The legacy of Barton W. Stone

At the far end of the handle of the Little Dipper is Ursa Minor. Pilots and navigators have long called it the Polar Star. You may know it as the North Star.

While all the other stars rotate around the heavens, the Polar Star is always in the north. It is the one constant in the constellation of the northern hemisphere sky. Ancient mariners and explorers relied on it for a fixed point of reference through the night.

An artist needs a fixed reference point to establish perspective in a composition. Pitchers need a plate. Soldiers need a flag. Serious politicians need something besides opinion polls. Justices need a Constitution to trump their personal preferences. Without a reference point, we get lost.

What is your Ursa Minor?

For Barton W. Stone (1772 to 1844), it was Christian unity! His lifelong conviction was that unity among Christians could be found only through the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In The Christian Messenger (Stone’s monthly pamphlet, Dec., 1829), Barton expressed his passion for destroying “sectarian props, creeds and names.” Instead, he sought to promote “love, peace and unity among Christians.” He referred to his passion as “the polar star to which our attention and exertion shall be chiefly directed.”

Stone was born on Christmas Eve in 1772 in Maryland. His family moved to Virginia in 1779 after his father died. People lived close to nature then. As a boy, Barton learned early how to use the North Star to find his way home at night. At 19, he converted to Christianity and dedicated himself to ministry. He was soon called to Kentucky where he ministered at the Cane Ridge Presbyterian Church. At his ordination in 1798, he was asked if he accepted the Westminster Confession of Faith. He replied, “I do as far as I can see it consistent with the word of God.”

He was already realizing that creative creeds are not the key to unity.

At Cane Ridge, he was “alarmed” (his word) to find such a low level of interest in faith on the frontier. The time was ripe for what is now known as the Great Awakening. In 1801, he organized a revival meeting at Cane Ridge attracting 25,000 seekers over five days. It famously featured such exciting phenomena as jerks, shouts and faintings. But there was much more. Denominational lines blurred as, according to Stone, “all united in prayer [and] all preached the same thing.”

The Presbyterian hierarchy was not amused. Their critical stance deepened Stone’s desire to be free from Presbyterian strings while remaining subject to God‘s Word. He wanted to “just be Christian” as did others in his circle. They were losing confidence that denominational ties, terms or creeds could guide Christians toward unity. They began to see a return to simpler yet deeper conviction rooted in God’s Word as the key to unity.

Seeking freedom from sectarian pressure, Stone and some kindred spirits, drew up The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, in which they said, “We will that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”

This established Stone as one of the founding fathers of the Restoration Movement.

Years later, Stone saw his famous handshake in 1832 with “Raccoon” John Smith as the noblest act of his life. It merged the “Christians,” represented by Stone, with the “Disciples,” those in the sphere of Alexander Campbell’s influence (represented by Smith). Stone’s preaching increasingly zeroed in on the need for believers to promote the unity and purity of the church through humility. Over the years, he learned how selfish pride was the bane of union in all ages.

At the Disciples of Christ National Historical Society in Nashville, Tennessee, there still stands a statue of Stone (yes, it’s carved out of stone) with the oft-spoken words of Brother Stone inscribed on it: “Let the unity of Christians be our Polar Star.” That’s his legacy in a nutshell.

Mariners watch the Polar Star for guidance with a destination in mind. Barton Stone watched for the unity of Christians through the Holy Spirit. “To this let our eyes be continually turned,” he wrote in 1832.

Stone was a first-things-first kind of guy and for him, unity came first.

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