Debates in the Upper Ohio Valley … Alexander Campbell

Bruce Daugherty

Contention and controversy are a part of the heritage of the Restoration Movement. This heritage has been largely forgotten in this day of religious tolerance. However, the Upper Ohio Valley has been the scene of numerous debates by the preachers who sought to advance the cause of New Testament Christianity. This article will review some of the rationale for debating.

The Upper Ohio Valley has played host to religious controversy since the days of Thomas and Alexander Campbell. The plea for a union of Christians based on restoration led to challenges to debate by denominational leaders in the 19th century. Thomas Campbell, having already experienced bitter religious strife in Ireland and Scotland, believed “no practical good” could result from debating.

Alexander Campbell initially agreed with his father’s views but became persuaded that controversy was inevitable and that debate could be a legitimate means for the advancement of truth and the overthrow of ignorance and error. The success which the younger Campbell enjoyed after his first debate with Presbyterian John Walker in 1820 convinced him that “public discussion, conducted with moderation and good temper, is of all means the best adapted to elicit inquiry and exhibit truth” (Humble 269). This debate took place at Mt. Pleasant in Jefferson County, Ohio, across the river from Campbell’s home in Bethany. All of Campbell’s major debates took place in the Upper Ohio Valley. In 1823, he defended the purpose of baptism with Presbyterian W. L. Maccalla at Washington, Kentucky. Cincinnati was the site where he met the skeptic Robert Owen in 1829 and, in 1837, the Roman Catholic Bishop John Purcell. His last major debate was held with Presbyterian N. L. Rice in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1843.

Jesus, the Apostles, and many early Christians were often engaged in religious controversy. Campbell, aware of this history, wrote: “No man ever achieved any great good to mankind who did not wrest it with violence through the ranks of opponents— who did not fight for it with courage and perseverance, and who did not, in the conflict, sacrifice either his good name or his life. John, the harbinger of the Messiah, lost his head. The Apostles were slaughtered. The Savior crucified. The ancient confessors were slain. The reformers all have been excommunicated. (As cited in Humble 277). Alexander Campbell is responsible for the restoration of debate as a means of advancing truth. His rational and logical manner of presentation was well suited for the task. Those who followed Campbell in the early 20th century were likewise “set for the defense of the gospel” (Philippians 1:17).

The widow of Ulysses U. Wilkinson, an evangelist from Oklahoma, gave her insight into debating. She believed God sanctioned debating: “Come let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). To teach any subject was to be prepared to answer those who would contradict what was taught. “The anti-debater believes in doing both sides of the debating, for then he can have it his own way. The debater believes it fair to let his opponent represent his own side of the question.” (Wilkinson 16). Sister Wilkinson went on to cite the Biblical examples of God’s servants who stood firmly for truth and defended it in the face of opposition: Moses in the court of Pharaoh; Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel; Jesus’ encounters with the scribes, lawyers, and Pharisees; Paul with the philosophers on Mars’ Hill. She believed this was what Jesus meant when he said, “I come not to bring peace on the earth but a sword,” (Matthew 10:34).

“The Restoration Movement was born in controversy, flourished as supporter and critic discussed its relative merits, and was molded in the flaming crucible of public debate.” (Humble 283). If we are still seeking a return to New Testament Christianity, religious discussion and debate will be part of the means used to accomplish that goal.

Works Cited: Humble, Bill. Campbell and Controversy. Indianapolis: Faith and Facts Press, 1986 reprint of 1952 edition. Wilkinson, U. G. “Why We Believe in Debates,” Christian Leader May 10, 1932.

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