Church of Christ

By: R. L. Roberts

Type: Overview Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: August 1, 1995

The Church of Christ in Texas developed as a part of the westward advance of an American religious movement growing out of the Second Great Awakening that became known as the Restoration Movement or the Reformation of the Nineteenth Century. The movement sought to restore first-century Christianity and used the Bible as the sole religious authority. From this effort two movements evolved, the "Christians" of Barton W. Stone of Kentucky and the "Reformers" or "Reforming Baptists" led by Alexander Campbell of Pennsylvania; the two merged in 1832. Sharing this heritage today, in addition to the Church of Christ, are two other fellowships in the movement: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Churches of Christ. (Members of the Church of Christ, because of the church's strict congregational autonomy, often refer to the aggregate of congregations as Churches of Christ.) In 1824 Collin McKinney, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, became the first known member of the Church of Christ to settle in Texas. William P. DeFee, who established the Antioch Church of Christ near San Augustine in 1836, was the first minister of the church to preach in Texas. The first Church of Christ in Texas was a church on wheels begun by Mansell W. Matthews, a surgeon in the revolutionary army and a member of the First and Seventh congresses of the Republic of Texas. Many early immigrants to Texas were from Kentucky, Tennessee, and northern Alabama, where Stone's influence was strongest. José María Jesús Carbajal, the first native Texan to become a member, lived in Alexander Campbell's home in Bethany, Virginia, from 1827 to 1830, when he brought back to Texas all of Campbell's writings. Early Texas Churches of Christ sprang from converted Baptist congregations; Thomas Washington Cox, a Baptist minister, is credited with several of these conversions.

During the republic the Church of Christ grew in Deep East Texas and South Texas, and expanded west beyond the Colorado River. After statehood, immigration swelled the membership, especially after midcentury. Although many unheeded appeals for missionaries were made, the churches increased in membership chiefly through the efforts of men otherwise employed during the week who preached on weekends and during the summer months. The number of such ministers grew by 1860; more than 100 can be identified. Few churches had buildings of their own and often met in homes, schoolhouses, courthouses, union halls, or, during warm months, at camp-meeting grounds. The first permanent church was built by John Henry Moore, an Indian fighter and founder of La Grange, Fayette County. By 1860 the church had 2,500 members in Texas, in fifty-three congregations scattered along the frontier in Montague, Parker, Erath, Burnet, and Gillespie counties and extending westward to Batesville in Zavala County. The Civil War had little adverse affect on the churches, although many young men participated in the struggle. The churches continued to grow through vigorous evangelism.

By 1876 such itinerant preachers as W. H. Stewart, Silas Scarborough, and Thomas Nance began expansion on West Texas prairies and in the Panhandle. Several churches were started in West Texas by colonization, notably at Abilene, San Angelo, Lockney, and Lubbock. Similar ventures in Mexico began in 1896, when Collin McKinney Wilmeth led an "Exodus to Mexico" that ended with his untimely death. In the next two decades ministers led more successful American colonies in Mexico, which ended in 1916 as a result of Pancho (Francisco) Villa's activities.

Because the Churches of Christ had no organizational structure above the local church, evangelism depended heavily on individual efforts of frontier preachers and camp meetings. Later, cooperative ventures were undertaken by churches and individuals regionally, and in 1872 a state cooperative effort began through the efforts of Carroll Kendrick. In 1862 division in the Churches of Christ began on a national level when progressives and conservatives began differing over innovations in worship and clericalism. Texas churches were divided in San Marcos, Waco, Dallas, Waxahachie and other towns when organs, favored by the progressives, were introduced into the church service. A statewide division occurred at the state meeting in Austin in July 1886, when progressives established a Texas Christian Missionary Society to mimic the American Christian Missionary Society, founded in 1849. The conservatives believed that supracongregational organization and instrumental music had no scriptural basis. In 1906 the United States census officially divided the two groups into the Churches of Christ (conservatives) and the Disciples of Christ (progressives). While the Churches of Christ stressed the restoration principle, the Disciples were more ecumenical. In the 1960s another separation occurred between the Disciples and the Churches of Christ due to heightened ecumenical emphasis by the Disciples. In 1886 the undivided body had approximately 30,000 members, about evenly split between progressives and conservatives. However, by 1906, signs of more rapid growth among Churches of Christ were becoming evident. The increase over the Disciples of Christ was due largely to the labors of itinerant preachers and the agrarian nature of the Texas population. In the small-town and rural areas the militantly autonomous Churches of Christ grew most rapidly. Pulpit-centered churches were led by an aggressive, often combatant, ministry.In 1906 the Church of Christ had 627 congregations and 34,006 members. By the mid-twentieth century Texas accounted for 35 percent of the 450,000 members in the United States. The number of Texas congregations, stable since midcentury, reached 2,215 in the 1990s, when the membership numbered 292,585. Decline in Texas rural population brought a concomitant decline in rural churches. City churches increased after World War II until recent decades, when growth leveled off. The greatest growth of the church occurred in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Significant growth in recent decades has been only in suburban areas, and much of this is due to the mobility of church members.

