Rev. John Poage Campbell, M. D.
John Poage Campbell was born in Augusta County, Virginia, in 1767. He was the son of Robert Campbell and Rebecca Wallace, who resided near the old Stone Church. When he was thirteen years of age his father removed to Fayette County and thence to Mason county, Kentucky. Having the advantages of the best schools he entered Hampden Sidney College and graduated about 1788. He then studied medicine with his kinsman Dr. David Campbell, a native of Virginia and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. Having determined to give himself to the ministry he entered the Theological department of Liberty Hall, then in charge of Mr. Graham, and completed his course in 1792. Dr. Archibald Alexander was his classmate.
In 1792 Mr. Campbell was licensed by Lexington Presbytery and became the co-pastor with Mr. Graham of New Monmouth, Oxford and Timber Ridge churches in Rockbridge. He was elected a Trustee of Liberty Hall on the 27th of April, 1793, and resigned on the 1st of September, 1795, upon his removal to Kentucky. During his membership in the Board he was a most faithful, efficient and zealous Trustee, attending during this period fourteen meetings of the Board.
Upon his removal to Kentucky in 1795 he took charge of the churches of Smyrna and Flemingsburg, in Fleming County. He afterwards exorcised his ministry in various places, among which were Danville, Nicholasville, Cherry Springs, Versailles, Lexington and Chilicothe, and in the year 1811 he officiated as chaplain of the Legislature.
Dr. Campbell was married three times. His first wife was a Miss Crawford of Virginia: his second a Miss Poage of Kentucky : his third a daughter of Col. James McDowell of Lexington and a grand-daughter of Judge Samuel McDowell, a sketch of whom has been given in these papers.1 In the summer of 1814 he was actively engaged in medical practice, and in botanical and antiquarian research, and was still preaching with his accustomed impressiveness and vigor, when he contracted a cold from exposure, which in a few months terminated his brilliant and useful career. “On the 14th of November, 1814,” says Dr. Collins, “when just forty-six years old, this great man—great as linguist, naturalist, antiquarian, and divine—was laid to rest.”
Dr. Campbell was a ready and prolific writer and many of his productions were published. The most striking of these were “Letters to a Gentleman of the Bar.” “In them,” says Dr. Pickett in his sketch,” he undertook to review the work of Dr. Erasmus Darwin, and anticipated Sir Benjamin Brodie and Professor Tyndall of our own day in the detection of the germinal ideas from which the Darwinian theory of Evolution is derived.” “It had been thought,” says Dr. Campbell, ” that a vast accession of light had flashed upon the world when the author (Dr. Erasmus Darwin) published his celebrated work. It was hailed as a new era in philosophy. . . . But the philosophy was not new; the design of the poetic exhibition was not new: nor did the manner of the author possess a shadow of a claim to novelty. The doctrines had long before been taught by Protagoras, Strabo, Democritus and Leucippus. Epicurus had improved on the Democritic philosophy, and his admirer and disciple, Lucretius, had touched its various themes in a fine style of poetic representation. All that Dr. Darwin did was to moderate the doctrines of the atomic philosophy and embellish them with the late discoveries made in botany, chemistry and physics.”
Dr. Campbell was a man of extraordinary talents. He was able, learned and cultured. He defended his church in the troublous times of Kentucky from the assaults of enemies from without and schismatics from within.
Davidson, in his History of Presbyterianism in Kentucky, says he “possessed an acute and discriminating mind. He was an accurate and well-read theologian; and excelled as a polemic, although in the judgment of his friends he allowed himself to indulge in too much asperity. Quick to detect the weak points of an enemy, and to unravel the fallacies of a sophist, his controversial writings exercised a powerful influence in their day. . . . Dr. Campbell was a man of fine taste and devoted to criticism and Belles Lcttres. His style was elaborate and elegant; and he courted the muses not without success. He wrote verses and played on the flute, and one of his published discourses was on Sacred Music. A graceful and energetic elocution, and a delivery not fluent but animated, combined with solid matter and a sprightly style, gave him great reputation in early life as a preacher. . . . The opinion of the literary world was very flattering. Dr. Archibald Alexander, who was intimate with him during his theological studies, pronounced his talents fit for any station. Dr. Dwight, with whom he became acquainted on a journey to Connecticut in 1812, spoke in the highest terms of his intelligence and scholarship. Dr. Cleland has described him as one of the most talented, popular and influential ministers in the country and pre-eminent among the Kentucky clergy. Nassau Hall was about to confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity when death prevented the intended honor.”
Dr. Thomas E. Pickett, in his sketch of Dr. Campbell, from which we have already quoted, quotes Rev. Dr. Edward P. Humphrey as saying: “As a preacher, he was distinguished for weight of matter, brilliant diction, the flashing of a deep set, blue eye, elegance of style and gracefulness of delivery.” Dr. Humphrey speaks of him as “the defender of the faith.” “Somebody must fight or everybody would run away; and Campbell was one whose courage rose with the exigencies of the contention. He was a veteran to be sent to the front, and an adversary whom nobody would despise a second time.”
Dr. Pickett further says: “Dr. Louis Marshall,1 himself an eminent scholar, regarded Dr. Campbell as a man of extraordinary gifts and accomplishments. He connected himself with the church under Campbell’s eloquent ministrations; he followed him with eager delight in his brilliant controversial career; he bore generous testimony to his accomplishments as a scholar and divine; he omitted no proof of his profound admiration for his talents and attainments; and in token of his personal and particular appreciation named after him his youngest son.”
We conclude this sketch with another extract from Dr. Pickett’s sketch giving a personal description of Dr. Campbell. “In person he was tall, slender, and graceful, his countenance was composed, thoughtful, and grave ; his complexion clear and pale ; his carriage manly and erect. His eyes, which were his most remarkable feature, were dark, penetrating, and singularly expressive. His manner was easy, affable, and unaffected, and though in the presence of strangers it was slightly tinged with reserve, it always invited confidence, and inspired respect. His social qualities made him everywhere a welcome guest. He was a brilliant conversationalist, and an accomplished musician, discoursing learnedly upon the musical art, and playing charmingly upon the flute. His social gifts, in a word, were of so high an order, and so finely adapted to the cultivated circles in which he moved, that it is no disparagement to the society of his choice to assume that he was one of the most accomplished men of his time and the doctor admirabilis of his day.” 1—W. McL.
– Historical Papers, Volume 1, by Washington and Lee University