Death of Alexander Campbell

Wheeling Daily Intelligencer
March 6, 1866


A Brief Sketch of His Life and Public Career

This remarkable man - so well known to the religious world for the last half century - died at his residence near the village of Bethany, Brooke county, sixteen miles from this city, on Sunday night last at fifteen minutes to twelve o'clock, in the seventy-eighth year of his age.

For months past he had been in failing health, but his end was accelerated by a recent severe cold, against the fatal effects of which his long overtaxed energies struggled in vain. He began to sink very noticeably more than a week ago, but up to the very last his wonderful vitality resisted the approach of death, and in the language of one who watched with him, the struggle was gigantic to the close. Few men ever possessed greater strength of constitution. He had never known until recently what it was to suffer bodily ailment. For more than forty years, at one time in his life, he had not been confined to his bed by illness for a single day. And yet no man ever taxed his strength more constantly or more severely. From his earliest manhood, and for more than sixty years of his life, early and late, Mr. Campbell was an incessant worker. His endurance was wonderful. Very little rest sufficed for him, so perfect and harmonious was the organization of his physical and mental powers.

The results of his life-long labors are familiar to the reading religious world. His leading works are on the shelves of every book store, and in the library of almost every clergyman. Those most generally known to the public are his debates, especially those with Archbishop Purcell on Roman Catholicism; with Robert Owen, the celebrated Sceptic and Socialist; and with Dr. N. L. Rice, a well known Presbyterian clergyman. Of his miscellaneous works, those most widely circulated are the "Christian System" - his work on Baptism, and his translation of the New Testament. But it was not as the author of any special book, or as a participant in any of his great debates, that Mr. Campbell was chiefly and most prominently known to the world. He was the recognized head of a new religious sect, as it was generally esteemed, called familiarly the Campbellite baptist denomination - but called by himself, and the membership of the church, the Disciples. This denomination took its origin from the teachings of himself and his father more than half a century ago, and now numbers, it is said, well nigh half a million of adherents, who are especially numerous in the States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee. Their peculiarities as a people are that they discard all human creeds and confessions of faith, and take the Bible alone as a perfect and all-sufficient rule of faith and practice, esteeming all commandments and traditions of men as necessarily fallible, superogatory, and in derogation of the all- sufficiency as well as the express injunctions of the Word of God. An other peculiarity is that they partake of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper every Sunday or First Day of the Week. They believe also that Christian Baptism can only be performed by immersion - and that there is no warrant either in the example of Christ himself, or in the teachings and practice of his Apostles, for any other baptism. Infant baptism they reject because the command is to "repent and be baptized," and baptism therefore, they hold, can only follow repentance.

The foregoing is a very brief outline of the views first taught and expounded by Alexander Campbell and his father, as religious reformers, half a century ago, and since adopted as we have seen, by a large mass of people in this country and in Europe. The arguments and details of these views are to be found in a work called the "Christian System" - the fundamental work, so to speak, of the Disciples as a denomination. The same views, especially as regards baptism, are also amplified and discussed in another work known as the "Christian Baptist," first published in serial form, and since revised and collated as a sort of text book by the denomination.

