The 1800s in American history was a time of great Presbyterian theologians and preachers. Most history surveys overlook these men and their messages. Historians adopt the view of the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes whose poem “The One Hoss Shay” attempted to mock the demise of Jonathan Edwards’ theology. Quite often Ralph Waldo Emerson is treated as though he were a deeply profound American born and raised philosopher. His buddy Henry David Thoreau is likewise hailed as one of the bright lights of American history.
The final nails are put into the Presbyterian coffin during the Scopes Trial. Less often noticed is the battle for Princeton Theological Seminary. Mark Twain, who was often better than the historians at noticing the things that mattered, took more than a few swipes at Presbyterians. Take down the massive pillars of American Presbyterian theology and the rest of the edifice of American Protestant Christianity would follow.
I am not, at this moment, out to blame the historians. No one or no one thousand histories can cover everything. Of course, the perspective of the historian does determine what to include and what to exclude. This point still remains: Anyone serious about understanding American history from a Christian viewpoint must go beyond the best known texts and authors.
In short, Presbyterian theologians were some of the most dominant thinkers of the 19th Century. That dominance continued on into the 20th Century, but their voices and impact became less and less known. But just as one would not attempt to understand the Age of Elizabeth I in English history without taking note of the Puritan movement, one should not attempt to understand American history without studying the Presbyterians of the 1800s.
This study and emphasis, however, is not just a topic for intellectual historians who are trying to fill in gaps or connect the pieces of the puzzle. It is not what the Presbyterians said in the 1800s that concerns me most. Rather, it is what they are calling us to hear in the 21st Century.
We need the old Presbyterians now more than ever. Sad to say, after being ignored or glanced over for a long time, they are currently being excommunicated from Presbyterian thought and studies. Especially disliked are those who not only had the “misfortune” of being born in the South, but who defended the South and the Southern Confederacy on a number of very nuanced and profound ways.
The reading list I would like to give on this topic is long and involved. There are nearly 30 books that I call attention to in one of my past book reviews that dealt with Columbia Theological Seminary. That review can be found HERE.
For now, I would like to recommend two books written by two of the great Presbyterian theologians from the 19th century. I will struggle to avoid both being overly biographical or full of praise for these men. Just know that these are two of the pillars of American Christian Reformed and Presbyterian orthodox thought in the 1800s.
First, Charles Hodge and Exegetical Lectures and Sermons on Hebrews. This book is published by Banner of Truth.
The pastor, student, or teacher who needs an all purpose commentary on Hebrews needs to look elsewhere. The Hodge reader who is familiar with his incredible commentary on Romans should know that this work is not in the same category. It does contain comments on the text, and it is classic Hodge theology from beginning to end.
The first part of this book is exegetical notes on Hebrews. Hodge is not giving exhortation or application, but is working through some of the Greek grammar details and other points of exegesis, or drawing out the meaning of the text. For me, it was yet another reminder of how exacting, careful, and learned the Presbyterian ministers were in Hodge’s day. For me, it was yet another reminder of how far my own education is from the standards of that time.
Non-Greek New Testament students like me will find this section interesting, but not fulfilling. Greek students would likely be crying out “More! More!” As a student and teacher of history, it is more confirmation of the education found at Princeton and the scholarship standards of the time.
The following section gives a number of sermon outlines. A few if the outlines, but not all, come from another Banner publication called Princeton Sermons. I believe that preachers and students can learn quite a bit from studying these outlines. A similar work can be found in the B & H series called The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon: His Earliest Outlines and Sermons Between 1851 and 1854.
Reading a sermon outline is a bit of a challenge. It can be read quickly if one is simply trying to cover pages. But I think the greater task would be to spend some time thinking on each of the outline points. I think it would be a great lesson for aspiring preachers to take these outlines and fill in the gaps. (But give credit to the original writer.) Side note: Hodge’s outlines are not bullet points.
The absolute best part of the new Hodge book is the all too few complete sermons from various Hebrew texts. I remember thinking while reading one of these: “There is no way I could pack this much content into a single sermon. There is no way I could grasp this much content in a single sermon.” I am not speaking about merely being full of facts and theological information. I am referring to the fact that these sermons were rich with content. As Wesley said in another context, “I felt my heart warmly moved.”
