Article appearing in the newsletter of Common Grounds Unity, 19 Aug 2023, used by permission

Origin stories deeply shape our identity, theology, and practice. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are and why we exist have enormous influence on who we are becoming today and tomorrow. Many adherents of the Stone-Campbell Movement have never heard about the actual origins of the movement led by Thomas and Alexander Campbell. For a long time, the basic narrative of the Campbell movement’s origins went something like this:

The Campbell’s escaped the sectarian vision of the Presbyterian Church and started a movement in the United States that sought to restore the New Testament church. The Campbells utilized democratic ideals and the frontier context to start a movement for New Testament Christianity. 

Parts of this version of the story are accurate on their own, but the missing historical and theological information make this version of our origin story misleading and anemic.

James Gorman | Johnson University - Academia.eduOne of the things I wrote about in Among the Early Evangelicals: The Transatlantic Origins of the Stone-Campbell Movement (ACU Press, 2017) is that Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington (1809) was part of a transatlantic movement of evangelicals who cooperated across denominational lines to launch the Protestant missionary movement. Far from being unique, Campbell’s Declaration and Address aligned with other evangelical missionary societies. In fact, much of Campbell’s Christian Association of Washington (CAW) mirrored the Evangelical Society of Ulster (ESU). And that is not a coincidence, since Campbell was a founding member of the ESU in 1798. Campbell supported the ESU until his Presbyterian church took issue with the ESU’s interdenominational and anti-sectarian vision. Many societies like the ESU networked with one another in England, Ireland, Scotland, the United States, and elsewhere. People who influenced the Campbells in Ireland and Scotland—Greville Ewing, the Haldane brothers, George Hamilton, Rowland Hill—were architects of this nondenominational missionary movement in their respective regions from the 1790s to the early 1800s.

The individuals involved in the transatlantic evangelical missions culture that molded the Campbell movement’s origins were diverse, but they shared some basic commitments and methods.

First, they created voluntary societies that individuals from different denominations could join by paying yearly member fees. Those fees then supported the work of the society, which included hiring itinerant preachers (i.e., missionaries) and printing Bibles and other religious tracts.

Second, the leaders of this culture agreed that a “simple” or “primitive” or “apostolic” or “evangelical” gospel preceded the historical denominations and confessions and, therefore, could serve as the basis of their interdenominational cooperation. They lifted up the New Testament as the primary authority on which they agreed, noting that their denominational differences were the result of historical developments and legitimate theological differences.

Third, these leaders shared an understanding of John 17 and a postmillennial vision of the end times that led them to believe their cooperative work for missions signaled they were living in the last days. They thought their unity and missions work would aid in winning the world to Christ and, consequently, usher in Jesus’s millennial reign.

The origin story of the Campbell movement is rich. It began as a local expression of a transatlantic unity movement to win the world to Christ and usher in the millennium. Thomas’s CAW was one of many voluntary missionary societies that flourished from the 1790s to the 1820s. And Alexander served as an itinerant evangelist for the CAW during his first years in the U.S. The Campbells of the 1790s to the early 1810s were leaders who shared with other transatlantic evangelicals a commitment to interdenominational and anti-sectarian cooperation for Christian work. The Campbells and their followers developed the original vision in very different directions in the following years, but all of us linked to the Campbell movement in some way today share this origin story. Sadly, many people still do not know this story.

Origin stories are important for our identity, theology, and practice. As we consider our movement’s origins and our original reason for being, it seems to me we have much to ponder. Too often, individuals and institutions in the various streams of the Stone-Campbell movement have been unable to cooperate with one another, to say nothing of cooperating with individuals from other denominations for a shared goal. Where we have found ways to cooperate across boundaries, we have recovered one aspect of the Campbells’ original vision. As we resource our heritage to inform our theology and practice, I hope we can continue to create unity across denominations in the spirit of those transatlantic evangelicals who so deeply shaped our heritage’s “DNA.”


James L. Gorman is Professor of History at Johnson University in Knoxville, TN. His areas of research and writing focus on the history of Christianity, the Stone-Campbell Movement, and race and Christianity. He authored Among the Early Evangelicals (2017), co-edited Slavery’s Long Shadow (2019), and co-authored Reviving the Ancient Faith, 3rd ed. (forthcoming in 2024). He currently serves as Assistant Editor of Stone-Campbell Journal. He received the Ph.D. in Religion from Baylor University in 2015, the M.Div. from Abilene Christian University in 2008, and the B.S. from Kentucky Christian University in 2005.