By Bruce Daugherty

            Infant baptism is an abiding religious tradition, mainly observed by Catholics, whether Roman, Greek, or English and those Protestant churches adhering to the tenets of Calvinism.  Few of these practitioners question the ritual.  It continues as one of those “unexamined” practices that comforts well meaning parents who never doubt that their religious views are not in harmony with the Bible.

            But in the days when the American frontier was pushing beyond the Appalachians to the Mississippi river, this time honored religious tradition was being questioned by many individuals.   One such person was Alexander Campbell, newly immigrated from his native Ireland.  Re-uniting with his father, Thomas Campbell after a two year separation, the son learned that his father had recently written a document calling for the union of Christians in the various denominations by returning to the practices of the first Christians.  The principle of union was to have a “thus saith the Lord,” in commandments or approved examples “for every article of faith, and item of religious practice.”  This document, called the Declaration and Address was written in 1809 for the Christian Association of Washington, Pennsylvania.  Writing about his experiences years later, Alexander Campbell stated, “None of us who either got up or sustained that project was then aware of what havoc that said principle, if faithfully applied, would have made on our views and practices on various favorite points.” [1] 

            This article will examine the “arduous task” that Alexander Campbell made to leave the long cherished belief and practice of infant baptism in favor of what he learned in the New Testament.  It is one thing to talk the talk and claim to be following the Bible.  It is quite another to walk the walk and apply what is found in the Bible’s pages.


Thomas Campbell (1763-1854) was raised in the Church of Ireland (Anglican) and had been baptized as an infant like his father and grandfather, and was a member of that church until he was 26 years old. [2]   His conversion to Seceeder Presbyterianism did not alter the practice of infant baptism, as it was prescribed by the Westminster Confession of faith, the official doctrinal statement for English speaking Presbyterians.  His son Alexander (1788-1866) was raised in the Seceeder Presbyterian Church until his break with them in 1809. [3]  Both men never doubted that they were Christians. 

            But the doctrine of total depravity raised doubts in the minds of thoughtful persons.  Questions about who were among the elect left many parents in anguish regarding the state of their children, despite the practice of infant baptism.  Note the testimony of the emotions of Adamson Bentley, a Baptist preacher holding Calvinist doctrine:

I used to take my little children on my knee, and look upon them as they played in harmless innocence about me, and wonder which of them was to be finally and forever lost!  It cannot be that God has been so good to me as to elect all my children!  No, no!  I am myself a miracle of mercy, and it can not be that God has been kinder to me than to all other parents.  Some of these must be of the non-elect, and will finally banished from God and all good.  And if I only knew which of my children were to dwell in everlasting burnings, oh! How kind and tender would I be to them, knowing that all the comfort they would ever experience would be here in this world! [4]


            This anxiety was also felt by another Baptist preacher, John “Racoon” Smith.  Smith, who had been preaching away from home, received the news that his house had caught fire and that two of his children had died in the conflagration.  Shaken at the news, he returned home as fast as he could.  But he dreaded meeting his wife and trying to console her.  “He dreaded therefore to meet his wife’s look of anguish, and to hear her ask the question, ‘Are our little children among the elect of God?’  Slowly the awful truth dawned on Smith, “I can give her no consolation !” [5]   The contradictory nature of Calvinism left no reassurances for Smith.

Campbell’s Neglect

            After clashes with the Seceeder Presbyterians over his practice of “open” communion, Thomas Campbell was officially reprimanded and suspended by the Chartiers Presbytery in Western Pennsylvania.  But the freedom of the frontier allowed the elder Campbell to preach independently beyond the reach of the Presbyterian hierarchy in Philadelphia.  His break with the Presbyterians was followed by writing the Declaration & Address (1809).  The document was a plea for unity of Christians in the various denominations.  It contained a strong denunciation of the evils of religious division and then a series of propositions of the principles of union on the basis of Biblical authority for faith and practice.  A slogan originating in the Reformation was included, “We speak where the Bible speaks; we are silent where the Bible is silent.” 

