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Significant Scots
Rev John Campbell


CAMPBELL, REV. JOHN.—This active missionary and enterprising traveller, whose many labours procured for him a high estimation in the Christian world, was born at Edinburgh in 1766. He was the youngest of three sons, and had the misfortune to lose his father when only two years old, and his mother four years afterwards. Being placed under the guardianship of Mr. Bowers, his uncle, a pious elder or deacon of the Relief Church, John was educated at the High School of Edinburgh, then under the rectorship of Dr. Adams; but although his proficiency as a scholar was such as enabled him to escape unnoticed, he never in after life manifested any particular acquaintanceship with Latin and Greek. His restless temperament and enterprising spirit were more inclined to action than study, and might have led him headlong into evil, had they not been kept in check by the wholesome restraints and religious education established in his uncle’s household. On finishing his education at the High School, he was apprenticed to a goldsmith and jeweller in Edinburgh. Although, at this early period, he was deprived of the religious instructions he had hitherto enjoyed, in consequence of the death of his uncle, the loss was in some measure supplied by diligent reading and anxious reflection, combined with the intercourse of pious acquaintances, whose benevolence was awakened by his orphan condition. One of these he thus describes:—"Perhaps you will be surprised to hear that he was a gauger (or excise officer), an employment as much despised in those days, in the north, as that of the publicans or tax-gatherers by the Jews in the days of our Lord. When his piety became generally known in the town where he lived, he had the honour of being distinguished by the appellation of ‘the praying gauger.’ In reference to his being a man of prayer, perhaps you will be startled at a remark I heard made by one of his most intimate and oldest acquaintances—‘that he believed Duncan Clark (for that was his name) had not for the last forty years slept two hours without engaging in prayer.’ The conduct of this remarkable man towards the young inquirer, was in keeping with his character. He was the first person," Campbell adds, "to whom I opened my case, when I was greatly alarmed about the state of my soul before God. I wrote to him a very simple letter, which he first showed to some of his intimates, for their opinion, and then wrote a cautious brief answer, which he did not send off by post, but actually brought himself, and delivered into my hands in Edinburgh. He explained his doing so by telling me that he had been at Dunfermline sacrament, to which place he carried it; and while there, he thought that, being within fifteen miles of Edinburgh, he would just walk to it, and have a little conversation, as well as deliver the letter. He had walked more than twenty miles to the sacrament. He walked thus to save his money for the poor." It was no wonder that, under the conversation of such men, the subject of religion to the mind of Campbell appeared of paramount importance. It was equally to be expected, from his natural disposition, that having attained such views, he should be impatient to realize them by action. He became a visitor of the sick and dying poor, to whom he imparted the consolations of religion, as well as of the ignorant and the dissolute, whom he was anxious to enlighten and convert. In this way he became a city missionary among the murky lanes and closes of Edinburgh, at a time when such an office was most needed, and, as yet, little thought of.

Mr. Campbell had now commenced that evangelistic public life which was to know neither rest nor interval; and while engaged in the shop of a hardware merchant, an occupation to which he had betaken himself, he was to become a correspondent of the principal characters of the religious world, and be connected with those great public enterprises in which they were the chief movers. But to a life of such varied action, notwithstanding its heroic disinterestedness and important results, we can only devote a very brief enumeration.

