Part 3 From James McCosh to the 1920s
Rev. John MacLeod
This paper was delivered at the Free Presbyterian Church Theological Conference in 1998
Continued from last month. Part 2 dealt with the period in Princeton Seminary from the professorship of Archibald Alexander to that of James Moffat.
JAMES McCosh was born at Carskeoch Farm, just above the village of Patna in Ayrshire, on lst April 1811. Of covenanting stock, he was brought up in a district where, it is said, there were martyr tombs in every church-yard.21 At the age of thirteen he matriculated at Glasgow University where, for five years, he prosecuted his studies. Moving to Edinburgh University, he came under the instruction and influence of Thomas Chalmers and David Welsh who taught Theology. Sir William Hamilton was his mentor in Philosophy.22 In 1835 he began his ministry in Arbroath but three years afterwards he moved to Brechin, where, in 1843, with the eight hundred who followed him out of the established Church, he organised the Free Church congregation. In the neighbouring parish Thomas Guthrie was the minister and James McCosh was to marry one of his daughters. “He kept alive his philosophical thinking, and in 1850 published at Edinburgh his Method of Divine Government, Physical and Moral. It received favourable reviews and was commended by Sir William Hamilton. It brought him at once into prominence as a philosophic writer of thought and clarity. The story goes that Earl Clarendon, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, sitting down to read a copy one Sabbath morning, became so absorbed in the book that he missed going to church, and read on till evening without stopping. Soon afterwards he offered James McCosh the chair of logic and metaphysics in the newly founded Queens College, Belfast.23
From Belfast he arrived in Princeton, as he put it himself, to devote his “remaining life under God to old Princeton and the religious and literary interests with which it is identified”. At his inauguration a member of the senior class gave a welcome address in Latin and Charles Hodge made a speech of welcome in the course of which he said: “We would in a single word state what it is that we desire. It is that true religion here may be dominant; that a pure gospel may be preached, and taught, and lived; that the students should be made to feel that the eternal is infinitely more important than the temporal, the heavenly than the earthly.” In concluding he commended the new President “to the grace of God, and the guidance of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, for whom this college was founded, and to whom it inalienably belongs.”24 On his part McCosh responded: “In regard to religious truth, there will be no uncertain sound uttered within these walls. What is proclaimed here will be the old truth which has been from the beginning: which was shown in the shadow of the Old Testament as in a glass; which has been retained by the one Catholic Church in the darkest ages; which was long buried, but rose again at the Reformation; which was maintained by the grand old theologians of Germany, Switzerland, England, and Scotland; and is being defended with great logical power in the famous Theological Seminary with which this College is so closely associated.”
It is claimed by his apologists, that McCosh remained faithful to this undertaking and it has to be said to his credit that when the initial moves were made to revise the Confession he aligned himself with Warfield and others, who at the time resisted further change. This fulsome tribute was paid to him by his successor: “He never stood in a doubtful attitude towards the Gospel and never spoke a word that would compromise its truths.”25 It is, however, difficult for us to reconcile this with his views on Darwinianism. “He maintained the possibility of conceiving evolution from a theistic basis as a feature of the method of Divine government, and this led him to take a hospitable attitude towards the evolution idea, while at the same time it enabled him to become the most formidable critic of evolution in its really atheistic and irreligious forms.”26 To McCosh evolution was “the method by which God works . . . so far as it claimed to be a theory explanatory of the origin of species he claimed that it was a mistake to regard it as atheistic or in irreconcilable hostility to the Bible.” In view of the position he occupied and the authority which his word carried, McCosh, in holding and propagating these views must surely have weakened the hands of those who were standing by the orthodox interpretation of the Genesis creation account. Encouragement was doubtless at the same time also given to those who were busy questioning the integrity of the Bible as a whole. Warfield, strangely enough, did not see any inconsistency in McCoshs views, but he did think that McCosh had gone too far in maintaining that evolution was a fact and completely made out, proved, and demonstrated beyond doubt. It did not help that James Orr, Professor in the United Free Church College in Glasgow, arrived in 1903 to deliver a series of lectures, later published under the title: Gods image in Man and its Defacement in the light of Modern Denials. On the matter of evolution, Orr stated that when it was viewed simply as a scientific theory, and “certain conditions . . . fulfilled, and certain limits observed”, it imperilled “no religious interest”.
Spiritual discernment was surely lacking at Princeton when such as Moody and Sankey and G. Campbell Morgan were among those who were invited to preach there. Princeton was now in spiritual decline and this had become evident in practice long before it had become evident in doctrine. Archibald Alexander thought that participation in organised sport was not of a “sufficiently grave character for theological students”. In his day most students then took their exercise by walking. Witherspoon wrote a pamphlet condemning the stage. McCosh however was of another mind, and under him as Calhoun sees it, “the life of the campus was enriched making the four long years more enjoyable. Student publications were established; and the glee club, the dramatic association, and the first eating clubs came into existence”.27 A gymnasium was built and even billiard tables were provided for student recreation. Before long a new secularism began to replace the earlier evangelicalism. The proportion of Presbyterians at Princeton, about three quarters of the students in the 1870s, declined to about half by the turn of the century. Princeton gained the reputation of a “rich mans school” where many students were more interested in making friends and playing football than in serious studies. Calhoun tells us that “enthusiasm for football soon reached fever pitch. The annual Princeton Yale game played in New York city became a major social event for which the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and other ministers shortened their Thanksgiving sermons!”28 Dr McCosh, who had encouraged collegiate sports, discovered to his dismay that “emphasis on athletics, rather than promoting a gentlemanly balance of mind and body, was beginning to produce specialist athletes who did not concentrate on anything else.” The Seminary was so closely associated with the College that it was inevitably affected and the place given to sport and athletics and extra-curricular activities, was bound to have a detrimental effect on the spiritual health of the institution.
