Jacksonian Miscellanies, #58

April 21, 1998

The Owen­Campbell Debate: Is there a God?

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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The following is from Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, vol II, by Robert Richardson (Phila.: Lippincott 1871), p263-283. It is a debate between two very representative products of their time, one an atheist utilitarian and builder of utopian communities, the other a powerful preacher, and founder of an important new religious movement.

Frances Trollope was their and said "All this I think could only have happened in America. I am not quite sure that it was very desirable it should have happened any where.", and she devoted six pages of Domestic Manners of the Americans to describing it.

It cannot be denied that Mr. Owen was in many respects an extraordinary man, and that he performed at this time no unimportant part in the, world's affairs. Born at Newtown, Wales, in 1769, he was so precocious that, according to his own account, he was a teacher in a school at the age of seven and under-master at nine. He maintained himself as a shopman for some years, and seems to have had something so impressive about him that he was treated with uncommon consideration and liberality. At the age of eighteen he became a partner in a cotton­mill where forty hands were employed, Arkwrght's machinery having been recently introduced. He was prosperous, and was raised from one lucrative position to another, so that, after David Dale of Glasgow established the New Lanark mills, Mr. Owen, who had now become his son­in­law, was placed finally at the head of the establishment, upon which some two thousand persons depended for support. Entering fully into all the benevolent projects of Mr. Dale for the happiness and improvement of the working classes, he displayed an uncommon skill in the economy of association and in systematizing the details of subsistence, clothing, education, leisure and amusements, and in the management of the mill, the farm, etc.; so that everything requiring the exercise of the administrative faculties was of a rare quality of excellence. In the course of ten years, while many expected his ruin from his novel schemes, he bought out his partners at New Lanark for $420,000. In four years from this time he and his new partners had gained $600,000, and he bought them out for $570,000­facts no less remarkable than conclusive as to his uncommon ability in the conduct of affairs.

Such was the success of his industrial, social and educational plans that his fame was soon widely extended, and many intelligent theorists in political economy came to him to learn his method. Inspired with the belief that his plans would revolutionize human Society, he became a propagandist. He published various tracts and submitted his schemes to the governments of Europe and America. He visited foreign countries to communicate personally with leading men, and presented an explanatory memorial to the Congress of sovereigns at Aix la Chapelle in 1818. While in Austria, Prince Metternich invited him to a succession of interviews, and employed government clerks for many days in registering conversations and copying documents relating to the "Social System." The arbitrary governments of Europe found much in his schemes of organization to suit their purposes, and even the Prussian system of education is supposed to owe much of its discipline, as well as its rigid and sedulous application in practice, to the views of Robert Owen. As there could be no question in regard to the disinterestedness of his motives or the benevolence of his intentions, his zeal and activity gained many friends and extended his influence abroad. At home Southey eulogized him, and in America the government of Mexico offered him a district one hundred and fifty miles broad, including the then unknown gold region of California, in order that his experiments might be tried upon a grand scale. It was to see about this grant that he visited Mexico, under the auspices of the British Cabinet, about two months before the time appointed for his debate with Mr. Campbell.

Mr. Owen is entitled to whatever credit belongs to the establishment of the infant­school system. Many had previously conceived the idea, but he was the first to carry it into practice at New Lanark, where he managed to surround the children with such " happy circumstances" that everything seemed to succeed to his wishes; and so great was the hope created of the redemption of the infant population of the towns that, when Brougham reported to his parliamentary friend, and others what he had seen at New Lanark, they conjointly set up an infant school in Westminster, Mr. Owen agreeing to send James Buchanan, the teacher of the school at New Lanark, to superintend it. These experiments showed that infantile education could go on well under the mild system adopted; but the fact was also in due time developed that mortality among the children was increased in proportion to their removal from the natural influences of the family and those healthful impressions produced upon each other by minds in different stages of development. Hence the fearful mortality from brain disease among the inmates of infant schools led to their abandonment after some years.

