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Disciples of Christ

By F.W. Burnham



      The Disciples of Christ trace their origin to a movement in the early part of the nineteenth century, when a number of leaders arose who pleaded for the Bible alone, without human addition in the form of creeds and formulas. At first they emphasized Christian fellowship and the independence of the local church, without adherence to any ecclesiastical system. Somewhat later an element was added which sought to restore the union of the churches through a "return, in doctrine, ordinance, and life, to the religion definitely outlined" in the New Testament.

      In 1807 the Rev. Thomas Campbell, a minister of the Secession branch of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, came to the United States, was received cordially, and found employment in western Pennsylvania. Finding that, in the generally destitute condition of that region, a number of families belonging to other presbyteries had not for a long time enjoyed the communion service, he invited them to attend his service. For this he was censured by his presbytery, but upon his appeal to the Associate Synod of North America, on account of informalities in the proceedings of the presbytery, he was released from censure. In the presentation of his case, however, he emphasized very strongly the evils of sectarianism, and as it became increasingly evident that his views differed from those of the presbytery, he formally withdrew from the synod. In 1809 his son, Alexander Campbell, with the rest of the family, joined him, and an organization called the "Christian Association of Washington, Pa.," was formed. From this association was issued a "declaration and address," which became historic.

      Its main purpose was to set forth the essential unity of the Church of Christ, which, while necessarily existing in particular and distinct societies, ought to have "no schisms or uncharitable divisions among them." To this end, it claimed that nothing should be inculcated "as articles of faith or terms of communion but what is expressly taught and enjoined   *   *   *   in the Word of God," which is "the perfect constitution for the worship, discipline, and government of the New Testament Church," nor has "any human authority power to impose new commands and ordinances upon the church." While "inferences and deductions from Scripture promises   *   *   *   may be truly called the doctrine of God's Holy Word, yet they are not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians," and while "doctrinal expositions of divine truths are advantageous, yet they ought not to be made terms of Christian communion," all the "precious saints of God" being under obligation "to love each other as brethren."

      Division among Christians is characterized as "a horrid evil, fraught with many evils," anti-Christian, anti-Scriptural, antinatural, and "productive of confusion and every evil work." Membership in the church should be confined to such as "profess their faith in Christ and obedience to Him in all things according to the Scriptures," and "continued to manifest the reality of their profession by their temper and conduct." Ministers are "to inculcate none other things than those articles of faith and holiness expressly revealed and enjoined in the Word of God," and in administration are to observe the "example of the Primitive Church without any additions whatsoever of human opinions or inventions of men." Should there be any "circumstantials indispensably necessary to the observance of divine ordinances not found upon the page of express revelation," these may be adopted only under the title of "human expedients without any pretense to a more sacred origin."

      The publication of this address did not meet with much response, and the two Campbells appear to have been somewhat uncertain as to just what to do. The development of their Christian Association into a distinct denomination was the very thing they did not wish, and accordingly overtures were made to the Presbyterian Synod of Pittsburgh. The address, however, stood in the way of acceptance, and in 1810 they and their associates organized "The First Church of the Christian Association of Washington, meeting at Cross Roads and Brush Run, Washington County, Pennsylvania."

      Subsequently, an invitation was given to the members of this association to join the Redstone Baptist Association, but difficulties arose on both sides. The Campbells had accepted the general principle of believers' baptism, but some elements in their position were not pleasing to the Baptists. On the other hand, the Baptist Association, in accepting the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, had done the very thing to which the Campbells objected. Still it seemed advantageous for them to enter into fellowship with the churches nearest to their own in belief and practice, and accordingly the invitation was accepted. This alliance, however, did not continue for any length of time, as difference of views became more evident, and later the Campbell association withdrew and joined the Mahoning Baptist Association, in which their teachings had gained general acceptance. In 1829, however, since a majority of the members believed that there was no warrant in Scripture for an organization such as theirs, the association was disbanded as an ecclesiastical body, Alexander Campbell was opposed to this action, as he thought that such an organization was needed and that there was no reason why a specific "Thus saith the Lord" should be required in a case of this character.

      Meanwhile, Barton W. Stone, another Presbyterian minister, and a number of his associates had accepted the principle of baptism by immersion, although comparatively few made it a test of fellowship; and as they came into relations with Alexander Campbell a partial union was effected in Lexington, Ky., in the early part of 1832. In this there seems to have been no effort at entire agreement, but only a readiness to cooperate heartily. When the question arose as to the name to be adopted, Mr. Stone favored "Christians," as the name given in the beginning by divine authority. Mr. Campbell and his friends preferred the name "Disciples" as less offensive to good people, and quite as scriptural. The result was that no definite action was taken, and both names were used, the local organization being known, generally, as a "Christian Church," or a "Church of Christ," and, rarely, as a "Church of Disciples," or a "Disciples' Church."

