The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Alexander Campbell

Jeroboam and the Lure of Political Power

The Story of Jeroboam

Jeroboam is one of the Bible’s incredibly tragic characters. He was a man who God granted an amazing opportunity, and he squandered it away. 

Jeroboam’s story begins with King Solomon, who himself was a tragic character: a man who was given wisdom, power, and great wealth by God, but who turned away from God and began to worship other gods (1 Kings 11.1-8). Because of this, God ultimately determines to divide the kingdom of Israel in the days of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. Rehoboam remains king over two tribes in the south (creating the Southern Kingdom of Judah), while Jeroboam is established as king over the remaining ten tribes (creating the Northern Kingdom of Israel).

The story is absolutely clear that God, in His grace, has offered a covenant agreement to Jeroboam: God will bless him, make him king over Israel, and give Him all that he desires if he will listen to God’s commands and walk in His ways like David did. And moreover, God promises to build Jeroboam a house or a dynasty like He did for David. 

Jeroboam’s rise to power was the work of God’s providential hand, and Jeroboam knew this. And yet, as soon as he sits down on the throne, Jeroboam’s thinking seems to shift from providential to pragmatic: the question Jeroboam asks himself is, “What do I need to do to stay in power?” 

Ironically, Jeroboam already had the answer—God had told him he simply needed to listen to God’s commands and walk in His ways as David did, but Jeroboam ignores that answer and pursues his own plans instead.

After some initial efforts to fortify some of his cities, Jeroboam makes his big mistake. He reasons that if the citizens of the Northern Kingdom return to the Jerusalem Temple (in the Southern Kingdom) to offer sacrifices as they are supposed to, it will draw their hearts back to Rehoboam king of Judah, and then they won’t want to follow Jeroboam anymore, and will overthrow him and return to Rehoboam and Judah. So Jeroboam gets what he thinks is a brilliant idea, and he makes two golden calves; he sets one up in Dan and another in Bethel, representing the northern and southern borders of the territory of the Northern Kingdom.

Scholars debate whether Jeroboam is trying to get the Israelites to worship another god by doing this, or, rather, if he is simply introducing an innovation in the way in which they worship Jehovah/Yahweh. I tend to think it is the latter, but calves are so closely related with Canaanite pagan religion that it is hard to be sure.

Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Even if Jeroboam was not setting up worship of a new god (and thus not violating the first commandment),  he was still guilty of creating an image to serve as a symbol of God (which violates the second commandment). So at the very least, he perverted the worship of the true God. Jeroboam’s disregard for the religious statues that God had set up did not stop there, as he also created alternate worship sites on high places at Dan and Bethel, put in place non-Levitical priests, and instituted his own feast day. These actions broke God’s commandments, and also revealed Jeroboam’s feelings that civil matters were more important than religious conviction.

Jeroboam has not been on the throne for long, but already he has dramatically departed from God’s instruction to walk in all His ways as David did. Instead, Jeroboam seems to have forgotten Who placed him on the throne in the first place, and rather than obey the real Power behind the throne, takes matters into his own hands to secure his position by his own power.

In 1 Kings 13, a prophet comes from God and condemns what Jeroboam has done, also predicting that judgment will come upon him because of it:

O altar, altar, thus says the LORD: “Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.” And he gave a sign the same day, saying, “This is the sign that the LORD has spoken: ‘Behold, the altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are on it shall be poured out.’”

(1 Kings 13.2-3)

Not surprisingly, Jeroboam isn’t a big fan of this message and stretches out his hand: “Seize him!” But as soon as this happens, his hand “dried up, so that he could not draw it back to himself” (1 Kings 13.4). Ironically, in this very act, Jeroboam actually gives credibility to the prophecy—clearly, there is some power behind it because Jeroboam’s hand shrivels up, and furthermore, the altar was torn down as the prophecy said. Jeroboam asks the prophet to entreat God for him that his hand might be restored, and the prophet does so, and Jeroboam is healed.

Jeroboam is probably grateful to the man of God for his healing, and invites him to dine with him, but the prophet refuses because God had commanded him to return directly after his mission was completed. It is possible that dining with the king would have made the prophet appear to approve of the religious apostasy that Jeroboam was promoting.

Here, the narrative takes leave of Jeroboam and follows the young prophet and his strange interaction with an old prophet from Bethel. Since our focus is on Jeroboam we won’t dwell on this, but it is a tragic story of the young prophet from Judah being deceived by the older prophet from Israel, disobeying God, and dying as a result. This may seem like strange information to include in an extended narrative on the reign of Jeroboam, but it reinforces the idea that God expects to be obeyed, and severe consequences fall upon those who refuse to do so.

Regardless of this cautionary tale, 1 Kings 13 ends by saying:

After this thing Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but made priests for the high places again from among all the people. Any who would, he ordained to be priests of the high places. And this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth.

(1 Kings 13.33-34)

So this story also shows us that Jeroboam remains unrepentant—he is determined to continue his disobedience to God. 

The rest of Jeroboam’s reign isn’t very happy. His son grows sick, and when he enquires of a prophet of God to determine if his sone will recover, he learns that not only will his son die, but because Jeroboam had incited the wrath of heaven by leading the Northern Kingdom into idolatry instead of being faithful to the covenant God had offered him, judgment had been pronounced not just on Jeroboam, but on every male from his house—the line of Jeroboam will be wiped out.

We also know that he was a man of war, and that he warred constantly with Rehoboam, and also fought against Rehoboam’s son, Abijam/Abijah and was defeated by him (2 Chronicles 13) and never recovered the level of power he had previously had. 

And that is basically what we know about Jeroboam.

