Robert Richardson: The Layperson's Reformer
I have been posting outtakes from a theological primer for Disciples that I've been working on for several years. I've been doing this in part to stir a conversation about theology among Disciples, who historically have been reticent to talk theology. One of my pieces on the Holy Spirit caught the eye of Renee Goodwin, who is a Disciple pursuing a M.Div. degree at Phillips Seminary. She mentioned she had just written a paper on Robert Richardson, a colleague of Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott, who had challenged Campbell's narrow vision of the Holy Spirit. I asked to read it, and then asked if I could post it here. She agreed, so I present to you Renee's introduction to the theology of Robert Richardson, a figure that I need to get to know better. Perhaps the same will be true for you. So, without further ado, let us meet Robert Richardson, M.D., the layperson's reformer.
By Renee Goodwin
Robert Richardson was much more than a behind-the-scenes sidekick to Stone-Campbell movement founders Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott. On the contrary, he made many intellectual contributions to the movement that qualify him to be considered a reformer in his own right. Paul M. Blowers, writing The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, names three outstanding contributions: “1) attention to interrelated issues of worship, spiritual devotion, and ethics…2) interpretation…and analysis of the nature of Christian reform…and 3) interpretive biographer in his two-volume Memoirs of Alexander Campbell.” Naming these as simply “three contributions” seems to minimize his role in the movement, but this could not be further from the truth.
Robert Richardson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1806. His father ran a supply shop for boats and ships in Pittsburgh, while his mother ran the family home in the wealthiest neighborhood in Pittsburgh. The Richardsons hired private tutors to teach young Robert not only reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also French, painting, flute, and violin, all of which he continued as an adult.
In 1815, Robert began studying at Thomas Campbell’s academy. When the elder Campbell left Pittsburgh in 1817, Robert began studying at a different school, which in 1819 brought on a new instructor named Walter Scott. He continued studying with Scott until, at the age of 16, Robert began attending the Western University of Pennsylvania, where he decided to go into medicine. It was at this time that Robert first experienced the difficulties with his eyesight that would plague him for the rest of his life. In 1827 he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia with a medical degree, and by the age of twenty-one he had established a successful medical practice in the town of Carnegie, thirteen miles from Pittsburgh.
Since they had worked so closely together as teacher and student, Walter Scott and Robert Richardson became good friends. In 1829, when Robert was an adult living on his own in Carnegie, his old friend and teacher Walter Scott came to visit him. He told Robert all about the version of the gospel that he had been preaching to restore the “Ancient Order” of the church. After Scott left, Robert studied it out for himself, using the Greek he had learned from Scott. He concluded that Scott was right that the New Testament taught baptism by immersion. He got on his horse and went looking for Walter Scott. After three days, he found him near the town of Shalersville and was baptized by him there.
His religious conversion estranged twenty-three-year-old Robert from his parents, so when he heard of an opening for a doctor in Wellsburg, Virginia, only seven miles from Bethany, where Alexander Campbell was, he took it. He joined the Campbells’ church and often spent time with them at their home in Bethany. He also had a successful medical practice. It was at this time that he began writing for Disciple publications. His medical perspective shed light on spiritual ideas, such as in his series on regeneration that was published in the Millennial Harbinger, in which he drew parallels between physical birth and the biblical idea of being born again. On April 10, 1831 he married Rebekah Encell. The couple lived in Wellsburg, where Richardson served as a lay leader and teacher in the church.
While he was practicing medicine in Wellsburg, Richardson was a frequent contributor to Alexander Campbell’s newspaper, the Millennial Harbinger. In the summer of 1834, he moved to Carthage, Ohio to work with Walter Scott on his newspaper, the Evangelist, and was a partner in a medical office there. In 1836 he moved back to Bethany at the request of Alexander Campbell to help with his “rapidly expanding editorial work” but still continued practicing medicine, which he never gave up entirely. Three years later he purchased a farm he named Bethphage. Except for a brief period when he taught at Kentucky University, Richardson and his family lived at there for the rest of his life. He continued working closely with Alexander Campbell writing and editing the Millennial Harbinger, as well as teaching and doing administrative work for Bethany College, which Campbell founded in 1840.
