Alexander Campbell: Biography
It was our desire that some of the older brethren should write a sketch of Alexander Campbell, but Bro. J. W. McGarvey suggested that we use the one written by Isaac Errett, and published in the first issue of the Christian Standard, just after the death of Mr. Campbell. He said: "No man living to-day could write as good a sketch as that," so we give the sketch just as it appeared in the Christian Standard, April 7, 1866.
So much has been written of Alexander Campbell, both by his admirers and his enemies, that it is hard to select from the great mass of writings just such fragments as will best serve the purpose. It is not my aim to eulogize the subject of this sketch; but I shall attempt to collate such facts as will impress some lesson or principle that should be preserved.
Alexander Campbell, the first child of Thomas Campbell, a Presbyterian minister, was born Sept. 12, 1788, in County Antrim, Ireland. Educated in Ireland and at Glasgow University, Alexander brought his family to America in 1809, where they reunited with the elder Campbell, who had settled in western Pennsylvania. He joined in his father's rejection of Presbyterianism and in 1811 helped to organize a Christian Association Church at Brush Run.
Alexander Campbell's mother was of French descent. Thomas Campbell was preaching for the Secession Church of the Presbyterian faith. He was independent in his thinking, though formally bound by the creed of his church. His son, Alexander seems to have inherited largely the love of freedom and independence of thought of his father. If one were tracing the history of the Reformation Movement, one would have to go back to the Secession Church in Ireland and Scotland.
Alexander Campbell had splendid advantages for an education. His father was a teacher of no mean ability, as well as a preacher. He took great interest in the education of his son. Young Alexander was very fond of reading, and read with interest and profit the best books that he could find. His intellectual nature was such that he soon became one of the best scholars for his age in that country. He had an ambition in his youth to become "one of the best scholars of the kingdom." The traits of his mind soon became conspicuous and found free activity in the literary work which he did. The period of youth was the seed-time of life, and he neglected no opportunity in storing his mind with useful facts and principles. When it was possible, Alexander entered the university at Glasgow. With his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and with all the energies of his great mind, he pressed on in his educational career at the university with an earnest desire to prepare himself for preaching the gospel. He was converted, according to the theology of that age, in early life, and joined the Presbyterian Church.
Like many today he did not examine the Bible or search from its pages to find out the will of the Lord. He united with the church of his father, and because his father was a Presbyterian he became one. Of course in later years he studied the Bible to know the will of God and to do it. He soon began taking public part in the church work. It was his desire to be of the greatest service to the church—a desire which ought to inspire the young people of the church today. If young people were taught to prepare themselves for the greatest usefulness in the service of God and their fellow men, they could be worth so much more to society and the church.
In 1812 Campbell was ordained and within a few months assumed leadership of the religious movement that his father had started. The birth of his first child that year led him to question infant baptism, and intensive study convinced him that baptism by immersion was the only correct form. His father concurred, and after both were immersed they led the Brush Run congregation into affiliation with the Redstone Baptist Association in 1813.
Thomas Campbell emigrated to America in 1807. Alexander Campbell came to America in August, 1809. His father had been preaching for the Presbyterian Church in America, and because of his independence and distaste for the slavery of creeds he had withdrawn from the Presbyterian synod. Alexander Campbell united with his father in free America in teaching the will of God as he then saw it, independent of denominational restrictions. Step by step he advanced into the liberty of Christ, gaining encouragement at each step, until finally he defied creedal slavery. He enjoyed with his father the spirit of the great slogan: "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent." Following this motto; he soon began to doubt many of the religious theories to which he formally adhered. He began to examine the Scripturalness of every tenet of faith and act of worship. The Bible was his guide and the word of God his supreme authority. He soon became convinced that there was no Scriptural authority for infant baptism, and, true to God's word and his own conscience, he gave up these cherished theories of the Presbyterian Church.
He sought some one to immerse him. He found Matthias Luce; a Baptist minister; to perform this rite. This was in 1812. He was now in full accord with the Baptist Church on what was called "the mode of baptism," and out of harmony with the Presbyterian Church. He soon discovered that he was out of harmony with the Baptist Church on its creed as well as much of its practice. For about seven years he published, the Christian Baptist. The first issue of this paper was published on August 3, 1823, and the last issue was published in 1830. In the Christian Baptist he tried to correct many of the errors common in that day. During this time he cut loose from all ecclesiastical bodies and called upon those who would worship God to do so in the liberty of Christ.
He affiliated for a time with the Baptist Church, but he saw that to follow the Scriptures he must repudiate all human institutions and exalt only the Church of our Lord. He had faith in this church and had the courage to stand by his convictions. He believed in the church of the Bible and had the courage to condemn sects and denominations with their creeds and human devices. He began calling upon people to worship as the New Testament directs, and he found many who were eager to do this. Local congregations were established on the New Testament pattern, and guided only by the New Testament in their work and worship. After he had been preaching independent of the Baptist Church for some time, the Baptist Church in some formal way condemned his action. Alexander Campbell was not excluded from the Baptist Church. He was never in full faith and fellowship with the Baptist Church. He was baptized by a Baptist preacher, and affiliated in a rather loose way with the Baptist Church while he was groping in darkness. But soon the light of God's truth dawned upon his soul, and he ignored the claims of the Baptist Church upon him and pursued a course independent of the Baptist Church.
