Alexander Campbell, Rebaptism & SectarianismAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Alexander Campbell, Baptism, Church, Grace, Kingdom, Preaching, Restoration History, Salvation, Unity
The immersion of Alexander Campbell in 1812 by Baptist preacher Mathias Luce has been long been a troublesome issue for some heirs of the Stone-Campbell Movement. For some like Austin McGary, the founder of the Firm Foundation, Campbell’s baptism was downright embarrassing. The cause of that embarrassment is rooted in two historical facts: 1) Alexander (and his father Thomas) was baptized by a Baptist and 2) Campbell did not understand baptism’s role in the remission of sin – and would not for a long time after. This presented such a problem for McGary that he even suggested that Campbell was secretly rebaptized — a notion that David Lipscomb rightly dismissed as highly dubious. Even as late as 1999 a brother wrote an article concerning “Alexander Campbell’s Baptism” that was another stretched attempt to remove this apparent black eye from Campbell.
Alexander Campbell’s dubious baptism was such an embarrassment for the Texas Tradition stream of the Churches of Christ that literal debates took place regarding it. For example J. D. Tant debated Elder C. A. Smith, a Baptist, on “Campbell’s Baptism. Was Alexander Campbell Baptized In Order to Obtain Remission of Sins?” beginning in March of 1935. It is the one debate that Tant probably wishes he did not engage in for he lost handily to Smith. But our point here is the recognition of the desperation of some to hide this fact of history. It is something Alexander Campbell never hid however. Nor was it a source of embarrassment for him.
Does it Matter? Rewriting History?
The debate over Campbell is important. At the center of the debate is how much of the NT teaching concerning baptism a person must grasp before she can obey the Great Commission. Is one saved by submissive faith or precise knowledge? It is a critical question. Even those who demand a candidate must absolutely know that baptism is the POINT that he/she obtains remission, are reticent to condemn Campbell to hell. Some even try to force Campbell into the rebaptist camp — a great irony. Thus the literal rewriting of history by sectarians.
For example, the aforementioned article attempted to show that Campbell did indeed understand that baptism was for the remission of sins in 1812. The evidence from Robert Richardson’s Memoirs of Alexander Campbell is dismissed. Attempts are made to buttress the rebaptist position with a quotation from Selina Campbell that comes second hand from a debate that H. C. Harper had in 1917.
Alexander Campbell himself is quoted from his 1844 Debate with N. L. Rice and from Campbell’s 1853 book on Baptism. These quotes have zero relevance, however, because Campbell is not discussing what he knew or what anyone must know about baptism at the time of their immersion. Selina’s “evidence” (she was not even married to him at the time — they were married 16 years later) there is simply no evidence to support the position that Campbell understood the “design” of baptism . There is no reason to doubt Richardson in the Memoirs.
Campbell’s Early Theology of Baptism
Pertinent to our discussion here would be Campbell’s understanding of baptism exhibited in his 1820 Debate with the Presbyterian John Walker. It is critical to remember that this discussion took place eight years after his immersion. Campbell affirmed in this debate that baptism confers spiritual blessings only “figuratively” . Campbell argued that the phrase “the renewing of the Holy Ghost” in Titus 3.5 is used figuratively with respect to baptism and not in reality . Campbell then explicitly places the new birth PRIOR to baptism. In his own words:
“Hence “THE RENEWING OF THE HOLY SPIRIT,” is a phrase that denotes the influence of the Holy Spirit, exerted on the whole soul of man; and implies a death unto sin, and a new life unto righteousness . . . Which leads the subject on his gracious work to submit to ‘be buried with Christ’ . . . The outward rite [i.e. baptism], then must bear an analogy to the doctrine exhibited in and by it. Hence immersion in water is a beautiful and striking representation of our faith in the death and burial of Christ” .
This “outward rite,” according to Campbell in 1820, is a “representation” of a reality that has already been accomplished by the Holy Spirit. In fact, Campbell makes this point crystal clear earlier in his Debate with Walker, “THE CALLED, cannot mean those whom every preacher invites to Baptism, but those whom the Lord calls by his grace or Spirit”. Quotations of this nature can be multiplied from the Campbell-Walker Debate but such is needless. It is clear, though, that in 1820 Alexander Campbell did not have a doctrine of baptism that would be embraced by many of his descendants — he clearly did not think baptism was “necessary” or for the remission of sins.
