Last week’s column reads a lot like a summary statement for a suggested Ph.D. dissertation in Religion, Philosophy, or History, take your pick. But sometimes this column tends to go that way because it deals not only in “what happened” but “why it happened.” The “what” is usually easy to get right, the “why” not so much. Why can be a matter of personal historical interpretation.
In any event, Thomas Campbell made his way to Washington, PA to serve as a minister in the Presbyterian churches there. His engagement there lasted two somewhat stormy years. He was at odds with the leaders of the synod for such matters as offering communion to Presbyterians who were outside the jurisdiction of the synod. He views were unorthodox for the time in that he could be considered an early ecumenist. His views led to the publishing in December 1809 of a Document entitled: “Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington County.” The pamphlet was an expression of the beliefs of Reverend Campbell and twenty-one followers as to the needs to practice a “simple evangelical Christianity free from all mixture of human opinions and inventions of men.”
It is noteworthy that the Christian Association of Washington did not itself begin its existence as a church, but rather as a group supportive of the ecumenical notion that all Christians should come together under one catholic or universal church. The manner of doing so was to follow only the teachings of Jesus contained in the New Testament of the King James Version of the Bible. The standard of religious belief and practice for the group was to follow only those beliefs and practices for which it could be said: “Thus sayeth the Lord.” The Church homepage summarizes these thirteen points as five:
“1. That the church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according totheScriptures. .
- That . . . there ought to be no schisms, no uncharitable divisions among [local congregations].
- That . . . nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion; but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them, in the Word of God.
- That . . . the New Testament is as perfect a constitution for the worship, discipline, and government of the New Testament church, and as perfect a rule of the particular duties of its members, as the Old Testament was for the worship, discipline, and government of the Old Testament church. . . .
- That . . . [no] human authority [has] power to impose new commands or ordinances upon the church, which our Lord Jesus Christ has not enjoined.”
In short order this led to a break from the Washington Presbytery and the establishment of a small church on Brush Run a stream in Pennsylvania outside Washington and located along what today is PA Route 331. Its location near the stream was essential for the Campbell’s belief in and practice of Baptism by Immersion. For some period (1815 – 1824) the Campbells and the Brush Run Church, had an association with the Redstone Baptist Association. Throughout this period they published a periodical, “The Christian Baptist,” which in accord with their beliefs set forth ecumenical ideas emphasized by “Restoration” principles. In other words, read carefully and honestly the thirteen points of the “Declaration” were an argument for restoring the Christian Church to its founding first century A.D. principles. Alexander preached his first sermons in this period in 1810, after spending more time in study to be a minister. His 1816 “Sermon on the Law,” insistence that the Old Testament did not form a basis for a Christian Life, the unshakable position that Baptism by Immersion was necessary for remission of sins, and his writings led to the withdrawal of membership by the Redstone Association for the Brush Run Church and several other churches associated with the father and son in 1826.
Prior to this, in 1820 a church was established by Alexander Campbell in Wellsburg. This church affiliated with the Mahoning Baptist Association for a brief period (1824-1830.) Although Baptist in name the Association accepted divergence of view and debate. It was slanted toward Restoration principles. It evangelized in the region and claimed over 3,000 followers at its peak. However, it disbanded in 1830. Some historians point to this event as the founding of the Disciples of Christ as an independent religious body.