He founded no new sect or denomination. He said, in the Christian Baptist of 1826: "I have no idea of adding to the catalogue of new sects. I labor to see sectarianism abolished and all Christians of every name united upon the one foundation upon which the apostolic church was founded. To bring Baptists and Pedobaptists to this is my supreme end." It is contrary to fact and contrary to all reliable history to state that Alexander Campbell founded the "Campbellite Church" or any other church. He did no such thing, and those who so state contradict the facts and truthful history. He simply called upon people to take the New Testament as their guide and the church of the New Testament as the only church which is authorized by the word of God.
Preaching for the sole authority of Scripture and against creeds and other additions of the institutional church, Campbell attracted both support and attack. His defense of immersion against Presbyterians in public debate in 1820 and 1823 popularized his views. Presbyterianism. One Sunday he refused Communion, symbolically breaking with the faith of his father. His influence broadened after 1823, when he began to publish the Christian Baptist. Baptists began to dislike his anticreedal emphasis so Campbell changed his church's affiliation to a more favorable group, the Mahoning Association in Ohio. However, after 1827 all Baptist groups began to exclude the Campbellites.
The Campbell wing of the movement was launched when Thomas Campbell published the Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington, in 1809. The Presbyterian Synod had suspended his ministerial credentials. In The Declaration and Address he set forth some of his convictions about the church of Jesus Christ, as he organized the Christian Association of Washington, not as a church but as an association of persons seeking to grow in faith. On May 4, 1811, however, the Christian Association constituted itself as a congregationally governed church. With the building it then constructed at Brush Run, it became known as Brush Run Church.
Young Alexander Campbell
When their study of the New Testament led the reformers to begin to practice Baptism by Immersion, the nearby Redstone Baptist Association invited Brush Run Church to join with them for the purpose of fellowship. The reformers agreed provided that they would be "allowed to preach and to teach whatever they learned from the Scriptures."
Thus began a sojourn for the reformers among the Baptists within the Redstone Baptist Association (1815–1824). While the reformers and the Baptists shared the same beliefs in baptism by immersion and congregational polity, it was soon clear that the reformers were not traditional Baptists. Within the Redstone Association, the differences became intolerable to some of the Baptist leaders, when Alexander Campbell began publishing a journal, The Christian Baptist, promoting reform. Campbell anticipated the conflict and moved his membership to a congregation of the Mahoning Baptist Association in 1824.
In 1827, the Mahoning Association appointed reformer Walter Scott as an Evangelist. Through Scott’s efforts, the Mahoning Association grew rapidly. In 1828, Thomas Campbell visited several of the congregations formed by Scott and heard him preach. The elder Campbell realized that Scott was bringing an important new dimension to the movement with his approach to evangelism.
Several Baptist associations began disassociating congregations that refused to subscribe to the Philadelphia Confession. The Mahoning Association itself came under attack. In 1830, The Mahoning Baptist Association disbanded. Alexander ceased publication of The Christian Baptist. In January 1831, he began publication of the Millennial Harbinger.
This sketch would not be complete if I did not call attention to some of the debates which Mr. Campbell had. Mr. Campbell was averse to debates. In his early life he thought that debates were contrary to the spirit of Christ. He was almost pressed into his first debate. The most notable of his debates were put in book form. The Campbell-Owen debate was on the evidences of Christianity. Robert Owen was a famous infidel of Scotland. This debate was held in Cincinnati in 1829. Another famous debate was the Campbell-Purcell debate. This debate was on the Roman Catholic religion and was held in Cincinnati in 1837. The Campbell-Rice debate was held in Lexington, Ky., in 1843. In this debate the subjects of baptism, human creeds, and the operation of the Holy Spirit were discussed. Any one may read with profit these debates today.
Campbell was the key leader of the movement for a generation after this union. Having to guide the enlarged society led him to modify earlier ideas against church organization, and after 1849 he agreed to serve as president of the new American Christian Missionary Society. In 1840 he founded Bethany College and was its president for 20 years. Tirelessly, he published a translation of the New Testament and numerous theological works. His debates with Bishop Purcell on Roman Catholicism (1837) and the Rev. N. L. Rice on baptism (1843) gained him a national audience, and in 1850 he addressed both houses of Congress. The Civil War and failing health slowed his efforts, and he died March 4, 1866.
He sought desperately to get back to a "simple evangelical Christianity," founded on the Bible and the Bible alone. Only this—not creeds or confessions or liturgy—could bring unity to Christians: "The testimony of the Apostles is the only and all-sufficient means of uniting Christians." And only in unity could Christians effectively evangelize: "The union of Christians with the apostle's testimony is all-sufficient and alone sufficient to the conversion of the world."
Alexander Campbell died on March 4, 1866. His wife comforted him with the following: "The blessed Savior will go with you through the valley of the shadow of death." He replied: "That he will! That he will!" These were his last words.
By Robert Richardson