The Roots of FMCC

The Radical Disciples of the Western Reserve and FMCC
By Diane Ryder
Our own FMCC began as a radical, upstart church in 1842, built by Disciples of Christ, an all-American movement that began during the Enlightenment period in the early 1800s as an effort to restore basic Christianity. Their motto was, “Where the Scriptures Speak, We Speak; Where they are Silent, We are Silent.” The church was considered a rebellion against established denominations as well as man-made rules, rituals, and traditions. It was begun by Alexander Campbell of Bethany, WV, and country preachers including Barton Stone, A.S Hayden, and Isaac Erret.
Campbell was born in Ireland and educated in Scotland. When he was a young man, he attended the Church of Scotland, and was appalled to discover that in order to receive communion, a person needed to have a token issued by the church hierarchy that verified that you were worthy to partake.
When Campbell and his father, Thomas, immigrated to the US, they settled in the wilderness of northern Virginia, now Bethany, WV. They joined a Baptist congregation there, but were shortly asked to leave because of their radical ideas. The two men came to the conclusion that God was calling them to restore the basic Christian Church of the Bible.
Their ideas took root in the developing Western Reserve, and the Campbells travelled to northeast Ohio many times, preaching in places like Ravenna and Bedford. They and their followers planted churches in Hiram, Bainbridge, Auburn, Willoughby, Mentor, and throughout the area. Each church was to be autonomous, but had to feature two important sacraments: baptism by immersion and weekly communion. Campbell believed those two elements were mandated by God and had to be part of every service. The rest of the worship was up to the individual local churches.
The Campbells preached against reciting formal creeds, and declared, "We have no Creed but Christ." Their message appealed to the independent-thinking people of the Western Reserve,  many of whom had come to the area from New England, or were Scot-Irish people from the mountains.
During the 1830s through the 1850s, the Disciples movement (never meant to be a denomination), spread quickly in our area. Disciples spoke out strongly against another local upstart church, the Mormons, which many Disciples leaders considered a dangerous cult. Some Disciples went so far as to tar and feather Mormon prophet Joseph Smith when his group tried to raid the Disciples base at Hiram for new members. (This happened at the “historic Johnson home,” which is now a Mormon museum in Hiram). Disciples had a major role in encouraging the Mormons to leave Kirtland and move on.
Mormon leader Sidney Rigdon had been a leader of the Disciples and a close associate of Campbell. Rigdon became enamored of stories he had heard about magical revelations by Joseph Smith, and moved to Kirtland to work on the publishing of what became the Book of Mormon. Rigdon's house still exists on Chillicothe Road in Kirtland.
Disciples formed Bethany and Hiram Colleges and continued to thrive. One of the Hiram College professors, James A. Garfield, went on to become President of the United States. Other famous Disciples included Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. And, believe it or not, Janis Joplin was reported to be a Disciple!
When Garfield, a Disciples minister, was working as a professor at Hiram College, he was invited by a Congregational Church in Newbury to come and speak. But when church officials found out that he planned to talk about immersion baptism and Abolition, they changed their mind and chained the church door shut.
Undaunted, Garfield walked across Ravenna Road and spoke in a field. The people of Newbury built a chapel dedicated to free speech on the spot where Garfield gave his sermon. Union Chapel became a center for women's suffrage during the late 1800s, and hosted Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and many others. The building is still there, and so is the church building across the road (now a private residence).
In 1839, a group of 22 Disciples led by Dr. John Robison of Bedford, a follower of Campbell's,  decided to plant a church near Fowler’s Mill in Munson township. The charter members included: Mr. and Mrs. Halstead Abramson, Ira and Rebecca Allen, Asahel and Anna Davis, Milo and Eleanor Fowler, Hiram and Minerva Fowler, Luta Fowler, Mr. and Mrs. Orrin Gates, Mr. and Mrs. Barnabas Hamblin, Mr. and Mrs. Reuben Hazen, Calvin and Harriet Pike, Alonzo and Sybil Randall, and Sidney Hazen.
The congregation saved their money for several years and built a church in 1842. It was dedicated in November of that year. The frame is of hand hewn timbers. Originally the front door opened into a vestibule with a door on each side---men entering on the left and women entering on the right.
It is not clear whether Alexander Campbell helped start the church, or visited there, but it was likely, since he travelled extensively to the Disciples churches in this area at that time. Newbury historian A.G. Riddle, a Disciple, Congressman, and advisor to Abraham Lincoln, wrote a book about Campbell’s work, and the struggle with the Mormons, called “The Portrait.” A copy of the book is in the FMCC library.
The church at Fowler’s Mill got its communion table in 1854, and a main Bible in 1866. It got its first organ in 1879, and one family left the church because they considered organ music “too worldly.”
Throughout the years, the church at Fowler’s Mill was known for its activity and its radical ideas, including adding a Sunday School around 1850. It held one of the first libraries in the county, bought partially with proceeds from quilt making by church member Clara Sheets. The Church’s Ladies Aid Society made an autograph quilt that was donated to the historical museum in Burton.
The church, now known as Fowler’s Mill Christian Church, has always been an active part of the community. Its membership roster through the years reads like a Who’s Who of Geauga County history, with familiar names such as Babcock, Presley, Canfield, Blair, Patterson, Newcomb, and Fuller.
As for the Disciples, or the “Campbellites,” the movement eventually evolved into a denomination despite Alexander Campbell’s wishes; for the last few decades denomination leaders have been in talks with the United Church of Christ to form a merger, but have not yet been successful. The more conservative Church of Christ is an offshoot of the labors of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, and there are also independent and autonomous Christian Churches in the area that sprang from the same restoration movement. Fowler’s Mill Christian Church is one of them.
Sources: Pioneer and General History of Geauga County, 1880 edition and 1953 edition; History of the Disciples in the Western Reserve; The Portrait, by A.G. Riddle; biographies of Alexander Campbell including “Fool for God” and “Captives of the Word,” also several great books in the local history room of the Burton Public Library. I also recommend visiting Bethany College and the Alexander Campbell home and museum in Bethany, WV.