Enacting theology, Americanism, and friendship: the 1837 debate on Roman Catholicism between Alexander Campbell and Bishop John Purcell

Date of Award


Degree Name

Ph.D. in Theology


Department of Religious Studies


Advisor: William Vance Trollinger


This dissertation is an historical study of the 1837 debate on Roman Catholicism between Bishop John Purcell (1800-1883) and his Protestant challenger Alexander Campbell (1788-1866). Held for one week in Cincinnati, this debate showcased two of the Ohio Valley's leading religious personalities as they argued about Catholicism in historical, theological, and political terms. This dissertation offers an account of the origins and events of the weeklong debate. It also makes two constructive arguments. First, for Purcell and Campbell participating in the debate was an exercise in pastoral apologetics." That is to say, each man understood his participation in the debate as an expression of his ministerial calling. Second, the form of the debate itself provided the conditions for a friendship that emerged between the men in the years that followed.The Campbell-Purcell debate has been recognized as an historically significant event. As Margaret DePalma notes, in United States history "it was the only occasion in which an American Catholic bishop held an oral debate with a Protestant minister" (Dialogue on the Frontier, 96). Beyond this important fact, the debate and the events that followed offer readers two noteworthy takeaways. First, they provide a counter-narrative to what would become a common storyline of Protestant Nativism in the antebellum period. Second, they are a reminder for contemporary Christian theologians that theological disagreement can be simultaneously robust and civil, while also serving as the starting point for Christian friendship."


Purcell, John Baptist, 1800-1883, Campbell, Alexander, 1788-1866, Catholic Church, Religious disputations Ohio Cincinnati History 19th century, Theology, American History, Alexander Campbell, John Baptist Purcell, Religious Debate, Cincinnati

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