John Locke - Alexander Campbell - Spirituality

Alexander Campbell himself wrote, "I reasoned in this way, that if the spirit of a man dwells in his head, then head religion must be better than heart religion." The Spirit of God is the Mind of Christ (2 Corinthians 2). Therefore the spirit of man is the mind of man or that which "knows" rather than the emotional end-run created by "anxiety created by religious ritual" which is the "burden" laded upon the minds or spirits of Christians set free. The following article denies that Alexander Campbell was unfeeling or unspiritual:



The Book

Alexander Campbell: A Sacramental Christian

by Steve DeFields-Gambrel

(An M.Div. Student at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, IN)

Presented to Dr. D. Newell Williams

Posted April 11, 1997 For Educational Purposes Only With Comments

From the very beginning, the Stone-Campbell movement was criticized as a religion of the head, lacking heartfelt spirituality. Much of the blame for this has been placed on Alexander Campbell, beginning with his close friend and biographer, the man who preached his funeral, Dr. Robert Richardson, who wrote in a letter to Isaac Errett:

"The philosophy of John Lock with which Bro. Campbell's mind was deeply imbued in youth has insidiously mingled itself with almost all great points in the reformation and has been all the whole like an iceberg in the way - chilling the heart and benumbing the hands, and impeding all progress in the right direction."

Indeed, in 1824 Alexander Campbell himself writes, "I reasoned in this way, that if the spirit of a man dwells in his head, then head religion must be better than heart religion..." This spirit, or so-called lack of spirit, has created innumerable problems for the Disciples tradition, although the extent of the Lockian influence is debatable. But Alexander Campbell cannot be reduced to such a heartless image:

"Religion in the heart," he also wrote, "or rooted in the moral nature of man, transfuses itself through the whole frame and identity of its happy and holy subject...It distills the dews of heaven on the heart..."

"Now if the Gospel dwell in a a fruitful vine it yields in his heart, and in his life, the heavenly clustre of love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, goodness, fidelity, meekness, temperance...Like precious ointment it diffuses in his heart heavenly odours, and the sweetness of its prefume exhales in his life." And in answer to his critics he adds, "I have never denied it, yea, I have always taught it."

These are not the words of a cold, heartless, intellectual Christian. Eva Jean Wrather says of him, "far from being deficient in Spiritual insight or feeling, Campbell's whole life was encompassed 'round with a deep sense of 'the mystery of godliness."

So what is the truth? What are we to make of these contradictory images? It is incumbent upon the heirs of Campbell to understand this puzzling aspect of our founder's religion, and then to discover or rediscover a form of spirituality appropriate to our context.

But this problem does not exist for Disciples alone. David Tracy writes for our era:

"A fair generalization is the following: modern Christian liberal theologies have been strong on the apologetic task and hermeneutically and historically conscious on the modern complexities in the interpretation of the heart of the tradition. But, as the recent explosion of interest in the role of praxis for all theory and the role of piety, spirituality, or existential religious awareness make clear, Christian liberal theology has become relatively under-developed in its attempted critical retrievals of Christian spirituality."

Thus the urgency is even greater to unlock a form of spirituality for those who are deeply rational but also wish for a deeply heartfelt spirituality.

I will attempt to move toward that task by seeking a clearer understanding of Alexander Campbell's system of spirituality. I use the term system quite deliberately, because for Campbell, "If naturebe a system, religion is no less so." Campbell was a systematic man, and so his practice of spirituality would inevitably have been systematic. It is my thesis that Campbell was a deeply heartfelt, spiritual man, and that he had a systematic practice of distinctly sacramental spirituality which brought him a meaningful experience of the presence of God.

Sacrament is defined as "a rite in which it is believed God's saving grace is uniquely active...In general, Roman Catholics regard the Sacraments as themselves channels (means) of Sanctifying (habitual) grace."

We will find that this definition exactly matches Campbell's understanding of how the Holy Spirit works, though he will not use the term "sacrament."

However, Campbell connected grace to the manner in which the supper is administered. All quotations are From Alexander Campbell's The Christian System

But much depends upon the manner of celebrating the supper, as well as upon the frequency. The simplicity of the Christian institution runs through every part of it. While there is the form of doing every thing, there is all attention to the thing signified. But there is the form as well as the substance, and every thing that is done, must be done in some manner. The well bred Christian is like the well bred gentleman--his manners are graceful, easy, artless, and simple. All stiffness and forced formality are as graceless in the Christian as in the gentleman. A courteous and polite family differs exceedingly from a soldier's mess mates or a ship's crew, in all the ceremonies of the table. There is a Christian decency and a Christian order, as well as political courtesy and complaisance.