One of the earliest of these labours was the establishment of Sabbath-schools. At a time when domestic religious instruction was prevalent in Scotland, their introduction, instead of being a benefit, would have been a mischievous intrusion. But now that this patriarchal style of life was fast passing into a new state, and that the present was a transition period, which is generally a period fraught with danger, the old system of religious tuition was wofully in abeyance, while nothing as yet had been brought forward to supplement the deficiency. Sabbath-schools, indeed, had even already been introduced into the country; but they were not only insignificant in point of number, but regarded as a dangerous novelty—nay, even regarded as a libel upon our covenanting and well-educated Scotland, whose religious character now stood so high among the nations of Christendom. And yet, all the while, there were thousands, nay, myriads of children for whom no one cared, and who were growing up in ignorance and profligacy, while every year was increasing the evil. Scotland, as too often the case, was contentedly reposing upon her past character and achievements, and therefore blind to the present emergency. To this educational plan, therefore, so ungracious, and yet so needful, John Campbell directed his efforts. He opened a large Sabbath-school in the old Archers’ Hall; and finding it succeed, he opened another in the hall of the Edinburgh Dispensary. Encouraged by the benefits that attended this bold experiment upon the capital, and by the Countess of Leven, and several of our Scottish aristocracy, whose religious patriotism was awake to the true interests of their country, he now turned his attention to the rural districts, and opened a school at the village of Loanhead, a few miles distant from Edinburgh. Here he took his station exclusively as teacher, and so effectually, that he soon had 200 pupils. His zealous missionary labours in these and similar undertakings, introduced him to the Haldanes, men of congenial spirit, who were eager to second his efforts; and accordingly, in company with Captain James Haldane, the younger brother, he set off on a tour through the west of Scotland, partly for the distribution of tracts, but mainly for the establishment of Sabbath-schools. With this view they visited Glasgow, Paisley, and Greenock; and although the trip occupied only a single week, the formation of sixty schools was the result within three months afterwards. A system of religious education was thus prosperously commenced that was soon to overspread the country, and which, we trust, will continue, until society, still better christianized than it is at present, will revert to the good old plan of having the Sunday-school at home, with the head of the house as its zealous affectionate teacher.

From Sabbath-school teaching to preachIng was but a step, upon which Mr. Campbell next ventured; it was a change from growing to grown children, where the latter were to the full as unintelligent as the former, but with still greater need of the coercions of religion, while the kind of instruction which had been found so available with the one might be equally so with the other. He commenced in the first instance with Gilmerton, a village in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh, chiefly inhabited by colliers, the despised Pariahs of British society; and having opened a preaching station for Sabbath evening service, he was aided in his labours by students of divinity and lay-preachers; and especially by Rate, Aikman, and the Haldanes, the fathers of Scottish Independency. Encouraged by the success of this trial upon Gilmerton, Messrs. Campbell, Rate, and James Haldane resolved to attempt an itinerancy of lay-preaching over the whole of Scotland north of Edinburgh. It was a novel experiment, for, except the brief visits of Whitefield to Scotland, the practice of preaching in the open air had been discontinued there since the happy accession of William and Mary to the throne. In every town and village to which they came, they announced their purpose and the place of muster, and there the crowds who assembled were roused anew with proclamations of those evangelical doctrines to which very few pulpits of the day were wont to give utterance. This, indeed, was a sufficiently humble mode of preaching; but it was apostolic withal, and suited to the wants of the times; and one of the best fruits of this lay and out-of-door preaching was, that in the present day it is needed no longer. After he had toiled in the work until he broke down from sheer exhaustion, and resumed it as soon as his health had recovered, Campbell saw with satisfaction this field successfully occupied by the Haldanes, and those whom they had trained to an itinerant ministry.

