Discussion Between Dr. Thomas and Mr. Campbell


The alienation between Dr. Thomas and Mr. Campbell became aggravated by the circulation of anonymous slanders against Dr. Thomas. Against these the doctor vindicated himself in the pages of the Advocate. It is not necessary to specify the slanders or publish their refutation, as the death of all the parties has relegated the matters to a jurisdiction which mortals cannot touch. It is sufficient to refer to them as incidents of the situation, which they contributed to intensify. As a result of them the Doctor abandoned an intended tour in the southern counties of Virginia in the early part of 1838.


Towards the close of the year, indications of a friendly disposition on the part of those intended to be visited caused the Doctor to leave home on Friday, September 14th, 1838, for a visit to Louisa, Spottsylvania, Essex, King William, and Hanover. At these places he was cordially received, and, after explanations, was exonerated from the charges which had been circulated against him by certain friends of Mr. Campbell. The tour is interesting for what came out of it. The parties visited were friends alike of Dr. Thomas and Mr. Campbell. The effect of the Doctor’s visit was to remove prejudice from the minds of many, to gain several new friends, recover old ones, and confirm such as had not become disaffected. All these expressed a strong desire that the differences between the Doctor and Mr. Campbell might be terminated and friendly cooperation renewed. The Doctor expressed his concurrence in this desire. Mr. Campbell was about to visit Richmond, and the brethren pressed Dr. Thomas to meet him, and have their difficulties adjusted if possible. The Doctor consented to make the attempt to bring a reconciliation about. Accordingly, he went to Richmond in October, 1838, the time appointed for Mr. Campbell’s visit.


Arrangements had been made for Mr. Campbell to preach, and Dr. Thomas, accompanied by several others, went to hear him, by way of breaking the ice. Mr. Campbell preached for two hours, against “Speculations and untaught questions,” a phrase in those days applied to the subjects agitated by the Doctor. In the course of his remarks, he said that Dr. Thomas was “fit only for such society as Tom Paine, Voltaire, and that herd.” While the sermon was proceeding, the Doctor asked the man who sat next him whether he should get up at the close and ask permission to reply, but was told that he had better not, as he was in the midst of his enemies, who might charge him with disturbing the congregation, if he did so. When the sermon was over, a gentleman came up to the Doctor and said he was not aware before that he was such an important person as to be made the text of a two hours’ discourse by so great a man as Mr. Campbell. Another (Mr. Albert Anderson) said he was sick at heart at the course things were taking.


Before the dispersion of the congregation, the Doctor elbowed his way to Mr. Campbell, and saluted him in the usual way, by asking him how he did. “Ah, is it you?” responded Mr. Campbell. “Yes,” replied the Doctor, “and I am none the worse for the dose you have given me this morning.” Mr. Campbell said he was very glad. After further talk, Dr. Thomas told Mr. Campbell he should be pleased to have a meeting with him, in some private place, where they could talk over these matters. “Very well,” said Mr. Campbell; “on condition that what passes shall not be published.” By this the Doctor understood that he (the Doctor) should not publish the matter in the Advocate. Having that understanding, the Doctor rejoined, “Yes, provided you do not publish what passes, either.” To this Mr. Campbell agreed, and a meeting was arranged to be held that afternoon, upon a railroad bridge, in the vicinity of the town.


For three hours, standing on the bridge, the two talked over the differences between them. At the close of their interview, Mr. Campbell asked Dr. Thomas what he proposed. The Doctor replied, “I propose, that you write upon whatever you please, and advocate whatever you please, I will do the same, and leave the public to judge: without you attacking me or me attacking you.” “Oh, but,” said Mr. Campbell, “that won’t do; you cease to write upon these things altogether.” The Doctor replied, “If you have nothing else to propose or suggest, there can be no further understanding between us.” As they were parting, Mr. Campbell said, “Well, write to me, and state what you will do.” The Doctor did so, repeating in writing what he had said in conversation.


