Ohio History Journal

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Early Cincinnati's

"Unprecedented Spectacle"




When Isaac G. Burnet, Cincinnati's newly elected mayor, called a meeting of the

city's leading citizens for Tuesday night, April 7, 1829, to make arrangements for

a debate between Robert Owen and Alexander Campbell, this can be considered

an official sanction for the extraordinary event that was being planned.1 Robert

Owen, social reformer, lecturer, and founder of the then defunct communitarian

colony at New Harmony, Indiana, had issued a general challenge a year earlier

from New Orleans to the Christian clergy to defend religion in debate. The invi-

tation had been accepted by Alexander Campbell of Bethany, (West) Virginia,

editor of the Christian Baptist, an aggressive periodical, dedicated to non-sectarian

religion. After reading Owen's challenge and Campbell's reply, the mayor requested

that notices be placed in all the city papers and that interested citizens should

meet again to continue plans for the event. Accordingly, a committee of ten was

appointed to select a site for the debate with instructions to request the First Pres-

byterian Church for use of its facilities. The pugnacious and independent Joshua

L. Wilson, minister of that church and leader of Old School Presbyterians in the

western country, rejected this request. The committee then turned to the Methodist

Church, "a capacious stone building with brick wings" located on Fifth Street,

between Sycamore and Broadway and capable of seating a thousand people.2

The debate, which Frances Trollope called "a spectacle unprecedented, I believe,

in any age or country," began on Monday, April 13th and ended on the following

Tuesday, April 21 after fifteen sittings.3 Timothy Flint, ex-Congregational minister

and one of the moderators, was impressed that the audience "received with invin-

cible forbearance, the most frank and sarcastic remarks of Mr. Owen, in ridicule

of the most sacred articles of Christian belief." Afterwards, a foreigner remarked

to Flint "that he had seen no place, where he thought such a discussion could have

been conducted in so much order and quietness."4

1. Cincinnati Daily Gazette, April 9, 1829. Debates on religious topics became commonplace in

later years.

2. Ibid., April 11, 1829.

3. Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, edited by Donald Smalley (New York,

1949), 147-153.

4. Timothy Flint, "Public challenged DISPUTE between ROBERT OWEN . . . and Rev. ALEX-

ANDER CAMPBELL . . . the former denying the truth of all religions in general; and the latter

affirming the truth of the Christian .religion on logical principles," Western Monthly Review, II

(April 1829), 646. Flint's article also appears in Washington National Intelligencer, May 26, 1829.



Mr. West is professor of church history at the Harding Graduate School of Religion, Memphis,