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.