A SEARCH FOR TRUTH ON BAPTISM
by Wayne S. Walker
Thomas Campbell, born in 1763, and his son Alexander, born in 1788, were originally Scotch Presbyterian in their religious affiliation. Both of them had water sprinkled on them as infants and were taught from their youth up that this was acceptable for Bible baptism. Thus it is interesting to trace their search for truth on baptism. Let it be said that churches of Christ today do not teach any doctrine that originated with the Campbells, nor do we practice anything by their authority. Our only standard for preaching and action is God’s word. But a study of Thomas and Alexander’s conclusions about baptism, along with the circumstances and events that led to those conclusions, can be profitable.
On May 27, 1807, Thomas arrived in America from his native Ireland. He was soon ordained by a Presbyterian synod but a strain quickly developed and he withdrew. Immediately after, Campbell gathered with a number of supporters and friends at the home of Abraham Altars in Washington, PA. It was in his speech on this occasion that he first uttered the famous words for which he is best remembered: "Where the scriptures speak, we speak; where the scriptures are silent, we are silent." Following this, Andrew Monroe spoke up, "Mr. Campbell, if we adopt that as a basis, there is an end to infant baptism."
Campbell replied, "Of course, if infant baptism is not found in the Scriptures, we can have nothing to do with it." Upon hearing this, Thomas Acheson arose excitedly and exclaimed, "I hope I may never see the day when my heart will renounce the blessed saying of Scripture, ‘Suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven’!", quoting Matthew 19:14. James Foster replied, "Mr. Acheson, in the Scripture which you have quoted, there is no reference whatever to infant baptism." So the stage was being set for an examination of this particular issue.
On August 17, 1809, another meeting was held at which time was organized the Christian Association of Washington. Later, Mr. Campbell wrote down the concepts he had presented in these meetings and read them before an assembly of twenty-one on September 7, 1809. This document is known as the "Declaration and Address." Baptism was not specifically mentioned, but it was averred that nothing should be practiced but what was expressly taught in the word of God and that admission into the church is permissible only to those who would confess and obey Jesus. After his son came to America, they found that they had reached many of the same ideas while on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Alexander and the rest of the family arrived on September 29, 1809. The son preached his first sermon on July 5, 1810. The Christian Association of Washington desired to attempt a union with another Presbyterian synod and so applied for membership in the Pittsburgh Synod on October 4 of that year. They were refused, in part, because it was alleged that they taught that infant baptism was not authorized in the scriptures. Therefore, they decided to organize an independent church known as Brush Run on May 4, 1811, with thirty members. It was here on January 1, 1812, that Alexander was ordained a preacher.
In the very beginning of his ministry, the younger Campbell preached on Mark 16:15-16 and said, "As I am sure it is unscriptural to make this matter a term of communion, I let it slip. I wish to think and let think on these matters." Up to this time neither of the Campbells had been immersed and almost all the members of the Brush Run church, having been sprinkled as infants, were convinced that such was sufficient for entrance into the church. Like others of their day, they had given no special attention to the Biblical teaching on baptism.
However, Thomas and Alexander had agreed that all religious questions were to be settled by the Bible. This aim began a slow but steady journey towards the truth about baptism. At the first meeting of the Brush Run church, several in the audience declined the Lord’s supper. Upon inquiry as to the reason, it was found that they had not been baptized and felt they had no right to the table. It was also learned that nothing but immersion would satisfy them. The Campbells’ original plan was to make this a question of forebearance with each individual free to settle it for himself. Accordingly, the unbaptized were immediately buried with Christ in nearby Buffalo Creek.
Alexander had married Miss Margaret Brown, the daughter of John Brown of Brook Co., Virginia (now West Virginia), on March 13, 1811. A year later, a little girl was born into their home. This blessed event brought with it a demand that the question of infant baptism be restudied. Being a thorough Greek scholar, Alexander began a careful investigation as to the teaching of the scriptures upon this subject. After an exhaustive search of God’s word, he was soon convinced that baptism was for believing adults and not babies.
He did not stop at this, however, but continued his research which revealed that the meaning of the word "baptism" in the original language is "immersion." He therefore became persuaded that New Testament baptism was immersion as well. Thereupon, Mr. Campbell concluded that he had never been truly baptized! His wife agreed with him. Also, his sister, Dorothea, came and told him that she, too, had read the Bible and found there was no authority for the affusion of infants. So they conferred with Matthias Luce, a Baptist preacher, to immerse them into Christ.
June 12 [later research showed that the correct date was June 2], 1812, was set as the day for the baptism in Buffalo Creek. Mr. Luce spent the previous night with Thomas Campbell. The next morning, the elder Campbell told Luce that he and his wife had likewise studied the question and had decided to be immersed. Later that day, a large audience gathered at the home of David Bryant near the creek. Thomas preached a sermon which gave his reasons for believing that immersion alone was Biblical baptism. Alexander followed with an address emphasizing the truth that believing penitents were the only proper subjects for baptism. Upon this, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Campbell, Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Campbell, Miss Dorothea Campbell, and Mr. and Mrs. James Hinen, who had been convinced by the two speeches, were baptized.
