18 Feb 2009

Alexander Campbell, Rebaptism & Sectarianism

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Alexander Campbell, Baptism, Church, Grace, Kingdom, Preaching, Restoration History, Salvation, Unity

Baptism at the Hands of a Baptist, An Embarrassment?

The immersion of Alexander Campbell, in 1812, by Baptist preacher Mathias Luce has long been a troublesome issue 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”[1] 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.

But it was something Alexander Campbell never hid.  Nor was it a source of embarrassment for him. Baptism was not a sectarian matter with 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 Smith DebatePOINT 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 [2]. 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” [3]. 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 [4]. 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 Campbell Debateon 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” [5].

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“[6]. 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’s Testimony

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” [7]. 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” [7].

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 [8]. 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” [9].

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!”[10]

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” [11].

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 [12]. 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 [12]. 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?” [13]. 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 the stalwart  Daniel Sommer opposed Austin McGary on this one! But the biblical position, as the “Nashville Bible School Tradition” understood it, 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 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” [14].

In a day or so I play on posting a few thoughts on how and where Walter Scott fits into all of this …


[1] Owen Olbricht, “Alexander Campbell’s Baptism,” Gospel Advocate (September 1999).

[2] I use the word “design” deliberately. Historically this word among rebaptist teachers referred exclusively to the doctrine of remission of sins.

[3] 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.

[4] Ibid., p. 137.

[5] Ibid., p. 138.

[6] Ibid., p. 56 .

[7] Millennial Harbinger, 1838, p. 467-468.

[8] Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell (Standard Publishing Co. 1897), Volume 2, p. 288.

[9] Millennial Harbinger, 1832, p. 319.

[10] Millennial Harbinger, 1831, p. 483.

[11] Millennial Harbinger, 1836, p. 63.

[12] Christian Baptist, April 5, 1824, p. 60.

[12] Lipscomb’s views are easily accessible in his book Salvation from Sin, pp. 215ff and Questions and Answers, ed. M.C. Kurfees, pp. 528ff.

[13] The Way, March 1900, p. 35.

[14] Gospel Advocate, November 15, 1906, p. 728

24 Responses to “Alexander Campbell, Rebaptism & Sectarianism”

  1. Steve Says:

    My hero here is David Lipscomb, simply because it was from his writings that I first considered and contemplated these ideas. The statement you give from Harding, though, that the question to be asked is not, “What did you believe about baptism?” says it so well. What is the object of our faith? Is it a doctrine? Is it a proposition? Is it an idea? In what should we believe? No, in whom do we believe? Yes, we are to believe the gospel. But our trust ultimately is in a person upon whom that gospel and those doctrines depend for their validity and effectiveness. It is in the divine Lord, the Son of God, Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21; Rom. 3:22, 26; Gal. 2:16, 20; 3:22, 26; Eph. 3:12; Phil. 3:9; 2 Tim. 3:15). We trust in the work of Christ (Rom. 3:25).
    The object of our faith is God (Mark 11:22). We believe in the same one we confess. We believe in the one to whom we dare to pray. This is what the other religions of the world do not have. They have similar doctrines. They have ablutions. They have their creeds, rituals and liturgies. But none of them has the Lamb of God who gave his life as a ransom and was resurrected who reigns as Lord, high priest, King of kings and Savior.

  2. johnmarkhicks Says:

    I suppose, Bobby, we are on some kind of “rebaptism” adventure between our blogs. 🙂

    Perhaps the significance of the whole debate for both of us is the sectarianism embedded in the McGary/Thomas position and how it sells out the original goal of the Restoration Movement itself.

    I make similar points as yours in my articles on Campbell in the “Baptism: A Historical Perspective” (College Press). The articles are available at http://www.johnmarkhicks.faithsite.com/content.asp?ListSG=419. I need to put them on my new website at wordpress.

    Anyway…thanks for pressing the point, my friend.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Bobby, you just don’t understand.

    If you allow baptism to be made simply upon a confession that Jesus is Lord, then churches of Christ would have to view many Pentecostals, Baptists, and others as brothers.

    We can’t have that, so other conditions have to be imposed, such as knowledge of the distinctive nature of the NT church and the remission of sins.

    It’s simply, really.

  4. kingdomseeking Says:

    Regarding baptism, Bobby asks “Is one saved by submissive faith or precise knowledge?”

    This is the precise point. The former trust God to save even if there is not a precise understanding of how and when God saves. The former trusts in its intellectual ability. Such confidence MUST hope beyond all hope that it is correct because if it is found to be wrong on the day of judgment, then by its own argument it will be lost because it was not baptized with precise knowledge regarding the doctrine of baptism.

    Personally, on the day of Judgment I want to stand before God having place my faith in God rather than my own intellegence.

    Great post!

    K. Rex Butts

  5. Royce Ogle Says:

    At the end of the day one thing is clear. We (RM folks) put much more emphasis on baptism than the bible does.

    If the same energy, time, money, etc. that has been used supporting or disagreeing with a particular view of the role of water baptism had instead been used to preach the good news about Jesus and His work on behalf of sinners, we as a movement would be far better off.

    With respect and love Bobby, I just don’t get the facination with A. Campbell and other RM founders. Our mission as believers is to further the cause of Christ. I have no mandate to protect, further, or keep pure the Restoration Movement or its ideals. All of these men who are discussed and disected over and over and over again were all good men but flawed just as we are.

    You and many other bloggers and authors are so very talented and I applaud you. Write a book on the doctrine of Justification or some other great Bible doctrine. Perhaps its only me but I want more about Jesus and less about his feeble followers.


  6. Steve Says:

    Royce, I, like you, am more interested in biblical theology. However, it is because of the fascination of others about the RM heritage that Bobby does what he does. Without critics like Bobby, JMH and many others, myths and distortions would be perpetuated in the name of Campbell, et. al., even more so than they already are. If we are heirs of the RM, we need to have an accurate picture of its theology and history.

  7. Terry Says:

    This was a very good explanation of the nondenominational nature of baptism based on trust in Jesus Christ.

  8. cwinwc Says:

    Bobby, with these past few posts you may be on track to be blog world’s first modern day ” .400 hitter!” 🙂

    Great stuff. I think it is absolutely essential that we understand from whence we came or in this case, “our” understanding of baptism and re-baptism.

    It is when we begin to grasp why we have the understanding / baggage on baptism, we can begin an honest journey towards a Biblical understanding of this important part of the redemption process.

  9. rich Says:

    very nice
    i to think some ellements of faith are tooooo simple for our complex minds
    and on the other hand to complex for our simple minds



  10. Royce Ogle Says:


    Sorry, I just don’t see progress being made as you hope for. Do church of Christ folks agree more now than they did 5 or 10 years ago? And, on any subject?

    Aren’t we likely to learn more about what the Bible says and means by studying it rather than what someone said it means?

    I am amazed at Bobby’s stuff on the Old Testament and JMH and others are obviously gifted, not only as writers but have great spiritual insight as well.

    I think it is probably not best to limit our extrabiblical resource material to “brotherhood” writers and thinkers as much as many of us do. I don’t intend to be ugly or disagreeable, but you can discuss what a group of church of Christ men believed about baptism ’til the cows come home and the end of your journey will be about where you started.


  11. Randall Says:

    Wonderful post Bobby! I look forward to your upcoming post dealing with Walter Scott’s views on the matter.

    AS JMH said, it looks like y’all have something of a rebaptism adventure going on in your blogs. Both are very well done and of benefit to many. I copy them into email and send them to many of my CofC brothers and sisters. Thank you.

  12. Steve Says:


    I was an associate minister under a very godly man in the early 1970s. About 15 years later I invited him to speak in a revival meeting where I was preaching at the time. What amazed me the most about that meeting was that numerous insights, phrases, ways of making arguments, theological concepts, and practical positions were preached by him for several days and night from the pulpit. Many of them were the same “insights” I had been preaching for the last 15 years, thinking all the time that I had attained them by my own independent study of the scriptures. It was an existential moment of awareness that I was not as creative a thinker as I imagined and that my status as an unbiased interpreter of the scriptures — one who could approach any passage with a clean slate and no already established agenda in place — was a myth. As a teacher of historical theology from the patristic era, medieval era, reformation era and modern era, helping students to figure out how they, and others, got to where they did through the last 2,000 years is a joy. And that is true not just for “church of Christ folks”, as you call them, a phrase I would not use, but for all of my students.