Alexander Campbell was born in the county of Antrim, Ireland, in the year 1789, and was educated, as was his father before him, at the University of Glasgow, Scotland - both of them as Presbyterian clergymen - : Thomas Campbell, the Poet, was a relative and classmate of his father. On the one side his ancestry was of Scotch origin, and on the other Hugenot French. He immigrated to this country in the year 1809, two years after his father, bringing with him his mother and younges[t] brothers and sisters, and settled at first in Washington county, Pennsylvania, near the spot in the State to which he soon after removed, and on which he has lived continuously for more than half a century. That spot, now the village of Bethany, was then a wild and secluded locality amid the hills, shut out almost from the world by the abrupt cliffs that overhang it, and the sharp windings of Buffalo creek, which, at that day, being unbridged were often not fordable. It was in this romantic and remote spot in the new world to which he had come, amid peaceful agricultural pursuits, and in the prosecution of those studies befitting his calling as a minister of the Gospel, that Alexander Campbell's long and eventful public career began, without a suspicion on his part, we may add, that he was to become one of those great pioneers in the world of reform that have appeared at rare intervals in the history of mankind, and have had power by "the sole lever of thought" to upheave the weights of ancient traditions, long adopted formulas and ??? theories, from the mind of society. He began as Martin Luther and John Wesley began, not as a would- be revolutionist, but as a reformer of his own immediate "household of faith." He looked forward to no new denomination, but comply to the correction of vital errors and innovations that had been fastened upon the primitive gospel as preached in the pulpits of that day. Martin Luther proclaimed "justification by faith," and the echo and effects of that then startling proclamation went far beyond his own conception and control. And thus Alexander Campbell, in like manner, startled those with whom he was in communion, by the declaration that "Christian Union can result from nothing short of the destruction of creeds and confessions of faith, inasmuch as human creeds and confessions have destroyed Christian Union." That whenever the setting aside of creeds and confessions shall be attempted, Christians will give to the world and to angels, and to themselves, proff that they do believe the word of God."

This was Mr. Campbell's first great distinctive enunciation or dogma.

He held also the following to be self evident truths - viz: "that nothing ought to be received into the fair? or worship of the church, or be made a term of communion among Christians, that is not as old as the New Testament. Nor ought anything be admitted as of Divine obligation in the church constitution or management, save what is enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Crist [sic] and his apostles upon the New Testament church, either in express terms or by approved precedent."

On the foregoing declaration Mr. Campbell took his stand, and th[e] consequence was that after having be[e]n arraigned as the "setter forth of strange doctrines," and the would be fo[u]nder of a new sect, which accusations he repelled by saying that "there is nothing new in Christianity," he sep[a]rated from the Presbyterian communion and began to appear in public in defe[n]se of his views and in vindication of his entire orthodoxy. We have not sp[a]ce in a brief memoir like this to follow Mr. Campbell's career as a religious controversalist, both in print and in the pulpit. Neither would it be proper of us to attempt anything beyond such an outline as befits a secular paper and affords an intelligent glance at the views of a man famous at the time of his death throughout the Christian world. His debates, in the regular order of their occurrence, was as follows: - With the Rev. John Walker, a minister of the Secession-Presbyterian church in the State of Ohio, held at Mt. Pleasant in the year 1820. This debate created a great local interest throughout all this section of country, and was attended by a vast concourse of people. Next followed his debate with the Rev. William McCalls on "Christian Baptism," held in Washington, Kentucky, in the year 1823; next his debate with Robert Owen, at Cincinnati, in the year 1828, on the truth of Christianity; next his debate in the same city in the year 1836 with Archbishop Purcell, on the Infallibility of the Church of Rome; and, finally, in the year 1843, his debate with the Rev. Dr. N. L. Rice, held in the city of Lexington, Kentucky, the specific points of which were "the notion, subject, design and administration of Christian baptism;" also the "character of Spiritual influence in conversion and sanctification," and the "expediency and tendency of ecclesiastical creeds as terms of union and communion." This debate with Dr. Rice, embraced a period of eighteen days, and was conducted before a large and interested assembly, Henry Clay presiding as Moderator, assisted by some of the first men of Kentucky. A like interest had been shown in the Owen and Purcell debates at Cincinnati, which were thronged by eminent theologians from all parts of the country.

In the year 1823 Mr. Campbell's career as a journalist began, at which period he established at his house in Bethany, the Christian Baptist. This publication soon became to the religious world what the "Spectator had been to the social world in the days of Joseph Addison. Questions were here freely propounded and discussed between friends and opponents, believers and unbelievers; correspondents were answered, accusations refuted, and doctrines and dogmas commented upon with all the freshness and vigor which Mr. Campbell's active and original mind infused into everything that claimed his attention. Those who would understand the full bearings of his position to the religious world of that period, and who would know how ably and fearlessly he sustained himself in every variety of intellectual encounter, must go back to the bound volumes of that publication. The "Christian Baptist - was, after many years, succeeded by the Millenial Harbinger, of which journal Mr. Campbell was proprietor at the time of his death. We have not space to notice here, even in cursory review, the written discussions which were carried on in the Harbinger with representative men of the various religious denominations. One of the most noted was probably a debate on Universalism with the Rev. Mr. Skinner, of New York.