Alexander had agreed with Luce that the "ordinance" should be in harmony with the New Testament pattern. Since there was no Biblical precedent for the Baptist practice of making a "religious experience" the prerequisite for baptism, it was to be omitted and the good confession of Peter in Matthew 16:16 was to be substituted in its place. Mr. Luce hesitated, not because the change was unscriptural, but because it departed from Baptist usage. But he finally yielded. The next day at the Brush Run church, thirteen others confessed their faith in Christ and were buried with Him in baptism by Thomas Campbell.
What were the conclusions that led the Campbells to take this step? First of all, they concluded that immersion is the baptism of the Bible. They had accepted without question the beliefs of their ancestors for generations. But when forced to examine the matter for themselves, as honest students, they saw that immersion alone is taught in God’s word and that sprinkling, of later day, was of human origin. The word "baptize" literally means to immerse. The language of passages like Matthew 3:16 and Acts 8:38-39 demands this action. And it is the only thing that can be described as a burial (Romans 6:3-4, Colossians 2:12).
Secondly, they saw that the penitent believer was the only proper subject of baptism. Infant baptism had been practiced so long that it appeared sacrilegious to question its validity. But when compelled to find scriptural authority for sprinkling water on the newborn baby or leave it unbaptized, they had to abandon this cherished tradition. The Book, in Mark 16:16 and Acts 2:38, says that one must believe and repent before being baptized; infants cannot do this. And Acts 8:12 indicates that men and women, not small children, were baptized in apostolic days.
In the third place, they determined that the good confession made from the heart was the sole condition preceding baptism. Since Christ is the only Savior of men, when lost sinners would come to him they could not relate a "Christian experience." Rather, they should confess their personal faith in Jesus as the Son of God and upon this confession be baptized into His name. Our Lord taught the need for a confession of Him in Matthew 10:32-33, as did Paul in Romans 10:9-10. We have an apostolic example of it in Acts 8:35-37. The confession, "God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven me" (see Ephesians 4:32) as commonly demanded by several denominations, was never used prior to baptism with divine approval.
Finally, they came to understand the design of baptism. Campbell asserted that baptism was connected with remission of sins, making a distinction between the change of heart, effected by repentance, and the change of state, effected by baptism. He used the marriage ceremony as an illustration. It does not change the hearts of the contracting parties, but their state or relationship, and they are not married, however great the change of heart, until this ceremony has taken place. Baptists called this "baptismal regeneration" or "water salvation," claiming baptism is because of remission of sins and thus does not precede but follows baptism. However, baptism is "for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38) just as Christ shed His blood "for the remission of sins" (Matthew 26:28). Baptism washes away sins (Acts 22:16) or saves (1 Peter 3:21) based on the blood of Christ.
Many of these principles were enunciated by Alexander in some of his well-known debates. In the Walker debate of 1820, he argued against the contention that infant baptism was equivalent to circumcision under the old covenant by enumerating seven specific respects in which baptism differed materially from circumcision. The latter was for males only, was performed on the eighth day, required only fleshly descent from Abraham, was administered by parents or civil officers, was a sign of separation of Jews from Gentiles, affected a specific area of the body, and brought the peculiar promises of Canaan. In each of these respects, infant baptism was distincly different. He also presented several important facts about sprinkling in his contention for immersion as the action of baptism.
In the Rice debate of 1830, Campbell affirmed that immersion in water of a proper subject, into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is the one, only apostolic or Christian baptism, using thirteen separate arguments to prove it; and that Christian baptism is for the remission of past sins, that is, in order to forgiveness, just as one takes medicine for remission of an illness. He denied that the infant of a believing parent is a scriptural subject of baptism and that baptism can be administered only by a bishop or ordained presbyter. He concluded, "Baptism, my fellow-citizens, is no mere rite, no unmeaning ceremony, I assure you. It is a most intellectual, spiritual and sublime transition out of a sinful and condemned state, into a spiritual and holy state."
From 1813 to 1830 the Brush Run church was united with a couple of Baptist associations as a result of their jointly held belief in immersion as the action of baptism. However, they were forced out of this union over the design of baptism just as years before they had been denied union with a Presbyterian synod over the subjects of baptism. Thus, the Brush Run church became an autonomous, New Testament congregation of God’s people. None of these ideas originated with Thomas or Alexander Campbell. They were taught and practiced nearly two-thousand years ago by first century Christian in New Testament days. They come to us through the seed of the kingdom, which is the word of God (Luke 8:11). But we can be thankful to the Campbells and others for having the courage to bring them to light. May we never lose sight of the simple, Bible truth relating to baptism.
Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1972).
Campbell, Alexander. The Christian System (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing Company, n.d.).
David, M. M. How the Disciples Began and Grew (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing Company, 1915).
Hailey, Homer. Attitudes and Consequences in the Restoration Movement (Marion, IN: Cogdill Foundation Publications, 1975).
Humble, Bill J. Campbell and Controversy (Rosemead, CA: Old Paths Book Club, 1952).
Lard, Moses E. A Review of "Campbellism Examined" (Rosemead, CA: Old Paths Book Club, 1955).
Longan, George W. Origin of the Disciples of Christ (St. Louis, MO: Christian Publishing Co., 1889).
Welshimer, P. H. Concerning the Disciples (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing Company, 1935).
(—Taken from Faith and Facts; October, 1982; Vol. 10, No. 4; pp. 3-8).