Sacrificing Principle for Political Gain

Jeroboam is one of the truly tragic characters of Scripture. His legacy is that he is the man who “made Israel to sin”—this lamentable epitaph is mentioned over 20 times in Scripture, and his sinfulness really summarizes the entire period of the Divided Kingdom. I think there are a lot of things we can learn from the sad story of Jeroboam, but I want to focus on just one that I believe is particularly relevant for a lot of people today.

Jeroboam’s blessing, security, and power rested in his obedience to God. Instead of trusting in God, however, he chose to do the pragmatic thing. He made religious changes for political reasons, thinking that this would ensure his longevity as king. Instead, it led to the downfall of his kingdom. Jeroboam’s power and position rested on his faithfulness, not his politics. 

If there is a lesson that I think American Christians need to hear in 2019—a time of rampant political division and rabid political devotion—it might be this one: political power is not the means by which Christians are called to change the world. 

As most of my readers know, I am a part of Churches of Christ, which find historical roots in the American Restoration Movement. Our heritage has an interesting and diverse relationship with politics. Some Restorationist voices were highly involved in politics: Alexander Campbell, one of the key early leaders in the movement, served as a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1829-30. James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States, was a Restoration Movement preacher. 

Others had a much different view of politics. David Lipscomb, the longtime Gospel Advocate editor and a major leader in Churches of Christ in the decades following the Civil War, was avowedly apolitical. He was a pacifist who didn’t think Christians should serve in the military or even vote. J.N. Armstrong, the first President of Harding College, was strongly influenced by Lipscomb and had similar views.

I take this brief historical detour as a way of saying that I think that, in the spirit of Romans 14, the Christian’s relationship to politics is one of those areas where we are to do our best to follow the teachings and ethics of Jesus and be careful not to judge the scruples of others. 

Having said that, when it comes to politics, let us never sacrifice principle for political expediency.

In the crisis of the moment, it might seem like a good thing to do, but as Jeroboam learned, it never pays off. I think Jeroboam’s disobedience was largely motivated by fear—he was afraid of what would happen if he let the people go to Judah to worship, so out of his fear, he made a politically expedient decision. 

We live in an environment where political fervor always seems to be at a fever pitch. If we aren’t focused on a current or coming election, we are enamored with the latest political scandal or partisan feud.

In the last Presidential election, I heard a lot of fear from Christians (regardless of their political views) about what was going to happen. Speaking for myself (again, in the spirit of Romans 14, I am not placing judgment on those who disagree), I found myself unable to vote for either major party candidate. Both candidates had been in the public eye for a long time, and I knew plenty about the kind of people they were and the sort of character they had, and I didn’t feel like I could vote for either one. What really bothered me, though, was how often I was told or read from other Christians who supported one candidate or the other (because I got this from both sides of the aisle), that I basically needed to ignore my principles and vote for the “lesser of two evils” (whoever that may have been depending on the person I was talking to at the time), with the implication being that if I didn’t, our next President would likely bring about the end of the world.

You know, I don’t care who you vote for, but it does bother me:

  • When Christians encourage others to choose the lesser evil…because we aren’t supposed to choose evil in greater or lesser varieties!
  • When Christians encourage others to ignore their principles…because we aren’t supposed to ignore our principles!
  • When Christians suggest that the future hinges upon some human ruler…because God is the one who is in charge! When Pharaoh ruled the world, God freed His people from Egypt! When Nebuchadnezzar ruled the world, God saved three Hebrew teenagers from a fiery death! When Nero ruled the world, God orchestrated the greatest growth in the history of the church!

It is up to you to choose what your relationship with politics will be, and in my personal opinion, our political voice is an opportunity that we have to glorify God. However, let us never make the mistake of thinking that political power is the means by which Christians are called to change the world, or that it is acceptable for us to sacrifice our principles for the sake of political expediency.

The lure of political power is strong, and it can easily deceive us into thinking that the ends justify the means. But as Jeroboam learned, they do not. 

The Mutual Admiration of Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone

The American Restoration Movement, of which I count myself a descendant, has a somewhat complex combination of origins, but it is with good reason that priority is often given to the contributions of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. Stone was chronologically prior to Campbell, but the latter eventually came to be the primary face, thinker, and influencer of the movement. Together, their accomplishments are so recognized that the movement itself is often called, “The Stone-Campbell Movement.”

At the risk of oversimplification, both Stone and Campbell led religious movements in the early 19th century that were concerned with following the practices of the church as laid out in the pages of the New Testament, and doing so as a means of producing unity among the fragmented segments of Christendom. As a testament to that unity, their two movements united in 1832.

This union occurred despite significant theological disagreements between Stone and Campbell, but the nature of those disagreements is not my focus here. Rather, my emphasis is on the fact that, in the face of such disagreement, Stone and Campbell did not regard one another suspiciously or denigrate one another; instead, they possessed great admiration for one another, and did not fail to say so publicly. Consider the following quotations:

I will not say there are no faults in brother Campbell; but that there are fewer, perhaps, in him than any man I know on earth; and over these my love would throw a veil and hide them from view forever. I am constrained, and willingly constrained, to acknowledge him the greatest preacher of this reformation of any man living.

Barton W. Stone, 1843[1]

In the heat of controversy he may, indeed, like most other men, have been carried too far on some points; still he was the honored instrument of bringing many out of the ranks of human tradition, and putting into their hands the Book of Books, as their only confession of faith and rule of life, and will no doubt, on this account, as well as others, long continue to be a blessing to those who, by his instrumentality, have already been, or may hereafter be, translated into the fullness of the blessings of the gospel of Christ.

Alexander Campbell, 1844[2]

Again, I should emphasize that these are two men who had significant disagreements on a variety of issues, and historians of the movement are often quick to point this out. However, regardless of these disagreements, I find it incredibly significant and impressive that both regarded the legacies of the other so charitably.

What a sterling example both men set for us to follow!

[1] B. W. Stone and John Rogers, The Biography of Eld. Barton Warren Stone, Written By Himself: with Additions and Reflections by Elder John Rogers (Cincinnati: J.A. & U.P. James, 1847), 76.

