At the beginning of the 19th century, in far-western regions of the country, Presbyterian minister Barton Stone was watching with great interest the revivals of the Second Great Awakening. In 1801 Stone participated in the great Cane Ridge Camp meeting and from that moment on looked to reform the Presbyterian faith by renouncing the doctrine of predestination and turning instead to a doctrine of salvation by repentance. Although Stone did not initiate the New Light Movement in the West, it is with Stone that it is most often associated. The Kentucky minister's views on religion were widely distributed through his newspaper, The Christian Messenger. The newspaper quickly became the mouthpiece for all Christians in the West. During the 1820s Christian groups in Indiana invited Stone to preach and he traveled to the state several times. In 1839, old and nearly deaf, he was honored at the state's first convention of the Christian Church in Indianapolis. (Rudolph: 62)

It was this respect and devotion felt by westerners to the gentle and articulate Stone that in many ways facilitated the 1832 merger of the New Lights with the Campbellites. After the first meeting of the two groups at Stone's church in Georgetown, Kentucky in 1823, Stone often quoted Alexander Campbell in the Christian Messenger. Stone saw Alexander Campbell as a David destroying the Goliath of established churches and their doctrines. Campbell's theology grew from that of his father Thomas Campbell who had been a Presbyterian minister in Scotland. Throughout Alexander's childhood, Thomas withdrew more and more from the teachings of the Scots Presbyterians. A brilliant man with an equally gifted son, they immigrated to America and continued teaching and preaching their doctrine of anti-denominationalism. Alexander began publishing a newspaper, the Christian Baptist, in 1823. Each issue preached against creeds, denominations, and especially against revivals and the demonstrative and emotion driven religion found there. Hoosiers were especially receptive to his message; independent Upland Southerners were democratic and strong-willed. Campbell and his anti-denominationalism appealed to many. Clement Nance, a pioneer preacher in early Indiana, preached Campbellite religion in Floyd County and here formed the first of the Christian Churches in Indiana. He predicted there would be an increased following in the new territory. Christian Churches were established in all the counties bordering the Ohio River and Kentucky where Stone's followers lined the southern side of the river. It was one of these river congregations in Madison that brought two great Christian preachers, Love H. Jameson and Beverly Vawter, into the fold. Other great leaders of the faith grew from this New Light movement of the 1810s and 1820s including John O'Kane, the founder of the first Christian congregation in Indianapolis as well as the fundraiser that enabled the opening North Western Christian University. (Rudolph: 62-64; Shaw: 32-33)

Also among the early settlers of Indiana were German Baptists, sometimes called Dunkards or Dunkers, and later called Brethren. Emerging from a Pennsylvania German tradition, those who moved west were much influenced by the revivals of the Second Great Awakening and the independent spirit of the western settlers. By the 1820s many of the Brethren were following the teachings of preacher Joseph Hostetler, a disciple of Alexander Campbell. In 1826, he faced disciplinary action by the Brethren for his Campbellite leanings. Hostetler visited every congregation that might be asked to condemn him and convinced each of the righteousness of the Campbellite reformation. Every one of the churches moved to join him. (Rudolph: 64-65)

In south central Indiana, Free Will Baptists had formed the Blue River Association in Washington County where a devout trio of brothers John, Peter and Amos Wright preached. By 1819, all three had become dissatisfied with Baptist doctrine and creeds and the infighting those disagreements caused. John especially wanted an association of individual members whose faith was based on Scripture alone. He wanted these believers to be called simply Friends, Disciples or Christians. Through the 1820s the Wrights preached to their followers and John recommended that they unite with the Brethren. This was achieved in 1827. Wright advocated that they also join with the New Lights in the state and in July 1828 a Unity Conference was held near Edinburgh in Bartholomew County. Wright represented the Free Will Baptist group, Hostetler represented the German Baptists and Beverly Vawter, the New Lights. Together they agreed to drop adherence to all creeds and doctrine and to be governed solely by the teaching of what they referred to as the primitive evangelists. The group was so opposed to creeds they did not keep transcript of the conference fearing that it would be seen as a creed or doctrine. They called themselves the Southern Indiana Association. (Rudolph: 65-66; Shaw: 79-82)

Another group dissatisfied with the road taken by its parent denomination was already in Indiana long before statehood. The Silver Creek Association of Regular Baptists located in southern Indiana around the New Albany area was the first association of Baptist churches in the state. By 1823 most of the member congregations were struggling with issues of Scripture versus articles of faith and doctrine. Some separated at that time. For others it was the writing of Barton Stone and the teaching of the New Lights especially affected them. Finally in 1836, led by the Absolem and John Littels, another group of Baptists left the church to join the reformers that were coming together under the names of Christians, Disciples, Friends and Brethren. (Cauble: 27-29; Rudolph: 66; Shaw: 54-55)

