Old Princeton: Archibald Alexander: Reflections on his Ministry and Influence

Godly mentors are an important influence on Christian character formation.  This is especially true for men called to the work of the pastoral ministry.  And among the names of those who served as exemplary mentor-professors at Princeton Theological Seminary in its early years is that of Archibald Alexander.

Born in 1772, Alexander was raised in the rural backwoods of Virginia.  A combination of independent study and classroom instruction at local academies provided Alexander with the rudiments of a classical education rivaling that of the formal training available at the recently founded College of New Jersey, later renamed as Princeton University.

Converted during his late teenage years, Alexander soon sensed a call to the Christian ministry.  Further studies under his primary tutor and now spiritual mentor, William Graham, led to licensure and subsequent ordination in the Presbyterian Church.  Work as an itinerant preacher, pastor of rural parishes, tenure as president of Hampden-Sydney College, and experience as an urban minister in Philadelphia would eventually culminate in a call to serve as Princeton Theological Seminary’s first professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology at its opening in 1812.  Alexander remained at Princeton until his death in 1851.

A polymath in learning, Alexander designed the curriculum and taught in a wide range of fields during the years of his professorship.  Renowned as a preacher of uncommon power and eloquence, Alexander’s profound knowledge of the human heart and the inner workings of the Spirit of God in regeneration and sanctification drew attentive audiences wherever he spoke whether among the student body or in church pulpits.  A gifted writer, Alexander’s publications in biblical studies, systematic and historical theology, canon and inspiration of Scripture, missions, revivals, and related works of spiritual biography, sermons, and instruction in the life of piety further enhanced his reputation as a scholarly preacher-teacher animated with a pastor’s heart.

It is rare to find in one man the combination of scholarly qualities, pastoral emphases, and preaching abilities that Alexander embodied.  Alexander was a churchman by conviction whose scholarly interests were informed and defined by the Kingdom horizons which motivated his life and determined his priorities as a man, husband, father, pastor, preacher, professor, and author.  His professional development in the academy never subverted his interest for the integration of piety and learning in the spiritual formation in which he was engaged in preparing future generations of pastors, preachers, teachers, and missionaries who sat under his instruction in the seminary classroom.

As an outsider to the Reformed heritage, I was first introduced to the life and writings of Alexander in the late 1970’s through lectures delivered by Iain Murray on the topic of revival and reading of Alexander’s seminal volume, Thoughts on Religious Experience, a work still kept in print by the Banner of Truth for its thoughtful analysis on the life, growth, and struggles of piety in development of practical (or what the older writer’s often called “experimental”) godliness.

At the time, I could not have anticipated the profound influence Alexander and related Princeton Seminary faculty, especially those who served between its founding in 1812 through its reorganization in 1929, would have on my personal spiritual development as a Christian, and, in due process, as an ordained minister of the Gospel. 

Like Owen and Edwards who predated him in the spiritual diagnostic skills for which their ministries were so respected in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Alexander was considered by many a nineteenth century counterpart.  Christian ministers, whether dead or living, whose lives are marked by deep love for Christ and his Church, prayer and profound compassion for the needs of the world around them and the congregations which they serve, and whose knowledge of Scripture and awareness of the issues of the human heart are orthodox and practical in focus, will always find willing audience in the lives of those whose goal is to honor their Savior in the places and callings to which He appoints them.

While men’s personalities and gifts vary and complete imitation of all their strengths is both impossible and ludicrous, their love for Christ, service in their calling, and godly character are all capable of imitation.   In this respect, the model of pastoral fortitude to which Alexander introduced me is in truth the model to who he pointed—the Lord Jesus Christ.  As Scripture reminds us and as Alexander was fond of repeating, every student who is well taught will become like their teacher!

Dr. James M. Garretson is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He has pastored congregations in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, and taught at Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is the author of Princeton and Preaching: Archibald Alexander and the Christian Ministry, and has edited the Banner of Truth Trust’s 2-volume set Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry, and similarly selected and introduced Pastor-Teachers of Old Princeton.

James Garretson