by Al Maxey

Issue #115 ------- March 28, 2004
Words ought to be a little wild, for they are
the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)

The Lunenburg Letter
Campbell's Controversial Correspondence
with a Sister over Saints in the Sects

Alexander Campbell was born September 12, 1788 in Ireland. He was the son of Thomas Campbell (1763-1854), who was a Minister for the Seceder Presbyterian Church in northern Ireland, and also an honor graduate of the University of Glasgow. His mother was of French descent. In 1807, for health reasons, Thomas came to America. He was joined by his family two years later (August, 1809). At the age of 21, Alexander joined with his father in what would become a lifelong endeavor to serve God and His people by proclaiming a message of grace. For the next 57 years he would excel as "a gentleman farmer, Virginia legislator, political theorist, educational philosopher, lecturer, debater, preacher, and religious journalist." However, he would be chiefly remembered as "the central figure giving stimulus to the origin and early development of that religious communion which developed along the frontier of nineteenth-century America," and which would later divide into the three branches known today as Disciples of Christ, Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ (D. Ray Lindley, Apostle of Freedom, p. 8). "In personal appearance Campbell was tall, vigorous and athletic. His hair was light and his complexion moderately fair. His face had no straight lines, and his aquiline nose was arched, as Raccoon John Smith said, 'a little to the north.' Few ever saw him when he was not cheerful" (William Blake, Alexander Campbell: Apostle of Truth).

In his own words, Alexander aspired to become "one of the best scholars in the kingdom." When Campbell was in his late 50's, a period some regard as one of his most productive, Tolbert Fanning wrote of him, "His scholarship is admired by both friends and foes; and in logical powers, the world, in my humble opinion, has not his equal. As a declaimer, he is not generally admired by the multitude; but men of the best order of mind are always delighted with his addresses ... His arguments are always well arranged, and are generally full and satisfactory on every point he touches. ... For logic, scriptural knowledge, genuine criticisms, dignity of manner, fairness and Christian courtesy, it is barely probable Alexander Campbell has an equal living" (The Christian Review, May, 1844). Campbell was also one who didn't like "wasting time" sleeping. He was up by 4 a.m. and would not retire at night until very late. Tolbert Fanning regarded this, and his distaste for idleness, as "the main key to his greatness."

In 1823, Alexander began publishing a journal in which he sought to present his growing convictions regarding his quest for ultimate Truth. He called it The Christian Baptist. It shook up many brethren, and broke down many barriers; he made enemies through these writings, and he made lifelong friends. Seven years later (1830) he would begin a new journal -- The Millennial Harbinger. In his "Prospectus," Campbell declared the purpose of this journal: "This work shall be devoted to the destruction of Sectarianism, infidelity, and antichristian doctrine and practice." Campbell believed the only way to usher in the perfect rule of Christ in society (the millennium) was to forever break down the sectarian barriers and unite all believers in a harmonious fellowship. To this end he devoted his life. He died March 4, 1866 and is buried in Bethany, West Virginia. On his tombstone is the phrase, "Defender of the Faith once delivered to the saints." His wife comforted him with the following words as he was dying, "The blessed Savior will go with you through the valley of the shadow of death." He replied, "That He will! That He will!" These were his last words.

A Christian Sister's Challenge

As anyone knows who has ever dared to set forth his views and convictions before the public in written form, as Campbell did in his journals, there will be those who question and challenge those convictions. Alexander Campbell received his fair share of criticism and condemnation from those who did not appreciate his perspectives. One such challenge came from an unnamed woman in Lunenburg, Virginia (now located in West Virginia), whose letter to him was dated July 8, 1837. She wrote this very brief letter to question a statement he had made in the June, 1837 issue of The Millennial Harbinger. Her question, and his response to her, have had a tremendous effect upon the thinking of disciples of Christ for generations. Some have suggested this correspondence has become his most controversial, and certainly one of his most misunderstood. It has been praised, as well as condemned, far and wide. In this current edition of Reflections I would like for us to take a closer look at this most fascinating and historic exchange, which has come to be called The Lunenburg Letter. For those unfamiliar with it, it can be read in its entirety at the following web site:

