Disciples History

Early History

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) grew out of two movements seeking Christian unity that sprang up almost simultaneously in western Pennsylvania and Kentucky - movements that were backlashes against the rigid denominationalism of the early 1800s.

Thomas and Alexander Campbell, a Scottish Presbyterian father and son in Pennsylvania, rebelled against the dogmatic sectarianism that kept members of different denominations - and even factions within the same denomination - from partaking of the Lord's Supper together.

Barton W. Stone in Kentucky, also a Presbyterian, objected to the use of creeds as tests of "fellowship" within the church, which were a cause of disunity, especially at the Lord’s table.

"Christians," the name adopted by Stone's movement, represented what he felt to be a shedding of denominational labels in favor of a scriptural and inclusive term. Campbell had similar reasons for settling on "Disciples of Christ" but he felt the term "Disciples" less presumptuous than "Christians."

The aims and practices of the two groups were similar, and the Campbell and Stone movements united in 1832 after about a quarter of a century of separate development.

The founders of the Christian Church hoped to restore Christian unity by returning to New Testament faith and practices. But the church found that even this led to division. One group which opposed practices not specifically authorized by the New Testament, such as instrumental music in the church and organized missionary activity, gradually pulled away. That group finally was listed separately in the 1906 federal religious census as the "Churches of Christ."

Another group remained with the Disciples but began a separation in 1926 over what it felt were too liberal policies on the mission field in the practice of baptism. More than 40 years later (1967-69) some 3,000 of those congregations formally withdrew at the time of Disciples restructure. They refer to themselves as the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

A Heritage of Openness

The Disciples have a long heritage of openness to other Christian traditions - having come into existence as sort of a 19th century protest movement against denominational exclusiveness. At the local level and beyond, Disciples are frequently involved in cooperative and ecumenical work.

In 1910, the Disciples established the Council on Christian Unity, the first denomination in the world to have an organization devoted to the pursuit of Christian unity.  Disciples helped organize the National and World Councils of Churches. The denomination also contributed the first lay president of the National Council (1960-63) - Indiana industrialist J. Irwin Miller.

The Rev. Paul A. Crow Jr., retired president of the Council on Christian Unity, the Rev. Michael K. Kinnamon, now General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, along with the Rev. Patrice Rosner are Disciples who served as chief executives of the Consultation on Church Union -now Churches Uniting in Christ  (CUIC) – which is striving for visible unity.

Disciples have given leadership to the establishment of a new ecumenical venture in the U.S. called Christian Churches Together (CCT) that brings together Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Evangelicals and Pentecostal Christians.  The Rev. Richard L. Hamm, former General Minister and President, has been named CCT's first full-time executive.

In 1989, the Disciples and the United Church of Christ declared that "a relationship of full communion now exists between our two churches." The ecumenical partnership rests on five pillars of acceptance and cooperation: a common confession of Christ; mutual recognition of members; common celebration of the Lord's Supper/Holy Communion; mutual recognition and reconciliation of ordained ministries; and common commitment to mission.

Joint work between the Disciples' Division of Overseas Ministries and the UCC's Wider Church Ministries (formerly known as United Church Board for World Ministries), dates from 1967. World mission for both churches is now carried out by the Common Global Ministries Board, established in 1995. Approximately 150 persons hold overseas appointments in 44 countries on the churches' behalf.

In keeping with their ecumenical mission, the Disciples have approximately 270 international church partners in close to 70 countries.  Global Ministries facilitated 20 short-term volunteer opportunities and over 74 group mission trips in 2007.

In the wider ecumenical movement, Disciples have held theological conversations with the Roman Catholic Church and with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

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