Over the years, Richardson wrote prolifically for the Millennial Harbinger, even though several times he had to take breaks for months at a time because the poor health of his eyes would not allow him to do the work. His daughter Emma often acted as secretary for him, taking dictation and reading aloud to him. He was thoroughly devoted to the Stone-Campbell movement, but, unlike Alexander Campbell or Walter Scott, he was not a preacher and was never ordained into the ministry. Also unlike them, Richardson was more mystical than logical. In Home to Bethphage: A Biography of Robert Richardson, Cloyd Goodnight and Dwight E. Stevenson say that, “more mystical and devotional than any other man in the inner circle of the Reformers, Robert Richardson pleaded for a religion that left a large place for the Spirit” (Goodnight and Stevenson, p. 120). The Holy Spirit was deeply important to Richardson, and some of his most significant work was a series he wrote for the Millennial Harbinger entitled “The Spirit of God.” The series was the outgrowth of discussions between Richardson and Alexander Campbell that came out of his role helping to prepare Campbell to debate N.L. Rice, in which Campbell was defending the proposition that when a person becomes a Christian, the Holy Spirit works “only through the word of truth,” by which he meant the Bible. Richardson had a problem with the word “only.” He thought it limited the Holy Spirit and contradicted the idea that it was acceptable to disagree about things not directly commanded in the Bible.
In these articles, Richardson “pled rigorously for a religion of the Spirit and urged a devotional attitude that placed him almost alone in his emphasis throughout the period” [Brooks, “Robert Richardson,” 137]. His career as a scientist and a doctor went hand in hand with his spirituality. He loved the natural world and loved the Creator who had brought it all about. He wanted all believers to have not just head knowledge of God that could be obtained by studying the Bible in an intellectual way, but he wanted them to also have a rich devotional life in which God was known by experience. Before Richardson came along, the Stone-Campbell movement, which had been a reaction against extreme revivalism, had no devotional publications printed at all, even with the multitude of newspapers that were published by various leaders. Richardson, with his writings in the Millennial Harbinger, and, later, books such as Communings in the Sanctuary changed all that.
Richardson’s views were not without controversy, as was evidenced by his conflict with Franklin College president Tolbert Fanning. Fanning equated Richardson’s devotional approach to faith with spiritualism. Fanning preferred an intellectual approach that was “doctrinal rather than spiritual” [Goodnight and Stevenson, p. 175]. The Millennial Harbinger published both sides of the argument, which led Fanning, as well as others, to the conclusion that Alexander Campbell took his side, especially when Campbell published an essay in which he denounced Richardson. Richardson was deeply hurt by this, because he thought that what he was writing was congruent with Campbell’s teaching. He resigned from the Millennial Harbinger rather than publicly engage in strife with his beloved employer and mentor.
Eventually the two men reconciled and Richardson preached Campbell’s funeral in March 1866. Almost immediately, Mrs. Campbell asked Richardson if he would write her late husband’s biography. He agreed. The project took three years, with the help of his daughter Emma. In 1869, he retired from teaching at Bethany College and accepted a position on their Board of Trustees. Three years later he developed a heart condition, and his health deteriorated to the point that in 1876 he was no longer able to speak or write. In October of that year he went to sleep on a Sunday night and never woke up.
From this picture, we see that over the course of Robert Richardson’s entire adult life, he was a crucial part of the Stone-Campbell movement. His articulation of both the spirituality and the theological ideas of the movement through his writing in the Millennial Harbinger, his tireless work serving students at Bethany College, and his work on Alexander Campbell’s biography show him have left a legacy that continues to this day.
Adams, Kevin Kent. “Head or Heart? The Richardson-Fanning Controversy and its Effect on Spirituality in the Stone-Campbell Movement.” Master’s thesis. University of Central Oklahoma, 2015. Accessed October 5, 2017. http://library.uco.edu/UCOthesis/AdamsKK2015.pdf.
Blowers, Paul. “Richardson, Robert (1806-1876)” in ,The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movemented. Douglas A. Foster, et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 649-652.
Brooks, Pat. “Robert Richardson: Nineteenth Century Advocate of Spirituality.” Restoration Quarterly 21, no. 3 (1978): 135-149.
Goodnight, Cloyd and Dwight E. Stevenson. Home to Bethphage: A Biography of Robert Richardson. St. Louis: Christian Board of Publication, 1949.
This essay was originally submitted as a Disciples History/Polity paper at Phillips Theological Seminary and is republished here with the author’s permission. Renee Goodwin is the former pastor of First Christian Church in Kinsley, KS and now lives in Neodesha, Kansas. She is also a student at Phillip’s Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK.