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Alexander Campbell—The “Sage of Bethany” (1837-1866)

by Larry Miles

LarryMiles2015In this essay, we are going to deal with many events. The events covered will take us from 1837 to 1866. In 1837, that cause that the Restoration pioneers loved so dearly, that of a Biblical unity based upon the New Testament, was somewhat fulfilled. There were congregations all over the country. The membership in these churches numbered in the tens of thousands. The events we are going to write about start in 1837 with Alexander Campbell’s debate with the Roman catholic Bishop Purcell in Cincinnati, Ohio, to his death at Bethany, West Virginia in 1866.

The debate with Purcell was the second one that Campbell held in Cincinnati, the other being the one with the infidel, Robert Owen, in 1829. Concerning the background for this debate, Dr. Earl Irvin West wrote this in The Search For The Ancient Order,

“Campbell spoke before the college of teachers in Cincinnati. This was really an association of those of those who either were teachers or had been. This group met on October 3, and Dr. Joshua L. Wilson spoke, recommending the Bible as an universal text book. In a subsequent lecture, Bishop Purcell of the Roman Catholic diocese in the city spoke and denied this. Campbell spoke on ‘Moral Culture,’ connecting the rapid march of modern involvement with the spirit of inquiry produced by the Protestant Reformation. Purcell took exception, saying that the Protestant Reformation was the cause of all the infidelity in the world. Campbell told Purcell if he wished a discussion, that he, Campbell, was prepared….The debate began on January 13, 1837.”

Robert Richardson, in Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, give us the seven propositions that were to be discussed. They were as follows:

Concerning the aftermath of the debate between Alexander Campbell and Bishop John Purcell, James DeForest Murch had this to say in “Christians Only,

The debate with Bishop Purcell served to awaken a considerable degree of sympathy and good will toward Campbell, since the Protestants in general were made to realize that the man they had mistaken for a foe, was, in reality, a defender of the great truths they cherished in common.

Alexander Campbell always held a place in his heart for education. We remember that he established Buffalo Seminary in his home in 1818. In 1840, there was established a college that is still serving the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Alexander Campbell received a charter for the college from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1840. Bethany College was founded in Bethany, Virginia (now West Virginia). Campbell was elected President by the Board of Trustees. The students arrived on October 21, 1841. The faculty consisted of the following men: A. F. Ross, Robert Richardson, W. K. Pendleton, and Alexander Campbell.

In 1843, Alexander Campbell held the last of his five major debates. The Presbyterians in Kentucky had lost a lot of members due to the Walker and McCalla debates. They wanted to try to regain some of their prestige. As a result of this, they approached Alexander Campbell for another debate. This was to be held in Lexington, Kentucky with Nathan L. Rice as the opponent. The Moderator was none other than Henry Clay. The theme to be discussed centered on the topics of baptism and of the Holy Spirit. Campbell, as a result of the debate, baptized many people, including a Lutheran minister in the city.

On Saturday, November 9, 1844, death came to Barton Warren Stone. The editor of the “Christian Messenger, died in Hannibal, Missouri, Stone had spent over forty years preaching the Ancient Gospel. He was buried, first at Hannibal, then at Jacksonville, Illinois, where he had spent the last years of his life. The remains of Barton Warren Stone were later interred at Cane Ridge, Kentucky. The first of the “Big Four” of the Restoration Movement, had gone on to meet the Lord of Glory.

The next event we want to mention is the founding of the American Christian Missionary Society. In 1849, the convention met in Cincinnati, Ohio and elected Alexander Campbell in absentia, the first President of the A.C.M.S., a post he held until his death.

The idea of a missionary society was not shared by all the brotherhood. There were those who held that it was not authorized by the Scripture. The first missionaries sent out by the A.C.M.S. were Dr. and Mrs. J.. T. Barclas, who sailed for Jerusalem in 1850. This mission was not as successful as hoped. The A.C.M. S. lasted until 1919 when the United Christian Missionary Society wad founded. Although there were some conservatives associated with the A.C.M.S., it is remembered as being affiliated with the “liberal” element of the brotherhood, those in later years identified with Isaac Errett and the Christian Standard and J. H. Garrison and the Christian Evangelist. We want to bring out the fact that the Standard, as we know it today, under the editorship of Sam Stone,  (this   article was first published in WW, in 1979-80) is not affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but rather with the Conservative Christian Churches.

In 1854 a great man of God passed away. Thomas Campbell, who forty seven years earlier had left his native Ireland to come to America, went to meet the Lord he served. He had, for those years, been dedicated to seeking after the Ancient Order. His was a labor of love for the Master. Dr. Richardson wrote these words in Memoirs Of Alexander Campbell,

On the 4th of January, 1854, Thomas Campbell terminated at Bethany his long life of faithful labor. Until he was about eighty three years of age he had continued his custom if itinerating among the churches, which were always happy to welcome the venerable teacher, who was universally recognized as the living impersonation of all the Christian graces.

He lived to be nearly ninety one years of age, dying at Alexander’s home. He is buried in “God’s Acre,” the Campbell family cemetery at Bethany.  Of the “Big Four,” only Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott remained to preach the Everlasting Gospel. Walter Scott had spent the past forty years of his life as a co-worker of Alexander Campbell. He had been a preacher, teacher, and an editor. His final ministry was at Mayslick, Kentucky. There he died on April 23, 1861.

Now only Alexander Campbell remained. The turbulent years of the American Civil War were next. At the beginning of 1865, he relinquished the Editorship of the Millennial Harbinger to W, K. Pendleton, thus ending forty one years of conducting a religious periodical. Pendleton had twice been Campbell’s son-in-law. On March 4, 1866 Alexander Campbell, the Sage of Bethany, died at his home in Bethany. Concerning his death, James DeForest Murch, wrote this in Christians Only,

In Campbell, the Disciples of Christ lost their most cherished and capable leader. Until he was 70 years of age , he continued to visit the churches and conventions and to write voluminous. In his latter years he retired to his home in Bethany. Here he continue to meet his friends and the stream of visitors who came from all over the nation to confer with him. In December 1865, he preached his final sermon. On February 22, 1866, he made his last public appearance. His last illness and death were characterized by the same calm confidence in God and humble reliance on the Divine Redeemer that he demonstrated throughout his life.

In the next few months we will be dealing with what is termed as the second generation of the Restoration Movement. This study will focus on the latter half of the nineteenth century and will continue into the twentieth century. Until next time, MARANATHA!

-Larry Miles lives  in Louisville, KY and worships with the Cherry St Church of Christ in New Albany, IN.  He is one of the  editors of Word & Work

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