Church people like to think that America was always religious. Puritans came to New England for religious reasons. Religious freedom is specifically protected in the Bill of Rights. But the fact is that by 1800, probably no more than five percent of Americans were church members. When Thomas Jefferson was elected president in that year, church leaders worried. Jefferson was a rational deist. He believed in God, but like others seeking to escape from Old World religious superstition, he reasoned that God did not intrude into the affairs of human beings. God was merely a clock maker who got it all started and left the world to "unwind."
Christians were appalled. Many feared that Christianity would not survive the birth pangs of the new nation. A concerned frontier pastor named Barton Stone heard about a successful revivalist named McCready and invited him to "hold protracted meetings" near his church in Cane Ridge, Ky. Stone planned and publicized the revival for almost a year and, in 1801, he was not disappointed. Between 12,000 and 25,000 people came and built a huge tent city that endured for weeks. During the meetings, people became convinced that God was calling them to personal repentance. "The preaching, praying, singing and shouting, all heard at once, rushed from different parts of the ground, like the sound of many waters"overwhelming all "powers of contemplation," Stone wrote. Emotions took over, leading to bizarre rolling, jerking, barking, dancing, laughing and singing.
Most camp meetings were not as sensational as Cane Ridge. Yet, revivals dramatically reshaped American religion. Leaders like Barton Stone preached that Christians needed only the Bible as sufficient rule of faith and that Jesus was the sole head of the church. Christian character was more important than creeds and confessions, and liberty of conscience was essential. Confronted with competition and rivalry between religious groups, Stone and other frontier revivalists insisted that all Christians (Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist) were "One," and they needed no other name than "Christian."
Historians sometimes say that this "Christian" restoration movement—which later linked Western frontier, Southern and New England "Christians" together into a new denomination, and also produced the Disciples of Christ—created the first distinct American Protestant denominations. In the 1930s, the "Christian" denomination joined with the Congregationalists, and in 1957 the Congregational Christian Churches merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ. The story of Barton Stone and the "Christians" is part of our story.
Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ.