Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was born in the first third of the nineteenth century on American soil of Presbyterian parentage. Under the guidance of its forebears, Scots Irish immigrants Thomas Campbell (1763–1854), his son, Alexander (1788–1866), Walter Scott (1796–1861), and the Marylandborn Barton Warren Stone (1772–1844), it focused on the restoration of biblical principles that stressed the unity of the church, reliance on New Testament authority, and selfgovernance of local congregations.

In the formative years no specific orders of clergy or church organization existed, and still today there is no official book of discipline that manages church life. Each congregation was to call and consecrate its own leaders. Those leaders earned their livings as farmers, merchants, bankers, teachers, and doctors in their communities and served as elders, deacons, and preachers in the church. The selection of local leaders, including clergy, remains a tenet of Disciples' practice today.

Adhering to no established creed as a test of fellowship, the movement advocated the blending of reason, a capacity of the human intellect, with revelation through the inspiration of the Bible. Two ordinances (sacraments) continue to be observed: the weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper, commonly called the breaking of bread, and baptism by immersion for the remission of sins offered to those able to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, commonly referred to as believer's baptism.

There were four guiding principles defined as ideals of this movement: unity, restoration, liberty, and mission. Mission essentially was confined to the United States. Foreign mission fields were of interest but early on were not considered a priority. It was not until the last two decades of the nineteenth century and into the beginning of the twentieth that Disciples engaged in overseas ministries intentionally and with purpose. The home missionary enterprise was active and devoted to building new congregations and chartering educational institutions. Predominantly located in county seats along the American frontier, Disciple evangelists and church planters followed the westward migration of the expanding nation. These new congregations appropriated the rugged individualism and institutional independence that characterized the national mood.

States and territories west of the Mississippi River destined for development were Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, particularly as the evangelists and planters followed the cattle trails and the railroads in these latter three states. To a lesser extent, church settlements were established in Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado, with virtually none in Montana and Wyoming. The appeal of the Disciples movement was to western Europeans, especially those from the British Isles. With the exception of Oklahoma, with its unique political configuration of the Indian and Oklahoma territories, there was little expansion into Native lands or mission to Native peoples.

The current membership and number of congregations, according to a 1997 denominational census, reflects little change from earlier days. Twenty-three percent of the total membership and 25 percent of the Disciples of Christ churches in the United States and Canada are located in the Great Plains. Of those figures, 84 percent of the membership and 85 percent of the churches still are concentrated in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, even though the dust of the cattle trails has settled and the boom of the railroads has faded.

John M. Imbler Philips Theological Seminary

Garrison, Winfred Ernest, and Alfred T. De Groot. The Disciples of Christ: A History. St. Louis: Christian Board of Education, 1948.

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