Campbell did not make the physical act the means of God's grace:

If, then, in the emblematic house of God, to which corresponds the Christian house of God, there was not only a table overlaid with gold, always spread, and on it displayed twelve large loaves, or cakes, sacred

memorials and emblems of God's bounty and grace;

shall we say that in that house, over which Jesus is a Son, there is not to stand always a table more precious than gold, covered with a richer repast for the holy and royal priesthood which the Lord has instituted, who may always enter into the holy place consecrated by himself.

D. Newell Williams explains that the ordinances are what Campbell termed "means of grace," which are ways of "impressing the proposition that God is love upon the understanding and affections. Thus, it is my claim that by what he calls "means of grace," Campbell is practicing what might be termed "Sacramental Spirituality." We will follow this theme through the paper and reexamine it at the conclusion.

As the calling of Bible things by Bible names is an important item in the present reformation, we may here take the occasion to remark, that both "the Sacrament" and "the Eucharist" are of human origin.

The former was a name adopted by the Latin church; because the observance was supposed to be an oath or vow to the Lord; and, as the term [p. 320] sacramentum signified an oath taken by a Roman soldier, to be true to his general and his country, the presumed to call this institution a sacrament or oath to the Lord.

By the Greek church it is called the Eucharist, which word imports the giving of thanks, because before participating, thanks were presented for the loaf and the cup. It is also called the communion, or "the communion of the saints;" but this might indicate that it is exclusively the communion of saints; and, therefore, it is more consistent to denominate it literally 'the breaking of the loaf.' But this is the only preliminary to the illustration and proof of our fifth proposition.

Next we shall introduce an American Rabbi of very great celebrity, Dr. John Mason, of New York. The passages which I quote are found in a note attached to page 188th of the New York Edition of Fuller's Strictures on Sandemanianism.

"Mr. Fuller does not deny that the Lord's Supper was observed by the first Christians every Lord's day, (nor will this be denied by any man who has candidly investigated the subject,) but he seems to think that Acts xx. 7. does not prove that it was so;

others, eminent for piety and depth of research, have considered this passage as affording a complete proof of the weekly observance of the Lord's supper. Dr. Scott, in his valuable Commentary, observes on this passage, 'Breaking of bread, or commemorating the death of Christ in the eucharist,

was one chief end of their assembling; this ordinance seems to have been constantly administered every Lord's day, and probably no professed Christians absented themselves from it, after they had been admitted into the church; unless they lay under some censure, or had some real hindrance.'

"Objection 3. If the Lord's supper were frequently administered, it would become less solemn, and, in time, quite contemptible, as we see is the case with baptism, through the frequency of the administration of that ordinance.

"Answer. Is this means of keeping up the credit of the Lord's supper, of God's devising or not? If it is, where is that part of his word that warrants it? The contrary I have already proved from Scripture. Since, then, it is only of man's invention, what ground is there to hope it will really maintain the credit and solemnity of the ordinance?

Did not the Papists of old, pretend to maintain and advance its solemnity, by reduction of the frequency of administration?

Did they not take away the cup from the people, which Calvin says was the native consequence of the former?

Did [331] they not annex the administration of this ordinance to those seasons which superstition had aggrandized; namely, Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas? Did they not annex a world of ceremonies to it?

Did they not pretend that it was a real sacrifice, and that the elements were changed by consecration, into the real body and blood of Christ? And, did all this tend to the support of the proper credit of this ordinance? On the contrary, did it not destroy it?

Though the doctrine of transubstantiation procured a kind of reverence for it, yet, was this reverence divine? or, was it not rather devilish, in worshipping the elements? Now, how are we sure that our unfrequent administration of this ordinance will more effectually support its solemnity? Is it not strange that we should have so much encouragement from the practice of the Apostles, the primitive Christians, and the whole of the reformed churches, to profane this solemn ordinance; while the most ignorant and abandoned Papists are our original pattern, for the course that tends to support its proper honor and credit? What a strange case this must be, if, in order to support the credit of God's ordinance, we must forsake the footsteps of the flock, and walk in the paths originally chalked out by the most ignorant and wicked antichristians?

