Review of “Princeton Seminary in American Culture and Religion”

dmsthumbJames H. Moorhead. Princeton Seminary in American Culture and Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2012. xxii + 548pp (cloth) $60.00

Begun in 1812, Princeton Theological Seminary is the second oldest seminary in America, its two libraries (the Speer Library and the Henry Luce III Library) represent the largest theological library collection in the United States, and the second largest in the world (only the Vatican Library has more extensive holdings). Under the leadership of four successive “principals;” Archibald Alexander (1772–1851); Charles Hodge (1797–1878); Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823–86); and Benjamin B. Warfield (1851–1921), the “Princeton Theology” was developed and taught to successive generations of (mainly) Presbyterian and evangelical pastors and educators. While that theology ceased to be the driving force at Princeton after 1929, Princeton, to this day remains a key institution for theological education and discussion.

To commemorate the bi-centennial of Princeton, the author, himself the Mary McIntosh Bridge Professor of Church History at Princeton Theological Seminary, has produced a history that is detailed without being pedantic and immensely readable without falling into a shallow press piece.

This volume has an excellent Person/Subject Index (510–48) and the notations are exceptionally thorough. However, one could wish that a separate bibliography had been included. In such a well-researched work, that David C. Calhoun’s two volumes: Princeton Seminary: Faith and Learning, 1812–1868 (Banner of Truth, 1994) and Princeton Seminary: The Majestic Testimony, 1869–1929 (Banner of Truth, 1996) go unreferenced and unmentioned is rather inexplicable, especially given the fact that Moorhead spends about ¾ of his work covering the period of 1812 to 1936.

Moorhead details the creation of Princeton and the various dynamics that led to the creation of the school with a board and faculty “separate from the college [The College of New Jersey, later Princeton University]” (26) and with an educational model that would not “follow the divinity school route that Harvard and Yale later pursued” (ibid). The creation of Princeton Seminary under Archibald Alexander and Samuel Miller also coincided with major changes at the College of New Jersey (which had experienced both a suspicious fire, student riots, and general unrest from 1802–1807), where Samuel Smith was ousted as president and replaced by Ashbel Green.

The establishment of Princeton sought to provide “learned men” to fill expanding number of churches as the United States was beginning a major westward expansion (27). The Presbyterian Church established a plan for the seminary that sought to balance the often-competing interests of revivalism, piety, theological fidelity, and scholarship. Moorhead states,

Whatever else the Princetonians were, they first and foremost saw themselves as expositors of God’s Word. But there were never simply men of one book, even a sacred book. Scholars of many books and subjects, they hoped to train their students broadly and believed, as [Archibald] Alexander put it, “there is scarcely any branch of knowledge which may not be made subservient to theology” (xix–xx).

Moorhead arranges the chronological history around the key personalities, mainly the seminary principals. After the chapter on Alexander and Miller (28–62), his chapter “Learning and Piety” (63–98) examines the initial growth and success of the seminary “plan.” Some issues in seminary education seemingly do not change from century to century. Moorhead notes the complaint of Samuel Miller, who in the 1830’s lamented that students often came to seminary and discovered,

the miserable scantiness of their literary and scientific acquisitions” and had the sinking realization that they were not prepared to “enter with intelligence on several departments of theological study (89).

Those students, instead of applying themselves to “more and deeper studies” (ibid) simply went back to their public ministries without completing their studies; there were then, as there are today, many churches all to willing to take on under-prepared preachers and pastors.

One of the most informative sections of this work are the chapters dealing with the events that would eventually lead to the events of 1929, the so-called “re-organization of Princeton Seminary.” In “Hints of Change and Missionary Visions” (282–310), “Curriculum, Conflict, and the Seminary’s Mission” (311–39), and “The Fundamentalist Controversy and Reorganization” (340–69) Moorhead deftly presents and explains the multiple issues that were converging in the decades prior to the reorganization. The three streams of leadership at the seminary: faculty governance, organizational leadership by the board, and the Presbyterian Church’s denominational direction; which had been, by and large, in confluence for the first 100 years began to diverge. Additionally, advancing pedagogical philosophy in higher education began to impact Princeton (312–20).

