Disciples History & Thought

An ongoing seminar instructs and engages Disciples Divinity House Scholars in the history, theology, and polity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

W. Clark Gilpin, Margaret E. Burton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity and Theology in the Divinity School and former Dean of the Divinity School and of the Disciples Divinity House, leads the seminar.

Overview of the Disciples of Christ

The Disciples of Christ originated on the American frontier in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Most of their early leaders were of Presbyterian background, but they departed from that tradition in order to attempt a union of Christians based on the sole authority of the Bible. “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak,” they declared, “and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” This adherence to Scripture, so they believed, would unite Christians by liberating them from the divisive authority of the historic creeds and a domineering clergy.

From these anti-denominational beginnings in a movement of religious reform, the Disciples have gradually evolved into one of the “mainstream” Protestant denominations of North America and a substantial presence in the world Christian community from Congo to the Philippines. Hence, any adequate understanding of the theology and polity of the Disciples of Christ must relate their development both to American social history and to the denominationalism which historian Sidney Mead has called “the shape of Christianity in America.” Further, it must recognize the ways in which the characteristic emphases of early Disciples thought—Christian union, Christian freedom, and biblical authority—have been reinterpreted by later generations in global as well as American contexts.

The Seminar

This seminar is designed to investigate these denominational developments over a three-year course of study. Each year is organized around a particular theme and pursues that theme chronologically from the early nineteenth century to the present. The first year of the seminar focuses on theology and biblical interpretation, the second on worship and the commitment to Christian unity, and the third on the expression of ecclesiology in polity and mission. The objective of the seminar is twofold: to provide a systematic introduction to the history of the denomination and to raise the question of the continuing meaning and mission of the Disciples of Christ as part of the church universal.

The seminar is built on the assumption that the contemporary identity of the Disciples of Christ will be misunderstood if the emphasis falls simply on the original, formative period. Instead, the Disciples of Christ seem to have passed through three critical eras of consolidation and reformulation:

1801-32, when the movements led by Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell both emerged and merged in Kentucky, Ohio, and western Virginia;

1894-1927, when the earlier movement split into three groups holding differing views of biblical authority, mission, and polity; and

1956-79, when the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) rethought and restructured institutions and beliefs in light of a heightened sense of its place in the larger Christian tradition.

Today, the Disciples of Christ have fully entered a fourth critical phase. One way to understand this contemporary situation is to bring it into fresh conversation with critical periods in the denomination's history, both revising our understanding of that history and expanding the range of options for our current religious life.

Seminar Requirements

The seminar meets twice each quarter, completing in three years a full cycle of examination of the history and thought of the Disciples of Christ. Click here for an outline for each of the three years.

Participation in the seminar is required for Disciples House Scholars and is open to other interested persons by arrangement. The three-year course of study normally meets the requirements in Disciples history and polity for ordination in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).