            Yet a full understanding of the application of this principle or its ramifications was not immediately seen.  After Campbell had said those words, one of his listeners spoke up and said, “Mr. Campbell, if we adopt that as a principle, we will have to give up infant baptism.”  Caught off guard, Campbell replied, “Sir, you are the most intractable person I ever met.”[6]   Not wanting to upset the congregation further, discussion on infant baptism was tabled for the time being.

            When Thomas Campbell was reunited with his family in Philadelphia in September 1809, he showed his son Alexander the proofs of his Declaration and Address which he was preparing for publication.  The younger Campbell was impressed with the principles enjoined but also questioned if they would mean the abandoning of infant baptism.  His father replied in the affirmative but did not see the necessity for “going out of the Church merely for the sake of going in again.” [7]   Put off by this sophism, the subject became a neglected topic of study.  The younger Campbell suspended investigation into the question of baptism and in his own words, he “let slip” the subject and allowed it to pass as a matter of religious indifference.[8]  (Richardson, 1:393).

Campbell’s Investigation

            But the question was soon driven back into the forefront of Alexander’s attention with the birth of his first child Jane, born March 13, 1812.   The immediacy of finding the truth on the subject was hastened by reality of the mortality rates of infants on the frontier of the early 19th century.  First, Campbell read all the books and publications by those favoring infant baptism.  Campbell was disappointed with the assumptions and fallacious argumentation of the defenders of the practice.  The more he read, the more he concluded that infant baptism was an entirely human invention.  Having examined uninspired authorities, Campbell turned to the Scriptures for answers to his questions.  His investigation of the Bible led him to understand that the words for baptism and baptize in the Greek language could only mean immersion and to immerse.  Sprinkling as a mode of baptism was unauthorized.

            Campbell’s investigation of the Bible soon led him to the conviction that believers, and believers only, were the proper subjects of baptism.  Since infants were incapable of belief, they were not subject to the command of Christ found in Mark 16:15-16.


He now fully perceived that the rite of sprinkling to which he had been subjected in infancy was wholly unauthorized, and he was consequently, in point of fact, an unbaptized person, and hence could not, consistently preach a baptism to others of which he had never been a subject himself.[9] 

Campbell discussed the matter often with his wife in the spring and early summer of 1812.   The shape of his investigation had begun with the question of whether infant baptism could safely be rejected, but had evolved to ask an entirely different question, “May we omit believers’ baptism, which all admit to be divinely commanded?” [10]   Members of his family and members of the Christian Association of Washington were also aware of the study and interested in the conclusions he had reached on the subject.  The impact of the study was especially difficult on Thomas Campbell.  “He had no idea, indeed, in the beginning, that to take the Bible alone would really lead to the abandonment of infant baptism; and although this result was, at an early period, plainly predicted by others, he constantly cherished the hope that the practice might, consistently with his principles, be allowed as a matter of forbearance.”[11]   The transition to truth from error was a great struggle for those pioneers coming out of Calvinism.

Campbell’s Submission

            Having made his investigation in the light of the Scriptures, Alexander now resolved to obey what God had commanded.  He informed his father of his desire to be baptized.  Alexander was somewhat surprised that his father had little to say in reply and offered no objections.

            Alexander then made his way to Mathias Luce, a Baptist preacher living near Washington, Pennsylvania.  Luce was reluctant at first to baptize Campbell, due to the fact that Campbell insisted that the act be done according to the New Testament example of a simple confession of faith “that Jesus was the Son of God.”  This was contrary to the usual Baptist practices of the day, which asked candidates for baptism to relate a “religious experience,” and the practice of voting by church members whether to accept the candidate or not.  Luce was finally persuaded that what Campbell proposed was in accord with the Scriptures and agreed to run the risk of being censured by his fellow Baptists.