One quote that I posted recently is worth repeating: “It was the Spirit who made the sound ring in your ears long after the speaker’s voice had ceased, and which brought back the sound in the stillness of the night and repeated in a small, still voice the admonitions of the pulpit.”
The sermons themselves are worth the price of the book. But the other parts are also helpful in giving both spiritual guidance and a standard to aspire to. By the way, Banner of Truth has continued to put out or reprint books by Charles Hodge. His commentaries on Romans, Ephesians, and 1 and 2 Corinthians and his book The Way of Life are both available, as is a biography of Hodge by his son A. A. Hodge.
Dabney on Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government is edited and introduced by my friend Zachary Garris. This book can be purchased from Amazon.
The books by Robert Lewis Dabney are many, usually lengthy, and now often highly priced and out of print. Thankfully, Zach Garris has made a handy, short, readable, and very pertinent collection of Dabney’s writings available in this book.
One of the many strengths of R. L. Dabney was his ability to see the direction that the culture and world was headed in. I think this insight, often called prophetic by those who study him, came from his Presbyterian worldview, vast scholarship, and personal experiences in being on the losing side of a major war. I have heard many literary figures explain Southern literature as being the result of the South losing the War Between the States.
Let us sidestep, for the moment, the issues and controversies related to that war. Often the greatest examples of human writing and thought come from people who have experienced the greatest hardships. Arguably, any soldier from World War I could have written All Quiet on the Western Front, but the fact that Erich Maria Remarque was a soldier on the German side increased the power of that novel.
The War Between the States was followed by the period known as Reconstruction. The standard history book then follows up with a period called “The Gilded Age.” That catchy phrase refers to the surface appearance of gold on an object that is not gold. Just as the world after World War I was not “safe for democracy” and the world after World War II was full of tragic courses, so that must be said about post-bellum America in the 1870s and beyond.
Dabney saw some bad consequences of ideas that were gaining the high ground in his time. Repeatedly, his warnings about education have been mentioned, quoted, and listened to by many, except those in the educational establishment. American education is in a crisis. Right now, the crisis is centering around school closures and possible inability to open in the fall. This is not to demean good teachers, faithful parents, or good effects stemming from the modern education system. But Dabney was looking beyond just a few symptoms to the greater problems. For Dabney, the problems stemming from a secular agenda would be astronomical. Be warned: He is not going to be nice in these essays. But carefully consider all of what he says.
Dabney was also concerned about feminism. It is routine to mock nearly all males from the 1800s regarding their views of women. Granted, they were not perfect in their understanding of this or other issues. I am thankful for the changes in culture and society that have granted greater opportunities for women in all areas of life. I have recently read books by one of the best literary scholars of our time, Jessica Hooten Wilson, who was a student of THE best literary critic of our time, Dr. Louise Cowan. I have been reading The Great Society by Amity Shlaes, who ranks among the greatest historians of our time in my thinking.
But feminism was in some of its root and is in some of its modern day fruit more than just a case of righting some societal wrongs. We have found ourselves in a world of gender insanity in these days. Hence, again there is the need to return to Dabney.
Concerning government, Southern Presbyterians had an oddly workable theological position. Pastors did not see that their task was to instruct the government from the pulpit, but they were pastor/scholars and public intellectuals. Hence, men like Dabney and his colleagues James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer used a variety of formats, usually written articles or public lectures, to address the government.
Dabney’s thought was conservative, but if a modern reader spends some time with Dabney’s writings, he will not find much to connect him to modern day talk radio “conservatism” or Republican party conservatism. Once again, Dabney will make us uncomfortable.
Zach Garris gives a fine introduction that provides pertinent biographical and theological details about Dabney. That is followed by reprints of four articles by Dabney on the topics listed in the subtitle. This is a great way to get introduced to a man who will not be often mentioned in today’s culture–secular or Christian.
There is your assignment: Get to know Charles Hodge and Robert L. Dabney. Here are two books that will enable you to go well into that task.