The first significant change was made in 1902. That year, a “president” appointed by the board (322) replaced the seminary “principal” (a senior faculty member chosen by the faculty). This bifurcated the operations, transferring operational and leadership duties away from the faculty to a separate administration (although in the immediate years after the change the president still regularly taught courses). The first president, Frances L. Patton, had been maneuvered out as president of Princeton University in a “palace coup” (321) engineered by Woodrow Wilson, who would be named the new university president, then would be elected governor of New Jersey, and later, President of the United States. With Warfield’s death in 1921 faculty dominance in seminary policy and practice quickly began to erode.

“Student petitions” made directly to the board of directors also served to alter the academic landscape in the new century. In 1903 students successfully petitioned for the addition of “English Bible” courses (323) into the curriculum. In 1909 a rather pointed petition complained about professors, “slovenly, dull, and uninspiring” classroom teaching (327). This second petition coincided with a drop in enrollment and led the board to recommend to the faculty several changes. However, Warfield’s power and influence was such that, “the board backed off, adopting rather modest recommendations” (328). Warfield advocated, defending to the end of his life, a rigidly proscribed curriculum with essentially no electives. If one wanted to study specialized subjects in the elective offerings a student could only do so, “through a fourth year of education after the required work was completed” (321).

The details of the final reorganization of Princeton in 1929 are largely bound up in the lives of Charles R. Erdman (1866–1960) and J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937). Erdman’s appointment to the faculty in 1905 was not welcome. Moorhead states in particular, “Warfield acted as if the courses of the new professor affronted the integrity of the seminary program” (326). Until his death in 1921 Warfield refused to approve any student majoring in his department of Systematic Theology to pursue a minor in Eerdman’s courses. Machen, and particularly his seminal book, Christianity and Liberalism (1923) and his ecclesiological views are thoroughly discussed (350–69). In 1923 Machen was called to preach at the First Presbyterian Church in Princeton in a “supply” or interim roll when the church was without a pastor (362) and after he was then followed by Erdman, who ultimately was called to be regular pastor, serving for the next ten years. The personal animosity between the two would carry on beyond the Westminster-Princeton split to the issue of missionary work (395–97), where Erdman was the chairman of board of foreign missions and Machen was finalizing creation of a new missions board (which syphoned off scarce money to the existing denominational work). It was this action, not theology, which led to Machen’s defrocking and ultimately to the formation of a new Presbyterian denomination (396).

The reorganization of Princeton in 1929 led to Machen and several others leaving (although they were all invited to remain) Princeton and forming Westminster Theological Seminary. It was really not a “conservative” vs “liberal” split, as Moorhead notes, “to a man, they were conservative” (309), although he perhaps is viewing that 1929 spectrum through a 2012 lens. Not all who theologically agreed with Machen joined him in departing. Gerhardus Vos, Caspar Wistar Hodge Jr., and William Park Armstrong, all remained at Princeton.

Given the detail Moorhead dedicates to the years of 1812–1935, the remainder of this work, covering 1935 to 2004 seems a bit skimpy in comparison. However, the final chapters are informative and a fascinating read. As he noted earlier, “at it’s founding the seminary’s leaders perceived themselves as standing between the extremes of radical Enlightenment and unlettered piety” (281). Moorhead’s narrative shows that the fulcrum of that balance perhaps shifted to the left in the last 50 years.

The work is highly recommended at several levels. Evangelicals and conservatives who lament the “loss” of Princeton with the reorganization will be enlightened and perhaps warned about the dynamics of that era. The issues in seminary education that Princeton has dealt with throughout its history are largely unchanged today and anyone interested in seminary or theological education will benefit from this work. Moorhead writes history with a panache that is both interesting and even-handed, undergirded with a model of scholarly research..