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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

The Softer Side of 19th Century Conservative Presbyterianism

Like the Reformers themselves, American Protestants in the 19th century could sometimes reserve their harshest critiques and longest screeds for those with whom they shared the most in common. Among 19th century Presbyterians, familiarity often bred contempt. Princeton theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878) was well-known for launching invectives against his fellow evangelicals. To the so-called "New Divinity" men in the Congregationalist Church (the theological successors of Puritan Jonathan Edwards), Hodge accused them of “Rationalism, Schleiermacherism, Infidelity, profaneness, and worse of all, Pelagianism.”[1] To his former pupil John Williamson Nevin, he alleged that the German Reformed theologian’s views verged on the ancient heresies of Eutychianism, Monothelitism, Socinianism, and Sabellianism.[2] During his lifetime, Hodge was not exactly known for an ecumenical faith.

And Hodge was not the only heresy hunter among 19th century Presbyterians. In the Fall of 1816, for instance, the Synod of Philadelphia advised its presbyteries to resist “the introduction of Arian, Socinian, Arminian, and Hopkinsian heresies, which are some of the means by which the enemy of the soul would, if possible, deceive the very elect.” The label "Hopkinsian" came from leading New Divinity theologian, Samuel Hopkins, chief disciple of Jonathan Edwards, who apparently garnered enough disdain from some Presbyterians to warrant comparisons to the very worst teachers in the history of the church.

However, Presbyterianism had a softer side. In the eyes of many other Presbyterians, linking Jonathan Edwards’s disciples with the arch-heresy of Arianism was a shot across the ecclesiastical bow. Samuel Miller of Princeton was chairman of the committee that drafted a refusal to condemn Hopkinsian teachings as heresy.[3] Indeed, within the Presbyterian denomination itself, Princeton was not known for an ultra-conservative posture toward its enemies. “We go on here,” declared the seminary’s first professor, Archibald Alexander, “upon our old moderate plan, teaching the doctrines of Calvinism, but not disposed to consider every man a heretic who differs in some few points with us.”[4] This was the general outlook of the Princeton theologians, who preferred to “discriminate between” their opponents instead of anathematizing the whole bunch.

For instance, in 1830 and 1831, when Charles Hodge and Archibald Alexander launched a series of attacks against the New Haven Theology (a system of thought in the Edwardsean tradition promulgated by Nathaniel W. Taylor at Yale), they were careful not to conflate “Hopkinsian peculiarities” with the “Taylorite errors.”[5] The New Haven Theology, which they compared with “Pelagianism,” posed a much greater threat to Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches than the “New Divinity” which preceded it.  Years later, Charles Hodge confessed, “It is not enough that a doctrine be erroneous, or that it be dangerous in its tendency, if it be not subversive of one or more of the constituent elements of the Reformed faith, it is not incompatible with the honest adopting of the Confession.” In 1869, when Hodge opposed the reunion of Old and New Schools in the Assembly, he ultimately did so not because he believed New School theology to be heretical, but because it tolerated heterodox views.[6] It was the “tendency” of New School thought that worried Hodge the most. Nevertheless, he believed there was room in heaven for aberrant evangelical brethren.

            Even ultra-conservative Presbyterian theologians had a softer side. In Virginia, Robert Lewis Dabney was regarded as “an apostle of the Old South” and the “conservator of what has become known as the ‘Southern tradition.’”[7] And yet the Confederate Dabney was careful to articulate his view that erring denominations were included in the family of God. For example, fellow Southerner James Henley Thornwell argued for jure divino (divine law) Presbyterianism, the idea that Scripture had explicitly revealed the Presbyterian form of church government as it pertained to boards and ruling elders. In doing so, Thornwell questioned whether those who opposed his position (i.e. Charles Hodge) were even Presbyterian. While Dabney sympathized with Thornwell, he qualified his position, explaining “that the Bible contains guiding principles for Church government of inspired authority, that it is the duty of all visible churches to follow these principles, and that those churches who follow them are more after the divine mind and more adapted to man’s true good, but yet those that follow them not are not thereby unchurched, but may be yet true though erring visible churches.” Dabney rejected the idea that “a form of visible church government is so laid down in Sacred Scripture by inspired authority that those who do not apply are no visible churches.” In other words, the Presbyterian church was not the only church, and its members were not the only saints. In Dabney’s mind, church polity was not “essential to salvation,” as some seemed to suggest.[8]