Another reason for the decline may be traced to laxity with regard to purity of worship, as we understand the term, and as Scottish Presbyterian emigrants to the American colonies had understood it also. It is surprising to find men, who were so eminent for theological learning and even piety, tolerating the use of hymns of human composition in the public worship of God, and even the use of instrumental music. “Colonial Presbyterianism,” it is claimed, “apparently began its career as a Church without a written creed or a written constitution.”29 In 1729 the Synod passed the Adopting Act, in which the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms were formally adopted as the Confession of the Churchs faith. The Adopting Act did not cover the Directory for the Public Worship of God. When asked for its judgment about the Directory the Synod merely declared that “it was agreeable in substance to the Word of God” and only recommended that it be observed “as near as circumstances will allow, and Christian prudence direct”. The view of Charles Hodge was that “a stricter adoption of the Westminster Directory in the United States was impossible”. The American Presbyterian Church regarded itself as completely independent, not only of Scotland, but of the Westminster Assembly itself, in matters liturgical. This same Synod, accordingly, authorised the use of Watts Imitations or Paraphrases in the public worship of God. In 1788 the right to sing hymns was recognised in the Constitution of the Church. In an article printed in the Presbyterian and Reformed Review entitled The Liturgical position of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, we have the following partisan passage: “Enjoying as we do the inestimable treasure of our Christian hymnody, we readily forget that the right to sing hymns was not something which our fathers inherited from the old country, but a liberty which they won for us on American soil. They won it in the face of all the traditions of Calvinism and the deliverances of the Assemblies of Westminster and Scotland, in spite of most earnest and excited opposition of many within their ranks who erected the exclusive use of inspired songs in praise as an essential Church principle resting upon the very ipse dixit of God, at the cost of defections which took clergy and laity out of their fold, disrupted congregations, and even divided the House of God itself. Their victory marks an epoch in the history of Presbyterian worship. In 1788, when the American Presbyterian Church adopted its own Directory, we find not only hymns of human composition in the public worship of God being sanctioned; we also find, among other changes, the approval of the so-called festival days of the Christian year; the removal of the Westminster prohibition of prayer at the burial of the dead, and the giving over of a definite order of service as provided for in the Westminster Directory.30 History has amply demonstrated that these alterations to the Westminster standards were detrimental to the spiritual life and order of seminaries such as Princeton.
In October 1896 the institution which began as the College of New Jersey was 150 years old and now became Princeton University. A congratulatory telegram from Edinburgh University read: “We have ever fondly regarded the College of New Jersey as a near Scottish cousin.” Woodrow Wilson, then a Professor at Princeton College, was to become the President of the new University in 1902. Later he was to be elected President of the United States. Welcoming Andrew Carnegie on one occasion to Princeton he reminded him of the fact that Princeton had been largely “made by Scotsmen” and was thoroughly Scottish in all its history and traditions. “Being myself of pure Scots blood,” he said, “it heartens me to emphasise that fact.” A footnote to an article on the Solway Martyrs in the Herald Magazine of June 14 1997 conveys the interesting information: “A descendent of Margaret Wilsons family was Thomas Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States whose eldest daughter was named Margaret.”
As far as Princeton teaching staff of Scottish origin is concerned, the last to labour there before the departure of Gresham Machen to found the Westminster Seminary was John Murray. (From 1936 until his retirement in 1959 John Alexander MacKay, born in Inverness of parents who joined the Free Presbyterian Church in 1893, served as President and Professor of Ecumenics. He was influenced by Karl Barth and, according to the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, claimed Theresa of Avila as his saint!) John Murray, born at Badbea of Free Presbyterian parents, enrolled as a student in Princeton in 1924, having already studied theology in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland under the Rev Donald Beaton. After graduation he joined the staff as instructor in Theology and after a few years, unhappy with the new outlook at Princeton, he joined Gresham Machen at the Westminster Theological Seminary. There, not forgetful of his roots, he maintained, asserted and defended the Princeton Theology of Witherspoon and Alexander.
That theology was, as has been shown, the theology of Francis Turretin, John Owen, Thomas Halyburton and Thomas Boston. It was that which was systematised in the Westminster Standards; the theology which has been taught and practised in the Reformed Church of Scotland from her best days. It was that which was taught and preached to such great effect by the great Jonathan Edwards and opposed by Unitarians such as Oliver Wendell Holmes who criticised it as “foreign to the civilised history of New England” and went on to describe Edwards whole system as belonging more to Scotland or New Jersey where, he said, ” the Scottish theological thistle had always flourished.”
Old Princeton, it is said, ceased to exist in 1929 but its influence continued to be felt. Eight years earlier, in 1921, the words of Caspar Wistar Hodge Jr. seems to have summed up the situation: “We are being told that the Reformed Faith or Calvinism is dead today or at least about to pass away. Doubtless it has not many representatives among the leaders of religious thought, nor does it court a place alongside the wisdom of this world. But wherever humble souls catch the vision of God in His Glory, and bow in admiration and humility before Him, trusting for salvation only in His grace and power, there you have the essence of the Reformed Faith.”
21 Princeton Seminary 1869 1929, David B Calhoun, p. 5.
22 The Presbyterian & Reformed Review, Volume VIII, p. 666.
23 Ibid., p. 669.
24 Princeton Seminary 1869 1929, David B Calhoun, p. 8.
25 The Presbyterian & Reformed Review, Volume VI, p. 660.
26 Ibid., p. 671.
27 Princeton Seminary 1869 1929, David B Calhoun, p. 9.
28 Ibid., p. 10.
29 The Presbyterian & Reformed Review, Volume VIII, p. 420.
30 Ibid., p. 438.