History of the Disciples

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 Presbyterian Scotch-Irish immigrant 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.  Walter Scott, an immigrant from Scotland, was a successful evangelist of the resulting Campbell movement as it separated from the Baptists.

Barton W. Stone, a fifth-generation American in Kentucky and 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. He was a key participant in the Restoration Movement following the  Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 near Paris, KY.

“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.” (For an introduction to some of their ideas, see the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery – 1804 or the Declaration and Address – 1809.)

The aims and practices of the two groups were similar, and the  Campbell and Stone movements united in 1832 in Lexington, KY after about a quarter of a century of separate development. (For key dates and more detail, go to the Disciples of Christ Historical Society  website.)

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 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.

U.S. Presidents who had Disciple connections  |  Important dates in Disciple history

A Heritage of Openness and Ecumenism

The Disciples have a long heritage of openness to other Christian traditions having come into existence as 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. Former General Minister and President Sharon Watkins was a member of the  WCC governing body and also an officer on the  NCC board (2013-17). 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 retired from the faculty at Seattle University, and 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.

In 1977, the Disciples of Christ (through the Disciples Ecumenical Consultative Council) have been engaged with the Roman Catholic Church in an official international dialogue, holding annual meetings, to explore the possibility of realizing full visible unity in Christ. The current phase of this dialogue, begun in 2013, is focusing on the theme , “Christians Formed and Transformed by the Eucharist.”

Disciples have given leadership to the establishment of  Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A. (CCT) that brings together Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Evangelicals and Pentecostal Christians to seek to make a common witness in the United States. The Rev. Richard L. Hamm, former General Minister and President, was 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.

In 1999, an official dialogue was initiated between the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Christian Church/Churches of Christ, and the Churches of Christ to explore greater understanding and develop greater trust among these three “streams” of the Stone-Campbell Movement.

In 2013, key executives of both denominations took the necessary training to have mutual  ministerial standing in both denominations.

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

The tapestry of today

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a North American denomination. North America has long been racially and culturally diverse but church life is not always integrated. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) participates in the racial and cultural diversity of North America, including in its membership European Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Pacific Island/Asian Americans. Disciples are working to become a pro-reconciling anti-racist church. We also have brothers and sisters in Canada who joined our movement with a slightly different history.

Record of 2008 consultation by Council on Christian Unity

African American
Canada
Hispanics
Pacific Islanders and Asians (NAPAD)

African Americans

The earliest congregations of the Stone-Campbell Movement in Kentucky and Pennsylvania included both European American and African American members.  The Colored Christian Church was organized in Midway, Ky. in 1834.  Thus, African Americans have been part of this movement from the very beginning.

In 1917, the National Christian Missionary Convention was formed as the result of the determination of Preston Taylor, a former slave, who was minister of the Gay Street Christian Church in Nashville, Tenn.   The purpose was to empower the witness of Black Disciples as members of the whole church through a partnership with white Disciples that recognized Black leadership in an era of blatant white supremacy and paternalism.  For over a half-century, this convention conducted annual gatherings in which participants received in-service training in Christian education and leadership, program information, and inspiration for fulfilling their mission as Disciples of Christ.

In the late 1960s, around the time the Church adopted  The Design, the program and staff of the National Christian Missionary Convention merged with other general Disciples organizations.  The Administrative Secretary of the Convention became a staff associate of the General Minister and President and program staff members were integrated with the staff of Homeland Ministries (now known as Disciples Home Missions).  At the same time, a new organization, the  National Convocation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was lodged in the Office of the General Minister and President as part of a merger agreement.  The Convocation conducts biennial assemblies emphasizing education and inspiration.

Canada

The beginnings of the Disciples in Canada occurred in more than one place.  In the first half of the nineteenth century,  people became knowledgeable of the teachings and activities of Barton Stone. Joseph Ash of Cobourg, Ontario, became a follower and published a newspaper as a Stoneite. The more prominent Alexander Campbell became known and people from Ontario traveled to relatively close Bethany College to be instructed and inspired by him and faculty of the school. However years before there were people of Scots-Irish persuasion who emigrated to Prince Edward Island who found themselves at odds from sectarian baptist leaders and developed to become the Stone-Campbell movement in the Maritime provinces before Confederation.

In Ontario, then called Upper Canada, Scots-Irish settlers embracing ideas of the same Scottish thinkers with whom Alexander and his Anti-burgher Seceder Presbyterian father were influenced while still in Scotland  before emigration, came to settle around now Greater Toronto and its rural towns in southwest Ontario. At one time there were about 100 congregations in Ontario – there are now seven.  Weakness, normal attrition, inept leadership and lack of support for ministers have been systemic causes. When the western part of the country attracted settlers after the building of the national railways, Disciples farmers from Ontario and the midwestern U.S. states moved there and easily formed congregations on the prairies.  For over 30 years urban congregations have been greatly enriched by Disciples and united churches members emigrating from the Philippines, Jamaica, other Caribbean islands, Guyana and Venezuela. Haitian congregations have formed and waned in Montreal.

The Disciples in Canada have always had close relationships with U.S. Disciples.  Many exceptional missionaries from Canada served under the auspices of the Foreign Christian Missionary Society in the  late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  A Canadian, Archibald McLean served as its President. After the union of the three mission boards, missionaries continued to be sent from Canada through the United Christian Missionary Society and latterly the Division of Overseas/Global Ministries.