The first Texas religious periodical published by a member of the Church of Christ was the short-lived Christian Philanthropist, edited by Carroll Kendrick, which merged with the Gospel Advocate of Nashville, Tennessee. By 1860 the Gospel Advocate, with a Texas department edited by Kendrick, and another conservative paper, the American Christian Review of Cincinnati, Ohio, had become the most influential among Texas members. The principal periodicals published in Texas have been the Christian Messenger (later Burnett's Budget), published in Bonham and Dallas from 1875 to 1916 and edited by Thomas R. Burnett; the Christian Preacher, which appeared in McKinney and Dallas from 1875 to 1895, edited by Collin M. Wilmeth; and the Firm Foundation, published in Austin from 1884 to 1983, edited by Austin McGary, G. H. P. Showalter (1908–54), and Reuel G. Lemmons (1955–83). Still being published are the Christian Chronicle (founded in Abilene in 1942, now published in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma) and Restoration Quarterly (1957-), published in Abilene. Several regional religious newspapers are published by members of the Church of Christ.

The earliest Church of Christ (or Disciples of Christ) school was Mount Enterprise Male and Female College, established in 1851 in Rusk County; it closed in 1855. Joseph Addison Clark conducted schools at Midway (Madison County) and Fort Worth before purchasing the school at Thorp Spring, Hood County, in 1873. With his sons he established Add-Ran College, which closed in 1890. At Tarrant, Hopkins County, Mary Fanning conducted a school for girls. Other ministers involved with schools were William C. McKinney and Peter Cartwright (Mantua Institute) and Carroll Kendrick (Salado). Schools established by the Churches of Christ include Burnetta College (Venus), 1896–1909; Carlton College (Bonham), 1865–1916; Carr-Burdette College (Sherman), 1893–1914; Clebarro College (Cleburne), 1909–17; Gunter Bible College (Gunter), 1903–28; Lampasas College (Lampasas), 1879–85; Lingleville Christian College (Lingleville), 1901–09; Lockney Christian College (Lockney), 1894–1918; Muse Academy (McKinney), 1857–87; Nazareth University (Dallas), 1886–90; Sabinal Christian College (Sabinal), 1907–17; Southland University (Denton), 1904–09; Terrell Bible College (Terrell), 1929–30; Thorp Spring Christian College (Thorp Spring), 1910–30; West Texas Normal and Business College (Cherokee), 1905–09; and Fort Worth Christian College. Current schools include Abilene Christian University (Abilene, founded in 1906); Lubbock Christian University (Lubbock, 1957); Southwestern Christian College (Terrell, 1948); and Amber University (Garland, 1971).

Belle Haven was the first home for orphans supported by the Churches of Christ in the West. Mrs. Jennie Clarke established this pioneer benevolent institution in her home at Luling in May 1898 and was the director until her death in 1929, after which the home was dissolved in July 1930, but not before fostering a home at Canadian (now Tipton Home, Tipton, Oklahoma) and Boles Home at Quinlan. Current homes include Boles Home, Cherokee Children's Home (Cherokee), Gunter Home for the Aged (Gunter), the Christian Care Center (Mesquite), and Medina Children's Home (Medina).

Carter E. Boren, Religion on the Texas Frontier (San Antonio: Naylor, 1968). Stephen Daniel Eckstein, History of the Churches of Christ in Texas, 1824–1950 (Austin: Firm Foundation, 1963). Samuel S. Hill, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion in the South (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1984). R. L. Roberts, "Expansion of Church of Christ in West Texas, 1870–1900," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 53 (1977).
  • Religion
  • Church Of Christ

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

R. L. Roberts, “Church of Christ,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 16, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 1, 1995