Campbell testified in 1838 that he had not given the special meaning of baptism much thought prior to 1820. In the winter of 1821-1822, long after his baptism, Walter Scott and Alexander Campbell discussed a tract on the specific import of baptism by a Scotch Baptist minister named Henry Errett (later to be the father of Isaac Errett). It was from this tract that both Campbell and Scott learned of a possible deeper meaning involved in baptism. Even with this significant discovery, Campbell, says he was “engaged so much in other inquiries, it was put on file for further consideration” . The wider paragraph from Campbell is significant,
“In 1820 the Editor had a debate with Mr. Walker on the SUBJECT [sic] and ACTION [sic] of Christian baptism. He had not then turned his thoughts to the special MEANING [sic] or design of that ordinance. Either during that discussion or in transcribing it for the press, an impression was made on his mind that baptism had a very important meaning and was some way connected with remission of sins; but engaged so much in other inquiries, it was put on file for further consideration …”
Campbell then goes on to say “Immediately on receiving a challenge from Mr. Wm. L. M’Calla, of Kentucky, dated May 17, 1823, I resolved to settle the true meaning of baptism before I ever debated the subject again” .
Campbell’s debate with William MacCalla was in 1823. Even with this public pronouncement of the notion of remission of sins it was largely just theory rather not practice. It was left to Walter Scott’s famous tour of the Western Reserve (Ohio) in 1827 to not only put this theory in practice but to invent the five-finger plan of salvation as well.
The Biblical View of the Mature Campbell Rejects Sectarianizing Baptism
The mature Campbell’s views on baptism are more complicated than ours, which frequently is an exercise in reductionism. Campbell’s theology of baptism certainly affirmed the rite was for remission, though he strongly denied that cognitive comprehension of that fact was required by God — only submissive faith that was obedient. He based this view on the New Testament itself. Thus Campbell never made specific knowledge of remission the litmus test of biblical baptism. On the contrary he believed such a position was sectarian to the core and a denial of the principles of the restoration movement itself.
In fact, in stark contrast to the practice of most Churches of Christ today which fixate on certain baptismal phrases by splicing Mt 28.19 with Acts 2.38, Alexander Campbell opposed adding the phrase “for the remission of sins” to the “name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” of Matthew 28.19 when immersing a candidate . When Campbell reflected upon his own immersion in a “Dialogue on Reimmersion” he remembered that he simply confessed his faith that Jesus was the Messiah. Then Campbell adds, “Nor have I ever immersed any person but upon the same profession which I made myself” .
Campbell Confronts the False Rebaptism Doctrine
Alexander Campbell responded in 1831 to a question about rebaptism put forward by Andrew Broaddus, a prominent Baptist minister. Campbell, who consistently addresses Broaddus as “brother,” says that though baptism is associated with remission that is not the total New Testament witness concerning the subject. He says,
“Remission of sins is, indeed, connected with baptism; but so is adoption, sanctification, and all the blessings of the new institution.” Campbell goes on to comment, “To be baptized for the remission of sins exclusively, is not what is meant by putting on Christ, or by being immersed into Christ . . . I know some will say the candidates which they immersed a second time did not rightly understand baptism the first time. Well, I am persuaded they did not understand it the second time; and shall they be baptized a third time!”
Rebaptism could not be justified simply because a person did not grasp the specific “design” (“design” is common lingo) of baptism but rather that they were really unbelievers at the time of the first immersion. He writes:
“Let me once more say, that the only thing which can justify reimmersion into the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is a confession on the part of the candidate that he did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God — that he died for our sins, was buried, and rose on the third day, at that time of the first immersion — that he now BELIEVES the testimony of the apostles concerning him . . . The instant that rebaptism is preached and practised [sic!] on any other ground than now stated — such as deficient knowledge, weak faith, change of views — then have we contradicted in some way and made void the word of the Lord, “He who believes and be immersed shall be saved” — then have we abandoned the principles of the present reformation” .
Did you believe that Jesus is the Christ? That is the entire crux of the matter. To make “remission of sins” the object of one’s faith is simply a denial of the restoration principle and, worse, a rejection of New Testament Christianity!
The simple fact is that Campbell taught, just as the book of Acts does, that if a person would believe One Fact (i.e. that Jesus is the Christ) and submit to One Act that reflects that Fact (baptism into his name) that person has been inducted by the authority, and grace, of God into the Kingdom . On this point Alexander never wavered.