Upon the loaf and upon the cup of the Lord, in letters which speak not to the eye, but to the heart of every disciple, is inscribed, "When this you see, remember me." Indeed, the Lord says to each disciple, when he receives the symbols into his hand, 'This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you.' The loaf is thus constituted a representation of his body--first whole, then wounded for our sins. The cup is thus instituted a representation of his blood--once his life, but now poured out to cleanse us from our sins. To every disciple he says, For you my body was wounded; for you my life was taken. In receiving it the disciple says, "Lord, I believe it. My life sprung from thy suffering; my joy from thy sorrows; and my hope of glory everlasting from thy humiliation and abasement even to death." Each disciple, in handing the symbols to his fellow-disciple, says, in effect, "You, my brother, once an alien, are now a citizen of heaven; once a stranger, are now brought home to the family of God. You have owned my Lord as your Lord, my people as your people. Under Jesus the Messiah we are one. Mutually embraced in the everlasting arms, I embrace you in mine: thy sorrows shall be my sorrows, and [322] thy joys my joys. Joint debtors to the favor of God and the love of Jesus, we shall jointly suffer with him, that we may jointly reign with him. Let us, then, renew our strength, remember our King, and hold fast our boasted hope unshaken to the end."

Here he knows no man after the flesh. Ties that spring from eternal love, revealed in blood, and addressed to his senses, draw forth all that is within him of complacent affection and feeling, to those joint heirs with him of the grace of eternal life. While it represents to him 'the bread of life'--all the salvation of the Lord--it is the strength of his faith, the joy of his hope, and the life of his love.

Preliminary Considerations

But before examining each of the specific sacraments he held dear, there is a need to pause for two considerations; Alexander Campbell is often misunderstood for two major reasons. The first is that Campbell spent his life opposing the understanding of conversion practiced in experimental religion. Experimental religion taught that the Holy Spirit works "immediately" upon the unconverted, producing a sequence of emotional upheavals leading to salvation, and that this happened "apart from means of grace such as prayer, meditation, reading the Scriptures, and church attendance."

Against this, Campbell argued that the Holy Spirit "puts forth its moral power in arguments and motives, that is, in 'words', which Campbell broadly defines as 'significant signs' addressed to the mind." Campbell felt that the Holy Spirit could not work directly on an unconverted sinner in any capacity, that, as Paulsell describes Campbell's understanding, "God does not hear the prayers of people without faith." In fact, then, it was reason, rational persuasion based on the facts of the Gospel that brought about conversion. (The Christian System explains this understanding in great detail.)

But once the sinner is converted, there is every possibility for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts and minds of the believer. However, because Campbell is usually writing about the process of conversion, he is often misunderstood to deny the work of the Holy Spirit, and thus to deny any personal experience of God. Thus every statement Campbell makes should be carefully located: is he speaking of before or after conversion?

Before leaving this issue, it should be recognized that there is an open question whether Campbell thought that the Holy Spirit could work in the mind of the believer in any other way but rational argument using language. Nonetheless, Campbell will be seen to be clear that the Holy Spirit is active in the believer to bring about heartfelt graces.

Secondly, for Campbell the deepest and most powerful emotional experiences are found through rationality, through the rational testimony to facts. He writes "Fact, testimony, faith, feeling, action are therefore bound together," and in that order - fact, then reasonable explanation (testimony) of the fact, then feelings from the heart. "He that believes the facts testified...feels according to their nature..." The cognitive schools of psychology explain this process; Albert Ellis' "Rational-Emotive Therapy" (R.E.T.) suggests that all emotions derive from our minds, from the self-talk we engage in internally, e.g. we convince ourselves that our situation is hopeless, then we become depressed, and we can reason ourselves out of depression by convincing internal debate. For Campbell, the most emotionally powerful force he knew was a well-reasoned argument. He was incapable of comprehending the division that many of us make between head and heart. He was perhaps equally incapable of getting emotional about anything that was not rational.

I recently sat in on a class my wife is taking at another college, from a professor who would practically jump out of his chair with joy over a clearly stated syllogism of Plato; he was moved to a nearly religious ecstasy by elegant reasoning. Campbell was such a man. As we look at Campbell's spiritual lifestyle, I believe the reader will be able to see how Campbell's heart was reached through his intellect. When reading him, then, we must be wary of making too much of a distinction between mind/intellect, and heart/emotion.

With these two considerations in mind, then, I propose to examine Campbell's sacramental approach to the Scriptures, to prayer, to family worship, to public worship, to the Lord's Day, to the Lord's Supper, and to baptism.


