Q&A with Doug Foster on his new book

By LORETTA FULTON

A book by Dr. Douglas A. Foster that was twelve years in the making now is in print.

Foster first was approached by Eerdmans Publishing in 2008 and spent the last twelve years thinking about, researching, and writing A Life of Alexander Campbell. The book was released June 2, 2020, by Eerdmans.

Campbell was born in 1788 in what is now Northern Ireland. As an adult, his toughts were instrumental in forming the global Stone-Campbell traditions (Disciples, Churches of Christ, Christian Churches).

“And he was an influential leader in nineteenth century American Christianity,” Foster said, “yet very few people—even historians—know much about him.”

A promotional piece from Eerdmanns notes that, “A Life of Alexander Campbell examines the core identity of a gifted and determined reformer to whom millions of Christians around the globe today owe much of their identity–whether they know it or not.”

Foster served as professor church history and director of the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene Christian University for twenty-seven years. He now serves as scholar-in-residence at ACU. Foster graciously consented to a Q&A with Spirit of Abilene editor Loretta Fulton. His responses follow:

Dr. Douglas Foster

1. When did you first start thinking about a book on Campbell?

I’m not sure when I first started thinking about it. I was always struck by claims that Alexander Campbell was massively important in forming the theology of the churches of the Stone-Campbell Restoration movement. I didn’t doubt the claims—I made them too. But I was troubled that no one 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 making him out to be a saint 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 common 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. How long have you been working on it?

Well over a decade. I was first approached by the editor of the Religious Biography series at Eerdmans Publishing to do a volume on Campbell I think in 2008.

3. Why is Alexander Campbell so compelling a figure to you that you wanted to spend years researching and writing about him?

Campbell’s life and thought were extremely important to the formation of the churches of the global Stone-Campbell tradition (Disciples, Churches of Christ, Christian Churches), and he was an influential leader in nineteenth century American Christianity, yet very few people—even historians—know much about him. I wanted to get a handle on how he conceived of and carried out what he saw as a necessary reform of Christianity. The amount he traveled, wrote, published, and interacted with religious and political leaders of his day was amazing. He was just an interesting and influential person.

4. How did you conduct your research? Was it all done locally and online or did you travel anywhere for research?

I used every avenue available. I travelled to Ireland to research background on the Campbell family and Alexander’s early formation. I spent weeks working in the Campbell archives at the school he founded—Bethany College—in Bethany, West Virginia; as well as the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, formerly in Nashville, Tennessee, but now also at Bethany. I used the extensive journal and archival collections of the Center for Restoration Studies at ACU. Many rare items are available on line, so I took advantage of those too. 

5. How is your book different from other books on Alexander Campbell?

Two biographies of Campbell had already been written—the first in 1868, the second between 2005 and 2009. They are not critical biographies. Dozens of other volumes have been written through the years, often studies focusing on a specific aspect of his life or thought. But there were no “full-blown” critical biographies. That is what I wanted to write.

I think this biography offers several things—though I don’t make any claim to being absolutely unique. I draw from the work of Campbell scholars from the past century and a half, attempting a new critical synthesis documented in extensive footnotes. Second, I approach Campbell’s life looking closely at the contexts in which he was shaped and operated, starting with his early formation in Ireland, the impact of America on his thought, the creation and execution of his reform, and the ultimate despair of his later years. The most impactful section to me (and the longest) tells the stories of his often-bitter fights with other religious leaders from both outside his movement and within. I don’t think that aspect of his life has ever been told in such a comprehensive way, nor have the changes in his thought in his later years. 

6. What is your audience–do you consider the book one of general interest or is it more for academic use?

Certainly, I would recommend it to people interested in the Stone-Campbell movement and American Christianity. But I think it would also be appealing to anyone who enjoys religious biography—or biography, period. I have included almost seventy photos and illustrations, many never before published. The book does have footnotes (I needed to back up some claims I am making that may be controversial), but I think the story is told in a way that would engage general readers who are not at all specialists. Campbell lived in a fascinating period of American history, and he is a fascinating character in that story.

7. Tell me one thing intriguing about him that might surprise people.

Campbell was a complex and flawed individual who should not be let off the hook for his flaws nor disdained and dismissed because of them. But he fully partook in the evil assumptions about white superiority and black inferiority held by all white Americans. He refused to say that slavery was a sin because he was afraid it would divide his religious reform movement. He, like Thomas Jefferson, thought slavery was bad—but not because it was a moral evil to hold human beings in bondage. It was bad for white civilization and white citizens. He said in 1845 that he sympathized much more with the masters who had to deal with the system of enslavement than with the enslaved Africans. White supremacy continues among “good” white Christians today.

8.  Any other comments you want to make.

In the last years of the project, I had gathered a huge amount of data, but I seemed to be stuck. I had an outline, but somehow had a subconscious feeling that I had to chronicle and comment on everything Campbell ever did or said—an impossible task, and one that does not result in a critical biography. I had written several chapters, but I was still unsatisfied with what was coming together.

One evening three years ago at about 3:00 in the morning, I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. I began to think about the way I was approaching the Campbell biography and over the next hour or so as I lay in bed, I completely reconceived the book. I kept going over and refining the new concept in my head, and as soon as I got up, I wrote it all down. This was the breakthrough I had been needing. I went through all the material, rearranged chapters, dropped several, added others, and had the scheme I was happy with. Then over the next year I wrote and rewrote the manuscript until I was as satisfied as I was going to get. That’s what you have now.

2 comments

  • This is a very important book. I’m not all the way through it yet, but it’s a fascinating read. It provides an important lens through which to view a complex and varied religious movement; but also it provides a vivid picture of various issues in 19th-century America that remain relevant to our times. We owe Doug Foster our hearty thanks!

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