Alexander Campbell and Christ’s Church

Members of the Lord’s church are sometimes erroneously referred to as “Campbellites.” What exactly is behind such appellation?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

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.

A recent article in Calvary Contender (June 15, 1999), a Baptist publication, chastises the magazine, Christianity Today, for accepting an ad from Harding University (Searcy, AR).

The piece charges that Harding is a “‘Campbellite’ Church of Christ” school. The church of Christ, it is claimed, has Iong been considered “a cult in some regards” because it allegedly teaches a “works salvation.” Let us give consideration to these malevolent accusations.


First, Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) never started a church (or claimed such), even though reference works frequently refer to him as the “founder” of the “Christian Churches” and “Churches of Christ.”

Robert Owen, the English “Free-thinker” who came to America to establish a movement of “social reform,” was, according to A.B. Barret, the first man to employ the epithet “Campbellite” (The Shattered Chain, 32). Those who so enjoy utilizing this misnomer are indebted to infidelity for it.

It is a tragedy that the man who Iabored 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, 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.270).

Robert Richardson was the author of a massive work titled The Memoirs of Alexander Campbell. Therein, Richardson wrote:

“Mr. Campbell never for a moment entertained the thought of becoming the head of a party or of allowing himself to be recognized as the founder of a religious denomination” (Memoirs, ii.441).

Once, when Campbell was in New Orleans, a local newspaper characterized him as the “founder” of a denomination. Mr. Campbell was not pleased. He penned a letter to the editor:

You have done me, gentlemen, too much honor in saying I am the “founder” of the denomination, quite numerous and respectable in many portions of the West, technically known as “Christians,” but more commonly as “Campbellites.”

I have always repudiated all human heads and human names for the people of the Lord, and shall feel very thankful if you will correct the erroneous impression which your article may have made in thus representing me as the founder of a religious denomination (Memoirs, ii.441).

lt is a matter of historical record that there were churches of Christ in Europe and America before Alexander Campbell had a clear concept of what primitive Christianity was all about.

Leslie G. Thomas documented New Testament churches in Scotland, England, and Ireland between 1778 and 1810 (The Restoration Handbook, 73). Historical accounts reveal that the Old Philadelphia congregation of the Lord’s people, near Morrison, Tennessee, was organized in 1810.

Alexander Campbell was not baptized until 1812 and continued to be 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 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; 1 Peter 4:16)? The use of human titles is sinful (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10ff).

The “Works Cult”

Whatever criticism may be justified with reference to some of our schools, the church of the Lord is not a “cult,” and genuine Christians do not teach “works salvation,” as that accusation is intended.

However, after “the Way which they call” a “cult” (cf. Acts 24:14), we will continue to serve God in a non-sectarian fashion.

The fact of the matter is, our Baptist friends are as much of a “works cult” as anyone — if one uses their standard for defining such. These folks argue that both faith and repentance are essential for obtaining forgiveness of sins (though they rarely get these requirements in the proper order; they generally place repentance first).

But “faith” is a work (John 6:27-29), and so is repentance (Matthew 12:41; Jonah 3:10). Does yielding to these sacred demands constitute one a cultist?

The Baptist barb is aimed, of course, at our contention that baptism is a requirement for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Ephesians 5:26; 1 Peter 3:21). But the truth is, inspiration divorces baptism from that class of “works” which are unrelated to salvation. Paul considers baptism as a “working of God” (Colossians 2:12 – ASV). Again, he contrasts the “washing of regeneration” (baptism) with those “works of righteousness” which man might himself contrive (Titus 3:5).

Therefore, our Baptist friends are wrong on both charges contained in the aforementioned article. We hope that God may grant them the opportunity to reconsider this matter and embrace the truth apart from a sectarian mentality.