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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Campbell, Alexander James (1815–1909)

by Don Chambers

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Alexander James Campbell (1815-1909), Presbyterian clergyman and theological teacher, was born on 3 April 1815 at 29 Heriot Row, Edinburgh, son of John Campbell, writer to the signet, of Annfield and Carbrook, and his wife Frances, née Brown; his grandfather was a banker. He was proud of his Whig ancestors from the Western Highlands and the grouse-shooting father who belonged to the Royal Company of Archers and was among 'the confidential advisers of the landed gentry and noblemen of Scotland'. Campbell was educated in Edinburgh, proceeding to a law course at the University of Edinburgh. The disruption stir of 1843, and especially the influence of Thomas Chalmers, led Campbell to study for the Free Church ministry, and he was licensed to preach in that year. He was the first Free Church minister at Melrose where he was ordained on 2 November. He succeeded in forming a large congregation, which later built a substantial church with a stained-glass window in his honour. He had married Mary Maitland Heriot of Ramornie, Fife; her poor health soon made it necessary to winter away from Scotland. A Melbourne visitor, James Balfour, turned Campbell's mind towards the Victorian mission field in 1858. To aid his wife's health and to fulfil his own missionary calling, he volunteered his services to the Colonial Committee of the Free Church. He was designated to Brighton, Victoria, and released from his Melrose charge on 28 January 1859. At Melbourne Campbell found the Presbyterian union newly achieved, and his Brighton charge filled, whereupon he became assistant to Rev. Andrew Love at St Andrew's Kirk, Geelong.

Many influential members of this congregation then lived at the west end of Geelong, and Campbell became minister of St George's, a break-away congregation which met in the Mechanics' Hall early in July 1860 and began its new building in December. Campbell, having declined a more attractive charge at Hobart, continued at St George's for twenty-six years. He was a popular minister with his simple evangelical gospel centring on man's helpless sinfulness and God's act of salvation in the cross of Christ. He had particular interest in converting the heathen of the Pacific Isles and Korea and taking the gospel to the bush-dwellers of the inland. He often lectured on Sunday observance and in 1867 he gave evidence to the royal commission on the operation of the Wine and Spirits Act, advocating Sunday closing of hotels. He produced a monthly religious sheet, Friendly Words, and in 1869 initiated the Preacher, a periodical of hymns, prayers and sermons designed for laymen in the outback. In 1874 he edited a Book of Prayers for Social and Public Worship, with contributions by Victorian Presbyterian ministers, though most of his publications were nondenominational. In 1889 he published Fifty Years of Presbyterianism in Victoria. A Jubilee Sketch, which provides many insights into his mind and religion. Several of his sermons were published as well as a paper that he read to the Victorian Horticultural Society in 1873.

Campbell's fervour for foreign mission fields stimulated his interest in theological education to provide much-needed home and foreign missionaries. In 1868-83 he became a lecturer in systematic theology to trainee Presbyterian clergymen. He played a key role in founding the Victorian Presbyterian Theological Hall in 1865, and in the appeal for its endowment was financial organizer for the wealthy Western District. He was also the founding father of Geelong College. His influence on potential philanthropists, including Francis Ormond, aided the formation of a Presbyterian residential university college at Melbourne in the 1870s, and in 1872 he propounded, though unsuccessfully, the first scheme for such a college. He was also convener of the Theological Hall Committee for many years.

Campbell's ecumenical spirit made him one of the founders and the first president of the Council of Churches. He represented his church at the Pan-Presbyterian Council in Edinburgh in 1877 and was moderator of the Victorian Presbyterian General Assembly in 1867 and 1893. In later years he was honorary secretary for the mission in Egypt, raising money for the Nile Press which issued religious publications there. His honorary D.D. was awarded in 1877 by Queen's College, Kingston, Ontario. Campbell was not an original thinker and his simple evangelical faith and unquestioning fundamentalism prevented him from coming to grips with the theological problems raised by scientific discovery and biblical criticism. He was an able organizer and administrator, and a good pastor, but lacked the intellectual depth and higher theological training requisite for his teaching position.

After living in retirement at South Yarra for many years Campbell died on 20 October 1909. His wife had predeceased him in 1882; he was survived by four sons and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Chambers, Theological Teaching and Thought in the Theological Hall of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, 1865-1906 (Melb, 1967)
  • Messenger (Presbyterian, Vic & Tas), 22 Oct, 12 Nov 1909
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 Oct 1909.

Citation details

Don Chambers, 'Campbell, Alexander James (1815–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

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