Alexander Campbell

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Alexander Campbell (1788-1866)


Christian reformer

Early Disaffection. Alexander Campbell was one of the founders of the denomination known today as the Disciples of Christ and was the most influential figure in the Restoration Movement, an effort to restore the practices of the early Christians to nineteenth-century Protestantism. A gifted speaker and prolific writer with a sharp wit, Campbell engaged in numerous public debates and gained a widespread reputation as a dedicated reformer and a rigorous religious thinker. Although his family was of Scottish origin, Campbell was born in Ireland on 12 September 1788. His father, Thomas, was a reform-minded Presbyterian minister who educated his son at home before sending him to the University of Glasgow in Scotland. There Alexander gained an impressive knowledge of the Bible but also became disturbed by the division of the Presbyterian Church into factions that quarreled over petty points of doctrine and demanded rigid and unquestioning allegiance from their members. He began to distance himself from his strict Presbyterian upbringing, eventually walking out in the midst of a communion service.

Scripture Alone. Campbell arrived in the United States in 1809 and settled in western Pennsylvania, where his father had been living for more than a year. Much to their delight, the two men found that during their separation their thoughts had run along similar lines. Both were deeply concerned that sectarianism, even more prominent in America than it had been in Scotland, was destroying the unity of the Christian church. Each sect had its own set of beliefs by which it defined itself against all others. Most had a creed, or test of fellowship, consisting of a list of beliefs to which any candidate for church membership was required to subscribe. And most actively competed with other sects to convince potential converts that theirs was the one true faith. The Campbells believed that most points of contention among these sects were based not in the divine authority of the Bible, but in human innovations made over the centuries since the establishment of the Christian Church. It was their great hope that if such human creeds could be eliminated, eventually all believers could abandon their denominations to be simply Christians, united in one true faith. Thus, in 1811 father and son organized their own church at Brush Run, Pennsylvania, which had no denominational name and no test of fellowship for membership, and was guided by a single phrase coined by Thomas Campbell: Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.

Disciples of Christ. Although for a time the Campbells remained loosely affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, and then with the Baptist Church, by the late 1820s they had emerged as a distinct religious group under Alexanders leadership. After marrying the daughter of a wealthy farmer, the younger Campbell acquired a sizable estate in present-day West Virginia, where he established his own printing business. In 1823 he began editing and publishing a monthly periodical, the Christian Baptist, in which he explicated the characteristics of the original apostolic, or primitive, church, as he had come to understand them through careful biblical study. He and other likeminded ministers traveled through much of the Midwest and upper South, preaching and urging their listeners to read the Bible for themselves and then abandon their creeds and doctrines in the name of Christian unity. The simplicity of Campbells message, its appeal to biblical authority, and its nonhierarchical, democratic sensibility attracted many people who joined together to worship as they believed the apostles had, calling themselves simply disciples of Christ. In 1832 Campbells movement merged with Barton Stones Christians, a similar group that had emerged in Kentucky around the turn of the century. The Christians, like Campbells group, had hoped to promote unity by eschewing a name or a formal institutional foundation. But the merging of the two groups, which together encompassed twenty-two thousand people, brought more structure to the movement, and over the next two decades it developed into a new denomination, complete with annual meetings, educational facilities, and missionary societies. Known as the Disciples of Christ, the denomination had grown to almost two hundred thousand members by 1860.

Public Life. While Campbells interests were primarily focused on religious matters, he was unquestionably concerned about secular society as well. He believed that his plan for Christian union would promote harmony and progress in society as a whole, and he engaged in frequent debates to popularize his ideas. Most famous was his nine-day duel with a renowned infidel, the British social reformer Robert Owen, in which Campbell defended the validity of Christianity. The debate, held in Cincinnati in 1829, was attended by more than twelve thousand people and earned Campbell (who was judged the winner) widespread acclaim. In the same year Campbell was elected to the Virginia Constitutional Convention, where he served as a vigorous advocate for his constituency and became close friends with James Madison, who was impressed with his abilities as a preacher. In 1830 Campbell discontinued publication of the Christian Baptist and began the MillennialHarbinger (published until 1863), a monthly periodical whose title captured Campbells optimistic belief that American society was progressing and Christs return to earth (the millennium) might occur soon. Campbell was also deeply dedicated to education, for women as well as men. He ran several secondary schools, and in 1840 he founded the Disciples first institution of higher learning, Bethany College. He served as president of Bethany from 1840 until his death in 1866, having ensured that a corps of educated and enthusiastic ministers would carry on his work in the rapidly expanding church.


