A towering presence on the American religious landscape—both physically and intellectually—Alexander Campbell was a famed Christian apologist, engaging in public debate with the likes of atheist utopian Robert Owen and Catholic Bishop John Baptist Purcell of Cincinnati. As J. Caleb Clanton notes in this concise work on Campbell’s thought, the sage of Bethany, Virginia, “clearly viewed himself as a philosopher.” Yet, history has often overlooked his contributions, beyond the sphere of nineteenth-century Christian Restoration ideology (p. 12). In seeking “to reconstruct, explain, and evaluate the main contours of Campbell’s philosophy of religion,” Clanton, an associate professor of philosophy and University Research Professor at Lipscomb University, sets a high bar against the academic marginalization of his subject (p. 1). The resulting study compellingly argues Campbell’s position as a sophisticated, if not necessarily always original, thinker.
The book’s greatest challenge may lie in identifying an audience. Clanton writes deftly (describing, for example, Campbell’s “allergic reaction to irrational fideism”), but many readers will probably want more historical foundation to the discussion (p. 153). By the author’s own admission, “this book focuses on the arguments and positions in Campbell’s thinking; very little attention is given to chronological issues” (p. 19). While individual influences on Campbell are assiduously noted, broader contexts are often not fleshed out. In particular, Clanton’s cursory description of Barton W. Stone as “the other half [End Page 289] of the Stone-Campbell duo” sheds little light on why Campbell went to such great lengths to woo the Kentucky revivalist, though both men shared a common commitment to scripturally rational primitive Christianity, formalizing the merger of their churches in 1832 (p. 10).
Clanton is on surer ground elaborating Campbell’s philosophical engagement on issues such as arguments for the existence of God, arguments from, for, and against miracles, and the problem of evil. Throughout Campbell’s philosophy of religion, the necessity of revelation is identified as a central theme. For Campbell, revelation constituted a separate category of knowing, distinct from the faculties of perception or the combinative powers of the imagination. Although Campbell referred to John Locke as “our Christian philosopher,” he rejected Locke’s cosmological proof of God’s existence (i.e., the inferred existence of God as a necessary first cause) in favor of one based firmly on scriptural revelation (p. 15). As Clanton notes, “the idea of an uncaused eternal being,” struck Campbell as problematic, since Locke assumed a priori its inherence without accounting for its inception (p. 32). Campbell characteristically insisted that the idea of God was implanted by divine revelation, the validity of which could be tested by common criteria of experience. His appeal to empiricism in undergirding the rational foundations of the Bible was key to understanding his commitment to primitive Christianity and his opposition to creedal denominationalism, or extra-scriptural confessions of faith. Such understanding is hardly surprising, however, given Campbell’s Scots-Irish background and his education at the University of Glasgow, where he came under the direct influence of Scottish Common Sense philosophy, itself the distant forerunner of American Pragmatism. Part of broader eighteenth-century efforts to carry empiricism into new fields of human inquiry, Common Sense thought was also a reaction to the more skeptical empiricism of Scottish philosopher David Hume, in particular his attempts to de-center and de-stabilize the revealed foundation of religion. Clanton acknowledges this key strain of transatlantic realism and its importance, but further historical contextualization would have [End Page 290] placed Campbell closer to the mainstream and might have broadened the scope of this book, given the recent attention of scholars such as Garry Wills and Mark Noll to Scottish Common Sense influence on American political, religious, and educational thought.
Matthew Smith immigrated to the United States from Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2004. He gained his PhD at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 2011, and is currently visiting assistant professor of history at Miami University Hamilton in Hamilton, Ohio. He is working...