A Life of Alexander Campbell (Douglas A. Foster) -- A Review

A LIFE OF ALEXANDER CAMPBELL (Library of Religious Biography). By Douglas A. Foster. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020. Xviii + 345 pages.

Alexander Campbell is an iconic figure in American religious history. Although he always disavowed the tag, which was often used derisively, of Campbellism and Campbellite, the movement he helped found has been tied to his personage. Others, including Barton Stone, made important contributions to a religious movement that emerged on what was then the American frontier in the early decades of the nineteenth century, he is the person most connected to what is known in scholarly circles as the Stone-Campbell Movement. That movement finds expression in at least three branches, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Churches of Christ, and the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. This movement that Campbell was instrumental in developing has spread across the globe. So, who is Alexander Campbell? Why should we take notice of him? These are the questions that gave rise to Douglas Foster’s masterful biography. This may not be the first life of Campbell, but it might become the definitive life, at least for the foreseeable future.

First the author: Douglas A. Foster formerly served as professor of church history at Abilene Christian University and director of the university’s Center for Restoration Studies (an alternative name for the movement is the Restoration Movement). Today Foster is a scholar-in-residence at the university. He has written widely on the history, theology, and personages of this movement and his connection to the movement is through the Churches of Christ.

This particular biography of AlexanderCampbell has been published as a contribution to the distinguished Library of Religious Biography series published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. The most recent volume in this series focused on Franklin Roosevelt, so the biography sits in good company. Although Foster writes as a movement insider, this is a scholarly and even critical biography. Foster cares about the legacy of this man, but he's not afraid to present the negative side of the story, even as he shares the positive. In other words, while this is an appreciative look at Campbell's life and ministry, it's not a hagiography. A fact reinforced by the choice to go with a publisher outside the movement.

So, why a new biography of Campbell? Why now? I expect that Eerdmans was willing to publish the biography because Campbell was a leading religious figure of the nineteenth century. The decision on Foster’s part to take up this project is rooted in part on the fact that within the movement that owes its origins to Campbell’s ministry, he is not well known by the average member. That is true within the Churches of Christ and it’s true within the Disciples (my branch). Even in those who may know about him, tend to use his legacy selectively. Thus, the Disciples (my tradition) tend to focus on his advocacy for Christian unity, while those in the Churches of Christ tend to on the restoration of the ancient order. Both trajectories are present in his thought, but there is more to Campbell than either of those trajectories, and Foster has done an excellent job of revealing them.

The focus of this biography is not on home life, though we learn a bit about his family life,  including two marriages (his first wife died). Foster also reveals Campbell’s business acumen, which included farming and land acquisition. Instead, Foster focuses on the development of Campbell’s thought and how that got expressed in his ministry. We discover a man who protected his legacy, making sure that he was properly credited with the founding and development of this American original (even if he was an immigrant from northern Ireland).

Foster divides the book into five sections, which move semi-chronologically as well as thematically. Section One is titled "Formation." The three chapters in this section focus on his origins in Protestant Ireland, where his father was a minister in the Anti-burgher Seceder Presbyterian Church. There is a chapter on Thomas Campbell’s theological and cultural formation, which was passed on to his son, as well as the origins of Thomas’ ministry in the United States that led to his break with the Presbyterians. While the son may have surpassed the father in terms of importance, the origins of the Campbell side of the movement is generally traced to Thomas's creation of the Christian Association of Washington, Pennsylvania. Then there is a chapter on the contribution of Alexander’s time in Glasgow after a shipwreck delayed the family’s departure for the United States, where Thomas had already moved. While there, Alexander got to study at the university and meet leading Scottish reformers, all of which helped form his mind and led to his break with the Presbyterians.  

Having laid the foundations, Foster moves in Section Two, which is titled "Creation," to an exploration of Campbell's emerging career upon landing in the United States. There is a chapter on Campbell's embrace of the American Dream and his emerging millennialist vision, which is central to what will develop in the coming years. The emphasis on unity and restoration was rooted in Campbell’s millennialist vision, wherein Campbell believed that God intended to use the United States, and more specifically white Christian America, to usher in God’s reign on earth. His was a version of postmillennialism, which was mixed with a strong sense of white supremacy (this revelation will make many of his descendants cringe). To get to this goal, he sought to restore what he called the "Ancient Gospel and Order of Things," a vision he believed was found in the New Testament. This vision led to his rejection of creeds and other forms of tradition, which he believed got in the way of God's vision for the world. If restorationism was part of his agenda, so was Christian unity, but not in the modern ecumenical sense. He believed that the path to unity required people to embrace the “ancient order of things,” including believer’s baptism by immersion, as well as leave their denominations and join in this new movement he was establishing.

