Barton Stone: Biography

Barton Warren Stone
(1772–1844)

The Bible-only man 

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      That was a great century in the last quarter of which Barton W. Stone was born. It was the century in which the United States of America was born; the century of Washington and Jefferson; of the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution. It is not surprising that, as he says, "From my earliest recollection I drank deeply into the spirit of liberty," and "learned to hate the British and Tories.

Barton Warren Stone was born December 24, 1772, near Port Tobacco, Maryland. His father died when he was very young and Stone reported having no memory of his father. His mother, Mary Warren Stone, belonged to the Church of England. After her husband's death, she took her considerable family and, during the Revolutionary War, moved to Virginia.

The war shaped Stone's Virginia family life. Opposing forces fought battles near their home. The English army and neighborhood Tories raided their personal belongings. Some of Stone's older brothers enlisted and fought in the war. When the war ended things changed drastically. Returning soldiers brought vices and attitudes not present prior to the conflict.

When Stone started his education, he studied under a schoolmaster who could only be described as tyrannical . The man applied the whip often and long. Stoned shied away from others and took great delight in books. He read everything he could get hold of. His reading material encompassed trash like Tom Jones to the Scriptures. Stone knew Scripture because the school used it as its most important textbook. He wanted more, however, and voraciously read whatever he could.

After the war, Virginia churches seriously deteriorated . Many Anglican preachers returned to Britain leaving American churches without leadership. Many churches died. Two groups moved in to fill the void. First, the Baptists came into the region and Stone attended the Baptist Church regularly listening to strong Calvinistic preaching and heard numerous experiences related as people sought membership. Next came the Methodists. These circuit riding preachers appeared grave, holy, meek, and plain. . .almost foreboding. While they were largely misrepresented, the Baptists and the Episcopalians both opposed the Methodists. Stone didn't miss much of this.

II. Continuing education and conversion.

Stone's father left his estate, with the exception of that which went to Mary Stone, to his children. When Barton turned 21 the estate was to be divided equally with all the children. Financial conditions caused the estate to be divided early. Stone received his inheritance at age 16. At that point in his life Stone wrestled with his future. He determined to become a lawyer and took his portion of the inheritance and entered Caldwell's academy in Guilford, North Carolina, where he studied Latin Grammar. In his biography Stone remarks that he was so serious about his commitment to study that he allowed himself only six to seven hours a night for sleep.

Area residents could feel religious excitement near the academy. James McGready preached revival in the area drawing much attention. Stone reported that 20-30 students from Caldwell's academy became Christians under McGready's preaching and each gave evidence of sincere piety. This fact led Stone to give serious thought to religion.

Believing that religious concerns would retard his education, Stone diligently tried to put them out of his mind. At one point he even considered leaving the academy to enroll at Hampden-Sidney College in Virginia just to get away from all the nearby religious excitement. Hampden-Sidney experienced revival in 1787. Stone decided to go but rainstorms kept him from leaving. Friends invited him to hear McGready and he agreed. After the sermon he returned to his room wrestling with a decision. He decided to stay at the academy and to "seek religion." Stone figured he would have a long struggle to reach the required religious experience.

He was "seeking religion," but he didn't yet have it when he and other students went to a meeting on Sandy River in Virginia. J.B. Smith, president of Hampden-Sidney College, Robert Marshall, and James McGready were preaching there. During this meeting Stone participated in the Lord's Supper for the first time. McGready arose and preached a genuine "Hellfire and Damnation" sermon which greatly distressed Stone.

Just as Stone hated studying under the strict discipline of his first teacher, he struggled with the twin concepts of God's holiness and God's wrath. He suffered a period of depression so deep that he actually went home for a time. When he returned to the academy, he attended a revival at Alamance where he heard William Hodge. Hodge's sermon turned Stone around. Hodge spoke on "God's Love." Stoned needed that, and the sermon hit home. He went to the fields to pray and yielded himself to God. From that time on he served God gladly.

III. Determined to preach.

Stone believed he was converted and he determined to preach. Dr. Caldwell, the academy director, tried to assist him. Caldwell suggested Stone write a sermon to present to the Presbytery. Stone did just that, and in 1793 he became a candidate for the ministry before the Orange Presbytery. He undertook preparatory studies under William Hodge, who assigned him a number of topics. As Stone studied the doctrine of the trinity, he became confused and discouraged. Because of his discouragement, he considered giving up his effort to attain ordination but renewed his decision to press on. At the next Presbytery meeting, the leaders quizzed him briefly but generally about the subject. The trinity, however, troubled him throughout his life.

The Orange Presbytery planned to grant licenses to Stone and several other candidates at their third session. Stone again experienced depression. The failure of his personal finances without anyone to assist precipitated the depression. He took his last $15 and headed for Georgia. On the way he became ill, so ill that he returned home for several months to recuperate.

In debt, discouraged, and physically weakened, Stone needed encouragement. The Methodists ran Hull Academy near his brother's home and they offered him the position of professor of languages. Stone accepted and taught through the 1795-96 school terms. In the spring of 1796, he decided to head back to North Carolina and again seek a license to preach. This time Stone hung in until the Orange Presbytery granted his license. With license in hand Stone then set out for the west.

