Abner Jones wasn’t the kind of man to toot his own horn, like his co-worker, Elias Smith, was. True, he wrote his autobiography at the request of friends and co-workers in the kingdom who wanted a first-hand account of his efforts at restoration, but if you read it, he doesn’t make a big show out of himself.
Abner, for the most part, quietly went about his work of preaching and teaching and trying to help plant congregations and build them up.
Meanwhile, the denominational mindset that he hated so much had worked its way into the congregations that he had been laboring for. It started off innocently enough in 1808, with ministers from the New England area decided to get together for a meeting of sharing news and encouragement and fellowship. Then they met again in 1815, and discussed whether it was scriptural to have a conference like that to discuss matters. They decided, based on Acts 15, that it was, and so they made it an annual event. After that, they began to elect officers to preside over the meetings. Then they started making decisions for the whole group. In 1824, this group, calling themselves the United States Christian Conference, decided to welcome any church, whether they practiced baptism or not, so long as they weren’t opposed to the practice.
As we saw in a post last week, this stance put them at odds with the Bible, and also with the disciples, Christians with whom Alexander Campbell was associated. It is interesting that this resolution came at the first meeting after Campbell began writing and arguing heavily about the essentiality and mode of baptism. Already there had been some congregations who had started uniting with the disciples, due in large part to the Scriptural stance they were taking.
It was in 1832 that Barton W. Stone, as a representative of the Christian Church (Christian Connexion) in the midwest, officially gave the right hand of fellowship to Raccoon John Smith, the representative of the disciples.
The portion of the Christian Church (Connexion) in New England wasn’t as thrilled by this measure, and there were some who wanted official resolutions against the disciples and this union that they did not agree to. So, later that year, when they came together for the annual meeting of the United States Christian Conference, they turned to Abner Jones, their elder statesman, to preside over it all.
And then something quite extraordinary happened. Under Abner Jones’ leadership, a motion was made, seconded, and passed, “dissolving the United States Christian Conference forever.” (Herald of Gospel Liberty, June 16, 1910, pages 758-759).
It seems that Abner Jones knew that this body was primed to act in a very un-Christian way. It also appears that Jones was ready and willing with work with the disciples as brethren in Christ, endorsing the union of forces.
To the outsider, the dissolution of this body, so soon after the union of the Christian Church (at least the part that followed Barton Stone) and the disciples, might appear to just be a coincidence. But it wasn’t.
It is no coincidence that the dissolving of this body–the body who had, just eight years earlier, denied that baptism was essential for salvation–came immediately after the union of Stone and Campbell. It is also no coincidence that it was eliminated as a decision-making body through the leadership of Abner Jones. It is almost as though it was his way of retracting the horrible decision they made in 1824, and his desire to remove any obstacle to working together with the disciples.
Unfortunately, the elimination of the conference didn’t last long. The next year, a prominent Christian Church (Connexion) preacher called for a conference, and the whole mess started up again. On the funny side, they met again in 1834, and there was great confusion, because no one could agree on why they were there. Some thought there was an official convention (like before), others thought it was just a meeting to discuss the publishing of books by members of the Christian Church. It was agreed and resolved that the United States Christian Conference had dissolved, and so they must be there because of book publishing. (Herald of Gospel Liberty, June 23, 1910, page 790).
In 1838, Abner Jones presided over the meeting, and made it a point to stress that it was a meeting regarding the “General Book Association.” Jones died before the next meeting (which was now being held every four years). It wasn’t long before these meetings once again morphed into a decision-making body over the churches.
But in 1832, a wonderful thing took place; something that might, on the surface, seem like just a coincidence; yet was anything but.
-Bradley S. Cobb
(NOTE: Abner Jones’ autobiography is included in our book, Abner Jones: A Collection.)