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Though the British Churches of Christ have always been small in number, at least in comparison to their American counterparts, theirs is a rich and complex history that significantly influences the Movement in America, Australia, New Zealand and numerous other countries in the Kingdom and around the globe. Because of the complexity of this story the following profile will be brief but with perhaps a lengthier list of additional historical references.
David M. Thompson, in the 1980 introduction to his history of the British Churches of Christ, Let Sects and Parties Fall, points out that in there is no common founder figures for the British Churches as the Campbells and Stone are in America or Konstanty Jaroszewicz is in Poland. Likewise, it is clear that there are no common origins or a single pivotal moment as might describe the Great Revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky. But for the origins of the British Churches of Christ there was an important influence and that was the Scotch Baptists.
The Scotch Baptists developed out of the Scottish independent tradition that sought to live separate from the authority of the Church of Scotland (a distinct movement from their English counterparts). Among the earliest leaders of the Scotch Baptists were Archibald McLean and Robert Carmichael, formerly of the Glasite Movement. The Scotch Baptists were characterized by their protest against the established church, though they retained a strong Calvinist doctrine, an emphasis on the New Testament as the only source of authority for church practice, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, believer’s baptism, and support of missionary work, to name a few identifying traits. Following the death of Archibald McLean in 1812 William Jones became a leading figure in the Scotch Baptists and through the editing of McLean’s works became the main spokesman for the Scotch Baptists. Jones, a bookseller, editor and historian was familiar with the work of Alexander Campbell of Bethany, Virginia because of his celebrated debate with Robert Owen. But it took a chance meeting with a young American portrait painter by the name of Peyton C. Wyeth to establish contact between the two leaders. Wyeth was visiting in the London church where Jones was an elder and following services told Jones he was searching for a congregation that shared the doctrine and worship of his congregation at home in Pennsylvania and felt he had found that in the Scotch Baptists. Through Wyeth’s introduction Jones and Campbell began to correspond. By 1835 Jones began to publish a new magazine, The Millennial Harbinger and Voluntary Church Advocate in which he made many of Campbell’s views known in Britain.
This was certainly not Alexander Campbell’s first exposure to the Scotch Baptists or the Scottish independent tradition. Born in Ireland in 1788 to Thomas Campbell, a minister in the Anti-Burgher Secession Church with his own independent streak, the younger Campbell was educated from an early age in open-mindedness, charity and the evils of division. While the elder Campbell was minister at Ahorey, Ireland and schoolmaster at an academy in Rich-Hill the family became friendly with the Independent congregation in Rich-Hill and there heard many visiting preachers such as Rowland Hill and James Haldane.
In 1807 the elder Campbell removed to America, on account of health concerns, to be followed at a later date by the younger Campbell and the rest of the family. The first attempt of the family to cross the Atlantic resulted in shipwreck off the coast of Scotland in the fall of 1808. This serendipitous event allowed the younger Campbell to spend the winter of 1808-09 studying at the University of Glasgow, his father’s alma mater. In Glasgow there was an Independent congregation following the views of the Haldane brothers, under the leadership of Greville Ewing. Though still a member of the Secession Church the younger Campbell drank deeply from the refreshing well of the Independents and their confidence in Christ. His growing disillusion with the Church of Scotland and their opposition to such reforms of the Independents caused him to break with the Church of Scotland during the communion season. Upon being reunited with his father in the summer of 1809 it was quickly learned that an ocean away the elder Campbell had come to much the same understanding as his son. During the time of the family’s separation Thomas had written a document called The Declaration and Address as a sort of declaration of independence from the confines of the man-made systems of the Church and a return to the basics of the New Testament. In the following decades the younger Campbell would devote his life to the principles of the new movement to restore Christ’s church, expanding upon and refining the lessons learned in his youth.