With Campbell, one can hardly separate the topic of Scripture from the topic of prayer. For him, studying Scriptures was a part of prayer, a form of prayer. Consider the following:

"Speech with us is the channel of is the medium of converse 'twixt God and man. Arranged in words of human language the Eternal Spirit appears to man not now only; for in Eden, blooming in primeval beauty and innocence, the voice of God in harmonies sweeter than nature knows, fell upon the ear not yet polluted with the serpent's poisonous breath...God now speaks to us in his written word, and we speak to him in our prayers. Thus we have communion with God through his Holy Spirit which is imparted to us. If we listen to God when he speaks (for he speaks first as becomes him) he promises to listen to us...we hear the recorded words of God spoken by him through angels...and thus having given our ears for a while to the voice of God, we lift up our voice to him."

There are two critical themes to unpack in this powerful paragraph. First is the central power of words. As stated earlier, for Campbell, the Spirit reached his heart through reasoning, and reasoning was through words. In all of Campbell's writing, I find this theme recurring,

that words are the medium through which the Spirit works and through which God communicates. Words, for Campbell, are holy, sacramental.

Secondly, but derived from the first, reading Scriptures is a holy act, it is to be in the very presence of God.

Campbell goes directly to Eden, to God walking with the first couple in the evenings to make the powerful claim that words are God's means to be present to us. Campbell's public writings seem to make the claim that the only way God communicates with us in this age is through the Scriptures. Thus prayer is first listening to God by Bible study, then, petitioning God through verbal prayer. We will later find that Campbell privately held experiences of more mysterious communication from God, but he was reluctant to make this into a public stance.

For public consumption, Campbell seemed to claim that the Holy Spirit worked exclusively through the means of grace of Christian ordinances, which I am calling sacraments, all of which had the Bible at their center. The act of Bible study, then, was a primary sacrament.

In Bethany, Campbell read to the students from the Bible and expounded on it every morning. He did the same in family worship. In the medieval, monastic world was the practice of lectio divina, "reading for holiness." Campbell's method was certainly not the same as the monastics, but I would claim that his aim was similar; he aimed to be in the very presence of God throughreading the Bible carefully, and he believed he was. Thus, Campbell's very intellectual and voluminous Bible study was far from merely intellectual, it was for him spiritual, and a work of the heart.

It goes without saying that Bible study for Campbell also involved a rigorous exegetical method which has often been imitated. For Campbell the Bible was to be understood using the same rational methods as one would use for any other ancient manuscript, but the message, once understood thoroughly, was the presence and power of God to the believer.


After listening to God, he would talk to God. Campbell wrote a great deal about prayer, and as we sample a few of his thoughts, it is important to keep in mind that to a remarkable degree, prayer and Bible study overlap. "Meditation on what God has spoken to us [Bible study], and the outpourings of our spirit to him, is to the moral man what free respiration in a pure atmosphere is to the physical man - health, vigor, beauty." In the same article, he provides an example of a long dialogue an individual had with God, while reading Romans 12. The dialogue consists of reading a passage, and then praying out loud to God about that passage, then reading another passage. Then, Campbell writes, "This is a pretty fair specimen of that communion with God...This is a way of reading the holy oracles." I would add that this example is not that different from lectio divina.

In terms of the part of prayer where the believer talks to God, Campbell urges great humility. Speaking to students at Bethany, he said "Prayer is begging - supplicating - asking favors...Gentlemen, we are royal beggars." He then emphasizes the role of Christ as our mediator in prayer. Richardson says that "Alexander's style of prayer might at first appear too composed and calm; but his manner was the natural expression of a high intellectual nature, necessarily undemonstrative, as holding the feelings in abeyance, but not on that account less deep, fervid and sincere. In a word his manner was reverential without being abject; deliberate, but not frigid, earnest, but not impassioned..."

Prayer was of tantamount importance, "A prayerless Christian is, to the eye of reason, an absurdity, as it is the eye of faith an impossibility. I could not imagine a prayerless Christian, any more than a breathless man. Prayer is but the Christian's breath." In her reminiscences, his wife recalls that "he was often known to stand and soliloquize, in addresses to God and about Him, when he thought no one heard him." She adds, "It was his usual practice when singing either in the family or in the church to look up heavenward - his prayers were ever abounding. In the night time, when he would awake I have heard him reverentially address the throne of grace, and so habitual was this fervor of devotion that he fell into the habit of praying aloud in his sleep and most connectedly too." Even further, "And not long before his departure I heard him, while profoundly asleep, give a discourse on the second coming of our Lord; it was thrilling. O, that it could have been penned, for Mr. C. was very cautious in giving his views on this topic!" Allowing for some familial hyperbole, it still seems that Campbell treated prayer as a powerful spiritual discipline!

