Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
May 27, 1971

Formation Of The American Christian Missionary Society — (X)

Colly Caldwell

The efforts of Alexander Campbell to establish a national organization for the Disciples of Christ were consummated in the establishment of the American Christian Missionary Society. Although the society would not engage in all the activities Campbell had hoped it would, and while many people opposed even its existence, it did fulfill in part Campbell's dream of universal church action.


Campbell did not wait for reports from the committee which he had appointed to determine the form of missionary organization Disciples should employ and the most expedient method of establishing it. In May, 1849, he published in the Harbinger the following announcement:

"If you brethren will, in moderate size, forward their objections, approval or emendations by letter we will dispatch the matter with all speed and concur with them in the call of a general meeting in Cincinnati, Louisville, Lexington or Pittsburgh." 1

The call issued in this article was for a general meeting patterned after Campbell's proposals of the past year. The only voice in the matter that Campbell gave the Disciples was a choice of cities, and even this he narrowed to four. 2 In July, Campbell quoted The Christian Age and Unionist whose writers strongly supported his appeal for a convention. Its editor had said, "Doubtless a great majority of the brotherhood are anxious to have it." A previous attempt to bring representatives of all Disciples' churches together at Cincinnati had been made in October, 1848, by the American Christian Bible Society. It had received little support. The editor of the Unionist speculated that this failure was due to the fact that the better known preachers were not publicly committed to the meeting. He challenged Campbell, Tolbert Fanning, Benjamin Franklin, L.L. Pinkerton, and several other prominent preachers to tell Disciples over the country that they would be present at this convention. He also said that if these men were committed to come, a large attendance would be insured. 3 Campbell accepted the challenge and wrote, "I am disposed to attend at Cincinnati or any other place on which the brethren may agree, and will, all things concurring, be present." 4

In the next issue of the Harbinger, Campbell published a brief article from the Christian Intelligencer of June 23.

Its editor, R. L. Coleman, was also in favor of a convention. He desired, however, that delegates assemble in Baltimore. Campbell objected, saying that ten could go to Cincinnati for every one who could travel to Baltimore. The whole point of the meeting, he said, was to accommodate the voices of as many Disciples as possible. This had been one of the major objections he had expressed to the establishment of the American Christian Bible Society. A few brethren, he said, had organized a society for the whole without proper consultation. Campbell suggested that Louisville might be considered as an alternate site if the Disciples should not agree to meet in Cincinnati. The first Monday in November was his choice as the most favorable date. 5 Campbell carefully stated his views concerning the membership of the proposed convention and the purposes for which it should meet. "It should not be a convention of Book-makers or of Editors," he said, "but a convention of messengers of churches." He feared a gathering of only a few from two or three states and expressed the desire that every Christian Church should be represented. The meeting should organize Bible, missionary, and education programs for Disciples. 6


Probably the most notable aspect of Campbell's last article before the convention was his appeal for a postponement until the first Monday in May. Many more would be able to come in the spring, he said, and the interim would give time for all Disciples to learn more of what "is yet wanting to the full attainment of the great objects contemplated and desired by us all." He promised a free and full exchange of his views on the subject during the winter. 7 One cannot but wonder if Campbell feared that the brotherhood of Disciples were not ready for his proposals.

Convention Organization

Campbell's suggestion for a postponement was not accepted. The convention commenced as announced on Oct. 24, 1849, in the Christian Chapel, corner of Walnut and Eighth Streets, Cincinnati, Ohio. 8 One hundred fifty-six representatives assembled on four successive days. 9 From the beginning it appeared that the primary object of the Convention was to establish a society to supervise the preaching of the Gospel in America and abroad. To this end, the gathering resolved to organize the American Christian Missionary Society. A Committee of seven was appointed to draw up a constitution, which, when delivered to the convention, was fully discussed, amended, and passed. It contained thirteen articles designed to stipulate the society's by-laws, organizational framework, and means of support. 10

