Old Princeton: Samuel Miller the Intellectual Architect of Old Princeton

The name Samuel Miller may be unfamiliar to most in the Reformed camp and even to many Presbyterians, but he is a man with whom we all should be well acquainted.  Born in 1769, Miller is perhaps best known as the intellectual architect of what would become Princeton Seminary.  In 1813 he was appointed the second faculty member of the new seminary where he joined his friend Archibald Alexander as professor of ecclesiastical history and church government.

Miller’s many writings show that he possessed both a strong intellect and a pastor’s heart.  He was attuned to the theological and cultural issues swirling around early nineteenth-century America and he addressed a number of hot-button issues such as the importance of creeds and ministers’ subscription to them, the dangers of church government by power-hungry bishops, and the chaos of congregational rule.  He touched on social issues like slavery, temperance, and the Masons.  Many of the wide-ranging topics which he addressed are still relevant to us some 200 years later, which is why we would do well to revisit Professor Miller’s writings today.

One controversy which Miller addressed polemically was the Second Great Awakening and some of the doctrinal distortions at the heart of the movement, which had led to unbiblical church practices.  Unlike the First Great Awakening of the early 1700s where Calvinist pastors focused on faithful doctrinal preaching to bring spiritual vitality, the revival which had broken out in the frontier camp meetings in Kentucky in the summer of 1800 and spread throughout the American colonies was characterized by both emotional excess and pragmatic methods.  Revival ministers minimized preaching and encouraged such emotional excesses as shrieking, jerking, and even barking as signs of genuine spiritual awakening.

To these emotional displays these ministers introduced particular means, dubbed “New Measures,” to motivate sinners to engage with God.  These included protracted meetings, advertising the revival campaigns, public censure of flagrant sinners, lay preaching, licensing of recent converts to the ministry (which in turn led to “great laxness as to their theological opinions”), open confession of secret sins, the use of the anxious bench (which amounted to sanctified public pressure on a sinner to make a decision for Christ), and verbal attacks on godly ministers who disapproved of the new measures. 

Disagreement over the use of these new measures caused a split within Presbyterianism.  Those in favor of such “instrumentality of means” were nicknamed the New School and their opponents the Old School.  In a letter written in March 1832, Miller, a leader of the Old School, wrote of this “series of mischievous disorders,” and skillfully brought the authority and sufficiency of Scripture to bear in his critique of the theology and actions of the New School revivalists that lacked clear biblical warrant.  Miller protested that the proponents of such techniques had abandoned the “rules of Christian prudence and order” and instead employed these incentives or inducements in order to coax revival along “for the purpose of effect.”  The inevitable result could only be that such measures “prepare the way for almost every species of disorder.”

Professor Miller had theological and pastoral concerns over what was at stake: the genuineness of a sinner’s conversion.  He was rightly troubled about the danger of “human management” of a process of conversion, which emphasized human methods over the biblical message.  He reminds us that any approach to conversion which tries to inflame the heart without informing the head is skewed.  As a biblical corrective, Miller wrote,

"The truth is, any plan, in the house of God, for separating the precious and the vile, for drawing a line between the church and the world, which does not provide for an intelligent and deliberate, as well as serious entrance into the body of Christ – which does not make some good degree of knowledge, as well as feeling, necessary in the candidate for admission – however it may gratify one whose “ruling passion” is to multiply professed converts to the greatest possible extent, and however plausibly it may appear in the public journals of the day, will disclose miserable results in the end, as to any genuine building up of the Redeemer's kingdom."

Samuel Miller reminds us that in the final analysis, sound doctrine should always be cautious about the reliability of the initial enthusiasm of anyone who professes faith, and that conversion does not depend on human technique, but always rests squarely on the faithful proclamation of the convincing proofs (Acts 1:3) of the historical events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

James Rich is the Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Harleysville, PA, and holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught high school history and Bible and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the college and seminary level.

James Rich