By Michael D “Mike” Greene
That he failed to “fence the table” was the charge brought against the preacher who had lately come to the frontier of western Pennsylvania from Ireland. In a short time, as a result of the ensuing ecclesiastical trial, Thomas Campbell left the church of his youth for which he had preached for many years and began seeking unity among God’s people. Like Abraham of old, he did not know where he was going, but he trusted the Lord would lead him.
Thomas Campbell was born February 1, 1763 to Archibald Campbell, in county Down, Ireland. He was raised in a strict Presbyterian home. Thomas was a good student and had dreams of becoming a teacher, a dream which he fulfilled. However, a friend, James Kinley, saw greater things for the young man and paid his way to Glasgow University to study for the ministry. While there, he was exposed to the prevailing philosophies of the day as well as the religious reformers Robert and James Haldane, who influenced the formulation of Campbell’s reformatory ideas, particularly the idea of the New Testament providing a pattern of faith and practice for the Christian religion.
Thomas graduated from the university with honors, satisfied all the requirements for ordination and became a preacher for the Old Light, Anti-Burger, Seceder branch of the Presbyterian Church. As time passed, his dedication to his God deepened, and he grew to lament the division he saw in Christendom and the Presbyterian Church.
That dedication was reflected in a deeper commitment and dependence on the Bible. His more famous son, Alexander Campbell, later remembered going into his father’s study and seeing him surrounded by many books, yet having only an open Bible in front of him. This made a great impression on Alexander.
Sometime in 1787, Thomas married Jane Corneigle. Their first child, Alexander, was born in Antrim County Ireland, September 12, 1788. Three daughters, two more sons, and another daughter followed him. These seven children were brought up in a religious home with effective religious instruction. For example, each child was required to memorize a verse of scripture each day and recite the verse before the evening meal. On the Lord’s Day, seven verses were repeated. Alexander remembered him as a strict, but loving father.
Campbell’s growing family required more than he was able to supply on his meager preacher’s salary. He returned to his first vocation, which was teaching school. He opened an academy nearby and it soon became profitable. From that time until his death, both preaching and teaching filled his life and provided a livelihood.
In 1807, a physician prescribed a sea voyage to treat a stomach ailment for which Campbell had failed to find relief. He accepted the prescription and like many others before him turned his eyes toward the new world and the United States. Leaving his family under the care of his 19-year-old son, Alexander, Thomas Campbell sailed to America.
As many others from Ireland had done, he settled in Washington County, Pennsylvania where he dutifully reported to the Synod and was assigned to the Washington Presbytery in Southwest Pennsylvania.
As Campbell continued to study his Bible, he became more and more dissatisfied with the creeds and denominational loyalties that separated believers. He also continued his efforts to unite the fractured Presbyterians. To this end, he would administer communion to any who presented themselves on communion Sunday. It mattered not to Campbell whether they were Seceder or Non-Seceder Presbyterian. This failure to ‘fence the table’ resulted in charges of heresy being lodged against him.
The ensuing ecclesiastical trial dragged on, first before the Presbytery and then before the Synod. As it did, Thomas Campbell pondered his future.
On September 13, 1808, he presented formal notification that he was withdrawing himself from the authority of the Presbyterian Church. He thus ended his relationship to the church of his youth and one for which he had lovingly labored. His experience with the ecclesiastical court no doubt colored his future thinking about creeds, clergy and the authority they held over churches and believers.
Campbell then formed the Christian Association of Washington, which he intended to be a means for Christians and churches to work together for the advancement of Christianity without allegiance to creeds or any denomination. The Association was not a church and only one church, the Brush Run Church was a part of the Association, but many individuals were in sympathy with Campbell’s ideas.
In September 1809, Campbell wrote the watermark Declaration and Address in which he explained his actions and laid out a plan for the unity of all believers based on adherence to the Bible alone. Implementation of that plan of action would consume the rest of Campbell’s days.
Hanna, William H., Thomas Campbell, Seceder and Christian Union Advocate, 1935, Reprinted by College Press, Joplin, MO.
West, Earl Irvin, The Search for the Ancient Order, Gospel Advocate, Co. Nashville, TN 1974.
By Michael D “Mike” Greene