[2] Stone and Rogers, Biography, 107.

Alexander Campbell and the Problem of Evil

This is another installment in a loosely-united series called A Theological View of Suffering. See more here.


The problem of evil[1] has long bothered both believers and those who remain skeptical of the existence of God: how can the idea of a loving and powerful God be reconciled with the undeniable reality of evil and suffering in the world?[2]

Alexander Campbell

Within the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, no single individual has been more influential than Alexander Campbell. Campbell thought deeply on a wide variety of subjects, and as editor of popular brotherhood papers and also as a famous writer and debater, his thoughts were widely disseminated in his day and continue to influence his spiritual descendants in the 21st century.

Interestingly though, Campbell’s views on the problem of evil have not been studied significantly[3] and are not widely known. Campbell never developed a comprehensive theodicy,[4] but he did write significantly on the subject of evil and suffering in the world. In addition to being an influential thinker and a prolific writer, Campbell was also a man who was frequently battered by personal tragedy: prior to his death in 1866, Campbell buried ten of his children including his favorite son Wickliffe, who drowned at the age of ten and whose death left him devastated.[5] Through an examination of his writings and his reaction to the death of his beloved son, this paper will seek to describe the ways in which Campbell reconciled his views of God’s good governance of the world with the very real presence of evil and suffering within it.

Campbell’s Views on the Providence of God

Any discussion of Alexander Campbell’s understanding of evil and suffering must be grounded in his views on how God governs the world and providentially directs the lives of mankind. Generally speaking, Campbell’s perspective on providence is characterized by a high view of God’s involvement in the world balanced with a heavy emphasis on human freedom. This middle-ground approach is illustrative of the fact that Campbell desired to distance himself on the one hand from a pervasive Calvinism which denied the reality of human freedom,[6] and a Deistic or Skeptical perspective on the other, which denied the active involvement of God in the world.[7]

In 1833, Campbell published a series of excerpts from William Sherlock’s A Discourse Concerning the Divine Providence.[8] As this work was applauded by Campbell[9] and the excerpts were chosen and published by him, they, along with his own articles, can help us understand his views on providence.

First, Campbell argued strongly for a special providence which interacts with the lives of individuals. He was frustrated by those who believed in providence but denied the individual manifestations of it:

“They who admit a general providence, and, at the same time, deny a special providence, are feeble and perverted reasoners and thinkers. A general, or universal supervision or providence, necessarily implies a special or particular providence.”[10]

For Campbell, a God who created all things but then showed interest in only a few of them would be supremely irresponsible.[11] Instead, God is directly involved in the lives of all his creatures: he governs them in a particular sense rather than simply permitting the events of their lives in a general sense.[12] In fact, “God’s government of all events is indeed so absolute and uncontrollable, that no good or evil can befall any man, but what God pleases, what he orders and appoints for him.”[13] From this perspective, “chance” simply does not exist, as seemingly random events are actually governed by God’s unseen providential hand.[14] For Campbell, a prime biblical example of this is Joseph, whose life is comprised of repeated occurrences of “fortunate” and “unfortunate” events which were actually God’s continual providential workings in his life.[15] Indeed, even the death of infants and good men, “the purest and best of our race”, do not occur outside of the providence of God, but rather happen according to his purposes.[16] In his providence, God is intricately involved in his creation, both in a general and special sense.

However, a second major component of Campbell’s understanding of providence is that none of God’s providential action impinges upon human freedom. Despite God’s providential oversight,

“…yet he lays no necessity upon human actions: men will and choose freely, pursue their own interests and inclinations, just as they would do if there were no Providence to govern them….”[17]

As free moral agents, humans have the ability to make choices for themselves; at the same time, God can use those choices to bring about his own purposes.[18] Out of this free will, men and women at times choose to commit evil. God does not order that they do so; in fact, he expressly forbids it. But, since God honors them as free moral creatures, he does permit their evil choices.[19]

Although Campbell is confident that God meticulously governs the world, he admits that there are things which simply do not make sense from a human perspective: sinful men often live full lives, while some of the purest and best are cut down in the prime of life. But Campbell is willing to chalk this up to the mysterious nature of God, asking “…why should not the scheme of a superintending Providence, or of a righteous moral government, also have its peculiar and incomprehensible mysteries?”[20]

Regardless, Campbell is content to rely on the wisdom, care, and blessing of the God who is firmly in control of his creation:

“… our lives, and all our conditions of life, are of his superintending care and providence, and not of “blind chance” or “good luck,” but of his own direction and blessing; for, indeed, in this life, many of our so-called misfortunes are the choicest blessings, and all things do work together for good to them who love God and keep his commandments.”[21]

Reconciling Evil and Suffering with a Good and Powerful God

Alexander Campbell affirmed the three components of the problem of evil—the benevolence of God, the omnipotence of God, and the existence of evil—but he did not consider those components to be mutually exclusive. In fact, as we shall see, from Campbell’s perspective it was because of God’s goodness that he created a world in which evil exists.

