Abner Jones – Part Three

This is from Abner Jones: Christian Only (by Bradley Cobb) which is available in Abner Jones: A Collection (Volume 1).

If you missed the previous installments, they can be found here:
Part One
Part Two

The Christian Connexion

Enter Elias Smith

In the years leading up to 1803, Elias Smith had basically come to some of the same conclusions as Abner Jones.[1] Like Jones, Elias Smith had turned to Universalism at one point, trying to find a way to soothe the sins of his childhood.[2] In 1801, Elias Smith (already a preacher) was convinced by his brother and was a Universalist for a period of 15 days before seeing he was embracing error.[3] Both Jones and Smith had determined that Calvinism was wrong and that there was no authority for the name “Baptist.”

During this time, Smith had also begun a congregation of five people. They acquired a meeting hall, but it burned to the ground in December of 1802. They were determined to carry on and to only “follow the New Testament order and wear the name, Christian.”[4] By the time he met Abner Jones again, the number of members had grown to ten. The small number was due in part to the fierce opposition to an independent “church of Christ…Christians without the addition of any unscriptural name.”[5]

Jones admitted to being influenced by Smith, yet it seems that when they met again in 1803, it was Abner Jones who did the influencing.[6] Elias Smith suffered from instability, not truly able to decide which path to follow. This is seen in that many times throughout his later life he flirted with Universalism. He thought that if Calvinism was false, “then universalism¾its polar opposite¾must be true. Smith accepted and repudiated Universalism five times.”[7] He had felt that he was the only one who had come to the conclusions against Calvinism. Smith says this about their meeting: “In June, 1803, about the time of this difficulty [fighting against Calvinism], Elder Abner Jones, from Vermont, came to visit me, and was the first free man I had ever seen.”[8]

Elias had some interesting religious experiences before, including the time when his mother tried to force him to be “baptized” by sprinkling. He took off running from the building in protest, only to be dragged back by his uncle. Thus he was forced into the Congregationalist Church that his mother attended. Within a few years, he reflected on that practice and went to the Scriptures for answers. He saw the New Testament truth that baptism was only for believers and was by immersion.[9] This was one of the main emphases that he brought with him when he and Abner Jones met once more.

The Union of Forces

Because of their similar beliefs and conclusions, Abner Jones and Elias Smith declared themselves in fellowship with each other. Thus the two small movements of just a few congregations, joined together and strengthened each other. Because they viewed themselves as Christians only, there was no need for a formal document to unify the forces. It was less than a year after this unofficial union that the congregation where Elias Smith preached reached 150 members.[10] In 1804, leaving Elias in the congregation at Portsmouth, Abner Jones started congregations in the city of Boston and places surrounding it.[11] The movement towards restoring the Lord’s church was moving forward.

In 1805, the congregations had a meeting “to draw up church articles.”[12] This was done because of the familiarity with church articles and creeds in all the denominations which surrounded them. Just as it was difficult to initially leave the ideas of their Baptist upbringing, it was hard to leave other things of which they were familiar and comfortable. However, this “Christian Conference…agreed that their articles were useless and so they abandoned them, taking only the New Testament” as the guide for all Christians.[13]

The brethren in New England were a connected group of Christians, and as such began to be recognized by the collective term “the Christian Connexion.”[14] This was not a term making them a denominational group, but merely a term to emphasize the fellowship between the different congregations. By 1807, there were 14 such known congregations in that area and twelve preachers working with them.[15]

In the southern states, as well as other places, more people had come to the same conclusions as had Jones and Smith. One such person was James O’Kelly, who led a group who left the Methodist Church, calling themselves “Republican Methodists.” At their beginning, in 1794, they claimed to have 1,000 members.[16] They had guiding principles for their movement, much of which mirrored what Jones and Smith were advocating. Soon afterwards, they decided to go by the name “Christian Churches.”[17]