Growing in the Grace of Baptism Does Not undo Our Baptism
Those who have been ardent supporters of nonsectarian Christianity have consistently held the same ground as brother Campbell. There are anti-sectarian sectarians, to borrow Barton Stone’s arresting phrase, who certainly demand rebaptism from virtually everyone!
The great names, virtually synonymous with the Gospel Advocate for 150 years have held the same ground as the great Reformer, Alexander Campbell. David Lipscomb militantly opposed as sectarian, and digressive, the notion that one must have a clear grasp of the doctrine of remission of sins in order to receive biblical baptism. Lipscomb always pointed to the priority of the Great Commission as Jesus gave it in Matthew 28 . E. G. Sewell, Lipscomb’s long time co-editor of the GA was nearly as vocal in his opposition. See my blogs: Rebaptism Reviewed, David Lipscomb and David Lipscomb, Proper Translation & Rebaptism.
Probably none, though, opposed the sectarian doctrine more than co-founder of the Nashville Bible School (David Lipscomb University) James A. Harding. Harding debated the issue twice, once in 1888 with Austin McGary and in 1901 with J.D. Tant. Harding wrote, “It is manifestly wrong to call remission of sins the design of baptism and insist that it shall be understood.” Harding “doubt[ed] if there ever was a man who fully understood the design of the ordinance at the time of his baptism since Christ gave the commission.” Because this is so, the question to be asked is not, according to Harding, “What did you believe about baptism?” Rather, the proper question is, “Did you believe wit h your whole heart that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and did you confess him as Lord?” . See my blog, James A. Harding and the ‘Design’ of Baptism.
Giants like Walter Scott, Moses Lard, J. W. McGarvey, Benjamin Franklin, James F. Rowe, F. D. Srygley, M. C. Kurfees, J. C. McQuiddy, B.C. Goodpasture, J. N. Armstrong, George Benson, J. M Powell, Jimmy Allen all held this same ground because of a commitment to biblical nonsectarian Christianity. Even Daniel Sommer opposed Austin McGary on this one! But the biblical position was swallowed up by the Texas Tradition led by R. L. Whiteside, Foy Wallace Jr and the continual embrace of extremist positions.
The Conclusion of the Matter
It does not follow that those who hold to the same ground as these great men, believe that baptism is an empty, meaningless, ritual. Campbell hardly believed biblical baptism was meaningless. Rather this ground is held precisely because the belief that the action performed in baptism is GOD’S work, not ours. God grants the wonder of forgiveness to those who come in submissive faith to his Son. I close with the wise words of David Lipscomb:
“If we make baptism depend upon what man understands about it, its purposes and meaning, he will never know when he is baptized. It has been told of Dr. John Thomas, who when he started out to be baptized that when he learned a new truth about the purposes of baptism, that he was baptized over twenty times. . . but what we understand of the purpose of baptism is not the proper ground for being baptized. But the ground is, God has required it as an act of fealty to him, and we do it to obey him; and when we do this, we enter into him, that in him we may enjoy all the blessings and favors he gives” .
In a day or so I play on posting a few thoughts on how and where Walter Scott fits into all of this …
 Owen Olbricht, “Alexander Campbell’s Baptism,” Gospel Advocate (September 1999).
 I use the word “design” deliberately. Historically this word among rebaptist teachers referred exclusively to the doctrine of remission of sins.
 Debate on Christian Baptism Between Mr. John Walker, a Minister of the Secession and Alexander Campbell (Religious Book Service Reprint, n.d.), pp. 136-137.
 Ibid., p. 137.
 Ibid., p. 138.
 Ibid., p. 56 .
 Millennial Harbinger, 1838, p. 467-468.
 Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell (Standard Publishing Co. 1897), Volume 2, p. 288.
 Millennial Harbinger, 1832, p. 319.
 Millennial Harbinger, 1831, p. 483.
 Millennial Harbinger, 1836, p. 63.
 Christian Baptist, April 5, 1824, p. 60.
 Lipscomb’s views are easily accessible in his book Salvation from Sin, pp. 215ff and Questions and Answers, ed. M.C. Kurfees, pp. 528ff.
 The Way, March 1900, p. 35.
 Gospel Advocate, November 15, 1906, p. 728