As Mr. Owen's plans were designed exclusively for the promotion of man's material interests, and made no provision whatever for his spiritual wants, religion soon became a disturbing element in the practical working of his plans, and the diversity of men's beliefs a barrier in the way of his "Social System." He thought it, therefore, necessary to success to put religion wholly out of the way, so that men might be free to devote their entire time and faculties to the business and the enjoyments of the present life. Believing the United States, where no State religion existed, to be best suited to his experiments, he purchased, in 1824, the property belonging to the Rappites, in Indiana, consisting of the village of New Harmony and thirty thousand acres of land, he soon collected a community of several thousand persons and where, under the influence of zeal and talent, the co­operative system seemed for a time to realize the highest hopes of its advocates. Mr. Owen himself, constitutionally sanguine, was so confident of the success of his principles as to assert that, in the course of three years, the city of Cincinnati would be depopulated by the migration of its citizens to New Harmony. A very short time, however, was sufficient to dispel this illusion and before the period fixed in his prediction had expired this seemed more likely to be fulfilled in regard to New Harmony itself, through the discords and disappointments which were constantly occurring, and which drove off many to distant cities. These ominous occurrences failed, nevertheless, to disturb the equanimity or the confidence of Mr. Owen, and since the religions of the world, in his superficial view of human society, seemed to be the occasion of much of the discord and division that everywhere prevailed, and "to contain in them," as he said, "the seeds and the germs of every evil that the human mind can conceive," he became more and more averse to them. He was hence induced, in his New Orleans challenge, to assail them publicly, having been specially moved thereto by certain articles which appeared in the newspapers proceeding from some of the clergy, and giving an erroneous view of his principles and plans. In consequence of the acceptance of his challenge by Mr. Campbell, he was now about to appear in Cincinnati (which, in utter disregard of his prediction , had persisted in increasing rather than diminishing its population), in order to prove that religion was the greatest bar to the supreme happiness of the world.

The importance of the subject and the reputation of the disputants had created an intense and widespread. interest in the discussion, so that when the time arrived many persons were in attendance, some of whom had come even from New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee and Mississippi. Application was Made to Dr. Wilson for the use of his meeting­house, which was the largest in the city, but this having been refused, the Methodist society cheerfully granted their house for the purpose. Mr. Owen chose as moderators, Rev. Timothy Flint, Col. Francis Carr and Henry Starr, Esq. Mr. Campbell selected Judge Burnet, Col. Samuel W. Davis and Major Daniel Gano. These six chose Rev. Oliver M. Spencer, and Judge Burnet was appointed chairman. It was agreed that each disputant should speak alternately half an hour or less, but not more except by consent of the moderators. Charles H. Sims, stenographer, was appointed to take down the speeches in order to their publication for the benefit of the parties, and matters being thus adjusted the discussion began on Monday, April 13th, and continued, with the intermission of one Lord's day, until the twenty­first.

This debate­if debate it may be called where the parties hardly ever came into logical conflict­was heard with great attention by a large and highly intelligent auditory. At the commencement, the press was so great that many were unable to obtain seats, and were forced after a day or two to return to their homes. It was computed that on each successive day to the close there were not less than twelve hundred persons present, and the good order and decorum which constantly prevailed in this large assembly, and the solicitude manifested to understand the subjects presented were never, on any occasion, excelled. Mr. Owen began by explaining the cause of the meeting, and giving a brief account of his European experiments, in the course of which he professed to have discovered certain "laws of human nature," a knowledge of which would, he thought, abolish religion, marriage and private property, the three "formidable prejudices which," as he stated, "ignorance of these laws had made almost universal," and to which he attributed the vice and misery of mankind

Mr. Campbell, in his opening speech, the only one he prepared beforehand, after apologizing for bringing the evidences of the Christian religion into debate, as though they were yet matters to be contested, which he could not admit, referred to the unkind and denunciatory style in which skeptics were generally treated by the advocates of Christianity, and to the rapid increase of infidelity in the land, owing, as he thought, to the lives of Christian professors, the sectarian spirit, of the age and the absurd tenets and opinions taught as Christianity. He then stated that he had agreed to the discussion, not with the hope of convincing Mr. Owen, but for the sake of the doubting, wavering and unsettled public who were in danger of being carried off as with a flood by the infidel theories so diligently inculcated, and that he was prepared to show that there was all the reason which rational beings could demand for the sincere belief and cordial reception of the Christian religion. Passing thence to the early struggles of Christianity, he dwelt eloquently on its glorious triumphs over the nations by means of its evidences and its divine principles of self­denial, humility, patience and courage, and upon the love, purity and peace, the joys and hopes, which it imparted, and contrasted these with the rewards of disbelief, sensual indulgence and everlasting death. Glancing at some of the materialistic schemes and their degrading principles, he presented some general ideas of the plan he would pursue were at liberty to choose a method coextensive with the whole range of skepticism, and closed with an impressive admonition to the audience in regard the ineffable importance of the great questions pending:

This address made a very marked impression upon the audience, many of whom , from their exaggerated notion of Mr. Owen's abilities, had greatly feared for the fortunes of Christianity. The powerful grasp of the subject already indicated in Mr. Campbell's remarks, his manifest consciousness of power, and his eloquent and truthful words, thrilled every Christian heart; all fears were banished, and the unbidden tear was seen to trickle from many eyes.

