Part 2 - From Archibald Alexander to James Moffat
Rev. John MacLeod
This paper was delivered at the Free Presbyterian Church Theological Conference in 1998. Part 1 dealt with the period from the early Presbyterian settlers to the Rev. John Witherspoons presidency of Princeton College.
THE first Professor of Princeton Theological Seminary was Archibald Alexander. His grandfather Archibald Alexander, whose father was born in Scotland, had migrated to America from the county of Derry in Northern Ireland. His son William was a merchant and farmer, and an elder of the Church one who justified his right to bear rule by repeating from memory the whole of the Westminster Assembly Larger Catechism! He married, in his own community, a woman bearing the very Scottish name of Ann Reid. Of these Scottish or Scottish-Irish parents Archibald Alexander was born on 17 April 1772. Nurtured in a godly home, he learned the Shorter Catechism by the age of seven and at that age had also begun the study of Latin. So promising was he that his parents decided to send him to school. At the age of ten he became a pupil at the school of a Rev William Graham (again, a very Scottish name) which was called Liberty Hall Academy. That name might conjure up the vision of an imposing marble edifice with a pillared portico but in actual fact it was “a hewed log-house, twenty-eight feet by twenty-four, one story and a half high.” There, William Graham taught his pupils Greek, Latin, Science, and philosophy “handing on to Alexander and his colleagues many of John Witherspoon’s lecture notes”.11 The standard was such that Archibald Alexander always believed that he received from Graham the equivalent of a Princeton College education.
At the age of seventeen, Archibald Alexander underwent a saving change when, through the reading of a sermon by John Flavel, his heart was opened. He began to read avidly all the Christian books which he could lay his hands on. “He turned especially to the seventeenth-century Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians and their successors of the next century.” Among them were the writings of the illustrious Scottish ministers Thomas Halyburton, Thomas Boston and Ebenezer Erskine. Graham’s students read Turretin in Latin and learned their theology from him. Also read were the works of John Owen, Joseph Butler, Thomas Boston and Jonathan Edwards. In philosophy, as already noted, they studied Scottish Common Sense Realism, the principles of which their teacher had learned from John Witherspoon at Princeton College. “This tough-minded inductive philosophy became part of Alexander’s intellectual equipment and would leave its mark on the entire history of the Princeton College.” “It is reasonable,” Alexander taught, “to believe, what by our senses we perceive to exist, and it is reasonable to believe whatever God declares to be true.”12
As far as the teaching of Theology in Princeton Seminary was concerned, Alexander and his successor, Charles Hodge, both agreed that Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology was “incomparably the best book as a whole on Systematic Theology”, and it was the principal text used by them. But in addition to Turretin, students, under Charles Hodge, were to read Hill and Dick, both of whom were Scottish Theologians. George Hill (1750-1819) was the Principal of St Marys College in St Andrews and author of Lectures on Divinity. It was the textbook favoured by Thomas Chalmers as Professor of Systematic Theology in New College, Edinburgh. John Dick (1764-1833) was a theologian of the Secession Church who had received his honorary doctorate from New Jersey College in1815. His Lectures on Theology were frequently reprinted and became the standard system of theology among the Seceders. The Scottish input to the teaching of theology at Princeton Seminary was therefore considerable.
Thomas Chalmers’ colleague, the renowned William Cunningham, in 1843, visited the United States at the head of a delegation from the Free Church of Scotland. Their mission was to explain the Disruption Church’s position and stance and also, crucially, to receive financial assistance. He visited Princeton three times and was greatly impressed. He, in turn, also made a great impression on those who were privileged to meet him and to hear him. J. W. Alexander described him as “a walking treasury of facts, dates and ecclesiastical law”. “I have seldom listened to a man,” he said, “with more instruction.” Charles Hodge in due course wrote an article in the Biblical Repertory supporting the stand taken by the Disruption fathers. He seems to have benefited himself from the visit of Cunningham and his fellow-delegates. “We have felt under their addresses,” he wrote, “as we have never felt before. We have had clearer views of the intimate connection between the practical recognition of Christ’s kingly office and the life of God in the soul and we think we see one of the principal sources of that strength of character, elevation of mind, and constancy in trials which Scottish Christians have so often exhibited. Let any man, with this principle before his mind, read the history of Scotland, and he will have the solution of the mystery of servant girls and labourers dying at the gibbet or at the stake for a question of Church Government. Let him contrast the bearing of Knox, Melville, or Henderson when they stood before kings - we will not say with the slavish adulation of the unworthy bishops of King James - but with the spirit of such good men as Cranmer, and they will see the difference between believing that Christ is King and believing that the king is the Head of the Church.”