Lester G. McAllister and William E. Tucker, A Journey in Faith: A History of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (Saint Louis: Bethany Press, 1975);

Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell (Cincinnati: R. W. Carrol, 1872).

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CAMPBELL, ALEXANDER (17881866), one of the founders and the foremost early leader of the Disciples of Christ. Campbell was born in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, the son of a Presbyterian minister, Thomas Campbell. He immigrated to America in 1809, joining his father, who had come two years earlier. When he arrived, Campbell discovered that his father had broken with the Presbyterian church and had begun a small, nonsectarian "Christian association." Having been exposed to similar New Testament primitivist ideas in Scotland, young Campbell embraced his father's reform and quickly became the most prominent leader of the new movement. For a time the Campbells were Baptists, and from 1823 to 1830 Alexander edited the Christian Baptist, a periodical that attracted many supporters in the West and South. Beginning in the 1830s Campbell and his "Reforming Baptist" supporters separated into independent churches. Campbell preferred the name Disciples of Christ, but local churches frequently were called Christian Church or Church of Christ. In 1832 the church nearly doubled in size through a union with the Christian movement led by Barton Stone of Kentucky; Campbell quickly became the dominant figure in the united denomination.

From 1830 until 1864 Campbell edited a journal called the Millennial Harbinger, which became a mirror of his maturing thought. The heart of Campbell's plea was an appeal for Christian union through the "restoration of the ancient order of things," that is, by restoring New Testament Christianity. Prior to 1830 Campbell was extremely iconoclastic in his attacks on the popular churches, ridiculing the clergy and seeming to attack all cooperative societies. After 1830 he became a more constructive builder and seemed confident that the millennium was about to begin, initiated by the restoration movement. In 1849 a group of Disciples leaders established the young church's first national organization, the American Christian Missionary Society, and, although he was not present at the meeting, Campbell accepted the presidency of the society.

Campbell's formal college training consisted of less than one year at Glasgow University, but he was a man of considerable erudition. He established a national reputation as a debater, especially as a result of widely publicized debates with the renowned Scottish socialist and atheist Robert Owen, in 1829, and with the Roman Catholic archbishop of Cincinnati, John B. Purcell, in 1837. Campbell became financially independent as a result of his marriage to Margaret Brown in 1811, and he spent the remainder of his life living near his wife's home in Brooke County in western Virginia. He became a moderately wealthy man, and in 1829, in his only venture into politics, he was elected a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention. In 1841, Campbell established Bethany College near his home. Until his death he served as president and professor of moral sciences at the college and trained a generation of leaders for Disciples churches. Campbell traveled and preached widely throughout the United States, as well as in England and Scotland. The aging reformer was discouraged by the sectional tension caused by the slavery debate and the Civil War. He counseled moderation and believed that the restoration movement could survive the tragedy, but by the time of his death his millennial hopes had given way to pessimism.

See Also

Disciples of Christ.


No satisfactory biography of Alexander Campbell has yet been written. Probably the best source of information about the reformer is still the classic study written by his friend Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 18681870). A novel based on Campbell's life is Louis Cochran's The Fool of God (New York, 1958). Useful specialized studies include Harold L. Lunger's The Political Ethics of Alexander Campbell (Saint Louis, 1954); R. Frederick West's Alexander Campbell and Natural Religion (New Haven, 1948); and D. Ray Lindley's Apostle of Freedom (Saint Louis, 1957). The most comprehensive statement of Campbell's ideas can be found in his own The Christian System, 4th ed. (1866; reprint, New York, 1969).

