The Christian community known as the Churches of Christ is made up of non-denominational, autonomous congregations that base their beliefs and activities directly on the authority of the Bible. Members seek to adhere to the practices of the first-century congregations described in the New Testament without adding later traditions or creeds. Furthermore, members believe that the church has no ecclesiastical head, viewing Jesus Christ as its leader. At present, there are nearly 900 congregations in Alabama. Some of the congregations have been instrumental in establishing several institutions of higher education.
The Churches of Christ in the United States, and in Alabama, trace their origins to the Restoration Movement (also called the Stone-Campbell Movement) of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in the United States. Its founders, Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) and Barton W. Stone (1772-1844), adhered to literal interpretations of Scripture, leading to tensions over whether the use of musical instruments during services and the establishment of missionary societies were permissible. The Stone-Campbell movement eventually led to three distinctive bodies: Churches of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, and Disciples of Christ. Although differences had arisen as early as the mid-1880s, there is no definitive date of separation between these groups. In 1906, the U.S. Census Bureau distinguished the Churches of Christ from Christian Churches according to musical traditions: Churches of Christ sing a capella, or without instrumental accompaniment, and Christian Churches and Disciples of Christ sing with accompaniment. The Disciples of Christ see the official split occurring at the 1926 Disciples of Christ Convention in Memphis, Tennessee, but most congregants within the Churches of Christ, especially in Alabama, believe it occurred much earlier.
In Alabama, early Churches of Christ evangelists and teachers established congregations at several locations with the heaviest concentrations in the northern part of the state, primarily around Athens, Limestone County. This was due, in part, to the migration of Stone-Campbell followers from Kentucky and Tennessee into northern Alabama. The first documented congregation of the Church of Christ was founded near the community of Antioch, in Rocky Springs, Jackson County, in 1811 by settler William J. Price along with his wife and his slave, Moses. The first members worshipped as one body, calling themselves Christians and their congregations the Church of Christ. Prominent preachers such as Barton W. Stone; David Lipscomb, founder of Nashville Bible School (now Lipscomb University); and J. W. Shepherd would hold revivals at Rocky Springs during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Stone's influence was extended in Alabama when his disciple Ephraim D. Moore established the Republican congregation (a name adopted to show a tie in with other congregations of the Restoration Movement) some seven miles north of Florence in Lauderdale County in 1824. Moore held camp meetings to spread the gospel, baptizing more than 200 members at Republican by 1826. Tolbert Fanning, an influential Restoration preacher, was baptized at Republican in 1828. He would play a prominent role in establishing a congregation at Moulton, Lawrence County, in 1830. Other congregations were established in the early 1830s in Sheffield and Tuscumbia in adjacent Colbert County.
In Montgomery County, Jacob Johnston from north Alabama and William McGaughy from Georgia began preaching and holding meetings in 1825. Three small congregations arose in the late 1820s through their work along with Ishmael Davis. During the mid-nineteenth century, several congregations evolved in southern Alabama from existing denominational churches, in particular from the Baptists. The Baptist denomination, however, opposed expansion of the Churches of Christ due to their increased numbers and opposition to Baptist doctrines regarding paths to salvation, which differs with the Churches of Christ on the importance of baptism. By 1850, Churches of Christ membership had increased so much that it was the sixth largest religious group in the United States, whereas Baptists were second. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, the Muscle Shoals area, especially the Republican congregation, faced stiff opposition from Baptists preaching against Churches of Christ doctrines. This opposition had little effect overall, though, as by the beginning of the Civil War, more than 50 recognized Churches of Christ congregations had been founded throughout Alabama.
The war, however, proved disastrous for most Churches of Christ congregations in Alabama. Many male members were killed in the fighting, leaving widows and orphans for individual congregations to support. Some congregations saw their buildings burned and their members scattered. Poor transportation and mail delivery isolated many others. Various congregations discontinued services during the war because of the lack of men to conduct the services. Women were, and are still, not allowed to speak in the worship service.
