Barton W. Stone
The church was in trouble in the new world. Since the American Revolution, Christianity had been on the decline, especially on the frontier. Sporadic, scattered revivals dotted the landscape, but they were short-lived. Religious indifference seemed to be spreading. Two prominent doctrines were winning the day on the frontier: Universalism, the doctrine that we are a blessed people in a blessed land and everyone will be saved, and the doctrine of deism, the belief that God created the world and then left to pursue other interests and is uninvolved in the world.
Churches and pastors did what they could do: they began to have prayer meetings and national conventions for prayer. Church discipline was thrown into high gear and folks were withdrawn from for alcoholism, profanity, mistreatment of slaves, and sexual immorality. Some congregations were so stringent on withdrawing that they decimated their ranks because sin had to be stopped in order that God could bless.
In 1790 Barton W. Stone enrolled at the Guilford Academy in North Carolina. There was a great religious excitement among the students in the school. James McGready, a Presbyterian revival preacher was in the area and would often speak to the students about God. Stone was introduced to a God who was a great Lover of all.
In 1798 James McGready moved to Logan County Kentucky with the idea that he would travel among three small congregations. He was known in North Carolina for fiery preaching, and they hoped that he would be able to ignite a fire in the frontier. In the fall of the same year Stone was offered the opportunity to move to Cane Ridge Kentucky to be their pastor. Once again Stone crossed paths with James McGready who had started hosting camp meetings in and around Logan county, Kentucky.
The idea of a camp meeting was not only new to the new world, it was a new idea. The only churches that were hosting camp meetings were the ones on the frontier. People would come from 30-40 miles away and set up a makeshift camp around a forest clearing where log benches and a rude preaching platform constituted an outdoor church that remained in almost constant session for three or four days. As many as 10,000 to 20,000 people were reported at some meetings. Some people came partly out of curiosity, some out of a desire for social contact, but most of them attended out of their yearning for religious worship. Activities included preaching, prayer meetings, hymn singing, weddings, and baptisms. But the central focus of these meetings happened at the communion table. The theology of the preachers varied, but a sudden conversion experience was usually emphasized.
Another aspect of the camp meetings was this sense of wild enthusiasm and even hysteria. The more mainline churches often spoke against the camp meetings, because things were not done under the oversight of scripture, since they were not decent and in order. The Presbyterian church threatened to remove members who were found to be participating in these camp meetings.
But even with the established religious groups taking such a hard stance against these camp meetings, they were an important part of the frontier ministries. These camp meetings affected the religious and social life of the frontier in various ways. The emphasis on a sudden conversion experience tended to reduce doctrinal preaching to a minimum, and undermine the concept of a learned pastoral ministry. The individualistic and activistic attitudes stressed in camp meetings agreed with the character of frontier life and eventually enveloped the religious outlook of rural America.
Barton W. Stone attended one of McGready’s camp meetings. He was so overcome by what he had witnessed, that when he described his experiences to the Cane Ridge Church, the congregation began to weep. That evening, Stone scheduled a Communion at Cane Ridge the first weekend in August. The Cane Ridge house could hold 500, but they also built a large tent to accommodate the anticipated crowds. But as soon as the revival began it was evident that no one was ready for what was about to happen.
Friday evening it rained, which held back the crowds, but still the meetinghouse was packed. The air was thick with expectancy, but nothing extraordinary occurred, many people lingered all night in prayer. At a typical Communion, Saturday was mostly devoted to fasting and small-group prayer as people prepared themselves for Sunday’s Communion. The growing mob, which now numbered in the thousands, sabotaged the routine.
The Saturday morning services had been quiet, but by afternoon, their was nonstop preaching in both the meetinghouse and the tent. Excitement mounted, and the camp erupted in noise. There was shouting and crying, some folks began to pass out; a few fell into a deep coma, others experienced grand-mal seizures others a type of hysteria. Then something even more strange occurred, later to be called “the jerks.” One witness would later described what happened: “Their heads would jerk back suddenly, frequently causing them to yelp, or make some other involuntary noise. ... Sometimes the head would fly every way so quickly that their features could not be recognized. I have seen their heads fly back and forward so quickly that the hair of females would be made to crack like a carriage whip, but not very loud.”
As the day gave way to night, the sermons and worship continued by camp fires, candles, lamps, and torches. Men and women would shout sermons from the tent and the professional ministers began to be troubled by the large shows of emotions. Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodist, and Episcopal's believed it was wrong for preachers to use emotionalism in their preaching. But the emotions and confusion continued to grow through the night.
Early Sunday morning, relative calm reigned. Most people had been up most of the night worshiping. The central purpose of the gathering, the Communion, took place as scheduled in the meetinghouse. As was the practice of the Presbyterian Church a minister preached the traditional Communion sermon outside, and then those with Communion tokens went inside to partake of the sacrament. The tables, set up in the shape of a cross in the aisles, could probably accommodate 100 at a time. Over the ensuing hours, hundreds of Presbyterians were served.
It didn’t take long for problems to begin. The Methodists did not have the proper communion tokens and resented being excluded from the practice. So William Burke stood on a fallen tree and began holding a Methodist service. But Burke wasn’t the only one, there were four different groups meeting around the grounds, each holding their own service. By midday, dozens of informal groups began to meet, with ministers preaching their prepared sermons, and hundreds of others starting with their own spontaneous lessons, excitedly giving spiritual advice or tearful warnings. Almost anyone, women, children, slaves, could be found preaching sermons about what the Lord was doing. The air was thick with moaning, hymn singing, professions of faith, praying, shouting, clapping, hugging, and laughing.
By Monday, food and supplies were running short forcing many families to leave. But the momentum could not be stopped. As one family would leave, two more would arrive and take their place. Ministers who had gone home to preach at their churches on Sunday returned to preach and minister throughout the week. For four more days, the singing, praying, and preaching continued. Few could comprehend, let alone describe, what had happened. While it is impossible to have an accurate count of what happened at Cane Ridge, the estimates of attendance was more than 25,000 people who gathered to take Communion. But it wasn’t simply that a few people’s lives were changed, religion in America was about to undergo a tremendous change as well.
Not everyone was pleased with what happened at Cane Ridge, while Stone did not encourage the wide show of emotion, he definitely did not do anything to stop it. He was a Presbyterian, and he had already had some issues with the tenants of the Presbyterian faith.
He was more Arminian than Calvinist in his views. (Calvinism emphasizes the sovereignty of God, Arminianism emphasizes the responsibility of man.) He struggled to reconcile the theological doctrines of the church with the Bible. Specifically, Stone had serious trouble with Calvinistic theology of limited atonement, the teaching that Christ effectively redeems from every people “only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation”. In an effort to sooth his conscience, he gave up the 'Westminster Confession of Faith, and pledged to only use the Bible. While there was tremendous freedom to be found on the frontier, you were not completely free.
In 1803 Stone and five colleagues were charged with teaching that salvation was for all and that every one, without the aid of the miraculous influence of the spirit. By this preaching of un-calvinistic doctrines the presbyteries and synods decided to censure and exclude these men from the fold. So Stone and the five other ministers men drew up a protest, a declaration of independence, and a withdrew from the jurisdiction, but not from their communion. They formed the Springfield Presbytery, and began to preach that the Bible, and the Bible alone, was their only rule of faith and practice.
But one year later, in 1804, they dissolved the Springfield Presbytery and penned the “Last Will & Testament of the Springfield Presbytery”. I have copies ion this available for anyone who would be interested. This is a huge moment in the religious history of the world. These men realized that they had just formed one more divisive religious group. So they started with the premise that, “We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”
These men decided that Christ had called us to unity, and this was the beginning of a unity movement that would shape who we are today. They agreed that instead of having a party name, they would simply be known as Christians. They decided to abandon infant baptism, and since none of them had been immersed, they first baptized each other, and then baptized their congregations.
