History of the Restoration Movement

Baptism And The Restoration

Alan E. Highers

It is always helpful to define terms used in discussion of an issue. Briefly, by "baptism," we mean immersion in water of a penitent believer by the authority of Christ for the remission of sins (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:3-4). By "the restoration movement," we mean the effort to restore New Testament Christianity in the present age. The expression also suggests a specific historical period when religious leaders began to call upon men to forsake human names and creeds and to be only what people were in New Testament times. In our country, these pleas were set forth by such men as Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, and Barton W. Stone, all of whom came out of Presbyterianism.

Because of their background as Presbyterians, the Campbells and Stone taught that infants were proper subjects of baptism and that sprinkling was authorized as an appropriate action of baptism. After the birth of Alexander Campbell's first child, Jane, on March 13, 1812, he undertook a comprehensive study of baptism. He reached the conclusion that he had not been baptized according to the scriptures. Accordingly, on June 12, 1812, Alexander Campbell, along with his wife, father, mother, and others, was immersed by Matthias Luce, a Baptist minister, not according to Baptist usage, but upon a simple confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah. This immersion took place in a deep pond in Buffalo Creek near the home of David Bryant.

At his baptism Alexander Campbell quoted Peter's language uttered on the day of Pentecost, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). He stipulated with Elder Luce that "the ceremony should be performed precisely according to the pattern given in the New Testament" (Richardson 1:396). In an interview in later years, published in the American Christian Review in 1879, his widow, Selina Huntington Campbell, stated:

Some of the brethren say that because "remission of sins" was not named at his baptism, he was not scripturally introduced into Christ's kingdom. Alexander Campbell was baptized into the full faith of forgiveness of his sins . . .

The Baptists took great delight in the immersion of a prominent Presbyterian family. Although Campbell was never officially a Baptist, he preached for the Baptists and worked with the Baptists over an extended period of time. When he finally disassociated himself from the Baptist denomination, he carried thousands of their members with him. In the early days, however, the discussion related primarily to differences with Presbyterians and Methodists regarding the subjects of baptism (whether believers or infants) and the action of baptism (whether sprinkling or immersion). Campbell's views agreed with the Baptists on both of these crucial issues.


Alexander Campbell was a gifted orator and a skilled debater. At first he was reluctant to engage in debate, but he felt an obligation to defend the truth. He stated: "I hesitated for a little; but my devotion to the cause of truth, and my being unwilling even to appear, much more to feel, afraid or ashamed to defend the cause of truth, overcame my natural aversion to controversy . . ." (Humble 159).

In 1820 Alexander Campbell was called upon to engage John Walker, a Presbyterian minister, in debate at Mt. Pleasant, Ohio, upon the subject of infant baptism. Walker's first speech in the debate lasted but a few minutes. He argued that baptism took the place of circumcision. It soon became apparent that Walker was no match for the Sage of Bethany. After two days of debating, Walker closed the debate. Campbell concluded by urging the audience to "go home and read your Bibles," and stating that his course was "to teach, to believe, to practice nothing in religion, for which I cannot produce positive precept, or approved precedent, from the word of God."

The second debate of Alexander Campbell occurred in October 1823 at Washington, Kentucky, with W. L. Maccalla, another Presbyterian minister, who apparently hoped to overcome the failure experienced by John Walker some three years earlier. Although Maccalla insisted on being the respondent in the discussion, his method was to read from manuscripts prepared beforehand rather than to answer the arguments propounded by Campbell. The great significance of the Maccalla debate is that Campbell made an argument against infant baptism based on the design of baptism. Even in the Walker debate, Campbell had stated that baptism was connected with the promise of the remission of sins, but he elaborated in Maccalla and argued that "the nature and design of baptism is suited to believers only." Although Campbell's understanding of baptism was not complete at this time, he clearly enunciated the principles which would guide his study in the years to come.

By 1828 Campbell argued in the Christian Baptist that "the moment a believer is immersed into the name of Christ, he obtains the forgiveness of his sins as actually and as formally as he puts him on in immersion" (qtd. In Fletcher 138). In his book on Christian Baptism With Its Antecedents and Consequents, published in 1851, Campbell stated that no one could, for a moment, doubt that the design of baptism was "for the remission of sins." Further, he declared, "It was the only purpose for which it was ordained" (Campbell 198). He went on to say: "In the first place then, no one is commanded to be baptized for any thing else; and no one is ever said to have been baptized for any thing else, than for the remission of sins. This is a very important fact, and worthy of much reflection" (Campbell 202).


