Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Disciples of Christ

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 5
Disciples of Christ

by James Francis Loughlin


A sect founded in the United States of America by Alexander Campbell. Although the largest portion of his life and prodigious activity was spent in the United States, Alexander Campbell was born, 12 September, 1788, in the County Antrim, Ireland. On his father's side he was of Scottish extraction; his mother, Jane Corneigle, was of Huguenot descent. Both parents are reported to have been persons of deep piety and high literary culture. His father, after serving as minister to the Anti-Burgher Church in Ahorey and director of a prosperous academy at Richhill, emigrated to the United States and engaged in the oft-attempted and ever futile effort "to unite All Christians as one communion on a purely scriptural basis", the hallucination of so many noble minds, the only outcome of which must always be against the will of the Founder, to increase the discord of Christendom by the creation of a new sect. In 1808 Alexander embarked with the family to join his father, but was shipwrecked on the Scottish coast and took the opportunity to prepare himself for the ministry at the University of Glasgow. In 1809 he migrated to the United States, and found in Washington County, Pennsylvania, the nucleus of the new movement in the "Christian Association of Washington", under the auspices of which was issued a "Declaration and Address", setting forth the objects of the association. It was proposed "to establish no new sect, but to persuade Christian to abandon party names and creeds, sectarian usages and denominational strifes, and associate in Christian fellowship, in the common faith in a divine Lord, with no other terms of religious communion than faith in and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ".

An independent church was formed at Brush Run on the principles of the association, and, 1 January, 1812, Alexander was "ordained". His earnestness is attested by the record of one hundred and six sermons preached in one year; but he wrecked every prospect of success by finding in his reading of the Scriptures the invalidity of infant baptism, and the necessity of baptism by immersion, thus excluding from the Christian discipleship the vast majority of believing Christians. On 12 June, 1812, with his wife, father, mother, and three others, Alexander was rebaptized by immersion. Nothing was left him now but to seek association with one or other of the numerous Baptist sects. This he did, but with the proviso that he should be allowed to preach and teach whatever he learned from the Holy Scriptures. The Baptists never took him cordially; and in 1817, after five years of herculean labours, his followers, whom he wished to be known by the appellation of "Disciples of Christ", but who were generally styled "Campbellites", numbered only one hundred and fifty persons. Campbell's mission as a messenger of peace was a failure; as time went on he developed a polemical nature, and became a sharp critic in speech and in writing of the weaknesses and vagaries of the Protestant sects. Only once did he come in direct contact with the Catholics, on the occasion of his five days' debate, in 1837, with Archbishop Purcell of Cincinnati, which excited great interest at the time but is now forgotten. His sixty volumes are of no interest. Campbell was twice married and was the father of twelve children. He died at Bethany, West Virginia, where he had established a seminary, 4 March, 1866.

According to their census prepared in 1906 the sect then had 6475 ministers, 11,633 churches, and a membership of 1,235,294. It is strongest in the West and Southwest, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and Ohio having the largest bodies. J.H. Garrison, editor of their organ "The Christian Evangelist", outlined (1906) the belief of his sect.


  • According to their investigations of the New Testament the confession of faith made by Simon Peter, on which Jesus declared he would build His Church, namely "Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God", was the creed of Christianity and the essential faith, and that all those who would make this confession from the heart, being penitent of their past sins, were to be admitted by baptism into the membership of the early Church;
  • that baptism in the early Church consisted of a burial of a penitent believer in the water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and that only such were fit subjects for baptism;
  • that the form of church government was congregational;
  • that each congregation had its deacons and elders or bishops, the former to look after the temporal and the latter the spiritual interests of the church.
  • They practise weekly communion and consider it not as a sacrament but as a memorial feast.
  • While they hold both New and Old Testaments to be equally inspired, both are not equally binding upon Christians.
  • Accepting the Bible as an all-sufficient revelation of the Divine will, they repudiate all authoritative creeds and human grounds of fellowship.

JAMES F. LOUGHLIN