by Michael D. (Mike) Greene
How one would like to have been present when Thomas Campbell, after a two-year separation, met his beloved family on the National Pike in Pennsylvania on that October day in 1809!
While the mental picture one might draw of such a reunion calls forth many warm feelings, one must wonder; “What were the first words that passed between father and son, both of whom unknown to the other, had broken with the faith of their fathers?”
We do know that Alexander soon read the Declaration and Address and made a commitment to spend the rest of his life advocating the principles of Christian unity contained therein. From that time until the death of Thomas Campbell, the story of his life and his more famous son intertwine so as to almost make a single narrative.
Two biblical thoughts come to mind as one contemplates the rest of Thomas Campbell’s days.
The first are the words of John the Baptist spoken of Jesus; “He must increase, but I must decrease.” While one might say that Thomas Campbell’s remaining days were spent in the shadow of his more famous son, such a thought would tend to misrepresent the importance of his role in the subsequent efforts to restore “the ancient order of things.”
The second is Paul’s words of Timothy “For I have no one like-minded” (Philippians 2:20). Thomas in many ways became Alexander’s Timothy. Not that the son was mentor to the father, but that the father was the most trusted co-worker of the capable son. As many who have stood beside those who garner more fame and recognition, Thomas willingly filled the needed role of co-worker and confidant to his more illustrious son.
Thomas continued his teaching and preaching for the rest of his life. He often toured the country visiting churches that saw the need of seeking unity by a restoration of the “ancient order of things.” In 1829-30, Thomas was away from home for a full year on a preaching tour through the Western Reserve (what is now Ohio) and the state of Kentucky.
Two other events show how Thomas served to advance the cause.
In 1827, Walter Scott, perhaps the most successful evangelist of the early Restoration Movement, began reporting hundreds of conversions on the Western Reserve. “Was Walter Scott being carried away by over-enthusiasm? Was he preaching and practicing some other thing than that they had thought to be the ancient gospel? It was decided that Thomas Campbell should visit the Reserve, go among the churches and get into contact with Mr. Scott.”/1
He reported that Walter Scott had found the key to evangelism.
“For the first time” Campbell reported, “the thing [the ancient gospel, MG] has appeared to be practically exhibited to the proper purpose. … Mr. Scott has made a bold push to accomplish this object, by simply and boldly stating the ancient gospel and insisting upon it; and then by putting the question generally and particularly to males and females, old and young: ‘Will you come to Christ and be baptized for the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit?”/2
Scott’s evangelistic methods, thus approved, were subsequently adopted among the brethren.
When Sidney Rigdon defected to the Mormons in 1830, Thomas spent much of the winter of 1830-31 trying to rescue Rigdon and counter the effects of the Mormon doctrine. “His wise counsels and great weight of influence interposed an effective barrier to Mormonism’s encroachments.”/3 The Mormons and Rigdon soon moved on to what they perceived were greener pastures.
There are four great mottos that have been passed down through the generations of those seeking a restoration of New Testament Christianity that are traceable back to the genius of Thomas Campbell. The first is from the Declaration and Address and speaks to the essential unity of the New Testament church: “The Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, constitutionally one …”/4
The second is also from the Declaration and Address and speaks to the need for authority from the Scriptures in all matters of faith: nothing ought to be bound upon Christians “but what is expressly enjoined by the Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles … in either express terms or approved precedent.”/5
The third is that expressed at the home of Abraham Alters and is probably most often quoted: “Where the scriptures speak we speak, where the scriptures are silent, we are silent.”
The fourth speaks to the need of love to all: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
When Thomas Campbell passed from this life at the Campbell home in Bethany, W.Va., Jan. 4, 1854, Alexander knew he had lost his greatest ally and a grateful brotherhood knew it had lost a great Bible student and patriarch.
Expressions of sympathy poured into Bethany from all over the world. But Dr. Robert Richardson, who had been Thomas Campbell’s pupil and colleague, may have captured the spirit of the man in a few words: “Never was there an individual who manifested greater reverence for the Word of God, or a truer desire to see it obeyed faithfully.”/6
Thomas Campbell’s remains were laid to rest in the family cemetery known as God’s Little Acre across the road from Alexander Campbell’s home just outside the little town of Bethany.
1/ Hanna, William Herbert, Biography of Thomas Campbell Advocate of Christian Union, (Reprinted by College Press, Joplin, Mo., 1935), 151.
2/ Ibid, 152-53.
3/ Ibid, 158-59.
4/ Campbell, Thomas, Declaration and Address, (The Bethany Press, St. Louis, Mo., 1955), 44.
5/ Ibid, 45.
6/ Hanna, 198.