In The Christian System, Campbell explicitly affirms the goodness and power of God as part of his infinite and eternal qualities:

“God appears before the universe of intellectuals in the threefold attitude of Creator, Lawgiver, and Redeemer; and, although each of these involves and reveals many of his excellencies, still in each department three are most conspicuous. As Creator, wisdom, power, and goodness; as Lawgiver, justice, truth, and holiness; as Redeemer, mercy, condescension, and love. In each and all of which departments he is infinite, immutable, and eternal.”[22]

To Campbell, it was also clear that evil and suffering occur in the world. “Moral evil exists as sure as we exist,”[23] he states, and because of that evil, “We have frequently requested such reasoners to reflect that animal and mental pain existed to a very great extent.”[24]

Acknowledging the benevolence and omnipotence of God as well as the existence of evil and suffering in the world, Campbell’s primary response to the tension between these realities was his emphasis on human freedom. For Campbell, God created humanity to be free moral creatures, and he did so out of his goodness. God’s loving goal in creation was to bring about the “diffusion of bliss on the largest possible scale”,[25] and this goal could only be achieved with God functioning as the governor of the universe and his creatures choosing to obey his moral laws:

“…the knowledge of God is essential to the happiness of a rational creature, and if God had given birth to a system which in its very nature excluded the possibility of evil, it would have also excluded the possibility of his being a governor. A creator he might have been, but a governor he could not have been; and unless exhibited as a governor, no rational creature ever could have known him in that way essential to happiness.“[26]

Campbell reasoned that in order for creatures to have the ability to genuinely choose to obey God’s laws, they must also have the ability to choose to disregard them and to rebel against the divine governor.[27] When human freedom is abused in this way, evil and suffering is the inevitable result, but indeed, God could not have achieved his goals for creation without endowing humans with free will and the subsequent ability to bring evil into the world.[28]

In his view that a humanity endowed with free will provided the best option for God’s creation—indeed, the only option which would enable God to achieve his goals for creation—Campbell approximates a version of Leibnitz’s theodicy that this is the best of all possible worlds.[29] And in fact, Campbell uses similar terminology:

“…the actual state of things now existing was the best possible state in which they could exist with a reference to all final results. It may, then, in the sprit of true devotion, and genuine humility be affirmed that God could not, with a reference to all final results, give birth to a more perfect system of things than the present.”[30]

While Campbell sees moral evil as an obvious result of human freedom, he sees natural or cosmic evil as a result of the fall which occurred at the beginning of time in the Garden of Eden:

“At its birth all was good, and therefore all was happy. Before the rebellion in Eden, all was good, all was very good. In the world not a groan, not a sigh was heard, till sin was born. No gloom, no pain, no sorrow any where. But the instant man rebelled, the heavens were overcast, the Sun lost his brightness, the earth its fertility, the air its salubrity, Eden its bloom, woman her beauty, and man his crown. Nature was immediately diseased in all her members.”[31]

Adam and Eve’s sin in Eden negatively affected human nature,[32] and indeed, tainted all of creation. As explained by Thomas Campbell, Alexander’s father, in The Christian Baptist, “…physical evils are the just and proper results and consequences of the moral,” and they are used by God “…as punishments, preventives, or correctives.”[33] Thus, moral evil is made possible by free will, and cosmic evil resulted when free creatures chose to sin.[34]

Another significant aspect of Alexander Campbell’s response to the problem of evil is his insistence on humanity’s limited ability to perceive the providential purpose behind evil events. For Campbell, many of the events and happenings in life which we consider to be pointless evil may actually reflect more upon our inability to accurately perceive what is going on rather than a flaw in the way God is governing the world. Campbell was frustrated with those who argued that God should have ordered world history in such a way that seemingly gratuitous evil would not have occurred. He compared them with children who asked why ripe ears of corn did not immediately spring forth from the earth as soon as the seed was planted:

“Could not an almighty, and benevolent being, have produced the ripe ear without waiting for a sprout, stalk, leaves, blossoms, and all the other preparations of nature to form an ear of corn? We are, even in the common concerns of life, but poor judges of propriety; and it is extreme arrogance for us to arraign Omniscience at the tribunal of our reason when we cannot tell the reason why the blossom precedes the fruit.”[35]

Campbell’s point is clear: if God, in his omniscient wisdom has a reason, indecipherable by humans, for making corn grow in the way it does, it is quite possible that he also has reasons for permitting those evil events which we would rather avoid. Campbell concludes that, ultimately, speculation on the origin and purpose of evil is inessential to the Christian life: “It is not necessary that we should analyze and comprehend the origin and nature of darkness in order to enjoy the light of the sun.”[36]

A Case Study in Suffering: The Death of Wickliffe Campbell

For Alexander Campbell, the issue of evil and suffering in the world was not simply an academic one, as he was touched deeply by suffering in his personal life. Death was a frequent visitor to the Campbell home, and Alexander witnessed the deaths of his first wife and ten of his fourteen children prior to his own passing in 1866.

The death of young children was common in the nineteenth century, but of the ten children whose deaths Campbell witnessed, only three were infants. Six died of illness in their 20’s, and one, Wickliffe, drowned at the age of ten.[37]

Wickliffe Campbell

By all accounts, Wickliffe was a special child. Described in his obituary as “a boy of remarkable and peculiar character” who had “given many evidences of a precocious piety,”[38] Wickliffe’s mother, Selina, said that he was a “remarkably polite, obedient and affectionate child—always serene, always happy.”[39] Though young, Wickliffe would carry his Bible with him daily and eagerly worked to memorize scripture.[40] He enjoyed studying academic books, and also kept a scrapbook filled with poetry he had cut out of religious newspapers.[41]

Alexander was devoted to his young son, referring to him as the “choicest lamb from my flock,”[42] and it is clear that he had high hopes for Wickliffe’s future, calling him a “child of much more than ordinary promise,” and one “on whom clustered many a hope of eminent usefulness to society in coming years.”[43] Reading between the lines, many interpreters have suggested that Alexander had tabbed Wickliffe to follow in his footsteps and succeed him as a leader within the Stone-Campbell Movement.[44]

But sadly, it was not to be. In May 1847, Alexander embarked on a tour of the British Isles which lasted several months.[45] On the afternoon of September 4, while his father was still overseas, Wickliffe went swimming with two of his cousins in a creek near his home. The boys had been diving off a small skiff near a mill dam, swimming under it, and emerging on the other side. This had been done previously without incident several times, but on one attempt, Wickliffe dove underneath but failed to emerge. His cousins raised the alarm and help arrived quickly, but it took half an hour to locate Wickliffe, who had become trapped underneath the apron of the dam, and remove his lifeless body from the water. W.K. Pendleton and Robert Richardson, Alexander Campbell’s sons-in-law, worked for hours to attempt to resuscitate Wickliffe using the medical techniques of the day, but to no avail.