In an article entitled "Letters to England -- No. 1" (Millennial Harbinger, June, 1837) Campbell sought to motivate his brethren to cooperate with other Christians everywhere in a global effort to "promote every benevolent, humane, and charitable object which can ameliorate the conditions of human existence." He provided quite an itemized accounting of such Christian efforts, and urged believers to join hands in such endeavors. Where he "crossed the line," in the minds of some, however, was in his view that we should join hands with those outside sectarian parameters, and together, as fellow believers, seek to push back the effects of the present spiritual darkness (which is our true enemy). Campbell wrote, "We would, indeed, have no objections to co-operate in these matters with all Christians, and raise contributions for all such purposes as, in our judgment, are promotive of the Divine glory or of human happiness, whether or not they belong to our churches: for we find in all Protestant parties Christians as exemplary as ourselves according to their and our relative knowledge and opportunities." The italicized phrase is the one that generated the letter of concern from the sister in Lunenburg. She wrote:

The question "Who is my brother?" is not a new one. It has been the cause of discussion, debate and dissension for centuries. Indeed, the apostle John struggled with the same question when he sought to hinder a disciple who "does not follow along with us" (Luke 9:49; Mark 9:38). When it is WE who become the standard of measurement, rather than JESUS, factions in the family are never far behind. When others must "follow along with us" before we will acknowledge them as brethren, we have become sectarian. The mark of brotherhood is when we both "follow along after" JESUS. Jesus had to set John straight that day almost 2000 years ago .... there are some brethren who need to be "set straight" today, as well.

Campbell, in his response to this woman from Lunenburg, sought to impress upon her heart and mind the beauty of our extended family in Christ Jesus our Lord. Sadly, it created a furor more far-reaching than Alexander Campbell could ever have imagined, and led to his vilification among many of his brethren ... even to this day. For example, brother Wayne Jackson recently wrote, "Some of our liberal brethren today, who openly eschew our 'traditionalism,' are themselves traditionalists, appealing more to Campbell, Stone, and others, than to the Scriptures. Alexander Campbell's Lunenburg Letter has almost acquired 'canonical' status among those who desire to merge with the denominations" ("Tradition Versus Scripture," The Christian Courier, Feb. 27, 2003). Such a statement merely shows Jackson's woeful ignorance of the true intent of Campbell's response to the sister from Lunenburg. Campbell had no desire to "merge with the denominations" of his day; he merely sought fellowship with all those who were truly in the Family of God. However, his noble quest was misunderstood then, as it is often misunderstood today.

Alexander Campbell believed there were saints scattered among the various sects of his day; that no one sect could lay claim to being, solely and exclusively, the One Body on the face of the earth, with every living Christian being ONLY within the parameters of their group. John ran that notion by Jesus one day, and got a quick rebuke in response! It won't fly any better today!! Wherever God the Father has a child, we have a brother or sister .... and these children are NOT all bunched within the walls of a single sect, faction, movement, or party. Campbell's goal was not to "start a new church," nor was it to elevate one group above another; his goal was simply to call all God's children, wherever they might be, into sweet fellowship with one another, and into loving, cooperative service to God and their fellow man. It was a noble, godly vision ... and the sectarians despised him for it.

Alexander Campbell's Response

The sister from Lunenburg had asked Campbell, "Will you be so good as to let me know how anyone becomes a Christian?" His answer has become a classic -- "But who is a Christian? I answer, Everyone that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys Him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of His will." It is important to note that Campbell was not willing to preach a salvation based upon the depth of one's perception, nor was he willing for man to set the standard for an acceptable level of knowledge. None of us has attained unto perfect perception or practice; we are all fallible beings, at different levels of understanding of God's word and will. In short, salvation is NOT knowledge-based. Campbell wrote, "It is possible for Christians to be imperfect in some respects without an absolute forfeiture of the Christian state and character." In other words, one may fail to fully understand some aspect of God's word or will, and yet not thereby forfeit salvation. After all, who among us has achieved flawless insight and application? Thus, should we not be a bit more gracious and generous toward others who are in similar condition? Campbell affirmed, "It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves; and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known."

Campbell was willing to acknowledge as a fellow Christian those who may have innocently erred in their understanding and application of the inspired writings, or who may not have perceived some duty as fully as he. He wrote, "With me mistakes of the understanding and errors of the affections are not to be confounded. They are as distant as the poles." He continued, "Many a good man has been mistaken. Mistakes are to be regarded as culpable and as declarative of a corrupt heart only when they proceed from a willful neglect of the means of knowing what is commanded. Ignorance is always a crime when it is voluntary; and innocent when it is involuntary. Now, unless I could prove that all who neglect the positive institutions of Christ and have substituted for them something else of human authority, do it knowingly, or, if not knowingly, are voluntarily ignorant of what is written, I could not, I dare not, say that their mistakes are such as unchristianize all their professions."

As one might imagine, and as is so frequently the case, the debate with Campbell largely centered around the place of baptism in God's plan for the redemption of mankind. The sister from Lunenburg asked the pointed question, "What act of yours gave you the name of Christian?" There is no doubt in anyone's mind, and certainly not in Campbell's, that the "act" to which she referred was baptism. Her implication was clear --- since only "our group" understands and practices baptism "correctly," are not all others therefore doomed to eternal damnation?! Thus, brother Campbell, she implied, how can you call them "Christians"?! There are no Christians anywhere on the planet except those in OUR group, since we are the only ones who correctly perceive and practice baptism. This was the real challenge being directed toward Alexander Campbell in the letter from the sister in Lunenburg, and her intent was not lost on him. He knew exactly what she was asking.

Again, as noted previously, Campbell's concern was that some were seemingly making our redemption dependent upon one's level of knowledge and preciseness of practice with regard to one specific ritual. In so doing, our understanding had become the standard by which admission into the kingdom was judged. He wrote, "But everyone is wont to condemn others in that in which he is more intelligent than they; while, on the other hand, he is condemned for his Pharisaism or his immodesty and rash judgment of others, by those that excel in the things in which he is deficient." In other words, none of us has arrived. We are all deficient in our understanding and application of God's word. Thus, by what right do any of us condemn another? If they are lost due to their imperfection of insight, then by that same standard so are we!

Campbell's point to this sister in Christ was that God, in His grace, judges hearts! And we should praise Him daily that this is so!! If our salvation is truly knowledge-based, then we are ALL lost! We are ALL "brothers in error" .... frankly, there is no other kind. Thus, Alexander Campbell placed his neck on the proverbial chopping block by declaring his view of God's grace to be so high that he would not condemn a person who understood baptism differently than he, if that person's heart was truly devoted to God and to a search for greater understanding. He wrote, "I cannot, therefore, make any one duty the standard of the Christian state or character, not even immersion into the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." He continued, "Should I find a Pedobaptist more intelligent in the Christian Scriptures, more spiritually-minded and more devoted to the Lord than a Baptist, or one immersed on a profession of the ancient faith, I could not hesitate a moment in giving the preference of my heart to him that loveth most. Did I act otherwise, I would be a pure sectarian, a Pharisee among Christians. ... And should I see a sectarian Baptist or a Pedobaptist more spiritually-minded, more generally conformed to the requisitions of the Messiah, than one who precisely acquiesces with me in the theory or practice of immersion as I teach, doubtless the former, rather than the latter, would have my cordial approbation and love as a Christian. So I judge, and so I feel."

This has led some, both then and now, to assert Campbell did NOT believe immersion was a vital part of God's plan for the redemption of mankind. This is false! Even in the above, Campbell clearly declared he taught the necessary place of immersion in this divine plan. However, Campbell's only point, which most, both then and now, missed, was the primacy of God's GRACE. God, in His grace, judges the state of one's heart, not the preciseness of one's practice. This in no way suggests the insignificance of the latter, but rather the supremacy of the former. He clearly stated such when he wrote to this sister, in the final paragraph of his original response to her, "While I would unhesitatingly say that I think that every man who despises any ordinance of Christ, or who is willingly ignorant of it, cannot be a Christian, still I should sin against my own convictions should I teach anyone to think that if he mistook the meaning of any institution, while in his soul he desired to know the whole will of God, he must perish forever." Campbell went on to point out that if one willfully neglected immersion, or refused to study the matter so as to come to a greater perception of God's will, then such a person "is not possessed of the spirit of Christ and cannot be registered among the Lord's people."

Needless to say, Campbell's remarks to this sister in Lunenburg generated a firestorm of controversy. A flood of "hate mail" poured in. In future issues of his Millennial Harbinger (in issues dating from 1837 to 1840) he was forced to face his critics time and time again. Although he sought repeatedly to clarify his position and assure his opponents, few could ever get past his original statements. They were convinced he had "left the faith," and that he no longer accepted immersion as being a vital part of God's plan of redemption for fallen man. Neither, of course, was true .... but how do you convince those whose minds are made up?!!

On September 28, 1837 (in his Millennial Harbinger), Alexander Campbell sought to assure his critics with this clear statement --- "My opinion is no rule of action to my brethren, nor would I offer it unsolicited to any man. But while we inculcate faith, repentance, and baptism upon all, as essential to their constitutional citizenship in the Messiah's kingdom, and to their sanctification and comfort as Christians, no person has a right to demand our opinions on all the differences of this generation, except for his private gratification. He is certainly safer who obeys from the heart 'that mould of doctrine' delivered to us by the Apostles; and he only has praise of God and man, and of himself as a Christian, who believes, repents, is baptized, and keeps all the ordinances, positive and moral, as delivered to us by the holy Apostles." He concluded this article by saying, "It is hoped these general remarks will be satisfactory on this point." Sadly, they were not. To this day, Campbell is still vilified for his position on Christians in the sects, and his view of God's gracious dealings with those who lack perfect perception.

In a later article for his journal, Campbell sadly related, "Judging from numerous letters received at this office, my reply to the sister from Lunenburg has given some pain to our brethren, and some pleasure to our sectarian friends." Campbell was discovering a very important truth about human nature, one evident among caustic critics even to this day --- they are long on condemnation, but short on refutation. He wrote, "Too many of my correspondents seem to me to have written rather to show that they are not 'Campbellites,' than to show that my opinion is false and unfounded." And so it is, and so it goes. Like Campbell, those of us who have taken a public stand for GRACE have a loyal cadre of critics who miss no opportunity to condemn us to eternal torture for our "heresy," but who will flee to their caves when confronted and challenged to provide responsible refutation via open, unrestricted dialogue.

In time, Campbell realized that arguing with his opponents was accomplishing nothing, except planting the seeds for division rather than promoting the unity of all Christians that he sought. Thus, he chose a path that continued to promote positive teaching, and to challenge the thinking of his readers, and to try and appease his critics for the greater good of the Movement. "He closed the controversy until 'a more convenient season,' but he was too wise a leader to allow that season to become convenient" (Dr. Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 388).

Campbell's original intent in his response to the letter from the sister in Lunenburg was a noble one. He himself would later specify the nature of that intent -- "Some of our brethren were too much addicted to denouncing the sects and representing them en masse as wholly aliens from the possibility of salvation -- as wholly antichristian and corrupt. Now as the Lord says of Babylon, 'Come out of her, my people,' I felt constrained to rebuke them over the shoulders of this inquisitive lady. ... Now as they were propounding their opinions to others, I intended to bring them to the proper medium by propounding an opinion to them in terms as strong and as pungent as their own." It was a noble quest, but his opponents and critics were not sufficiently spiritual or perceptive to benefit from his effort. Pandora's box had been opened, and partyism fled forth to flourish in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. May our God raise up a new generation of Alexander Campbell's to face with boldness this flood of factional thinking that threatens to utterly overwhelm us.

Reflections from Readers

From a Minister/Elder in Indiana:

Dear brother Maxey, Thanks for your letter and the enclosed review of my article on testifying. You say your authority is Psalm 107:2, which reads, "Let the redeemed of the Lord say so." Do I need to remind you that this verse is in the Old Testament? Do you take the Old Testament for your authority today? You have never been under the Old Testament. Brother Maxey, the disciples were commanded to go preach the gospel, not to testify of their personal experiences. You have authority to tell of Paul's conversion and experience, but you have no authority to testify of your conversion. Your experience is of no more value than that of some Baptist or Pentecostal. Yes, the man in Mark 5 was told to go and to tell what great things the Lord had done for him. I suppose if you had run around without clothes, had lived in caves, had been demon possessed, and the Lord had miraculously cast the demons out of you, then you might have some justification for testifying. But the Lord did not tell you to go and testify what He did for you. He told you to go preach the gospel.

Brother Al, you sinned in having fellowship with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Those athletes in that organization are NOT Christians, because they have never obeyed, nor are they now obeying, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Your having been a representative of them was bidding Godspeed to error. You hurt the cause of Christ by your appearance. You gave people the wrong impression of the Church of Christ. I am ashamed of you! You are also wrong for applauding the teenage girl who got up in the assembly. She was in violation of 1 Timothy 2:11-12. You made the devil smile that day. P.S. -- I am not interested in receiving your regurgitated Ketcherside doctrine in your Reflections.

From my Critic in Alabama:

Al, I wonder what conclusions you would draw if you used only the Bible as your guide for your Faith and Worship to our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ? It really saddens me to see you continue to tear apart the word of God. I hope you understand that you will be responsible to Almighty God in the day of Judgment for every word that is spoken. Please change your approach to teaching.

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Things today are sad, very sad. I often wish I could get people to understand that we need to put aside our petty differences and be unified in ONE BODY. Imagine how potent the church could be if we all joined together. Imagine how effective we could be. Imagine how many souls we could win! The church would be a soul-winning force to be reckoned with! Thanks for another great, insightful article, brother.

From a Reader in Arizona:

What can I say? You're on a roll with these informative and edifying Reflections of late.

From a Doctor in Kentucky:

Great articles, brother! Very insightful. Again, I appreciate your continued work and reflection on these topics and others. Personally, I would prefer a Communion time EACH time we meet corporately as a body. This would include Wednesday nights if the congregation comes together before or after Bible classes. Just like when we meet together as a body and could not imagine dismissing without a prayer or a word of encouragement, I can't imagine not remembering our Lord's death in Communion as a body when we meet together. Yet, I haven't been able to find a group that practices Communion each time they come together as a body. Keep up the good work! I appreciate you and your writings.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

From time to time, I send your Reflections to our Elders and the Staff. After sending your article Intriguing, Insightful Inquiries -- Issue #111 -- I received the following from one of our Elders -- "Thanks for sending this. Al is pretty courageous as a paid pulpit minister to be attempting to elevate the dialogue to where it ought to be. If we can ever move the focus off ourselves and on to God where it should be, then maybe we will become the church God truly seeks."

From a Reader in California:

I continue to feast on your essays and often refer you to others. In your latest, you responded to a comment from an Arizona reader that, in your opinion, change for change's sake is irresponsible. For the most part, I don't disagree with that perspective. However, sometimes you need to push for change so that when you really need to make a change, there's a chance it might happen! Thus, change for change's sake may not be so irresponsible after all. Love you and love your work in the kingdom!

From a Preacher in Missouri:

Your articles, which a brother and I read and discuss, are full of grace seasoned with salt. You are able to "give an answer" that doesn't sound like regurgitated, traditional, dogmatic doctrine. Your comments in reference to women and their roles were very thoughtful. They were filled with common sense. It was women who were responsible for my spiritual development when men didn't have a clue. They encouraged me and taught me. They saw my potential and really cared about my soul. If I had been around a group that stopped them, then I may have been lost. Jesus never stopped a woman from telling others about Him. Nor did He stop them from serving Him. If Jesus is our example, then we should follow Him. Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).

From a Preacher in Mississippi:

Al, Your "extremely brief and incomplete examination" of The Lord's Supper was never-the-less very informative. I appreciate the time and scholarship you bring to your ministry. Well-written, and points well-made! Also, with the inclusion of a couple of cautionary comments from readers in response to your Reflections article on the role of women in the church, I thought that was another excellent and insightful article. God bless!

If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. I would also welcome
any questions or comments from the readers.
The Archives for past issues of Reflections is: