Abner Jones – Part Four

Today’s installment concludes Abner Jones: Christian Only (by Bradley Cobb).  If you missed the previous entries, you can click on the links below, or you can find this work in its entirety in Abner Jones: A Collection (Volume 1).

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

His Final Years:

The Connexion’s Decline

While Elias Smith was busy being the visible leader of the Christian Connexion, Abner Jones was busy doing the work of a preacher. He moved to Salem, Massachusetts in 1809 where he traveled to numerous congregations in the area. He saw many converts, which helped to strengthen his faith. He believed that the people converting was proof that God approved of his preaching and was blessing it.[1] This mind-set led to problems down the road.

In 1815, He moved to Hopkinton, Mass. There he met with virtually no success, and the depression and doubt that plagued him as a younger man re-surfaced with a vengeance. Elias Smith’s return trip to Universalism “staggered the Christian cause in…the coastal areas.”[2] The departure of this very vocal leader proved quite the hurdle to overcome.

While in Hopkinton, Abner Jones stirred up quite a controversy in preaching on the evils of drinking alcohol, even in moderation. While there, he also joined the Masons. When public opinion began to sway against the Masons as a social group, Jones quit, although “he never believed them to be subversive to either Christianity or democracy.”[3]

The congregation in Hopkinton did not grow, and in fact became so weak that Jones was unable to support himself any longer. When an epidemic came through the town, he resumed his practice as a doctor. He moved back to Salem after six years of unproductive work in Hopkinton. What was left of the congregation in Hopkinton faded from what faithfulness they had attained and merged with the Baptist Church.[4]

Ups and Downs

Upon his return, he found the congregation in Salem in the throws of emotionalism. The majority of the congregation wanted nothing to do with a logical approach to the Bible, but claimed to be “moved by the Spirit.” The congregation was destroyed and Jones was left “to pick up the pieces” and rebuild a new congregation. After seven years, the new congregation was large and strong. During this time, Jones “practiced medicine, taught school, and gave instruction in singing.”[5] In 1830, this restorationist moved to New York in search of other fertile hearts.

His need for emotional reassurance weakened him in his stances on the truths of the Bible. He slowly drifted towards accepting emotional experiences as evidence of Christianity, contrary to his statements prior in which he described the emotionalists ones who “professed to be governed by the Spirit, and a most perverse spirit it was.”[6] In this, he stated that rash emotionalism was not from God, yet he was unwilling to stick with his convictions.

The movement started by Abner Jones, and for a time aided by Elias Smith, to go back to the Bible only had touched many people. But without solid leadership, it began to die out. The original congregation established by Abner Jones in Lyndon, Vermont had shut its doors and melted in with the denominations.[7] Many of the other congregations also faded from existence. However, in the 1830’s, there were signs of hope by more growth in certain areas.

The Death of a Dream

The original call was to leave denominationalism and go back solely to “the New Testament for their only rule of faith and practice.”[8] For a time, Abner Jones and company were well on their way to accomplishing it. However, because of various events and decisions, the group which came to be known as the Christian Connexion drifted off into denominationalism itself.

In order to deal with the effect of Elias’ Smith’s departure into Universalism, they convened a general council. This became a yearly event in which almost every congregation in the Connexion sent a delegation.[9] This yearly convention established a governing body similar to the councils which mark the Catholic Church of the first Millennia AD.[10] Smith did try to return, yet traveled back and forth with Universalism to the point where “his own brethren disciplined him because they refused to trust someone who was ‘blown about by every wind of doctrine’.”[11] By 1825, the conference of the Christian Connexion referred to themselves as “a denomination among denominations.”[12]

Another aspect where they left the pattern of the New Testament was in the organization of the local church. Many pleaded for a plurality of elders, although most of the congregations in the Connexion only had one elder, that being the preacher (this following the lead of the Baptists who referred to the preacher as an elder).[13] They also took to following the lead of other denominations in calling the preacher “reverend,” a word used in the Scriptures only in reference to God. Also, as early as the 1810’s, some of the congregations were promoting women to positions of preaching.[14] This was not widespread, but it was tolerated in many locations.

Perhaps the final blow to the dream of “Christians only” in New England was a man by the name of William Miller. This man claimed to have figured out the time for the return of Jesus Christ and pinpointed the date at “some time between March 1843 and March 1844.”[15] Because of his emotional speaking style and the direction in which the Christian Connexion was heading, Miller found ready listeners in those Christians. By 1839, nearly half of the Connexion had been taken in by his lies, and the other half was ostracized as faithless.[16]

Elias Smith was no longer a leader in the movement, but had completely left. Abner Jones’ own son was referred to as a “Unitarian minister.”[17] Daniel Hix, the preacher at one of the strongest congregations in the Connexion, had died in 1838.[18] The ones who had taken the abuse for trying to follow the New Testament pattern had gotten older and there arose a new generation that did not know what they had gone through, and were thus unprepared to combat this false teaching.