Family Worship

Closely connected to prayer, it appears that Campbell took family worship as a sacramental duty. The entire family was gathered morning and evening, including servants. Mrs. Campbell remembers:

"Nothing was permitted to interrupt the regularity of this sublime privilege. It was not attended to as a cold, formal duty, but it was made inspiring to all in attendance, by wife and children taking part, either in reading verses, turn about, in the precious book, or reciting passages of Scripture. Hymns were often recited, and sometimes chapters and parts of chapters."

Here again, we see the Scriptures play a heavy sacramental role in worship. The regularity of the practice was unfailing, indicating his serious commitment to the practice, as well as the systematic approach to life that characterized Alexander Campbell. Of course, the sacramental reading of Scriptures was an important part of the event. Further, Mrs. Campbell writes that when he was preparing for a trip and would be away from home for a time, he would call the family together for special prayers and supplications.

The Lord's Day

The proper observance of the Lord's Day, sometimes called the Sabbath, was a normal, and one might say generic duty of Christians in Campbell's era. But it was not without its controversies in practice. Given Campbell's devotion to eliminating all but the primitive, apostolic practices, he would not have observed the Lord's Day carefully unless he were convinced of its significance. Indeed, he writes, "Baptism, the Lord's Day, and the Holy Supper are indispensable provisions of remedial remedy." Given the volumes of literature devoted to baptism and the Holy Supper, one might wonder at Campbell's including the Lord's Day in this list of three - he obviously did not write about it as often as the others. He did occasionally engage in dialogue with Sabbatarians about the seventh-day Sabbath proposal, and with Christians who wondered why he used the term "The Lord's Day," rather than the "Sabbath," but these were really minor discussions.

Nonetheless, the sacramental practice of the day was important. According to Richardson, Campbell tried to avoid travel on Sunday except to religious meetings, and he discouraged Sunday visiting, prefering to devote the day to "joyful memory of the resurrection of Christ:

"The morning of the day we freely consecrate to the Lord in reading, meditation, prayer, with other necessary duties. During the day we assemble to commemorate the death, resurrection and works of Christ - to pray, to praise, to comfort and edify one another, and to converse only on such things as stand connected with our Church relations and relative duties, and if ever anything of a worldly nature is introduced, it is not of choice, but of necessity...In the evening of the day we conclude as we began."

From personal experience I can say that to practice a Sabbath or Lord's Day in this manner allows one to enter into a quasi-meditative state, a sort of sanctified time which clearly can be described as spiritual.

Public Worship

It is only by arbitrary choice that I discuss public worship before addressing the Lord's Supper. For Campbell, they were intertwined, yet separate, and of the two, the Supper was supreme. In fact, "it must be said that the desire for meeting together is for the Lord's Supper. The sermon would be one of those means of edification and comfort connected with it." Preaching, in fact, is of doubtful propriety.

Nevertheless, Campbell had definite views on what constituted proper public worship. He suggests that worship include prayer, praise, the Supper, reading the Scriptures, teaching, exhortations, but Campbell was not by any means rigidly fixed on a certain format or liturgy. His descriptions of services he approved of are various, but themes include a certain reverence (he often uses the word solemn, but will contrast that word with gloom to say that worship should not be gloomy), simplicity, periods of silentreflection, and lack of pomposity of any kind.

Campbell's preaching style was described as deeply logical and reasonable (naturally), but also conversational, with a lack of gestures or drama. Steffer says, "According to the sources, we have seen that his sermons really were themselves devotional exercises." Steffer then quotes Evelyn Underhill, the famous authority on mysticism, who places the sermon in worship as in the "category of prayer, and is to be classed as a supernatural act: bringing all those who submit themselves to its influence into communion with God." Having already seen how strongly Campbell describes prayer as communion (including Bible study in his system of prayer), and how strongly Campbell feels that words are the main means used by the Holy Spirit to reach humanity, the Underhill quotation seems very appropriate for Campbell. Steffer goes on to say, "When the sermon is non-liturgical, and not placed in a worshipful becomes intellectualism, moralism, or emotionalism." Here I believe Steffer understands the reason why Campbell puzzles us. The same words, practices, and events may seem dry or heartless, or on the other end of the scale, mere emotionalism unless one experiences them in the liturgical or sacramental attitude.