By the 1830s the name of Alexander Campbell was well known throughout the state. His newspaper, now titled the Millennial Harbinger, was widely read among those in the Southern Indiana Association, as well as by other "reformer" groups not yet aligned with any association. Campbell's powerful writings seemed to bring a common voice to all who were opposed to the sectarianism of denominations and the divisiveness of manmade creeds and doctrines. Preachers were delivering whole congregations over to the movement after reading Campbell's essays. By 1839, Campbell agreed, somewhat reluctantly, that the name Christians was acceptable to him, although he personally preferred Disciples. In that year, the Christians of Indiana gathered in Indianapolis for a state convention, the first to be held in the United States. Called by its organizers, this "general co-operation meeting" was held June 7 -11. The meeting identified 115 churches with more that 7,000 members that had aligned with the reformation movement. Soon, evangelizing preachers such as Elijah Goodwin from Mount Vernon were traveling throughout the state calling for cooperation meetings of believers. And so the movement grew in just this way throughout the 1840s. The cooperation plan offered congregations opportunities to meet with others of like mind and to form associations of a few or many churches. (Rudolph: 72-73)

Throughout this period of growth for the followers of Campbell, there were more than a dozen Indiana-based periodicals that spread the religious philosophies of the spiritual leaders of the Christians. Some publishers, like Dr. Nathaniel Field, were neither ministers nor theologians, simply devout followers of the Christian message. Others, like James M. Mathes, were pioneer preachers and able promoters of the faith espoused by Campbell and Stone. Mathes, an educated and articulate spokesman, published the Christian Record irregularly for more than forty years, beginning in 1843. As the paper's popularity grew, he asked Elijah Goodwin to assist in the editorial duties. In the pages of the monthly paper, readers found denunciations of doctrine followed by other faiths, reprinted sermons, and even commentary on congregational disputes. A believer in higher education, Mathes was a vocal advocate of Indiana College in Bloomington and North Western Christian University in Indianapolis. Benjamin Franklin was another evangelist turned publisher. After establishing himself as a powerful speaker and ardent follower of the writings of Stone and Campbell, he began publishing his thoughts in a monthly pamphlet, the Reformer. Franklin began writing and printing the paper in Centreville in 1844 and then began publishing the American Christian Review in 1856, a monthly paper that eventually became a weekly. Franklin continued publishing the popular paper until his death 22 years later. (Rudolph: 77-89)

In 1848 Elijah Goodwin visited all the Christian Churches in the state to determine the feasibility of establishing a college. Enthusiasm for the venture ran high and the consensus was that the institution should be in Indianapolis, central to all. While traveling to promote the idea of a college Goodwin saw the great need for trained clergy in the state's churches. He also saw the great good that an organized evangelism effort could bring. He proposed a system to receive $1.00 per year from each church member to support such an effort. Adopted at the State Meeting in 1849, the plan formed the Indiana Christian Home Missionary Society as well as the State Bible Society. That same year, the General Convention adopted both plans for use nation wide. True to the independent spirit so instrumental in the formation of the Christian movement, there were those who saw the society as outside the jurisdiction of the faith. These independent minded Christians simply did not support either society. (Rudolph: 73-74)

Many of those who took exception to Goodwin's proposals did so because they saw no Scriptural basis for such organizations. Others objected because they felt that such a plan would base undeserved and unchecked power in the State Conventions. These objectors felt that each congregation was responsible for evangelism within their own community. Even John Mathes had grave misgivings and it took much spirited convincing by friends Elijah Goodwin and Benjamin Franklin to bring him to the point of favoring the plan. All of this was reflective of a general distrust of a denominational body or organization. For many, the prevailing philosophy was "thus saith the Lord". If precedent was not present in Scripture then no compliance to any idea was necessary. These congregations had little use for the cooperatives or the State Conventions. The argument as to what the faith should be called continued to rage, though Disciples and Christians were generally the titles of choice. As the century wore on the same independent spirit and Scriptural adherence that began the faith became an obstacle to its expansion. Sadly, in the closing years of the 19th century these divisions would have dire consequences for the Christian fellowship preached by Campbell and Stone. (Rudolph: 74-75)

Weekly worship for Christian Disciples was a simple matter. No liturgical form was followed. Worship consisted of sermons and prayers with additional hymn singing. The Lord's Supper was an important part of worship. Baptism followed the guidelines of Christ's own baptism, that of adult immersion. Membership in the faith did not require a conversion experience or any examination. One only had to adhere to the tenet of Christ as Savior and Scriptures as the only doctrine. But even hymn singing during worship caused a problem for some who considered hymns to contain religious doctrine and thus deserving of being excluded from worship. Campbell felt strongly about the use of hymns in worship and sought to override the objections by compiling a book containing hymn texts appropriate to the Scriptural basis of the faith. His work was simply titled Hymn Book. Hoosier singing master Silas W. Leonard, also an elder in the church, compiled a book of texts and music for use in Christian churches entitled the Christian Psalmist. At mid century, Rush County evangelist Knowles Shaw used sermons and songs to bring thousands into the church. He ultimately compiled five hymnbooks. His own compositions, including the gospel hymn "Bringing in the Sheaves," were part of the hymnals. The use of organs in worship also divided the more conservative believers from their fellow Christians. Early in this controversy, Campbell and Mathes were anti-organ proponents but both came to believe the issue was not worth dividing the fellowship. (Conner: 41; Rudolph: 104-105, 92)