Southern Theologians–A Reunion

Reading Our Southern Zion: Old Columbia Seminary (1828-1927) by David B. Calhoun was like a good reunion of family and friends.  Part of the connection is the fact that this book is published by Banner of Truth, which has been a favorite publisher of Reformed books for decades in my life and more decades before I was aware of Reformed Theology.

For quite a few years, I had recurring awakenings to the various aspects of Southern heritage.  The first such awakening was an interest in the War Between the States.  Soon after that, I became interested in Reformed theology (to my total surprise) and the history of Calvinism.  Calvinism and the Old South have lots of connections.  The best connecting piece between the two is Robert L. Dabney’s book The Life and Campaigns of Lieutenant General  T. J. (Stonewall) Jackson.

In the years that followed, both interest in the War and the religion of the South continued to interest…rather, consume…me.  For quite a few years, I was very much locked into studies of the literature of the South.  Other aspects of Southern life, such as music and folkways, was also intriguing.

Reading Our Southern Zion was then a pleasant regathering of thoughts and reminder of the great Southern theologians.  Of course, therein lies the rub to this whole matter.  The lives of theologians rarely makes for exciting or adventurous reading.  After all, a theologian spends most of his time in the study, the classroom, and the pulpit.  Then there is the Southerness of this book’s subjects.  The South carries a weight and burden of its past that still gives it discredit in many circles.  We grant that the Southern Church, in nearly all branches, failed in its mission and message at many points.  All churches in all areas have had their areas of failure, their failure of vision, and their misapplication of doctrine and life.  Reading history is never for the point of recreating.  History should humble and instruct us, but never provide the exact blueprints for our own times.  Therefore, reading about Southern Christianity is both a challenge and a rebuke.

Since I referred to this book as a reunion, I want to recount the titles of favored books I encountered here again.

1.  Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990 by Erskine Clarke.  Lengthy study of the various Calvinists in the history of South Carolina.

2.  Preachers With Power: Four Stalwarts of the South by Douglas Kelly.  A very inspiring study of Daniel Baker, James Henley Thornwell, Benjamin Palmer, and John Girardeau.

3. Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South by Eugene Genovese. A fascinating look at Southern Christians by a historian who went from Marxism to Christianity.

4.  The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of An American Conservatism by Eugene Genovese.  Southern conservatism has its own vision.

5.  Southern Presbyterian Leaders 1683-1911 by Henry Alexander Whyte.  A very exciting and moving study of Southern Christianity.

6.  Revival and Revivalism by Iain Murray.  Murray is a wonderful Christian historian.

7.  Presbyterians in the South, 3 volumes, by Ernest Trice Thompson.  A lengthy study by a Texarkana native.  It took me years to acquire the entire set.

8.  B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought by Bradley J. Gundlach.  Warfield was a Kentuckian with Southern roots.

9.  The Gentlemen Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture, 1795-1865 by E. Brooks Holifield.  The intellectual depths of Southern theologians have often been overlooked.

10.  The Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War, edited by Robert M. Myers.  The moving letters of a Christian family during the War Between the States.

11.  A Georgian at Princeton, edited by Robert M. Myers.  The same family as above, the Jones family, had two sons who attended Princeton College.

12.  Heroes by Iain Murray.  Murray devoted a chapter to Charles Colcock Jones, missionary to African-American slaves.

13.  The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell.  4 volumes.  A great source of theology and Southern culture.

14.  The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell by Benjamin Morgan Palmer.  I read this book back in the 1980s and loved it.

15.  Writings of Thomas E. Peck.  3 volumes.  I got this set a couple of years ago.  Peck was another Southern preacher.

16.  Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer by Thomas Cary Johnson.  A great study of a great preacher.

17.  Memoirs of James P. Boyce by John A. Broadus.  Boyce and Broadus were Baptists.  The story of Calvinistic Baptists from the South is another chapter of Southern Christian history.

18.  The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values by James Oscar Farmer, Jr.  I read this interesting study of Thornwell long, long ago.

19.  The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney by Thomas Cary Johnson.  A great biography of Dabney.

20.  Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life by Sean Michael Lucas.  A recent biography of Dabney.

21.  Discussions of R. L. Dabney.  Dabney’s writings and opinions on all kinds of matters, theological, political, cultural, and social.  Banner of Truth published the theological discussions and Sprinkle Press published the wider range of Dabney’s thought.