Within the O’Kelly-led movement, there was dissention about the role of baptism. William Guirey was an influential leader in the Republican Methodists who believed in the necessity of baptism by immersion. He was very pleased to learn that others were going by “Christian” alone and that they also had come to the same conclusion as he had on baptism. By 1809, this group united with the Christian Connexion.[18] It is strange to note, however, that shortly thereafter, James O’Kelly tried to break up the newly-made union between the two forces because of his belief on baptism. It seems that he was holding on to his Methodist upbringing about faith-only being a “most wholesome doctrine and full of grace.”[19]

The Herald of Gospel Liberty

With Abner Jones spending his time preaching, Elias Smith became the leading voice in the newly-united movement. Though he had less than a year of formal education, Elias Smith was an able writer and speaker. He started a publication near the end of 1808 called The Herald of Gospel Liberty which he was the first religious periodical to ever be published.[20] It initially had 274 subscribers.[21]

That these Christians had become aware of some other restoration movements around the still-growing country is obvious from this periodical. On the back page of the first issue, Elias Smith printed¾in full¾“The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery.”[22] The Springfield Presbytery was a small group of Presbyterians who realized many of the errors of Calvinism and of man-made religions. Unfortunately, in protesting one man-made religious body, they created another. They did see their error, and this document, written in 1804[23], was the official dissolution of their group, as well as a call to only follow the Bible.[24]

The Herald of Gospel Liberty was as unstable, however, as Elias Smith himself was. The publication was moved numerous times in the decade of its existence. At one point there were over 1,000 subscribers to the paper. In the final issue of this periodical, Elias Smith announced “that he had gone into universalism.”[25] There is some well-founded speculation that Alexander Campbell was familiar with that paper. Campbell was at the very least, acquainted with who Elias Smith was, as well as his doctrinal position. James North relays this:

The Stone Movement had been called “Christians.” But Alexander Campbell did not like that term. Because the Smith-Jones Movement also used the same term; and because the Smith-Jones Movement was tinged with a good deal of Unitarianism, Campbell was convinced the term was tainted.[26]

Smith did start another publication called the Christian Herald, which lasted a bit longer than his previous paper. With the changes in stances, Smith’s influence waned and the publication was bought out by a publishing company.

 

 

[1] Gardner, James. The Christians of New England (Hester Publications, Henderson, TN 2008) Pgs 19-20

[2] North, Union In Truth, pg 25.

[3] New England Christians

[4] West, Earle. The Search For The Ancient Order: Volume I (Gospel Light Publishing, DeLight, AR. 1950) Pg 14.

[5] Smith, Elias. The Life, Conversion, Preaching, Travels, and Sufferings of Elias Smith (Beck and Foster, Portsmouth, N.H., 1816). Pg 320-321

[6] North. Union in Truth, Pg 26.

[7] New England Christians

[8] Smith, Elias. The Life of Elias Smith. Pg 321

[9] Gardner. Christians of New England. Pg20.

[10] West. Ancient Order I. Pg 14.

[11] North. Union in Truth. pg 26.

[12] West. Ancient Order I, Pg 14

[13] ibid.

[14] Olbricht. Christian Connexion.

[15] North. Union in Truth. Pg 26

[16] ibid, Pg 16.

[17] ibid, pgs 18-19,

[18] ibid, pg 27.

[19] Caldwell, G.C. “Baptism: the Core of Controversy in the Restoration Movement” Florida College Lectures, 1976, pg 242.

[20] Phillips, Dabney. Restoration Principles and Personalities. (Youth In Action, University, AL, 1975) Pg 18.

[21] Womack. Thirteen Lessons. Pg 54.

[22] North. Union in Truth. Pg 63.

[23] Womack. Thirteen Lessons . Pg 62.

[24] Davis, A.M. The Restoration Movement in the Nineteenth Century. (Standard Publishing, 1913) Pgs 149-150.

[25] West. Ancient Order I. Pg 15.

[26] North. Union in Truth, Pg 164.

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