The Primitive Baptists and the Churches of Christ

shape note hymn.jpgI was reading up on the Primitive Baptists this week and was astounded at how parallel their history is to the Churches of Christ:

1. The Primitive Baptists sing acapella, because that is the way the Scriptures teach them. They use shape note hymn books, similar to the Churches of Christ hymn books up into the 1970s. (African American Primitive Baptists have embraced instrumental music, but the mostly white congregations are still acapella.)


The Sunday service at Camp Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Lilburn, Georgia September 30, 2012. The church, which was formed in 1823 is the oldest active church in Gwinnett County, Georgia and currently has around 70 members. Pastor John Melvin, who is also the Assistant District Attorney in Deklab County, has been pastor of the church for fourteen years.

2. The Primitive Baptists separated themselves from other Baptists around 1827 over missionary societies and Sunday schools. The Churches of Christ separated themselves from the Christian Church and Disciples of Christ, around 1840 over missionary societies, and instrumental music. There is a small group of Churches of Christ who do not believe in Sunday Schools, because that divides the congregation.

3. Priesthood of all believers (no ordained clergy).

4. Belief they are the One True Church established in 33A.D.

Other similarities are that a minority of members practice women’s headcovering during worship. Men are the only ones allowed to preach. Unleavened bread is used for communion.

footwashingThe main difference between the Primitive Baptists and the Churches of Christ is the practice of footwashing during communion, and the teaching of Calvinism: Primitive Baptists affirm all 5 of the primary Calvinist doctrines: Total hereditary depravity (we are too sinful to be able to choose God), Unconditional election (there is nothing we have to do to be chosen by God), Limited atonement (God only forgives those he chooses to forgive), Irresistible grace (Once God has chosen us, we cannot resist becoming a believer), Perseverance of the saints (We can never fall from grace, once we have been chosen by God).

The Churches of Christ deny all 5 doctrines of Calvinism and believe:

1. We are born innocent, and are part of God’s kingdom up until we choose to sin (referred to as reaching the “age of accountability”).

2. We have to choose God after hearing the gospel.

3. All those who choose and obey God are forgiven. Those who do not are not forgiven.

4. God never overpowers our choice to be in relationship with him, or not to be in relationship with him.

5. We can fall from grace if we do not continue in the faith, or we can “make shipwreck of the faith”.

Some people refer to the Churches of Christ doctrines as Pelagianism, after an early church father who emphasized human choice and works in obedience to God as essential to salvation.

The reason I mention how similar the development of the Primitive Baptist group is to the Churches of Christ, is to show that what the Churches of Christ believe is a unique return to the New Testament roots of Christianity, is not unique, but common to other groups developing at the same time, from the same milieu. Influences were:

1. The Middle Ages and the Holy Roman Empire.

2. The Enlightenment: emphasizing the intellect and scientific empirical, reproducible research.

3. The invention of the printing press.

4. The Protestant Reformation.

5. The development of democracy.

6. The development of congregationalism over hierarchy.

7. The American Declaration of Independence.

8. The isolation of the American frontier.

9. American bootstrap ideology.


About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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9 Responses to The Primitive Baptists and the Churches of Christ

  1. Rachel says:

    This is not an angry post but rather just my thoughts. Why this blog? What is the purpose? I am no longer a member and many I know are not as well. We are thankful for salvation, understand the systematic problems that brought much grief to the COC, have apologized to those we’ve offended as a result of what we believed but still look on with fondness when we think about the friendships we made that still endure to this day. What I’m thinking about is how to move on in a healthy manner much like one would strive to do after a divorce. If you keep looking back, analyzing and re-analyzing the problem or even making comparisons, how will one be able to move on and get on with their relationship with God?

    • Mark says:

      Hi Rachel,
      You make a good point! We do have to move on, we can’t constantly be railing at the past.
      However, the blog is mainly for those who are struggling to leave, or who need a little encouragement after having left. Lots of people after a ten years decide they don’t need to visit the website or the blog anymore. They want to focus on positive things they are doing in their lives spiritually. Sounds like you are there now?

    • Personally, I left the Churches of Christ in 1971. It took me another 10 years to really begin healing. Since the 1990’s I have gone back and done am intense historical review of the “Restoration Movement” and the origins of the Churches of Christ. It has helped me move on to understand what they believed, as well as their history. It has helped me to move on. I have a Facebook group called “The Exers:Ex Church of Christ”. There are abut 150 of us. Some of have out for years, and there are new arrivals every day of those who just left or recently left. Religious PTSD is hard to heal from, and understanding what you left and how you were sold a bunch of goods and then abused, helps the healing process, so we can move on. Thanks, Gary

  2. gary says:

    Hi Rachel, All good thoughts imo and I’m happy for you. You moved on. Some of what I really like about Marks work is the bridge he builds from where many people in the coc are and where you are. They know what they’re being taught is wrong, but don’t have the background or confidence to make a stand and change (get out).

