“A little child shall lead them” Isaiah said of God’s people during the reign of the Messiah. A little child did lead Alexander Campbell into a new found understanding of the subject and mode of baptism, which in time led him to a fuller understanding of the purpose of baptism.
It was 1812 and Margaret Campbell had just given birth to her first child. She was named Jane in honor of Alexander’s mother. As any good parent would be, Alexander was mindful of the child’s spiritual future and welfare.
In the Presbyterian tradition from which they had come, infant baptism was the norm. Alexander, Margaret, Alexander’s parents and many members of the Brush Run church to which Campbell ministered, had been sprinkled as infants.
But Alexander and the others had determined to seek out the ancient order of things, to enjoin on one another as religious obligations only what was found in the New Testament, either in express terms or approved precedent.
With respect to baptism, and with the birth of Jane, the question of baptism became a practical as well as theoretical matter which now commanded their attention. “Should we sprinkle this child as we were sprinkled?” was the question to which Alexander sought an answer.
As with many similar questions, Alexander turned to the scriptures to find his answer. As a result of his study, he concluded that there was nothing in the scriptures that enjoined sprinkling of infants.
Little Jane was not sprinkled. In addition, he came to understand that Biblical baptism was immersion of believers.
His analytical mind moved to the obvious conclusion. If there was no Biblical authority for infant baptism or sprinkling and Bible baptism is for believers, what about his own baptism? Had he ever been scripturally baptized? His conclusion was no.
Campbell began making arrangements for his own baptism. A Baptist preacher named Matthias Luce agreed to immerse him. When his plans to be immersed became known, several others also expressed a desire to be immersed.
Wednesday, June 12, 1812 was chosen as the appointed time. In all seven persons were immersed in a deep pool in the Buffalo Creek, including Alexander and Margaret, his parents, his sister and two other members of the Brush Run church. This was an unusual scene for the day and many had gathered to witness the baptisms.
The Campbell’s felt a need to explain their actions so both Thomas and Alexander spoke to the assembled crowd. Before the ceremony had concluded, seven hours had passed!
Of particular importance is Alexander’s desire that his baptism be in accord with New Testament teaching, not Baptist usage:
“Alexander had stipulated with Elder Luce that the ceremony should be performed precisely according to the pattern given in the New Testament, and that, as there is no account of any of the first converts being called upon to give what is called a ‘religious experience,’ this modern custom should be omitted, and that the candidates should be admitted on the simple confession that ‘Jesus is the Son of God.’. . . Elder Luce had, indeed, at first objected to these changes, as being contrary to Baptist usage, but finally consented, remarking that he believed they were right, and he would run the risk of censure.”/1
Within a few weeks, virtually all the members of the Brush Run church had been immersed, as they understood it, in accord with New Testament usage.
“The full import and meaning of the institution of baptism was, however, still reserved for future discovery.”/2
Alexander’s analytical and logical mind and ability to comprehend and explain the scriptures shortly gave him opportunities to make those discoveries.
He was soon called upon to defend his new found practice of believer’s immersion. His skill at doing so brought him admiration from the Baptist brethren and he soon became a champion of believer’s immersion among the Baptists.
This led to an association with the Baptists that lasted several years, which Campbell admitted, at least on his part, was one of convenience more than conviction. Campbell saw the association as providing him a wider field for the dissemination of the principles contained in the Declaration and Address, which he had committed to advance some years before.
The opportunity to make those discoveries came in the form of two formal debates about the subject and mode of baptism. Campbell at first was reluctant to enter such a field of controversy.
However, at the urging of some of the Baptist preachers, Campbell finally agreed to meet John Walker, a Presbyterian preacher in public debate.
The debate took place June 19 and 20, 1820. The subject to be debated was the subject and mode of baptism. Campbell argued that the proper subject is a believer and the proper mode is immersion. Walker argued that the sprinkling of infant was scriptural baptism
Campbell’s success in the debate convinced him of the value of such encounters. He later said that a good debate is worth a year of preaching. At the close of the Walker debate, Campbell issued a challenge to “any Pedobaptist minister of any denomination” to debate with him on the subject of infant baptism./3
The Campbell-Walker debate did two things for Campbell. It began his career as a debater. Campbell went on to have several debates including the 1829 debate with the Scottish infidel Robert Owen and the 1843 debate with the Presbyterian N. L. Rice which lasted 16 days.
It also helped crystallize his understanding of the purpose of baptism as being an essential part of the salvation process. That will be reserved for a subsequent discussion.
1/Richardson, Robert, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, Vol. I, 1897, Reprinted by Religious Book Service, Indianapolis, IN., 398.
2/ Ibid, 405.
3/West, Earl Irvin, The Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 1, 1974, Gospel Advocate, Co. Nashville, TN., 64-65.