American political freedom promoted religious freedom. Nothing like the United States and its freedoms existed anywhere else in the world. Many early Americans were "free thinkers" who desired freedom of expression--religious and otherwise.
The Republican Methodists were just expression of the desire for freedom. In New England a second group formed to also express its desire for a "free church" unhindered by denominational creeds and structures. On this page I want to introduce you to the men and the movement known as the New England Christians.
I. The Movement's Leaders
Two Baptists led the New England Christian movement. Both men repudiated Calvinistic extremes to form the movement. They are Abner Jones (1772-1841) and Elias Smith (1769-1846).
A. Abner Jones. Enos Dowling in his little book, The Restoration Movement, says Jones "was the more stable of these two leaders." Earl West seems to feel Elias Smith made the greater contributions, so historians are divided.
Abner Jones was born in Royalton, Massachusetts, April 28, 1772. His family moved from Royalton to Bridgewater, Vermont, when he was eight. He showed interest in religious issues early but he did not become a Christian until he turned 20. In fact, he led a rather immoral life during his teen years. In 1793, Elder Elisha Ransom baptized him and Abner joined Ransom's Baptist Church.
During his lifetime Jones taught school, practiced frontier medicine, and preached. He began his medical practice in Lyndon, Vermont, around 1797 or 1798. In Lyndon he met and married Damaris Prior. About the same time, revival hit Lyndon and the emotion of revival led Jones to again consider the ministry. He began a deeper Bible study and then launched a preaching ministry. His Bible study led him to break from the Baptists' Calvinistic system and he soon proclaimed himself a Christian only. Jones emphasized Christian character as the only and all-sufficient test for Christian fellowship.
In 1801, Jones organized a "free church" in Lyndon. Free Will Baptists ordained him a year later. These Baptists willingly accepted him since they agreed with Jones' beliefs. When they invited him to affiliate with them, Jones agreed to do so not as "Free Willers" but as Christians. Even during this association with the Free Will Baptists, he maintained his freedom in Christ and refused to submit to their rules and regulations.
B. Elias Smith (1769-1846). Like Abner Jones, Smith tried many different occupations during his lifetime. He taught school, practiced medicine, preached, and was an author and editor.
He was born June 17, 1769, at Lyme, Connecticut, to Stephen and Irene Smith. Irene Smith was a "New Light" Congregationalist but his father was a Baptist. His paternal grandmother named him Elias for an uncle who died during the French and Indian War. Smith always hated the name. During the Revolutionary War, the Smiths lived near Long Island Sound and Elias could see the cannon fire from British warships. Smith grew up disliking Tories and held a strong abiding reverence for freedom.
Smith had little education. Dowling reports that his education began when he was four and continued until age 13. Dowling goes on to say:
According to his autobiography, he spend thirteen days learning grammar, devoted ten days to arithmetic, and gave eight evenings to the study of music.
In 1780 the family moved to Hebron, Connecticut where he received his last schooling. West merely says "he could read and write some."
Smith worried considerably about sins committed during his childhood years. When he was eight, his mother tried to have him sprinkled. Smith fled the scene but he was caught and forced to submit. In May 1779, he became concerned about his baptism and started studying the subject in Scripture. His study led him to profess baptism for believers only by immersion. Elder William Grow then immersed him in the Queecy River. Smith was now a Christian but not yet a Baptist. In the 1770s, the Baptists had four requirements for one to belong to a Baptist church: (1) The convert had to give a reason for his hope in Christ (relate an experience). (2) Be immersed. (3) Give consent to the Baptist articles of faith. (4) Be voted in. Smith petitioned for membership, met all four requirements and became a member of Second Baptist Church in Woodstock, Connecticut.
After worshiping as a good Baptist for a decade, Smith considered the ministry in 1789. He studied the Bible intensively and tried to get a good education. He was still self-educated. He borrowed books from Elder Grow for his study. The two books he leaned on the most were Cruden's Concordance and a book of sermons.