So caught up were the Christians (as well as others) in this prophetic end, that many farmers did not plant crops that year. The ones that did refused to harvest, for that would show a lack of faith. Many store owners simply sold out of merchandise and refused to re-stock. On the day in which the return was supposed to occur, the “faithful” who believed the sayings of Miller all gathered in church buildings. They prayed their hearts out for Jesus to return.[19] When the bells rang at midnight, it was like a funeral. Jesus did not return according to the false prophet’s timetable. People’s faith had died. They blamed Christ for not coming again. “Being misled by a false religion, they gave up searching for the true one.”[20] Those who bought into the lie couldn’t bear to face those who were wise enough to know better. Those who didn’t fall for the emotionalism of the Miller fiasco decided they couldn’t put their faith in those so easily led astray. The bridge between the two collapsed. As James Gardner put it: “the heart of the Christian Connection in New England died at midnight, October 22, 1844.”[21]

Thankfully, Abner Jones didn’t live to see that day. He died before he could see his dream of a unified church of Christ collapse. He died in 1841, in Exeter, New Hampshire. The Christian Connexion had become a perversion of what it was meant to be. In the years that followed, the Christian Connexion broke apart, and today various denominational groups claim the Connexion (and Abner Jones) as part of their history. Among these are the 7th Day Adventists, the United Church of Christ,[22] as well as perhaps Mormonism.[23] Some “Jehovah’s Witness” even claim Abner Jones was one of them.[24]

Conclusion

Abner Jones had the right idea, initially. He strove to become a Christian only, following nothing but what he could find in the pages of the New Testament. All who seek to be true Christians should emulate the principle for which he and other restorationists stood. In the end of his autobiography, Abner Jones gave a pleading warning to all of his readers to stop and look at their spiritual condition. The words which he gave were those of a hymn he wrote:

STOP, poor sinner, stop and think

Before you farther go.

Will you sport upon the brink

Of everlasting woe?

 

Hell beneath is gaping wide!

Vengeance waits the dread command,

Soon to stop your sport and pride,

And sink with you the damn’d.

 

O be entreated now STOP,

For unless you WARNING TAKE,

Ere you are aware you’ll DROP,

Into the BURNING LAKE.[25]

 

Bibliography

Ÿ  Burnett, J.F. Rev. Abner Jones: The Man Who Believed and Served. (unknown publisher, 1921) Electronic edition at: http://www.gravelhillchurchofchrist.com/ebooks/Burnett, J.F. – Abner Jones.pdf

Ÿ  Brumback, Robert H. History of the Church Through the Ages. (Mission Messenger, St. Louis. 1957)

Ÿ  Caldwell, G.C. “Baptism: the Core of Controversy in the Restoration Movement” Florida College Lectures, 1976.

Ÿ  Davis, A.M. The Restoration Movement in the Nineteenth Century. (Standard Publishing, 1913)

Ÿ  Gardner, James. The Christians of New England (Hester Publications, Henderson, TN 2009)

Ÿ  Gielow, Frederick, Jr. Popular Outline of Church History (Standard Publishing, 1926)

Ÿ  Haley, J.J. Makers and Molders of the Reformation Movement (Christian Board of Education, St. Louis, 1914)

Ÿ  Jennings, Walter Wilson. Origin and Early History of the Disciples of Christ (Standard Publishing, 1919)

Ÿ  Jones, Abner. Memoirs of the Life and Experience, Travels and Preaching of Abner Jones. (Norris and Sawyer, 1807)   Electronic edition www.GravelHillchurchofChrist.com/eBooks/Jones, Abner – Memoirs.pdf

Ÿ  Jones, A.D. Memoirs of Elder Abner Jones (Crosby, Boston 1842)

Ÿ  Mattox, F.W. The Eternal Kingdom (Gospel Light Publishing, DeLight, AR 1961)

Ÿ  The New England Christians, www.ChristianChronicler.com/new_england_Christians.html

Ÿ  North, James. Union In Truth: An Interpretive History of the Restoration Movement (Standard Publishing, 1994)

Ÿ  Olbricht, Tom. “Christian Connexion and Unitarian Relations 1800-1844” Restoration Review Vol. 9, No. 3

Ÿ  Phillips, Dabney. Restoration Principles and Personalities. (Youth In Action, University, AL, 1975)

Ÿ  www.PioneerPreachers.com

Ÿ  Smith, Elias. The Life, Conversion, Preaching, Travels, and Sufferings of Elias Smith (Beck and Foster, Portsmouth, N.H., 1816)

Ÿ  Vogel, Dan. Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism (Signature Books, Salt Lake City, UT, 1988), online text at http://www.signaturebookslibrary.org/seekers/chapter1.htm

Ÿ  Watters, Randal. “Abner Jones – A Real Jehovah’s Witness.” http://www.freeminds.org/organization/pre-russell/abner-jones-a-real-jehovah-s-witness.html

Ÿ  West, Earle. The Search For The Ancient Order: Volume I (Gospel Light Publishing, DeLight, AR. 1950)

Ÿ  Womack, Morris. Thirteen Lessons on Restoration History. (College Press, Joplin, MO, 1988)

 

 

[1] Gardner. Christians of New England. Pgs 75-77.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid. Pg 78.

[6] Jones, A.D. Memoirs of Elder Abner Jones. Pg 81.

[7] Gardner. Christians of New England. Pg 91.

[8] Brumback, Robert H. History of the Church Through the Ages. (Mission Messenger, St. Louis. 1957). Pg 290.

[9] ibid. Pg 104.

[10] Mattox. Eternal Kingdom.

[11] New England Christians

[12] Gardner. Christians of New England. Pg 104

[13] ibid. Pg 105.

[14] ibid. Pg 106.

[15] ibid. Pg 146.

[16] ibid.

[17] Olbricht. Connexion and Unitarian.

[18] Gardner. Christians of New England. Pg 150.

[19] ibid. Pgs 151-156.

[20] ibid. Pg 156.

[21] ibid. Pg 157.

[22] ibid. Pg 151-157.

[23] Vogel. Seekers and Mormonism.

[24] Watters, Randal. “Abner Jones – A Real Jehovah’s Witness.”

[25] Jones, Abner Memoirs. Pg 107.

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