Christian Experience: Alexander Campbell and the Baptists

Alexander Campbell’s relationship with the Baptists is rather complicated.  His Brush Run congregation petitioned for membership Redstone Baptist Association in 1815 and then was admitted in 1816.  In 1823 Alexander Campbell, along with thirty members from the Brush Run church, planted a new congregation in Wellsburg, Virginia. That congregation joined the Mahoning Baptist Association in 1824.  The Redstone Association effectively removed the Brush Run church from their rolls in the years 1824-1826 due to rising tensions.  In 1829 the Beaver Association anathematized the Reformers and six other Baptist Associations did the same in 1830.  These anathemas split the Baptist church in Kentucky. Between 1829-1831 Baptists, in Kentucky alone, lost 9,580 members to the Reformers and half their churches.

The primary tension between the Reformers and the Baptists was the relationship between faith, baptism and “christian experience.”  The 1830 Redstone Association “resolved” that the “exclusion” of the Reformers “was on account of being erroneous doctrine [sic], maintaining, namely…that faith in Christ is only a belief of historical facts…rejecting and deriding what is commonly called christian experience…there is no operation of the Spirit on hearts of men…”  (Minutes of the Redstone Baptist Association, September 3-5, 1830, p. 5).

Alexander Campbell attempted to maintain fellowship with the Virginia Baptists despite the rejection of the Kentucky Baptists. He sought dialogue with leading Baptist ministers such as Robert B. Semple and Andrew Broaddus. But Campbell’s “Extra” on the baptism for the remission of sins in July 1830 was a major breaking point as Broaddus believed this was at odds with “christian experience.”  In 1832 he wrote a friend: “To his view of baptism, as the only medium of actual pardon, justificatio, sanctification, reconciliation, adoption and salvation from the guilt and power of sin–and to his view of divine influence as consisting merely in the moral influence of the word, I would not consent” (Broaddus, Memoirs, 289-90). 

Eventually, the Dover Association of Virginia excluded the Reformers in 1832 based on resolutions drawn up in December 1830 (e.g., seventy-two members were dismissed from the First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia). Campbell himself commented that the “whole matter” of the Dover resolutions “is the denial of their mystic influences of the Holy Spirit, and immersion for the remission of sins” (Millennial Harbinger, 1831, 78). Thus, both the Baptists and the Disciples (Campbell) recognized that the theologial differences between them were basically two (though there were other tensions, of course):  the design of immersion and the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion. 

This, of course, remained the primary tension between the Stone-Campbell Movement and the Baptists throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.   Many debates ensued on those two topics (e.g., the Nashville Debate between Moody and James A. Harding as well as the Hardeman-Bogard Debate, and many, many others). I have suggested in another presentation that reproachment is possible (“Seeking Consensus: A “Kinder, Gentler” Campbellite Baptismal Theology“) and especially so in the light of recent discussions among the Baptists themselves (especially Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ).  Understanding the origins of our differences, their nature ,and how they were originally polarized is an important first step in pursuing dialogue today. 

For those interested my article Baptism, Faith and Christian Experience: Baptists and Disciples Part Company discusses the history of this separation of Baptists and Disciples in some detail and explores the theological tension between them on the nature, means and content of “christian experience” in relation to salvation.  The article first appeared as “Baptism, Faith and Christian Experience: Baptists and Disciples Part Company” in Evangelicalism and the Stone-Campbell Movement, edited by William Baker (Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002). It now appears on my Academic page.

13 Responses to “Christian Experience: Alexander Campbell and the Baptists”

  1.   Randall Says:

    Thanks again John Mark. Another excelent post!

    I suspect this issue may be more important that it iinitially appears. If all it takes to be a Christian is a belief in the facts then why not conclude the demons are Christians? The usual answer is because even though they have knowledge and assent (they know and acknowledge the facts) they do not trust him for their salvation. I think Stone may have held to a belief that the HS was more active in conversion that waht Campbell believed.

    I look forward to better understanding Campbell’s view as well as what came to predominate the CofC view. I must admit that simply believing a set of facts leaves me cold. (I am not against rationalism but I find it leaves something out.) It also seems to me that I have read other things that Campbell wrote that indicate he thought more was involved in our relationship with God than believing facts. Didn’t he say something about reading the scriptures bringing us within understanding distance?

    Please tell me Campbell had some room for the activity of the HS in the conversion and ongoing sanctification of the believer.

    Thanks again for all your efforts. I know many of us appreciate you very much.

  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I think the charge against Campbell is a bit muddied. He did not believe faith was mere historical belief but a trust in the work of Christ. Campbell attempted to talk about the Holy Spirit in conversion in a way to avoid the search for “experience” by a believer in order to be assured. This is what upset his opponents. They thought somethin like the mourner’s bench was a normal means of seeking God in order to find assurance through “experience” and Campbell wanted to see baptism (as “sensible” experience) as that normal means by which believers seek God and find assurance.

    Campbell did believe the Holy Spirit was active but it was not the kind of experiential reality that many on the American fontier sought.

    At another level, I do think Campbell’s Lockean epistemology in combination with his Scottish “Common Sense” realism tended to emphasize empirical experience (reading the word, baptism) in such a way that it left little room for the Spirit prior to conversion. After conversion, the Spirit came to dwell as guest in the heart of the believer and was present to sanctify the beleiver.

    Thanks, Randall. Perhaps more on Campbell and the Spirit in the future. It is something I want to take an ever closer look at to identify his, what I think is, semi-Pelagianism, perhaps even Pelagianism in this conversion epistemology. But….one project at a time. 🙂

    John Mark

  3.   WesWoodell Says:

    Interesting stuff.

