Old Princeton: Samuel Miller and the Wedding of Learning & Piety

Samuel Miller (1769-1850) was the second professor appointed to the theological seminary of the Presbyterian Church in the USA (Princeton Theological Seminary) by the general assembly of the church. Along with his senior colleague Archibald Alexander, Miller set the tone of the school we now know as “Old Princeton.” Serving from 1813 to 1849 as professor of ecclesiastical history and church government, Miller was an accomplished writer, teacher, and preacher-pastor. With Miller there was no divide between learning and piety or spiritual formation. This conviction was evident in his own pastoral ministry before being called to the seminary.

Concerned that his preaching be substantive he wrote out his sermons but this did not deprive his preaching of earnest exhortation. This conviction was carried into the seminary classroom as he sought to inculcate the seriousness of proclaiming the Word of God in a way that was faithful to the text and the needs of the people. Miller’s preaching exemplified his desire that Christians, and especially Christian ministers, would be lifelong disciples who made learning about the faith and the world in which we live a lifelong pursuit. In reality, to be a disciple is to be a student. While still serving in the pastorate Miller published his two volume A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century (1803, 1805), a survey of developments in the fields of science, arts, and literature, which was so well-received that he was eventually elected to the American Antiquarian Society in 1813, the same year he entered upon his duties as a seminary professor.

Miller was well-loved by his students at Old Princeton and he taught a broader range of subjects than would be considered justifiable today. This was a time before the rise of the narrowly defined specialist. Miller was, like the later Princetonian Benjamin B. Warfield, a true Renaissance man. There was no pitting of the life of the mind against the cultivation of biblical piety. Indeed, each depended on the other. Piety oriented the mind and the mind brought rigor to piety. Human beings are integrated psychosomatic unities (at least that is how we were created and how we are restored in redemption). Dr. Miller taught both church history and church government as theological subjects. Unlike today’s situation where practical or pastoral theology is sometimes theological only in the most attenuated sense.  Miller, whose focus was the training of men for the ministry, engaged in polemics with Episcopalians and Roman Catholics, wrote on clerical manners, the nature and function of the office of ruling elder, and commended the biblical basis for the Presbyterian form of church government.  Additionally, Miller addressed such varied concerns as the use and importance of creeds and confessions, the life of prayer, and he offered an apology for a “thorough and adequate” preparation for pastoral ministry.

Samuel Miller understood that sanctification included the life of the mind. One could not be a genuine Christian disciple, let alone a fit Christian minister, without both learning and piety. Very often piety and learning are separated and set against one another. That is disastrous. Professor Miller would never have countenanced such a false dilemma. Asking which was more important for a minister, godliness or learning, would be like asking which wing was more important for airplane, the right or the left? We need both. Sound piety is a learning piety. Christ calls us to this kind of Christian walk.

*There are many helpful resources in understanding both Old Princeton and Samuel Miller. David Calhoun has authored a two-volume history, Princeton Seminary, published by Banner of Truth. James Garretson has written extensively on Old Princeton but his most relevant text for this post is his An Able and Faithful Ministry: Samuel Miller and the Pastoral Office, published by Reformation Heritage Books.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington