Returning to some of my historical interests (which is probably not shared by many ), I have always been fascinated with Alexander Campbell’s take on the “spiritual system” as he called it, particularly demonology.
Campbell presented a major addresson the topic of demonology to the Popular Lecture Club in Nashville, Tennessee on March 10, 1841 (published in the Millennial Harbinger [October 1841] 457-480). He also conducted an extensive correspondance with M. Winans on the topic in 1841-1842 as Winans responded to the lecture. The lecture and subsequent correspondance are available online.
The address was printed in book form as An Address on Demonology: Delivered Before the Popular Lecture Club, Nashville, Tenn in Bloomington, Indiana, by C. G. Berry in 1851 (32 pages). The essay later appeared in Popular Lectures and Addresses by Alexander Campbell published by the Christian Publishing Company in St. Louis (1861). The essays were republished by Standard Publishing in Cincinnati (1863) and by James Challen of Philadelphia, PA (1863, 1864, 1866).
Campbell visited Nashville six times, as far as I can discover. His first visit was in Feb-March 1827, his second in December 1830, and the third in March 1835. In March 1841 he was engaged in his fourth visit to Nashville when he gave his address on Demonology, and would later return again in November 1854 for his fifth visit, and then in April 1858 for his final visit to Nashville.
Campbell highly praised the church in Nashville. Under the leadership of P.S. Fall, the First Baptist Church had removed themselves from the Concord Association in 1825 but renewed that relationship in 1827 on the condition that they could pursue a reformation on the grounds of the New Testament alone (see their letter to the Association published in Christian Baptist). This letter to the Association was sent after Campbell’s first visit in 1827. The church had recently begun to meet weekly to break bread.
During Campbell’s second visit he engaged the Presbyterian pastor Obadiah Jennings in an oral discussion. He reports that the church, still led by P. S. Fall, numbered 250 at the time. “This christian congregation,” he writes, “is so far advanced in the reformation as to meet every Lord’s day, to remember the Lord’s death and resurrection, to continue in the Apostles’ doctrine, in the fellowship, breaking of bread, and in prayers and praises.”
During his third visit to Nashville, he stayed for three weeks with the Nashville church which numbered “about six hundred members” (which probably includes the county and/or region itself or perhaps a mistaken estimation; however, Eastin Morris’ Tennessee Gazetter 1834 reports that the church had “456” members “of which 280 were colored”). Tolbert Fanning was its evangelist (see MH, June 1835). He stayed with Henry Ewing who was a frequent contributor to MH.
When he visited Nashville again in early 1841 Campbell was in the process of publishing two series of essays—a polemical discussion with Barton W. Stone on the atonement and another series on the “Coming of the Lord.” In addition, he was preparing for the beginning of Bethany College in the Fall. Apparently, this was a significant reason for his tour through Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville and then through central Kentucky (including Hopkinsville, Bowling Green, and Lexington). The Nashville Whig (March 8, 1841, p. 2) reports that Campbell mould make “an appeal to-night on behalf of the cause of Education and the claims of his new College at Bethany, Va., in the Reformed Baptist Church.”
Of course, Campbell also took the occasion to teach on the Christian system while in Nashville as reported by C. C. Norvell in the Nashville Whig (March 1, 1841), p. 2: “This gentleman, discoursed on the principles of Christianity, in the Reformed Baptist Church, in the forenoon of yesterday, and again at night. His sermons attract large crowds, and we may add, without pretending to pass upon the merits of his theory, that his compliment is not undeserved. We have rarely listened to a more finished or impressive argument, from the pulpit, than the discourse of last night. The distinct enunciation and Scottish accent of Mr. C. renders his delivery eminently pleasing.”
His trip through Nashville in 1841, however, receives no notice in Richardson’s memoirs. And though Campbell reflects on the general state of the churches in Louisville, Nashville and Cincinnati in his “Excursions—No. I” and “Excursions—No. II” (MH, May & June, 1841), he offers few details about his time in Nashville.
It was during this 1841 visit that he gave his public address on demonology on March 10 before the “Literary Club” at the Masonic Hall in Nashville. The speech was announced in the Nashville Whig on Friday, March 5. On the day of the scheduled address the following announcement appeared (Nashville Whig, March 10, 1841, p. 2): “Mr. Alexander Campbell, lectures tonight, by invitation of the Literary Club: his subject—Demonology and Witchcraft. The Club, we understand, have provided extra seats for the audience, so that the entire Hall, including the rostrum, can be occupied.” Apparently, they were expecting a large crowd.
Given that he only had a few days to prepare this lecture, the topic he chose is a curious one. The reason for his choice is evident from his applications in the essay itself. He understands the position that demons are the spirits of dead humans as subversive of any materialistic notions, that is, it is a response to infidelity. It is, Campbell writes, “proof of a spiritual system” and “a full refutation of that phantasm called Materialism.”
Here is the report of the speech that appeared in the Nashville Whig, March 12, 1841, p. 2:
“The somewhat novel subject of Demonology was discussed on Wednesday night, with much good taste and profound learning by Mr. Alexander Campbell, of Virginia. His argument was chiefly directed to the original and true office of the term Demon, as recognized in the Divine Scriptures, in contradistinction to its use by the early Greek poets, and its meaning as employed in modern times. The whole subject was treated as a theory of spirits, the learned lecturer entertaining the doctrine, as we understood him, that the disembodied spirits of the just, as well as the damned, exercise a decided though mysterious influence over the actions and destinies of the living. All are demons, in the original sense of the term, there being demons of good as well as demons of evil—the latter the subjects and especial instruments of the Prince of Darkness, Baelzeebub. The supersititons of ghosts, hobgoblins and appirations, were duly divested of their corporeal and incorporeal horrors, “raw herd, bloody bones” and all, and the doctrine of witchcraft treated as an idle fancy of the brain. The victims of these follies, in all ages, were referred to in a happy vein of sarcasm, and their manifold mental sufferings depicted with a fancy that proved that the distinguished lecturer has humor for the ridiculous as well as taste for the sublime.
