1902 Encyclopedia > George Campbell

George Campbell
Scottish theologian and Bible critic
(1719-96)




GEORGE CAMPBELL, (1719-1796), a theologian and Biblical critic, was born at Aberdeen on the 25th December 1719. His father, the Kev. Colin Campbell, one of the ministers of Aberdeen, was the son of George Campbell of Westhall, who claimed to belong to the Argyll branch of the family. Mr Colin Campbell died in 1728, leaving a widow and six children in somewhat straitened circum-stances. George, the youngest son, was destined for the legal profession, and after attending the grammar school of Aberdeen and the arts classes at Marischal College, he was sent to Edinburgh to serve as an apprentice to a writer to the Signet. But he does not seem to have had any liking for law—at any rate he found in theology a study much more to his taste. While at Edinburgh he fell into the habit of attending the theological lectures, and this was followed, when the term of his apprenticeship expired, by his enrolment as a regular student in the Aberdeen divinity hall. After a distinguished career he was, in 1746, licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Aberdeen ; but his first attempt to obtain a charge—that of Fordoun in Kincardine-shire—was unsuccessful. In 1748, however, he was ordained minister of Banchory Ternan, a parish on the Dee, some twenty miles from Aberdeen. Here he spent the next nine years, labouring with much success as a country minister, and planning two at least of the works by which he was afterwards to make himself known. In 1757 he left Banchory Ternan to become one of the ministers of Aberdeen. That city was at the time the centre of no inconsiderable intellectual activity. Reid was professor of philosophy at King's College; John Gregory, Reid's predecessor, held the chair of medicine ; Alexander Gerard was professor of divinity at Marischal College; and in 1760 Beattie became professor of moral philosophy in the same college. These men, with others of less note, formed themselves in 1758 into a society for the discus-sion of questions in philosophy. Reid was its first secretary, and Campbell one of its founders, It lasted till about 1773, and during this period not a few papers were read, particularly those by Reid and Campbell, which were afterwards extended in the form of published treatises.

Meanwhile Campbell was, in 1759, made principal of Marischal College, an appointment due rather to the high estimation in which he was held by those who knew him, and perhaps also to his family influence with the duke of Argyll, than to any published evidence he had given of his fitness for the post. But this evidence, if it was required, was soon forthcoming. In 1763 he published his celebrated Dissertation on, Miratles, a work that originated in a sermon preached two years previously before the Synod of Aberdeen. In it he seeks to show, in opposition to Hume, that miracles are capable of proof by testimony and that the miracles of Christianity are sufficiently attested. Hume derived our belief in testimony equally with our belief in the laws of nature from experience ; he held that where the laws of nature, being a uniform experience, contradict testimony, the latter must give way ; and he further held that in the case of miracles the laws of nature do actually contradict the testimony in favour of miracles, i.e., miracles are incapable of proof. In reply Campbell asserts—(1) that testimony is not derived from experience, but "has a natural and original influence on belief antecedent to experience." As, however, he admits that experience is, if not the source, at least the measure, of testimony, he virtually grants all that Hume desires, and leaves the ques-tion where it was. But (2) he urges, and with more success, that testimony can prove a miracle. There is no contradiction, he argues, as Hume said there was, between what we know by testimony and the evidence upon which a law of nature is based ; they are of a different descrip-tion indeed, but we can without inconsistency believe that both are true. He also dwells at considerable length upon the ambiguity of the word " experience " as it is used by Hume, and devotes the rest of the work to a discussion of the actual evidence for the miracles of Christianity. The Dissertation is not a complete treatise upon miracles, and does not approach the subject from points of view it would be regarded from now, but with all deductions it was and still is a valuable contribution to theological literature.





In 1771 Campbell was elected professor of theology at Marischal College, and in consequence he resigned his city charge, although he still preached as minister of Grey-friars, a duty then attached to the chair. His next work was not a theological one. During his early ministerial life at Banchory Ternan he planned and began the com-position of a work on rhetoric. The results of his labours were partly communicated to the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, for most of the papers he read there were on " Eloquence " and cognate subjects ; but it was not until 1776 that his Philosophy of Rhetoric, appeared,—a work that at once took a high place among books on the subject, which it can hardly be said even now to have lost. The most interesting portion is perhaps that which treats of evidence ; certainly the least satisfactory is that on the syllogism. In 1778 his last and in some respects his greatest work appeared, A New Translation of the Gospels. The translation is a good one, but it is the critical and explanatory notes which accompany it that give the book its high value. Several of his sermons were published, notably one in 1777 On the Success of the first publishers of the Gospel, considered as a proof of its truth. It was preached before the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, and is one of the happiest specimens of his style and method of argument.

Campbell, who had never enjoyed robust health, was in 1795 compelled by increasing weakness to resign the offices he held in Marischal College, and on his retirement he received a pension of £300 from the king. He did not long enjoy the royal bounty, for he died on the 31st of March 1796 of a stroke of palsy. Principal Campbell had married Miss Grace Farquharson, daughter of Mr Farquharson of Whitehouse. They had no children. In church politics he belonged to the moderate side, but his independence of judgment and strength of conviction were too great to permit him to be confined by the trammels of party. It is as a theologian aud as a scholar, the acutest and most cultivated that the Church of Scotland has pro-duced, that he will be best remembered.

His Lectures on Ecclesiastical History and some smaller writings were published after his death ; and there is a uniform edition of his works in six vols. 8vo. A short account of his life, by the Rev. Mr Keith, is prefixed to his Lectures on Church History.







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