            On Wednesday June 12, 1812, Campbell met with his family, members of the Christian Association, and a large gathering of interested individuals at a deep pool in Buffalo Creek near Brush Run.  Here Campbell publicly explained his actions, showing that what he was doing was authorized by the Word of God and urging the necessity of submission to all that God commanded.  Thomas Campbell also addressed the assembly, giving the reasons for his change in belief and practice.  He admitted that he had overlooked its importance and had failed to see the plain and obvious teaching of the Scriptures on the subject.  As he now saw what he had failed to see before, he related his duty to submit to this Divine instruction.  Alexander, his wife Margaret, his sister Dorthea, his parents Thomas and Jane, and another couple, James Hanen and his wife were then baptized by Mathias Luce.  The explanatory discourse, the witness of the baptisms, and subsequent sermons made for a meeting lasting about seven hours.[12]   At the next meeting of the Brush Run church thirteen other members asked to be baptized and Thomas Campbell assisted their obedience after a simple confession of faith in Christ.

            For the Campbells and others with them, to “speak where the Bible speaks,” had been followed by a slow process that eventually rejected infant baptism as a human invention; they subsequently adopted immersion as the one true baptism according to Scripture, and they acknowledged that the simple confession of faith in Christ was the only requirement by those desiring to be baptized.  The talk was now being matched by the walk. 


Campbell’s Defense

            In the years following his immersion, Campbell became a defender of believer’s immersion as he debated Presbyterian John Walker in 1820.  The success in this debate and its subsequent publication in book form gave an awareness of the Restoration plea to a wide audience in frontier America.  It also enhanced the reputation of Campbell as a champion of New Testament baptism.

            Campbell continued his defense of believer’s immersion in debate with another Presbyterian preacher, W.L. MacCalla in 1823.  This debate was also printed in book form and widely distributed.  It demonstrated Campbell’s continued study on the subject of baptism and his growth in understanding the connection between baptism and remission of sins.  In the debate with Walker, Campbell viewed baptism as an outward sign of the inward pardon already received by the believer.  But in the debate with MacCalla, Campbell argued that baptism was expressly “for the remission of sins!”[13]  Through these forensic encounters, Campbell continued his investigation of the Scriptures and evidenced his growth in understanding baptism’s purpose.   Writing in 1839, Campbell said:

. . . that remission of sins, or coming into a state of acceptance, being one of the present immunities of the Kingdom of Heaven, can not be scripturally enjoyed by any person before immersion.  As soon can a person be a citizen before he is born, or have the immunities of an American citizen while an alien, as one enjoy the privileges of a son of God before he is born again.  For Jesus expressly declares, that he has not given the privilege of sons to any but those born of God – John 1:12.  If, then, the present forgiveness of sins be a privilege, and a right of those under the new constitution, in the kingdom of Jesus; and if being born again, or being born of water and of the Spirit, is necessary to admission, and if being born of water means immersion, as clearly proved by all witnesses; then, remission of sins can not, in this life, be constitutionally enjoyed previous to immersion.  If there be any proposition regarding any item of the Christian Institution, which admits a clearer proof or fuller illustration than this one, I have yet to learn where it may be found. [14]

Significance and Impact of the Study

            The impact of Campbell’s study and investigation on the subject of infant baptism was far reaching.  It led to the rejection of the tradition of infant baptism and to the acceptance of immersion of believers for the remission of sins, a concept that had long been forgotten in the pages of Church history.  The effort to restore Christianity as practiced in the New Testament was significantly advanced by this rediscovery of this important facet of New Testament teaching regarding salvation.

            The significance of the study deeply impacted the Campbells personally, as they, in figurative fashion like Abraham of old, left their home and kindred so to speak, as they abandoned the religious practices they could not find in the New Testament.  This included the long cherished tradition of infant baptism they had practiced in Anglicanism and Presbyterianism.  They determined to follow where God was leading them.  For a while, they sojourned among the Baptists, but they recognized that this fellowship too, was bound more to Calvinism and tradition than to the New Testament.  Leaving that fellowship, they aimed at a “restoration of the ancient order.”

            The immediate impact of Campbell’s investigation was far reaching on the American frontier.  In the humble cabins, where the Bible was often the only book to be found, men and women groped for the light of the truth regarding their religious observances.  One such family was the Jonas Hartzell family on the Western Reserve in Ohio.

