Alexander Campbell’s Demonology Lecture in Nashville (1841)

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 [1847], 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).

20 Responses to “Alexander Campbell’s Demonology Lecture in Nashville (1841)”

  1.   Keith Brenton Says:


  2.   Brandon Moore Says:

    Intriguing thoughts…interesting the attention Campbell devotes to this area. I’m currently working on my masters thesis at HUGSR where I’m attempting to provide a systematic appraisal of Stones pneumatology and I’m really looking forward to the portion where I will compare and contract his views with Campbells. Keep up the historical posts!

  3.   eirenetheou Says:

    It is remarkable to find AC claiming an active world of “spirits” over against a “materialistic” understanding of the world, while at the same time denying to God’s Holy Spirit any means of acting in the world other than through the material pages of the Bible.

    While the Holy Spirit may not speak or act “beyond the sacred page,” AC finds other possiblities for the demonic. “That demons may still give oracles, as they were wont to do before the Christian era, and possess living men in heathen lands, or in places where Christianity has made little progress, is not altogether improbable.” Since “we have not satisfactory evidence” to confirm or deny this activity, AC argues, we “therefore ought not to speak dogmatically.” AC found “the number of spirits vast and overwhelming, and their hatred to the living intense and enduring,” but over against this demonic onslaught he projected that, for every “man of God” and “true Christian,” there would be “a guardian angel, or a host of sentinels around him that never sleep.” Since AC does not cite a biblical text that promises this heavenly army to every believer, it would be useful to inquire where he found it in the Bible, and how he could affirm its presence in his own time when he denied that the Holy Spirit would act in the present as it was promised and given to believers in the New Testament.

    God’s Peace to you.


    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Don, my brother,

      Your comments are always welcome and insightful.

      I wonder if AC might not say something like….”God only works through externals. The influence of ‘spirits’ (good and bad demons, angels) are works external to the human heart. The Spirit works externally as well through providence and the word.”

      What AC wants to exclude is a direct supernatural act on the heart of the individual which seems to violate his Reidian (a la Locke) psychology and epistemology. AC thinks human beings are volitional beings persuaded by the intellect rather than moved by an internal act of the Spirit. So, the divine use of ‘spirits’ in providence does not essentially violate his own system.

      However, with you, I think it would be useful to inquire where he found his angelic theories in the Bible. 🙂

      John Mark

  4.   Keith Says:

    Excellent work, brother. I think we’re still working through those questions even today.

    When I conduct prayer seminars, our more traditional churches seem to struggle to admit the existence of an intersection between the material and spiritual. Our practice of eliminating the supernatural from our natural lives has left many spiritually weak and anemic.

    Christians of the first century would probably laugh at our ignorance of the “spiritual system.”

    Blessings on you and your work.

  5.   Jr Says:

    Demons are active, both in and outside of people. Whatever God permits (see JOB … oh and the rest of the Bible).

    “AC thinks human beings are volitional beings persuaded by the intellect rather than moved by an internal act of the Spirit.”

    We do have intellect and we can be persuaded, but only as much as our nature allows.

    So the quote here is depressing at best, unbiblical at worst. How many Scriptures must one dismiss to come to such an overarching conclusion ? What does it mean that God will replace hearts of stone with hearts of flesh? What does it mean that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). Is all of that really intellectual as well? Can we intellectualize the new birth? Fatuous.

    O the lengths we will go to subjugate God to the determinations of men. It is we who set the limits, character, and power of God! The exaltation of man knows no bounds.

    At least he is consistent.

    Grace to you

  6.   eirenetheou Says:

    “How many Scriptures must one dismiss to come to such an overarching conclusion ? What does it mean that God will replace hearts of stone with hearts of flesh? What does it mean that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). Is all of that really intellectual as well? Can we intellectualize the new birth? Fatuous.”

    In the work of Robertson Lafayette Whiteside, who drove this logic to its ultimate conclusion, the Holy Spirit — having dictated word for word the text of the Bible — becomes a retired author. “Gifts of the Spirit” are transmogrified into human “talents” and “abilities,” and those qualities identified as “the fruit of the Spirit” become, quite literally, “works of the flesh.” It is from this peculiar rejection of God’s Spirit and its gifts that so many of our beloved brothers and sisters derive their compelling preference for, and endless preoccupation with, the trivial.

    May God have mercy.


  7.   Randall Says:

    How very interesting. Both the post and the comments.

  8.   rich constant Says:

    here are three ideas i found interesting,
    john mark….and all
    i read the whole thing….
    no wonder you like the guy so much. :-).

    that was one wordy man!

