Pre-Campbell Christianity

by Ken Chumbley
via Gospel Gazette, Vol. 2, No. 8, p. 18, August 2000

The following is an excerpt from an article by Carroll Sites that has been found in a number of bulletins over the last few years:

    Many people identify churches of Christ as owing their roots to Alexander Campbell in 1813. This is a common tendency among people thinking in denominational terms. Thus in some circles, we have held the dubious distinction of being referred to as "Campbellites." I have in my files an interesting quotation from documentary research of a Dr. Robinson, principal of Overdale College, Birmingham, England.

It reads as follows:

    In the Furness District of Lancashire in N.W. England there existed in 1669, during the reign of Charles II, a group of eight churches of Christ. Most of them are not now in existence. An old minute book has been found of the year 1669 and it shows that they called themselves by the name church of Christ, practiced baptism by immersion, celebrated the Lord's Supper each Lord's Day, and had elders and deacons. There was also a church of Christ in Dungannon, Ireland in 1804 and in Allington, Denbeighshire. In 1735, John Davis, a young preacher in the Fife District of Scotland was preaching New Testament Christianity twenty-five years before Thomas Campbell (Alexander Campbell's father) was born.

This Dr. Robinson mentioned above did indeed, at one time, serve as principal of Overdale College which was a school operated by the Cooperation of Churches of Christ in Great Britain. This Cooperation was in fellowship with the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) in the US until 1890 when it was dissolved and the most of the churches became part of the United Reformed Church. I have further information on the church in Lancashire, that is referred to in this quotation, that will be helpful to those who are interested in the history of the efforts that have been made to restore New Testament Christianity.

I first came across the same quotation while living in England back in 1971 while I was preparing a history of the restoration efforts in the British Isles for the McQuarie School of Preaching in Australia. Having read this, I did some further research and actually found the meeting place of the congregation at Tottlebank in the Furness District of Lancashire. In later years, this congregation had become a Baptist church. The Baptist preacher who was there at the time brought out the original communion ware dating from 1669 together with the original minute book. He told me that these items, in reality, belonged to the church of Christ, however, the Baptist Union would not allow them to be given to the church.

A reading of the minute book clearly shows this congregation was not established as a Baptist church but a church of Christ. The opening words in the book are:

    The 18th day of ye sixth month, called August 1669, A Church of Christ was formed in order and sate down together in the ffellowship and order of ye Gospel of Jesus Christ. Att the house of William Rawlinson off Tottlebank in Coulton in Furness. (This was in the days before the change of the calendar when August became the eighth month.)

It is interesting to note that in a history of the Tottlebank Baptist Church, which the Baptist preacher gave me, there is a quotation from the book by Dr. Halley (Principal of New College, London), written in 1869 which is a history of Puritanism and Nonconformity in Lancashire, which states:

    Among the fells of Furness was founded the first Christian Church in England. By Christian, I mean here not Congregational, not Presbyterian, not Episcopal, not Baptist, but simply Christian in its unrestricted sense Christian not sectarian. Catholic not denominational, a church of people acknowledged as Christians and nothing else. A poor ejected minister from over the sands had the wisdom and grace to form such a church, and the poor mountaineers of his neighbourhood had the piety to adhere to it and long to sustain it.

In 1669, the religious situation in England was such that no one was allowed to preach within five miles of a town who was not a minister of the established church, the Church of England (under what was known as the Five Mile Act). This meant that the church in Tottlebank was established and met without the sanction of the government and was effectively an illegal assembly. The house where the church originally met is still standing and we were shown the room where they had met to worship which gave a clear view down the valley. Thus, they could see the King's men coming and had plenty of time to dismiss services before they could arrive.

The minute book (a transcript of which I have in modern English) shows that there were other congregations of like precious faith scattered throughout the British Isles. Indeed, looking at the history of some of the older Baptist churches in Great Britain, they reveal that they were not originally established as Baptist churches, but as churches of Christ. This particular time in British history was shortly after the restoration of the Monarchy following the Civil War and the period of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. Further, there is indication that there were those who served with Cromwell during the Civil War that could not rightly be described as Baptists and could well have been members of the Lord's church.

Since 1971, when I did my research, Keith Sisman, a brother in Christ and friend in England, has been able to do more research getting into the library at Cambridge University. He has uncovered other documents from this period and even earlier that would clearly indicate that there were those even prior to this time who were preaching New Testament Christianity at great cost to their liberty and even their lives.

Clearly, there is information which shows that beyond a shadow of a doubt churches of Christ do not owe their origin to Alexander Campbell, Barton Warren Stone or to any other man. Further, it shows that the church is not a product of the American frontier, as some, including some brethren, have stated. It also shows that, as Carroll Sites stated in his article:

    The principle of New Testament Christianity is biblically and historically rooted within the soil of Old Testament prophecy and Apostolic authority. The real truth of the matter is where the seed of the kingdom (the Word of God) is preached, and men and women obey it, there is the church of Christ.