Canada is unique in that it is incorporated as a national church. It is also a region, giving our church the name Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada since 1968. Disciples congregations are most prevalent in Ontario.

Canadian Disciples have talked about uniting with other churches ever since the formation of the All-Canada Committee in the 1920s. Of high significance was the approval of the All-Canada Committee to join in conversations with the far larger denominations of the Anglican Church in Canada and the United Church of Canada in the 1970s and 1980s. Although the Anglicans withdrew from the conversations, the United Church and the Disciples continued to develop a final proposal for union.  Three joint UCC-Disciples congregations were organized. Conservative and often hostile forces in both denominations defeated the idea in 1985. During the 1987-1997 regional ministry of Robert Steffer, a time of rebuilding the strengths of a very small and weakened church ensued. Though very small in number, Disciples in Canada continue with resiliency. The College of Churches of Christ (Disciples) in Canada continues to fund educational for ministry; three campgrounds are sponsored; area organizations continue to provide opportunities for fellowship. As founding members of the both the World and Canadian Council of Churches, Canadian Disciples continue to contribute to the ecumenical fora, especially in the ethnically and culturally rich Canadian context. (Appreciation to Robert Steffer for this entry)

Hispanics

Hispanics have been Disciples since the last years of the nineteenth century but in 1969, there were only 18 Hispanic and bilingual congregations in all of the United States. Dominant culture Disciples had assumed that Hispanics in North America would quickly assimilate to Anglo culture. Therefore, little effort had been put into developing Spanish language resources.

The Hispanic congregations within geographic areas started to group together into what is called today Las Convenciones Hispanas – The Hispanic Conventions. There are six now that can trace their roots as far back as 1916 in the Southwest. Included are the Northeast Hispanic Convention (1958); Southwest Hispanic Convention (re-established 1968). Midwest Hispanic Convention (1978); Pacific Southwest Hispanic Convention (1989); Southeast Hispanic Convention (1992) and the Arizona Hispanic Convention (2004). Most of these meet annually.

In 1969, Domingo Rodriguez became director of the Office of Programs and Services for Hispanic and Bilingual Congregations in Homeland Ministries.  Rodriguez called a conference of Hispanic ministers which created a Committee on Guidelines for Strategy and Action which morphed into a board, then a conference, then another committee, and finally the Hispanic Caucus, which developed the National Hispanic and Bilingual Fellowship of the Church and held its first Assembly in 1981.

In 1991, the emerging Hispanic leadership separated from Homeland Ministries and established the  Central Pastoral Office for Hispanic Ministries. CPOHM provides programs and pastoral care to Hispanic leaders and congregations, advises the different regional and general ministries of the church on Hispanic ministry, and advocates for Hispanic Disciples.

By the late 1990s and into the 21st century, about 30 percent of the new congregations welcomed into the denomination have been predominantly Hispanic. Most come as existing congregations choosing to affiliate with the Disciples. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures including the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, Cuba), Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua), South America (Venezuela, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina) and Mexico – all with different levels of experience with the Disciples.

A 2016 PowerPoint presentation on this history

Pacific Islanders and Asians

Late in the 19th century, the Disciples’ Christian Woman’s Board of Missions opened a mission to the Chinese in Portland, OR.  It was enormously successful and a Chinese minister, Jeu Hawk, was called to lead the work. In 1907, the CWBM started another Chinese mission in San Francisco but both closed in 1924 due to anti-Asian hostility reflected in the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the Immigration Act of 1924.

In 1901, a small group of Japanese came into contact with the Christian Missionary Society of Southern California. By 1908, a Japanese Christian Church had been organized in Los Angeles. By 1942, the number of Japanese Christian churches had increased to nine, but all were closed with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. After their detention, in 1948, former Japanese Christian church members founded West Adams Christian Church in Los Angeles.

In contrast to the Chinese and Japanese stories, Filipino Christian Church was founded in Los Angeles in 1933 and has had an uninterrupted ministry to this day.

A wave of new immigrants from Asia to the United States began with the Immigration Acts of 1965. In 1976, Wilshire Korean Christian Church became the first Korean Disciples congregation and in 1978, under the initiative of Harold Johnson, the first consultation on Asian ministries was held. The Fellowship of Asian American Disciples (FAAD) was organized and renamed the American-Asian Disciples (AAD) a year later. Thanks to the efforts of leaders such as David Kagiwada, Soongook Choi and Grace Kim, in 1984 the General Board formally acknowledged AAD as a constituency.  The group decided to hold biennial convocations on even years alternating with the General Assembly.

In 1991, the General Assembly approved a Disciples Home Missions staff position devoted to Pacific-Asian ministries. Geunhee Yu was called to the position in the following year. At the time, there were 17 churches whose members were primarily Asian.  In 1996, AAD was renamed the  North American Pacific/Asian Disciples (NAPAD) to be more inclusive.

In April 2009, the General Board voted to grant NAPAD the status of a distinct general unit.  This took effect January 2010.  In 2011, Rev. Yu retired. By then, the number of NAPAD congregations had grown to over 90. At the 2012 NAPAD Convocation Jinsuk Chun was elected as new Executive Pastor.

NAPAD now includes more than 14 different languages and cultures from the Pacific Rim such as Chinese, Filipino, Indonesian, Korean, Samoan and Zo.