19 June, 2024

A Study of Alexander Campbell (Part 1)

by | 12 November, 2020 | 2 comments

I spoke with a former Christian college professor a couple of times in the past few weeks. John L. Morrison is a pleasant gentleman enjoying retirement in California. Through the years, he taught at San Jose Bible College (now William Jessup University), Milligan College (now Milligan University), and Puget Sound College of the Bible (now closed). I can’t recall Mr. Morrison’s exact age, but it’s in the neighborhood of 90.

Mr. Morrison told me he had written for Christian Standard a number of times. I became curious and checked into this. Sure enough, I found articles by him from the 1960s to 1980s. Among them was a four-part series on Alexander Campbell, which I’ll share over the next two weeks.

Here’s the plan: I’ll share part 1 this week and part 2 next week. At the end of next week’s installment, I’ll provide downloadable resources for all four parts of his series.

_ _ _

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Alexander Campbell left an indelible mark on the land of his adoption

First of four parts

By John L. Morrison
Dec. 9, 1967; p. 5

I. The Person

ALEXANDER CAMPBELL immigrated with his mother, brothers, and sisters to the United States from Ireland and Scotland in 1809, two years after his father, Thomas, had come to eastern Pennsylvania to prepare the way. The Campbells were a hardy lot; their Seceder Presbyterian background had endowed them with a strong sense of individualism and it was not long in expressing itself in the New World. They joined the religious controversy on the middle frontier and their intellectual swords cut a broad path in the thinking of men. In one sense, Thomas Campbell was the sword bearer; Alexander, the warrior.

According to Robert West, Alexander Campbell was a “rugged and unlettered American believer in democracy and liberty.”(1) His deep interest in the democratic process was acknowledged by Henry Clay, who described Campbell as

a distinguished member, about twenty years ago, of the convention called in the State of Virginia to remodel its civil constitution, in which, besides other distinguished men, were ex-Presidents Madison and Monroe, and John Marshall, the late Chief-Justice of the United States.(2)

In spite of Campbell’s opposition to Madison’s oligarchical leanings, the ex­President noted that Campbell was the “greatest man at the convention.”(3)

Even if Madison exaggerated, Campbell distinguished himself among his contemporaries. In agriculture, he became one of the most progressive, successful, and wealthy farmers in West Virginia. His sixty published volumes testify to his vigorous writing career and popularity. In the field of education, he wrote extensively, campaigned for the “common school,” attended educational conventions, and founded Bethany College, of which he was president for twenty-five years. Public speaking took Campbell on domestic and overseas tours. His famous frontier debates earned envy and venom from his contemporaries. Campbell’s leadership in American religious life was noted by Henry Clay, who said:

Dr. Campbell is among the most eminent citizens of the United States, distinguished for his great learning and ability, for his successful devotion to the education of youth, for his piety and as the head and founder of one of the most important and respectable religious communities in the United States.(4)

Although some judged him “modest and unassuming,” Campbell was something of a celebrity. He attracted throngs everywhere he went and carried on an almost endless monologue. It was reported by Robert Richardson, Campbell’s chief biographer, that “nobody wished to talk in his presence. His themes were much out of the range of ordinary conversation.(5)

Campbell believed that “knowledge is power.” Whether in the Sunday sermon, the daily classroom, frontier debates, lecture tours, legislative campaigning for common schools, plea for colleges with a moral culture, or copious written polemics, he stressed knowledge.

He faced a knowledge-hungry middle frontier. Not always did it sense its hunger nor favorably respond to his diagnosis of “malnutrition.” Nevertheless he diagnosed and prescribed; not infrequently the patient listened and sometimes got well.

For instance, Campbell’s advocacy of the Bible-based liberal arts college was not fully understood by all his contemporaries. Many who commended his Biblical emphasis saw something sinister in his liberal arts appreciation. Some advocates of liberal arts colleges with accompanying theological seminaries saw something provincial in Campbell’s belief that every educated person needed a thorough Bible education.

Right or wrong, Campbell wanted to combine both in a “new literary and moral institution.” He justified the liberal arts because they freed “the human mind from vulgar prejudices, ignorance, and error.” More important, however, their generality of “character and application” opened to man “an extensive acquaintance with literature, science, and art.” Most important, they furnished man with the means of extending his acquaintance with nature, society, and the Bible, to an extent commensurate with the wants of his nature and the limits of his existence.(6)

II. The Position

Campbell sang the religiously critical tune of his time but took exception to some of the skeptical harmony. At times his atonal character—as many others saw it—earned him the enmity of religious friends and the praise of agnostic enemies. West says:

