Assurance, Stone-Campbell History, and Calvinism

As an addendum to my series on Calvinism and Arminianism I want to connect this discussion to the conversions of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell.  Both first approached God through the lens of Calvinist theology and preaching.  Neither could find assurance through that preaching because they were not certain of God’s love for them. Both, however, came to the certainty of salvation through the acceptance of the universal philanthropy of God. That God loves everyone is an indubitable ground of assurance for those who hear the gospel, according to Stone and Campbell. Here are their stories in their own words.

Barton W. Stone (1772-1844)

When I first entered [Guilford] academy, there had been, and then was, a great religious excitement. About thirty or more of the students had lately embraced religion under the ministration of James McGready, a Presbyterian preacher of exceeding popularity, piety, and engagedness. I was not a little surprised to find those pious students assembled every morning before the hour of recitation, and engaged in singing and praying in a private room. Their daily walk evinced to me their sincere piety and happiness. this was a source of uneasiness to my mind, and frequently brought me to serious reflection. I labored to banish these serious thoughts, believing that religion would impede my progress in learning–would thwart the object I had in view, and expose me to the frowns of my relatives and companions. I therefore associated with that part of the students who made light of divine things, and joined with them in their jests at the pious. For this my conscience severely upbraided me when alone, and made me so unhappy that I could neither enjoy the company of the pious nor of the impious.

I now began seriously to think it would be better for me to remove from this academy, and go to Hampden-Sidney College, in Virginia; for no other reason than that I might get away from the constant sight of religion. I had formed the resolution and had determined to start the next morning, but was prevented by a very stormy day. I remained in my room during that day, and came to the firm resolution to pursue my studies there, attend to my own business, and let every one pursue his own way. From this I have learned that the most effectual way to conquer the depraved heart, is, the constant exhibition of piety and a godly life in the professors of religion.

Having formed this resolution, I was settled for a short time, until my room-mate, Benjamin McReynolds, a pious young Virginian, politely asked me to walk with him a short distance in the neighborhood, to hear a certain preacher. I consented, and walked with him. A crowd of people had assembled–the preacher came–it was James McGready, whom I had never seen before. He rose and looked around on the assembly. His person was not prepossessing, nor his appearance interesting, except his remarkable gravity, and small piercing eyes. His coarse tremulous voice excited in me the idea of something unearthly. His gestures were sui generis, the perfect reverse of elegance. Every thing appeared by him forgotten, but the salvation of souls. Such earnestness–such zeal–such powerful persuasion, enforced by the joys of heaven and miseries of hell, I had never witnessed before. My mind was chained by him, and followed him closely in his rounds of heaven, earth and hell, with feelings indescribable. His concluding remarks were addressed to the sinner to flee the wrath to come without delay. Never before had I comparatively felt the force of truth. Such was my excitement, that had I been standing, I should have probably sunk to the floor under the impression.

The meeting over, I returned to my room. Night coming on, I walked out into an old field, and seriously reasoned with myself on the all-important subject of religion. What shall I do? Shall I embrace religion now, or not? I impartially weighed the subject, and counted the cost. If I embrace religion, I must incur the displeasure of my dear relatives, lose the favor and company of my companions–become the object of their scorn and ridicule–relinquish all my plans and schemes for worldly honor, wealth and preferment, and bid a final adieu to all the pleasures in which I had lived, and hoped to live on earth. Are you willing to make this sacrifice to religion? No, no, was the answer of my heart. Then the certain alternative is, you /39/ must be damned. Are you willing to be damned–to be banished from God–from heaven–from all good–and suffer the pain of eternal fire? No, no, responded my heart–I cannot endure the thought. After due deliberation, I resolved from that hour to seek religion at the sacrifice of every earthly good, and immediately prostrated myself before God in supplication for mercy.

According to the preaching, and the experience of the pious in those days, I anticipated a long and painful struggle before I should be prepared to come to Christ, or, in the language then used, before I should get religion. This anticipation was completely realized by me. For one year I was tossed on the waves of uncertainty–laboring, praying, and striving to obtain saving faith–sometimes desponding, and almost despairing of ever getting it.

The doctrines then publicly taught were, that mankind was so totally depraved, that they could not believe, repent, nor obey the gospel–that regeneration was an immediate work of the Spirit, whereby faith and repentance were wrought in the heart. These things were pourtrayed in vivid colors, with all earnestness and solemnity. Now was not then, the accepted time–now was not then, the day of salvation; but it was God’s own sovereign time, and for that time the sinner must wait.

