Old Princeton: Samuel Miller the Gentle Controversialist

Samuel Miller (1769-1850) one of the early professors at Princeton Seminary was a minister and churchman. He was licensed to preach in 1791 and became Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government in 1813 serving the school until 1849. He was not afraid to address controversies of his day and defend the faith with both graciousness and uncompromising clarity.

In 1821, Miller published a book comprised of a series of letter entitled “Letters on Unitarianism”. It was addressed to the members of the First Presbyterian Church of Baltimore. What stirred him to write is he had preached at the ordination service and from the pulpit made a few brief remarks against the heresy of Unitarianism. By Miller’s account, he came under attack, not so much from members of the church but by those in the community where the members lived. So, Miller took it upon himself to write these letters to defend Orthodox doctrine to the people before whom he had preached.

In fact, it was in Baltimore where William Ellery Channing (April 7, 1780 – October 2, 1842) helped found the Unitarian denomination. On May 5, 1819, Channing preached the “Baltimore Sermon”[1] which Unitarians still today consider “a hallmark of Unitarian history.”[2] The church where the sermon was preached, the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore was founded in 1818 and still exists today.

In his introduction he states his desire, “to put you on your guard against a system of error” (Letters On Unitarianism, 11).  He acknowledges the zeal of the opponents from both the pulpit and the press. Miller writes as a gentle shepherd concerned for those church members in Baltimore who are on the front lines of the unfolding controversy. Miller is genuinely concerned that those who are bombarded everyday with arguments and pamphlets will be lead astray.  He worries that “they may begin to think that there is really more to be said in favour of what they hear called heresy, and less in support of what they have been accustomed to think truth, than they once imagined” (Letters, 14).

Later, in response to Miller's Letters On Unitarianism, in 1822, Moses Stuart published a series of his own letters entitled “Letters on the Eternal Generation of the Son of God, addressed to Samuel Miller.” Stuart had rejected the eternal generation of the Son (He had discussed his rejection of eternal generation as well in “Letters to the Rev. Wm. E. Channing: Containing Remarks on His Sermon” pp. 41-42 although Stuart unlike Channing affirms the deity of Christ). Miller once again took up his pen in favor of the orthodox position both with Scripture and a thorough knowledge of historical theology. His tone against Stuart is gracious but again he stands firm on orthodoxy in his response entitled “Letters on the eternal sonship of Christ: addressed to the Rev. professor Stuart, of Andover” published in 1823.

There are some things that we can learn from Samuel Miller’s defense of the truth in both sets of letters:

  1. The church of God needs to be on its guard in all ages. During Miller’s day, Unitarianism was on the rise. It was particularly prominent in Baltimore, as we noted. Miller takes on the task of guard duty to defend ancient doctrines once for all handed down to the saints. This is a noble and needed task.
  1. Miller’s pastoral heart needs to be emulated, particularly when he writes to the First Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. Miller’s tone is not a screed, nor is it to show off his robust learning. He is like a Father writing to children, a shepherd concerned for the flock of sheep. Even in his introduction, Miller is careful to want his audience to understand his desires. He is not seeking to stir up controversies, settle old scores, or score points against his vocal critics. His main goal is protect the sheep and encourage the flock to stand fast and be on its guard.
  1. Miller fairly represents his critics. In his response to Stuart, Miller is careful to lay forth his case but seeks to faithful represent Stuart’s position. He is not given to flights of rhetoric or the creation of straw man. Sometimes those of us zealous to defend orthodoxy can let our zeal get the better of us that we lose site of the necessity of godly character and graciousness even while we do not budge of the doctrines.
  1. Doctrines must be defended in every age. While each age of church history has its peculiarity, the rise of Unitarians in the United States have aspects and themes in common with the rise of Socinians in the 16th and 17th centuries. The denials of the deity of Christ have commonalities with ancient Arianism and modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is not to say there are not differences, there are. However, doctrines that have been defended and vindicated in one generation may need to be taken up and defended from the Scriptures in the current generation. In this respect, the church must never let her guard down as she stands as the ground and pillar of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15).
  1. If you are a pastor or teacher do not neglect to say basic obvious things with plain words. Sometimes it is easy to assume things like everybody at my church knows God is Triune or Jesus is God’s Son. The reality is that most American congregants do not know basic doctrine. We need plain, clear, and simple articulations of these core truths rather than trying to impress people with our verbosity and profundity. Aim to build of the sheep not to impress the scholars. 

[2] http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/river/workshop9/178591.shtml

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as Interim Pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.


Tim Bertolet