From Revival Ridge to Bible Deism Valley – The Odd History of the Holy Spirit among Churches of Christ (Part 1)

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This is the first article in a series of three articles by Dr. Leonard Allen of Lipscomb University on the Holy Spirit in Churches of Christ. I hope you will follow this series closely. Part 2 will post May 4. Part 3 will post June 8.

All of this is a lead up to Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration that is happening June 26-28. Please check out what is going on at Lipscomb with this event. Churches of Christ are in desperate need to reconnect with their history on the Holy Spirit (it is not as uniform as some might think), which is why we are posting this series of articles. We also must get back in touch with a biblical view of the person and work of the Holy Spirit from the Bible itself.

I will be presenting a class this year and I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am about that!

Please click this link to get more info on Summer Celebration and their emphasis on the Holy Spirit this June.

Here is Part 1 of Dr. Allen’s series on the Holy Spirit for Wineskins,

From Revival Ridge to Bible Deism Valley:

The Odd History of the Holy Spirit among Churches of Christ

Part 1, Cane Ridge and the Spirit’s Fire

By Leonard Allen

I was raised in a very conservative church that had virtually lost the language of the Spirit. That didn’t mean, of course, that we had entirely lost the Holy Spirit—for there were signs all around, as I look back, of the Spirit’s presence in our community. But the “grammar” of the Spirit was missing. Almost entirely.

Dallas Willard (and before him, J. D. Thomas) gave a name to the doctrine of the Spirit on which I was raised: Bible deism—the view that one “experiences” the Spirit solely through implanting the words, the ideas, of the Bible in one’s mind. This doctrine emerged, not at the beginning of the Restoration Movement that gave rise to modern Churches of Christ, but a few decades into the story. So when we trace the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, we find an odd history: beginnings at Cane Ridge (1801)—“America’s Pentecost”—and eventually, after some twists and turns, a residence in Bible deism valley.

Cane Ridge and the Spirit’s Fire

In August 1801, Barton Stone presided over the famous Cane Ridge Revival in central Kentucky. Attendance estimates ranged from 10,000 to over 20,000 (at a time when the population of nearby Lexington, Kentucky’s largest town, was less than 1,800). So many experienced intense emotional and physical responses, falling to the ground, that some portions of the grassy ridge looked like a battlefield scattered with bodies. Many were converted.

These revival gatherings usually have been called camp meetings. But that term is misleading. They were actually communion festivals following a two-hundred-year-old tradition rooted deeply in Scotch-Irish Presbyterianism.[i] Seeking to imitate the New Testament observance, the church leaders served communion on long dinner tables set up in the aisles of the church buildings. At a large communion service as many as ten waves of communicants might fill the tables, and the communion meal might last all day.

By the mid 1600s this communion service had expanded into a three to five-day event. It usually began on Friday or Saturday with intense preparation sermons. Ministers warned people about coming to the table unprepared, without pure hearts. They carefully screened candidates and gave admission tokens to those judged fit to commune. Following the all-day communion service on Sunday, a thanksgiving service on Monday ended the event.

The communion festivals became the highlight of the church year. For serious believers they were times of intense self-examination and spiritual renewal; for young people they were times of conviction and conversion. Sometimes these communion festivals exploded with revival, including intense physical and emotional effects such as fainting and trance-like states.

These revivalistic communion services aroused controversy and division in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and Ireland. The Seceder branch of the church, to which Thomas and Alexander Campbell belonged, deeply opposed such trends, viewing them as disorderly and excessive.

As Scotch-Irish Presbyterians immigrated to America, they brought the communion festival with them. Indeed, it was precisely this kind of communion service that took place at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, on August 8, 1801.

Year later, in 1827, Barton Stone looked back on the events of 1801 with hearty approval. “The doctrine preached by all was simple, and nearly the same,” he wrote. “All urged faith in the gospel, and obedience to it, as the way of life. The spirit of partyism, and party distinctions, were apparently forgotten…. The spirit of love, peace, and union, were revived. . . . Happy days! Joyful seasons of refreshment from the presence of the Lord.”[ii]

The beginnings of modern-day Churches of Christ are rooted precisely here. Stone and other pro-revival ministers soon formed the Springfield Presbytery, then quickly dissolved it, issuing one of the founding documents of our heritage, “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery.” A new movement emerged. Under Stone’s leadership the new “Christian” movement grew rapidly, so that by 1811 it could claim about 13,000 members, mostly in a swath running from central Kentucky through Middle Tennessee to Alabama.

The central themes of the movement were freedom from all creeds and coercive human traditions, restoration of simple New Testament Christianity, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, separation from the fashions of the world, and the millennial unity of believers. This unity Stone called “fire union,” for he believed that any lasting unity could be forged only in the fire of God’s Spirit.

Barton Stone remained an ardent supporter of revival practices for the rest of his life. Some of the physical “exercises” present in the 1801 revival, particularly the one Stone described as holy laughter or singing, apparently continued to be a part of the Cane Ridge and Concord churches for a decade or so under Stone’s ministry. Next month I will focus on Alexander Campbell’s new rational view of the Spirit that soon eclipsed Stone’s view.


[i] Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period (Princeton: Princeton University, 1989), and Paul Conkin, Cane Ridge: America’s Pentecost (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1990).

[ii] Barton W. Stone, “History of the Christian Church in the West,” Christian Messenger 1 (February 24, 1827), 74-79.

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