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Amid the profound changes of the nineteenth century highlighted elsewhere in this issue, one institution that stood out for its fidelity to historic Christian orthodoxy was Princeton Theological Seminary. Founded as the first Presbyterian seminary in North America in 1812, it trained more than six thousand ministers in its first century, far more than any other school, giving shape to the confessional identity of American Presbyterianism. Among the titans of the faculty, four stand out: Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, and Benjamin B. Warfield. There were many others, of course, but these four were most influential in establishing what church historian David Calhoun called the “majestic testimony” of the seminary from its founding until 1929.

What made Old Princeton a great institution? Certainly, Princeton was renowned for its scholarship. Its professors never “shirked the difficult questions” (in the words of Old Testament professor Robert Dick Wilson) as they took on the major controversies of their day. Princeton theologians provided an intellectual defense of biblical authority and the Reformed faith through biblical commentaries and theological treatises, and especially through the seminary’s widely read journal, the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review. The journal was effective in bringing the Reformed confessional heritage to bear on a wide range of intellectual and ecclesiastical challenges that were stirring in nineteenth-century American life: the Pelagianism of Charles G. Finney, the irrationalism of Romanticism, the unbelief of Darwinism, the corruptions of Roman Catholicism, the skepticism of higher criticism, and much more.

Princeton was also known for its unswerving commitment to the theology of the Reformation. Reflecting on his fifty-year tenure on the faculty, Charles Hodge ventured that “a new idea never originated in this Seminary.” These words were generally misunderstood. The Princeton theologians’ engagement with controversial matters was always studied and nuanced—such as their qualified assessment of evolution. His point was that Princeton saw itself as commending and defending the Reformed faith, committed fully to the authority of Scripture and the system of doctrine found in the Westminster Standards. In his 1888 inaugural address, Warfield echoed Hodge’s sentiments when he claimed that

though the power of Charles Hodge may not be upon me, the theology of Charles Hodge is within me, and that this is the theology which, according to my ability, I have it in my heart to teach to the students of the coming years.

Denying that there was ever a “distinctly Princeton theology,” Francis Patten suggested that “semper eadam [always the same] is a motto that would befit [Princeton] well.”

Princeton saw itself as commending and defending the Reformed faith.

But Princeton’s consistency would not sit well with the restless stirrings in the church. By the start of the twentieth century, a broadening spirit in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) grew impatient with the school’s confessional precision, and progressive movements lobbied for revisions to the Westminster Confession, in the interests of witnessing to the modern age more effectively. Warfield lamented the dilution of the church’s witness, but his reaction was neither sectarian nor provincial. In his words, Calvinism was simply “Christianity come into its own.”

The term “Old Princeton” may have first been employed by the Princeton New Testament professor J. Gresham Machen when he wrote to his mother about Warfield’s death in 1921: “Dr. Warfield’s funeral took place yesterday afternoon at the First Church of Princeton. . . . It seemed to me that the old Princeton—a great institution it was—died when Dr. Warfield was carried out.” What Machen anticipated became official by decade’s end when the school was reorganized in 1929. The inclusion of modernists on the board of directors prompted Machen, along with four other members of the Prince­ton faculty, to form Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Machen knew that no one would confuse his new school with Princeton. Still, it opened its doors because Princeton had “been made to conform to the current drift of the age.” “[Though] Prince­ton Seminary is dead,” he concluded, “the noble tradition of Princeton is alive. Westminster will endeavor by God’s grace to continue that tradition unimpaired.”

