by Michael D. “Mike” Greene
“Upon these principles, my dear son, I fear you will wear many a ragged coat,” said Thomas Campbell to his son Alexander. Of what principles was the father speaking? Alexander, having been in America only a short time, had just refused a salary of $1,000 a year to take charge of a school in Pittsburg.
Alexander had read his father’s Declaration and Address. He had determined to dedicate his life to the advancement of the principles contained therein and to take no monetary compensation for his labor. He further purposed to “divest himself of all earthly concerns, take up the Divine book and to make it the subject of his study for six months.” Thomas’ remarks expressed a father’s concern for the well being of a son./1 But time would disprove Thomas Campbell’s dire prediction of his son’s future.
Alexander Campbell was born September 12, 1788 in Antrim County, Ireland. He was the eldest child of Thomas and Jane Corneigle. Under the tutelage of his well educated father and uncles, he was raised in a home where he was exposed to the scriptures and the classics. His later education at Glasgow University provided him a level of education enjoyed by few, especially on the frontier of America, a nation itself barely three decades old when he arrived on her shores.
Thomas Campbell had left his family in Ireland and migrated to America in 1807. Some months later, he sent for his family. A shipwreck which the family survived and a smallpox outbreak kept the family in Scotland until they were able to emigrate in 1809. It was during this time that Alexander Campbell was able to attend Glasgow University. In the 300 days he spent at the university, he was exposed to various reformation efforts led by such men as John Glas, Robert Sandeman, and James and Robert Haldane.
A more intimate acquaintance was made with a man of reformation sympathies named Greville Ewing. In small meetings at Ewing’s home religious issues of the day were discussed. Changes that Ewing called for were weekly communion, exclusion of human creeds, congregational autonomy, plurality of elders in each church and others. Ewing also held the view that faith is based on testimony rather than being a gift from God. /2 No doubt we see the influence of these men and others in Campbell’s later work including his writings, sermons, and debates.
It was also during his time at Glasgow that his increasing knowledge of the Bible and exposure to reformatory ideas led him to break with the Presbyterian Church. His father’s break was much more formal, involving letters and interaction with the presbytery and the synod. Alexander’s was the more sublime act of simply refusing communion.
Thus the stage was set for that fateful meeting between Thomas and his family on the National Pike in Pennsylvania in October, 1809. It was shortly after that meeting that Alexander made his resolve to dedicate his life to the proclamation of God’s word and the principles contained in the Declaration and Address.
When the Campbell’s returned to Western Pennsylvania, they established the Washington Association as Thomas had proposed in the Declaration and Address. A church was established near the Brush Run Creek which flows near the farm later owned by Alexander. It had no denominational name. It was simply called the Brush Run Church. It was the only church to hold membership in the Washington Association.
Alexander then begins his lifelong quest for truth. During 1810 he preached 106 sermons on the fundamental basis of Christianity. His faith in creeds, the clergy and Protestantism had been shaken. On July 15, 1810, Campbell declared the independency of the church of Christ.
As with other pioneers of the Restoration Movement, Campbell had no idea of where his commitment to the principles he had pledged to preach would take him. But he never relinquished his desire for truth.
In 1830 he wrote in the Millennial Harbinger;
“Often I have said, and often I have written, that truth, truth eternal and divine, is now and long has been with me the pearl of great price. To her I will, with the blessing of God, sacrifice everything. But on no altar will I offer her a victim. If I have lost sight of her, God who searches the hearts knows I have not done it intentionally. With my whole heart I have sought the truth, and I know that I have found it [Italics in original, MG].”/3
By the time Alexander reached the age of 22 years, he and the Campbell family found themselves among that unnamed throng of immigrants who came to the shores of the new land known as America. Thomas came due to health concerns.
Alexander and the others came to be re-united with their beloved Thomas. Some of that multitude of immigrants came to America seeking a better life and so carved out of the wilderness a thriving new nation. Others came seeking religious freedom and brought with them a mindset of independence in religion as well as politics.
The Campbells found a ready home among them as they put down roots in soil much to their liking. But their consuming purpose was not a better life, although they found such. It was not simply freedom to exercise their religion, which they also found, but a quest for something on a higher plane. Theirs became a search for a purer form of Christianity. They sought a reformation that would go far beyond the trappings of Protestantism and Catholicism all the way back to the Bible. They sought a restoration of New Testament Christianity. Theirs became a “search for the ancient order of things.”
1/Richardson, Robert, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, Vol. I, 1897, Reprinted by Religious Book Service, Indianapolis, IN., 274-75.
2/Foster, Douglas, A., Ed., The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, 2004, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 118.
3/ West, Earl Irvin, The Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 1, 1974, Gospel Advocate, Co. Nashville, TN., 54.