      During the first few years of the movement, Alexander Campbell and other leaders were often engaged in more or less heated controversies with representatives of other denominations. Gradually, however, these discussions became less frequent and at the same time more conciliatory in tone.

      The growth of the new organization was very rapid, especially in the Middle West. Throughout Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, and Missouri it gathered numerous congregations, though there was evident a strong objection to any such association, even for fellowship, as would appear to involve ecclesiastical organization. This manifested itself in various ways, especially in opposition to the use of societies for carrying on missionary work. The use of instrumental music in the churches also occasioned dissatisfaction.

      During the Civil War the movement suffered from the general disorganization of the sections in which it had gained its strength, and the death of Alexander Campbell in 1866 was no doubt a severe blow. From the effect of these discouragements, however, it soon recovered, and the period since the war has been one of rapid expansion. With this expansion there developed, out of the objections referred to above, and especially to any semblance of ecclesiastical organization and to the use of instrumental music in the churches, two parties, generally termed "Progressives" and "Conservatives." The former were anxious to include all under one general head as was done in the census report for 1890, leaving each church free to conduct its affairs in its own way, but the Conservatives objected, and insisted on separate classification. Accordingly, in the report for 1906 and in subsequent reports the "Conservative" churches have been listed as Churches of Christ. 3 The line of demarcation between the two bodies, however, is by no means clear.


      The doctrinal position of the Disciples has been summarized as follows:

      They accept the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments; the all-sufficiency of the Bible as a revelation of God's will and a rule of faith and life; the revelation of God in threefold personality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as set forth by the Apostles; the divine glory of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, His incarnation, doctrine, miracles, death as a sin offering, resurrection, ascension, and coronation; the personality of the Holy Spirit and His divine mission to convince the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment to come, and to comfort and sanctify the people of God; the alienation of man from his Maker, and the necessity of faith, repentance, and obedience in order to salvation; the obligation of the divine ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper; the duty of observing the Lord's day in memory of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus; the necessity of holiness on the part of believers; the divine appointment of the Church of Christ, composed of all who by faith and obedience confess His name, with its ministries and services for the edification of the body of Christ and the conversion of the world; the obligation of all disciples to carry the gospel into all the World, "teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you"; the fullness and freeness of the salvation that is in Christ to all who will accept it on the New Testament conditions; the final judgment, with the reward of the righteous and punishment of the wicked.

      In addition to these beliefs, in which they are in general accord with other Protestant churches, the Disciples hold certain positions which they regard as distinctive:

      1. Feeling that "to believe and to do none other things than those enjoined by our Lord and His Apostles must be infallibly safe," they aim "to restore in faith and spirit and practice the Christianity of Christ and His Apostles as found on the pages of the New Testament."

      2. Affirming that "the sacred Scriptures as given of God answer all purposes of a rule of faith and practice, and a law for the government of the church, and that human creeds and confessions of faith spring out of controversy and, instead of being bonds of union, tend to division and strife," they reject all such creeds and confessions.

      3. They place especial emphasis upon "the Divine Sonship of Jesus, as the fundamental fact of Holy Scripture, the essential creed of Christianity, and the one article of faith in order to baptism and church membership."

      4. Believing that in the Scriptures "a clear distinction is made between the law and the gospel," they "do not regard the Old and New Testaments as of equally binding authority upon Christians," but that "the New Testament is as perfect a constitution for the worship, government, and discipline of the New Testament church as the Old was for the Old Testament church."

      5. While claiming for themselves the New Testament names of "Christians," or "Disciples," "they do not deny that others are Christians or that other churches are Churches of Christ."

      6. Accepting the divine personality of the Holy Spirit, through whose agency regeneration is begun, they hold that men "must hear, believe, repent, and obey the gospel to be saved."

      7. Repudiating any doctrine of "baptismal regeneration," and insisting that there is no other prerequisite to regeneration than confession of faith with the whole heart in the personal living Christ, they regard baptism by immersion "as one of the items of the original divine system," and as "commanded in order to the remission of sins."

      8. Following the apostolic model, the Disciples celebrate the Lord's Supper on each Lord's day, "not as a sacrament, but as a memorial feast," from which no sincere follower of Christ of whatever creed or church connection is excluded.

      9. The Lord's day with the Disciples is not a Sabbath, but a New Testament institution, commemorating our Lord's resurrection, and consecrated by apostolic example.

      10. The Church of Christ is a divine institution; sects are unscriptural and unapostolic. The sect name, spirit, and life should give place to the union and cooperation that distinguished the church of the New Testament.