22.  John L. Girardeau’s Lifework and Sermons.  Sprinkle Publications reprinted several works by and about Girdardeau, who is best remembered for pastoring an African-American church.

23.  Calvinism and Evangelical Arminianism by John L. Girardeau.

24.  The Theology of Infant Salvation by Robert A. Webb.

25.  Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology by Morton Smith.  Morton Smith wrote this as a doctoral dissertation.  He is an heir to the Southern theological tradition.

26.  Studies in Preaching, volume 3, The Homiletical Innovations of Andrew W. Blackwood by Jay E. Adams.  Andrew Blackwood was one of the later professors at Columbia.

27.  J. Gresham Machen: A Biographial Memoir by Ned Stonehouse.  Machen was invited to take a position at Columbia, and it appealed to his Southern heritage, but he opted to stay at Princeton.

28.  Princeton Seminary: Faith and Learning, 1812-1868 and The Majestic Testimony, 1869-1929 by David Calhoun.  These are Calhoun’s previous volumes on Columbia’s better known sister seminary.  They are reviewed here.

Wow!  What a gathering.  And there were quite a few bibliographical guests that I had not met and do not own.  Just for the record, numbers 2, 5, 6, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19, 21, 27, and 28 are all published by Banner of Truth, which is located in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Banner of Truth is, therefore, one of the best sources for books on the Calvinistic theological heritage of the south.

A history of a theological seminary is, by design, a history of the many different teachers whose spent time in the halls of learning.  This book recounts some amazing aspects of Southern history.  First, the South produced some of the most brilliant theologians of the 19th century.  The Columbia greats, such as Thornwell, Girardeau, and Palmer, wrote some works that have continued to instruct serious theology students.  Second, the great theologians were quite often quite powerful pulpiteers.  The accounts given of the preaching of these same 3 (Thornwell, Girardeau, and Palmer) indicates that these men were not primarily academics.  Their theoology translated into practical, hard-hitting, soul stirring sermons.  They would have agreed with Karl Barth on this point (without agreeing with him on other matters):  Theology is nothing other than sermon preparation.

Third, many of the Southern Presbyterians had great hearts for and devoted great attention to African-Americans.  Their views were not always perfect and their paternalistic views have been rightly criticized.  But Southern Presbyterians of the 1800s had hearts for carrying the Gospel to their slaves.  Had their vision and emphases been more applied in the South, racial problems in the years following the War Between the States would have been lessened.

Fourth,  the Southern Presbyterian Church and Columbia Seminary were strongly rooted and grounded in historic Calvinism.  There were no frayed edges to orthodoxy in their doctrines.  But, it should be noted that this Calvinistic rigor did not preclude Southern Presbyterians from having great relations with Christians of other traditions.  Along with that, these Calvinists were strongly evangelistic.  

Our Southern Zion will probably have limited appeal. But there are those like me who rejoice in seeing the works of God in a Presbyterian seminary in days past.  It gives a hint of what kind of blessings God still has in store for us.

6 thoughts on “Southern Theologians–A Reunion

  1. Thank you Ben for again filling me with that blue ache of unrequited desire in the face of so many books and too few waking hours. I read Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer some years ago. Living in New Orleans, I have visited his tomb on a couple of occasions. He had quite the influence on this city in his day. In a biography of George W. Cable, the New Orleans author and partner of Mark Twain on speaking tours, there is a story of Cable getting Twain to visit Palmer’s First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans (of which Cable was a member). Twain was quoted as saying that the service that Sunday morning was the closest he had ever been to heaven. On the speaking tours, Cable would always attend worship in whatever city they were in, and would always pressure Twain to go with him. Finally, Twain became so irritated with Cable that they parted ways..

  2. The book I reviewed reminded me of how much I have forgotten about Southern and 19th century theologians and preachers. Thanks for the Twain story. Mark Twain never could get over his Christian, and specifically Presbyterian, upbringing. I have a hope that the Presbyterian pastor and friend who preached Twain’s funeral was able to minister to his embittered soul in his last years.

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  6. Pretty good article, but I have to give a disclaimer.

    The article did fail in its mission and message at many points. All articles in all areas have had their areas of failure, their failure of vision, and their misapplication of doctrine and life. Reading articles is never for the point of agreeing. Articles should humble and instruct us but never provide the exact blueprints for how we should interpret the past. Therefore, reading this article was both a challenge and a rebuke.

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