Alexander Campbell and the Church of Christ

by Wayne Jackson

Members of the Lord's church are sometimes erroneously referred to as "Campbellites." What exactly is behind such appellation? It is a tiresome thing to have to respond, again and again, to the same misguided (and frequently dishonest) charges. But one is compelled, from time to time, to do so.

First, Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) never started a church (or claimed such), even though reference works frequently refer to him as "founder" of the "Christian Churches" and "Churches of Christ." It is a tragedy that the man who labored the bulk of his adult life with a view to encouraging others to abandon sectarianism should himself be accused of being the head and founder of the "Campbellite" church.

The reformer utterly repudiated the designation. In 1826 Campbell wrote:

"Some religious editors in Kentucky call those who are desirous of seeing the ancient order of things restored, "the Restorationers," "the Campbellites". . . This may go well with some; but all who fear God and keep his commands will pity and deplore the weakness and folly of those who either think to convince or to persuade by such means" (The Christian Baptist, Vol. IV, pp. 88-89).

In 1828 Mr. Campbell responded to the question: "What is Campbellism?" in the following fashion:

"It is a nickname of reproach invented and adopted by those whose views, feelings and desires are all sectarian - who cannot conceive of Christianity in any other light than an ISM" (Christian Baptist, Vol. V, p. 270).

lt is a matter of historical record that there were churches of Christ - both in Europe and in America - before Alexander Campbell had a clear concept of what primitive Christianity was all about. Leslie G. Thomas has documented New Testament churches in Scotland, England, and Ireland, dating between 1778 and 1810 (The Restoration Handbook, p. 73). Historical accounts reveal that the Old Philadelphia congregation of the Lord's people, which was near Morrison, Tennessee, was organized in the year 1810. Alexander Campbell was not baptized until 1812, and he continued to he affiliated with the Baptists until the 1820s.

Churches of Christ do not owe their origin to Campbell or any other human leader. The fact that some, therefore, delight in using the term "Campbellite" to refer to those who choose to be called simply "Christians," rather than wearing humanly-devised titles, is more of a commentary upon their characters than anything else. Why is it that so many religionists have such a difficult time being comfortable with the name "Christian," and that alone (cf. Acts 11:26; 26:28; I Peter 4:16)? The use of human titles is sinful (cf. I Cor 1:10ff).