            In the Episcopal Church, with whom the Presbyterians often debated in the 19th century over ecclesiology and other matters of doctrine, there was also a softer side. When bishop Charles Pettit McIlvaine, leader of the Episcopal Church’s Evangelical party, was critiqued by Presbyterians for seeking to maintain the exclusivity of the Episcopal church on one hand and interdenominational unity on the other, he made a seemingly tenuous distinction. Departing from the official High Church position (advocated by John Henry Hobart, bishop of New York) that episcopacy was essential to the being (esse) of the church, McIlvaine argued instead that the episcopacy was only essential to the church’s well-being (bene esse). In attempting to submit to Episcopal authorities while also being inclusive of other Christians, McIlvaine was trying to have his ecclesiastical cake and eat it too. According to his logic, the Episcopal polity was primitive and apostolic, but the ministry of other churches could be “recognized.”[9] Needless to say, McIlvaine was critiqued heavily by Presbyterians, including the watchdog of Presbyterian orthodoxy, Charles Hodge.

            Unlike the High Church Episcopalians, most evangelicals in nineteenth-century America, including conservative Presbyterians, made a crucial distinction between a visible church anchored in a particular theological tradition and the invisible church, and between those who professed Christ with their lips and those who actually believed in Him with their heart. Even the watchdog Charles Hodge, in an interesting footnote in the second volume of his Systematic Theology, suggested that Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of theological liberalism, was indeed in heaven. After sharing an anecdote about Schleiermacher singing hymns, Hodge noted, “Can we doubt that he is singing those praises now? To whomever Christ is God, St. John assures us, Christ is a Saviour." Despite Hodge's unvarnished disdain for Schleiermacher’s theology, he envisioned his deceased theological nemesis in glory. Although he had reproached Schleiermacher for diminishing “historical Christianity” and engineering a “mystical system,” Hodge was also willing to call him “an extraordinary man.” (ST, 2:440; Aubert, German Roots, 172) Hodge also acknowledged the validity of Roman Catholic baptisms, for which he suffered no small amount of criticism. Despite its reputation for theological rigor and general combativeness, conservative Presbyterianism in the 19th century did indeed have a softer side.

[1] Park, New England Theology, 171.


[2] W. Andrew Hoffecker, Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2011), 261.


[3] George M. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 42.


[4] Quoted in John Oliver Newton, “Archibald Alexander, Winsome Conservative (1772–1851),” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 35 (1957): 23.


[5] Archibald Alexander Hodge, The Life of Charles Hodge (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1880), 290.


[6] Marsden, The Evangelical Mind, 69, 227.


[7] David H. Overy, “Robert Lewis Dabney: Apostle of the Old South” (Ph.D. diss.: University of Wisconsin, 1967); Sean Michael Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2005).

[8] Robert Lewis Dabney, “Lectures on Church History and Government,” MS, Dabney Collection, Montreat. Quoted in Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney, 71.


[9] Diana Hochstedt Butler, Standing Against the Whirlwind: Evangelical Episcopalians in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 81–2.

[10] Jeremiah Evarts, “August 19, 1801,” in E. C. Tracy, Memoir of the Life of Jeremiah Evarts (Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1845), 18.


[11] Jonathan Maxcy, “A Funeral Sermon Occasioned by the Death of the Rev. James Manning, D.D.,” in The Literary Remains of Rev. Jonathan Maxcy, D.D., ed. Romeo Elton (New York: A. V. Blake, 1844), 151.

[12] For an in-depth look into Winchester’s theological views and other sects of Universalism in America, see Michael J. McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018): 580–607.


[13] Reuben Aldridge Guild, Life, Times, and Correspondence of James Manning (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1864), 402.

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