In February, 1791, with many of my fellow students, I went some distance to a meeting on Sandy River, in Virginia. J. B. Smith, president of Hampden-Sidney College, Cairy Allen, James Blythe, Robert Marshall, and James McGready, were there. On Lord’s-day President Smith spoke on these words: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” In his description of a broken and contrite heart, I felt my own described. Hope began to rise, and my sorrow-worn heart felt a gleam of joy. He urged all of this character to approach the Lord’s table that day, on pain of his sore displeasure. For the first time, I partook of /40/ the Lord’s supper. In the evening the honest J. M’Gready addressed the people from “Tekel, thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.” He went through all the legal works of the sinner–all the hiding places of the hypocrite–all the resting places of the deceived–he drew the character of the regenerated in the deepest colors, and thundered divine anathemas against every other. Before he closed his discourse I had lost all hope–all feeling, and had sunk into an indescribable apathy. He soon after inquired of me the state of my mind. I honestly told him. He labored to arouse me from my torpor by the terrors of God, and horrors of hell. I told him his labors were lost upon me–that I was entirely callous. He left me in this gloomy state, without one encouraging word.

In this state I remained for several weeks. I wandered alone–my strength failed me, and sighs and groans filled my days. My relatives in Virginia heard of my situation, and sent for me. My altered appearance surprised them. My old mother took me in private, and asked, what is the matter? I told her all. She wept much. She had always been a praying woman, and a member of the Church of England; but from this time she more earnestly sought the Lord,–united with the Methodists, and lived and died a Christian. My visit proved to be a blessing to several of my relatives, who were awakened to a sense of their dangerous condition, and inclined to turn to the Lord.

After a few days stay in Virginia I returned to the academy in the same state of mine. Soon after I attended a meeting at Alamance, in Guilford county. Great was the excitement among the people. On the Lord’s-day evening a strange young preacher, William Hodge, addressed the people. His text I shall never forget, “God is love.” With much animation, and with many tears he spoke of the Love of God to sinners, and of what that love had done for sinners. My heart warmed with love for that lovely character described, and momentary hope and joy would rise in my troubled breast. My mind was absorbed in the doctrine–to me it appeared new. But the common admonition, Take heed lest you be deceived, would quickly repress them. This cannot be the mighty work of the spirit, which you must experience–that instantaneous work of Almighty power, which, like an electric shock, is to renew the soul and bring it to Christ.

The discourse being ended, I immediately retired to the woods alone with my Bible. Here I read and prayed with various feelings, between hope and fear. But the truth I had just heard, “God is love,” prevailed. Jesus came to seek and save the lost–“Him that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out.” I yielded and sunk at his feet a willing subject. I loved him–I adored him–I praised him aloud in the silent night,–in the echoing grove around. I confessed to the Lord my sin and folly in disbelieving his word for so long–and in following so long the devices of men. I now saw that a poor sinner was as much authorized to believe in Jesus at first, as at last–that now was the accepted time, and day of salvation.

From this time till I finished my course of learning, I lived devoted to God. The study of the dead languages and of the sciences were not irksome but pleasant, from the consideration that I was engaged in them for the glory of God, to whom I had unreservedly devoted my all.

                   From Stone’s Autobiography (1847), 37-41.

For more on Stone’s conversion, read the excellent account by D. Newell Williams, Barton Stone: A Spiritual Autobiography, pp. 17-28.
Alexander Campbell (1788-1866)

Every person who will reflect, and who can reflect upon the workings of his own mind, will readily perceive how much trouble he has experienced from mistakes. Nay, much of his present comfort is derived from the correction of former mistakes and misapprehensions.–Who that has read John Bunyan’s conversion, John Newton’s, or Halyburton’s, or any of those celebrated standards of true conversion, has not observed that glaring mistakes and erroneous views were amongst the chief causes of their long and gloomy trials; and that their after peace, and joy, and hope, arose from the correction of mistakes which the errors of education had thrown in their way.

For example: The numerous speculations on the different kinds of faith has pierced with many sorrows innumerable hearts. In all the varied exhibitions of Christianity, much stress is laid on faith. And as soon as it is affirmed that he that believes shall be saved, and that care should be taken that faith be of “the right kind,” the attention of the thoughtful is turned from the truth to be believed to “the nature of faith.” The fears and agonies which are experienced are not unfrequently about “believing right.” The great concern is about true faith. This person is looking in himself for what he has been taught are the true signs of regeneration, or of the faith of regeneration. He is distressed to know whether his faith is the fruit of regeneration, or whether it is mere “historic faith.” Unable to find such evidences as he is in quest of, he is distracted, he despairs, he agonizes. He tells his case. He is comforted by being told that these are “the pangs of the new birth.” He draws some comfort from this consideration, which increases or decreases as these pangs are supposed to be genuine or the reverse. Thus he is tossed to and fro in awful uncertainties, which are more or lees acute according his moral sensibilities. By and by he hopes he is regenerate, and a calm ensues, and he is joyous because he fancies he has been regenerated. Thus his comforts spring not from the gospel, but from his own opinion of himself.

