Help Believers to Stay Faithful in a Changing Culture

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Controversies swirl around celebrity pastors and their best-selling books. Evangelicals unite across denominational lines to share resources and strategize together for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. New thought emerging from Europe demands a response. Divisions arise between those who emphasize personal piety and others who prioritize the sacraments in the Christian life. Developments in science force Christians to reconsider their understanding of Genesis.

This description could refer to American evangelicalism today. But I’m describing the founding generation of Princeton Seminary. As the Qoholeth is fond of reminding us, there is nothing new under the sun.

The year 2012 marks the bicentennial of Princeton Seminary. In its modern form, Princeton had strayed far from its founders’ vision. Yet a look back at the early years and leaders of this venerable institution offers a storehouse of insights for navigating the issues facing the evangelical church today. Why should 21st-century Christians concern themselves with a 19th-century school in New Jersey? I can think of at least three reasons.

First, to be encouraged that we are not alone.

Early Princeton bears a striking similarity to the Calvinist resurgence of our own day. The professors promoted Reformed theology while seeking to engage the rapidly changing world around them. We have much to learn from them, for better and for worse, as we seek to be biblically faithful in the modern world.

Second, to increase our love of Christ’s church.

The leaders and graduates of early Princeton were passionate about the church. They loved it, devoted their lives to it, fought over it, and sometimes divided it. Their love of the local church is infectious and humbling for our generation. They offer us a glimpse of what it means to do theology in the service of the church.

Third, to glean from their wisdom and example.

Their writings and teaching glowed with the love of Christ. Theology and piety were wed together in a way that is sadly missing among many of their heirs today. They remind us that all our study of the Bible and doctrinal discussions should lead to greater love of Christ. We would do well to “consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).

Like many today, the founders of Princeton were concerned about churches drifting away from the historic tenets of the Christian faith while also seriously engaging the demands of the Christian mission in the modern world. Though they were not without fault, they provide an example of what many long to see for the church today: Christians committed to theological study and missions; devoted to deep learning and sincere piety; and willing to cooperate outside their denominations. This year-long series of articles will revisit the people and controversies from the seminary’s first century while applying insights for the church today.

Founding of Princeton Seminary

Prior to the founding of Princeton Seminary, ministers had been trained one of two ways. Either they served as an apprentice under an established minister before being examined for ordination, or they pursued an education at a college like Harvard, Yale, or the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). By the early 1800s, it became clear that Harvard and Yale could no longer be relied upon for a sound theological education. Moreover, the College of New Jersey’s focus had turned to science and politics, making ministers a shrinking minority in graduating classes. Continuing expansion of the American frontier westward created a demand for ministers and church plants in these emerging regions. Princeton Seminary was founded in response to the demand for church planters and the need for an institution committed to robust evangelical theology. More than 200 Presbyterian pulpits were vacant when Princeton opened. (i)

The Princeton founders sympathized with Andover Seminary, started by New England Calvinists in 1807, but desired to establish a more distinctively Reformed and Presbyterian presence in the mid-Atlantic. Princeton grew out of the legacy of a home-based academy in Bucks County, Pennsylvania—-affectionately known as the Log College—-considered by some to be the first institution in America whose sole purpose was to educate and train men for the gospel ministry. The Log College closed its doors in 1742, but its leaders became trustees for the newly chartered College of New Jersey in 1746. Archibald Alexander, a Philadelphia minister, formally proposed a “seminary established for the single purpose of educating youth for the ministry.” (ii) In August 1812, the seminary was launched with a service at the Presbyterian church in Princeton inaugurating Alexander as the institution’s first professor.

Vision of Early Princeton

The seminary originally aimed to produce men of great learning and vital piety. The leaders of Princeton were men who advocated for Calvinism and the Great Awakening. They were Reformed revivalists. In the classroom, they introduced their students to the biblical languages and the Latin edition of Francis Turrentin’s Institutes. Yet they also emphasized the necessity of personal piety. Their goal was to produce ministers who were biblically grounded, theologically enlightened, and spiritually awakened. By establishing a seminary that linked together vigorous learning and piety, the founders hoped that “blessings may flow to millions while we are sleeping in the dust.” (iii)

Though governed by Presbyterians, Princeton Seminary welcomed students from diverse backgrounds. It graduated men who became leaders in Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Baptist churches. Among Princeton’s first graduates was Charles Hodge, who would become the seminary’s leading influence in the 19th century. Another early graduate and Hodge’s best friend was John Johns, a leader among Episcopalians and ultimately the president of William and Mary. One of Hodge’s students, James Petigru Boyce, became the founding professor of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In the 19th century, Princeton was a leader among conservative evangelicals in America. It was the “grand central station” for the “young, restless, and Reformed.” Through The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, a prominent voice in 19th-century religious journalism, it apprised Presbyterians of the latest thinking among biblical scholars, engaged in controversies facing the church, and responded to challenges in the surrounding culture. This year-long series will take a look back at the people, controversies, and legacy of Old Princeton. The church today faces many of the same issues as evangelicals did in the early to mid-19th century. Future articles will examine a previous era of the church in order to gain clarity on our own.


(i) Mark Noll, Princeton and the Republic (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1989), 170-172.

(ii) David Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994) 1:29.

(iii) Calhoun, 1:33.

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