Some time in 1826, his wife, who was a pious Methodist, said to him, unexpectedly, “What Scripture have you for infant baptism?  If you have any, I ask for it; for I have no confidence in my baptism.”  He replied, “Alice, I can satisfy you on that subject” and opening the Bible, he turned to the proof-texts to show that it came in place of circumcision; then to the household baptisms and the saying, “Suffer little children to come unto me,” etc.’; but, upon considering these passages, his logical mind could find no proof in them, and, greatly mortified and disappointed, he put the subject off for the time.  Too honest with himself, however, to controvert the teachings of the Bible, he was, after some further inquiry, fully convinced that infant baptism had no divine authority.  He then said, “We have been misled by our religious guides.  We have been deceived in a plain case, and if so in reference to baptism, perhaps have been led into error on other subjects of equal or greater importance.  We have taken our religion on trust.  We have read the Scriptures to confirm our creeds.  We must now read the Bible to form our religious sentiments for ourselves, and go withersoever it may lead us.”[15] 

Though their change of religious views caused great grief to relatives on both sides of the family, Hartzel and his wife persisted in reading the Scriptures and doing their best to follow its precepts.  Some months later he became a subscriber to Alexander Campbell’s paper and was thrilled to learn of its grand purpose of a return to primitive Christianity, “ a restoration rather than a reformation.”  Learning that Campbell taught immersion of believers for remission of sins, Hartzell and his wife were baptized on the second Lord’s day in June 1828.

            And the results of Campbell’s study reach to the present day.  As was noted in the beginning of this article, infant baptism continues to be observed by many good parents, who want their children to be saved.  Though they mean well, their tradition gets in the way of future obedience of their children to the gospel.  Sometimes, when these children are grown, they are led to study what the Bible teaches about baptism.  Some of these individuals content themselves with a false comfort in their infant baptism, rather than obedience to the Divine command.  The doctrines of men cause the setting aside of the commandment of God – Mark 7:6-8.

            To claim to follow the Bible necessitates a knowledge of what the Bible says.  When the Bible has been correctly interpreted and understood, then application of its truths must be made, no matter how long traditional religious practices have been observed.  May God give humility and courage to those who will investigate to see if their religious practices are in harmony with God’s Word.




Campbell, Alexander.  The Christian System.  Nashville: Gospel Advocate, reprint of 1839 edition (1964).

Foster, Douglas A.  “Churches of Christ and Baptism: An Historical and Theological Overview,” Restoration Quarterly vol. 43 no. 2 (2001): 79-94.

Hayden, A. S.  A History of the Disciples on the Western Reserve.  Indianapolis: Religious Book Service, reprint of original edition.

Phillips, Richard.  “Thomas Campbell: A Reappraisal Based on Backgrounds,” Restoration Quarterly vol. 49 no. 2 (2007): 75-102.

Richardson, Robert.  The Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, 2 vols in 1.  Nashville: Gospel Advocate, reprint of 1897 edition (1956).

Williams, John Augustus.  Life of Elder John Smith.  Indianapolis: Religious Book Service, reprint of 1870 edition.

[1] Alexander, Campbell.  The Christian System, Nashville: Gospel Advocate, reprint of 1835 edition, x.

[2] Richard Phillips, “Thomas Campbell: A Reappraisal Based on Backgrounds” Restoration Quarterly vol. 49 no. 2 (2007):75-102.

[3] Robert Richardson, The Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, 2 vols.  Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1956 reprint of 1897 edition. 1:190.

[4] A.S. Hayden, A History of the Disciples on the Western Reserve.  Indianapolis: Religious Book Service, reprint of original edition, 103.

[5] John A. Williams, Life of Elder John Smith.  Indianapolis: Religious Book Service, reprint of 1870 edition, 103.

[6] Richardson, op cit. 1:240.

[7] Ibid., 1:251.

[8] Ibid., 1:393.

[9] Ibid., 1:395.

[10] Ibid., 1:394.

[11] Ibid., 1:399.

[12] Ibid., 1:398.

[13] Douglas A. Foster, “Churches of Christ and Baptism: An Historical and Theological Overview,” Restoration Quarterly vol. 43 no. 2 (2001): 80.

[14] Campbell, op cit. 180.

[15] Richardson, op cit. 2:253-254.