Campbell, Alexander (1788–1866), church leader in the USA, was born 12 September 1788, possibly at Shane's Castle, near Antrim, or in Broughshane, Co. Antrim, eldest son of Thomas Campbell and Jane Campbell (née Corneigle), who married in 1787 and later had four daughters and two younger sons. His father, Thomas Campbell (1763–1854), son of soldier Archibald Campbell and his wife Alice McNally, was born 1 February 1763 at Sheepbridge, near Newry, Co. Down. William Campbell (qv) (d. 1805) may have been a relation.
Archibald Campbell was born catholic but joined the Church of Ireland, while his son joined the seceding branch of the presbyterian church and studied at the University of Glasgow (graduating MA in 1786, it is said, although he does not appear in the published records of the university). He became a teacher but was determined to become a minister, and studied in the Anti-Burgher Divinity Hall in Whitburn, West Lothian (or the Seceder Theological Seminary in Whithorn, Wigtownshire, according to another source) for two months each year for five years. He was ordained minister in the seceding congregation of Ahorey, Co. Armagh, probably in 1798. Although at first a member of the anti-burgher party in his church, Thomas Campbell began to believe that divisions between and within denominations were prejudicial to true Christianity. He wrote a report (1804) suggesting that burgher and anti-burgher presbyterians in Ireland should unite; when this was vetoed in 1805 by the General Associate Synod of Scotland, Campbell (then moderator of the Irish Seceding Synod) initiated an unsuccessful move to seek independence from Scottish control. His experiences with church authorities undoubtedly increased his belief in the need to rediscover the scriptural basis of religion, freed from man-made creeds.
In 1804, Thomas Campbell set up an academy at Richhill, Co. Armagh. He was one of the founders (1798) of the Evangelical Society of Ulster in which clergymen from differing sects cooperated but resigned when this enterprise was frowned on by seceding authorities.
In poor health in 1806, Thomas Campbell resigned from Ahorey, and went (1807) to the United States, where he preached in small congregations around Washington, Pennsylvania. He was soon accused of doctrinal unsoundness, of disciplinary laxity and of administering the sacraments to non-presbyterians; his appeal to the Associate Synod of North America was unsuccessful, and in 1809 he ceased to be a minister of the seceder church. His liberal views on Christian unity and on the paramount importance of the bible attracted supporters, and in 1809 they founded the Christian Association of Washington. Campbell published a Declaration and address in which he set out the principles of this body. His followers claimed it represented a ‘second reformation’ or a ‘restoration’; it forms the basis of the doctrine of what became America’s most important indigenous religious development, and is regarded as significant in the history of the wider ecumenical movement. He published a great many other tracts and articles. Thomas Campbell died, in Bethany, West Virginia on 4 January 1854.
Thomas had married Jane Corneigle in 1787 and their eldest son Alexander was born 12 September 1788, probably near Shane’s Castle, Co. Antrim, in his grandmother’s house, or in Broughshane, Co. Antrim, where his father was teaching. His parents intended him for the ministry, and he received a good education, partly from his father, and religious training from both parents; he was greatly influenced by his strongminded and pious mother. In October 1808 his family set sail for America to join his father; the ship was wrecked on the island of Islay, off Scotland. All on board were saved, partly thanks to the Alexander’s strength and leadership. Rather than continuing the voyage by other means, Alexander spent eight months in the University of Glasgow to prepare himself for the ministry.
In the summer of 1809, the family finally arrived in Pennsylvania, among many emigrants from Ulster. On 1 January 1812, Alexander was ordained as a minister of the Christian Association, and quickly took over the leadership of the fledgling church. By 1812 most of their followers, thenceforth often called Campbellites, had undergone baptism by immersion; a union with the baptist denomination resulted, but did not survive after 1830, by which date Campbell’s work on a translation of the Greek New Testament had convinced him that baptism was unscriptural. Controversy between the two groups continued for many years.
A very able preacher and debater, whose public discussions attracted much attention, Alexander Campbell attacked the creeds and governance of established churches. In 1823 he founded the journal the Christian Baptist. Subsequently in 1830, after the break with the baptists, he started the Millennial Harbinger. Both periodicals were largely written by Campbell and his father, Thomas, and were widely influential. He was convinced that church unity would usher in a millennial age of peace and harmony; primitive Christianity was thus to bring about a utopian future. His book Christianity restored (1835; then as The Christian system in 1839) was widely read, in Britain as well as in America. In 1826, a translation of the Greek New Testament was printed by Campbell’s press in Bethany, West Virginia; largely based on recent translations by others, it nonetheless contains variant readings by Campbell and furthered his aim of providing followers with authoritative texts on which to base their beliefs. In 1841 Alexander Campbell founded Bethany College, West Virginia, and was its president until his death (in Bethany, 4 March 1866), when he left it $10,000 and a large library.
In 1832 several fledgling churches joined the Campbellites, and formed a new body called the Christian Church, or Disciples of Christ, which today has over 3,000 congregations in the United States. The two guiding principles of the lifelong beliefs of the Campbells were in the end irreconcilable. An emphasis on the literal interpretation of scripture allowed believers to form beliefs at variance from those of co-religionists, and neither Alexander Campbell’s great authority in the denomination nor Thomas Campbell’s emphasis on the need for church unity were enough to prevent the fissions inevitable in a church that so strongly opposed man-made creeds. There are now at least six major divisions of the Church of Christ, one of several alternative names.
On 2 March 1811 Alexander Campbell married Margaret Brown, and thenceforth derived his income from the large farm that had belonged to her family. They had eight children, who all died in their father’s lifetime. Margaret Brown Campbell died on 22 October 1827. On 31 July 1828, in fulfilment of his wife’s dying request, the widower married the English-born Selina Huntington Bakewell, and had six children with her. Four of those children survived him; Selina Campbell wrote a memoir of her husband, published in 1882, and lived until 1897.