1 Apr 2021

Tolle Lege: Alexander Campbell on Reading

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Alexander Campbell, Books, Culture, Discipleship, Ministry, Reading, Restoration History
Alexander Campbell

In 1834, Alexander Campbell expressed himself on the importance of Reading and having a Good Library in the Millennial Harbinger. The article is actually by Thomas Smith Grimke, but Campbell prefaces it with these words, “I have not found any writer who more fully expresses my views.” So rather than writing his own, he copies and pastes.

Grimke provides a long list of authors and books that he believes should be owned and read by everyone. He notes that a person who wishes to be a “scholar,” not so much in the “literary sense” but some one who is ‘well rounded,” open minded, “dignified,” and generally useful to society, should continue to grow and learn. “It is an error to suppose that a course of study is confined to the period of YOUTH” [sic]. Learning, including going to college, has barely begun by the time youth is ended.

A well rounded individual ought ‘to make up his mind to be a devoted student, in spite of his professional engagements” in order to “enlarge the mind.”

Then Campbell, with Grimke’s words, makes this rather interesting remark. “And here let it be remarked, that the TRUE student never considers how much he reads, but rather how LITTLE, and only WHAT, and HOW he reads” [sic]. In other words one cannot read to much but one can read not enough and one can be poor quality books which also may make us poor readers.

What are some of the titles recommended by AC/Grimke? I will not list them all (there is a page of them). They cover a wide array of subjects.

The Bible (with commentaries listed like Clarke/Henry)
William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity.
Several by Robert Lowth (a Hebrew scholar, discovered parallelism in the Psalms).
Neal’s History of the Puritans.
John Locke’s Essays.
Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning.
Horseley’s Nine Sermons.
Thomas Reid (a philosopher).
Hallam’s History of the Middle Ages.
Milman’s History of the Jews.
Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Pitkin’s Civil and Political History of the United States.
Jonathan Edwards, God’s End in the Creation of the World.
Roscoe’s Pope Leo X.
Milner’s History of the Christian Church.
A number of works by Shakespeare, Walter Scott, etc.

What a refreshing perspective. What a remarkable list that includes the leading historical, biblical, theological, and philosophical scholarship of the day. I have met way to many, ministers and non-ministers, who almost brag (some actually do) about not reading. I have seen political leaders do the same. The former President Donald Trump was a notorious non-reader (see David Graham’s essay, The President Who Doesn’t Read). It is only the young that need to learn and read.

What is equally interesting is that Campbell regards this as a starter list! 🙂 .

There was a time, however, when many held the opinion that to be integrated into and to contribute to society – not just to be a minister or a politician – one had to cultivate the habit of enlarging the mind beyond its own inherent limitations through reading widely. Reading widely, in the words of Karen Swallow Prior “makes us more human” (see her thoughtful essay, How Reading Makes Us More Human.) C. S. Lewis in An Experiment in Literary Criticism, speaks in much the same way of how reading serves our humanity,

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

Oh, for statesmen who read like James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Oh, for ministers who believed reading widely, and deeply, was a sign of service to God to be equipped to minister to his people. I have met some who pretend to read and some who buy lots of books but do not actually read. Oh, for those who held Campbell’s and Lewis’s view. Reading, Good reading, is simply necessary. Good literature makes not only an informed and contributing member of society but helps us to be better biblical readers.

Read. Read Good Books. Read cross culturally. If you are white then read some Black authors regularly (James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Esau McCaulley, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Cornell West, Bryan Stevenson, John Perkins, Ta-Nehisi Coats). If you are a male incorporate women authors (Maya Angelou, Lisa Bowens, A. J. Levine, Latasha Morrison, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Bell Hooks, Jennifer Rosner, Lynn Cohick, Elizabeth Achtemeier, etc). Read. Ponder. Grow.

Jack P. Lewis, of blessed memory, at Harding School of Theology used to call it “the ministry of study.” I end with what I quoted above, we cannot read too much. “And here let it be remarked, that the TRUE student never considers how much he reads, but rather how LITTLE, and only WHAT, and HOW he reads” [sic].”

You can find this article in the Millennial Harbinger for October 1834 on pages 490-493.

Campbell will publish an article 20 years later in 1851 called “A Christian Minister’s Library” with an amazing selection of recommended reading. It can be found in the Millennial Harbinger, May 1851, pp. 259-260.

Tolle lege

Related Posts:
Why Do We Read?

Why Do We Read, Part 2

One Hundred Great Books

A Talk with McGarvey: J. W. McGarvey on Books, Reading & Preachers

2 Responses to “Tolle Lege: Alexander Campbell on Reading”

  1. Michael Summers Says:

    Amen and amen.

  2. Robert LIMB Says:

    Many of these are, of course, dated, some to the point of being obsolete. I still have my Alford on my shelf, but who today reads Matthew Henry? And honestly, leave Gibbons to prop up a wonky table leg, but DO read Tom Holland. Know about the history of your country/the world, and contemporary history for the Bible, Coogan, for instance.
    But Yes, Yes, Yes! Read Shakespeare! Shakespeare has almost as many phrases baked into contemporary English as the Authorised Version, and if you like the 1611 translation (which has never been equalled as a work of English literature), then read Shakespeare to know how the language was spoken then. You will not find better drama, tragedy or comedy anywhere.
    Walter Scott is of course the author of Ivanhoe – so I’ll allow that he is optional – if replaced by classics of your own choice – and contemporary writers you enjoy. There is too much to be bored by books you find dull! Walter Percy, Shushaku Endo, Khaled Hosseini and Harper Lee would be a good place to start for the 20th & 21st centuries. And if you have not read ‘Out of the Silent Planet, “‘Perelandra” and “That Hideous Strength”, you do not know what you are missing. What would you recommend?

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