The membership of the American Christian Missionary Society was to consist of annual delegates, life members, and life directors. A congregation could appoint a delegate by sending an annual contribution of ten dollars to the Society, and a twenty dollar contribution made the delegate a life member. Any congregation or individual that contributed one hundred dollars at one time, or a sum which, when added to previous contributions, amounted co one hundred dollars, would become a life directors 11 The society was to be organized by the annual election of a president, twenty vice-presidents, and a treasurer, a corresponding secretary, and a recording secretary. Campbell, though not present, was unanimously elected president. 12 The convention also decided to elect twenty-five managers to work in conjunction with the officers and life directors as an executive board empowered to conduct the business of the society. The board was given full authority to execute all the Society's programs. It appointed all agents and missionaries, fixed their salaries, and selected their particular fields of labor. It enacted its own by-laws and rules of order, elected its chairman, and appointed the times, places and agenda of its meetings. 13 It could convene special meetings of the entire society by a two-thirds vote of its members Any vacancies in its membership were filled at the discretion of the board until the next annual election of all officers.14

When the constitution was adopted and the officers elected, a motion was made to allow the acceptance of contributions. Fifty-two persons became life members. Eleven became life directors. In that one evening (Friday, October 26), $2140 was collected from the delegates and $30 more in small donations were taken from others present. 15 D.S. Burnet later reported having raised "about $5,000" before the convention was concluded. 16 In its next session, the Convention turned its attention to effecting conciliation with the American Christian Bible Society. Some desired that the Bible Society merge with the Missionary Society into a general organization which would perform the functions of both. This would have been much more acceptable to Campbell than having two distinct organizations. The Convention adopted, instead, three resolutions leaving the Bible Society a distinct institution but coordinating its work with the general program of the Missionary Society. 17

With these major items of business transacted, the Convention proceeded to make many recommendations to the congregations. The first of these was that, in all areas, district and statewide meetings be formed or continued. Each church should send annual census reports to these meetings to be forwarded to the Convention. 18

Campbell's Feelings

Though the convention did not enact all the programs Campbell had espoused, the editor of the Harbinger seemed generally pleased with its accomplishments. He said:

"Our expectations from the convention have more than been realized. We are much pleased with the result, and regard it as a very happy pledge of good things to come. The unanimity, cordiality, and generous concurrence of the brethren in all the important subjects before them, was worthy of themselves and the great cause in which they are all enlisted. Enough was done at one session, and enough to occupy our best energies for some time to come. 20

Campbell went on to express the desire that all the brotherhood of Disciples would rally to the support of the organization. 21

Campbell's Absence

Perhaps the strangest occurrence of all was the absence of Campbell, himself, from the Cincinnati meeting. He attributed his absence to an "unusually severe indisposition," and sent W. K. Pendleton in his place. 22 Perhaps the power of the opposition caused Campbell to doubt that his ideas would be favorably received and raised the possibility that his leadership would be successfully challenged. The people who were called Disciples had never pledged themselves to Campbell, but only to Christ and the statement of His will in the New Testament. This fact kept the leadership ability of any man uncertain, including that of Campbell. Because of his leadership, some had thought that he would use the society to control the brotherhood. Perhaps Campbell wished to defeat these notions concerning his personal ambitions and allow the society to be organized by the Disciples without his presence. The question is mooted as to whether he was actually ill, refused to go due to fear, or refrained from attending to allow the delegates to make their own choices. 23 Regardless of the fact that Campbell was not present in Cincinnati, his influence was strongly felt. His writings had guided the representatives to Christian Chapel. The same articles had been instrumental in shaping their ideas as to the kind of society to be formed and the work it would be charged with doing. His election, in absentia, to the presidency of the newly formed American Christian Missionary Society was eloquent testimony to his influence.


1 Mil, Series III, VI (May, 1849), 271-73.

2 Ibid 3 MH, Series III, VI (July, 1849). 418-19

4. IMO 5 MN, Series ill, VI (August, 1849), 451-53

6 MH, Series 111, Vi (August, 1849), 475-76 7 Ibid.

8 Report of the Proceedings of the General Convention of the Christian Churches of the United States of America (Cincinnati: American Christian Depository, 1849). p. 1. (Hereinafter cited as Proceedings).

9 Proceedings, P. 1.

10 Proceedings. P. 3.

11 Proceedings, P. 3.

12 Proceedings, P. 4.

13 Proceedings, P. 3.

14 Proceedings. PP. 11-15 15 Proceedings, PP. 26-27

16 MN, Series III, VI (December, 1849), 707 17 Proceedings, PP. 18-20

18 Proceedings, P. 35 19 Earl Irvin West, The Search for the Ancient Order (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1964), P. 179.

20 MN, Series III, VI (December, 1849), 694 21 Ibid.

22 West, Search for the Ancient Order, 172.

23 ibid.. P. 179