Old Princeton: Her Pastoral Heart

Before Princeton Theological Seminary was founded in 1812, John Witherspoon, the sixth president of Princeton College, wrote in the Form of Government of the Presbyterian Church: “Truth is in order to goodness, and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness.” 

As early as 1800, Ashbel Green, pastor of Philadelphia’s Second Presbyterian Church, was quietly putting forth the idea of a Presbyterian theological seminary.  Samuel Miller, who for twenty years had served the Presbyterian Church in New York City, advanced Green’s plan.  At the 1808 General Assembly, the retiring moderator, Archibald Alexander, pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, preached the opening sermon on 1 Corinthians 14:12—“Seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church”—in which he urged the immediate formation of a Presbyterian seminary to prepare able and godly pastors.  Four years later Alexander was called by the General Assembly to become the founding professor of a new seminary to be located in Princeton, New Jersey.

Old Princeton Seminary was known for its commitment to the highest standards of scholarship, but equally important was the application of biblical truth to the spiritual lives of the students.  Worship in classroom and chapel, the famous Sabbath Afternoon Conference (which, B. B. Warfield said, “kept the fire burning on the altar for a hundred years”), the Concert for Prayer, the Society of Inquiry on Missions, all served to create and deepen what the Plan of the Seminary called “a spirit of enlightened devotion and fervent piety.”  There was not a division between classroom instruction and times of prayer and preaching.   Spiritual lessons were learned in the classroom as well as in the Oratory.  A student described how Princeton’s first professor, Archibald Alexander, in explaining some theological topic would sometimes  “seem to pause, and painful anxiety to be stamped upon his countenance, as though he were ready to say, I fear the Heavenly Father is not here!  Let us lay aside our helps and repair to him.” 

Princeton Seminary from the very beginning was committed to the preparation of men for faithful ministry in the church.  The seminary's first two professors, Archibald Alexander, and Samuel Miller, were experienced pastors and effective preachers. 

Archibald Alexander served churches in his native Virginia and in Philadelphia, where he was a preacher with power.  Young Charles Hodge, when a student at Princeton College, listened to Alexander’s sermons and found him “unequalled and unapproached” as a preacher. 

Samuel Miller’s sermons were heard with great appreciation for their scriptural faithfulness and deep spirituality. 

The seminary's third professor, Charles Hodge, was a pastor for a brief time until he was called to teach at Princeton Seminary, where he remained, except for two years studying in Europe, until his death in 1878.  Hodge’s spiritual impact at the seminary cannot be exaggerated.  He had not served for years in the pastorate as had Alexander and Miller, but he became a pastor to the students.  Typical of Hodge’s pastoral ministry to the students are these words from his introductory lecture in 1828:

Keep your hearts with all diligence, for out of them are the issues of life.  Remember that it is only in God’s light that you can see light.  That holiness is essential to correct knowledge of divine things, and the great security from error.  And as you see, that when men lose the life of religion, they can believe the most monstrous doctrines and glory in them; and that when the clergy once fall into such errors, generations perish before the slow course of reviving piety brings back the truth; “what manner of men ought you to be in all holy conversation and godliness.”  Not only then for your own sake, but for the sake of your children, and your children’s children, forsake not your God

B. B. Warfield became one of America’s greatest scholars and at the same time, like Charles Hodge, an earnest pastor of the seminary students.  In his classroom he constantly drew the connection between solid theology, godly living, and faithful service.  For example, he showed the students that the statements of the Westminster divines were not speculative theology, but "the pulsations of great hearts heaving in emotion."  Like all the creeds, these were given to the church "not by philosophers but by the shepherds of the flocks, who loved the sheep."  These "shepherds" not only "[knew] what God is; they [knew] God, and they make their readers know Him."

For a hundred years Old Princeton Seminary trained men of missionary zeal, evangelistic fervor, pastoral loyalty and scholarly ability.  Samuel Miller's prayer was answered.  Blessings did flow to many, perhaps millions, from the little school that began in 1812 with one professor and three students.

Dr. David Calhoun is Emeritus Professor of Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis, Missouri. He has taught at Covenant College and Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University) and served as principal of Jamaica Bible College. Prior to his appointment to Covenant Seminary in 1978, he was the overseas director of Ministries in Action.  He is the author of a two-volume history of Princeton Seminary – Princeton Seminary, Faith & Learning 1812-1868, and The Majestic Testimony 1869-1929.

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