Westminster was not alone in claiming to be the “new Old Princeton.” Eight years after Westminster’s founding, the fundamentalist preacher Carl McIntire, claiming that Westminster was abandoning its American Presbyterian heritage and heading in a more Dutch Reformed direction, established Faith Theological Seminary, a school that would carry out the Old Princeton tradition in ways that Westminster failed. A decade later, in 1947, Fuller Theological Seminary was founded in Pasadena, Calif., as the flagship seminary for the “new evangelicalism” that emerged after World War II. Founding president Harold Ockenga proposed that “the new west coast seminary would capture the glory and academic standard of the old Princeton.” McIntire and Ockenga were Princeton Seminary classmates who transferred to Westminster to finish their theological training under Machen. As much as McIntire and Ockenga differed with each other, they shared an impatience with the fiercely confessional Calvinism Machen established at Westminster and in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church that Machen helped found upon leaving the PCUSA in 1936. Their claims to the Old Princeton ideal underscored how elastically it was interpreted, embraced by separatist fundamentalists as well as evangelicals who remained in mainline Presbyterianism.


The spirit of Old Princeton reached the South as well. Reformed Theological Seminary began in 1966, also in the Princeton tradition. According to Morton H. Smith, the model of Westminster was particularly compelling in the seminary’s founding, owing to its spiritual succession to Princeton. “The original faculty of Reformed Seminary,” Smith observed, “viewed it as something of a daughter seminary to Westminster.”

When schools claim the mantle of “Old Princeton,” generally it is its high standard of scholarship to which they aspire. But are they looking in the right place for the heart of Princeton’s testimony? When the venerable faculty of Princeton Seminary themselves described the uniqueness of its pedagogy, they pointed to sources other than its academic rigor.

For example, on the occasion of Prince­ton’s centennial in 1912, Warfield chose what we might regard as an odd feature of the school’s legacy to celebrate. In an article for the Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, Warfield surveyed the contribution of the “sons of the Seminary” to the hymnody of the church. Quality hymns produced by Princeton graduates numbered as many as the years it was opened. “It is a record of which Princeton Seminary may well be proud,” he wrote. “And certainly no more delightful monument of Princeton’s centennial year could be erected.”

Warfield’s pride underscored the seminary’s desire to align theology with Reformed piety, a connection found in the charter that launched the school. The Plan of a Theological Seminary (1811) sought to “unite piety of the heart” with “solid learning,” believing one without the other “in the ministers of the Gospel, must ultimately prove injurious to the Church.” This vital tie required both academic diligence and faithfulness in attendance in public worship and private devotion.

In the life of the seminary, this came to particular expression in the “Sabbath afternoon conferences,” a practice that dates to the very founding of the school. The hourlong services consisted of a time of prayer and singing led by a student, followed by an address by a faculty member on a wide range of theological topics. The effect, on each Lord’s Day throughout the school year, was to underscore the practical character of Reformed doctrine.

“Here in the most effective manner,” wrote A.A. Hodge, Charles’ son and successor in systematic theology at Princeton, “did these teachers of teachers set the crown upon their work, and herein they exerted by far, their most widely extended and permanent influence.” That was not to produce accomplished scholars but pastors committed to the “work of saving souls and of edifying the church of Christ.” Princeton alumnus John Murray added that these gatherings were the key “means of cultivating that intelligent piety of which the Seminary at Princeton was the nursery.”

The younger Hodge insisted that it was a “most remarkable and memorable exercise in the entire Seminary Course.” War­field, who stressed throughout his years at Princeton the cultivation of the “religious life” of the student, credited the conference with keeping “the fire burning on the altar for a hundred years.” The students shared the same perspective, David Calhoun claimed: “No single feature of seminary life was remembered by former students more often or more warmly than the conference.”

Reformed Christians live in very different times and face different cultural challenges in the twenty-first century. Today’s seminaries train a far more diverse student body than attended Old Princeton. But if the spirit of Old Princeton is worth retrieving, it demands a renewed interest in the concern the faculty had for the establishment of Reformed piety in the lives of their students. Princeton professors understood that their calling in the classroom was connected to their service as churchmen. They trained their students in ways that united Reformed faith and practice. Schools that continue to aspire to the greatness of early Princeton would do well to pattern themselves after this lost feature of the genius of Old Princeton.

An Overview of the Nineteenth Century

The Second Great Awakening

Keep Reading The Nineteenth Century

From the May 2019 Issue
May 2019 Issue