The Restoration Movement began in the early 1800s but that was not the beginning of the Lord’s church. The Lord’s church started in the first century when Peter preached the first gospel sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-47). To claim that the Lord’s church started with, or emerged out of, the Restoration Movement, is to misunderstand history, the very purpose of the movement, and most importantly, the church itself.
Those involved in the restoration were attempting to leave denominationalism and get back to following the Bible, not begin another denomination. At the time Catholicism and Protestantism held a strangle hold on religion all over the world, and most definitely in America. It took courageous men to step forward and preach the truth, while leaving behind the religion of their forefathers. One at a time such men came forward and it turned into a movement in which people saw the importance of leaving denominational titles and teachings behind. Groups of individuals started to be immersed for the remission of sins because many of them were coming out of churches that practiced infant baptism. They started to cast aside the sectarian creed books that held them captive and to teach only the Bible. They started to call themselves Christians alone. What emerged was not a new church that was unknown to history before that point, but a restoration of the original New Testament church.
To know what the church is, is to realize that it did not begin in the 19th century, and that it is not the creation of Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, or any other man. The church is the body of Christ, made up of men and women who have obeyed the gospel of Christ and who follow the will of God. So then, wherever you have a group of God’s people, that is, people who have allowed the incorruptible seed to be planted in their hearts and to take root so that it produces a new creature in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), you have the church of Christ. In the New Testament, God’s people were divinely organized into local churches made up of elders, deacons and saints (Philippians 1:1). And even though we may not have a historical record of Christians throughout the centuries, there is no doubt that there has always been a remnant of God’s people on earth for God promised that the church would never be destroyed. What we do know is that there were Christians, even in America, before the Restoration movement began. For example, in the 1790’s there were men like William O’Kelly and Rice Haggard who rebelled against the Methodist establishment. In 1794, Haggard made this public statement concerning the Bible:
“Brethren, this is a sufficient rule of faith and practice. By it we are told that the disciples were called Christians, and I move that henceforth and forever the followers of Christ be known as Christians simply” (J. Pressley Barrett, The Centennial of Religious Journalism, p. 264).
In these early years, some of these men and women didn’t go far enough. Many of them died still accepting false teaching on subjects like infant baptism. However, the spirit of restoration and wanting to get back to the Bible was starting to spread. Eventually, people started to take decisive action, leaving denominational churches, and forming local churches made up of those who practice only things authorized in the scriptures. They adhered to the Bible as their only guide; thus, the church was being restored by the planting of the incorruptible seed, that is, the Word of God. Since a seed always produces after its kind, the preaching of the Word of God produced the same thing it produced in the first century—Christians and Christians only.
An example of this is the conversion of Elias Smith. Elias Smith started out a Baptist. In May of 1779, Smith was immersed and became a member of the Baptist church, though he had reservations about their Calvinistic teachings. Ten years later (1789), Smith began thinking seriously about preaching and started to prepare himself by intense study. By 1801, not only was Elias Smith preaching, he was preaching against Calvinistic doctrines held closely by Baptist. Now listen to what Smith wrote in 1802:
“…having rejected the doctrine of Calvin and universalism, to search the scriptures to find the truth, I found the name, which the followers of Christ ought to wear; which was Christians (Acts 11:26). I ventured for the first time, softly to tell the people, that the name, Christian was enough for the followers of Christ without addition of the words, Baptist, Methodist, etc. (Elias Smith, The Life and Conversion of Elias Smith, p. 298).
Later, on the same year (1802), Elias Smith and friends rented a hall called Jefferson Hall and began meeting every Sunday morning for worship. Their determination was to follow the Bible only and to just call themselves Christians. Now listen to what Smith wrote in March of 1803.
“When our number was some short of twenty, we agreed to consider ourselves a church of Christ, owning him as our only Master, Lord and Lawgiver, and we agreed to consider ourselves Christians without the addition of any unscriptural name” (Elias Smith, The Life and Conversion of Elias Smith, pp. 313, 314).
A year later, this group grew to 150 members. So, long before Alexander Campbell even came to America, or for that matter, even left the Baptist church, the church of Christ had a presence in America. Alexander Campbell did not start a movement, he simply became a part of a movement that was already underway. A movement to restore New Testament Christianity.
More importantly, from the first century to right now, there has always been individuals and congregations of individuals who were Christians because they followed God’s Word and were born again by obedience to that incorruptible seed (1 Peter 1:22-24). This is what the church of Christ is, a group of people who have obeyed the gospel of Christ. Who made up the church before the Restoration Movement? It was made up of honest men and women who had the courage to obey the simple gospel amid denominational churches, and to be added to the church (Acts 2:47)