In the meantime, a committee, consisting of Dr. Johnson of Nottoway, Mr. Albert Anderson, and Mr. Doswell, of Lunenburg, waited upon Mr. Campbell to expostulate with him on the course he was pursuing toward Dr. Thomas, and to express the dissatisfaction which many of the brethren in eastern Virginia felt. He replied, that God had called him, not by an audible voice, but by His providence, as he had called Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley, to become supervisor of “this reformation,” and that he, therefore, had a right to say who should be his co-labourers. Acting on this “right,” he rejected the Doctor, whose stern and unswerving regard for what he considered to be the truth enunciated in the Scriptures, regardless of results, disqualified him for cooperating in the project of building up a new popular ecclesiastical system.


Dr. Thomas was on the point of leaving Richmond, when a letter from Mr. Campbell was placed in his hands. Having read it, in the presence of the two messengers who brought it, he said he did not feel disposed to trust himself to reply under the influence of the feelings excited by its perusal, but would do so when he got home. He fulfilled his promise, and despatched a special messenger with the letter. Next day, the messenger returned with a verbal acknowledgment to the effect that Mr. Campbell had concluded, contrary to his original intention, to visit Paineville, eight miles from the Doctor’s residence, and would see him there.


On the appointed day, Dr. Thomas met Mr. Campbell at the house of a friend. Mr. Campbell was surrounded by many who had come from a distance to hear him. In the course of conversation, one named Coleman suggested that, instead of a discourse from Mr. Campbell, the meeting should be organised for a debate between him and the Doctor, on the subject of immortality. Dr. Thomas objected to the proposal on the ground that he had not come for debate, but to hear Mr. Campbell discourse. The proposition, however, was pressed with Mr. Campbell’s consent, and ultimately, the Doctor agreed, although the encounter was necessarily an unequal one, Mr. Campbell being then a practised debater in his fifty-fifth year, and he being only thirty-five, and only recently introduced to theological life.


At the appointed hour, they all adjourned to the meeting-house, where a large audience had assembled. The change in the arrangements was made known to them, and moderators having been chosen, the discussion commenced upon three propositions, in relation to the mortality of man, the resurrection of the dead, and the state of the wicked after their destruction. Dr. Thomas’ account of the debate was as follows.


“Many brethren desired that the proposed debate might be put on record; but brother Campbell expressly stipulated that it should not be reported. I am not at liberty, therefore, to communicate to my readers the arguments adduced pro and con. Suffice it to say, that we discussed our subject until the third day, about two o’clock. Till that time, we were still upon our first proposition, with but little prospect of agreement on either side. Nevertheless, we can both appeal with confidence to the candour of our brethren and the public, to say if ever they witnessed a debate, between two who had been years in opposition, conducted with such propriety, equanimity, and good-humour. Rarely, we believe, has it been known that variant theological disputants have concluded their discussions with opposite conclusions, and have yet become, not only better friends than they were before, but even brethren by a mutual recognition. Yet, such has been the consummation of our debate, to the surprise and mortification, perhaps, of those who know not the influence of the truth, and who fatten upon the feuds of this present evil age.”


“About two o’clock, a recess was agreed to, that the congregation might refresh itself. During the interval, the brethren got together, and discussed among themselves the propriety of continuing the debate. They considered that there was much on both sides worthy of grave investigation, but that the points themselves, though important, ought not to be made matters of public debate and misunderstanding between brethren; who should, as they conceived, devote their time, talents, and enterprise, to a mutual cooperation in the great and highly-important things upon which they were agreed; and seeing we were as unshaken in our belief of the matters I dispute as at the beginning, and consequently no nearer agreed than when we began, that it would conduce to the harmony and good feeling of all if the debate were discontinued. Accordingly, we were requested to close the discussion that evening. We consented and agreed that, on the re-assembling of the audience, I should address them on some general topics, as long as I thought proper, and afterwards brother C. should do the same. I then read 1 John 5, and brother C. the fourth and fifth chapters of the Apocalypse, from which we spoke some hour or so apiece, and then dismissed.”


“During the recess, and after we had agreed to close, brother Campbell inquired of me, through certain brethren, what I had to propose by which our difficulties might be settled? In reply, I observed that I had already made proposals by letter to brother C., but that as they appeared to have failed, I was willing to leave it to the brethren to say what we ought to do; at the same time, reserving to ourselves the right of accepting, rejecting, or modifying the proposals, as we should think fit. They thought this was ‘noble, and that nothing could be fairer.’ It was submitted to brother C., who forthwith gave in his assent.”


