Alexander Campbell

Alexander Campbell, editor and religious reformer, was born in County Antrim, Ireland, the son of Jane Corneigle (Corneigh), a French Huguenot, and Thomas Campbell, a minister in the Anti-Burgher Seceder Presbyterian Church. Reared in the Church of England, Thomas Campbell rejected the concept of a state church but not Anglican theology and attempted to reunite warring religious factions. In 1807, his health broken, Campbell sailed for America and settled among other Ulster immigrants in western Pennsylvania. His family set out for America the next year, but when they were shipwrecked off the Hebrides, settled in Scotland for the winter so that Alexander Campbell could attend the University of Glasgow as his father had done. There he formally repudiated the strictures of John Knox. When the family reunited in 1809, Alexander learned that his father, having been excluded from the American Seceders, was preparing to publish his response, Declaration and Address, which was both a charter for Christian unity and an American religious declaration of independence.

After marriage in 1811 and the birth of his first child, Campbell began a study of Hebrew and Greek scripture, which convinced him that immersion of believers best fulfilled the New Testament design of baptism. The decision led to an invitation to join a Baptist Association. In 1823 he began publication of the iconoclastic Christian Baptist in which he attacked the sins of the historic church and advocated a “restoration” of the unity and purity of the New Testament church. The alliance between the Calvinist Baptists and the Campbells, who were dedicated to Renaissance learning rooted in the philosophy of John Locke and Thomas Reid, was an uneasy one. By 1830 the Baptists had read the Campbell Reformers out of fellowship, and Campbell began publication of The Millennial Harbinger.

The Nashville congregation remained in the forefront of reform, and Campbell lauded it as “a golden candlestick to the Lord.” Two of his daughters married into Nashville's Ewing family, and between 1827 and 1858 Campbell made six preaching tours to Middle Tennessee and one to Memphis. In 1827 Andrew Jackson entertained Campbell at the Hermitage. On his 1830 visit to Nashville, Washington Cooper painted Campbell's portrait. On Christmas day that year, he engaged in a debate with the Presbyterian pastor, Obadiah Jennings, after which Campbell baptized thirty people in the Cumberland River, including John Harding of the Belle Meade plantation. Campbell also held five formal debates: three with Presbyterians, one with the British skeptic and socialist Robert Owen, and one with Roman Catholic bishop John Purcell. In 1840 Campbell founded Bethany College in Bethany, Virginia (now West Virginia), where he served for two decades as president and professor.

While demanding independence for local congregations in the internal government, Campbell advocated cooperation through delegate assemblies and in 1849 was elected president of the American Christian Missionary Society. He also played an active role in a number of reform efforts. He was a leader in the crusade for free public schools. He denounced the federal government's treatment of Native Americans, particularly the Trail of Tears. In 1829 Campbell served as a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention, where he was noted for his radical support of Jacksonian democracy. Campbell declared himself against slavery but separated himself from abolitionism.

The Campbell movement issued in three communions: the ecumenical Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Church of Christ (anti-organ and antiorganization), and the independent Christian Churches.

Suggested Reading

Eva Jean Wrather, Alexander Campbell: Adventurer in Freedom (forthcoming)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Alexander Campbell
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 13, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018