In the year 1840 Mr. Campbell, in pursuance of a long cherished design, founded Bethany College, an institution which ever since has been the pride of his life and around which his warmest affections seemed to twine. Toward its founding and subsequent endowment he gave his best energies. He made the tour of the West and South more than once in its behalf. His appeals brought liberal responses from the proverbially generous people of those sections, many of whom were so devoted to him that they traveled fifty miles to hear him speak. Even Whitfield, in the zenith of his popularity, never drew together crowds more completely under his influence. No religious reformer ever was more completely enshrined in the hearts of his followers than was Alexander Campbell at the time of these celebrated tours during the last twenty-five years. He had then begun to grow old, and his head was whitening, his views had spread far and wide among the people, his name was venerated, and thousands of men, women and children regarded him with all the fondness of filial affection. And no wonder, as any one would say, who during those days could have seen him standing like Saul among the people. His whole presence was commanding - his enunciation was sonorous and magnetizing, his pronunciation was accurate and scholarly in the first degree - the outward evidences of the highest mental and moral discipline, combined with original greatness, were unmistakable, while his argumentation was as luminous, and as grand and all sweeping in its comprehensiveness as the sun light itself. Men of all creeds heard him enraptured, and the tributes that were paid him by the journals of the day wherever he went were perhaps never accorded to any mere theologian in this country.

Ever since founding Bethany College he has been its President. Those who have attended that institution do not need to be told of its most interesting feature. Mr. Campbell's morning lectures, reported as many of them were during late years for publishers, will always be read and remembered. A chapter was read in the Bible by some student selected in alphabetical order, and then commented upon by the President. During these lectures he always sat in his chair, and his remarks were of the ??? and most conversational character. Frequently the whole hour would be consumed on the philology of a single verse. Misconception of generic terms, Mr. Campbell always contended, had been the foundation of untold errors in Biblical science. In all his debates and in all conversations, not less than in these lectures, he, therefore, stated a proposition, stripped of every vestige of ambiguity, by compelling a definition of terms. These terms he would trace down to their roots in the dead languages. It was a custom with many students to leave questions on his desk, and these were often made the subject of a lecture. Thus his intercourse every morning with the whole class of students in attendance at the College was of such a character as to greatly endear him to them.

But it was in social life, in the midst of his friends and relatives, especially around his own ever-thronged and ever-hospitable fireside, that Alexander Campbell was most truly loved and honored, and there the vacuum can never be filled. As a conversationalist he was as constantly the devoted centre of attraction for old and young, stranger or relative, as ever were Coleridge or M???. His information, derived from life long study and from travels in Europe and America, and from his experience among every variety of life, was inexhaustible, and always charming by its exceeding simplicity. His manner toward the humblest, domestic of this household was engaging. Never were the ??? characteristics of a gentleman more certainly manifested than in him. Children loved the very sight of him. "None knew him but to love him."

We have not had time to dwell upon many incidents of Mr. Campbell's life. We have omitted his career as a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1828-30, in which body he sat as a member of the Judiciary Committee along with Chief Justice Marshall, and in which he encountered Randolph and the most distinguished men of that day in debate. It was in that body that he gave prophetic notic of what would ultimately be the course of Western Virginia, and of what he lived to see accomplished. He had for his colleague from this part of the State a man worthy to be his ally - Phillip Doddridge - and no two men in that body of great minds, gave more evidence of Virginia's intellectual resources in those days.