The Lord's Supper

Breaking the Loaf, as Campbell liked to call it, was for him one of the most sublime sacraments. "Spiritual health, as well as corporal health, is dependent on food." Campbell would adamantly deny any hint of a belief in literal transubstantiation, but in a more Protestant manner, he clearly believed that the sacrament of the Lord's Supper was to be performed every Lord's Day as in the apostolic church, and not just for ceremony or to be obedient or simply to remember the Lord's Passion. Rather, it was spiritual food, a means by which grace enters the soul.

"But much depends upon the manner of celebrating the supper, as well as upon the frequency. The simplicity of the Christian institution runs through every part of it. While there is the form of doing every thing, there is all attention to the thing signified. But there is the form as well as the substance, and every thing that is done must be done in some manner." He goes on to write "There is a saintishness in demeanor and appearance, which differs as much from sanctity, as foppery from politeness."

In this passage we can discern the reason for Campbell's insistence on simplicity. Campbell was seeking the reality of the presence of God in these sacraments, and he felt that an emphasis on elaborate forms would detract from the realization of the presence. Where Roman Catholics in their way sought intensify the affective experience of participants through more elaborate liturgy,

and frontier experimental religion sought to bring forth powerful emotions in participants as a sign of the presence of God, Campbell felt that each approach drew attention to the human activity, not the divine presence in the sacrament, a presence which Campbell accepted as a matter of faith. ??

Similarly, in his preaching we have seen that he is characterized as calm, conversational, with a lack of gestures or emotive flair. In both his preaching and his approach to the Lord's Table Campbell is deliberately simple, keeping the human element to a minimum, getting out of the way, so to speak, so as to let the sacrament work. But it should not be doubted that his reason for a simple, unemotional practice was precisely to make room for the experience of the presence of God.

Continuing his discussion of breaking the loaf, he addresses feelings, but not as emotionalism. "But to act right in any thing, we must feel right. If we would show love, we must first possess it. If a person would walk humbly, he must be humble; and if one would act the Christian on any occasion, he must always live the Christian. Persons who daily converse with God, and who constantly meditate upon salvation, will not need to be told how they should demean themselves at the Lord's table."

For Campbell, I believe emotionalism or overly formal liturgies distracted the soul from paying "all attention to the thing signified." This may, in fact, be the precise key needed to unlock Campbell's spirituality, the word attention. If emotionalism in excess distracts from a concentrated attention to the presence of God, the spiritual discipline Campbell held most dear was concentration, focus, attention.

I am reminded that contemplative Christian meditation, or the popular Asian meditative religions are both often misunderstood to be emotional states. In fact, such contemplation or meditation when practiced by most mystics throughout the world, involves a form of concentrated attention that is distinctly without emotions, though not hostile to the heart at all. Jacob Needleman in Lost Christianity speaks of "the power of gathered attention, the power of the soul, and says "'Lost Christianity' is the lost or forgotten power of man to extract the pure energy of the soul from the experiences that make up his life."

Needleman also reminds the reader of the ancient contemplative Christian practiceof a form of attention known as "apatheia", which literally means without or freedom from emotions, and writes that "Apatheia...marks a decisive turning point in the spiritual itinerary of the Christian. It is the door to contemplation, or more exactly, its vestibule."

Campbell was in debate with a mysticism that in his age was characterized by emotional excess and sensationalism. For that reason, he would no doubt object to any association of his name with mystic traditions. But it may well be that he believed in a form of paying attention to the presence of God that is quite compatible with apatheia. For Campbell, and for the contemplatives, the heart is something deeper than the emotions.


Campbell was concerned with the experience which baptism brought, not simply a dry, heartless ceremony. Speaking of remission of sins, of which baptism is to him the means of this grace, he writes, "It is the salvation of the soul in the present life of which we speak. Baptism is to be an emotional cleansing:

"From the conscience, I say, for there its malignity is felt; and it is only in releasing the conscience from guilt, and its consequences - fear and shame, that we are released from the dominion of sin, or washed from its pollution in this world. Thus immersion, says Peter, saves us, not by cleansing the body from its filth, but the conscience from its guilt; yes, immersion saves us by burying us with Christ, raising us with him, and so our consciences are purified from dead works to serve the living God."

