“Remembering Princeton Seminary’s First 200 Years” by James H. Moorhead

James Moorhead
James H. Moorhead

James H. Moorhead is Mary McIntosh Bridge Professor of American Church History at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture, which is being published to commemorate the seminary’s bicentennial in 2012.

In this post, Moorhead explains how he tried to stretch beyond the ordinary scope of an institutional history to “illuminate broader issues of American religion, culture, and society,” and he highlights several key moments in Princeton Seminary’s long history of interaction with and impact upon American religion and culture.

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In writing the history of Princeton Seminary, I did not want to produce a narrow institutional history turned in on itself. I wanted to create a book illuminating broader issues of American religion, culture, and society.

When Princeton Seminary was founded by the Presbyterian Church in 1812, for example, religious revivals had persuaded some people that a good minister needed only the Bible and a spirit-filled heart and could dispense with further book learning. Others stressed the importance of a comprehensive classical education for the ministry. Princeton took a middle path, stressing both piety and learning — and the effort to keep the two in proper balance has remained a theme in the seminary’s life down to the present.

The seminary has long played a role in the politics of the Presbyterian Church. In the early nineteenth century, the denomination had within itself Old and New School parties, the latter more enthusiastic about new forms of revivalism and less strict in adhering to classical Reformed theology, the former favoring traditional theological views over evangelistic innovations. Princeton’s sympathies lay with the Old School, but the seminary professors at first tried to play peacemaker between the factions. Only when division became inevitable did Princeton unequivocally side with the Old School.

Princeton also entered the broader political and cultural debate about slavery and race. To its credit, the seminary in 1825 admitted the first African American student. But the school’s record is not all positive. Although Princeton believed that slavery was not an ideal institution and hoped that it would eventually pass away, the professors resisted calls for immediate emancipation and rejected the idea that slaveholding was necessarily sinful. Princeton anticipated the gradual freeing of slaves and their colonization in Africa. Although Princeton’s leaders appear to have had genuine concern about the welfare of slaves and wished for ultimate emancipation, that concern was paternalistic in nature, and they had trouble envisioning an egalitarian multiracial society in the United States. Nor could they imagine full equality for women. A properly ordered society, they believed, involved ‘‘social subordination’’ — of humanity to God, women to men, children to parents, slaves to masters, and the morally unfit and uneducated to the best and brightest.

Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture
Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture

Despite these limitations (shared by many in the nineteenth century), Princeton nurtured remarkable scholars such as Charles Hodge, William Henry Green, and Benjamin Warfield, who shaped a cogent theology that must be reckoned among the most intellectually rigorous in American history. It blended commitment to the Reformed tradition, emphasis on the centrality of the Bible, and a confidence in the power of common sense to perceive truth. Through their voluminous writings and the many students they taught, the Princeton faculty exercised formidable influence not only on Presbyterianism but on American Protestant thought in general.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the seminary’s place in American religion had changed. The triumph of more liberal theologies in major pulpits and divinity schools questioned basic assumptions at the heart of Princeton’s theology. Likewise, some argued for a theological education more directly addressed to the problems of ministry in an urbanizing and industrializing nation. During the 1920s, when a full blown battle erupted within the Presbyterian Church over whether modernism or liberalism should be tolerated, Princeton was deeply divided. The seminary’s J. Gresham Machen gave intellectual leadership to those who believed that compromise with liberalism represented the first step toward apostasy. Others such as President J. Ross Stevenson and Professor Charles Erdman, while themselves conservative, believed that the church should allow room for at least moderate forms of liberalism. The struggle resulted in the reorganization of the seminary in 1929 and the withdrawal of Machen and several other professors to form a new seminary.

In 1936, John A. Mackay became president of Princeton Seminary and reinvigorated the school. A native Scot and former missionary to Latin America, Mackay had sympathies with neo-orthodox theologies and their view of Christian truth as dynamic encounter with the living God; but Mackay’s ecumenical spirit — which ranged in appreciation from evangelist Billy Graham to theologian Karl Barth, from W.H. Auden’s literary work to the witness of the then largely ignored Pentecostal churches — defies easy labels. Although strongly anticommunist, he uttered prophetic condemnation of McCarthyism and worked to improve the lot of America’s exploited migrant workers.

Since Mackay’s retirement in 1959, the theological world has grown more varied, the mainline Protestant denominations no longer occupy as central a position in American life as they did in the 1950s, and the nation has become far more ethnically and religiously diverse. All of this has happened even as the center of gravity of world Christianity has shifted from Europe and America to the global South. Princeton Seminary, while remaining rooted in its Reformed heritage, has sought to create a faculty and student body responsive to these new realities.

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