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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

Charles Hodge, John Williamson Nevin, and Roman Catholics



The anti-Catholicism of Protestants in the early United States has been well-documented, both religiously and politically. A suspicion of “popery” was one of the few bonds that tethered Protestants together in the maelstrom of the Second Great Awakening. As Daniel Walker Howe has shown, especially in the wake of Irish immigration after the potato famine of the 1840s, “Nativist sentiment combined economic anxieties about the new immigration with ethnic stereotyping of the Irish and long-standing religious distrust of Roman Catholicism.”[1] However, not all Protestant theologians were willing to declare that Catholics were outside the pale of salvation. In an 1846 issue of the Princeton Review, Charles Hodge conceded that the Catholic Church was part of the visible Church of Christ. One year earlier, the Old School General Assembly “almost unanimously” rejected the validity of Roman Catholic baptism, but Hodge dissented. Even though the Church of Rome contained serious errors and corruptions, these did not abrogate the baptism itself, at least in his mind.[2]

To those who would anathematize all Catholics, Hodge compared anti-Catholicism to the extremism of teetotalers or abolitionists:

He [an extreme temperance advocate] takes a common sense view of the case and asserts that a practice which produces all the drunkenness that is in the world, and all the vice and misery which flows from drunkenness, is a sinful practice. He therefore hoots at those who beg to discriminate between what is wrong in itself and universally, and what is wrong only in certain circumstances . . . The abolitionist is still more summary. Slavery is a heinous crime . . . It is as much as any man’s character . . . is worth to insist that a distinction must here be made; that we must discriminate between slavery and its separable adjuncts; between the relationship itself and the abuse of it; between the possession of power and the unjust exercise of it . . . It is just so in the present case. Rome is Antichrist, the mystical Babylon, the scarlet woman, the mother of harlots, drunk with the blood of saints. What room . . . is there for argument here? Is Babylon Zion? . . . The case is pronounced too plain for argument; . . . and those who do not join in the cry are represented as advocates of popery, or at best very doubtful Protestants.[3]


Whereas most Old School Presbyterians seemed to condemn all Catholics, Hodge preferred to “discriminate between” Catholics. While Hodge held a rather nuanced and contradictory view of slavery, his view of Catholicism helps to at least explain why he did not side with certain moral reform movements.[4] Even after the Civil War, Hodge urged his fellow Northerners not to punish all Confederates, but rather only those who had engaged in “acts of violence.”[5] In his view, whether politically or spiritually, every human being should be judged on their own merits.

Charles Hodge was not the only theologian in the Reformed tradition to accept the potential salvation of Catholics. His former classmate at Princeton, John Williamson Nevin, also accepted the validity of Roman Catholic baptism. Troubled by the various developments in Protestantism, and due to the wave of anti-Catholic sentiment in the 1840s, the German Reformed theologian set out in a series of articles in the Mercersburg Review to show that Protestants and Catholics had far more in common with one another than modern and historic Christianity. In doing so, however, the Mercersburg theologian cut against the cultural grain and defended the orthodoxy of Catholics. By the 1850s, Nevin “took up the challenge of defending Rome itself. He did so by looking precisely at the earliest Christian expressions and comparing them with Roman Catholicism. The point of the comparison was to see whether the anti-Catholic prejudice of his Protestant peers was plausible.”[6] Nevin was critiquing what he called the “Puritan theory” of church history, the idea that Chritianity began essentially as a form of proto-Puritanism, where individual interpretation of the Bible and corporate worship resembled that of New England or Scotland. Instead, Nevin argued that “no scheme of Protestantism . . . can be vindicated, on the ground of its being a repristination simply of what Christianity was immediately after the age of the Apostles.” Nevin had serious reservations about the Roman Catholic liturgy, to be sure. For instance, he believed that the elevation of the Lord’s Supper at the expense of God’s Word was similar to the “anxious bench” at Charles Finney’s revivals. In both cases, with such focus on external forms, “Christ is seriously wronged.” However, in his mind, this was no reason to dismiss the entire Roman Catholic church as apostate. “Early Christianity,” he concluded in another article, “was in its constitutional elements, not Protestantism, but Catholicism.”[7] The early church looked more “Catholic” than perhaps American Protestants were willing to admit. For Nevin, like Hodge, the grievous errors of the Roman Catholic Church required Protestants to “discriminate between” those Catholics who exercised genuine faith and those who did not.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century to its conclusion, a host of Protestants voiced their belief in the orthodoxy of Roman Catholicism, albeit in its corrupted form. Just before the turn of the century, Baptist John Leland contended for religious liberty of all denominations in the state of Massachusetts, including Catholics. Unlike other Baptists in the state like Isaac Backus, who did relatively little to guard the liberties of Catholics, Leland made various efforts to defend their right of conscience. In his view, Catholics were no less Christians than Protestants. Leland once objected “that the legislature of Massachusetts have not power to provide for any public teachers, except they are Protestant.” He continued, “Pagans, Turks, and Jews, must not only preach for nothing; but Papists, those marvellous Christians, cannot obtain a maintenance for their preachers by the laws of their commonwealth. Such preachers must either be supported voluntarily, support themselves, or starve. Is this good policy? Should once sect be pampered above others?”[8] Although most Baptists did not share Leland’s belief that Catholics were “marvellous Christians,” and Leland himself was often prone toward a bit of embellishment, his brand of inclusivism stands as a reminder that anti-Catholicism was not monolithic among evangelical Christians in the early United States.