After the Civil War, the apparent unity of the congregations in Alabama was ruptured by conflicts dating back to the Restoration Movement. This unity, though tenuous, had been due to common ancestry in the Restoration Movement and core belief in the Bible as the sole source of religious practice. Regional differences and animosity over the war and Reconstruction, however, led to further problems. Nationally, liberals in the movement, primarily from the North, rose to leadership positions in mission societies, prompting conservatives in former Confederate states to withdraw and grow increasingly critical of the societies. Conservatives from the South became concerned with the liberals' tendencies to criticize the Bible, promote social justice, and use musical instruments in the worship service (which the Churches of Christ still opposes). The liberals continued to push for a General Assembly, which was considered by the conservatives too much like the hierarchy of those in the denominations around them. These debates were carried out by itinerant preachers at individual congregations or through periodicals. Men such as Pinckney Lawson, who was considered a liberal strived for continued unity between all the groups in Alabama, while others such as Tolbert Fanning, who was considered a conservative, sought to keep out any practice or reference not specifically alluded to in the scriptures. Others used publications such as the Gospel Advocate and American Christian Review to promote the conservative views of the Churches of Christ.
The Churches of Christ saw an increase in the number of African American adherents after Emancipation. Several African American preachers became prominent during this period, of whom Marshall Keeble—who spoke at a variety of congregations in Alabama throughout the 1930s and 1940s—was the most notable. Many congregations, however, struggled with the changing racial environment, especially during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Some members were rigid adherents of segregation, following the lead of influential white preachers such as Foy E. Wallace. Most members who adhered to teachings that called for Scripture-based discussion only, however, refrained from becoming involved in the larger political struggle. Notably, African American attorney and Churches of Christ member Fred Gray of Tuskegee, Macon County, took an active role in the Alabama civil rights movement.
The Churches of Christ in Alabama have been an active promoter of Christian-based education and have established several Bible schools and institutions of higher education. The earliest school, Mountain Home Bible School in Lawrence County, operated from the early 1860s until 1876, when its founder and promoter, J. M. Pickens, came to an untimely death. More congregations were established in the early twentieth century as a result of the efforts of teachers and preachers from Tennessee and graduates of the short-lived Mars Hill College (1871-1887) in Florence and Alabama Christian College (1913-1922) at Berry, Fayette County. Efforts by individuals from Alabama Christian College led to the establishment of almost 100 congregations within a 40-mile radius around the school.
Faulkner University in Montgomery is the flagship effort of the Churches of Christ in the state. It began as Montgomery Bible School in 1942 and in 1985 was renamed Faulkner University in honor of longtime supporter, trustee, and chairman of the board James Faulkner of Bay Minette, Baldwin County. The campus has since grown to include the Harris College of Business and Executive Education, the V. P. Black College of Biblical Studies, the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law, and the Cloverdale Center for Family Strengths. Offering primarily on-line training, Heritage Christian University was established in 1971 as the International Bible College. In 2001, the school changed its name to Heritage Christian University, offering an undergraduate degree in Biblical studies and master's degrees in the New Testament, Greek, Biblical counseling, and preaching. Amridge University was founded in 1967 as the Alabama Christian School of Religion to train ministers in Biblical and Christian counseling. In 1991, the institution became Southern Christian University to reflect the emerging direction of the institution. Adding online business degrees to its curriculum in 2005, the school changed its name in 2006 to Regions University and in 2008 to Amridge University.
Although Churches of Christ have maintained strict congregational autonomy, there have been effective attempts at collecting membership data on a state by state basis. Currently, 895 congregations of the Churches of Christ (not including Disciples of Christ and Christian Churches) are active in Alabama, with approximately 93,000 members. The largest concentration of congregations is located between Athens and Florence in northwest Alabama. Mayfair in Huntsville is the largest congregation, with approximately 1,600 members.
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