While much credit is to be given to Jones for making the works of Campbell known throughout Britain the Campbells’ and their reform movement were not without an audience in Britain prior to Jones’ correspondence with Campbell. Originating in about 1809-1810 a few congregations in the British Isles were already taking the name and position of “Churches of Christ,” according to Dr. Archibald C. Watters in his 1948 History of the British Churches of Christ. The first of these to know anything about the “Campbellite Movement” was the church in Dungannon, Ireland which in 1825 entered into correspondence with Alexander Campbell. The church in Auchtermuchty, Scotland, formed in about 1807, is said to have come to Campbell’s attention in 1830 and one of its members paid a visit to America in 1834 to make the acquaintance of the Movement’s leaders. The Cox Lane, Denbighshire, congregation under the leadership of John Davies, began meeting in 1809 and were overjoyed to learn in 1835 that over 15,000 people in America shared their views, and soon began corresponding with Campbell and others of like mind in England and Scotland. Through the influence of Campbell’s written word in the pages of Jones’ Millennial Harbinger many of the Scotch Baptists began to break away to form “Church of Christ” congregations. Perhaps among the first of these was the church in Nottingham under the leadership of James Wallis who would arguably become the most outstanding figure in the early history of the British churches. In March of 1837 Wallis began publication of a new periodical to promote this work titled The Christian Messenger and Reformer. Over the next few years the pages of the Messenger would carry news of the formation of many new congregations, including those in Newark, Glasgow, Dundee, Perth, Banff, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Dunfermline, Chester and so forth. By 1842 fifty churches were on the list with a membership of 1300, enough to call a conference of the churches, which was held in Edinburgh with Davies as President and 42 churches reporting.
The second co-operative meeting of churches in the British Isles was called in Chester in 1847 with Alexander Campbell himself serving as President. This was Campbell’s first and only visit to his native lands and while there made extensive tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland, preaching at many points. The visit was great publicity for the British churches particularly in Scotland where Campbell was imprisoned for a week following false accusations by the secretary of the Edinburgh Anti-Slavery Society. By 1847 eighty congregations were reported with a membership of 2300. In his chairman’s remarks Campbell challenged the British churches with the great need of effectually proclaiming the Gospel. With the Chester co-operation the meeting became a regular event held annually (except 1940). The Fellowship of Churches of Christ and the United Reformed Church continue in the tradition of the Annual Meeting, or assembly. Throughout its history the Annual Meeting came to represent the focus of the common life of the Churches of Christ and, according to David Thompson, most of its subsequent history can be written in terms of the Annual Meeting through its work and committees.
Evangelization became a key component in the next phase of the British churches and contributed to the expanding horizons of the Movement. Campbell himself had been charged with finding a suitable man in America to send across the Atlantic to assist in the work. Eventually, Henry Samuel Earl, an Englishman by birth educated at Bethany College under such luminaries as Campbell, Milligan, and Richardson, returned to England as an evangelist. While Earl made a great impact on the Churches in England and later Australia there was some difficulty related to his (American) position on communion which differed from the British position. In addition there would also become two camps divided over British and American preaching styles and other innovations. When these two camps merged in 1917 there were still those who opposed certain innovations. These congregations became known as “Old Path” churches. David King, William McDougall, Joseph B. Rotherham, and T.H. Milner are just a few names of men who served as evangelists in this period. In 1872 the Sunday School movement was organized. Despite the work for progress growth in the British Churches was somewhat checked for several reasons, including the inroads made by Dr. John Thomas, a former American Disciple who spent time among the British churches before eventually founding the Christadelphians. By the late 1880s there began an emphasis in the younger generations with a Forward Movement for renewed work in evangelization and a new work in missions. A leading figure in the new “Forward Movement” was Sydney Black.
The British Churches of Christ were spasmodic in their early missions support. Dr. James Turner Barclay’s Jerusalem mission was first to receive support in the 1850s but the issue of Dr. Barclay’s slaveholding status was a hindrance to his work. In the 1860s the British lent aid to the fledgling work in Jamaica and the following decade David King tried to arouse support of a multi-faceted work in Uganda. By the 1890s John Crook of the General Evangelistic Committee began to press for foreign missions thru the pages of the Christian Advocate. By 1892 the Annual Meeting had agreed to open foreign work and that it was to begin in Burma. The first three missionaries were: William Forrester, A.E. Hudson and Robert Halliday and the earliest work was mainly educational and medical. This work was later expanded to and then transferred to Siam. In 1903 the British Churches partnered with the Australian Churches in South Africa by sending R.K. Francis to the field. Later George Hollis and George Hill began work in Nyasaland (Malawi). By 1914 Archie and Maggie Watters were at work in India. The work in these countries and through foreign missions greatly expanded the horizons of the British Churches for decades. Today the Fellowship of Churches of Christ supports Brian Jennings as a missionary working with Ghana Christian College in Accra, Ghana (see Ghana profile). The United Reformed Church continues the earlier work in Malawi partnering with and supporting the Associated Churches of Christ in Malawi.