Hitherto it had been the reproach of Protestantism, that it was not a missionary church. The Reformed communities, instead of preaching the gospel to all nations, had selfishly confined it to themselves; and while Papists were alert in traversing every land, and braving every danger to make converts, they were wont to allege, and with a show of justice, that the opposite church could not be a genuine Christian one, as it had so shamefully neglected this most important commission with which it had been intrusted by our blessed Lord at his departure. Now, however, the reproach was to be rolled away; and one of the first fruits of this awakened sense of duty was the formation of the London Missionary Society, composed of Christians of all denominations, for a great united aggression upon the heathenism of the world. It was the raising of a banner, and sounding of a trumpet-blast, under which every Christian community in Britain was electrified. Similar institutions in connection with the parent branch began rapidly to be established in various cities; and among these, one of the first was in Edinburgh, of which Mr. Campbell was a director. In this way, while, to use the language of one of his biographers, "soldiers and sailors wrote to him for advice; the needy and greedy for money; the reclaimed outcasts for prayer and counsel; dark villages for itinerants; and chapel-builders for help;" and all this while undergoing the weekly cares and toils of a tradesman in the Bow, and those of a village lay-preacher at Gilmerton on the Sabbath, he had the complicated concerns of a new missionary society super-added to his manifold occupations. Zeal, activity, sagacity, business-habits, prudence, persuasiveness, were all in requisition for the discharge of so many duties: and all these qualities he brought so fully to the task, as to show that he was now in his congenial element. The condition of Africa employed his attention with reference to the establishment of a mission at Sierra Leone; but the unhealthiness of the climate along the coast, and the "terrible unknown" of the interior, equally seemed to bid defiance to the enterprise. In this trying dilemma, an expedient suggested itself to his mind as sufficient to obviate every difficulty; it was, to obtain from the British settlement there a number of native children of both sexes, and after educating them in Britain, to send them back as missionaries to their kindred and countrymen. The next step was to procure funds for such a costly but hopeful undertaking, and these were volunteered to be supplied by Mr. Robert Haldane, who saw at once the soundness of the scheme. Twenty-four children were accordingly brought from Africa to London, and nothing remained but to forward them to Edinburgh, to be trained under the superintendence of those who had originated the plan. But here difficulties arose at the outset with which Mr. Campbell had nothing to do, and the children were educated in London. Still he had taught the way by which Africa was to be opened up, and its hitherto inaccessible regions evangelized; and every succeeding year has justified the sagacity with which the expedient was devised, by the happy results that have already crowned it. It is upon native missions, perhaps, that we must ultimately rely for the Christianization both of India and Africa.

At an early period of life, Mr. Campbell’s wishes had been directed to the ministry, but as circumstances had been such as to prevent their realization, he had hitherto acted in his private capacity, and as a lay-preacher. Having been so successful in the latter vocation, he now thought it his duty to devote himself wholly to the ministerial work. He could now also accomplish this with greater facility, as the Theological Hall which the Independents had lately established, required a shorter course of study than that prescribed by the regular colleges. This step also corresponded more fully with his views of church government, which accorded with Independency. He therefore repaired to Glasgow, and prosecuted his studies for the purpose under the Rev. Greville Ewing, who was at the head of the seminary. Here, also, he occasionally joined Mr. Haldane in his itinerary preaching tours; and on one occasion, in 1802, he carried his labours through a considerable part of England, and officiated during part of the summer, at Kingsland Chapel, London. For two years after, Mr. Campbell itinerated through various parts of Scotland, and the northern counties of England, when, in 1804, he received a regular call from the congregation of Kingsland Chapel, by whom his former labours had been greatly esteemed, to become their minister. He complied, and entered immediately with full ardour upon the sacred duties of his new office. Although now minister of a London chapel, the situation was by no means one either of distinction or emolument. On the contrary, the congregation were so poor, and his salary therefore so scanty, that he was obliged to open a day school in Kingsland, in addition to his clerical duties. He was also editor of the "Youth’s Magazine," a small religious periodical, which he commenced and superintended through the first ten volumes.