IV. Arrival in Kentucky.

Stone's travel west took him through Tennessee into Kentucky. Once in Kentucky, he preached temporarily at Cane Ridge and nearby Concord in Bourbon County. He efforts were successful and 50 joined the Concord church and another 30 joined at Cane Ridge.

In the fall of 1797, Stone returned briefly to Georgia but hurried back to Kentucky when Concord and Cane Ridge offered him a full-time position in 1797. His return to Kentucky required ordination by the Transylvania Presbytery in Lexington, Kentucky. Stone knew that before this presbytery would ordain him, he'd have to state his adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith. He was sure his difficulty with the trinity and some questions about Calvinism would cause problems. Stone decided to face the issues squarely and tell the presbytery. When he arrived at the meeting he told James Blythe and Robert Marshall about his doubts. Both men tried their best to answer his questions and lead him to peace on the issues. Finally, the two men asked Stone how far he could go in accepting the Confession. Stone replied, ".As far as I see it consistent with the Word of God." The presbytery accepted Stone on that statement.

Stone's doubts eventually gave way to repudiation. He felt the Bible did not teach such doctrines as election, reprobation, and predestination as Calvinist's taught them.

Returning to Cane Ridge, Stone became aware of the region's religious apathy. In spite of his remarkable success at both churches, he knew more needed to be done. Hearing that James McGready was preaching down in Logan County, Kentucky, Stone went there to observe. Numerous strange occurrences accompanied the Logan County revival, but what made the revival significant for Stone was the fact that "God 'struck' two acquaintances" during the meeting. Conviction hit both men at the same session. Stone sat with them until both revived and he noted an obvious change in their character. Even though he felt some of the revival extremes bordered on fanaticism, Stone believed God acted during the revival. He went back to Cane Ridge and Concord determined to bring about revival.

Stone preached a strong revival message at both churches. At an evening service in Concord two little girls were stricken. When they revived, they testified to their change. Cane Ridge saw more impressive results as scores experienced the religious phenomenon. Stone himself related one interesting event:

An intelligent deist in the neighborhood, stepped up to me, and said, Mr. Stone, I always thought before that you were an honest man; but now I am convinced you are deceiving the people. I viewed him with pity, and mildly spoke a few words to him--immediately he fell as a dead man, and rose no more till he confessed the savior.

V. Cane Ridge Revival and Division.

The Cane Ridge revival occurred in August 1801. A month before the meeting Stone married Elizabeth Campbell, the daughter of a prominent Bourbon County resident.

Stone continued working in revival efforts after the meeting. At a revival in Paris, Kentucky, Stone met strong opposition. For the first time a Presbyterian arose to challenge him. This particular preacher attempted to "Calvinize" the people. Division occurred. Stone attended a preaching service offered by Presbyterians who opposed local revival. The preacher preached in an "iceberg style." When the preached stopped Stone arose to pray. At that point a number of people became affected and a few preachers jumped out of the window. Stone told those affected about Jesus' love and revival began in earnest.

Even the casual observer realized there were five preachers out of step with Presbyterianism: Richard McNemar, John Thompson, John Dunlavy, Robert Marshall and Stone. David Purviance soon joined them filling out the sextet. The basic difference separating these men from the Presbyterians was their conviction that God loved the whole world! They also stressed that Christ died for all men and that salvation was NOW! Staunch Calvinists objected strongly.

Richard McNemar came under fire first. Ohio's Springfield Presbytery brought him up on charges of preaching anti-Calvinistic doctrines. McNemar appealed these charges to the Synod of Kentucky. When McNemar went before this body he could easily measure their hostility. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the five preachers drew up a protest for the Synod and they prepared to withdraw with one or two other preachers.

The Synod suspended all six ultimately, declared each pulpit vacant and suspended their license to preach. Stone responded they couldn't do that since he had never acknowledged the Westminster Confession. The "Springfield 5" continued on the basis that no one had the right to remove their licenses. They then formed a new presbytery known as the Springfield Presbytery. To explain their creation, the Springfield Presbytery drew up a document we simply call "The Apology." (1) The Presbytery then took the Bible alone abandoning all human creeds.

Each man then reported back to his congregation. They told their churches they could not support any party, particularly the Presbyterian Church. Stone released his two churches from any responsibility for financial support then continued to preach. He freed his few slaves and set about to work his farm.

As the protest took form, the group took the name Christian publishing Rice Haggard's tract on the subject (Sacred Import . . .).

Stone's difficulties continued. In 1804, he rejected the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement replacing it with the moral influence theory. Not much later, the issue of baptism arose. Robert Marshall believed the Baptists properly observed baptism. Correspondence between Marshall and Stone led Stone to stop baptizing children. The controversy died down temporarily but rose again later. Stone's followers decided to let the individual decide whether to be immersed or sprinkled. The Kentucky Christians adopted that position and remained in it until Alexander Campbell's teachings led them further.

As time passed, some of the early leaders among the Kentucky Christians melted away. When Shakers came into the region John Dunlavy and Richard McNemar entered that movement. Later two others, Robert Marshall and John Thompson, returned to Presbyterianism. Only Stone and David Purviance remained to form the core leadership for the Kentucky Christians.

By Mike Hines