      In polity the Disciples churches are congregational. Each local church elects its own officers, calls its own ministers, and conducts its own affairs with no supervision by any outside ecclesiastical authority. Persons are received for membership in the church on profession of their faith in Christ and baptism, which follows either at the same or at some subsequent service. The officers of the church are the elders and deacons, the pastor usually being one of the elders. The elders have special care of the spiritual interests of the congregation, and the deacons of its financial affairs and benevolences, although the distinction between elders and deacons is not always observed. Applicants for the ministry are ordained by authority of the local church, the ceremony of ordination being conducted by the pastor and elders of the church, sometimes by a visiting evangelist, or occasionally by an association of neighboring churches. The minister is a member of the church where he is located, whether as pastor or as evangelist, and is amenable to its discipline. For conference in regard to ministerial matters, and a general supervision over ministerial standing, ministerial associations are formed, but they are simply advisory, the authority resting with the local church of which the minister is a member.

      There is no national ecclesiastical organization of the churches. There is an "International Convention of Disciples of Christ," which is composed of individual members of the churches. These may or may not be selected by the churches, but their standing in the convention is personal rather than representative, and the convention as such has no authority over the action of the churches, which are at liberty to accept or reject its recommendations.

      For mutual conference in regard to their general affairs, the churches unite in district and State conventions. These conventions, however, have no ecclesiastical authority, the ultimate responsibility in every case resting in the local church.

      In accordance with the principles that have been emphasized in their history, the Disciples of Christ, individually, in their local church organization, in their organized societies, and in their denominational relations, have constantly sought to secure the overcoming of denominational distinction and the unity of the church in its broadest sense. They are thus represented in the various interdenominational movements, especially the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, the International Council of Religious Education, the Advisory Committee of the World Conference on Faith and Order, the World Alliance for International Friendship through the Churches, the Universal Christian Conference on Life and Work, the Near East Relief, the Boy Scouts of America, the Y. M. C. A., and similar organizations.


      The general activities of the Disciples of Christ are carried on through several societies or boards which, in their organization, are independent of any ecclesiastical control, although the various individuals are representative of their membership. A general convention, called "The International Convention of the Disciples of Christ," consisting of members of the churches, meets annually. Its object is to promote unity, economy, and efficiency among the philanthropic organizations of the churches, promote equitable representation, and secure closer cooperation. Its powers are advisory.

      While the earlier sentiment was somewhat adverse to the organization of societies, Alexander Campbell's first association at Washington, Pa., was practically a missionary or church extension society, and the organization with which Barton W. Stone was identified was distinctly evangelistic in Its nature. It was with Mr. Campbell's full approval that in 1849 the American Christian Missionary Society was formed at Cincinnati, its object being, as stated in its constitution, "to promote the preaching of the Gospel in this and other lands." He was the first president and held the office 18 years, until his death in 1866. In 1874, the Christian Woman's Board of Missions was organized. Prior to this time a large number of State, district, and city societies had been formed. The next year the Foreign Christian Missionary Society came into being, followed in 1887 by the National Benevolent Association of the Christian Church, in 1888 by the Board of Church Extension, in 1895 by the Board of Ministerial Relief, in 1910 by the Association for the Promotion of Christian Unity, in 1914 by the Board of Education, and later by the Board of Temperance and Social Welfare.

      These boards continued to function separately until, at the International Convention in Kansas City in 1917, the three missionary societies appointed a committee on unification, instructing the committee to seek to bring about the complete unification of societies so that they should function as one organization, having one headquarters and one management. It was proposed that whatever organization should ultimately be brought about, it should have on its board and its executive committee equal representation of men and women.

      The committee on cooperation and unification held a preliminary meeting in Indianapolis, December 11, 1917. The original proposal was to unite the Foreign Christian Missionary Society, the Christian Woman's Board of Missions, and the American Christian Missionary Society, the latter involving the Board of Church Extension, which was a board of the American Society. Later the Board of Ministerial Relief and the National Benevolent Association sought representation on the committee and voted to join the above-mentioned boards in forming the United Christian Missionary Society.

      When the committee on cooperation and unification came squarely up to the legal problems involved in a merger of the several societies, it found that technically such a merger, involving as it would the immediate surrender and dissolution of the old boards, could not be accomplished, or at least, not for a period of years. It seemed, however, that the objects sought in the unification could be accomplished by creating a new society, duly incorporated, to which the operating functions of the old boards should be committed. The old societies, however, were to continue their legal existence in the States where they originated, for the purpose of holding the trusts committed to them and of discharging the responsibilities required by law.

      Appropriate articles of agreement were drawn up and adopted by each of the boards and societies prior to their coming together in the International Convention at Cincinnati, in 1919. At this convention, the constitution and by-laws of the new United Christian Missionary Society were presented and adopted, and the organization was effected. The executive committee chose St. Louis, Mo., as the operative headquarters for the United Christian Missionary Society, and it began its functions there October 1, 1920.

