The story of The Church of Christ is a story of sacrifice – the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice of the early Christians, persecuted for their beliefs, and on a smaller scale, but no less influential, the sacrifice of the group of men and women who formed the Disciples of Christ Church in Shelbyville, Indiana. The history of the First Christian Church in Shelbyville is largely entwined with the history of our country –the members conquered struggles and rejoiced in triumphs just as the United States was being defined religiously and culturally through its own struggles and triumphs.
In the early 1800s, the Great Awakening began in the United States. Religious leaders began challenging the beliefs and opinions of any denomination unless the beliefs could be found in the Bible. The evolution of new doctrines and the modification of old ones began with the reforming spirit of Alex Campbell, Barton Stone, and Walter Scott. Alexander Campbell broke away from Baptist teachings and after the Baptists severed all connections with reformers in 1827, the reformers formed a new church called “The Church of the Disciples of Christ” or “the Christian Church.” The central purpose of the organization of the Christian Church was the rejection of all creeds or confessions of faith, and the adoption of the Bible as their only rule of faith and practice.
The story of sacrifice for the glorification of God in Shelbyville, Indiana begins with a disciple of the teachings of Alexander Campbell, Father Obediah (Ovid) Butler, Butler quickly became an apostle of the new religion, and soon had gathered enough of a following to organize a church class which met in 1834 at the house of Ovid Butler that stood on the Southeast corner of the Public Square. Later in life, Ovid Butler became increasingly involved in the Christian movement and 2
established the North Western Christian University in 1855 which later became Butler University. The Elder John O’Kane helped with the organization of this meeting. This little group of followers was composed of seven couples devoted to building what has now become the First Christian Church of Shelbyville. Little did they know how far their influence would reach in future generations. These original founders included James M. Smith, Sallie Smith, John Weakley, Nancy Weakley, Silas Jaen and wife, George Bates and wife, E. Knowlton and wife, Ovid Butler and wife and Spencer Thayer and wife. These members were by no means wealthy, and this along with their small size prevented them from paying for the services of a preacher, nor could they build a house or church for worship. Yet, called by their new religious fervor, these seven couples sacrificed the luxuries of preacher and church, and continued on their path. They met in their homes, which would be temporarily transformed into the house of God and then later the meeting place was changed to a second-story room at the corner of Washington Street and Public Square. These meetings were conducted with an earnest desire to pray and worship, and gradually new members were added as new interest was taken. At a later time, the meetings were mostly held at the courthouse which was then in the center of public square. Here Rev. John B. New began to serve as pastor. He is said to have been a man who was very practical but sincere. Also the Rev. John O’Kane, H.R. Pritchard and Rev. Crowe and other pioneer preachers worked with the small congregations of Shelby County. The Rev. Decatur Davis lived a short distance from Shelbyville and would often preach without money or price. Decatur Davis is said to have been illiterate, but had painstakingly committed the Bible to memory. Thus these early disciples and preachers embodied the spirit of sacrifice that remains so crucial to the success of the Christian Church and were true pioneers in the early church.
*Source: Chadwick's History of Shelby Co., IN.; Edward H. Chadwick, B.A; History of the Original Churchces in Shelbyville