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The divided legacy of Alexander Campbell

Critical biography examines the ‘gifted but flawed’ leader of the American Restoration Movement.

When Alexander Campbell died in 1866, he left his legacy in a divided condition. 

His six living grandchildren from his first wife, Margaret, challenged Alexander’s will, which left the estate to his second wife, Selina, and her children. 

He also left his spiritual descendants on the precipice of theological and sectional division. 

Douglas A. Foster. A Life of Alexander Campbell. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2020, 345 pages.

Douglas A. Foster. A Life of Alexander Campbell. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2020, 345 pages.

In 1866, David Lipscomb and Tolbert Fanning restarted the Gospel Advocate in Tennessee, and Isaac Errett and James A. Garfield (who was Selina’s legal counsel in the suit) started the Christian Standard in Ohio. They represented two different trajectories that would result in Churches of Christ listed as a distinct body in the 1906 religious census.

Campbell bequeathed his spiritual heirs his agenda, piety and flaws.

This is why it is important to read A Life of Alexander Campbell by Douglas A. Foster. Just as an awareness of our family of origins sheds light on our own personal stories, understanding the life and thought of the key leader of the American Restoration Movement has the potential to illuminate our own experience, develop tools for discernment and humble us before the past gifts God has given to the church.

Foster, director of the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene Christian University in Texas, presents a biography that is not so much a narrative — though the details of Campbell’s life both frame and carry the storyline — as it is a critical assessment of the significance of Campbell’s relationship to his reform movement. 

From the time of his own immersion in 1812, Alexander assumed the leadership of what his father, Thomas Campbell, began in 1809. His debates gave the reform movement prominence. His journals (Christian Baptist and Millennial Harbinger) gave it a voice. His preaching tours popularized it. And his institutions (Bethany College and American Christian Missionary Society) propagated it. 

After describing Campbell’s own family of origins as a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian immigrant, Foster identifies the creative energies that gave birth to Campbell’s primary agenda: the restoration of the ancient gospel and the ancient order of things for the sake of Christian union in order to prepare for the coming millennium. 

While recognizing Campbell’s brilliance and gifts, (Foster) does not sugarcoat his flaws, including his arrogance and racism.

Campbell’s understanding and practice of baptism lies at the heart of this interest, Foster argues, and it was framed by a commitment to Scripture alone exclusive of any human traditions or creeds.

Advocating for and defending that agenda consumed most of his energies and shaped everything he did. Yet, as Foster notes, there is a tension in his own thought. While he called Christians to visible unity based upon the ancient gospel and order, he recognized a prior unity in a common confession of the facts of God’s redemptive story among 19th century “evangelicals.” 

The friction between this “evangelical” unity and a union upon the ancient order plagued Campbell throughout his life. He bequeathed it to his heirs as well.

One of the important aspects of Foster’s work is its critical nature. While recognizing Campbell’s brilliance and gifts, he does not sugarcoat his flaws, including his arrogance and racism.

While his arrogance and pride resisted any claims that displaced his leadership (see his conflicts with Barton W. Stone and Walter Scott), his commitment to white supremacy was fundamental to his goal. The Anglo-Saxon race and American democracy were God’s chosen vehicles to usher in the millennium. Slavery per se was no evil (the New Testament did not condemn it), but it did have a negative moral impact on American democracy. Campbell campaigned for a gradual abolition of slavery but had no vision for social integration or equality between the races. 

The destiny of the whole world, Campbell wrote, depended on the “Anglo-Saxon race.” The Civil War dashed Campbell’s hopes.

“Gifted, but flawed” is how Foster characterizes Alexander Campbell. The gifts were enormous, and they shaped a religious tradition that now numbers more than 8 million globally. The flaws are real but not unexpected; we all have them.

John Mark Hicks

John Mark Hicks

Foster’s critical biography is awed by Campbell’s gifts — his acute intellect, energetic activity, passionate commitment, deep spirituality — and is filled with his flaws as well. 

Both are important — not only for personal introspection but also reflection on the gifts and flaws of the American Restoration Movement. Foster has provided us with a weighty resource for both.

For anyone who wants to understand our gifts as well as our flaws, “A Life of Alexander Campbell” is a wonderful place to start.

JOHN MARK HICKS is a professor of theology at the Hazelip School of Theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. He has taught for 38 years in schools associated with the Churches of Christ. His most recent book is “Searching for the Pattern.” 

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Filed under: A Life of Alexander Campbell Alexander Campbell John Mark Hicks Opinion Reviews

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