There is not much interest in debates today. Most think that debates result in tension and further controversy. High schools and colleges teach debate but it receives little attention. Even "so-called" debates during political campaigns receive little attention.

During the nineteenth century, debates and debaters offered interesting diversion. Debating helped men find truth and offered entertainment. J.J. Haley in Debates that Made History says Alexander Campbell's debates had three results:

These debates commanded the attention of the leaders of their day both in the religious and political spheres. They strengthened the love of the truth and fired the passion to place Church and State on foundations in which no flaws could be found....

They also hastened rather than retarded Christian union. After they were over men understood Christianity better than before and realized that with all their seeming differences they were closer together than had been supposed.


These learned arguments quickened interest in religion in general. They kindled a new zeal for spiritual things. Tidal waves of evangelism rose again and again, and swept many thousands into the Kingdom of God.

Campbell never intended to get into debating. Thomas Campbell felt debate clouded the movement's spirit and that it was no proper means to "contend for the faith." Alexander Campbell said that "he had a natural aversion to controversy." In spite of this, Campbell became one of the day's premier debaters. His debates increased his stature in Christian circles and went far to make the plea palatable. As a result, Haley's assessment rings true. Thousands did come to Christ as a result.

Let's survey each of the five public debates.

I. The Campbell-Walker Debate.

John Birch, a Baptist preacher at Flat Run, Ohio, enjoyed fantastic evangelistic success in his area. John Walker, a Seceder Presbyterian, made it a point to personally counter Birch's work. Walker preached a series of sermons on infant baptism with Birch present at one point. Recognizing his neighbor, Walker put him on the spot and challenged him to debate. Birch immediately accepted then just as quickly regretted his decision.

Birch wrote Campbell three letters inviting him to defend the baptism issue. Campbell initially refused but Birch persisted. After the third letter, Campbell feared someone might take his refusal as shame. He decided to participate and notified Birch of the decision in a letter dated March 30, 1820. From that point on things moved rapidly. Campbell selected Jacob Martin as his moderator and the rules were set. The debaters discussed the subjects of baptism and then the mode.

The debate began at Mount Pleasant, Ohio, in June, 1820. Meeting in the Friends Meeting House because of its size, the debate drew a sizeable hearing. Walker made it known that the hearers could determine the debate's winner by the one who "kept his cool." Walker set out to provoke Campbell, whom many knew to be temperamental. He failed. Campbell later published the debate from his father's notes and his own recollections.

Walker held to a typically Presbyterian and Calvinistic argument. He argued that baptism replaced circumcision so infants were fit subjects. Campbell, in response, cited seven differences between the two rites:

1. Baptism was done to both men and women.

2. Baptism has no age specification--circumcision was always done on the eighth day.

3. Circumcision requires only Jewish descent--baptism requires only faith.

4. Circumcision could be done by parents, relatives or civil officers--baptism, at least by Presbyterians, was administered only by ministers.

5. The emblem differs--baptism signifies death unto sin, burial and resurrection unto Christ while circumcision signified the separation of a Jew from all the rest of the human family.

6. Pedobaptists apply water to the face--Jews don't circumcise the face... Baptists apply water to the whole person but neither apply water to the precise part of the body where circumcision is focused.

7. Circumcision conveys no spiritual blessings--baptism conveys no temporal blessings...circumcision did convey temporal blessings and baptism spiritual.

Walker upheld the identity of the covenants. Campbell challenged that concept maintaining the existence of two distinct covenants. Walker then turned to the "household baptism" argument for infant baptism. Campbell discussed each case showing that infants were excluded.

When the debate turned to the mode of baptism, Campbell cited early church fathers and the etymology of the Greek word and this argument ended quickly.

Thomas Campbell pronounced the benediction and the debate was over. Campbell initially printed 1,000 copies which quickly sold out. In 1822, he printed another 3,000 copies and these, too, sold out. Some think this experience taught Campbell the value of putting biblical teaching into writing and led him to begin editing the Christian-Baptist.

II. The Campbell-McCalla Debate.

After the Walker debate, Campbell issued a challenge to anyone to debate that infant baptism was an injurious doctrine. In May, 1823, W.W. McCalla (sometimes spelled Maccalla) of Augusta, Kentucky, wrote Campbell he was interested. Correspondence, some volatile, followed extending over several months. The men argued about who would speak first and on the wording of propositions. They also discussed the rules of the debate. McCalla wanted no rules at all but they finally agreed on five.

