by Michael D. (Mike) Greene
“Where the scriptures speak we speak, where the scriptures are silent, we are silent.” The words flowed from the lips of Thomas Campbell at a meeting at the home of Abraham Alters. Campbell had called the meeting to explain his views and reasons for leaving the Presbyterian Church, discuss what was next and how they might achieve the desired unity of the followers of Christ.
As Thomas Campbell spoke those now oft quoted words:
“a solemn silence pervaded the assembly. Never before had religious duty been presented to them in so simple a form. Never before had the great principle on which this religious enterprise rested been so clearly presented to their minds. It was to many of them as a new revelation, and those simple words, which embodied a rule so decisive of all religious strifes and of all distressing doubts, were forever engraven upon their hearts. Henceforth, the plain and simple teaching of the Word of God itself was to be their guide.”/1
The import of those profound words was not lost on those present.
“Thus the silence of the Bible was to be respected equally with its revelations, which were by Divine authority declared to be able to ‘make the man of God perfect and thoroughly furnished unto every good work.’ Anything more, then, must be an incumbrance. Anything less than ‘the whole counsel of God’ would be a dangerous deficiency. Simply, reverentially, confidingly, they would speak of Bible things in Bible words, add¬ing nothing thereto and omitting nothing given by inspiration.”/2
Upon hearing the principle expounded,
“a shrewd Scotch Seceder, Andrew Munro, who was a bookseller and postmaster at Canonsburg, arose and said: ‘Mr. Campbell, if we adopt that as a basis, then there is an end of infant baptism.’ This remark, and the conviction it seemed to carry with it, produced a profound sensation. ‘Of course,’ said Mr. Campbell, in reply, ‘if infant baptism be not found in Scripture, we can have nothing to do with it.’ Upon this, Thomas Acheson, of Washington, who was a man of warm impulses, rose, and advancing a short distance, greatly excited, exclaimed, laying his hand upon his heart: ‘I hope I may never see the day when my heart will renounce that blessed saying of the Scripture, ‘Suffer little children to come unto- me, and forbid them not, for of such is the king don of heaven.’ Upon saying this he was so much affected that he burst into tears, and while a deep sympathetic feeling pervaded the entire assembly, he was about to retire to an adjoined room, when James Foster, not willing that this misapplication of Scripture should pass unchallenged, cried out, ‘Mr. Acheson, I would remark that in the portion of Scripture you have quoted there is no reference, whatever, to infant baptism.'”/3
The principle expressed by Campbell rang true and it was agreed that such would be the principle upon which they would proceed. It was a few weeks later that Campbell would write the Declaration and Address in which he sets out his plan for seeking unity among the followers of Jesus.
The Declaration consisted of four parts laying out thirteen propositions. The four basic principles were: 1) The authority of the scriptures as opposed to the authority of the creeds and clergy. 2) Each individual has the right of access to the scriptures. 3) Sectarianism and the division it brings is evil. 4) The way to peace and unity in the body of Christ is through conformity to the Holy Scriptures.
The platform had been laid out and the future direction of many lives determined. Few, if any, of those present at that meeting understood just what impact this principle would have nor how far-reaching their course of action would be.
Many years later, Robert Richardson, a son-in-law to Alexander Campbell wrote:
“It was from the moment when these significant words were uttered and accepted that the more intelligent ever afterward dated the formal and actual commencement of the Reformation which was subsequently carried on with so much success, and which has already produced such important changes in religious society over a large portion of the world.”/4
During Thomas Campbell’s first tumultuous two years in America, the family he left behind in Ireland was never far from his mind. It was hoped that they too would immigrate to America in the summer of 1808, but a shipwreck delayed their journey for a year. Finally, on August 5, 1809, the Campbell family sailed from Glasgow, Scotland for the New World.
After a journey of nearly two-month’s duration, the family arrived in New York harbor. By October 7th they were in Philadelphia. In the meantime, Thomas had set out from Western Pennsylvania to meet his family.
Sometime in the month of October on the National Pike in Pennsylvania, the family was reunited. One can only wonder why the time and place were never recorded. How we would like to know what words and ideas were passed between all, but particularly between Thomas and Alexander, for much had transpired since they had last seen and spoken to each other.
1/Richardson, Robert, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, 1897, Reprinted by Religious Book Service, Indianapolis, IN., 236.