Douglas A. Foster. A Life of Alexander Campbell. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020.
1. What kinds of questions—scholarly or otherwise—inspired you to write this book? Were there any new questions or issues that intrigued you in the course of your research and writing?
I was always struck by the persistent claims of Alexander Campbell’s seminal role in shaping the ethos of the churches of the Stone-Campbell Restoration movement. I didn’t doubt the claims—I made them too. But I was a little troubled that it didn’t seem anyone had thoroughly examined and analyzed Campbell’s complex personality at multiple levels. There almost seemed to be a “protective aura” around him, and previous biographies tended more toward hagiographical chronicling than critical analysis. I certainly don’t claim to have written the definitive work on Campbell and readily acknowledge my debt to many others who have done serious work on his life and thought. I was just always uneasy that I was not seeing the full picture of the man—especially in light of all the competing depictions: ecumenical theologian and narrow sectarian; elite intellectual and man of the people; forceful leader and arrogant controller. I wanted to get into Campbell’s mind. That’s what drove me, and that’s a major reason the biography has taken a lot longer to complete than it should have.
2. In what way do current trends in Churches of Christ influence or even surface in your commentary?
I’m not sure they do overtly. If we accept that Campbell set a tone for the movement through his massive body of work and influence, my judgments about his work probably do have implications for Churches of Christ today—and throughout our history. I think the period of American life he lived through is much like the current cultural setting with increasing overt conflicts that reflect white supremacist ideology. He, like virtually all whites, accepted white supremacy as “obvious.” He opposed slavery because it was bad for white citizens. Attitudinally his massive self-assurance led him to reject ideas that disagreed with his, which usually led to acrimonious personal conflict with both insiders and outsiders. I have seen a lot of that attitude in the churches of our heritage globally, though it is certainly not confined to the Stone-Campbell movement.
3. Is there anything you would have liked to have said or included, but could not due to the constraints of time or format or etiquette?
No—I said what I wanted to say. Campbell was a gifted and indefatigable reformer who has had a significant impact on American and global Christianity. But he was often not very likable or, in my opinion, Christlike. True—he was a man of his times and participated fully in the “rough and tumble” of American religious, cultural, and political life. Yet while he could sometimes express profound and moving insights about the very nature of the Christian faith, he would turn right around and lash out at critics in harsh and unchristian ways. That all emerges in the story.
4. What common myths or stereotypes about Alexander Campbell do you wish would die off?
I suppose one thing would be to nuance the hagiographical treatment he has received in many quarters in our churches during the century and a half since his death. On the other hand, I would like to correct what I consider a neglect of Campbell in the telling of the history of American Christianity. He interacted with American church and political leaders as an equal during his lifetime yet has received little attention by scholars outside of the Stone-Campbell movement.
5. Is there an historical or biographical perspective on Campbell that you see merit in, but respectfully disagree?
Both of the self-identified “biographies” of Campbell (Robert Richardson and Eva Jean Wrather) have much merit. They are not simply blatant hagiographies, and Richardson’s narrative becomes especially important because of his access to documents that no longer exist. Yet they consistently gloss over Campbell’s failures as actually being strengths. To many who met him his “Scottish Highlander self-confidence” came across as arrogant and dismissive of those he considered below him—including poor white people. Many friends and acquaintances experienced his “shrewd financial acumen” as cruel acquisitiveness (demanding full payment of debts by taking property). I guess that I would prefer readers see him as a complex and flawed individual who should not be let off the hook for his flaws nor disdained because of them.
6. How do you hope this work advances the conversation in your scholarly discipline? What books or essays or further research do you think your biography elicits?
I hope it gives Campbell more visibility among scholars of American and global Christianity generally. My sense is that there is already a growing group of younger scholars in Stone-Campbell circles who are doing excellent work on aspects of Campbell’s life and thought. As the number of scholars of Christianity in the Global South increases, I would hope more studies about how Campbell’s thought and attitudes have influenced churches—either directly or indirectly—in other parts of the world.
7. What impact would you like your work to have on the Church generally and Churches of Christ specifically?
That’s an awfully big question! I honestly have few if any pretensions about how this book might change anything. I would like for it to make readers more aware of parts of Campbell’s life and thought that reflect the best of our heritage and which too often have been completely forgotten. For example, he states unequivocally that the bottom line in demonstrating who is a Christian is not obeying a command or holding a belief, but in manifesting the image of Christ in one’s life. On the other hand, I might hope that readers will get some insight into Campbell’s negative attitudes that many in our churches have continued to reflect—a harsh sectarian racist exclusivism.
8. What kind of research or focus is on your horizon now that this project is finished?
I am spending a lot of time working with ACU’s Carl Spain Center for Race Studies and Spiritual Action on several projects. I am convinced that to be able to move toward racial reconciliation two things are essential: full truth-telling, and repentance that is active—that is, that takes concrete steps to repair the centuries-old damage that institutional white supremacy has inflicted and continues to inflict in persons of color in our churches and institutions. Telling the truth about what white Christians have done and continue to do—even if unwittingly—is the crucial first step.
Douglas A. Foster is University Scholar in Residence at Abilene Christian University. He served as Professor of Church History and Director of the Center for Restoration Studies at ACU from 1991-2017. Previously he served as professor of history at Lipscomb University in Nashville. He received a PhD in Church History from Vanderbilt University in 1986, and an MA in Theo-logy in 1980 from Scarritt College, both in Nashville, TN.
He served as General Editor for the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (2004), as well as The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History (2013). In 2013 he published The Story of Churches of Christ, a brief introduction to the movement, and in 2014 recorded a video series with the same title designed for congregational study.
Foster’s scholarly work has centered in three areas: the place of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement in American Christianity, the development of the idea of Christian unity in American Christianity, and examining the history of white supremacy, racial oppression and division in American Christianity to seek healing and reparations.