Old Princeton for New Calvinists: The Legacy of Archibald Alexander

The original goal of Princeton Seminary was to produce faithful ministers who would possess “that piety of the heart which is the fruit only of the renewing and sanctifying grace of God with solid learning.” [1] It came as no surprise when the leaders of the Presbyterian church looked to Archibald Alexander to set the course. He possessed a rare mix of academic, spiritual, and relational qualities that uniquely suited him for the position. Twenty years after being transformed by the grace of God as a teenager in the mountains of Virginia, he was appointed to serve as the founding professor of Princeton Seminary in 1812.

The son of Scottish immigrants, Archibald Alexander had been taught the Westminster Catechism as a child but never publicly embraced Christ. He watched his friends and family experience dramatic conversions through the ministry of itinerant preachers. For Alexander, religious feelings always disappeared as quickly as they came. Finally, while reading John Flavel’s sermons on the free offer of the gospel, he was deeply awakened to the grace of God, running into the woods to weep. As he wrote of this experience, “I have never before understood the freeness of salvation, but had always been striving to bring some price in my hand.”

Alexander enjoyed a meteoric rise from his humble beginnings in Lexington, Virginia, to becoming the inaugural leader of the flagship seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. To observers, Alexander was distinguished for his awakened heart and vigorous mind. Prepared for the ministry as a protégé of pastor William Graham, he was ordained to the ministry at 19 and five years later was appointed president of Hampden-Sydney College. He moved to Philadelphia in 1807 to serve as pastor and was soon elected moderator of the Presbyterian’s annual assembly, a rare honor for a 35-year-old. As an adult, he read more literature in Latin than in English. In both personality and size, he was an unintimidating figure. He had Virginian gentility, a classical mind, and a pastoral heart, enjoying great respect and admiration.

Alexander’s tenure at the seminary lasted 39 years, and his legacy loomed large over the institution. Three hallmarks of his ministry have ongoing importance for Christians today.

First, he emphasized the priority of pastoral piety. Though he taught all the courses during the seminary’s first year, he ultimately focused on pastoral theology as other professors were added to the faculty. Archibald Alexander devoted his life to training ministers who had tasted God’s free grace and were equipped to show others the richness of it from the Scriptures. It is one thing to have a minister who can preach grace. It is another to have a minister who experiences it. The former can tell you about the mercy of God as one who has studied it, while the latter speaks of it as one who has savored its sweetness. As he told his students,

None but a man whose heart is habitually warm with the love of God can discharge faithfully the duties of their office. That man, who “watches for souls” ought to have a heart lavished with the tenderest compassion for perishing men. He ought to be a man mighty in prayer and deeply impressed with a sense of the awful responsibility of his office, or he never can be faithful to his trust. A fit of zeal will stimulate a man to undertake the office, and may, for a season, produce rigorous exertions, but nothing except deep rooted piety, habitually prevailing over the world and the corruptions of nature, will render him “immeasurable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.” [2]

Though Alexander emphasized the necessity of doctrinal knowledge, it was always to the end of producing greater love and holiness. He was suspicious of emotional preaching that lacked a strong doctrinal element but was also suspicious of strong doctrinal preaching that lacked corresponding emotion. Many of his fellow ministers felt compelled to choose between these two aspects of Christian experience, and churches had divided over the issue. Alexander urged his students to hold these two together at all times.

Second, he appreciated the variety of conversion experiences. As a teenager, Alexander felt inferior because his conversion took longer and looked different than many of his family and friends. As a pastor and student of the Bible, he came to appreciate the different ways that people experience the new birth and its effects. In his book on religious experience, Alexander observed that there is unity and diversity to the conversion experience.

There is a common practical error in the minds of many Christians in regard to this matter. They seem to think that nothing has any relation to the conversion of the sinner but that which immediately preceded this event; and the Christian is ready to say, I was awakened under such a sermon, and never had rest until I found it in Christ; making nothing of all previous instructions and impressions. So, when a revival occurs under the awakening discourses of some evangelist, people are ready to think that he only is the successful preacher whose labors God owns and blesses; whereas he does but bring forward to maturity, feelings and convictions which have been long secretly forming and growing within the soul—-but so imperceptibly that the person himself was little sensible of any change. [3]

Though all are ultimately brought to faith in Christ as the Spirit works through the preaching of the gospel, it can take more time with some, appear more or less emotional, and some may not be able to remember when it has happened. Alexander believed God uses special revival seasons as well as the Christian nurture of children from infancy to produce faith.

Third, he exemplified the importance of mentoring younger ministers. Alexander’s name adorns the original building on the seminary campus today, but his greatest legacy and monument is Charles Hodge. They first met when Alexander moved to Princeton in 1812 and Hodge was a teenage student at a local academy. Hodge was raised fatherless, and Alexander was the first man to take Hodge under his wing and guide his steps. He joined Alexander on preaching trips, and Alexander later secured his appointment as a professor at the seminary. The profound influence of Alexander on Hodge is seen in the subject of Hodge’s first lecture after becoming a seminary professor, “The Importance of Piety in the Interpretation of Scripture.” He named his son after his esteemed mentor, and when Alexander died, Charles Hodge sat with the family at the funeral.

The respect Archibald Alexander had among his parishioners, peers, and pupils is captured in a letter Charles Hodge wrote to his mother: “The Doctor is the man of men.” [4] They were never in full agreement on all issues. Alexander embraced revivals more readily than Hodge, and Hodge embraced political issues more readily than Alexander. Hodge believed studying in Europe would be a great advantage to his career, and Alexander believed it could be the greatest danger to his soul. Nonetheless, it is difficult to believe that Hodge could have become the prolific theologian of the 19th century apart from the involvement and influence of Alexander.

Though his name is less familiar than Hodge and Warfield, Alexander influenced the course of the seminary and its famed professors in unmistakable ways. Today, the evangelical world is filled with Timothys, many who lack an identifiable Paul. Many Christians look to podcasts, books, and conferences for wisdom and maturity, but Alexander’s life reminds us of the irreplaceable influence of a gifted and godly pastor who knows us by name and invests time in our lives.


[1] The Plan of a Theological Seminary Adopted By the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1811), 4.

 

[2] Archibald Alexander, “On the Advantages of Eminent Piety To a Minister of the Gospel” (lecture, Princeton Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey, 1814).

 

[3] Archibald Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 2-3.

 

[4] A. A. Hodge, The Life of Charles Hodge (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 48.

 

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