    Think not, gentlemen, that because we summon the Pagan witnesses first, that we regard them either as the first in point of age or character. Far from it. They were a pack of plagiarists, from Hesiod to Lucian. The Greeks were the greatest literary thieves and robbers that ever lived, and they had the most consummate art of concealing the theft. From these Pagans, whether Greeks or Romans, we ascend to the Jews and to the Patriarchs, whose annals transcend those of the most ancient Pagans many centuries.

    It is reported by Matthew and Luke, and almost in the same words. “When the unclean spirit,” says Jesus, “is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest and finding none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then he goeth and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also to this wicked generation.” On which observe, that “unclean spirits” is another name for demons–that is, a metaphor of a metaphor; for if demons are metaphors for diseases, the unclean spirits are metaphors of metaphors, or shadows of shades. Again, the Great Teacher is found not only for once departing from himself, but also from all human teachers of renown, in basing a parable upon a parable, or a shadow upon a shade, in drawing a similitude from a simile. His object was to illustrate the last state of the Jews. This he attempts by the adventures of a demon–first being dispossessed, finding no rest, and returning with others more wicked than himself to the man from whom he was driven. Now if this was all a figure to illustrate a figure, the Saviour has done that which he never before attempted, inasmuch as his parables are all founded not upon fictions, but upon facts–upon the actual manners and customs, the incidents and usages of society

    But though we excel them so much in many new discoveries and arts–in correct, traditionary, and spiritual knowledge they greatly excelled us; except always that portion of the moderns fully initiated into the mysteries of the Bible. Some seem to reason as if they thought that the farther from the fountain the waters are more pure–the longer the channel the freer from pollution. With me the reverse is the fact. Man was more intelligent at his creation and his fall in his own being and destiny than he has ever been since, except so far as he has been the subject of a new revelation.

  9.   rich constant Says:

    p.s. don i read whiteside’s commentary on Romans and he missed the point on ROM 3.19-31 and at that juncture blew the ability to come to a knowledge of the truth as far as the Spirit is concerned…

    just ask john mark… 🙂


  10.   rich constant Says:

    i think i was around 25 when i read that book…
    and in a few min. here i will be 62
    and i ain’t got much more good nonsense yet…

  11.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    On Facebook, Gailyn VanRheenen suggested reading this article at . I found it helpful. I liked his conclusion: “Major on God, minor on demons” when presenting the Christian message.

  12.   Brandon Moore Says:

    John Mark or anyone else who can help,
    I’ve found it intriguing in my study of Stone the impact that his conversion has on his pnuematology. As I’m not as familiar with AC’s works in this area outside of an article by dr. Olbricht that I stumbled upon…I was curious as to what influence ACs conversion had on his later developing this view of the HS? Thanks

  13.   Terrell Lee Says:

    It is refreshing to read Campbell’s thoughts. They are extremely relevant to the kinds of questions people and religious systems are asking today; just step back and look at all the recent publications, including several in the Restoration Mov’t.

    Thanks, bro.

  14.   rich constant Says:

    just think young (under 10 years old) people playing video games and the empirical images that are be reinforced through a very realistic image of enhanced entertainment that i think will manifest itself in bazaar and perverted ways, that we older foke can only imagine.
    Of course the truth will stand in the fear of the mist of these imagimages of imagination brought to life, if we older folk can but prepare our thinking in such a way as to refute the beast with the sound mind that scripture will, when read through the lens of of the clarity that the Spirit of our lord leads by goodness and understanding.
    the root nature of the mind of the creation is one of search and is predisposed to the all inspiring images of the Self persevering over the images of imagination and is thus the GOD and conquer of all that is.
    “the lie of humanism”.
    my brothers
    will always be with those of us that are of the way of faithfulness.
    and we are called to be prepared and arm ourselves with the weapons of the wepons that our father has exibited and so mercifully given us to use in UNDERSTANDING and LOVE.

    perverted minds .

  15.   rich constant Says:

    WHAT i ask is will we as the Salt of the earth measure up to the task at hand in the father’s eye.
    to prolong the MESS of creation.
    Or will diversity be our inspiration to freedom from our own predispositions of the gospel of peace.
    too bring about the continuance of god’s good…

  16.   Gardner Says:

    Good article! Was it motivated at least partly by the upcoming holiday?

  17.   Frank Hols Says:

    I used Campbell’s lecture and the book Seeing the Unseen by Joe Beam as the basis for a lesson I gave many years ago. Seeing this post reminds me that I have always wanted to study Campbell in greater depth; his is an intellect well worth exploring.


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