It is important to know, that our movement began as a unity movement. And the men, and women, who lead the charge to get back to the bible did not have many of the same hangups that we have today. Stone would often attend meetings that were ecumenical and offer no critique or condemnation. He believed that if you were able to read the Bible with a sincere and open heart, if you loved Jesus then that was enough, We have dozens of records of these meetings where Stone stood along side Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodist, and Episcopalians and not only preached, but took communion with them. Stone attended dozens of communion festivals, where everyone was invited to come and learn about Jesus, sing, pray, and take communion. Stone believed that God was interested in the heart, and not at all interested in the practice. So if you loved Jesus, but had a different opinion about a matter of faith, he would gladly call you brother and join you in worship.
Stone often spoke of four kinds of union: book union, head union, water union, and fire union.
Book union was based upon an authoritative creed, confession of faith or church discipline. But Creeds by their very nature separate us from one another based on beliefs or understandings of the scriptures. Stone though that creeds were by nature divisive and would never be able to provide the union that we were created to attain.
Head union was based on the idea that when we all understand the Bible exactly alike we will find unity, but we will never understand the Bible exactly alike. Stone warned that this approach was characteristic of many who denounced creeds and made the Bible their creed. He warned that to make interpretations of the Bible a system of salvation is equally wrong since we all have different experiences and different understandings. “Each one believed that his opinion of certain texts to be the very spirit and meaning of the text. And this opinion was absolutely essential to salvation.” The only difference between opinions and creeds is that someone wrote down a creed.
In 1848 John Winebrenner published a book entitled History of All The Religious Denominations in the United States. The book details 53 different American Denominations. Most of these groups held one basic tenant in common, the claim to possess “No creed but the Bible”. This is puzzling because “If the Bible be at once so full a formulary of Christian Doctrine and practice, how does it come to pass that when men are left most free to use it this way … they are flung asunder so perpetually in their religions faith?” Basically, every denomination declares that they want to follow the Scripture, but they all have different interpretations of the scripture. So Stone said that understanding of the Scripture would never be able to provide the union that we were created to attain.
Water union was based upon baptism by the immersion of believers; if made the primary criterion of faith, said Stone, immersion baptism can become sectarian. Stone said that this agreement cannot hold people together if they disagree about other doctrines. In essence, once the water has been dried from our bodies, we soon forget about the unity found in that water. A practice where there is not unity in understanding or practice will never provide the union that we were created to attain.
Fire Union was based on the union of the Spirit which changes hard and unloving hearts into soft and loving ones. This is the perfect union achieved not by the agreement of human opinion but faith in the "Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners, and by cheerful obedience to all his known commands.” One of Stones greatest fears is that we would be able to unite on the Bible without possessing the fire of the Spirit of the book. “Let every Christian begin the work of union in himself. Wait upon God, and pray for the promise of the Spirit. Rest not till you are filled with the Spirit. Then, and not till then, will you love your brethren. Only then will you have the Spirit to love the fallen world, May all that profess the name of Jesus be filled with the Spirit and bring forth the fruits of love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, and goodness.”
Stone also began to teach that heresy was not teaching false doctrine, but living a false life. It was not about doctrine but about your character. Stone understood that you could say all the right things, and still lust after money, or power, or sex. Heresy was all about your character and nothing to do with your creed.
Stone wrote continually about our need to find unity through accepting one another. Stone did not speak in Charismatic tongues, but accepted and endorsed those who did. He was not slain in the spirit, but accepted and endorsed those who were. He was not not a Catholic, but had no problem calling them brothers and sisters. He said,” If genuine religion be the fruit of such revivals we dare not reject it without incurring the divine displeasure.” Which is an old American English way of saying, don’t get in the way of what God is doing.
Barton W. Stone was a firm believer the pursuit of unity. That is the foundation on which we were built and if we are going to be what we were called to be, by the blood of Christ, we must pursue unity as well.