The death of such an exceptional child was met with exceptional grief. Pendleton wrote Wickliffe’s original obituary, mentioning the “more than ordinary bereavement” and asked the brotherhood to unite together in beseeching God to provide Alexander and Selina “both strength to bear and resignation to suffer the calamity that has befallen them.”[46]

Still traveling overseas, Alexander Campbell was unaware of the tragedy which had befallen his favorite son. Campbell experienced a “dark, troubled night” on the night of Wickliffe’s death, and the next morning at breakfast he remarked to his host that “he had been greatly troubled in his sleep, and that he was conscious that something sad had happened at home.”[47] Regardless of whatever premonitions Campbell may have felt, he did not learn the details of his son’s passing until his return to Boston on October 19, where he received a letter from home informing him of Wickliffe’s death.[48]

Although Campbell dealt with the loss with resignation,[49] it is clear that Wickliffe’s death deeply affected him. Writing to a Brother Wallis more than a month after the tragedy, Campbell states, “I could not bring myself to write to any one for some time,” and goes on to describe how despite the loss of several other children, Wickliffe’s death was particularly distressing because of the suddenness of it and the universal admiration which people felt toward him.[50] Later, Campbell states that the loss of Wickliffe “has been more oppressive than any one case or trial through which I had passed,”[51] and even confesses that he struggles to put his grief into words, saying, “My emotions may be by a few more easily imagined than I could express them.”[52] Richardson, who in addition to being Campbell’s son-in-law also served as his personal physician, remarked that Campbell appeared to Bethany “much worn and jaded” after receiving the news of Wickliffe’s death, and that it was “a number of months” before “he could be said to have regained his health.”[53]

It is also clear that Alexander Campbell’s great grief following the death of Wickliffe did not shake his trust in God’s good governance of the world. He still held that God directed the ways of man, even if he did so in ways which were difficult to understand:

“God’s ways cannot be traced….But in this case he thought good to take to himself the choicest lamb from my flock, and has not revealed to me the reason why. But he is too wise to err, and too kind causelessly to afflict the children of men.”[54]

Elsewhere, Campbell stated that the incident “has been a most afflictive, as well as a most mysterious Providence,” but maintained that “the Lord has done it for some wise and kind, though to us mysterious, purpose.”[55] Although Campbell did not claim to understand God’s purposes, he did pray that God would use the bereavement to turn his heart from the things of earth and make him more devoted to the glory of the Savior.[56] Further, he took consolation in the thought that Wickliffe “was destined for another field of action, and the Lord has taken him to himself,”[57] and that his deceased children were now with God:

“This, to us is a sovereign balm—a blest relief. Though dead to us, they live with God. May the kind Redeemer raise us up with them in his own time, and reunite us in the inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away!”[58]


In the course of Alexander Campbell’s long and illustrious career as an editor, writer, and debater, he discussed a wide array of subjects, including the problem of evil. Campbell’s views on evil and suffering are rooted in his understanding of a God who functions as a universal governor, using his providential power both in a general sense, and also to effect the specific events of the lives of individual men and women, though never in a way which inhibits their free will.

For Campbell, that free will is a crucial and necessary ingredient in God’s creation of the world. Unfortunately, its abuse leads to moral evil, and through the fall in the Garden of Eden, natural evil as well. Still, Campbell argues that without human freedom, there can be no true obedience to God, no relationship with him, and thus, no good or happiness.

Indeed, in his providence, God has a purpose for even those events which cause great suffering, although this purpose can be difficult to discern. This is clearly evident in Campbell’s reaction to the tragic death of his son Wickliffe: despite his great grief, Campbell clinged to his belief that God is still firmly in control, that there are aspects of the providential plan which are a great mystery to us, and that ultimately, Christian hope is grounded in the resurrection and eternal life in God’s presence.


[1]The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus is generally credited to be the first to state the problem of evil: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” John Hospers, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 1990), 310.

[2]“Evil” and “suffering” are not synonyms, but they are related. For the sake of this paper, “suffering” will refer to the physical and emotional pain experienced as a result of the moral and natural evil which exists in the world.

[3]Two exceptions to this statement are John Mark Hicks, “Theodicy in Early Stone-Campbell Perspectives,” in Restoring the First-Century Church in the Twenty-First Century: Essays on the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, ed. Warren Lewis and Hans Rollman (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2005): 287-303, and J. Caleb Clanton, The Philosophy of Religion of Alexander Campbell (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2013), 89-117. Hicks examines Campbell’s response to evil in the context of a survey of early restoration views on the topic. Clanton looks at Campbell’s interactions with skeptics related to the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness.

[4]In fact, Campbell would have had great reservations about the very idea of developing a comprehensive theodicy, as he preferred to focus on the specific teachings of scripture rather than philosophical or metaphysical speculation. See Hicks, 287, 290-91.

[5]Joseph R. Jeter, Jr. and Hiram J. Lester, “The Tragedy of Wickliffe Campbell,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 22 (July 1987): 87-89.

[6]Raised in the Scottish Presbyterian church, Campbell grew up in a Reformed context, but would come to refute aspects of this later. In Alexander Campbell, “Editor’s Reply,” Millennial Harbinger 4 (July 1833): 336, Campbell refers to his “former Calvinism”.

