16 August, 2022

J. W. McGarvey’s Reminiscences of Thomas Campbell

by | 10 January, 2019 | 1 comment

– Jan. 9, 1909 –

Among the crucial earliest triggers of the Restoration Movement, I typically think of two: The Cane Ridge Revival led by Barton W. Stone (1801) and the Declaration and Address penned by Thomas Campbell (1809).

In January 1909, Christian Standard began a year-long series under this banner headline: “CENTENNIAL SPECIAL FOR JANUARY” with the subhead, “After One Hundred Years—A Century of Progress in America’s Greatest Christian Union Movement.”

A number of articles in the issue carried that theme forward. In a moment, I will zero in on what probably is the most personable of them (“Reminiscences of Thomas Campbell,” by J. W. McGarvey).

An “Introductory” on the editorial page of that Jan. 9, 1909, issue states:

The Restoration movement of the nineteenth century is now one hundred years old. The “Declaration and Address,” its Magna Charta, written by Thomas Campbell, and endorsed and defended by his son, Alexander Campbell, was published in 1809. This has been a century of remarkable growth. It reminds one of the history of the church of the apostolic age, when the converts from a single sermon were numbered by the thousands, and when the gospel in little more than fifty years was carried to all the nations. Alexander Campbell, the master spirit of this movement, died March 4, 1866. At that time it was predicted that disintegration would follow his death. It was claimed that it was his strong personality which held his followers together; and now, without their magnetic leader, and also without a formulated human creed, they must separate, and their history as a distinct people must end. But the sequel shows that there were false prophets in those days, for the growth since then has been much more rapid and substantial than before. . . .

Such a history richly deserves the special emphasis we hope to give it during this Centennial year. Twelve numbers [issues] of the Christian Standard—one each month—are to be dedicated to this work. Following the movement from its birth to the present, a bird’s-eye view of its progress will be given. Brief sketches of prominent leaders will appear, and the most important productions from their pens will be reproduced. . . .

Here now, from p. 10 of that issue, is the article by McGarvey:

– – –

Reminiscences of Thomas Campbell

By J. W. McGarvey

I have known six generations of the family of Thomas Campbell. I first met him when I entered Bethany College as a student in the spring of 1847, and I saw him frequently during the three years and more of my college life. I knew his son Alexander during the same period, and I saw him at intervals both before this period and after it. I knew intimately for many years Alexander, Jr.; and I have known more recently his daughter Mary, wife of B. C. Hagerman; her daughter Virginia, wife of Dr. Watson, of Chicago, and last of all her son, Hagerman Watson. In all my life I have never known so many generations of the same family. The nearest to it that I can remember was when I officiated at the marriage of a young man in the presence of his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather.


When I first saw Thomas Campbell he was eighty-four years of age. It was just seven years before his death. He was a “thick-set” man, about five feet six inches in height. His hair was white as snow, and he wore it hanging down to his coat collar. His face was broad, and the expression of his countenance was so venerable as to impress with reverence every one who met him. His manner was faultlessly polite and courteous. He was already dim of sight, and his step was so unsteady that he seldom walked abroad without his cane and a friend to support him. At that time, the oldest unmarried student in college was J. D. Picket, afterward the well-known Professor Picket of Kentucky University, and he was the most common escort of the old gentleman. Some of the boys were mischievous enough to insinuate that he made his frequent visits to the “Bethany house” to see the beautiful and accomplished Miss Clarinda Campbell, afterward married to Professor Pendleton, rather than to gallant her grandfather.

For several years before his death, “Grandfather,” as everyone called him, was totally blind, and his memory was treacherous, though his hearing continued acute. But his cheerfulness, politeness and thankfulness for every favor were unfailing, and this made everybody solicitous to do him a favor. Young and old, wherever he was, were eager to serve him with quick feet and ready hands.

