John McLeod Campbell

John McLeod Campbell

John McLeod Campbell (May 4, 1800 - February 27, 1872) was a nineteenth century Scottish minister who has also been called Scotland's most creative Reformed theologian of the same century. Through sustained reflection on Scripture and the pastoral questions of his congregation in Row and in Glasgow, Campbell became one of Scotland's finest constructive and revisionary dogmatic theologians of the nineteenth century. In the opinion of one German church historian, contemporaneous with Campbell, his theology was the highpoint of British theology during that century. [Pfeiderer, p. 382] The Reverend Professor James B. Torrance, now deceased, formerly of the University of Aberdeen, ranks him along with other great theological luminaries on the doctrine of the atonement, placing Campbell alongside the early church father Athanasius of Alexandria, and, Anselm of Canterbury. [SJOT, 1973] In the nineteenth century, perhaps no one else was as notable (or constructive) as an exponent and thinker regarding the doctrine of the atonement. Campbell took his cue from his close reading of the early church fathers, the historic Reformed confessions and catechisms, John Calvin, Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians, Jonathan Edward's works, and intense study of Scripture-- arriving at his own conclusions after much thought, writing, preaching and reflection. ["See the Whole Proceedings..."] Jonathan Edward's interesting question regarding the atonement which originally became one of the impetus' for Campbell's work, was this: "Could God be satisfied by Christ's earnest and honest repentance on behalf of humanity, or was his death necessary for satisfaction, forgiveness, and atonement to occur?" Asked in another way, did Christ have to die to effect atonement, or was there another way for atonement to take place? In addition to this question, there were other questions regarding the nature and character of God, the extent of the atonement, and the effect of the atonement in the life of Christians. Though theologically astute, Campbell also was pastorally sensitive to the attitude of his parishioners in living as Christians. He discovered that their Christianity was essentially joyless and depressing. Campbell realized that their understanding of Christianity was poor at best, and that such an unfamiliarity with the main content of Christianity helped cause their morose and weary views of what living as Christians was to be like.

Early Life and Education

John Mcleod Campbell, the son and oldest child of the Rev. Donald Campbell, was born at Kilninver, Argyllshire in May 1800. Sadly, his mother died when Campbell was only 6, in 1806. His father had then to fulfill the emotional role of both parents, something that left a lasting impression on Campbell. He often remarked that his father was his dearest earthly friend. Educated chiefly at home by his father, Campbell was already a good Latin scholar when he went to the University of Glasgow in 1811. Finishing his course in 1817, he became a student at the Divinity Hall, where he gained some reputation as a Hebraist. Campbell won several prizes in various classes. One in particular stands out; he received a high commendation from his professor in Moral Philosophy for an essay in which he pursued an independent course of thought. After further training at the University of Edinburgh he was licensed as a preacher by the presbytery of Lorne in 1821. In 1825 he was appointed to the parish of Row on the Gareloch. Campbell sought to be a faithful minister to his people. Although Campbell found himself in a parish in which the religious life of its people was abysmally low. Drunkenness among the people was frequent, fights common, and smuggling commonplace; it seems home-made whisky was the hobby and additional source of income for many a man in the parish. Immorality was high and when faced with their sin many parishioners conceded their guilt, but only because they had exposed themselves in their minds to the wrath and judgment of God. Religion was conceived as offering safety from the anger of God; and so prayers and worship rang hollow and were often hypocritical. The question his parishioners asked, it seemed to Campbell, was "How can I get on God's good side?" About this time the doctrine of a Christian's assurance of faith began to raise itself to his mind as a problem needing an answer. The issue that Campbell faced, during his ministry in Row, was the dreadful spiritual state of his parishioners in which many questioned God's attitude towards them. Did God love them? Did Christ die for them? How was one to know when facing God, what God's ultimate disposition was towards the person in question? At issue in his parish was the people's doctrine of God, and right alongside of that question--their doctrine of Christ, and then in response--their doctrine of the Christian life. All of their answers, Campbell was soon to discover, were bleak at best. There was little joy or happiness in their Christianity. ["Atonement" p. 43]

