DISCIPLES OF CHRIST, or Christians, an American Protestant denomination, founded by Thomas Campbell, his son Alexander Campbell (q.v.) and Barton Warren Stone (1772–1844). Stone had been a Presbyterian minister prominent in the Kentucky revival of 1801, but had been turned against sectarianism and ecclesiastical authority because the synod had condemned Richard McNemar, one of his colleagues in the revival, for preaching (as Stone himself had done) counter to the Westminster Confession, on faith and the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion. He had organized the Springfield Presbytery, but in 1804 with his five fellow ministers signed “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” giving up that name and calling themselves “Christians.” Like Stone, Alexander Campbell had adopted (in 1812) immersion, and, like him, his two great desires were for Christian unity and the restoration of the ancient order of things. But the Campbellite doctrines differed widely from the hyper-Calvinism of the Baptists whom they had joined in 1813, especially on the points on which Stone had quarrelled with the Presbyterians; and after various local breaks in 1825–1830, when there were large additions to the Restorationists from the Baptist ranks, especially under the apostolic fervour and simplicity of the preaching of Walter Scott (1796–1861), in 1832 the Reformers were practically all ruled out of the Baptist communion. The Campbells gradually lost sight of Christian unity, owing to the unfortunate experience with the Baptists and to the tone taken by those clergymen who had met them in debates; and for the sake of Christian union it was peculiarly fortunate that in January 1832 at Lexington, Kentucky, the followers of the Campbells and those of Stone (who had stressed union more than primitive Christianity) united. Campbell objected to the name “Christians” as sectarianized by Stone, but “Disciples” never drove out of use the name “Christians.”
During the Civil War the denomination escaped an actual scission by following the neutral views of Campbell, who opposed slavery, war and abolition. In 1849 the American Christian Missionary Society was formed; it was immediately attacked as a “human innovation,” unwarranted by the New Testament, by literalists led in later years by Benjamin Franklin (secretary of the missionary society in 1857), who opposed all church music also. Isaac Errett (1820–1888) was the most prominent leader of the progressive party, which was considered corrupt and worldly by the literalists, many of whom, in spite of his efforts, broke off from the main body, especially in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas.
The main body appointed in 1890 a standing committee on Christian union; their aim in this respect is not for absorption, as was clearly shown by their answer in 1887 to overtures from the Protestant Episcopal Church regarding Christian unity. The credal position of the Disciples is simple: great stress is put upon the phrase “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and upon the recognition by Jesus of this confession as the foundation of His church; as to baptism, agreement with Baptists is only as to the mode, immersion; this is considered “the primitive confession of Christ and a gracious token of salvation,” and as being “for the remission of sins”; the Disciples generally deny the authority over Christians of the Old Covenant, and Alexander Campbell in particular held this view so forcibly that he was accused by Baptists of “throwing away the Old Testament.” The Lord’s Supper is celebrated every Sunday, the bread being broken by the communicants. The Disciples are not Unitarian in fact or tendency, but they urge the use of simple New Testament phraseology as to the Godhead. Their church government is congregational.
The growth of the denomination has been greatest in the states along the Ohio river, whence they have spread throughout the Union. In 1908 there were 6673 ministers and 1,285,123 communicants in the United States. There are churches in Canada, in Great Britain and in Australia. Bethany College, at Bethany, West Virginia, was chartered in 1840, and Alexander Campbell, who had founded it as Buffalo Seminary, was its president until his death in 1866; other colleges founded by the sect are: Kentucky University, Lexington, Ky.; Hiram College, Hiram, Ohio (1850, until 1867 known as Western Reserve Eclectic Institute); Butler College, Indianapolis, Indiana (1855); Christian University, Canton, Missouri (1851; coeducational); Eureka College, in Woodford county, Illinois (1855; coeducational); Union Christian College, Merom, Ind. (1859); Texas Christian University, Waco, Texas (1873, founded as Add Ran College at Thorpe’s Springs, removing to Waco in 1895); Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa (1881); Milligan College, Milligan, Tennessee (1882); Defiance College, Defiance, O. (1885); Cotner University, Lincoln, Nebraska (1889); Elon College, Elon, North Carolina (1890); American University, Harriman, Tenn. (1893); the Virginia Christian College, Lynchburg, Virginia (1903), and for negroes, the Southern Christian Institute, Edwards, Mississippi (1877), and the Christian Bible College, Newcastle, Henry County, Ky. Theological seminaries are the Berkeley Bible Seminary, Berkeley, California (1896); the Disciples’ Divinity House, Chicago, Ill. (1894); and the Eugene Divinity School, Eugene, Oregon (1895). “Bible chairs” were established in state universities and elsewhere by the Disciples,—at the University of Michigan (1893), at the University of Virginia (1899), at the University of Calcutta (1900) and at the University of Kansas (1901). The denomination has publishing houses in Cincinnati, St Louis, Louisville and Nashville.
See Errett Gates’s History of the Disciples of Christ (New York, 1905), in “The Story of the Churches” series, and his Early Relation and Separation of Baptists and Disciples (Chicago, 1904), a University of Chicago doctoral thesis; and B. B. Tyler’s History of the Disciples of Christ in vol. xii. of “The American Church History Series” (New York, 1894).