Race Relations – A Lesson from Barton Stone

I am not a member of a Christian Church or the Restoration Movement but that does not mean that I have not learned a thing or two from Barton Stone. In this brief essay, I want to look at what the modern church can learn from Barton Stone regarding race relations. As I point out the term race is used here only because of its popular context and not because I feel there are different races of people.

What can the modern American church learn about race relations from Barton Stone? This may seem to be a simple question and one can ask why it should matter what Barton Stone thought on the topic of race. The rationale is partly because Barton Stone was a founding member of the Stone Campbell Movement which today consists of the Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and the Independent Christian Churches. His influence is felt far and wide around the world. The second reasoning is because he lived in the time of American slavery. His antislavery position at the time of slavery and his voice as a leader in the movement should give one cause to listen to his words and hopefully gain insight into our modern situation.

This essay will seek to first answer the question of what the modern American church can learn about race relations from Barton Stone based on Stone’s view of slavery and service as a Christian. Stone lived during the period of slavery in America and the question of race relations was one of slavery and what, if anything, should be done about it. Second, it will then seek to apply those lessons to the modern world. This will be done by first giving the lesson from Stone and then applying it to the current situation in America and the injustices that many African Americans face.

America no longer has slavery as a law but many other race-related issues divide the country. It should be noted briefly that the term race is being used here but the concept of race is a human concept and not a biological one. The term race is being used because of its connection to the idea of race relations which often means the relationship between white Americans and African Americans.

The question for Barton Stone was not should slavery be done away with, that was a given for him. For Stone slavery was a “moral evil [and] very heinous” and in the early days at least it was enough to disqualify someone from fellowship.[1] At one point during the 1830s, Stone did own slaves but these were men and women who were left to his wife by her mother. Stone decided that because he could not emancipate them where he was, he would move to Illinois which was a free state in order to accommodate their freedom.[2] This is just one example that one can take from Stone. If one has within their power to do something to alleviate the suffering of another, they also have the responsibility to do so.

The answer to the main question is threefold and the first two points can be understood from Barton Stone’s letters titled an Interview Between an Old and a Young Preacher published in 1859 in the Christian Messenger. While these letters were written regarding Christian service as a preacher it should never be assumed that service to Christ and love for others are items that can be separated. Stone makes this clear in the subsequent letters. This is in part because of the universal priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5–9) and because all are commanded to contend for the faith (Jude 1:3). These letters give an insight into the mind and thinking of Stone.

First one must have a dedication to Christ and an understanding that one can do nothing apart from Him.[3] For Stone charity, love, and service started with Christ. The affection one has towards Christ should move them to lay down themselves and their desires in order to see Christ’s kingdom come. Stone understood that because God has a love for all then slavery with its lack of love could not be Scriptural.[4] This desire to serve Christ was a motivating factor for Stone to leave Presbyterian denomination and seek unity with other Christians. This is mentioned so that one can see Stone was a man who was willing to act and not only speak.

Taking the example of Stone, one must look and see that if they call Christ Lord then they cannot also call another human, created in the image of God, a slave. In the same way today, one cannot call Christ Lord and turn a blind eye to the injustices that African Americans face. Between false incarcerations, a whitewashing of recent history (redlining, the 13th amendment, etc.), and other systematic racism Africa Americans have suffered in America. Christians who call Christ Lord must move in a charity, love, and service in keeping with their Lord. This means acting and not only speaking about what must be done to promote change and healing.

Second, and intimately connected to the idea of Christ being the priority is that one must be filled with the Holy Spirit because “the Lord will have no servants in his Church without this qualification.”[5] While the Stone-Campbell Movement is not typically known as a charismatic movement the early days of Stone’s “Christian” movement was infused with the power of the Holy Spirit.[6] The Cane Ridge Revival saw thousands in attendance and many who came became converted and fell “as men slain in battle.”[7] Even in his autobiography Stone seems to recount with affection stories of those who received the presence of the Holy Spirit. For Stone, the power and need for the Holy Spirit was not just a sight to behold but the power to do the work of God and “penetrate the heart of the sinner.”[8]

The obvious question is how does the empowering of the Holy Spirit that Stone saw as essential relate to race relations in America? The answer is found, partly, in Galatians 5:22-25. In this passage, Paul writes that Christians are to have the fruit of the Spirit and that because of the Spirit they will put away the fleshly desires. The power of the Holy Spirit was essential in his day to help create a new person who was not capable of owning another human being and this is the same Spirit today who causes people to not be complacent while others suffer unjustly.