Click for Campbell's views on regeneration.

Click for Clement of Alexandria's very early view.

Remembering that for him, facts (or well reasoned conclusions based on facts) had emotional power, Campbell is here claiming that if the believer believes (is persuaded fully by reason from the facts of the Gospel) in the sacrament of baptism, there will be a real-life result in the heart, in the experience. But the emotion does not precede, or precipitate the grace of God. Rational acceptance of this grace brings forth the heartfelt experience.

Still, it is typical of Campbell's personality that he describes a cleansing of negative emotions more than an experience of positive emotions. Despite the fact that I am claiming Campbell to be a deeply heartfelt Christian practicing deep spiritual presence, it must be acknowledged that he, like many great intellectuals, often found emotions to be a distraction to an experience of God that was - for him - deeper, and thus closer to the heart, and that deeper experience of God was - for him - more often precipitated by overwhelming rational conviction.


I have characterized Campbell as a Sacramental Christian. After looking at how he practices what I believe were for him seven primary sacramental practices, I would like to reconsider this sacramental thesis.

One objection to the use of the term sacrament may be that it is unnecessary, and that Campbell might more appropriately be termed a pietist. Certainly piety places Campbell within his Presbyterian and Scottish history. However, T. Hartley Hall IV states that piety "focuses upon a person's behavior as regards the duties and obligations inherent to religion," and that "for Presbyterians its primary focus is always upon a manner of living that is consonant with and responsible in relation to one's religious commitments." There is in the term piety, then, a distinct lack of interest in the inward experience of the believer, it self-consciously de-emphasizes the religion of the heart. I believe our evidence suggests that Campbell was in fact very interested in the inward experience, and in transformation of the heart. To be sure, there is a strong pietistic current in Campbell, but I believe that we have also discovered a strong and central sacramental current.

This thesis is not unique. In the same article quoted in the beginning by Eva Jean Wrather, she writes:

"On the other hand, Campbell had no patience with the type of liberal who was tolerant of all things and firm in none, who substituted a social ethic for a vital transcendental religion. Sometimes differing widely from liberal Protestantism, Campbell held a sacramental view of the Catholics, Campbell realized the dramatic value of the sacraments...Moreover, the sacraments, Campbell felt, were the divinely appointed means by which man reaches mystic union with God - a more important thing, after all, than union with man."

Wrather's words, written in 1938, resonate strikingly with Tracy's criticism of modern liberals. She may be interjecting a criticism of liberals of her era back into Campbell's time inappropriately, but still, I believe the evidence shows that she reads Campbell correctly.

Williams interprets Campbell to believe that "Prayer, meditation, the Lord's Day, the Lord's Supper, fasting, confession of sins, and praise are all distinctive means by which the transforming proposition disclosed in the gospel - that God is love - triumphs in the believer's heart and life."

He goes on to say that "The consequent blessings, which result from faith in the gospel and use of the means of grace, are transformation of the will from alienation towards God to love of God and neighbor and eternal happiness." Note the centrality of means, which connotes a sacramental understanding. Notice also the often misunderstood relationship to experimental religion. Williams claims that "Campbell believed that 'popular beliefs' related to the term experimental religion were preventing the progress of experimental religion!" Williams then quotes Campbell himself from pp. 358-359 of Richardson's Memoirs, "How often have we said that the greatest objection we have against the whole system we oppose is because of its impotency on the heart."

But Campbell makes the point unavoidably explicit in a very sacramental view of "bodily acts:"

"Reader, be admonished how you speak of bodily acts in obedience to divine institutions. Remember Eve, Adam, and all transgressors on the one hand. Remember Abel, Noah, Enoch, Moses, Abraham, down to the harlot Rahab, on the other, and be cautious how you speak of bodily acts! Rather remember the sacrifice of a body on Mount Calvary, and talk not lightly of bodily acts. There is no such thing as outward bodily acts in the Christian institution; and less than all others, in the act of immersion. Then it is the spirit, soul, and body of man become one with the Lord. Then it is that the power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit come upon us."

It is difficult for me to read this passage and not understand Campbell as describing certain bodily acts in the Christian institution as powerful sacraments (and not just baptism), and also that real inward, powerful experience is to be expected from these sacraments. He also writes, "And can eating bread and drinking wine not influence nor affect the soul? And cannot the breath of one man pierce the heart of another, and move his blood, as to make his head a fountain of tears?"