  3. Mark,
    That is an interesting article. There are many similarities between the Primitive Baptists and the Churches of Christ. However, it was not till 1889, that Daniel Sommer proclaimed the Churches of Christ separate from the Disciples of Christ. He said at Sandcreek, “”Hallelujah, we have division !!!”

    Prior to that time there were always a diversity of groups within the Disciples of Christ: The Christian Churches led by Stone, the Disciples of Christ, and some D.O.C. who used the name “Churches of Christ”. That is part of the confusion about the origin of the Churches of Christ. As a separate entity from the Disciples, the Churches of Christ did NOT break away till Sommer in 1889. From that time onward, he was later joined by David Lipscomb in Nashville, and he brought Southern Disciples Churches into the Church of Christ fold. Most people who are in the Churches of Christ, and those who have left as well, do not know that they are really Sommerites and not Campbellites. By 1906, the Churches of Christ became a totally legal and official church apart from the Disciples, although the real split away was 1889.

    To this day, the role of Daniel Sommer is played down by the Churches of Christ. There are those who the Churches of Christ were founded in AD 33. That is just a damn lie. Others, more aware of history connect back to Stone and Campbell, by bypassing the role of Daniel Sommer who was a racist and proponent of war and a non-Trinitarian as well. Leroy Garrett, in his great book THE STONE-CAMPBELL MOVEMENT does briefly acknowledge the role of Sommer. Then he moves back quickly to Campbell and Stone.

    As for the Primitives, their pastoral system is much like the old Sommerites and early COC: they disdained formal clergy, they are congregational (extremely), and they have acapella music, often Sacred Harp. I happen to still love Acapella Music. That is one thing the COC did not ruin for me. But the kind I like is not the COC moaning I used to hear in the little COC’s across the tracks. I like good acapella and I love Sacred Harp. If you ever saw the movie COLD MOUNTAIN, They show a small church singing in the Sacred Harp style. It is haunting. I have been in and out of some Mennonite Churches in the Shenandoah Valley, where Sacred Harp originated with Joseph Funk and his Sacred Harp songbook.

    I visited an old Primitive Baptist Church in the Smokies one time. It was abandoned. My wife and I went inside and it was primitive. Just bare benches and a a stern pulpit. Very stark. I kind of liked it. Then I have been in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and St. Patrick’s of Dublin, as well as many great German cathedrals. Some spiritual went on there for a long time. I did feel the same Presence there, as I did at Salisbury and St.Paul’s and St. Patrick’s.

  4. Kimberly says:

    I appreciate this blog. I was raised in a Primitive Baptist church and much of my family is still there. I take my children to a week long singing school every summer but we don’t go any other time.
    When I was introduced to the coc I commented on the parallels, but of course I got looks like I was crazy. When I think about how I was raised, in that very conservative religion, it’s not so unusual that I fell so easily into a coc.
    They are slightly less dogmatic. Women can lead songs if a man asks her to!

  5. Nancy Butler says:

    My mother was raised in the PB church and raised us in the CofC. She always told us that they had the same origin. Interestingly, Elizabeth Caldwell Hischmann has written on this subject in her books on Melungeons. From her research she concluded that both groups were originally Jewish – coming out of the Inquisition, morphing into Huguenots as they moved into France and forming other groups as they fanned out into the British Isles and N and S America. My own ancestry and DNA confirms this.

    • Mark says:

      Why would Jewish people become Huguenots?

      • Nancy Butler says:

        Study the Inquisition. They remained Jewish, but had to find a way to mask that fact by pretending to conform to Christianity outwardly while secretly practicing Judaism. Their lives and the lives of those they loved depended on disguising their Hebrew ancestry. Some fled into France and became part of the broader Huguenot movement of reformers. The Inquisition was active into the 1800’s and reached into the Americas – any territories that belonged to Spain. I am told that there is a large group in northern New Mexico who are the descendants of Sephardic Jews who fled as far north as they could at the time. In their case, they became Catholic outwardly, but maintained their own priests and customs. A more recent example would be someone like Madeleine Albright who did not know her family was Jewish. Because of anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe before and during the Holocaust families were forced to disguise who they were.

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