“In pursuance of these things, the brethren met and entered upon the discussion of the matter. After much debating, which consumed about five hours, the brethren whose names are subscribed, at last came to an understanding as to what should be proposed to me, and that upon my accepting their proposition, brother C. ought to give in his adhesion. It had been urged that ‘certain things in relation to’ man’s mortality, resurrection, and punishment, taught by me, were calculated to weaken the restraints of the Christian religion, and to excite prejudices in the minds of some against our views in general; and that, consequently, I ought to be requested to forego their formal discussion, especially as I admitted that their truth or otherwise did not affect the faith or hope of the Christian. These ‘certain things,’ deemed so obnoxious, inexpedient, and dangerous in their tendency, are well known by all to consist of the non-resurrection of infants, idiots, and a portion of the Pagan world, termed by me ‘the third class;’ and of the absolute destruction in hell, in the strictest sense, of the unjust, who shall be raised to suffer the punishment of the second death. These ‘certain things,’ which flow from the unqualified mortality of man, I have taught, discussed, and do still most assuredly believe.”


“Nevertheless, I do not believe that the belief of these items of the truth affects either the destiny of the third class or of those who believe them; * and as I have never hitherto discussed them, I think, unless stimulated thereto by others, my brethren at that meeting concluded that there would be no difficulty in obtaining my consent to hold them in abeyance for peace-sake. Besides, it had been represented that there would be a division predicated upon the propagation of these ‘certain things.’ But who, having a right understanding of the spirit and genius of the new institution, would dream, much less plot, the disseverance and alienation of the disciples of the ‘one Lord,’ upon a question as to the final destiny of an idiot, or of the unqualified destruction of ‘the destroyed’? Such a thought never entered my head, nor should anything short of a surrender of principle be too great a sacrifice to prevent so ‘untoward an event.’ This sentiment I had over and over again expressed to the major part of the brethren who composed the meeting on Thursday night. If, unfortunately, division be forced upon us by any, let that separation be for principle, and not for unimportant details.”



* On this point the Dr. afterwards altered his mind. See his “Confession and Abjuration” in chapter 26.


                “These things, then, being so, brother William Stone, of Lunenburg county, embodied them in the resolution subjoined, which, upon some further discussion was passed unanimously.”


                “ ‘We, the undersigned brethren, in free consultation met, at the house of brother John Tinsley Jeter, at Paineville, and after frankly comparing our views, unanimously agreed upon the resolution subjoined, and submitted the same for the consideration of brethren Campbell and Thomas; and brother Thomas agreeing to abide the same, all difficulties were adjusted, and perfect harmony and cooperation mutually agreed upon between them.’ ”


                “ ‘Resolved: That, whereas, certain things believed and propagated by Dr. Thomas, in relation to the mortality of man, the resurrection of the dead, and the final destiny of the wicked, having given offence to many brethren, and being likely to produce a division amongst us; and believing the said views to be of no practical benefit, we recommend to brother Thomas to discontinue the discussion of the same, unless in his defence when misrepresented.’ ”


“ ‘Paineville, Amelia, Virginia, November 15th, 1838.’ ”


“ ‘Signed by—Wm. A. Stone, Thomas E. Jeter, R. H. Degernette, Thomas Arvin, James M. Jeter, John T. Jeter, Langstone Arvin, R. L. Coleman, Thomas J. Horner, James A. Watson, H. G. Hardy, James F. Price, William Arvin, jun., James W. Poindexter, James W. Goss, James M. Wooton, Charles May, James Chappel, J. C. Booker, Jesse Smith, Samuel S. Henley, Cephas Shelburn, Silas Shelburn.’ ”


                “The resolution being agreed upon by the brethren, brother C. and myself were requested to appear before them. The result of their deliberations was reported to us; we acquiesced in the recommendation after a few words of mutual explanation; and having recognised our Christian fraternity, the brethren gave in their names to brother Stone, to be appended in the order affixed.”


                “Thus has been happily composed and, I trust, extinguished for ever, the misunderstanding which has so long subsisted between us.”


            The hope with which this account concludes was not realised. The breach, closed for a second time, was, after a while, re-opened as an impassable gulf, which no further direct attempt was made to bridge.

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