In 1837 Campbell received a letter from a sister in Lunenburg, Virginia, in which she asked if he believed there were Christians among all Protestant sects. He responded in The Millennial Harbinger in September 1837:

But who is a Christian? I answer, Every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will. (411)

I cannot, therefore, make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, not even immersion into the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and in my heart regard all that have been sprinkled in infancy without their own knowledge and consent, as aliens from Christ and the well-grounded hope of heaven. (412)

There is no occasion, then, for making immersion, on a profession of the faith, absolutely essential to a Christian, though it may be greatly essential to his sanctification and comfort. . . But he that thence infers that none are Christians but the immersed, as greatly errs as he who affirms that none are alive but those of clear and full vision. (414)

Campbell's reply sent shock waves among his readers and supporters. Many were disappointed in his answer and felt it was inconsistent with what he had taught in the Christian Baptist and elsewhere. Some have endeavored to capitalize on Campbell's statement, however, and to minimize the importance of baptism (Highers 17). Even Campbell realized that he had gone too far in his answer and, in subsequent articles in the Millennial Harbinger, he endeavored to extricate himself from the dilemma. Most of those who quote the Lunenburg letter refer only to Campbell's first article on the subject because it says what they want to hear. To be fair to Campbell, however, one must take note of what he said on the subject in two subsequent articles.

In November 1837, Campbell's second article appeared. By way of clarification, he stated:

Can a person who simply, not perversely, mistakes the outward baptism, have the inward? We all agree that he who willfully or negligently perverts the outward, cannot have the inward. But can he who, through a simple mistake, involving no perversity of mind, has misapprehended the outward baptism, yet submitting to it according to his view of it, have the inward baptism which changes his state and has praise of God, though not of all men? is the precise question. To which I answer, that, in my opinion, it is possible. Farther than this, I do not affirm. (507)

There can be no doubt that Campbell was striving to limit the answer which he gave in the first article. First, he applies his reasoning only to those who mistakenly misapprehend the nature of scriptural baptism. He makes clear that he does not intend for his language to apply to those who "willfully or negligently" pervert Bible teaching on baptism. This clarification almost immediately rules out most denominational preachers and debaters (the very ones that modern users of the Lunenburg letter seem most anxious to include). Second, Campbell notes that his thesis is a mere possibility. More than this, he says he will not affirm. Far from affirming a universal principle or statement of broad application, Campbell carefully restricted the application of his earlier remarks so that they would be relevant in but few cases. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Campbell characterized his remarks as "my opinion." He does not cite scripture or authority for his view, nor does he say it is taught in the Bible. No doubt he struggled, as all do, with anxiety over the fate of those who have not obeyed the gospel, and he ventured an "opinion" as to what might be "possible" with reference to the unimmersed.

Campbell set forth yet a third article in December 1837. It seems apparent that he had been subjected to an avalanche of criticism from brethren. In the December article he acknowledged that his article had "given some pain to our brethren, and some pleasure to our sectarian friends." Therefore, he undertook even greater clarification of his initial article. He wrote:

We shall now attempt to defend this opinion from the sectarian application of it . . . . It affords them too much joy for the consolation it brings, because it imparts no certainty of pardon or salvation to any particular unbaptized person whatsoever. . . . In no case, indeed, can there be the same certainty (all things else being equal) that he who was sprinkled, poured, or immersed on some other person's faith, or that he who was sprinkled or poured on his own faith, shall be saved, as there is that he that first believes and is then, on his own confession, immersed, shall be saved. In the former case, at best, we have only the fallible inference or opinion of man; while in the latter we have the sure and unerring promise of our Saviour and Judge. . . . ("any" 563).

Campbell continues:

Now, in our judgment, there is not on earth a person who can have as full an assurance of justification or of remission of sins, as the person who has believed, confessed his faith, and been intelligently buried and raised with the Lord. (564)

One wonders why the modern-day purveyors of the Lunenburg letter never get around to quoting this language? Some seem to forget that Alexander Campbell wrote three articles on the Lunenburg letter, and one has not been fair or honest with Campbell to quote from only one-third of what he said on the same subject.

By the time Campbell wrote his third article, he had made his position clear. He had explained his meaning, and he had tempered the overbroad language utilized in his first article. Now, Campbell states, his article gave "no certainty of pardon or salvation to any particular unbaptized person whatsoever." Unfortunately, some current users of the Lunenburg letter are employing it to convey the very idea Campbell said it did not convey. Shall we let Campbell speak for himself or not?