An outdoor campground near Augusta, Kentucky, provided the debate's location. McCalla promised to accomplish three things in the debate: (1) He promised to produce a divine command for infant baptism. (2) He promised to produce probable evidence that the apostles practiced infant baptism. (3) He promised to produce positive evidence that the apostles practiced infant baptism. Campbell responded that he would (1) show that a believer is the only subject for baptism, (2) immersion only is baptism, (3) infant baptism is injurious since it is a human tradition.

You can see McCalla's basic arguments in the outline I've given you. He based his arguments on Walker's premises, the identity of the covenants. When the circumcision argument arose Campbell presented 14 differences:

1. Circumcision was for males only.

2. Circumcision doesn't require faith.

3. Circumcision administered on the eighth day.

4. Circumcision administered by parents.

5. Circumcision a mark on the body, not the face.

6. Circumcision not a duty of the child, but the parents and baptism is never seen in that context.

7. Circumcision administered to all a man's slaves whether or not they believed.

8. Circumcision required no piety on part of parents.

9. Circumcision ties the subject to the promise of Abraham.

10. Circumcision is a sign of the Genesis 17 covenant.

11. Circumcision not performed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

12. Circumcision is identified with the Law of Moses and will share its fate.

13. Circumcision does not profit, says Paul.

14. Circumcision did not exempt the Jews from baptism when they became Christians.

All in all, Campbell's arguments depended on a careful distinction between Jewish and Christian covenants. When McCalla reached his positive evidence for infant baptisms, he resurrected the "household baptism" argument. Campbell responded just as he did in the Walker debate. At one point McCalla argued that immersion injured an individual's health. Campbell pointed to his moderator, 300 pound hale and hearty Jeremiah Vardeman, to refute the argument.

The debate introduced Campbell to Kentucky. Before the debate Campbell sent no copies of the Christian-Baptist into the state. He did takes copies with him when he went to Augusta for the debate. When the debate ended Campbell had 5,000 new subscribers. Campbell's debate with McCalla began October 15, 1823.

III. The Campbell-Owen Debate.

Robert Owen, a skeptic and socialist, met Campbell through Campbell's pride. Owen wrote against Deism and for agnosticism from New Harmony, Indiana, quite early. His writings gained some notoriety for this Englishman who hoped to build a model communitarian society here. In February, 1828, Campbell received a letter from Canton, Ohio, asking him to debate a Dr. Underhill on socialism and Christianity. The letter piqued Campbell's interest but he wanted to debate "a big fish in the sea." Owen, who was lecturing in New Orleans, challenged the local clergy to debate. Campbell heard about his challenge and Owen learned of Campbell's willingness and that led to an agreement to debate.

As the two made arrangements for debate, Owen stopped by Bethany on his way to England. The two men hit it off immediately. At the Campbell family burial plot Owen said he had an advantage over the Christian for he was unafraid to die. Robert Richardson records Campbell's response:

"Well," answered Mr. Campbell, "you say you have no fear in death; have you any hope in death?" After a solemn pause, "No," said Mr. Owen. "Then," rejoined Mr. Campbell (pointing to an ox standing near), "you are on a level with that brute. He has fed till he is satisfied, and stands in the shake whisking off the flies, and has neither hope nor fear in death."

The two arranged to meet in Cincinnati April 13-21, 1829. They debated in a large Methodist church which seated 1,200. The debate may well be one of the best illustrations of Christian evidences available. Owen simply listed "twelve" supposed truths and restated them over and over throughout the debate. Finally he yielded the floor to Campbell who then spent 12 hours explaining the rationale for Christianity.

Throughout the debate the two men acted quite properly. Campbell later stated that Owen proved to be the most generous and gentlemanly of all his opponents. The two men often ate dinner together after a day of debating. In an overstatement, J.J. Haley says the debate "saved the Mississippi Valley from communism." Owen didn't argue. He probably went to the platform only to introduce his own social and anthropological views.

IV. The Campbell-Purcell Debate.

In October, 1836, Campbell attended a meeting in Cincinnati of the College of Teachers, an educational society founded in 1831 to discuss problems in higher education. Campbell later became vice-president of that society.