[7]As discussed in Richard J. Cherok, Debating for God: Alexander Campbell’s Challenge to Skepticism in Antebellum America (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2008), 37ff., Campbell exercised considerable energy refuting the arguments of Skeptics and Deists. The prime example of this is Campbell’s famous debate with skeptic Robert Owen. See Alexander Campbell and Robert Owen, The Evidences of Christianity: A Debate Between Robert Owen, of New Lanark, Scotland and Alexander Campbell, President of Bethany College, Va. Containing an Examination of the “Social System” and all the Systems of Skepticism of Ancient and Modern Times, Held in the City of Cincinnati, Ohio, in April, 1829 (Bethany, VA: Alexander Campbell, 1829; reprint, Nashville: McQuiddy Printing Company, 1946).

[8]William Sherlock, A Discourse Concerning the Divine Providence (London: William Rogers, 1694; Reprint, Pittsburgh: J. L. Read, 1849). See the excerpts Campbell published in Alexander Campbell, “Sherlock on Providence,” Millennial Harbinger 4 (May 1833): 205-12, 4 (June 1833): 247-51, 4 (July 1833): 296-300, 4 (August 1833): 389-95, 4 (September 1833): 435-39.

[9]Alexander Campbell, “Reply to J.A. Waterman,” Millennial Harbinger 4 (June 1833): 243, “Your commendations of Sherlock I think are well deserved. They are not exaggerated. He is a writer of good sense….It would be well if our philosophists, who disbelieve the superintending care of the Almighty Father, would give Sherlock a candid hearing.”

[10]Alexander Campbell, “Providence, General and Special,” Millennial Harbinger 26 (November 1855): 602.

[11]Ibid., 602.

[12]Alexander Campbell, “Sherlock on Providence,” Millennial Harbinger 4 (May 1833): 206-07.

[13]Alexander Campbell, “Sherlock on Providence,” Millennial Harbinger 4 (September 1833): 437.

[14]Alexander Campbell, “Sherlock on Providence,” Millennial Harbinger (June 1833): 248-49.

[15]Campbell recounts the story of Joseph as an example of God’s providential care in both Alexander Campbell, “Chance,” Millennial Harbinger 22 (November 1851): 618-21, and Campbell, “Providence, General and Special,” 604-07.

[16]Alexander Campbell, “Mysteries of Providence,” Millennial Harbinger 18 (December 1847): 708. Campbell, 707-08, argues that God uses these departed virtuous persons to serve as his ministers in “other fields of labor.”

[17]Campbell, “Sherlock,” (September 1833): 436.

[18]Alexander Campbell, “Sherlock on Providence,” Millennial Harbinger 4 (July 1833): 300.

[19]Alexander Campbell, “Sherlock on Providence,” Millennial Harbinger 4 (August 1833): 392. Interestingly, Campbell, “Sherlock,” 393, argues that “though God orders and appoints what evils every man shall suffer, he orders and appoints no man to do the evil….And therefore we must necessarily distinguish between the evils men do and the evils they suffer. The first God permits and directs; the second he orders and appoints.”

[20]Alexander Campbell, “Mysteries of Providence,” 705.

[21]Campbell, “Chance,” 620-21.

[22]Alexander Campbell, The Christian System (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1839; reprint, Cincinnati: Bosworth, Chase & Hall, 1871), 20.

[23]Alexander Campbell, “To Mr. D.—A Skeptic.—Replication.—No. III,” The Christian Baptist 4 (November 6, 1826): 24.

[24]Campbell and Owen, The Evidences of Christianity, 140.

[25]Campbell, The Christian System, 30.

[26]Alexander Campbell, “Replication.—No. 1,” The Christian Baptist 4 (August 7, 1826): 14. See also the discussion in Clanton, 92-93, and Mark Wiebe, “Letters to a Skeptic: Alexander Campbell on Rationality, Religious Belief, and Evil,” Stone-Campbell Journal 15 (Spring 2012): 32: “A world of creatures lacking the capacity to make significant moral choices would also lack this type of continuous guiding relationship with its Creator. Such a world, Campbell asserts, would be missing something vital.”

[27]Campbell, “To Mr. D.—A Skeptic.—Replication.—No. III,” 24, “Please consider, that if a rational being was created incapable of disobeying, he must, on that very account, be incapable of obeying….There are some things impossible to Omnipotence. Hills cannot be made without vallies; shadows, without substances; nor rational beings, without free agency….It is impossible to create a being that shall be capable of obeying, and at the same time, incapable of disobeying.” Emphasis in the original.

[28]Wiebe, 31, argues that Campbell here anticipates the theodicy arguments which Alvin Plantinga would make over one hundred years later.

[29]For an introduction to Leibnitz’s famous response to the problem of evil, see Susan Neiman, Evil In Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 21-23.

[30]Campbell, “Replication.—No. 1,” 14. Emphasis in the original.

[31]Alexander Campbell, “History of Sin, Including the Outlines of Ancient History—No. I,” Millennial Harbinger 1 (March 1830): 108.

[32]Campbell, The Christian System, 29, describes mankind as possessing “…a fallen, consequently a sinful nature” and as “…greatly fallen and depraved in our whole moral constitution.” Emphasis in the original.

[33]Thomas Campbell, “To Mr. D, a Sceptic.—Replication No. V,” The Christian Baptist 4 (January 1, 1827): 39.

[34]The resulting human sinful nature leads to additional moral evil, which in turn leads to additional natural evil as part of a vicious cycle. For a fuller discussion of Campbell’s Augustinian understanding of evil, see Hicks, 291.

[35]Campbell and Owen, The Evidences of Christianity, 391; Clanton, 102-03.

[36]Campbell, The Christian System, 30.

[37]Jeter and Lester, 87, present a helpful chart detailing the birth and death dates of Campbell’s children.

[38]W. K. Pendleton, “Death of Wickliffe E. Campbell,” Millennial Harbinger 18 (October 1847): 596.

[39]Selina Huntington Campbell, Home Life and Reminiscences of Alexander Campbell (St. Louis: John Burns, 1882), 28.


[41]Ibid., 32.