Training of evangelists and workers became an important part of the work of the Annual Meeting which set up a Training Committee. Much of the work of education was done with trainees studying in the homes of older leaders. For nearly 40 years Alexander Brown, Lancelot Oliver and John McCartney were responsible for training the next generations largely through a home study of the Scriptures. Before the Great War there was recognized the need for a more systematic process for training and events were set in motion which would conclude with the founding of Overdale College in Birmingham in 1920. The dominant force behind Overdale College for nearly thirty years was to be Principal William Robinson. As an author and ecumenist Robinson would come to high esteem among Disciples on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps more than any other person Robinson and his work at Overdale College would shape the British Churches throughout much of the twentieth century. High priority was placed upon the role of the British Churches involvement with the affairs of the wider church and the great ecumenical conferences and councils.
The heyday of the British Churches of Christ came in the early 1930s. The second World Convention was held in August of 1935 in Leicester with John W. Black as President. Professor Robinson in his brief sketch of the British Churches for the program book noted the slow overall growth of the Churches which by then could number 16,000 members in 196 congregations and former Prime Minister David Lloyd George as a member. By 1960 when the World Convention returned to the British Isles for the sixth assembly in Edinburgh with Charles Green as President the number of congregations had been reduced to 119 with a membership of about 7800.
Throughout the mid-twentieth century the British Churches of Christ continued to decline. The American and Canadian Churches offered their support through a program called “Fraternal Aid to British Churches” in which American ministers came to serve under the Home Missions Committee. This arrangement had moderate success up through the early 1970s. Soon the Churches of Christ began to negotiate unification with the United Reformed Church, formed by a merger of Congregationalists [England, Wales and later Scotland] and Presbyterians [England] but first the URC had to revise its Basis of Union in regard to the Churches of Christ’s position on baptism. The merger with the URC was not completely accepted by all of the Churches though the majority voted to approve the merger. In order to make the merger complete the decision was made to dissolve the Association so that individual congregations could decide for themselves the course of their future. The date of dissolution was set for March 31, 1980. Overdale College had been closed earlier and the building sold in 1977. Of the approximately 75 congregations reporting to the Annual Meeting in 1979 with a membership of about 3600, thirty-six congregations with a membership of about 2400 (about 20 of these are still in existence) joined the URC and about 25 congregations with a membership of about 800 formed the “Fellowship of Churches of Christ.” Maintaining a strong ecumenical commitment the URC today numbers about 1500 congregations nationwide divided into thirteen synods and 75 or so district councils. They provide training for future leaders in three theological training colleges: Westminster College (Cambridge), Northern College (Manchester) and the Scottish Congregational College and also place great value in lay leadership. They are especially committed to world-wide missions and participate in a number of church councils.
The Fellowship of Churches of Christ received considerable support from Australian Churches of Christ and from the American Christian Churches and Churches of Christ primarily through the British American Fellowship Committee. The BAFC, under the leadership of Dr. C. Robert Wetzel, led the way in establishing a new training school in Birmingham in 1980 as part of the Selly Oak College. Springdale was located just around the corner from the old Overdale College and a few houses away from Principal Robinson’s former residence. In addition to providing educational opportunities for the Fellowship Springdale also offered many American students (including this writer) the opportunity for cross cultural study and an exposure to the British churches. Springdale College worked for a few years in partnership with Birmingham Christian College from 2000, but has since relocated to Bournville in Birmingham, where as Springdale College: Together in Mission it provides full-time and part-time Missional Training courses. A number of Australians, and Americans from the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ are still working in parts of the United Kingdom.
Today the Fellowship in Great Britain and Ireland is experiencing new growth, particularly in new congregations. The number of congregations has grown from 25 to nearly 50 and includes a number of newly planted churches, some with African leadership. Membership stands at about 1000. They are presently engaged in a concept of Five-Fold Ministry and have a National Leadership Team. In 2004 the United Reformed Church and the Fellowship of Churches of Christ hosted the 16th World Convention in Brighton July 28 – August 1, with David Thompson as President.