Another, under the same system, receives no comfort because he has not found the infallible signs in himself of being a true believer. He despairs–he is tormented. He concludes that he is one of the reprobates. He is about to kill himself. What about? Not because there is no Saviour, no forgiveness, no mercy. Not because the gospel is not true; but because it is true, and because he cannot find in himself the true signs of genuine conversion. Thousands have been ruined–have been shipwrecked here. This the bible never taught. This case never occurred under the apostles’ teaching. It is the genuine offspring of the theological schools. It is the experience of a bad education. A few drops of acid sour a puncheon of the sweetest wine. And thus a few wrong notions convert the love of the Saviour into divine wrath–make the gospel of non-effect–embitter life–and make it better not to have been born.

I well remember what pains and conflicts I endured under a fearful apprehension that my convictions and my sorrows for sin were not deep enough. I even envied Newton of his long agony. I envied Bunyan of his despair. I could have wished, and did wish, that the Spirit of God would bring me down to the very verge of suffering the pains of the damned, that I might be raised to share the joys of the genuine converts. I feared that I had not sufficiently found the depravity of my heart, and had not yet proved that I was utterly without strength. Sometimes I thought that I felt as sensibly, as the ground under my feet, that I had gone just as far as human nature could go without supernatural aid, and that one step more would place me safe among the regenerated of the Lord; and yet Heaven refused its aid. This, too, I concealed from all the living. I found no comfort in all the declarations of the gospel, because I wanted one thing to enable me to appropriate them to myself. Lacking this, I could only envy the happy favorites of heaven who enjoyed it, and all my refuge was in a faint hope that I one day might receive that aid which would place my feet upon the rock.

Here this system ends, and enthusiasm begins. The first Christians derived their joys from an assurance that the gospel was true. Metaphysical Christians derive theirs not from the truth of the gospel, but because they have been regenerated, or discover something in themselves that entitles them to thank God that they are not as the publican. The ancients cheered themselves and one another by conversing on the certainty of the good things reported by the apostles–the moderns, by telling one another what “the Lord has done for their souls in particular.” Their agonies were the opposition made by the world, the flesh, and the devil, to their obeying the truth. Our agonies are a deep and solemn concern for our own conversion. Their doubts were first, whether the gospel were true, and, after they were assured of this, whether they might persevere through all trials in obeying the truth. Ours, whether our conversion is genuine. More evidence of the truth removed their first doubts, and the promises of the gospel, with the examples around them, overcame the last. A better opinion of ourselves removes ours. In a word, the philanthropy of God was the fountain of all their joys–an assurance that we are safe is the source of ours.

The experience of the Moravians differs from the experience of almost every other sect. They teach their children that God is love, and through his son loves all that obey him. This principle is instilled from the cradle. Their history does not furnish an instance of a work of conversion similar to those which fill the memoirs and magazines of all the different bodies of Calvinists. Perhaps enough has been said to prove our position, that “throughout Christendom every man’s religious experience corresponds with his religious education.” If not, a volume of evidence can be adduced.

From “Conscience–No. II,” Christian Baptist 3 (7 Feb 1826), 150-151.