  13. Frank Bellizzi Says:


    I’m really enjoying and learning a lot from what you and JM Hicks are writing these days (and at other times too ;-).

    Oh, I also like your form of documentation here and have completely adopted it.

  14. muriel b Says:

    I have been reading the last week or two of posts. I don’t have time until Saturday. I have really enjoyed the insights of Bobby and other bloggers. I also think the historical information is something everyone should know because of how it influences current thoughts and shines a light on the path taken to get where we are today, wherever that may be.

    As someone who was baptized at age 11, I can promise that I did not know all there was to know about baptism, it’s meaning or even the benefits of it. My children were baptized at age 6 and 9. They are very fine Christian people, one a graduate of Pepperdine University and the other about to graduate high school both with what I think sometimes is a clearer understanding of Christ than me. I continue to grow closer to God and stronger in my faith the older I get.

    I agree with Bobby’s thoughts on baptism. What I am completely blown away by is the comment by Anonymous on this page. When was anyone or any group given the title of “Judge of the Validity Other People’s Baptism”. After reading it multiple times, I can only hope that it was a sarcastic, tongue in cheek comment that possibly did not come across that way in the written word.

    Bobby, thanks for the blogs I continue to learn from you and others. Life is a journey, and we will never “arrive” until we get to Heaven.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Muriel, yes, it was tongue in cheek.

    Although, as additional requirements seem to be made before someone’s baptism is seen as valid, I’ve begun to wonder if this is perhaps another explanation.

  16. muriel b Says:

    Thanks I feel much better now 🙂

  17. Anonymous Says:

    Comment to Muriel B.

    You go girl! Only God has the authority to judge a persons heart and motives in coming to Christ. It is very, very wrong for anyone to sit in God’s throne and attempt to judge the legality of one persons baptism over anothers. The only possible exception,Those who teach one does not need to be baptized.

    For those who might be interested I recommend a book by John R.W. Stott titled “Baptism and Fullness.” The one primary point that jumped out at me was where he makes the point of how one receives the Holy Spirit, “with out water there is no Spirit!” Over all an excellent discussion on the importance of baptism by an Evangelical scholar. I think all would benefit from this mans insight.


    Brian N.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    Kudos to Anonymous for his tongue in cheek comments. Like Muriel, I too was worried.

    Brian N

  19. Anonymous Says:

    Great article, thanks for the obvious hard work and research.

    I’m also one who was baptized at age 11. I believed in simple faith that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, that I needed Him as my Savior, and that I should be baptized in obedience to what He said. I did not understand about ‘remission of sins’. I’m now 54 years old, but I still have the same firm confidence in Christ that I did at age 11. I prefer to stand before Christ having trusted in Him, than having trusted in my human intelligence.


  20. Anonymous Says:

    Nice post and this fill someone in on helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you for your information.

  21. Will Wade Says:

    Our School Master the Old Testament warns that Human assumptions and think sos are Dangerous like Moses and the rock (Num. 20). Next time God commands Moses to “speak to the rock.” Moses who was not commanded to hit the next rock (Ex. 17), but he decided it would be alright to hit this rock twice.

    Moses hit the rock instead of taking the safe course and simply doing like God commanded him to do “speak to the rock.”

    God said to Moses you do not believe and for that reason you can not enter the promised land.

    If we are not certain we did what God commands then why not take the safe course and just get re-baptized.

    Know for certain that you have done as God commands us to do. If our first baptism is good, the second time we will only get wet. Eternal life in Heaven is too precious to take chances on loosing, so make your calling and election sure (2Pet. 1:10).
    God bless.
    Will Wade

  22. albert J. Wilson Says:

    What is your opinion of the writings and influence of Henry Errett and the rstoration movement.? Albert J. Wilson wilsonsusanita@comcast.net thank you

  23. Dwight Says:

    To AC the concept of exact knowledge was a divisive point and man-made point much like needing to know where one stood doctrinally before being able to partake of the Lord’s Supper. One needed to know Christ as the only requirement. In acts there was no background check required only faith and repentance. We are not saved by baptism or faith, but by Jesus, who empowers these things. It is of my thinking that one could be saved through baptism even while believing they were saved before it. The requirements for baptism wasn’t “a belief in at what point one was saved”, but in who we were saved…Jesus.


  1. Baptism Shouldn’t Divide Us – Cliff Hikes

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