David Edwin Harrell, Jr. (1987)

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Alexander Campbell

Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) was an Irish-born American clergyman who, with his father, founded the Disciples of Christ, an indigenous American church movement.

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.

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.

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. 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.

By 1830 the Disciples of Christ (as they were now called) emerged as a distinct movement; all relations with Baptists were officially terminated. That year Campbell replaced his earlier paper with the Millennial Harbinger, which he edited until his death. Campbell's adherents were attracted by a similarity of purpose to the Christians in Kentucky associated with Barton W. Stone by 1832, and within a few years the two movements had largely merged.

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.

Further Reading

All accounts of Campbell rely on the basic biography by his friend Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell (2 vols., 1868-1870). Winfred Ernest Garrison and Alfred T. DeGroot, The Disciples of Christ (1948; rev. ed. 1964), is the best history of the movement. □

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Alexander Campbell, 1788–1866, clergyman, cofounder with his father, Thomas Campbell, 1763–1854, of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Of Scottish lineage, both were born in Ireland and educated at the Univ. of Glasgow. Both were Anti-Burgher Presbyterians, a division opposed to the discipline of the main church. In 1807 the father went to America, where he was welcomed among the Scotch-Irish in SW Pennsylvania. His presbytery condemned him for asking all Presbyterians to join his church members in the communion service. Although his synod upheld him, the atmosphere remained so hostile that he and his followers, popularly called Campbellites, withdrew. They formed (1809) the Christian Association of Washington, Pa., setting forth its purposes in a "Declaration and Address." That year Campbell was joined in America by his family. In c.1812, having accepted the doctrine of immersion, the Campbells joined the Baptists, but by the late 1820s differences caused trouble. Alexander Campbell, who had assumed leadership, advocated a return to scriptural simplicity in organization and doctrine; his followers became known as Reformers. He founded (1823) the Christian Baptist to promote his views and addressed audiences in the new western states. He edited (from 1830) the Millennial Harbinger, wrote The Christian System (1839), and in 1840 founded Bethany College in West Virginia and became its president. Meanwhile, the Reformers had seceded from or been forced out of many Baptist churches, and Campbell suggested that they form congregations and call themselves Disciples of Christ. Many of the "Christians," led chiefly by Barton Warren Stone, joined congregations of the Disciples; in 1832 the two leaders agreed to unite their efforts.

See R. Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell (2 vol., 1868–70); S. M. Eames, The Philosophy of Alexander Campbell (1966); E. J. Wrather, Creative Freedom in Action (1968).

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Founder of the Disciples of Christ; b. Ballymena, County Antrim, Ireland, Sept. 12, 1788; d. Bethany, W.Va., March 4, 1866. He was the son of Rev. Thomas Campbell, a Presbyterian minister, and was educated in his father's school. After attending Glasgow University, Scotland, he joined his father's Christian Association of Washington, Pa., and was ordained in 1812. His theological views, spread by preaching tours, induced congregations in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, and Tennessee to separate from the Baptists. Campbell united these churches with the Christian churches organized by Barton Stone to form the Disciples of Christ in 1832. Denominational organization was not completed until the first national convention of the Disciples in 1849. While advocating a simplistic theology, Campbell saw the need for an educated ministry and founded Bethany College, W.Va., in 1840. He engaged in numerous debates on religious topics, including a controversy with Bp. John B. Purcell of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1830. Besides his published debates, his thought is found chiefly in his book, The Christian System (1835), and in his periodicals, The Christian Baptist and The Milennial Harbinger. He held that baptism and acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Messiah were the only requisites of Christianity.

Bibliography: j. kellems, Alexander Campbell and the Disciples (New York 1930). w. e. garrison and a. t. degroot, The Disciples of Christ: A History (rev. ed. St. Louis 1958). h. k. rowe, Dictionary of American Biography (New York 1957) 3:446448.

[r. k. macmaster]

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Campbell, Alexander (1788–1866). Founder of the ‘Campbellites’ or ‘Disciples of Christ’, and the Churches of Christ. A voluminous writer, Campbell rejected all credal formulas, being persuaded that Christianity's only demands are personal confession of Christ in baptism.