In the fall of 1801, Smith moved to Salisbury, New Hampshire. While in Salisbury, his Bible study created misgivings about Baptist theology. According to Dowling, Smith "under the influence of his brother, Uriah,...embraced Universalism for fifteen days in 1801." As Smith continued his study, he repudiated Baptist Calvinism but he also gave up his Universalism. As a result of all this meandering, Smith fell into disrepute with the Baptists. The Baptist clergy loudly voiced their disapproval. Resolved to follow only the Scripture, Smith took the name Christian:
When in my twenty-fourth year, I believed there would be a people bearing a name different from all the denominations then in this country; but what would they be called I then could not tell. In the spring of 1802, having rejected the doctrine of Calvin and universalism [sic], 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). My mind being fixed upon this as the right name, to the exclusion of all the popular names in the world, in the month of May, at a man's house in Epping, N.H. by the name of Laurence, where I held a meeting and spoke upon the text, 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 the addition of the words, Baptist, Methodist, ect.
The Baptists repudiated Smith so he began meeting with a group of friends in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in October 1802. He moved to Portsmouth in December and a few days later, December 26, their meeting place burned to the ground. The group then met in a school house but in March 1803 they assembled in a courthouse. On the first Sunday in April 1803 the group held their first communion with 22 members. A year later there were 150 members. The church drew up articles referring to themselves as the "Christian Conference." They abandoned those articles in 1805 determined to take the Bible alone as the basis for all issues of faith and practice.
You can see Smith's instability in his continuing flirtation with Universalism. This grew out of his understanding of Calvinism. If Calvinism were false, then Universalism--its exact opposite--must be true. Smith accepted and repudiated Universalism five times. Finally his own brethren disciplined him because they refused to trust someone who was "blown about by every wind of doctrine."
II. The spread and contributions of New England Christians.
A. The growth of the movement. I showed you how quickly the Portsmouth congregation grew. Smith met Abner Jones in 1803 and brought his whole congregation, along with some Free Will and Regular Baptist churches in the area, into Jones' movement.
Jones began the church in Lyndon, Vermont with 25 members but before long he organized churches in Hanover, New Hampshire (1802), Piermont, New Hampshire (1803) and Boston (1804). The movement spread rapidly into New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and the eastern British Provinces (Canada).
B. The Herald of Gospel Liberty. In September, 1808 Elias Smith began publishing The Herald of Gospel Liberty with 274 subscribers. West quotes Smith on the paper's name:
It may be that some may wish to know why this paper should be named, Herald of Gospel Liberty. This kind of liberty is the only one which can make us happy, being the glorious liberty of the sons of God which Christ proclaimed; and which all who have are exhorted to stand fast in, being that which is given and enjoyed by the law of liberty; which is the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus, which makes us free from the law of sin and death.
Smith's paper enjoyed a checkered existence. He originally published it every other Thursday, cost $1, with each issue numbering four 9 x 11 inch pages. By March, 1809 he put the publishing schedule back to Friday. Smith's instability led to so many different moves that subscribers found the paper published from Portland, Maine; Philadelphia, Portland again and finally Boston. The paper billed itself as the "first religious newspaper in the United States," and it was. The Herald of Gospel Liberty reached a circulation of 1,500, a sizeable number for the day. The paper publicized and defended the group's principles and served as the media through which Christians in other areas could get acquainted.
On October 1, 1817, Smith wrote in his paper that he once again adopted Universalism. This issue proved the last he edited under that name. In May, 1818 the Christian Herald appeared briefly followed by the Christian Journal. It, too, had a brief history.
C. Principles. The principles espoused by New England Christians closely paralleled those of the Republican Methodists. After their union with the southern Christians, William Guirey wrote:
After we became a separate people, three points were determined on. First. No head over the church but Christ. Second. No confession of faith, articles of religion, rubric, canons, creeds, etc., but the New Testament. Third. No religious name but Christians.
Fellowship was on the basis of sincere piety evidenced by Christian deportment. They recognized all whom God owned as his children.
I've already mentioned the union with the southern Christians. Their major contributions to the Restoration Movement are:
1.Their insistence on the name Christian.
2.The Bible alone as a source for faith and practice.
3.The use of religious literature in evangelism.
4.Their concern for unity that the world might believe.
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