Of Mr. Campbell's tour to Europe, in 1847, we have also omitted to speak. Partly for his health, and partly to visit the congregations of his Church in Great Britain, he undertook the tour. On reaching London he was the honored guest of our Minister at the Court of St. James - Mr. Bancroft, and through him and through letters from the first men of this country, was the recipient of honors and attentions from the great leaders and moulders of political and religious opinion in England. Only in Scotland, in the city of Edinburg, did anything occur to mar the influence and pleasure of his trip. His position on the slavery question had been grossly misrepresented by a clergyman who was desirous to engage him in debate, but with whom Mr. Campbell refused to hold any intercourse on account of his questionable character. The refusal for the cause assigned lead to a recourse before the civil tribunals on the part of the clergymen in an action for libel, the final result of which was a verdict in Mr. Campbell's favor. Mr. Campbell never was the champion of American slavery. He believed, however, that the relation of master and slave had existed in Biblical times under the divine sanction, or, at all events, tolerance, and while he did not desire to be regarded as the apolog[i]st of American slaver, he contended that it should not be a test question of communion in the Churches. This was his position in Scotland, before the people of that country, as it had been here at home before the American people. His own slaves he had emancipated many years previous.

The closing hours of this great and good man's life were inexpressibly affecting to the group of tender friends and relatives that watched round his bed side. At times his mind would wander over old familiar scenes and he would recall them by name. He was oppressed with a longing for rest and quiet and home. He was weary with his long journey, and he spoke of his desire to be led to his friends and kindred and to be at peace. Not a murmur, not a complaint, once escaped him - he was he was gentle and meek and patient throughout - only he was oppressed with a restless weariness. A letter dated from his chamber at half past two o'clock of Saturday morning last, to the writer of this memoir, speaks thus of him:

"I am sitting up to-night with our dear uncle. We fully though this would be his last night on earth. But he has survived the turn of the night and may possibly wear through another day. His strength is wonderful. All this night I have thought as I watched him of a giant grappling with a desperate foe, or of some noble animal struggling to be disentangled from the enemy's toils, chafed and fretted within its narrow boundaries. Death has no power to dim this great mind - his senses are as acute and clear as ever, and his beautiful nature shows the same in all things. His gentleness and patience mid his suffering break all our hearts. Such sweetness and submission to the slightest wish of others around him - such kind consideration for every one who comes into his presence - his little expressions of greeting, and his little inquiry after the welfare of those who come to see him, and such putting away of personal complaint or suffering, moves every beholder to tears. All this could never be seen in a character less great and grand than his. He is himself, noble and good and great, as nature made him, to the very last. The commanding and fascinating elements of his character are intact in the midst of the wreck of matter. Such passages of Scripture as he has recited even in his wanderings, and such grand sentences as have fallen from his lips - such beautiful soliloquies upon 'the fleetness of time' and upon 'doing good while we can,' &c. - are wonderful, very wonderful to all of us. All the records of great men, and their closing hours, give no such precious remembrances. To us who live him so, he appears the greatest of them all, Humboldt, you know, looking upon the setting sun with his dying eyes, said, 'Light! more light!!' and Goethe, dying at the same hour of closing day, raised his hand and made as though he were writing in the air, according to his habit of describing all his sensations as they came. But these dying witnesses of the lives they had led, characteristic as they were, how tame, how meaningless compared with what our uncle expressed an evening or so ago, watching the glories of the departing sun. Its last rays were streaming through the windows directly in front of his bed, and fell upon it. A group of friends sat round him in silence and he turning from them to the sinking sun repeated that passage from Malachi which had been so often on his lips during his life, running thus: "But unto you that fear my name shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings." What a beautiful testimony of the work of his long life was conveyed in that quotation."

Such were the closing hours of Alexander Campbell - by thousands and tens of thousands esteemed to have been the greatest theologian of his day. We have taken the liberty to use what was intended to be a private letter, because in no other way could we give satisfaction to his many friends, here and elsewhere, as to his last hours. May we not on their behalf appropriately close this memoir with these lines from Tennyson?

"Mourn for to us he seems the last,
Remembering all his greatness in the past:
Mourn for the man of amplest influence,
Our greatest yet with least pretence,
And, as the greatest only are,
In his simplicity sublime,
Such was he whom we deplore,
The long self sacrifice is o'er."