Early Ministry at Row

As Campbell sought to work out the theological implications of all these questions he began to rework the traditional doctrines of Calvinism, and one of the most important of these was the extent or the universality of Christ's Atonement. Campbell was so passionate in preaching the universal nature of Christ's atonement that questions arose among some of his parishioners who petitioned the presbytery in 1829 to review the orthodoxy of his preaching and teaching. At issue was the theology of Campbell in his sermons and its relationship and uniformity with the Westminster Standards which all Scottish ministers agreed to preach and teach at their ordination. The petition was withdrawn, because of improprieties in its origin and because the overwhelming majority of his congregation was clearly affectionate and appreciative of his piety, pastoral ministry among them, and the seriousness with which he took his Christian faith. Many found Campbell the impetus for their growth in the Christian faith. However, a subsequent appeal in March 1830 led to a presbyterial visitation followed by an accusation of heresy. Campbell's reputation as a brilliant preacher, certainly had something to do with the views some his ministerial colleagues had of him. Technically, Campbell did teach a universal atonement in his sermons, and in particular, the sermon he preached on that occasion. In this, he clearly disagreed with the Westminster Confession of Faith's view of a limited atonement. This caused the foreseeable result of his being removed from the ministry. The General Assembly by which the charge was ultimately considered found Campbell guilty of teaching heretical doctrines and deprived him of his living. [Geddes MacGregor, p. 281.] In studying the disciplinary documents one must be reminded that several issues, some of which were political, came into play. Campbell was without theological party in the Assembly, he did not belong to either the Moderates or the Evangelicals. This lack of affiliation hurt him terribly. [Leckie, p. 199] With regard to Campbell the ultimate question facing the Assembly, was not Campbell's piety and faith, but rather his earlier promise at his ordination and statement that he would abide in his preaching and teaching by the Westminster Standards, then the official documents of the Scottish church. Campbell knew, following his disbarrment, that his theology was at odds with the official church standards, no matter how Reformed, or biblical it was. Declining an invitation to join Edward Irving in the Catholic Apostolic Church, he worked for two years as an evangelist in the Scottish Highlands.

Towards Campbell's Mature Work

Returning to Glasgow in 1833, he was minister for sixteen years in a large chapel specially built for him, by close friends. It is to Campbell's credit that he never attempted to found a sect or denomination. He remained in his own mind an evangelist and pastor to those who attended worship services. In 1856 he published his famous book titled: "The Nature of the Atonement", which has profoundly influenced Scottish theology. Campbell's influence may be seen particularly in the work of Hugh Ross Mackintosh, Donald Baillie, and most notably Thomas F. and James B. Torrance. Campbell's theological aim was to view the Atonement in the light of the Incarnation. In the Atonement, one may not separate the birth, person, work, and death of Jesus Christ. As one looks more closely at Christ, one may discover that the divine mind in Christ is the mind of perfect obedient sonship towards God and perfect brotherhood towards men. Jesus Christ in his person fulfills the law to love God wholeheartedly and to love neighbor selflessly. By the light of this divine fact of the Incarnation, Christ's life as atonement, vicariously lived in humanity's place, is seen to develop itself naturally and necessarily as a perfect and complete reconciliation; the penal element in the sufferings of Christ is but one aspect or facet of the atonement. Campbell has been falsely accused of minimizing the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement (Anselm's view) with his alternate view, but Campbell never denied its theological veracity. He merely expanded on what was the case in Christ, in light of the atonement. Campbell was interested in penetrating into the "nature" of Christ's atonement. Subsequent critics have argued that Campbell's position was not self-consistent in the place assigned to the penal and expiatory element in the sufferings of Christ, nor adequate in its recognition of the principle that the obedience of Christ perfectly affirms all righteousness and so satisfies the holiness of God, thus effecting a peace and reconciliation between God and humanity--a true atonement. Such criticisms, however, fail to grasp Campbell's theological reading of Scripture and Numbers 25 in particular and the constructive use and application of verses 10-13 of that Biblical book. Campbell's reading of this passage, certainly must have taken into account, Phineas' passion, obedience, and living out of a life passionate for God. If Phineas, a human, could, through his obedience, effect peace between God and the people of Israel, after their sin, as Scripture indicates here, how much more, Campbell thought, must Christ's obedience, love, jealousy and passion for God's glory, and his vicarious humanity effect peace and reconciliation between God and humanity in Christ's person. The question, for Campbell, was "Are we to take Scripture's declaration that Phineas' obedience in this particular instance effected a "peace" between God and the people of Israel?" Scripture clearly indicates that it did. If so, then how much more so does God's Son in his person and work; Campbell was clear that one could not separate the cross from the incarnation. In 1859 his health gave way, and he advised his congregation to join the Barony church, where Norman McLeod was pastor. This gave him additional time to put his thoughts into writing. In 1862 he published "Thoughts on Revelation" and a few years later (1869) he published a revised version of his 1851 book: "Christ the Bread of Life."