It is not surprising that bitter and hasty critics of Campbell branded him as an infidel, a deist, as well as a Universalist or Unitarian. There is a certain meeting of minds and temper between Campbell and the opponents of revealed religion in their onslaught against traditional Christianity and ecclesiasticism . . . (7)

The meeting of the “minds and temper” that put Campbell in such an awkward position between friends and enemies of Christianity partly revolved around his anticlericalism. Campbell could not have expected a prize for diplomacy after this echo of Jefferson: “The clergy have ever been the greatest tyrants in every state, and at the present they are, in every country of Europe, on the side of the oppressors of the people who tramp on the rights of men.”(8)

He rankled others because he believed that speculative theology and philosophy, the strong arms of the clergy, were erroneous grounds for church doctrine. He further thought John Locke right in claiming that most churches required more of man to become a Christian than Christ did! Beyond stepping on the toes of the clergy and kicking the shins of church doctrine, Campbell ridiculed a multitude of time-honored traditions and customs which he believed availed against reason and/or revelation.

Although Campbell shared many views with those who opposed traditional Christianity, he did not fancy himself in the destructive role of the skeptic. Skeptics were indiscriminate reasoners who failed to distinguish between true Christianity and its many corruptions; corruptions of it, Campbell argued, were “no argument against its divine origin.”(9) The divine ship had to be put on an even keel, not given up!

In order to right the ship, Campbell invited those he attacked to respond. A less confident man might have shrunk from such an approach; his contemporaries testify that this was not one of his weaknesses. His motto: “Hear both sides, and then judge.” Campbell confidently believed that those who understood his position regarding the New Testament church would accept it. In religious matters, people must judge for themselves and allow others the same privilege. The free market of ideas would prevail. In 1846, after twenty-three years of publishing the Christian Baptist and Millennial Harbinger, Campbell claimed, “We have uniformly and without a single exception, given to our readers both sides of every question upon religion, morality or expediency, that has appeared upon our pages.”(10)

Besides writing, public debate was another medium in which Campbell exchanged ideas. Moses Lard, editor of a quarterly bearing his name, called him “the champion of Christianity in America” because of his debate with Robert E. Owen.(11) Walter B. Posey, in his lectures at Louisiana State University, said Campbell “brilliantly defended Christianity against the champion of skepticism.”(12) Protestants and Catholics alike considered twice before accepting his forensic challenges. A Thomas Cleland declined to debate Campbell because he feared “certain defeat; sharing the same fate of . . . all other writers of the brotherhood.”(13)

In summary, Alexander Campbell was both prophet and priest. In the wilderness of American sectarian life, the prophet found the threads of primitivism which he skillfully wove into a religious institution. In the temple of American sectarian life, the priest officiated over a vigorous housecleaning that turned over many tables of tradition. After the performance of prophet and priest, things were different.

His opponents labeled him “destructive”; his friends, “constructive,” because he had broken the shackles of “sectarianism.” Vigorous, ambitious, intelligent, and perceptive, Alexander Campbell skillfully guided an embryonic religious revolt into a reform, or, as he preferred to call it, a restoration of the “ancient order of things.” There is, of course, much more to be said about Campbell’s position, the greater part of which is irrevocably connected with his preaching, to which we shall turn our attention.


1 Robert Frederick West, Alexander Campbell and Natural Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 3.

2 Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Company, 1897), vol. ii, p. 548.

3 Archibald McLean, Alexander Campbell as a Preacher (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1908), p. 50.

4 Robert Richardson, op. cit., vol. ii, p. 548.

5 Alexander Campbell, Familiar Lectures on the Pentateuch, edited by W. T. Moore (Cincinnati: Bosworth. Cahse, and Hall, I 871), p. 44.

6 Alexander Campbell, Millennial Harbinger, 1849, p. 433.

7 Op. cit., p. 45.

8 Alexander Campbell, editor, The Christian Baptist, 1823-30; reprinted by Gospel Advocate Company, Nashville, 1955; vol. ii, p. 126.

9 Alexander Campbell, editor, Millennial Harbinger, 1832, pp. 311-13.

10 Millennial Harbinger, 1846, p. 4.

11 Lard’s Quarterly, Lexington, Kentucky, 1866, vol. iii, p. 269.

12 Walter Brownlow Posey, Religious Strife on the Southern Frontier (Louisiana State University Press, 1965), p. 53.

13 Ibid., p. 53, 54.

Image credit: Alexander Campbell, 1840-45, painted by Washington Bogart Cooper (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

_ _ _

Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard


  1. Lee Mason

    San Jose Bible College is now Jessup University located in Rocklin, CA.
    Pacific Christian College is now Hope International University located is Fullerton, CA.

  2. Administrator

    Lee, thank you for catching that. I’ve made the correction.
    –Jim Nieman

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