Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 24, 1950

Campbell-Owen Sidelights

(Editor's note: We are indebted to one of our readers, herself a woman, for this very interesting description of some of the circumstances of the Campbell-Owen debate. It will provide fascinating reading for every student of those historic years. We wish to thank our unnamed contributor for sending us this highly readable account, taken from the English woman's book.)

Both interesting and informative is an account of the Campbell-Owen debate which appears in a book titled Domestic Manners of the Americans written by Frances Trollope back in 1832. This book has been recently printed in its fifth edition by Donald Smalley. Mrs. Trollope was an Englishwoman who came to America on a business venture and remained for three and one-half years. The venture failed, but while here she made notes that were used as the material for her book. She was not what could be considered a religious woman, and it would seem that her comments on the debate were completely unprejudiced. While they do not present any valuable source material, they do offer a readable commentary on a meeting that must have been a memorable one for all who heard it.

We quote her comment in its entirety:

"It was in the early summer of this year (1829) that Cincinnati offered a spectacle unprecedented, I believe in any age or country. Mr. Owen, of Lanark, of New Harmony, of Texas, well known to the world by all of either of these additions, had challenged the whole religious public of the United States to discuss with him publicly the truth or falsehood of all the religions that had ever been propagated on the face of the earth; stating further that he undertook to prove that they were all equally false and nearly equally mischievous. This most appealing challenge was conveyed to the world through the medium of the New Orleans newspapers, and for some time it remained unanswered; at length the Reverend Alexander Campbell, from Bethany, (not of Judea, but of Kentucky) proclaimed, through the same medium, that he was ready to take up the gauntlet. The place fixed for this extraordinary discussion was Cincinnati; the time, the second Monday in May, 1829, being about a year from the time the challenge was accepted; thus giving the disputants time to prepare themselves."

(Here is inserted a note to this effect: 'The Cincinnati Chronicle for April 25, 1829, states that the debate began on Monday, April 13, and that "there was each day of the debate, an audience of more than 1200 persons, many of whom were strangers, attracted to our city by the novelty and importance of the discussion." Like Mrs. Trollope, the editor of the Chronicle praises the "Christian forbearance" of Campbell and the "philosophic complacency" of Owen. He further tells his readers that the discussions were later to be published as a book. By the time of his debate with Owen, Campbell was well known as a writer and debater upon religious subjects, and his 'Little Country printing office' between 1823 and 1830 issued 45,000 volumes. His center of operations was Bethany, Virginia (not Kentucky, as Mrs. Trollope says), near Wheeling.)

But Mrs. Trollope's narrative continues:

"Mr. Owen's preparation, however, could only have been such as those who run may read, for, during the interval, he traversed. a. great part of North America, crossed the Atlantic twice, visited England, Scotland, Mexico, Texas, and I know not how many places besides.

Mr. Campbell, I was told, passed this period very differently, being engaged in reading with great research and perseverance all the theological works within his reach. But whatever confidence the learning and piety of Mr. Campbell might have inspired in his friends, or in the Cincinnati Christians, in general, it was not, as it appeared, sufficient to induce Mr. Wilson, the Presbyterian minister of the largest church in the town, to permit the display of them within its walls. This refusal was greatly reprobated, and much regretted, as the curiosity to hear the discussion was very general, and no edifice offered so much accommodation.

A Methodist meeting-house, large enough to contain a thousand persons, was at last chosen; a small stage was arranged around the pulpit, large enough to accommodate the disputants and their stenographers; the pulpit itself was throughout the whole time occupied by the aged father of Mr. Campbell, whose flowing white hair, and venerable countenance, constantly expressive of the deepest attention, and the most profound interest, made him a very striking figure in the group. Another platform was raised in a conspicuous part of the building, on which were seated seven gentlemen of the city, selected as moderators.

The chapel was equally divided, one half being appropriated to the ladies, the other to the gentlemen; and the door of entrance reserved for the ladies was carefully guarded by persons appointed to prevent any crowding or difficulty from impeding their approach. I suspect that the ladies were indebted to Mr. Owen for this attention; the arrangements respecting them on this occasion were by no means American.

When Mr. Owen rose, the building was thronged in every part; the audience, or congregation, (I hardly know which to call them) were of the highest rank of citizens, and as a proportion of best bonnets fluttered there, as the "two horned church" itself could boast.

