“Raccoon” John Smith: Alexander Campbell Was a Fool

"Raccoon" John Smith and Alexander Campbell

“Raccoon” John Smith (1784-1868) was one of many preachers in the 19th century who saw the division in the religious world and the departures from the New Testament that had occurred. As a result, he became associated with an effort to restore the doctrines and practices of the New Testament.

Smith was also known for his quick wit and colorful statements. One example of this was in a conversation with a certain Baptist preacher who wanted to discredit another well-known preacher associated with the Restoration Movement – Alexander Campbell – by exposing an inconsistency in his teaching. He planned to point this out to Smith and boasted to his brethren that Smith would never be able to answer it.

“‘How does it come to pass,’ observed Elder F—, addressing Bro. Smith, ‘that Alexander Campbell in his debate with McCalla took the ground that Paul was really pardoned when he believed, but formally pardoned when he was baptized, and in his debate with Mr. Rice affirms, in substance, that no man is really pardoned until baptized? Here is a glaring contradiction—an irreconcilable inconsistency. What will you do with it, my brother?’

“Bro. Smith looked the Elder full in the face, and instantly replied: ‘When Alexander Campbell said that Paul was really pardoned when he believed and formally pardoned when baptized, he was then debating with Wm. L. McCalla in the year of our Lord 1823, was a member of the Baptist Church, and just about as big a fool as you are. Now, sir, any further contradictions? If so, I am ready to reconcile them.’

“The Baptist brethren roared with laughter, and Elder F— proposed no further puzzling questions on that occasion.” (Recollections of Men of Faith)

Upon reading this, it is easy to see how times have changed. If “Raccoon” John Smith used this type of language today – charging someone with being a “fool” – he would be condemned and chastised by his own brethren. Yet when he made this reply, his opponent’s brethren “roared with laughter.” Smith could make comments like that then and people would still listen to him. We need to be more careful in this regard today so as to not cause others to close their ears to our message before they even hear it.

That being said, there are some important lessons in this that we can take and directly apply today:

  1. Our standard is what God has said, not what man says – The word of God is truth (Psalm 119:160; John 17:17). Therefore, we are to “hold fast the pattern of sound words” contained in it (2 Timothy 1:13). Paul explained to the Galatians that if anyone – even an apostle or an angel – preached a different gospel from what we find in the word of God, he stands to be accursed. We must not follow any man when his teaching does not agree with the revealed word of God.
  2. Even well-respected and influential preachers can be wrong – Campbell was probably the most influential preacher in the Restoration Movement, yet he was human. Therefore, the potential was there for him to be wrong on any point. Of course, Campbell’s error that was presented to Smith was taught when he was associated with the Baptists; but even still, we should never assume of any preacher (or anyone else) that he could not possibly be wrong. When Paul preached in Berea, his audience was commended as being “noble-minded…for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). No matter how highly one might think of Campbell, he could not measure up to the apostle Paul. Yet it was noble to make sure what Paul taught was true before accepting it. We must make the same examinations today because it is always possible for the one who teaches us to be wrong.
  3. If our beliefs do not harmonize with the word of God, we must be willing to change our convictions – Even though Campbell argued a position that was foolish (as Smith described it), he was willing to change his convictions when he better understood the truth. If we understand that even well-respected and influential preachers can be wrong (previous point), we also need to recognize that we ourselves can be wrong. Paul stated the principle this way: “Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar” (Romans 3:4). God is always right. Therefore, if what we believe, teach, or practice does not line up with what His word says, then we are wrong and must be willing to change.

We need to put our trust in God and His word, not in the words of any man or in our personal convictions. Let us be willing to follow God’s word – even if we have to change our beliefs and practices to do so – so that we can be pleasing to the Lord.

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