[42]Alexander Campbell, “Letters from Europe.—No. XXXVI,” Millennial Harbinger 19 (December 1848): 679.

[43]Alexander Campbell, “Obituary,” Millennial Harbinger 18 (December 1847): 713. See also Pendleton, 596, who calls Wickliffe “the object of special hope.”

[44]Todd M. Brenneman, “Prophet and Priest: The Redefining of Alexander Campbell’s Identity,” (master’s thesis, The Florida State University, 2005), 39-40. Jeter and Lester, 85-96, suggest that Wickliffe, exhibiting the intellectual brilliance and personable character of his father, possibly would have been able to prevent the division within the movement that happened in the early 20th century.

[45]The accounts of Wickliffe’s death are found in Selina Campbell, 27-30, and Pendleton, 595-96.

[46]Pendleton, 596.

[47]Selina Campbell, 35. Emphasis in the original.

[48]Campbell, “Letters from Europe,” 679.

[49]Thomas W. Grafton, Alexander Campbell, Leader of the Great Reformation of the Nineteenth Century (St. Louis: Christian Publishing Company, 1897), 199. Douglas B. Skinner, “Restoration Church History and a Theology of Suffering,” Leaven 10 no. 3 (2002): 130, refers to Campbell’s “theologically controlled grief,” and argues that he “seems to skirt the edges of grief.” It is hard to be certain so many years after the fact, but I would argue that for a man like Campbell who was considerably more comfortable with reason and logic than emotion, the degree to which he shares his emotions and disappointments following Wickliffe’s death indicates the extent to which he grieved.

[50]This letter is quoted in Selina Campbell, 37-38.

[51]Quoted in Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, vol. 2. (Cincinnati: R. W. Carroll & Co. Publishers, 1872), 575.

[52]Campbell, “Letters from Europe,” 679.

[53]Richardson, 573. Indeed, some interpreters question if Campbell ever truly recovered from the tragedy, and trace a supposed decline in his mental capacity to this event. See Grafton, 222, Jeter and Lester, 92, and Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 44.

[54]Campbell, “Letters from Europe,” 679.

[55]Campbell, quoted in Selina Campbell, 37-38.

[56]Richardson, 574-75.

[57]Ibid., 575. When Campbell wrote in “Mysteries of Providence,” 708, that God often takes the purest and best to use in his service in other arenas of his “vast dominion,” it seems very likely that he specifically had Wickliffe in mind. “Mysteries of Providence” appears in the Milliennial Harbinger only a few pages before Campbell’s own obituary for Wickliffe, and it would only be natural for him to think of the latter while writing the former.

[58]Alexander Campbell, “Conclusion of Volume V.—Series III,” Millennial Harbinger 19 (December 1848): 717.


Reaching Your Spiritual Potential: Read Your Bible!

This is the third post in an ongoing series (which I have neglected for a few weeks). See Part 1 and Part 2.

Bible Study in the Bible

Probably I don’t need to go into great detail about Bible study being a biblical idea, but briefly:

  • We know that Jesus had great command of Scripture.
  • He amazed the crowds, scribes, and religious leaders with His teaching  (even at a young age).
  • His beautiful Sermon on the Mount interacted significantly with the Law of Moses.
  • When He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, He answered every temptation with Scripture.

Elsewhere in the Bible, we see an emphasis on the importance of studying, meditating upon, and teaching God’s Word:

  • Deuteronomy 11.18-23: “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, then the Lord will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you.”
  • Joshua 1.8: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”
  • Psalm 119.105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
  • Acts 17.10-12: The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.”
  • 2 Timothy 2.15: “Be diligent (KJV: study) to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.
  • 2 Timothy 3.16-17: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

There are a lot of other passages we could look at, but I think these give the idea: the Bible presents itself as a book of teaching that needs to be read, studied, and obeyed by the people of God.

Clueless Christians

I think perhaps that the greatest problem in American Christianity today is that Christians claim to live their lives according to the teachings of a book that, frankly, they know very little about!*

I truly believe that a lot of the division that exists in Christianity and a lot of the false teaching that abounds would be taken care of if people would simply spend more time reading God’s Word.

This is absolutely true in the Christian world as a whole and I believe it is also true within the fellowship of Churches of Christ. In classes I teach and in biblical discussions I have, I am firmly convinced that the vast majority of people who call themselves Christians are pretty ignorant when it comes to what the Bible actually teaches.

And if you know your history about the fellowship of Churches of Christ, that is both ironic and sad. Churches of Christ have direct historical ties to the American Restoration Movement, which occurred in the early 1800s in the United States when several men, independently and simultaneously, decided that they wanted nothing more and nothing less than to be members of the Church purchased by the blood of Christ and established by His apostles in the first century.

Men like Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell didn’t want to be called Baptists or Presbyterians or Methodists anymore; they just wanted to be known as Christians. These men didn’t want to have anything to do with manmade creeds or traditions; they wanted their beliefs and practices to be determined by the teachings of Scripture. They didn’t want people following them; they wanted people to follow Christ.

So, examining Scripture, these men came to the conclusion that local congregations should be organized under Elderships, that worship to God should consist of a cappella singing, that the Lord’s Supper should be observed every Sunday, and that baptism involves being immersed in water for the remission of sins. If you attend a church of Christ, that should all sound pretty familiar to you.

As I said earlier, the lack of biblical knowledge that we have today is ironic, because, in Churches of Christ, our big thing, our defining characteristic is supposed to be that we make every effort possible to be the New Testament Church, and to live our lives according to the teachings of the Bible. But how can we hope to do that if so many of us know so little about what the Bible actually teaches?

The simple truth is that there’s no way that we can become mature Christians and reach our spiritual potential if we are ignorant of the teachings of Scripture!