After the Civil War, evangelicals continued to entertain the idea of saved Catholics, evidenced in Charles Hodge’s letter to the Pope in 1869. At the request of two General Assemblies, the Princeton theologian was asked to decline an invitation from Pope Pius IX that American Presbyterians send observers to the First Vatican Council. The benign yet firm tone of the letter, combined with the fact that Hodge was chosen to write it, indicates that many Presbyterians were still suspicious of the Roman church but willing to extend a hand of peace to those who believed in the same gospel:

[A]lthough we cannot return to the fellowship of the Church of Rome, we desire to live in charity with all men. We love all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. We regard as Christian brethren all who worship, love, and obey him as their God and Saviour; and we hope to be united in heaven with all who unite with us on earth in saying, “Unto him that loved us, washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”[9]


Amazingly, Charles Hodge, the so-called “Guardian of American Orthodoxy,” demonstrated a charitable inclusivism to even his most bitter theological foes, including Protestant liberals.[10] For example, in a famous footnote in the second volume of his Systematic Theology, Hodge made mention of the fact that he attended the church of Friedrich Schleiermacher while studying in Germany. After sharing an anecdote about Schleiermacher singing hymns, Hodge adds, “Can we doubt that he is singing those praises now? To whomever Christ is God, St. John assures us, Christ is a Saviour.”[11] Despite his unvarnished disdain for Schleiermacher’s theology, Hodge envisioned his deceased theological nemesis in heaven. Although he had reproached Schleiermacher for diminishing “historical Christianity” and engineering a “mystical system,” Hodge was also willing to call him “an extraordinary man.”[12] To German liberals and to Roman Catholics alike, American Protestants often extended a surprising amount of charity and optimism toward those with whom they disagreed theologically.

[1] Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 826. [2] Leo P. Hirrel, Children of Wrath: New School Calvinism and Antebellum Reform (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky), 1998), 96. [3] Charles Hodge, “Is the Church of Rome a Part of the Visible Church of Christ,” Princeton Review 18 (April 1846): 321–22. [4] For a brief examination of Hodge’s nuanced views on slavery, see Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 414–15, 515­–16. [5] Charles Hodge, “President Lincoln,” Princeton Review (July 1865): 454. [6] D. G. Hart, John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist (Phillipsburg; P&R Publishing, 2005), 153. [7] John Wiliamson Nevin, “Early Christianity” Mercersburg Review 4 (1852), reprinted in Catholic and Reformed: Selected Theological Writings of John Williamson Nevin (ed. Charles Yrigoyen and George H. Bricker; Pittsburgh Original Texts and Translation Series 3; Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1978), 309; John Williamson Nevin, “Cyprian [Part 4],” Mercersburg Review 4 (1852): 561. [8] John Leland, “The Yankee Spy” (1794), in The Writings of the Elder John Leland, ed. L. F. Greene (New York: G. W. Wood, 1845), 223. [9] In Mark A. Noll, “Charles Hodge as an Expositor of the Spiritual Life,” in Charles Hodge Revisited: A Critical Appraisal of His Life and Work, ed. John W. Steward & James H. Moorhead (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 189. [10] Paul C. Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). [11] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1872–73), 2:440. [12] Annette G. Aubert, The German Roots of Nineteenth-Century American Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 172.

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