Archibald Alexander rejected New England innovations and held fast to the older Calvinism of the Westminster Confession of Faith. His study of theology led him to the conclusion that the Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had “pushed theological investigation to its greatest length, and compacted its conclusions into the most symmetrical method”. He lectured not only on philosophical, theological, historical, and biblical subjects, but also on the application of faith and knowledge to the concrete problems and duties of the pastor’s work.13 In the homiletics class - surprisingly - the students read Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Letters by the Scottish moderate minister Hugh Blair. Overshadowing the text, however, was Alexander’s own less formal style.14 His own sermons were, it is said, always instructive and moving. He always began quietly, avoiding “all that brings the speaker’s personality before his hearer”. When he got into his sermon however, “his eye kindled, his face was radiant” as he was carried along under the influence of the Holy Spirit through his thoughts and words.
His advice to his students on sermon preparation and delivery might well be studied to profit by those of us who are engaged in that work! “Avoid generalities,” he was wont to say, “they convey no instruction. Do not preach on subjects that you do not understand.” He suggested concentrating on the greatest truths because people generally were “lamentably deficient as to even these”. One evening a week was set apart for the evaluation of the sermons of his students. He was, as we might expect, generally sympathetic and kind in his criticism but this only gave a keener edge to occasional caustic comments. Two examples will suffice. He listened to a student preaching on the words, “Let there be light: and there was light.” The student, we are told, launched with great eloquence and forceful delivery into a lengthy description of the creation of light. “You are a smart young man,” he was told, “but you can’t beat Moses.” Another student preached “a grand discourse upon the religious instincts.” When he was finished, Dr Alexander commented, “My instincts are not sufficient to comprehend, much less to criticise, that discourse.”
The plan that was drawn up for the running of the Seminary laid down that the professors were to encourage godliness among the students by “inculcating practical religion in their lectures and recitations” and students were required to read a considerable number of the best practical writers on the subject of religion.”15 The ideal of piety for the seminary was a Scot - Thomas Halyburton. A special Princeton reprint of Halyburton’s Memoirs contained a “Recommendation” by Professors Miller and Hodge and a nine-page preface by Archibald Alexander. Alexander believed that the reading of Christian biography was also a useful way of examining the true nature of the Christian life. He praised Halyburton’s Memoirs as the best book that he knew in its descriptions of “the exercises of the human heart, both before and after regeneration” and recommended it to all professing Christians and especially “to all young ministers of the gospel, and to all candidates for the holy ministry.” “Let our young theologians be such as Halyburton was,” he wrote, “and error will hide its head as ashamed; and genuine piety will be inculcated and exemplified.” Scotland thus through Thomas Halyburton set the standard of godliness that students at Princeton were to strive to follow and attain to. That was no small contribution.
Archibald Alexander died in Princeton on 22nd October 1851. On his deathbed he stated that “all his theology was reduced to this narrow compass, Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners”. A. A. Hodge recalled seeing his father standing in his study weeping, exclaiming, “It is all past, the glory of our Seminary has departed.”
The lack of space forbids us doing anything more than mentioning that two of his sons - Joseph Addison and James Waddel - were professors at Princeton and that we are familiar with their names in 1998 is indicative of how great and valuable their contributions to theological literature were. In 1846, a collection of Theological Essays written by various members of the Princeton faculty, appeared in book form, and when reprinted in Scotland ten years later, Patrick Fairbairn, Professor of Divinity in the Free Church College at Aberdeen, in a prefatory note, paid this tribute to the authors: “For an exact and discriminating knowledge of the peculiar doctrines of Calvinism, of the fundamental grounds on which they rest, of the false admixtures on the one side, and the dangerous concessions on the other, with which at successive periods they have been associated, and of the relations in which they stand to a true and a false philosophy, the Essays under consideration could not easily be surpassed. And it adds materially to their value, that they are not dry vindications of a theoretical and systematic orthodoxy, but the profound and earnest reasonings of men, who felt that, in contending for Calvinism, they were contending for the great interests of truth and righteousness - of men, of whom it is scarcely too much to say, that on them, the mantle, not merely of Edwards, but of Calvin himself, seems peculiarly to have fallen.”
