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It is written:
Jude 3-Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.
Part of Alexander Campbell’s fame came from his willingness to engage in public debate with people devoted to various philosophies. One of the great examples of his debates is found in the controversy with the famous atheist, Robert Owen.
Owen was an ardent defender of unbelief, and in 1824 he established a community in the state of Indiana known as New Harmony. From here, he sent out challenges to the Christian community for public debate. Alexander Campbell took up the challenge, and a date was set!
“It was arranged that the debate should take place in Cincinnati in April, 1829. The occasion was a great one. The reputation of the disputants had created widespread interest. Those who sympathized with Mr. Owen predicted a speedy overthrow of the Bible. Those who had heard Mr. Campbell felt that the cause of the Christian religion had fallen into good hands. The debate which followed brought out the strongest arguments of either side. Having at length exhausted his resources, Mr. Owen sat down, and Mr. Campbell was left to continue his argument without an opponent to reply, which he did in an address of twelve hours length upon the evidences of Christianity as a supernatural religion. It was at the close of this masterful defense of the Christian faith, that one not in sympathy with Mr. Campbell religiously, remarked: “I have been listening to a man who seems as one who had lived in all ages.” Mr. Owen had hitherto exerted a poisonous influence in society unchecked, but in this discussion he was completely routed, and not long afterward abandoned his infidel schemes and returned to Scotland. It was while arranging the preliminaries of this debate, that Mr. Owen visited Mr. Campbell at the Bethany mansion. During one of their excursions about the farm together, they came to the family burying-ground. Pausing for a moment among its tombs, Mr. Owen remarked: “There is one advantage I have over the Christian,—I am not afraid to die. Most Christians have fear in death, but if some few items of my business were settled, I should be perfectly willing to die at any moment.” “Well,” Mr. Campbell replied, “you say you have no fear in death; have you any hope in death?” “No,” said Mr. Owen, after a solemn pause. “Then,” rejoined Mr. Campbell, pointing to an ox standing nearby, “you are on a level with that brute. He has fed till he is satisfied, and stands in the shade whisking off the flies, and has neither hope nor fear in death.” It is related that after the debate Mr. Owen again accepted of the hospitality of his invincible antagonist, was treated by him with great kindness, and urged to abandon infidelity and accept Christ as a Savior. The appeal melted Mr. Owen to tears; he buried his face in his hands, but still clung to that which he could not sustain. In this discussion Mr. Campbell did most valiant service for the cause of Christianity, and commanded the respect and admiration of the entire religious community, irrespective of party affiliation. For a time denominational differences were forgotten, and all were disposed to recognize in him a defender of the common faith. An effective check was put to the threatened spread of unbelief, and the debate, which was published, remained one of the strongest documents on Christian evidences, and is possibly the best reflection of the versatile mind of the great advocate of primitive Christianity in the zenith of his power. His manly, courteous treatment of those who were skeptical, won the respect even of the professed enemies of Christianity. They flocked to hear him, were brought under conviction by his fair-minded, unsectarian presentation of the claims of revealed religion, and many of them became obedient to the Gospel. As an evidence of the appreciation with which he was regarded by this class, he was invited by the skeptics of New York to address them on two successive evenings in their own Tammany Hall, and met them with such suavity and power, as “to draw praise from every lip and secure a vote of thanks from the very men whose air-built castle he demolished.”” (Thomas Grafton, Alexander Campbell: Leader of the Great Reformation of the Nineteenth Century (The Restoration Movement Library), 90-92 (Kindle Edition); Charleston, AR; Cobb Publishing)
Campbell’s defense of Christianity-coupled with the kindness and love which the Gospel evokes-not only stands as a testament against the folly of atheism, but reminds jus of the power of the Good News of Jesus to reach even the most hardened skeptics.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.