Mr. Owen in his next address commenced the reading of a manuscript of nearly two hundred pages foolscap folio, which he had prepared, and to which he continued to adhere throughout the discussion. In this he had laid down twelve positions, which he termed "facts," upon which he relied as the entire groundwork of that "Social System" by which he expected to renovate the world. Upon these "facts," chiefly mere commonplace truisms, affirming the power of "organization" and "circumstances" to mould and modify human character, and which left entirely out of view man's spiritual nature, and contemplated him as a mere "effect of causes irresistible in their influence," and as consequently undeserving of praise or censure, he descanted during the entire time of the discussion. In vain did Mr. Campbell complain that his twelve "facts" had no logical application to the propositions which Mr. Owen was pledged to sustain. In vain did the moderators suggest and insist that he Should confine himself to one of the five propositions, contained in his challenge until that particular subject was exhausted. Nothing could divert him from his "twelve laws of human nature," and the exposition of the happy results which would necessarily follow their universal adoption. These "laws" he evidently conceived to be a complete demonstration of all the Propositions in his challenge. He endeavored to show that man according to these "laws" is "a being entirely different from what he has been supposed to be by any religion ever invented, and that none of these religions apply in any degree to a being formed as man is." Taking it for granted that these "laws" were an exact summary of everything existing in human nature, a complete an exhaustive compend of all the principles of human action, he concluded that all religions were "founded in error, because their dogmas were in direct opposition to these self­evident truths and the deductions made from them."

Mr. Campbell, in his endeavor to bring Mr. Owen to close quarters, expressed his willingness to admit the alleged "facts," with the exception of the assertion that "the will has no power over belief," and then went on to show that these "facts" had reference to the mere animal man, that his intellectual and moral endowments were not considered in them at all, and that, as they presented no proper analysis of the powers or capabilities of the human mind, they were incomplete, and formed a very false and unsafe basis for any system. He showed that the "twelve facts" were just as applicable to a goat as to a man, and that a theory based on only a part of man was defective and at variance with reason and human experience. Taking the position of Locke, Hume and Mirabeau, that all our original ideas are the results of sensation and reflection, he inquired how man could have any idea the archetype of which did not exist in nature? Yet man possessed the idea of a God producing something out of nothing, be had the conception of an immaterial spirit, a Great First Cause and many other supernatural ideas, such as that of a future state, and those connected with the words priest, altar, sacrifice, etc. He therefore called upon Mr. Owen to show how upon his principles man could have obtained these ideas, and presented to him the problem formerly addressed to the editors of the "New Harmony Gazette," requesting to know "how the idea of an eternal First Cause, uncaused, came into the world." Mr. Owen replied, "By imagination." Campbell then affirmed that, upon all established principles of mental philosophy, imagination could originate nothing, but could merely combine or arrange in new forms the images already derived from the various sources of human knowledge, and called upon Mr. Owen to furnish a proof of the incorrectness of this position by imagining a sixth sense. "That all religions were founded in ignorance," as Mr. Owen asserted, was not, he urged, if admitted as true and regarded in a proper light, a disparagement of religion, since schools and colleges were based on the ignorance of society, as was also human testimony to unknown facts or books to instruct the uninformed. As to the power of the will over belief, he showed the fallacy of Mr. Owen's assertion that it had none, for, admitting that belief was often unavoidable from the nature of the testimony presented, yet the will had much, and often everything, to do with the obtaining and proper consideration of the evidence necessary to conviction.

To Mr. Campbell's refutations, Mr. Owen, however, had nothing to oppose but his "twelve laws of human nature, "the gems," as he termed them, of his "casket," whose brilliancy he thought would easily excel and outshine that of all the lights of reason, logic and revelation. The parties seemed thus to be proceeding in two parallel lines which could never meet; and though Mr. Campbell took occasion to present views of human nature subversive of his opponent's system, and to point out the many inconsistencies in which it involved its author­­as, for instance, in regard to his own attempt to control those "circumstances" which he alleged were supreme in human affairs­the imperturbable philosopher continued to read and to expound his laws, "and to detail the admirable commercial, educational, governmental and economical arrangements which he had projected for his ideal communities. It soon became evident, indeed, that Mr. Owen could not reason, that he had no just perception of the relations between proposition and proof, and that it was vain to expect from him any logical discussion of the points at issue. As soon, therefore, as he had on Friday, 17th, completed the reading of his manuscript, and conceded to Mr. Campbell the privilege of speaking uninterruptedly, the latter went on to complete the course of argument he had already begun in defence of Christianity; and in a speech which, in all, occupied twelve hours, gave a view of its nature and evidences, which, for cogency of argument, comprehensive reach of thought and eloquence, has never been surpassed, if ever equaled. In this masterly effort he surprised Mr. Owen and the skeptics present by disengaging Christianity from the sectarian dogmas and doctrinal controversies and absurdities which had created so much infidelity, and to which Mr. Owen himself had attributed the origin of his own disbelief. Having already explored and exposed the false principles on which the various systems of infidelity were founded, and shown the impossibility of maintaining upon them any form of civilized society he exhibited, in contrast, the grandeur, the power and the adaptability of the gospel to man as he is in all the relations of life and conditions of human society. He showed that Christianity was based upon the noblest and most philosophic views of human nature ­not seeking to make men happy or reformed by legal enactments or vain theories, but by implanting in the heart, through the discovery of the divine philanthropy, that principle of love which fulfills every Moral Precept. Presenting the gospel as a series of connected facts, resting upon indubitable testimony of witnesses and of prophecy, he dwelt upon its simplicity, and took occasion to expose the folly of human authoritative creeds and the evils which had attended them, and to exhibit the distinctive views of the gospel which he taught, and its simple and expressive institutions, which gave to the penitent believer the assurance of pardon and admitted him to a holy and divine fellowship. He avowed his belief in the approach of a happy era for humanity, when more than all the peace, fraternity and prosperity anticipated in Mr. Owen's vision would be realized­not, however, by means of idle human schemes, but by the divine philosophy of making the tree good that its fruit might be good, and by the healing of all divisions through the universal spread of the primitive Christian faith. He exposed the inconsequence of Mr. Owen, who imagined that by asserting man's subjection to circumstances he had proved religion false, and reminded him that Calvinists supposed all things unchangeably decreed and fixed, yet found this no barrier to the belief of the Christian religion. Making his appeal to consciousness, however, he showed that man had the power to will, to examine into, the matters that interested him, to decide in reference to them and to act upon his decisions; and illustrated this by Mr. Owen's proceedings in regard to the Mexican territory and other cases. Recurring to the partial view of human nature presented in his "twelve laws," he proved from the experience of mankind that the complete gratification of temporal wants fails to confer happiness; that man has higher aspirations, which must be met, and which cannot be satisfied with sublunary pleasures. He dwelt upon the hope of immortality as that alone which could sustain man amidst the cares and disappointments of life, where pleasure was found to consist in the pursuit rather than in the attainment of the objects of desire, and justly urged that to place man in the position imagined by Mr. Owen, where he would have nothing to wish for or pursue, would be to cut him off from the most fruitful sources of happiness. He exposed also the futility of the idea that a society could permanently exist without the sense of obligation or responsibility, which on Mr. Owen's scheme must be totally banished, as the doctrine of "no praise, no blame," was to be taught in it from the cradle to the grave, and everything was made to rest upon the mere charm of social feeling. Such a society was perfectly utopian and unintelligible, since to form any community there must be stipulations, accountability, allegiance, protection; and hence an education which taught all from infancy that actions were equally right because equally the result of circumstances, and that men had no obligations to each other, was directly calculated to make men not only unfit for society, but dangerous to its peace and welfare.

He finally went on to show that in all its benevolent features Mr. Owen's plan was a mere plagiarism from Christian enterprise. Mr. Dale had given him his first ideas of the co­operative system, with its various arrangements for the improvement of the working classes, and Moses and Solomon had dwelt upon the advantages of bringing up children "in the way they should go." It was, however, to the French Revolution he was Indebted for his infidelity, and to the theories of Dr. Graham and others for his system of free love. In the whole matter there was really nothing new. It was but a reproduction with a change of form, of the views of others, and he denied that the scheme had ever been operation at New Lanark, where the people in the aggregate were religious, and where there were Presbyterian and Independent churches well attended, Mr. Owen himself having contributed to build the latter.

As to New Harmony, Mr. Owen, he thought, would hardly derive from the issue of his experiment there any argument for his scheme. After all his reading, studying, traveling and vast expenditures nothing as yet had been produced but the "twelve fundamental laws of human nature." New Harmony, the land of promise to which multitudes flocked with eagerness, had witnessed the dissolving of the charm, and the social builders were disbanding under the influence of the awful realities of nature, reason and religion. This result he thought chiefly due to the abolition of the marriage contract and the appointment of nurses to take charge of the infants of the community. In this connection he referred touchingly to the joys of the mother in having the care of her own offspring. "The smiles of her infant," said he, "the opening dawn of reason, the indications of future greatness or goodness, as they exhibit themselves to her sanguine expectations, open to her sources of enjoyment incomparably overpaying the solicitudes and gentle toils of nursing." He showed that the system, instead of being accordant with human nature, was at war with it, and "aimed a mortal blow at our ideas of social order and social happiness."

Having thus dissected Mr. Owen's philosophy and exhibited the truth and excellence of Christianity, he concluded his long address with the following tribute to religion:

Upon the Lord's day which intervened during the delivery of this address he preached by request to a very crowded audience in the house in which the debate was held, and on Monday evening, when he concluded his long speech, Mr. Owen rejoined, and while complimenting Mr. Campbell very highly for learning, industry and extraordinary talents, as well as for a manliness honesty and fairness which he said he had heretofore sought in vain, he made no attempt to invalidate his arguments but occupied himself in vague declamation against religion, renewed laudations of the twelve "jewels " of his "casket," and glowing pictures of the happy "circumstances" to be produced by their means. This speech he concluded on Tuesday in the forenoon. In the afternoon Mr. Campbell replied in a severe exposure of the inanity of Mr. Owen's effort to overthrow religion and establish his "Social System," by mere assertion without proof and by ridicule instead argument. He admitted that sectarian divisions and discords furnished weapons to skepticism, but denied that Christianity, even in its most corrupt form, justly merited the imputations of Mr. Owen.

To this speech Mr. Owen responded by bringing up again his "twelve laws" to the consideration of the audience and descanting upon them for an hour, after which Mr. Campbell in a very happy manner exposed "the twelve laws" to contempt, and showed their utter inadequacy as laws of human nature. Mr. Owen then continued in a final speech his disquisitions upon his favorite "gems," and after courteously thanking and complimenting the audience and moderators for their patience and attention, closed by taking his leave "with the best feelings toward all." Mr. Campbell, having now to terminate the discussion, gave a recapitulation of what had been accomplished, and after comparing the triumphs of skepticism with those of Christianity, before dismissing adopted an unexpected and ingenious method of eliciting the sentiments of the assembly.

"I should be wanting to you, my friends," said he, "and to the cause which I plead, if I should dismiss you without making to you a very important proposition. You know that this discussion is matter for the press. You know that every encomium which has been pronounced upon your exemplary behavior will go with the report of this discussion. You will remember, too, that many indignities have been offered to your faith, to your religion, and that these reproaches and indignities have been only heard with pity, and not marked with the least resentment on your part. Now I must tell you that a problem will arise in the minds of those living five hundred or a thousand miles distant who may read this discussion, whether it was owing to a perfect apathy or indifference on your part as to any interest you felt in the Christian religion, that you bore all these insults without seeming to hear them. In fine, the question be, whether it was owing to the stoical indifference of fatalism,to the Prevalence of infidelity, or to the meekness and forbearance which Christianity teaches, that you bore all these indignities without a single expression of disgust. Now, I desire no more than that this good and Christian­like deportment may be credited to the proper count. If it be owing to your concurrence in sentiment with Mr. Owen, let skepticism have the honor of it. But if owing to your belief in or regard for the Christian religion let the Christian religion have the honor of it. These things premised, my proposition is, that all the persons in this assembly who believe in the Christian religion, or who feel so much interest in it as to wish to see it pervade the world, will please to signify it by rising up." [Here there was an almost universal rising up on the part of the audience.] "Now," continued Mr. Campbell, when all ­were again seated, "I would further propose that all Persons doubtful of the truth of the Christian religion or who do not believe it, and who are not friendly to its spread and prevalence over the world, will please signify it by rising up." [Upon this, three persons only rose amidst the large assembly.]

This appeal to the audience was, under the circumstances, one of those master­strokes which serve to reveal the penetration and sagacity of Mr. Campbell. He had perceived that Mr. Owen was of a temperament so sanguine as to regard every one who treated him with respect and interest as his disciple, and to be constantly under the wildest illusions of hope as to the prevalence of his views. He determined, therefore, for Mr. Owen's sake as well as that of the cause he pleaded, that he would deprive him of any false estimate he might have formed of the impression made upon the intelligent audience by his labored exposition of the "Social System" during the eight days' debate, and prevent him or his friends from building false judgments and false hopes upon ignorance of results. The prompt and public expression of sentiment given by the audience was a mortifying disappointment to Mr. Owen, in spite of all his efforts to conceal it, while to the friends of religion it was a most acceptable testimony to the power of truth as well as to the ability of its defender.

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