Alexander Campbell and Thomas Jefferson
A Comparative Study of Two Old Virginians
APOSTLES OF FREEDOM
Edward Dumbauld in his Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson says: "The central feature of Jefferson's political creed was his concern for human freedom." Jefferson believed in the goodness of man and avowed that man is capable of self-government. And so his creed is well embodied in his thrustful affirmation: "I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
It was for his devotion to the freedom of man that Jefferson wished to be remembered by his fellow Americans. Though he achieved such high offices as governor of Virginia, Secretary of State and President of the United States, he wished to be remembered as a crusader for human liberty. He asked that his tombstone identify him not as a governor or president, but as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and the Father of the University of Virginia. Campbell's tombstone likewise hails him as a defender of the faith and the Founder of Bethany College.
But the affinity between Jefferson and Campbell relative to their devotion to human liberty is measured other than by epitaphs. Both were adamantly anti-sectarian and anti-clerical in both politics and religion. Concerning the University of Virginia President Jefferson said: "This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." His philosophy of education was to make man free through learning.
Campbell too founded a college, not to support a sect, but to free man's mind of parochial thinking. He set up a course of studies at Bethany that he referred to as "science and literature, the useful arts, agriculture, and the learned and foreign languages." These had two general purposes: "to free the human mind from vulgar prejudices, ignorance, and error" and "to open to us an extensive acquaintance with literature, science and art, and thus furnish us with the means of extending our acquaintance with nature, society, and the Bible."
Both Jefferson and Campbell opposed creeds and partyism in their crusade against tyranny. The President once said: "If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." And Campbell affirmed: "No human creed in Protestant Christendom can be found that has not made a division for every generation of its existence." He even warned against unwritten creeds as more destructive than written ones. To those who sought to make his own unity movement simply another sect, Campbell replied: "They cannot make a sect of us, for we will acknowledge all as Christians who acknowledge the gospel facts and obey Jesus Christ."
Jefferson said that his fight for religious freedom was the bitterest of his life. Campbell also believed that his enemies were those clergymen who wished to hold their people in ecclesiastical bonds. Both men contended that religion in Virginia was being stifled by religion itself. We must remember that when Jefferson commenced his crusade for religious liberty the Anglican Church bore the official seal of Virginia. Jefferson's task was to free Virginia from an established church, thus giving all denominations the right to flourish; Campbell's job was to free man's heart of sectarian pride and untie all believers in the one great Church of Christ on earth. One was more political, the other more religious.
They talked alike in their efforts to unhorse religious tyranny. In his Bill for Religious Freedom in Virginia Jefferson said: "All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion . . . " Again he said: "No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship . . . nor shall he be enforced, restrained, molested . . . or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs . . . "
Campbell said it this way: "We do not ask men to give up their opinions; we ask them only not to impose them upon others. Let them hold their opinions, but let them hold them as private property. The faith is public property; opinions are private property. Men have foolishly attempted to make the deductions of some great minds the common measure of all Christians."
There are many interesting parallels in the campaigns these two Virginians conducted in the name of religious liberty, one of the significant being the calumny heaped upon them by their antagonists. Jefferson was attacked as an unbeliever. Such notable libraries as the Philadelphia Public Library refused him a place on their shelves, branding him as an infidel. When he ran for president he suffered that acrimony that only sectarian minds can invent.
The story is somewhat the same with Campbell. He was accused of dividing churches and causing trouble. He did not believe in the Holy Spirit or in the Trinity. He was a Sandemanian, which sounded like something very bad. He wanted to start a sect of his own. He was a slave owner, a charge that led to his imprisonment in Scotland.
Another interesting parallel in their struggles for religious freedom is that each of them issued a Bible of his own, to put it the way their enemies did. Jefferson's "Bible" was what he called the philosophy of Jesus and entitled "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," which was an effort to set forth what Jefferson believed to be that part of the Bible that really counts. He was very interested in the moral force of Jesus' teaching. Said he: "A more precious morsel in ethics was never seen." And yet many modern moralists virtually ignore the ethics of Jesus!
Campbell's Living Oracles was a much more ambitious and extensive piece of work, being a new version of the entire New Testament. But it called forth the same kind of criticism Jefferson received: "This man has put out a Bible of his own!"