In Mac Lynn’s book Churches of Christ Around the World the origin of the a cappella Churches of Christ in the United Kingdom is cited as the congregation beginning in Kircaldy, Scotland in 1798. By 1900 there were said to be over 80 congregations with this number dwindling to 12 small, close-knit groups by 1956. They were characterized by preaching by circuit preacher, communion from a single vessel, and the wearing of hats by the women of the congregations. The pattern of American Churches of Christ was introduced by Andrew Gardner, Alex Strachan and Jack Strachan in the early 1950s; Clyde Finley is credited with introducing individual cups and supported evangelists when he arrived in Edinburgh in 1956. Several other Americans have worked in the British Isles since that time, including several American servicemen. The British Bible School in Corby helps to meet the educational needs of the a cappella brethren and the magazine The Christian Worker carries news, editorials, mission news and articles of interest to the churches. The Christian Worker website currently lists 76 non-instrumental churches in the UK and 1 in the Irish Republic.
Clinton J. Holloway
National Profiles Editor
For further historical reference see:
History of the British Churches of Christ, Archibald W. Watters, Berean Press, Birmingham, England, 1948.
Let Sects and Parties Fall, David M. Thompson, Berean Press, Birmingham, England, 1980. (A short history of the Association of Churches of Christ in Great Britian and Ireland).
W.R. The Man and His Work, James Gray, Editor, Berean Press, Birmingham, England, 1978. (A brief account of the life and work of William Robinson).
Winged Feet, Margaret Watters, privately published, 1981. (Deals with much of the mission work associated with the British Churches of Christ in which Dr. and Mrs. Watters were involved.)
A short account of the Life and Witness of the Churches of Christ in Great Britain and Northern Ireland Francis, John E.,(Overdale College, Birmingham, England) no date on pamphlet, but circa 1980.
Alexander Campbell’s Tour in Scotland, Thomas Chalmers, Guide Printing, Louisville, Kentucky, 1892. (For first hand account of Campbell’s tour of the British Churches see is notes in the Millennial Harbinger.)
1935 and 1960 World Convention program books contain a wealth of historical information relative to the gatherings of the Convention.
Henry Samuel Earl Papers, Disciples of Christ Historical Society, Nashville, Tennessee
Committee on Fraternal Aid to British Churches Archives, Disciples of Christ Historical Society, Nashville, Tennessee
Churches of Christ in the United Kingdom archive found online at: http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/subs/uk.html
Other sources of note include:
Preacher and Social reformer, Ainsworth, Thomas J., Sydney Black, (Book & Tract Depot, Fulham, London, 1911) B922B
The Outline of my life, Anderson, James, (Publishing Ctte of Churches of Christ, Birmingham, 1912)
Overdale College, 1920-1970, A History of the Training College of the Churches of Christ in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Francis, John E., (Overdale College, n/d).
Memoir of David King, King, Louise, with various papers and addresses advocating the restoration in principle and in practise of primitive Christianity, compiled by his wife (n/p, c.1895)
Adventuring for Christian Unity: A Survey of the History of Churches of Christ (Disciples), Walker, Dean E., (Berean Press, Birmingham, 1935)
Another useful resourcee with much early British CoC material is the ‘Simply Christians’ website: http://www.simplychristians.eu/d4web4s/s4index.htm
The Fellowship of Churches of Christ in Great Britain and Ireland
Dan Yarnell, National Coordinator
Birmingham B30 1HH
Telephone: +44 (0)1527-455446
Fax: +44 (0) 7092-138798 (within UK only)
The United Reformed Church
86 Tavistock Place
London WC1H 9RT
Telephone: 44 (0) 20 7916 8645
Fax: 44 (0) 20 7916 1928
For Fellowship congregations see: Website: www.fellowshipcc.co.uk
For URC congregations see: Website: http://www.urc.org.uk
For “Old Path” (sometimes known as ‘OP’) or a cappella congregations see:
Springdale College: Together in Mission
Telephone: +44 (0)121 4585240
See the United Reformed Church website www.urc.org.uk
Fellowship: Fellowship Newsletter
Dr. Richard Whitehouse, editor
1 Bridge End Avenue
Selston Notts, NG16 6BE
Kay Parris, Editor
86 Tavistock Place
London, WC1H 9RT
Telephone: 020 7916 8630
A cappella: Christian Worker
Graham Fisher, Editor
5 Portway, North Marston
Buckingham, MK18 3PL
Telephone: (01296) 670568
Web site: http://www.christian-worker.org.uk
Fellowship: for information concerning the Annual Celebration see website www.fellowshipcc.co.uk.
URC: See website www.urc.org.uk
There many historic churches and chapels associated with the history of the Movement in the United Kingdom. The British Churches of Christ Historical Society has a collection of historic material recently relocated from the University of Birmingham to Westminster College, Cambridge.