Among the professors of Scottish nationality at Princeton we must not omit mentioning James Clement Moffatt who occupied the chair of Ecclesiastical History from 1861 to 1888. His background is full of interest. “He was a shepherd boy in Scotland when he began his course of self-culture. For five years, while watching his flocks, he read with avidity every book he could secure. All he read deepened his love of knowledge and strengthened his determination to know more. He became a printer’s apprentice, and began a regular course of linguistic and literary study under himself as teacher, and learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French and German. As a printer he came to America. By a friend he was introduced to Princeton College. A careful examination revealed his remarkable gifts and still more remarkable knowledge. He was admitted to the junior class most gladly and was regarded by his examiners, as indeed he was, a prize to be seized upon. After a college course of distinction, he was graduated in 1835, being then twenty-four years of age.”16 After spells as a Professor at Lafayette College, Miami University and Cinncinnati Theological Seminary, he returned to Princeton College, first as Professor of Latin and then as Professor of Greek Language and Literature. He subsequently moved to the Seminary. W. H. Green paid this tribute to him: “He won the respect and affection of all his pupils; and his guileless nature, his purity of character, his undeviating sense of honour and of right and the thorough consistency of his Christian spirit and demeanour secured for him universal admiration.”17
With the passing away in 1850 of Archibald Alexander’s long-standing colleague, Samuel Millar, two great lights were now extinguished. As the Princeton teacher responsible for Church Law, Miller was to become well-known on this side of the Atlantic through his essay on the Eldership. Chalmers called it “the very best work that has been given to the Church on that subject” and Calhoun tells us of a Scottish visitor recording in his diary his pleasure at meeting Millar and adds, “The old gentleman seemed much gratified to be told that his treatise on the eldership had done excellent service in reviving the order in Scotland; by instructing us anew in our own principles.”
Perhaps there was more to Charles Hodge’s exclamation on the death of Archibald Alexander that the glory was departed than he, or others, understood at the time. Princeton was never to be the same after the departure of these notable men. The civil war was soon to come and the issues involved led to the alienation of brethren across the North-South divide, and when it was over the healing of Zion’s breaches was not to be effected without some measure of compromise entering in. In addition, Darwinianism and Rationalism were appearing on the scene. Rationalism, beginning in Germany, was in due time to make its way to Britain and North America and the door was opened to Higher Critical views of the Bible. Scripture accuracy and authority were challenged when its human origin was stressed, and the claim made that it was marred by historical errors. Calhoun sums it all up: “The study of comparative religions - leading to the view that world religions were merely different expressions of a common, evolving human religious experience - challenged the uniqueness of Christianity. Evolution became not only an explanation of physical life but a principle - subjecting all absolutes, including religious and ethical ones, to natural and immanent development. The effect of these great forces at work in Western culture was the questioning of orthodox Christian convictions about God, humanity, the Bible, miracles, providence and salvation”18. In Scotland we had Robertson Smith, Dods, Bruce and others who were to wreak havoc in the Free Church, and in America there arose men of similar views. Charles Hodge passed away in 1878, and that further weakened the hands of those who were contending earnestly for the faith.
In parallel with what was happening in Scotland, an American movement was set afoot to revise the Westminster Confession in order as was said to “tone down its Calvinistic emphasis”. A body called the Alliance of Reformed Churches Throughout the World Holding the Presbyterian System, held its first General Council meeting in Edinburgh under Free Church auspices in 1877. It became evident that most of the European Presbyterian and Reformed Churches had already revised their confessions and many American Presbyterians were anxious to do the same. “They were unhappy particularly with the Westminster Confessions chapters on God’s eternal decree and Effectual calling and wanted statements which placed more emphasis on God’s love and human responsibility.”19 Dr Philip Schaff expressed the view that the Westminster Confession of Faith was “the product of the most polemical and intolerant age of Christendom”; it, in his view, overstated God’s sovereignty and ignored the general love of God for all people.20 The revisers eventually had their way, and the text was modified and altered to harmonise with the view that God loves all mankind, and the Pope of Rome was no longer to be regarded as the Antichrist. Princeton was not to remain immune. Even the mighty Warfield, who had by now appeared on the scene, was not able to stem the tide; indeed, sadly, it would seem that he, to a surprising extent, was carried away by it. But does the falling away have any connection with Scotland? To answer that question we must focus attention first of all on James McCosh, President of Princeton College for twenty years from 1868 to 1888.
11 Princeton Seminary 1812 1868, David B Calhoun, p. 44.
12 Ibid., p. 89.
13 Ibid., p. 92.
14 Ibid., p. 128.
15 Ibid., p. 128.
16 Princeton Theological Review, Volume I, p. 628.
17 Ibid., p. 630.
18 Princeton Seminary 1869 1929, David B Calhoun, p. 66
19 Ibid., p. 120.
20 Ibid., p. 123.
(To be concluded)