Thirdly one can take from example of Stone to not turn away from the pain of their fellow brother and sister when their distress is presented before them. Stone recounts in his autobiography that while on his way to Charleston he rested for a few days with a man and witnessed first-hand the condition of the slaves near him. He saw them chained, abused, lashed, and abused. This he states was the “exciting cause of my abandonment of slavery.”[9] When presented with the truth of how slaves were treated Stone chose not to look away but change the way he looked at the people in bondage.

How many times today do white Americans turn a blind eye to the injustices and suffering of African Americans. In the modern world, there is no shortage of news reports, social media posts, and other instant headlines that can awaken people the sufferings of their neighbors. Yet all too often it is easy to change the channel or keep scrolling and ignore the truth before us. Stone witnessed the oppression of slaves and it caused him to change his mind concerning the issue. Today people have the opportunity to learn and become educated about the issues facing their brothers and sisters, but all too often they chose to remain ignorant in the face of evil and oppression.

The idea of Christians should be at the forefront of the discussion regarding race relations is not a new idea. Stone was an ardent abolitionist and not only preached against the evils of slavery but as witnessed acted on his beliefs as well. In his own words, he was “ignorant of the means by which” it would be done but his lack of knowing the full answer did not stop him from persisting.[10] Christians should never allow not having all the answers stop them from calling out evil.

Looking outside Stone, the most vocal groups opposing slavery in the 1830s were religious groups.[11] It was those who studied the Scriptures, were devoted to Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, and witnessed the evil that called out against it. While some in favor of slavery attempted to use the Bible to justify their position the truth was that “slavery in the Bible and slavery as it existed in the American South” were not the same thing. Biblical slavery was permitted but with limits while Southern slavery was barbaric. Neither has their place in a Christian world but one is far worse.

Today as mentioned we do not have legal slavery, but we do have other issues. African Americans have never been dealt a fair hand in America and while they have the same legal protection under the law they are marginalized and often regarded as second class citizens. They are arrested at higher rates, have higher conviction rates, and are often forced to take plea deals instead of fighting. The news shows how some African American males are killed by police during routine stops or questioning. This is not something that Christians devoted to Christ and filled with the Spirit should be ok with. This is not something that we should turn a blind eye too.

American Christians can take the example of Barton Stone and show their devotion to devotion to Christ by caring for those who are treated unfairly. It does not seem to be a far stretch to think that Stone would support the idea that black lives matter (not the organization but the idea and truth that black lives indeed matter and they have not always been seen as people who matter). That is not to suggest that he would attend a rally or anything of the like, but it does seem that he did in fact believe that black lives mattered which is why he argued for their freedom in the name of Christ.

Just a thought,

Mike

 

[1] David C. Roos, The Social Thought of Barton Warren Stone and It’s Significance Today for the Disciples of Christ in Western Kentucky, (DMin thesis, Vanderbilt Univ, 1973), 83.

[2] Douglas A. Foster, Paul M Blowers, Anthony L. Dunnavant, D. Newell Williams, “Stone, Barton W., Support for Colonization of Free Blacks and Move to Illinois,” The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, (William B. Eerdmans Publ Co. Grand Rapids 2004), 717.

[3] Barton W. Stone, “Interview between an Old and Young Preacher.” Christian Messenger (Georgetown, KY), vol. 14, no. 2, June 1844, EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=h9j&AN=53341343&site=eds-live.

[4] D. Newell Williams, Douglas A. Foster, Paul M. Blowers, The Stone-Campbell Movement, A Global History, (Chalice Press; St Louis 2012), 14.

[5] Stone, Interview between an Old and Young Preacher.

[6] Stone-Campbell Movement hereafter referred to as SCM.

[7] Douglas A. Foster, Paul M Blowers, Anthony L. Dunnavant, D. Newell Williams, Cane Ridge Revival, 164.

[8] Stone, Interview between an Old and Young Preacher

[9] Voices from Cane Ridge, edited Rhodes Thompson, A Short History of the Life of Barton W. Stone
Written by Himself (1847), Barton Stone, 146.

[10] Barton W. Stone, “An Explanation, Christian Messenger,” 1835.

[11] Jonathan Olson, “Abolitionism and Antislavery.” Encyclopedia of Religion in America, edited by Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams, vol. 1, (CQ Press, 2010, pp. 1-4). Gale eBooks, https://link-gale-com.elibrary.johnsonu.edu/apps/doc/CX1725800013/GVRL?u=tel_a_jbc&sid=GVRL&xid=32e45c8c. Accessed 19 June 2020.

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