About the same year in your life and mine, I began to examine most diligently the holy scriptures on the work of the Holy Spirit. I took your course, I noted down the passages, and have to this day upon the blank leaves of a Testament many references still extant, I had received an education different from yours in many respects; more evangelical as you would call it. From the age of sixteen I read devoutly, at intervals, the most “evangelical writers.” I bought “Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted,” and “Allen’s Alarm,” that I might be converted, hearing them highly commended by the pious. “Boston’s Fourfold State,’, Newton’s, Bunyan’s, and Hallyburton’s Memoirs, and all the converting books were sought after and read with avidity. The accompanying influences of the Holy Spirit, were prayed for most ardently on these and other works, as well as on the Holy Scriptures. After I had hope that I was converted, and differed much from those mere moralists of whom you speak, who called prayer and devotion, except in a stone house denominated a church, fanaticism; I say, after I hoped that I had passed from death to life, I began to examine this subject, and with the aid of the great and “evangelical Dr. John Owen.” He was a great favorite with me; I read most of his works and with especial delight his “Christo Logia,” or “the Person and Glory of Christ;” his “Death of Deaths in the Death of Christ,” the strongest work against the Arminians I ever read; his treatise on independent church government; and, above all, his work on the Holy Spirit, in two large octavos.–This work I ate up–I wrote it off in miniature on two quires of paper, in order to make my own of it. Not a verse that mentions the Holy Spirit, which he does not take notice of. I was thoroughly imbued with his systematic illustration of it. Other work of his I also read; but this became a text-book. So that I was, at the age to which you allude, perfectly indoctrinated into the right faith, as the evangelical christians called it. I think I informed you once before how laboriously and extensively I had examined the question of faith. For the space of one year I read upon this subject alone. Fuller, Bellamy, Hervey, Glass, Sandeman, Cudworth, Scott, M’Lean, Erskine, cum multis aliis, were not only read, but studied as I studied geometry. And I solemnly say, that, although I was considered at the age of twenty-four a much more systematic preacher and text expositor than I am now considered, and more accustomed to strew my sermons with scores of texts in proof of every point, I am conscious that I did not understand the New Testament; not a single book of it.

From “Reply to Robert B. Semple,” Millennial Harbinger 1 (March 1830), 136-137.

You say that the result of your inquiries was “a firm belief that without the influence of God’s Spirit directly on your heart, you could not be saved.” You add, “Well, sir, I sought it, as a sinner, a justly condemned sinner, and I have found it, thanks to sovereign grace!” That such is your conviction, and that you found the favor of God, I doubt not. But would not any other person, who sought with equal sincerity, have found all that you found? And if so, why do you ascribe it to a special grace in your particular case? The Lord promises the Holy Spirit to every one who asks, desiring it, just as certain as natural parents give good things to their crying children. Do only some of the asking children receive what they solicit from their parents? Again, let me ask, What did you find that was not before written? Any new promise, any special promise, any new light, which was not before as distinctly and as clearly proposed as God could propose it in human language? Had you not faith before you asked, and was not this faith a persuasion that God exists, and is the rewarder of all who diligently seek him? You could not have asked for any thing which you did not before believe God had promised to bestow. Could a child who never heard or believed that there was a diamond, ask for one? Your faith in God’s favor was established before you bowed your knee! The difficulty with you was a special interest in it. This I know, for my experience was like yours in this particular. I desired to feel a special interest, and for this I prayed. But mark this, brother Semple, if you and I had been taught that God’s philanthropy equally embraced all, and that all to whom the word of this salvation was sent, were equally warranted to appropriate it to themselves, this concern for a special interest never could have originated. It was a previous system assented to, which gave birth to these desires and prayers; otherwise as soon as you believed God’s promise through Jesus Christ, you would have found yourself embraced. No one in the primitive age ever made such a prayer as you and I were taught to make; no one languished then for a day or a week to be born again. All were commanded to reform, and, instantly, all who obeyed received forgiveness of sins. Our converts are sometimes agonizing before they are born again for months–for years. This destroys the figure, and it proves that a false philosophy has perverted us from the simplicity of the gospel.

From “Letter II. To Bishop Semple,” Millennial Harbinger 1 (April 1830), 178.

You can read more of Campbell’s story in my article entitled “God’s Sensible Pledge.

My Comments

A recent publication by a former student of mine, Keith D. Stanglin, has deepened my understanding and conviction on this point. Arminius (and subsequent Arminianism) founded assurance “on the loving nature of the God who desires all people to be saved” (Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation [Leiden: Brill, 2007], 240). I am convicted, as Stone and Campbell, that God loves me because God’s love extends to all and not because I have become aware that I am elect or have discerned that I am elect. Rather, I perceive my election through faith in the God who loves me. There is no ground to doubt that God loves me because he loves everyone and thus my faith sees my election in the work of Christ for my sake. Christ, through faith, mirrors my election.

Calvinism cannot affirm that God loves everyone. Consequently, Calvinists must discernt through their faith and the signs of election that God does, in fact, love them. I think Arminianism provides a better (and more biblical) basis for assurance. The gospel proclaims that God loves every one of his iconic images in the world–every human being and that Christ died for everyone of them. This gospel message assures hearers of God’s love for them and by the power of the Spirit the gospel enables hearers to respond to that message in faith. Faith, then, becomes the means by which believers know they are elect in Christ.

At least in this respect, the Stone-Campbell Movement shares the same conviction as Arminianism: God loves every human person and desires their salvation.


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