Recognition in Later Years

In 1868 he received the degree of D.D. from Glasgow University for his theological work and writing. He and his friends took it to be a reaching out on the part of the Scottish church towards him so long after his deposition from the ministry. Indeed, later Scottish theology affirmed Campbell's influence in its departure from the strict reading of Westminster's Standards. In 1870 he moved to Roseneath, and there began his "Reminiscences and Reflections", an unfinished work published after his death by his son. Campbell was greatly loved and esteemed by a close circle of friends, which included Thomas Erskine, Norman McLeod, Alexander Ewing, Frederick Maurice and CJ Vaughan, and he was recognized and honored in his later years as a man whose opinions on theological subjects carried great weight. In 1871 a testimonial, dinner and address were presented to him by representatives of most of the religious bodies in Scotland. He died in early 1872 from prostate cancer. He was buried in Roseneath churchyard. Today, Campbell, through the influence of the Torrance brothers has finally begun to be appreciated as a pastoral theologian of some merit.

For Further Reading:

Primary Sources

*"The Whole Proceedings before the Presbytery of Dumbarton, and Synod of Glasgow and Ayr in the Case of the Rev. John Mcleod Campbell, Minister of Row, Including the Libel, Answers to the Libel, Evidence, and Speeches", R. B. Lusk, Greenock, Edinburgh, 1831,;
*"Sermons and Lectures", 2 Vols., 1832;
*"Fragments of Expositions", 1843; 1898;
*"On the Nature of the Atonement", 1856 (and other editions);
*"Christ the Bread of Life", 1869;
*"Thoughts on Revelation", 1874;
*"Reminiscences and Reflections", 1873;
*"Responsibility for the Gift of Eternal Life", (Thematically arranged material from Campbell's early sermons), 1873;
*"Memorials of John Mcleod Campbell," 2 Vols., 1877.



1. Otto Pleiderer, "The Development of Theology in Germany since Kant and its Progress in Great Britain since 1825," Macmillian and Co., New York, New York, 1890, p. 382. "I regard their (Thomas Erskine of Linlathen's and John Mcleod Campbell's) ideas as the best contribution to dogmatics which British theology has produced in the present century."
2. James B. Torrance, "Scottish Journal of Theology," #26, 1973, p. 295.
3. On this the reading of the "The Whole Proceedings...," is fascinating because it shows how widely read Campbell really was, particularly with regard to Reformed theology outside of the Westminster Standards. That he continued reading widely may be seen in his dialogue in "On the Nature of the Atonement" with past theologians like Martin Luther, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and contemporary theologians like Pye Smith, George Payne, Thomas Jenkyns, Thomas Chalmers, and others.
4. Gustav Aulen, "Christus Victor--An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the idea of the Atonement," (various editions).
5. See on this "On the Nature of the Atonement," p. 43"
6. Geddes MacGregor, "The Harvard Theological Review," #43 (1985), p. 281. MacGregor states that there were five levels of ecclesiastical discipline available to the Assembly in dealing with Campbell. (1.) Admonition, (2.) Rebuke, (3.) Suspension, (4.) Deposition, and (5.) Excommunciation. As MacGregor points out "deposition was a ferocious penalty...resorted to only in the most serious cases." p. 281. On Campbell's breadth of education and reading, MacGregor is most instructive. See page 289 where he states that Campbell was better read in the Church fathers, and in Reformation theology than most of his colleagues who judged him so harshly.
7. J. H. Leckie, "The Expository Times: Books that Have Influenced our Epoch," #40 (1929), p. 199. "When his trial came he was without influential friends."

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