      The society has now been in existence 7 years, and it has already added at least $3,000,000 worth of property to the holdings of the Disciples. It has an annuity fund of three-quarters of a million dollars, which is growing at the rate of about $100,000 per year.

      The total receipts of the United Christian Missionary Society, of every kind and from all sources, amount to about $3,000,000 per year. Its total assets, including those of the old boards, are over $12,000,000.

      For several years the society has been at work upon a survey of its entire operations around the world. It is the most significant phase of self-examination and self-criticism ever undertaken by the Disciples of Christ. Such efforts heretofore have been promotional in the interests of missionary education and to justify campaigns for funds. This survey, probably to be completed in 1927, is more than an inventory. It is an investigation and study of every phase of organizational effort in a great Christian communion. The survey is an effort to see the task in its entirety and to estimate the total contribution made by and expected of the Disciples of Christ, through organizations reporting to the International Convention.

      The United Christian Missionary Society now has under contemplation a new pension plan for aged ministers of this denomination. At the International Convention at Oklahoma City, Okla., in 1925, a Commission on the Ministry was appointed, consisting of 212 representative men and women of the United States and Canada, to study the matter of an adequate pension plan upon a contributory basis. The inauguration of the proposed campaign awaits the findings of the survey and adequate preparation.

      The foreign missionary work carried on by the Disciples of Christ through the United Christian Missionary Society in 1926 covered the Belgian Congo, China, India, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Philippine Islands, Porto Rico, Argentina, Paraguay, and Tibet, expending thereon $1,215,166.

      During 1926 there were 4,827 baptisms in foreign fields, a gain of 777 over the previous year. The 539 day schools on the foreign field had a total enrollment of 15,204. The 18 hospitals and 24 dispensaries treated 428,797 persons.

      One hundred and forty-one home mission churches received appropriations for pastoral support during the year. The United Christian Missionary Society, through its department of religious education, maintained Bible chairs in 4 State universities. A force of 53 trained workers devoted their entire time to religious education in the churches. Work was conducted among immigrants, and among French groups, Highlanders, Indians, Negroes, Orientals, Spanish-Americans, and Mexicans. The home mission expenditures were $576,841. The department of benevolence conducted 6 homes for children, 6 homes for the aged, and 1 hospital, at a cost of $433,304.

      During 1926, 55 churches were aided through the United Society's department of church erection, making available new church properties valued at about $1,500,000. The total amount now in the church erection fund is $2,448,862.

      The educational work of the Disciples of Christ is carried on through 27 colleges and schools of higher grade, cooperating with the board of education, which provide classical, scientific, and professional training for both sexes and cover every phase of ministerial training, including the college of missions, which specializes in preparation for foreign missionary work. In 1926 these institutions reported 11,640 students. Total gifts and pledges to education for current support, endowments, and betterments amounted to $978,742. The total assets of the colleges cooperating with the board of education now amount to $30,933.

      The board of temperance and social welfare seeks to inspire with the social gospel, to promote every form of church activity that touches social welfare, and to cooperate with all who labor to bring peace where there is conflict. The total receipts of the board from all sources during the fiscal year 1925-26 amounted to $16,665.

      The purpose of the Association for the Promotion of Christian Unity is to watch for every indication of Christian unity and to hasten the time by intercessory prayer, the holding of friendly conferences, and the distribution of Christian unity literature. The association, received from all sources during 1925-26, for the conduct of its work, a total of $11,713.

      The Men and Millions Movement was the first of the great forward movements of the Protestant communions. Its slogan was "To secure 1,000 men and women and more than $6,000,000 for the work of the cooperating societies and colleges of the Disciples of Christ and the every-member canvass in every church." The annual report of the movement for 1926 shows that 98 per cent of the financial goal has been reached. Of the life cards, 8,412 were signed by young people. The "Every Member Canvass," introduced by the Men and Millions Movement, has now been adopted by practically all of the churches as a successful means of providing an adequate budget.

      Following are some interesting statistics, taken from the 1926 yearbook of the Disciples of Christ:

      Total church membership throughout the world, 1,523,307.

      Total Bible school enrollment throughout the world, 1,226,692.

      Number of churches reported throughout the world, 9,786.

      Number of ministers in United States and Canada, 6,871.

      During the 12 months' period, July 1, 1925, to June 30, 1926, the total given in the United States and Canada to the national boards reporting to the International Convention of Disciples of Christ, including amounts given to the various State and provincial missionary societies, was $4,731,325. For the 1,436,575 members in the United States and Canada this is an average of $3.28 per member.

      Published in Religious Bodies: 1926. Volume II. Separate Denominations: Statistics, History, Doctrine, Organization, and Work. United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1929), pp. 471-478.

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