In 1804 Barton W. Stone, a Presbyterian minister in Kentucky, withdrew from his church and urged his religious neighbors to embrace Christian unity based on the teachings of the “Bible alone.” Five years later Alexander Campbell, an Irish Presbyterian, landed on North American shores and joined his father, Thomas, in launching a “reformation” or “restoration” of New Testament Christianity. In 1832 Stone’s “Christians” and the Campbells’ “Disciples” united and mushroomed across the western frontier. By the 1880s, however, the Stone-Campbell movement began dividing into two factions, and by the early twentieth century it had separated into the noninstrumental Churches of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which used musical instruments in worship.
This restoration movement first touched Mississippi in 1828, when Jacob Creath Jr. became the earliest known Stone-Campbell evangelist to preach in the Magnolia State. Taking his cue from Alexander Campbell’s debates and his writings in the Christian Baptist (1823–30), Creath insisted on baptism “for the remission of sins,” so kindling the ire of neighboring Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians that they burned him in effigy. Apart from doctrinal disputes, social turmoil often accompanied religious friction as the explosive issues of black slavery and Indian Removal polarized the nation and its churches in the 1830s. In spite of this social and political upheaval, the indefatigable efforts of Creath, W. L. Matthews, D. L. Phares, Jefferson H. Johnson, and Tolbert Fanning lifted the Stone-Campbell movement to visibility in Mississippi by the 1840s.
In 1850 James A. Butler immersed one hundred people into the restoration movement in Athens, Mississippi. Four years later T. W. Caskey reported ministering to a three-hundred-member congregation in Palo Alto. Robert Usrey worked effectively with Churches of Christ in Carroll County, while B. F. Manire served a congregation in Columbus. By 1860 Mississippi had approximately 2,450 Stone-Campbell adherents. As the Civil War loomed, Caskey canvassed the state, urging fellow Mississippians to leave the Union, and when they did so, he became a chaplain for the 18th Mississippi Regiment.
Religious disputes continued after the political violence abated. Churches of Christ in Mississippi divided over the issues of using instrumental music in worship and missionary societies in evangelistic efforts. Churches of Christ, often called loyals, opposed worshipping with musical instruments and evangelizing through missionary societies; Disciples of Christ (or Christian Churches), often referred to as either progressives or digressives, endorsed both practices. By 1916 the rupture between the two groups in Mississippi left the 122 loyals with congregations of 5,994 members and the progressives with 77 churches counting 5,364 members.
A decade later Churches of Christ in Mississippi listed 125 congregations and claimed 6,968 members. From 1940 to 1982 frequent gospel meetings and debates led to the creation of some 236 new congregations in the state. Churches of Christ in Mississippi had become numerous and prosperous enough by 1976 to launch Kosciusko’s Magnolia Bible College, designed to train ministers to advance the restoration cause in the Deep South and beyond. Since 1978 the college has published the Magnolia Messenger, a bimonthly paper intended to minister to both black and white congregations.
The presence of African Americans in Mississippi Churches of Christ predates the Civil War, as slaveholders affiliated with the Stone-Campbell movement listed slaves among their property. John G. Cathey and Alexander Cathey, white restorationists in Tate County, owned several enslaved Africans who later became charter members of the state’s first black Church of Christ. Like most black Christians who founded and formed independent congregations after emancipation, African Americans in Churches of Christ prayed separately from their white counterparts but imitated the rigid doctrinal practices of their coreligionists, worshipping without musical instruments and evangelizing without missionary societies.
Black Churches of Christ in Mississippi, however, assumed little independent vitality before the evangelistic labors of two African American preachers from Tennessee, G. P. Bowser and Marshall Keeble. In 1928 Bowser helped plant a congregation in Senatobia. Three years later Keeble, supported by white Christians, established the first black Church of Christ in Jackson; he then founded a congregation in Ripley. In 1938 Keeble, again empowered by white beneficence, gathered a black church in Tupelo, and seven years later he organized a black congregation in Natchez.
Bowser and Keeble, however, were not solely responsible for the emergence and expansion of black Churches of Christ in Mississippi. C. C. Locke, a native of Senatobia and a Keeble convert, helped develop the Sycamore Street Church of Christ in Greenwood. James L. Cothron, a Keeble protégé from Georgia, indelibly marked black Churches of Christ in the Mississippi Delta, where his skillful preaching produced congregations in Greenville, Cleveland, Merigold, Ruleville, and Mound Bayou. Laboring beyond the Delta, William Whitaker, another Keeble disciple, established a congregation in Houston and strengthened fledgling churches in Tupelo, Booneville, and Laurel.
Because of the need for better trained ministers, Loyd Clay Harris, a Shongaloo, Louisiana, native, launched Greenville’s School of Religious Studies in 1978. When Harris relocated to Moss Point, he carried his educational enterprise with him to strengthen black congregations across the state. Many black preachers received certificates from Harris’s school before enrolling at Magnolia Bible College to further their education. In an endeavor conjoining education and fellowship, black Churches of Christ in Mississippi also host their own annual lectureship and youth conference.
Churches of Christ in Mississippi presently boast a total membership of 31,205 divided among 375 congregations. Of these communicants, 7,346 (23.5 percent) are African Americans. In certain parts of Mississippi, black and white churches have abandoned Jim Crow mandates and now collaborate in evangelizing their communities and displaying racial and spiritual unity. Despite such efforts, however, most whites and blacks in Churches of Christ still worship in separate congregations.
- Peter Donan, Memoir of Jacob Creath Jr. (1872)
- Don Jackson, The Churches of Christ in Mississippi (1985)
- Lynn A. McMillon, A History of the Churches of Christ in Tate County, Mississippi, 1836–1965 (1966)
- Edward J. Robinson, Show Us How You Do It: Marshall Keeble and the Rise of Black Churches of Christ in the United States, 1914–1968 (2008)
- Randy J. Sparks, Religion in Mississippi (2001)