While he was working on these two elements of his agenda, he engaged in several other activities. He worked on and published a modern translation of the New Testament that was based on the latest Greek text and was easier to read and understand. While he made use of an earlier translation as the base, he offered his own spin to the text, which led to it being condemned. Among the critics were Baptists who didn't appreciate changing the name of John the Baptist to John the Immerser, even though they appreciated the emphasis on immersion. He also engaged in debates defending Protestant Christianity, first with atheist Robert Owen and then with Roman Catholic Bishop Purcell. Finally, Foster takes note of two "crucial institutions." These include Bethany College, an educational institution that placed the Bible at the center of the curriculum. The second institution was the American Christian Missionary Society, which gave institutional support to his vision of reform, enabling cooperation among churches.

In Section Three, we encounter eight chapters, that begins with the rise of Anti-Campbellism. These efforts emerged among Presbyterianism, whom Campbell debated on the form of baptism and among Baptists, mainly over whether baptism is for the remission of sins (and what that means). Then there are the internal debates, also focusing on baptism, including whether the pious unimmersed were truly Christians. Then there is a chapter on Campbell's engagement with Mormonism, which he took a strong position against. In part, this was because several leading Mormons, including Sidney Rigdon, had been Disciples before joining Joseph Smith's church. Then there are Campbell's debates with the Presbyterians over baptism (chapter 13), debates which allowed Campbell to develop his baptismal theology. While he debated the Presbyterians he joined with and then broke with the Baptists, also over his theology of baptism. Then there are the clashes with leaders within his own tradition. There is an intriguing chapter that details his conflict with Walter Scott over who first restored the ancient order of things and preached about baptism for the remission of sins. We get the sense here that Campbell was intent on claiming primacy in the movement and was willing to defend it with all his might. The two men would reconcile, but not before revealing that both men had strong egos that needed to be stroked. Campbell also found himself in conflict with Barton Stone, in part over whose reform effort came first. While Campbell gave grudging approval to the merger of the two movements linked to Stone and himself, he was never fully comfortable with Stone’s theology of baptism, as well as Stone’s positions on God’s nature, Christology, and atonement. Campbell decided that the Stone churches had embraced his vision of restoration, and therefore could be partners. As for the moniker of the Stone-Campbell Movement, Campbell would never have accepted it. But Foster isn’t finished with the internal conflicts as there was another that involved Jesse Ferguson, Tolbert Fanning, and his close friend Robert Richardson, with whom he broke fellowship for a few years. Richardson would later write the family authorized biography of Campbell, which tried to soften Campbell’s image.

Section For is titled "Surrender." The chapters in this section focus on the threat of slavery to the cohesion of the movement and Campbell’s sense of mission. While Campbell was personally opposed to slavery, he didn’t base his position on religious grounds. When he read the New Testament he found what he thought were defenses of slavery. He also viewed whites as superior to blacks. Nevertheless, he believed that slavery threatened the progress of the conversion of the world, since it was dividing both the nation and its churches. He feared that debates over slavery would divide his movement like it divided Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. This is an important chapter for it helps us understand the complicated nature of this debate in the antebellum period, as it reveals how one could both oppose slavery and be a white supremacist. The chapter that follows this discussion of slavery focuses on how the Civil War undermined Campbell's millennialist vision of the United States being God’s chosen vessel for the conversion of the world. While this was occurring, Campbell entered the last years of his life, which was marked by significant physical and mental decline. The concluding chapter in this section describes Campbell’s death and its aftermath, including the sad battle over his estate by his family. Campbell died in 1866, his energy having left him, leaving behind a shell of the person he had been. Nevertheless, he was honored within his tradition. Some of his followers hailed him as a modern-day saint.

Section Five focuses on his Legacy. Foster details how his story has been told down through the years and his influence has been shared. What we discover is that Alexander Campbell was a complicated person. He had a strong vision for reforming the church, but he was also vain and egotistical. he was beloved by many, but he could easily fall into conflict with co-workers. The fact that he was a white supremacist who believed that God had chosen White American Christians to be the vehicle of the salvation of the world can’t be set aside, especially at this time in history. Foster correctly describes Campbell as being a “complex, brilliant, indefatigable, arrogant, racist, aggressive, prolific leader who made a lasting impact on the Christian world. He was a man whom God used and whom God chastened. His spiritual descendants have inherited everyone one of his characteristics." (p. 331). That final sentence is so true! For that reason this is a must read for all of his spiritual descendants. 

This is one of those biographies that is a must-read for Campbell's spiritual descendants, even those who might prefer Stone over him. It would be a most useful read for those outside the tradition who wish to understand how Christianity existed in the first half of the 19th century. This may shock some of his spiritual descendants, but that is the way it is! 


Kevin Adams said…
Excellent review. I'l be adding this one to my library! Much thanks!

Rev Kevin Adams

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