On the evening of October 3, Campbell opened the meeting with prayer and prepared to lecture. Joshua L. Wilson spoke first about the need for universal free education. During the discussion he spoke about using the Bible as a textbook. When he finished Bishop John Purcell attacked Wilson's idea about using the Bible as a textbook. An animated discussion, including Campbell, ensued. On October 5, Campbell lectured on "Moral Culture" identifying freedom of thought with the Protestant Reformation. Purcell objected that the Reformation caused all of the world's dissension and infidelity. Campbell then noted that this meeting should not be a platform for such a discussion but that he would meet anywhere else to continue it.

On October 10, Campbell defended his position in an address at the Sycamore Street Church of Christ. Campbell gave Purcell an opportunity to respond. Purcell asked for time to gather his thoughts and he then returned the next night to speak. He launched a tirade against Luther stating that he was the devil incarnate and enslaved to his own lusts. He used such strong language that the ladies present blushed. Campbell responded with a challenge to debate. Purcell declined for reasons of health and time.

Fifty-seven citizens wrote Campbell begging him to expose the Catholic absurdity. Campbell then left for home. He returned to Cincinnati in January, 1837, to find that Purcell would then debate. On his trip to Cincinnati Campbell traveled down the Ohio only to find the river frozen. He took another route into the city and caught a cold in the process and he remained ill throughout much of the debate. After arriving in Cincinnati the two men agreed on the propositions and the debate rules. The debate began at 9:30 a.m. on January 13, 1837.

Some of Campbell's arguments remain classics. In general, though, he brings out all of Protestantism's old charges and misconceptions. He discusses the papacy's origin and Catholicism's place in church history. He also cites vicious anti-Catholic propaganda similar to that found in the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. Campbell made his biggest mistake when he cited Ligori, a Catholic writer, who said that clergy keeping mistresses received fines while marriage led to excommunication. Purcell jumped on this and called for the citation. Campbell could not produce it. He called upon a respected Cincinnati leader who searched for the citation but could not locate it. The debate ended with the citation still undocumented. Campbell ultimately found it, but by then the debate was over and the damage done.

Campbell lost this debate! Most reformers, of course, felt he won! The Smith-Jones people in New England felt the debate would make more Catholics. Peter H. Burnet, a son of the influential Cincinnati Burnet family (and reformers all), read the debate in Oregon around 1843. After finishing the book he took instruction and became a Catholic. Purcell became Archbishop in 1850. The printed debate sold well. Campbell and Purcell split the income. By 1838, Campbell's share amounted to $800 at six cents per copy.

V. The Campbell-Rice Debate.

No other debate consumes more time or paper than this one. The debate definitively hits baptism, the Holy Spirit, and creeds. Again, neither disputant came away with a clear-cut victory. The Presbyterians began losing big numbers to the "Campbellites" right after its publication, though. They stopped publication and Campbell picked up the rights and published it.

Presbyterians approached Campbell during a Kentucky trip in 1842 about discussing differences. Campbell assumed their honesty and began correspondence with C.H. Brown of Richmond. Campbell wanted to debate John C. Young, president of Danville, Kentucky's, Center College, but the Presbyterians rolled out N.L. Rice, a minister from Paris, Kentucky. Campbell journeyed to Lexington in August, 1843, to complete details for the debate. The debate began in the building of the Main Street Christian Church on September 15, 1843.

The debate opened with a discussion of baptism's meaning. The two argued over authorities for several days. Then they discussed texts and words. Campbell cites the Council at Ravenna as the time when sprinkling became official Catholic dogma. The Catholics say very little about this council and some lists carry nothing about it. I've only found one reference to it in other secondary sources. Will Durant cites a Council at Ravenna in one of his volumes. There is some confusion about this.

Campbell's Presbyterian opponent used most of Walker's and McCalla's arguments. Instead of 14 reasons why Baptism and circumcision differ, Campbell had 16. The debate can't be adequately surveyed here because of its sheer size. During the debate one Lutheran became a Reformer. Campbell's greatest satisfaction came from the news that his Uncle Archibald in Ireland gave up infant baptism after reading the debate. The Rice debate contains what is undoubtedly the definitive attack on infant baptism.


You must note that in the Walker debate Campbell argued as a Baptist. Against McCalla he also argued as a Baptist. Against Owen he championed Christianity against infidelity. In the Purcell debate he argued as the Protestant challenging the "antichrist" of Catholicism. Finally, he debates Rice as a champion of the Restoration Movement.

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