The remarkable activity of Mr. Campbell, and the energy with which he entered into the operations of the various religious societies with which he was engaged, besides discharging the offices of minister, schoolmaster, editor, and itinerant preacher, soon brought him into notice in London, and suggested to the London Missionary Society the idea of employing him in an enterprise of the utmost importance. This was, a tour of exploration through Caffraria, for the purpose of examining the state of the Hottentot and Caffre missions, now left helpless by the death of the lamented Dr. Vanderkemp. It was a commission fraught not only with difficulty but peril, but Campbell cheerfully undertook it. He was solemnly set apart for this purpose in Miles’ Lane Chapel, the venerable Dr. Waugh presiding on that occasion. And who that has but once seen and heard that Scot of Scots, can either forget his noble, stately, stalwart form and bearing, or his Doric but thrilling and persuasive eloquence? At the close of his address he thus bade farewell to Mr. Campbell:—"Could I place the prophet Isaiah at the base of one of the lofty mountains in Africa, which you, my brother, are about to visit; and if, whilst gazing on its varied scenery, an eathquake were to rock it upon its deep foundations, until, like the Numidian lion shaking the dew-drops of the land of Ham from his mane in the morning, it threw off from its hoary and heaving sides the forests, and flocks, and hamlets of huts, and cliffs crowned with lichens and lign-aloes; and were a whirlwind to rush in at that moment, scattering the broken and falling masses in mid-air, as if playing with the sand-clouds and columns of the desert; still the voice of the prophet, could it be heard amidst the convulsive war of elements, would exclaim, ‘Though the everlasting mountains bow, and the perpetual hills be scattered, yet will I rejoice in the Lord, and joy in the God of my salvation!’ Go, my brother, and do thou the same, whatever dangers you may meet in Africa. As God was with Vanderkemp, so will he be with thee, Campbell."

Charged with this important commission, the minister of Kingsland Chapel left London on the 24th of June, 1812. Already he had confronted the fierce waves that girdle the Orkneys, and traversed its little islands to proclaim the gospel; but now he was to "brave the stormy spirit of the Cape," and explore its vast interior, upon a similar errand. His progress in South Africa fully justified the choice that had been made of him, for while no minister or missionary could have been more zealous, active, and efficient in the special duties of his calling among the Christian stations which he visited, he added to these the qualifications of an intrepid, diligent, and enterprising traveller, alive to the interests of general knowledge and science, and sharply observant of every object in his way. Three thousand miles were traversed by him in a country as yet but little known to the British public, and after an absence of nearly two years, he returned to England in May, 1814. He was not yet done, however, with South Africa, for in little more than four years, his services as a traveller, which already had been so useful, were again in requisition. A second journey over the same country was the consequence, which occupied two years and a-half, and he returned to London in 1821, just in time for the missionary May meetings, which he gratified by the rich fund of intelligence which he brought from the land of his adventurous pilgrimage. Altogether, his published account of these two journeys not only threw much light upon the interior of South Africa, but brought into full view whole towns and tribes whose existence had as yet been unknown in Europe. It was indeed a valuable addition to that portion of the map which had hitherto been little more than a blank, or a few conjectural lines. In consequence of these services, the London Missionary Society were anxious that he should resume his pilgrim’s staff, and make a similar exploration of the stations they had established in the Polynesian Islands. But this application he respectfully declined. After his second return from Africa, in consequence of the death of his aunt, and marriage of his niece, who had hitherto been his housekeepers, he took to himself a partner of his home, and resumed his ministerial duties at Kingsland Chapel.

The rest of the life of Mr. Campbell, which was chiefly spent in London, was marked by the same earnest diligence and usefulness which had hitherto characterized it. Decidedly a man of action, his hours, his very minutes, were all turned to good account, while his cheerful lively humour continued to animate him to the last. His piety, his vigorous sound sense, his fluency as a speaker, and his jokes, always made him a favourite upon a London religious platform; and as soon as his little compact figure, dark complexion, and cheerful look, were presented to address them, the whole meeting brightened up with expectation, and hailed him with applauding welcome. Thus he continued unbent and unbroken until he had passed the boundary of threescore and ten, when he was attacked at the commencement of 1840 by his last illness. His end was one full of peace and hope, and the only disquietude he seemed to experience was from the thought, that in spite of all he had done, he had not done enough—he had not done what he could. A few hours before he died, the missionary spirit that had so essentially predominated during life was strongest within him, and in broken accents of prayer he exclaimed unconsciously, "Let it fly! let the gospel fly!" His death occurred on the 4th of April, 1840.


An article about him from Tait's Edinburgh Magazine c1840 (pdf)


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