    Thanks for posting 🙂

  4.   markus Says:

    now that is a charge: campbell a pelagianist. but then, many of the coC congregations (unknowingly) are (at least when it comes to conversion). still thinking often about your dissertation about the difference between arminius and van limborch. when i have to defend the arminian position it suprises people when i tell them arminius knew what grace was and that human faith is God-enabled and not simply a human choice. your dissertation made a difference for me! changed my perspective. plus, going to a more or less reformed seminary will do the rest. you know, one or two of them here at fth are even “nice” reformed theologians. 😉

  5.   rich constant Says:

    pretty neet john mark

    when i look to the h.s. interaction with the unregenerit i look to acts. 10
    and corneilus faithfullness he had believed in the god of the jews as god attested to that faith that was put into action byhim through the angle acknoledging god wittness of the actions of faith.
    so corneilus i would conclude had a good hart and believed in god.and when peter preached the gospel to him the faithfullness of god was made manefest and he believed also the h.s. attested to this convershion of old to new.

    so i would say something along the same vain
    although not for one minut would i stop there.i would contenue as peter and order that new convert to go to a pool of water he and all his household

    sorta kinda

    i love to wreite 🙂

    blessings all rich

  6.   rich constant Says:

    i am not saying that GOD is still bap. with the H.S.”thats God”s baptism”.
    as far as i know there is only one common baptism, EPH.3? one faith one GOD one bap….ect.
    chrisT’s baptism first peter 3:28 philip going into the water after preaching christ as the gospel of god.

    i would understand the experence of the baptist as borderline delouisional, as much as i hate to say that…

    i would still ad here to Rom 10:14-18 or so “faith comes by hearing and hearing by gods word

  7.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I think we have something to learn here about “christian experience” from Campbell’s dialogue partners. In such polarizing discussions as Campbell and Baptists had we tend to move toward extremes on either end of the spectrum. I am as skeptical of Campbell’s denial of “christian experience” as I am of the Baptist’s enthusiastic embrace of it.

    I would seek some kind of balance between the work of the Spirit in bring us to faith and the baptismal (“sacramental”) experience of divine presence. The two do not need to stand in contrast but rather in a complementary relationship.

  8.   rich constant Says:

    john mark
    seems to me at times they fail us
    first:there is a step one
    then second: there is a step two
    AND THEN…. 🙂


  9.   johnny Says:

    after having read Middle District Baptist Association Semple’s History Rise and Progress of “Baptist” in Virginia (pg 74 list the association members in 1774 as “the church of Christ”) as well as History of the Presbyterian in Kentucky (compiled from material written before Campbell even arrived) I would humbly suggest that we have not begun to consider the divisions in the denominations we are now calling “Baptist” and “Presbyterian”!
    In my own discussions (two years on-going) with Liberty President Ergun Caner, I have found that many want to go back to those times. It would certainly be an advantage for us to go beyond our “understanding” of Campbell & others and see what these “Baptist” were really like.
    I debate with Baptist and Presbyterians every day in Virginia and meet with them every other night and find them to be so eclectic as to be unable to have any “association” but that it “agrees to disagree.”
    The “associations” of which they now speak as happening in the 1700s from which they claim to have their origins are no more “Baptist Associations” than Saul of Tarsus of Act 9:1-4 was Paul of Gal 1:23. The things done in 1774 and early thereafter are not the least kin to Baptist today. We can find the Lord’s people just as easily in those “associations” as they can the “Baptist.”

  10.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Baptists were more loosely federated in the eighteenth century before the rise of Landmarkism and other splinter groups among Baptists. They were also, on the whole, much more Calvinistic, but that slowly changed throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

    I would suggest that they are “Baptist” by their own denominating and creedal associations. But I also recognize that these associations were much looser and not as tightly woven as Baptist denominations today.

    The dialogue between Baptists and Disciples continued throughout the whole of the 19th century. Even David Lipscomb thought they had more in common than he had with the “liberal” Disciples. And Campbell and Broaddus are still talking in the 1840s which Campbell outlining how much agreement there was between them, even on baptism (Lipscomb quotes Campbell on this point in 1912).

    I certainly believe we can find the Lord’s people among those past associations…and I would add among “Baptists” today as well.

  11.   johnny Says:

    Dear Sir
    this quote come from Faith, Christian Experience and Baptism: Baptists and Disciples Part Company

    John Mark Hicks

    “When the Campbells, two of the principal founders of the Stone-Campbell Movement, and the Brush Run Church became practitioners of believer’s immersion, it created a rift in the fledgling movement which had begun in 1809with the publication of the Declaration and Address.”

    May I ask from what source you are getting your info?
    I have in my possession two books from those who were expelling Stone and Campbell and they do not put Stone and Campbell together as is often done by many in the Lord’s church.

    thanks in advance

  12.   johnny Says:

    do you have writings from Broaddus A btween A Campbell?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      I don’t have them in my possession, but I read Broaddus biography and his writings, including his periodical contributions.

      My point is not about “Stone and Campbell” but about Thomas and Alexander Campbell. When they began to immerse, the movement begun in the Declaration and Address (1809)was splintered because not all could follow them in immersion. You can read about this in Richardson’s “Memoirs” of Alexander Campbell available on Hans Rollmann’s Restoration Movement site. Just google him.

      Stone’s own story is a different one altogether.

      Blessings, John Mark


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