The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a Protestant group that has been active in Georgia since the early nineteenth century. Several of its adherents, known as Disciples, have played prominent roles in the history of the state, and today the church thrives in Georgia with approximately 20,000 members in 69 congregations.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) grew out of the early-nineteenth-century Restoration Movement. As its name suggests, the church is the result of the union between two separate Protestant groups. In 1803 Presbyterian minister Barton Warren Stone (1772-1844) formed a religious body known as “Christians” in Kentucky after a Presbyterian synod censured him for ministering to non-Presbyterians. Another Presbyterian clergyman, Thomas Campbell (1763-1854), began his “Disciples of Christ” group in southwest Pennsylvania in 1807 because of a similar religious censure. Both leaders shared similar beliefs, especially an emphasis on church unity.
Their geographical proximity and theological affinities led Stone and Campbell to unite their congregations in 1832. This union resulted in the current Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), also known as the Stone-Campbell Movement. The names “Christian Church” and “Disciples of Christ” were used interchangeably until “Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)” was formally adopted in 1968. In 1999 the organization counted more than 1 million members in more than 3,300 congregations in the United States and Canada.
Traditionally, the Christian Church has not had a formalized set of beliefs, maintaining that such formalizations tend to divide rather than to unite. The church does emphasize such traditional Christian beliefs as the divinity of Jesus Christ, the necessity of salvation, and the authority of the Bible. The Disciples also share various practices with other Christian groups. For example, Christian congregations practice baptism by immersion (as do Baptists), celebrate weekly communion (as do Catholics and Episcopalians), hire their own pastors (as do Baptists and Presbyterians), and stress congregational governance (as do traditional Baptists and United Church of Christ members).
Christian Church in Georgia
Although Stone apparently visited Georgia as early as 1797, the first group of “Christians” did not arrive in Georgia until 1807, twenty-five years before the union of Stone’s and Campbell’s groups. The first Christian congregation was formed near Scull Shoals in present-day Oconee County, about sixteen miles from Athens. It consisted primarily of Disciples from North Carolina who had split with Methodists in that state and were followers of North Carolina church leader James O’Kelly.
Among the more distinguished members of the Christian Church in Georgia was Shelton Dunning (1780-1858), a charter member of the Savannah Steamship Company and one of its first directors. Dunning was also one of the founders of the Savannah City Hospital. Another prominent Georgia Disciple was Daniel Hook (1795-1870), who established Christian congregations in Acworth, Augusta, Griffin, and Sandersville and was a trustee of the University of Georgia and Atlanta Medical College.
One of the most notable women congregants was Emily Tubman (1794-1885) of Augusta. Tubman contributed money to build or repair Christian meeting places. She also contributed funds that enabled many students to receive a college education, and she started an endowment to build a home for formerly enslaved people who had moved to Liberia, in Africa.
James Jenkins Trott (1800-1868), a Met hodist missionary to the Cherokee Indians, became a Disciple while serving a prison term in 1831 for civil disobedience. The state legislature in 1830 required all white people on land occupied by the Cherokees to register with and affirm allegiance to the state of Georgia. Trott and other missionaries refused to abide by the state’s requests and were arrested. As a Disciple, Trott remained a staunch advocate of Indian rights, claiming that God had placed the Cherokees in Georgia and that the state was wrong in forcing them off their land.
Disciples in Georgia today, in the tradition of these early leaders, are engaged in a variety of ministries, including the Camp Christian retreat center in Gordon; the Atlanta United Divinity for seminary students in Atlanta; and the Campbell Stone Apartments for Atlanta retirees.