It was in the profoundest silence, and apparently with the deepest attention, that Mr. Owen's opening address was received; and surely it was the most singular one that ever Christian men and women sat to listen to.

When I recollect its object, and the uncompromising manner in which the orator stated his mature conviction that the whole history of the Christian mission was a fraud, and its sacred origin a fable, I cannot but wonder that it was so listened to; yet at the time I felt no such wonder. Never did anyone practice the "suaviter in modo" with more powerful effect than Mr. Owen. The gentle tone of his voice; his mild, sometimes playful, but never ironical manner; the absence of every vehement or harsh expression; the affectionate interest expressed for the 'whole human family'; the air of candor with which he expressed his wish to be convinced he was wrong, if indeed he were so—his kind smile—the mild expression of his eyes—in short, his whole manner, disarmed zeal, and produced a degree of tolerance that those who did not hear him would hardly believe possible.

Half an hour was the time allotted for each haranguer; when this was expired, the moderators were seen to look at their watches. Mr. Owen, too, looked at his (without pausing) smiled, shook his head, and said in a parenthesis "a moment's patience", and continued for nearly another half hour.

Mr. Campbell then arose; his person, voice, and manner all greatly in his favor. In his first attach he used the arms, which in general have been considered as belonging to the other side of the question. He quizzed Mr. Owen most unmercifully; pinched him here for his parallelograms; hit him there for his human perfectibility, and kept the whole audience in a roar of laughter. Mr. Owen joined in it most heartily himself, and listened to him throughout with the air of a man who is delighted at the good things he is sure will follow. Mr. Campbell's watch was the only one which reminded us that we had listened to him for half an hour; and having continued speaking for a few minutes after he had looked at it, he sat down with, I should think, the universal admiration of his auditory.

Mr. Owen addressed us; and his first five minutes were occupied in complimenting Mr. Campbell with all the strength his exceeding hearty laughter had left him. But then he changed his tone, and said the business was too serious to permit the next half hour to pass so lightly and pleasantly as the last; and then he read us what he called his twelve fundamental laws of human nature. These twelve laws he has taken so much trouble to circulate to all the nations of the earth, that it must be unnecessary to repeat them here. To me they appear twelve truisms, that no man in his senses would ever think of contradicting; but how any one can have conceived that the explanation and defense of these laws could furnish forth occupation for his pen and his voice, through whole years of unwearing declamation, or how he can have dreamed that they could be twisted into a refutation of the Christian religion, is a mystery which I never expect to understand.

From this time Mr. Owen entrenched himself behind his twelve laws, and Mr. Campbell, with equal gravity, confined himself to bringing forward the most elaborate theological authorities in evidence of the truth of revealed religion.

Neither appeared to me to answer the other; but to confine themselves to the utterance of what they had uppermost in their own minds when the discussion began. I lamented this on the side of Mr. Campbell, as I am persuaded he would have been much more powerful had he trusted more to himself and less to his books. Mr. Owen is an extraordinary man, and certainly possessed of talent, but he appears to me so utterly benighted in the mists of his own theories that he has quite lost the power of looking through them, so as to get a peep at the world as it really exists around him.

At the conclusion of the debate (which lasted for fifteen sittings) Mr. Campbell desired the whole assembly to sit down. They obeyed. He then requested all who wished well to Christianity to rise, and a very large majority were in an instant on their legs. He again requested them to be seated, and then desired those who believed not in its doctrine to rise; and a few gentlemen and one lady obeyed. Mr. Owen protested against this maneuver, as he called it, and refused to believe that it afforded any proof of the state of men's minds, or of women's either; declaring, that not only was such a result to be expected, in the present state of things, but that it was the duty of every man who had children to feed, not to hazard the sale of his hogs, or his iron, by a declaration of opinions which might offend the majority of his customers. It was said, that the end of the fifteen meetings the numerical amount of the Christians and the infidels of Cincinnati remained exactly what it was when they began.

This was a result which might have been anticipated; but what was much less to have been expected, neither of the disputants ever appeared to lose their temper. I was told they were much in each other's company, constantly dining together, and on all occasions expressed most cordially their mutual esteem.

All this I think could have happened only in America. I am not quite sure that it was very desirable that it should have happened anywhere."