To say that the lecture, as a whole, was highly creditable to the scholarship of Mr. Campbell, would be doing but half way justice to a very eloquent and finished production. As a “stranger in a strange land,” he merits the unqualified eulogy due to one whose acknowledged skill as a public debater and profound acumen as a critic, are not les distinguished in a literary, than in a theological point of view.”
The problem of materialism is lingering in Campbell’s mind. Since his last trip to Nashville, John Thomas emerged as a schismatic leader who affirmed a form of materialism regarding the state of the dead. As Thomas’ materialism became clear, Campbell was pressured by those inside (e.g., Winans) and outside the Stone-Campbell Movement (e.g., the Virginia Baptist Andrew Broaddus) to disavow his views. The proof of a “spiritual system” and of the conscious spirits of dead persons is partly a response to Thomas and insulates the movement from Thomas’ defection. Thomas was ultimately the founder of the Christadelphians. Campbell wrote a series of articles entitled “Materialism” in the September-December issues of the 1836 MH.
Campbell’s argument for a spiritual system would later be replaced, in Nashville, by a universalistic spiritualism in the person of Jesse B. Ferguson who came to Nashville in 1846 as the minister of the 350 member Spring Street church. It grew to 550, moved into a new building and then the church collapsed—both spiritually, numerically and physically. The numbers dwindled from 1855-1857, the new building burned in 1857, and ultimately Ferguson became persona non grata, dying in isolation from the church and city in 1870 (only three carriages followed his coffin to Mt. Olivet cemetery). It was in the context of the Ferguson affair that Campbell made his fifth visit to Nashville in 1854. He was not permitted to speak in Ferguson’s building. (His last visit to Nashville was in April 1858, according to Norton, Tennessee Christians, p. 80.)
In 1857 the reconstituted Spring Street church began anew in the old Spring Street building with 15 members (calling back P.S. Fall who had left the city for KY in 1831 when the membership was 250 members). Also the South College Street church began in 1857 with 3 in attendance as David Lipscomb preached the first sermon for the new community. By the end of the Civil War these two congregations represented 500 members (Hooper, Crying in the Wilderness, 203).
Campbell’s demonology essay, then, represents a middle ground between two historic controversies within the early Stone-Campbell Movement. Campbell battled the materialism of John Thomas on one end and battled the spiritualism of Jesse Ferguson on the other. In both cases the beginnings of the controversies were cloaked in titanic egos and ended with disastrous results. Nevertheless, the sage of Bethany won the day and his perspective prevailed within the movement.
This topic was apparently of great interest for Campbell. While the demonology essay evidences his interest in it as a response to infidelity, he also was interested in the topic from the standpoint of divine providence. This is not as evident in his Demonology essay as it is other writings, such as:
• “The Spiritual Universe–No. I.” MH, Fourth Series, 1 (February 1851): 64-66.
• “The Spiritual Universe–No. II. Angels and Demons–No. I.” MH, Fourth Series, 1 (February 1851): 66-70.
• “The Spiritual Universe–No. III. Angels and Demons–No. II.” MH, Fourth Series, 1 (March 1851): 121-126.
• “The Spiritual Universe–No. IV. Angels and Demons–No. III.” MH, Fourth Series, 1 (April 1851): 181-187.
• “The Spiritual Universe–No. V. Angels and Demons–No. IV.” MH, Fourth Series, 1 (May 1851): 241-244.
In particular, he is quite willing to speculate that God takes the lives of young ministers because he needs them to fulfill some role as good angels (“Mysteries of Providence,” MH , 707).
Another interesting dimension of the essay is Campbell’s openness to the intersection of the spiritual world and this one. It is the power of the gospel that dissipates demon possession, but where the gospel has not yet gone demons still have that power. This has tremendous implications for missions and for what are called in the contemporary context “power encounters.”
More significantly, Campbell refuses to permit the Enlightenment (infidelity in his language) to dismiss the influence that the spiritual world has on the actions and lives of people. “That we are susceptible of impressions and suggestions from invisible agents sometimes affecting our passions and actions,” he writes, “it were foolish and infidel to deny.” The spiritual world is not boxed off from the material world. Rather, God uses both good and evil spirits to influence and act within the material world. The essay is part of Campbell’s rejection of Deism and the affirmation of God’s ever present action in the world through the spiritual system.
The “spiritual system” or “universe” is an essential affirmation of the Christian system for Campbell. It opposes Deism and infidelity. But it is not a spiritualism that denies the efficacy and sufficiency of the gospel itself. The facts of the gospel dissipate the ignorance of a world caught up in spiritualism (e.g., divination through demons) and they liberate us from the tyranny of the evil powers in the universe. Science did not accomplish this, though it aided our knowledge of God’s other book—the book of nature. Only the gospel can liberate us from that ignorance and tyranny so that we might live in the freedom of the Holy Guest (Spirit) who indwells us.
In this context, Campbell’s essay on Demonology is a kind of “back door” statement of the gospel against Enlightenment skepticism and Deism (infidelity). The essay, then, forms part of his case for the “Evidences of Christianity” (a series he began in the 1835 and a course he just began teaching at Bethany College).