But there is need here for a disclaimer; the list of seven sacramental acts practiced by Campbell as noted in this paper is not exhaustive. Williams notes above that Campbell spoke favorably of fasting and confession of sins. He also spoke favorably of foot washing, at least in some situations. My list only means to suggest the principal and central sacraments of his daily life. In one sense, all of life is sacramental for a sacramental Christian.

Another issue needs revisited, as well. Earlier, on page five of this paper, it seemed that Campbell believed that " the medium of converse 'twixt God and man," and that the Holy Spirit only communicates through words, and in this age the words of the Gospel. Is Scripture the only means by which the Holy Spirit communicates to us?

In one sense, all of the sacraments and "bodily acts" we have examined are ways of experiencing the presence of the Spirit of God. Campbell at least means that the Holy Spirit is present not only through the words of Scripture, but also through the ordinances Scriptures commands us to practice.

But there is a deeper issue at stake here. Campbell was at all times in controversy with what he believed was rampant, excessive emotionalism, mysticism, and superstition. In that context, I believe that Campbell was reluctant to put anything into print which might lead people to conclude erroneously that they have had special revelations from God. Campbell went to extra effort to expose what he thought was the fraudulent Book of Mormon, which is one indication of the importance he attached to this issue in the context of his day. One must remember that this was the era not only of Mormonism, but of the Millerite movement and the Great Disappointment therein, and a virtual cornucopia of other religious delusions and folk superstitions. In this context, it appears that Campbell chose to keep private a certain openness to the possibility of special revelation.

Campbell believed he often had premonitions of important events. Just before the shipwreck, he dreamed of it, and chose to sleep in his clothes in order to be prepared. Later during that year in Glasgow, he received a visitation from a small, dark-visaged woman with no tongue or ears, who communicated to him by gestures that he was going to a foreign country where he would be shipwrecked,and that he would preach to large audiences, and that he would be twice married. Then she disappeared.

To be sure, we have this report from Mrs. Campbell, and the sequence of events may be confused, for if it occurred in Glasgow, it occurred after the shipwreck, not before. Nonetheless, it does seem safe to say that Alexander Campbell was open to the possibility of such communication from God. However, he was noticeably reticent to talk much about such things. Richardson writes that "He was ever cautious and reticent as to his views of the manner in which the Holy Spirit accomplished his work."

Despite this reticence, it is clear that Alexander Campbell believed in and practiced a form of spirituality that brought to him a deep and abiding sense of the presence of God. This communion with God brought him a great deal of joy and happiness. This communion with God was sacramental in nature, in that Campbell sought through a simple practice of attention to the facts of the gospel, through listening to God through the Scriptures, through incessant conversation with God in prayer, through family and public worship, through the sacraments of baptism (once) and the Lord's Supper (weekly), to experience God. And he did experience God, in a way that was heartfelt and resulted in positive emotional experiences.

Perhaps Campbell's weakness was embedded in his strength. He was a man of words and ideas. Words expressing rational and elegant ideas were power, to him, they were things of passion, they were divine. We make an artificial distinction when we separate logic and passion in the life of someone like Campbell, for him logic was a passion, and brought forth his deepest, most passionate feelings. The powerful logic and rationality of the proposition in three words - God is love - carried him away with a passionate loving response which consumed his life.

And yet not everyone understands this kind of personality. Some find their passions in ways other than words. For some it is community, some are visual, some musical. Some find God most clearly in nature or in laughter. These souls will have great difficulty finding in Alexander Campbell's personality the emotionality they are expecting. In the final analysis, Campbell must be accepted for who he was, probably a rather undemonstrative Scotsman of great intellect and strong personality who would never understand those of the human family who are more sentimental. In modern parlance, he can never be construed to be a "touchy-feely" kind of Christian.

But he was an experiential (experimental was the term in his day) Christian in his own way, and there is room in his movement for all personality types to experience the presence of God. There is room in his understanding of sacramental Christianity for all of us to find a portal of access to the heart of God, and to our own inner hearts, particularly if we understand that there is an inner heart that is deeper than surface emotion.


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Williams, D. Newell., "The Gospel on the Power of God to Salvation: Alexander Campbell and Experimental Religion," in Lectures in Honor of the Alexander Campbell Bicentennial, 1788-1988, Nashville, Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1988.

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Jonathan Edwards' Place In The History of Christian Thought

A Review: From Jonathan Edwards: A Mini-Theology, By John H. Gerstner

Alexander Campbell: The Christian System

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