Alexander Campbell's church-state separatism as a defining and limiting factor in his anti-Catholic activity

Keith Brian Huey, Marquette University


Alexander Campbell was born into a conservative Presbyterian heritage, but he was also exposed to the progressive ideals of the Enlightenment. In his views of church-state separation, the latter influence prevailed but the former was never extinguished: even after he renounced his Presbyterian past, Campbell's conclusions were not so different from those of his Presbyterian contemporaries, who likewise struggled to square their tradition with the Enlightenment. Campbell's backgrounds, however, were unanimously anti-Catholic. His heritage, inspired by local history and sharpened by an irredentist devotion to the old Scottish Covenants, was committed to the preservation of anti-Catholic penal legislation. Moreover, though progressive writers such as John Milton and John Locke had advocated religious liberty, they had also stipulated an exception for Catholicism, reasoning that subversive "papists" posed a threat to national security. These arguments were enthusiastically employed by Presbyterian polemicists, and they also characterized Campbell's approach in his 1837 debate with the Catholic Bishop John Purcell. Campbell's biographers have typically overlooked his Irish Presbyterian beginnings, and this neglect has led them to misleading conclusions. Among these errors is the extreme "restorationist" caricature, in which Campbell is viewed as a man who took his doctrines from the Scriptures alone, without any traditional influences. Harold Lunger's approach is more realistic, but his examination of Campbell's Irish heritage is incomplete. Consequently, he has confused that heritage with the left-wing Protestant traditions of the Swiss Reformation. In his "Candidus" articles, Campbell treated judges and magistrates with considerable deference, and throughout the years of his educational activism, he believed that the state could appropriately promote the incursion of God's millennial kingdom. He was decisively anti-clerical, however, and he was adamantly opposed to the political projects of a zealous clergy. In his early career, he was convinced that Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist clergymen were vying for despotic political advantages, and by the mid-1830s he redirected that suspicion so that it fell, almost completely, on the Catholic hierarchy. Hence, his anti-Catholic activities were never "nativistic," and were grounded, instead, on these political considerations.

Recommended Citation

Huey, Keith Brian, "Alexander Campbell's church-state separatism as a defining and limiting factor in his anti-Catholic activity" (2000). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9991606.