The Anti-Trinitarianism of the Stone-Campbell Movement

The Stone-Campbell movement, also known as the Churches of Christ, was founded by Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell with the aim to restore Christianity to its primitive purity. This restorationist movement was one of many in nineteenth century America that claimed to have rediscovered the doctrines and practices of first century Christianity. While the modern Churches of Christ profess the doctrine of the Trinity, not many people know that its original founders did not. Those in the Church of Christ who are aware of this fact do not speak about it often for fear that people might consider their movement a non-Christian cult. I wonder how many people would leave the Church of Christ if they knew that their founders promoted a kind of Arianism that denies the eternal existence of the Son of God?

Barton W. Stone was more explicit in his denial of the doctrine of the Trinity than Alexander Campbell. He writes in An Address to the Christian Churches in Kentucky, Tennessee & Ohio on Several Important Doctrines of Religion concerning trinitarianism:

“Their conclusions respecting him are not to be received as true, because they were blind and knew him not. This of his making himself equal with God was undoubtedly wrong; for Jesus labors in the following verses to convince them of it, ‘Then answered Jesus and said, verily, verily, I say unto you, the Son can do nothing of himself but what he seeth the Father do,’ etc. Surely if Jesus had been equal to the Father, he would not have used such language as this, directly calculated to mislead the people.”

In the same document, he denies that the Son of God has existed from eternity:

“My own views of the Son of God, are, that he did not begin to exist 1820 years ago; nor did he exist from eternity; but was the first begotten of the Father before time or creation began. . . . He is not equal in essence, being or eternity; else he could never be subject to the Father – and such an equality would destroy the unity of God. . . . For our authority, we have already produced the scriptures. Let our brethren prove that the Son was eternal and independent; then we will acknowledge that he was eternally divine.”

His statement that, “He is not equal in essence, being or eternity” is Arianism even though Stone refuses to use that label for himself. He writes to Alexander Campbell in the The Millennial Harbinger:

“Myself and thousands of others have been called Unitarians by our enemies, though I ever denied the name. How cordially did I agree with you in the Apostles’ Creed. Were I to adopt any other besides the Bible, it would certainly be this ex-animo. Have you altered your views? Do inform me.”

Campbell responds to Stone’s letter in the same volume:

“You have long disavowed Unitarianism, and I have also disavowed Trinitarianism and every other sectarianism in the land.”

If you are looking for evidence that Alexander Campbell denied the Trinity, it doesn’t get any more definitive than that. He continues in his response to Stone:

“Many persons have been called Unitarians, and some have so called themselves, who believe in the death of Christ as a sin-offering, who reject Trinitarianism because of its unscriptural, unintelligible, and barbarous phraseology; regarding it as a system of polytheism; who, nevertheless, know not what to say or think of the pre-existent or ante-human state of the author of Christianity; some repudiating the phrases ‘eternal son,’ ‘second person,’ ‘consubstantial,’ ‘co-equal,’ ‘very God of very God,’ ‘Supreme Deity,’ &c. &c. They reject these terms because to them they seem barbarous and incomprehensible; but have no distinct idea or name for the antecedent state, relation, or character of Him that was made flesh. These differ, in my judgment, very materially from the Unitarian, who has no other use for Jesus than as a prophet, a king, or a martyr; therefore virtually rejecting every thing that concerns his high priesthood. . . . I have long taught that the Trinitarian, Arian, and Sabellian theories are wholly a corrupt speech – irrational and unscriptural speculations . . . I have sometimes seen a sense imposed upon them wholly modern, and which would ultimate in a doctrine as certainly unapostolic as either Arianism or Trinitarianism.”

He also writes in The Christian Baptist:

“In the first place I object to the Calvinistic doctrine of the Trinity for the same reasons they object to the Arians and Socinians. They object to these, because their views derogate in their judgment from the eternal glory of the Founder of the Christian religion. They will not allow the Saviour to have been a creature, however exalted, because they conceive this character is unbecoming him, and contrary to the scriptural statements concerning him. They wish to give him more glory than they think the Arians are willing to do. Now I object to their making him and calling him an ‘Eternal Son’ because I think that if he were only the Son of God from all eternity, he is entitled to very little, if any more glory, than what the Arians give him.”

Campbell was attempting to create a new understanding of God that was different from trinitarianism, modalism, and Arianism. Some have suspected that Campbell’s view of God was binitarian in nature, but binitarianism actually requires that a person believe that the Son eternally existed as God which Campbell appears to deny. My guess is that Campbell held to a form of Logos Christology that views the Son as not eternally existent with the Father as a distinct person from him.

In light of these facts, why would any Christian want to be part of the Restoration Movement? Why would you associate yourself with an organization that has its origins in denying who Jesus is? Remember the words of 1 John 2:23: “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” 2 John 1:9 is even more relevant to this question: “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” Since Stone and Campbell confessed a different Jesus from the one depicted in the New Testament, their writings demonstrate that they do not have God and are false teachers. By elevating Alexander Campbell to the position of restorer of primitive Christianity, you demonstrate that you do not really believe the phrase “No Creed but the Bible,” but “the Bible as interpreted through the teachings of Alexander Campbell.” And why on earth would any trinitarian believe that God chose to use anti-trinitarians to restore his church?

Edit – Many of the hymnals in the Churches of Christ change the lyrics of “Holy, Holy, Holy” from “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” to “God over all and blessed eternally” demonstrating that Campbell’s aversion to the Trinity is alive and well today in the Church of Christ.

I am aware that Campbell in many places referred to the Logos as divine. This is because he drew a strict distinction between the Logos which is eternal from the Son who is not eternal. This is a version of incarnational sonship that denies being trinitarian. I believe his view of God became more unbiblical over time as he distanced himself from the trinitarianism of his upbringing.

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One thought on “The Anti-Trinitarianism of the Stone-Campbell Movement

  1. I shud think that participation in the Church of Christ movement does not depend on what the instigators of the movement believed, but what they NOW believe. I reject the movement as generally people playing church, not born again, who claim “no creed but Christ.” Yet they insist on water baptism as essential to salvation, which is salvation by works. But the Bible over & over requires only faith/belief/trusting in the Lord Jesus for salvation. “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved” (Acts 16).

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