After his eyesight became so dim that he couldn’t read, it was his custom to sit in an armed chair in one corner of the large family room, and to spend as much time as he could in reciting hymns, Psalms, and chapters in the New Testament, with some one holding the book to correct his mistakes, if he made any. He called to his service any young member of the family, or any visitor who could spare him a few moments. Once when I was crossing the room (I forget the occasion of my being there) he heard my footstep and said, “My dear, can you spare time to hold the book a few minutes for grandfather?” Of course I consented, and took a seat by his side. He handed me his hymn-book, and said: “Now that I can no longer read for myself, I don’t wish to forget the good hymns and Scripture passages which I memorized in my earlier days. Please turn to page — and look on while I recite; and if I miscall a word, please correct me.” He recited hymn after hymn without missing a word; and then, handing me his well-worn Bible, he recited in the same way a number of the most devotional of the Psalms. When I was compelled to say that my time had expired, he thanked me most cordially, and warmly invited me to call and see him again. His recitations were not a mere exercise in memory; for he gave such expression to every word and line as showed that the author’s meaning had sunk deep into his heart. To hear him was a lesson in elocution.

A few times while I was at college “Grandfather” was persuaded to preach in the church. His sermons were protracted to two hours or more, but such was the veneration felt for him that all the audience listened with interest and sat patiently till the close. He always spoke to edification.

I said that his memory was failing, and a rather amusing illustration of this occurred while I was at college. His oldest daughter, Mrs. McKeever, of North Middletown, Pa., was on a visit to him, and in the course of conversation he inquired of her respecting the present circumstances of all his brothers and sisters, and their families. After having called their names and learned something of them all, he said, “Well, daughter, there was one of us, I think, named Thomas; what has become of him?” She laughed and said, “Why, father, that is yourself.” “Yes, yes,” he said, “my memory is failing.” Blessed man—forgetting his own name, but careful not to forget the word of the Lord and the hymns of devotion which he had learned to love. And when he crossed over to be among the prophets and poets of the Bible, and with the poets of the Christian ages who had so greatly comforted him, he went, not as a stranger among them, but as one ready at once to sing their songs and converse with them in their own lofty imagery respecting the glory of God and the love of Jesus.

It has been my privilege to know only one other man, between whom and Thomas Campbell I am not able to decide as to which appeared to me the more devout. That man was Robert Milligan. And, strange to say, they were both Irishmen. When I think of this, and remember that I am half Irish myself, it gives me encouragement.

Lexington, Ky.

_ _ _

(I will quickly note: Thomas Campbell died in January 1854, a month short of his 91st birthday. His son, Alexander, died in March 1866 at age 77.)

Many readers will recognize McGarvey’s name and possibly know something of him.

In Union in Truth: An Interpretive History of the Restoration Movement (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1994), James B. North wrote that McGarvey was a study in contrasts: a gentleman in person, but often quite abrasive in his writings. He was the “acknowledged spokesman for the conservative side” in discussions of biblical criticism.

McGarvey graduated from Bethany College in 1850, then preached in Missouri, became minister of the Main Street Church in Lexington, Ky., in 1862, was a charter member of the faculty of College of the Bible in Lexington in 1865 (while continuing various ministries), and became president of that college in 1895, remaining there until his death in 1911.

North wrote: “[McGarvey] believed firmly in biblical inerrancy and plenary inspiration and refused to acknowledge any doubts about either. He contended for his positions so strongly that people often misunderstood him. . . . When McGarvey criticized the writings of his opponents in the field of biblical criticism, he made no distinction between the man and his teaching.”

We will share more hard-hitting writings from McGarvey in the future, I am sure, but it was nice to share his sweet-spirited reminiscence of Thomas Campbell.

—Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard

<a href="https://christianstandard.com/author/admin/" target="_self">Christian Standard</a>

Christian Standard

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1 Comment

  1. Dave Butts

    The article referenced 12 issues in 1909 that covered the first 100 years of our movement. Have those ever been compiled into a single book? It seems it would be a wonderful gift to us today.

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