We believe that the Bible is a special book because it is God-breathed; it’s the only book that we have that came from God! What could be a more important use of your time than devoting yourself to the reading and study of such a book?

Unfortunately, somehow we’ve developed the idea that it’s the Church’s job to teach us all the Bible we need to know. Certainly part of the Church’s job is to teach Christians, but if the only exposure to the Bible you’re getting is at Church, it’s just not enough! At the congregation where I work, we have roughly 80 minutes of Bible class time per week. Add to that another 60 minutes of sermon time per week and then do the math, and it comes out to about 120 hours, or 5 days of biblical instruction per year. That, on it’s own is not nearly enough, and that assumes that you never miss a single class or sermon!

What all this means is that if we’re going to grow to become mature Christians and reach our spiritual potential, it is going to require that we read and study the Bible outside of church.

I realize that what I’m saying doesn’t apply to everyone who is reading this; there are some who have studied the Bible for decades, and who continue to make Bible reading a part of their daily lives. But for many of us, there is a lot of room for improvement.

I read the Bible a lot, but it had been several years since I had systematically read the entire Bible through in one year. I decided to do that this year, and have been astounded by the results: so often I will be reading something else or talking to someone about a biblical topic, and I’ll think to myself, “I just read that the other day!” It has been a tremendous blessing to see different parts of my life interconnected and woven together in the shadow of the Word of God.

Let me encourage you: make a commitment today to be a person whose life is characterized by a dedication to the reading and study of Scripture. Your spiritual growth and potential depends on it.

Read your Bibles!

*I say “perhaps” because sometimes I think that the greatest problem in American Christianity is the way that we spend our money. But maybe there’s no real disagreement here: if we actually read our Bibles and listened to what Jesus said about money, it might take care of that problem too.

Unity and Restoration in Churches of Christ Part 1: A Historical Primer

Churches of Christ, of which I am a part, are a group of autonomous congregations of believers which have historical ties to the American Restoration Movement of the 1800s. This movement, led primarily by men such as Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone (and thus sometimes called “The Stone-Campbell Movement”), sought to strip away man-made traditions and restore the Church which they read about in the pages of the New Testament.

Alexander Campbell

Although the restoration of the New Testament church was seen as important in its own right, it was also viewed as a means of bringing unity to a fragmented world of denominationalism1: if Christ-followers of different varieties could all just agree to follow the beliefs and practices described in the New Testament, then the elusive unity among His disciples which Jesus prayed for could finally be achieved. To an extent, it worked, as thousands of people left their respective denominations and linked up with the new movement, wanting to be known only as Christians and recognizing only the authority of the Bible.

Sadly, this unity did not last. Restoration congregations began to divide in the late 19th century, and in 1906, the U.S. Census recognized a formal division between Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ. It has long been held that the primary causes for this division stemmed from disagreements over missionary societies and instrumental music in worship, but in Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America, author Richard Hughes makes the argument that these issues were merely symptoms of a greater problem, and that the seeds of division were actually sown decades before, and can be traced to the thoughts and perspectives of Alexander Campbell himself.2

According to Hughes, Campbell’s twin goals of unity and restoration3 were, in many ways, mutually exclusive. To illustrate:

  • If Person A places a great deal of importance on unity, he will be more likely to overlook the fact that Person B does not completely agree with and follow the teachings and practices of the New Testament. Unity is upheld, but restoration is diminished.
  • On the other hand, if Person A places a great deal of importance on restoration, the fact that Person B does not completely agree with and follow the teachings and practices of the New Testament will be a major issue that will prevent full fellowship. Here, restoration is upheld but unity is diminished.

Hughes argues that Campbell’s failure to fully think through the implications of unity and restoration enabled him to always cling to both goals despite any inherent tension between the two, but that his followers inevitably divided into hostile groups which focused on one of those concerns to the neglect of the other.4 Ultimately, those who held up unity as being of primary importance became the Disciples of Christ following the split of 1906, while Churches of Christ maintained a primary focus on restoration.

Hughes’ perspective is interesting and I think it does hold some merit, but I think he takes it too far. Certainly there is an element of tension between the ideals of unity and restoration, but to say that the two are mutually exclusive and that Alexander Campbell sowed the seeds of division because he was incapable of grasping this idea seems to place great limitations on Campbell’s universally-renowned intellect.

What seems more likely is that Campbell’s subtle understanding of the connection between unity and restoration was not adequately disseminated to the majority of the people he influenced. Not understanding how the two ideas could be reconciled, his followers later tended to group around one or the other, as Hughes rightly suggested. And it wasn’t a problem which was limited to the late 19th and early 20th centuries—many people today still struggle to reconcile the concepts of unity and restoration.

But I do believe that such a reconciliation is possible, and can be clearly seen through the example of J.N. Armstrong, the first President of Harding College, who lived roughly 100 years after Campbell. More on that in the next post.

• • •

1A note on ”denominationalism”: there is a strong historical perspective in the Restoration Movement that laments the disunity in Christendom as evidenced by the countless denominational groups that exist. Churches of Christ aim to be undenominational in the sense that they seek to be nothing more (or less) than the New Testament Church, and because of this, members will sometimes react strongly to the notion that the Church of Christ is “just another denomination.” Of course, regardless of intention, to denominate literally means “to name”, and at least in that sense Churches of Christ are a denomination, as they have persistently and somewhat rigidly applied that specific name to themselves. From that perspective, it is hard for anyone unfamiliar with their core beliefs and goals to think of the Church of Christ as anything other than “just another denomination.” I wish more of us understood this.
2Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 22-26.
3To be more accurate, Hughes, 45, suggests that unity and restoration, while important, were not Campbell’s primary concern. Rather, as a postmillenialist, “Campbell’s ultimate concern was for the kingdom of God, the millennium on earth. In Campbell’s mind, unity was merely a means to the millennial dawn, and restoration a basis for unity.”
4Hughes, 46.

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