Campbell went to great lengths to explain that salvation for the unimmersed was only "the fallible inference and opinion of man," whereas salvation for one who has repented and been intelligently baptized is grounded in the "sure and unerring promise" of the Lord. It must be emphasized that Alexander Campbell is not our authority, nor is any other fallible man. But he should not be misrepresented. If one is going to quote Campbell, he should quote him as fully and accurately as necessary to be fair and respectful of his views.


An examination of the books, articles, sermons, and debates of faithful preachers for more than a century will corroborate the unanimity of conviction among brethren regarding the place of baptism in the divine plan.

In 1889 James A. Harding debated J. B. Moody for sixteen nights in Nashville, during which Harding affirmed: "Baptism to the penitent believer is for (in order to) the pardon of his past sins." David Lipscomb served as moderator for Harding. On July 2, 1893, J. W. McGarvey preached his famous sermon on baptism at the Broadway church in Louisville, Kentucky. McGarvey proposed to go through the New Testament, passage by passage, and examine whatever could be found about baptism. At the conclusion, he summarized by saying: "We learn then, that baptism is an act in which a man is buried in water and raised again in imitation of the burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is done by the command of the Lord Jesus Christ himself; the blessing which follows the act is the remission of our sins; the act brings us into Christ, into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; and it is followed by the gift of the Holy Spirit" (McGarvey 119-120).

In 1938, N. B. Hardeman and Ben M. Bogard engaged in a significant debate at Little Rock, Arkansas, in which Hardeman affirmed: "The Bible teaches that baptism, as taught in the commission of our Lord, is for, in order to, the remission of sins, to the penitent believer." In 1943, Gus Nichols debated C. J. Weaver of the Church of God (Holiness) at Huntsville, Alabama, and affirmed: "The scriptures teach that water baptism to a penitent believer of the gospel is unto the remission of alien sins, or is a condition of salvation from past sins." In 1946, near Parsons, Tennessee, Guy N. Woods affirmed during a debate with A. U. Nunnery: "The Bible teaches that water baptism is essential to the salvation of the alien sinner." In 1947, at Birmingham, Alabama, W. Curtis Porter had a debate with Glenn V. Tingley, wherein Porter affirmed: "The Scriptures teach that water baptism to a penitent believer of the gospel is essential to salvation from alien sins."

These sermons and debates, extending over an several generations, reflect the earnest conviction not only of the speakers and disputants, but also of brethren from coast to coast and from border to border. For many years churches of Christ have been assailed from without for our stand on the essentiality of baptism and the non-use of instrumental music in worship. We have defended our practice on both of these issues without fear or favor, and churches of Christ have grown because of an unwavering commitment to a "thus saith the Lord" for all that we practice and teach. It is, indeed, a tragedy that attacks now arise from within pertaining to these same issues upon which our brethren have made courageous and sacrificial stands in order to advance the kingdom of Christ.

Bear in mind that the purpose of the "restoration movement" is to advance the "restoration plea," which calls for a restoration of the ancient order.

Our goal is to reach back to the Scriptures, to speak where the Bible speaks, to remain silent where the Bible is silent, and, whatsoever we do in word or in deed, to do all "in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Col. 3:17).

This was the aim of the early restoration pioneers, and it has been the continuing purpose for all those who believe the Bible is our pattern and our guide. Churches of Christ have stood almost alone in the religious world in proclaiming immersion into Christ for the remission of sins, but our standard is distinct from the religious world as a whole. We are committed to speak as the "oracles of God" (1 Pet. 4:11). May it ever be so!


Campbell, Alexander, Christian Baptism With Its Antecedents and Consequents. 1851. Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1951.
---. "Christians Among the Sects." The Millennial Harbinger. Nov. 1837. 506-508.
---. "Any Christians Among Protestant Parties." The Millennial Harbinger. Sept. 1837. 411-414.
---. "Any Christians Among Protestant Parties." The Millennial Harbinger. Dec. 1837. 411-414.
Fletcher, David W., ed. Baptism and the Remission of Sins. Joplin: College P, 1990.
Highers, Alan E. "The Lunenburg Letter." Spiritual Sword 33:1, Oct. 2001.
Humble, Bill J., Campbell and Controversy. Rosemead, CA: Old Paths, 1952.
McGarvey, J. W. Sermons. Cincinnati: Standard, n.d..
Richardson, Robert, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, 2 Vols. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1868.

-First Appearing In The Freed-Hardeman University 2006 Lectures, pages 57-63, Used by permission of Alan E. Highers

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