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Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture
Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture
James H. Moorhead
Eerdmans, 2012
570 pp., 60.00

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P. C. Kemeny

The Princeton Tradition

Protestantism and higher education.

To historians of Christianity in America, Princeton is not just scenic; it is one of the most influential towns in the nation. A remarkable array of religious leaders, including Jonathan Edwards (albeit very briefly), John Witherspoon, James Madison, Charles Hodge, Francis Grimké, Robert E. Speer, Woodrow Wilson, J. Gresham Machen, Bruce Metzger, and Cornel West have called Princeton University or Princeton Theological Seminary home. Prominent preachers, activists, and theologians such as D. L. Moody, Abraham Kuyper, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Karl Barth have preached from one of the many pulpits in Princeton. Two recent books, James H. Moorhead's Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture and Frederick Houk Borsch's Keeping Faith at Princeton: A Brief History of Religious Pluralism at Princeton and Other Universities, explore the history of the seminary and the history of religion at the university. These two works serve as a window into not only the history of Protestant higher education but also the larger history of Protestantism in American culture.

At the 1812 inauguration of Archibald Alexander as Princeton Seminary's first professor, the Reverend Philip Milledoler insisted, "We want a learned ministry. Whatever mischief has been done to the world by philosophy so called, we are persuaded that true learning has never injured the church and never will …. It has been said that ignorance is the mother of devotion; that aphorism we utterly and indignantly reject." The founding of Princeton Seminary saw a confluence of commitments and assumptions: an emphasis upon religious experience, the importance of the mind and academic knowledge, a commitment to Scottish Common Sense Realism, and an optimism that these forces together were improving the human condition. In Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture, James H. Moorhead, a professor of American Church History at Princeton Seminary, explores how the institution's history is in part a narrative of the ways in which these varying commitments played themselves out and how, like the design in a kaleidoscope, they have shifted into different patterns over the course of the past two centuries. However, his volume is not a conventional institutional history that focuses upon the growth of the physical plant, chronicles the expansion of the curriculum, or recounts charming anecdotes about student life or the many colorful characters on the faculty. Instead, Moorhead places the history of the seminary within the larger milieu of American religion, culture, and society.

In 1746, Presbyterians established the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) to meet the pressing need for more educated ministers. Although students, faculty, and trustees were not required to be Presbyterian, Presbyterians dominated the college. Throughout John Witherspoon's presidency (1768-1794), a potent blend of Reformed Presbyterianism, Scottish Common Sense philosophy, and republicanism thrived. During the early 19th-century tenure of Samuel Stanhope Smith, Witherspoon's successor and son-in-law, the college began to falter. Fewer Princeton graduates were entering the ministry. In 1802, students were suspected of setting a fire that destroyed the college's main academic building, Nassau Hall. A few years later, a student riot further heightened the trustees' misgivings about the direction of the college. After several years of wrangling, Ashbel Green, a leading Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia, proposed the creation of a theological seminary in Princeton. But instead of a divinity school, as Harvard had created, they opted for a free-standing seminary directly under the church's control. The Presbyterian General Assembly elected Green as president of the seminary's board of directors. Two days after Alexander's inauguration, the college trustees fired Smith and hired Green as his replacement. The seminary used the college's facilities until it constructed its own. For much of the 19th century, as Moorhead points out, the two schools shared not only a common outlook but common personnel as a number of trustees sat on both boards and faculty taught at both institutions, often at the same time.

Moorhead connects the subsequent history of the seminary to the work of prominent Princeton theologians and the seminary's place within major ecclesiastical controversies and larger social developments in American culture. Chapters explore the life and theology of the school's first two professors, Archibald Alexander and Samuel Miller, as well as their successors, Charles Hodge and Joseph Addison Alexander. Moorhead explains the pattern that developed in the professionalization of theological education. The second generation of professors viewed the pursuit of scholarship as their primary ministry to the church. However, in the antebellum period, professionalization meant gaining expertise in several different fields of theological education, not just one as would become the norm later. Therefore, professors like Hodge shifted from biblical studies to systematic theology with ease.

Moorhead's analysis of Princeton's role in the 1837 Presbyterian schism between Old and New School Presbyterians is particularly insightful. In 1801, Archibald Alexander and Samuel Miller had wholeheartedly embraced the Plan of Union between Presbyterians and Congregationists that allowed congregations in one denomination to call a pastor from the other. This cooperation enabled these evangelical denominations to plant churches more quickly during the nation's westward expansion. However, the subsequent rise of the New Divinity theology among Congregationalists and the revivalist tactics and Arminian theology of some New School Presbyterians created divisions among Presbyterians. While Princeton's sympathies resided with the Old School, leaders attempted to avoid taking sides in the growing feud. But in 1837, when one of the seminary's wealthiest backers threatened to withdraw his support and fund a rival seminary, Princeton cast its lot decisively with the Old School. That decision shaped the identity of the school profoundly for decades to come, as evidenced by Moorhead's chapters on the history of the seminary during the Civil War and his treatments of Charles Hodge, William Henry Green, and B. B. Warfield.

Controversy enveloped Princeton Seminary in the early 20th century. Moorhead contends that the conflict was not primarily between theological modernists and fundamentalists but rather between conservatives and ultra-conservatives who could not agree upon how much theological latitude should be permitted within the denomination. The northern Presbyterian Church attempted to resolve the conflict by merging the separate boards of directors and trustees into a single body which had, as Moorhead explains, "a somewhat more centrist" theological composition. This prompted J. Gresham Machen, who viewed the action as the first step toward the destruction of Old Princeton, to leave and found Westminster Seminary.

Moorhead devotes two chapters to John Mackay's presidency. When Mackay assumed the presidency in 1937, liberal Protestantism was receding and fundamentalism had gone off in a more separatist direction. Mackay, Moorhead argues, had not repudiated the older Princeton tradition, but his election did represent "a course correction in its trajectory." Of course, how much of a course correction Mackay made is a matter of one's theological predilections. Like his predecessors, Mackay pursued a course that emphasized a learned ministry steeped in theology and piety. However, at the same time he took the school in a new direction as he assembled a cadre of leading scholars who stood at the forefront of the emerging Neo-orthodox movement. Moorhead travels quickly over the past fifty years of the seminary's history. He reviews several significant developments, including the growth of biblical theology and the impact of behavioral sciences on pastoral theology. He also examines how the demise of Protestant cultural hegemony and the growing recognition of America's religiously diverse character have impacted Princeton and the larger mainline Protestant tradition. In an epilogue, Moorhead explores the potential meaning of America's growing religious pluralism and the growth of Christianity in the global South for both theological education and the church.

The Princeton Theology has attracted many apologists and detractors over the years. Moorhead provides a much needed scholarly study of the institution's entire history. He demonstrates that the cords binding together the generations of Princeton theologians were strong but also shows that Princeton Theology was hardly monolithic. For instance, Charles Hodge advocated a rather static view of truth, whereas B. B. Warfield espoused a more developmental understanding of theological orthodoxy.

Moorhead's agility in explaining abstract and sometimes arcane theological ideas, such as the intricacies of federal theology or Horace Bushnell's view of language, makes this book a great introduction to the history of American Protestant theology (comparable to Brooks Holifield's Theology in America). The study also dispels some caricatures about the Princeton tradition. Charles Hodge's criticism of Darwinism is well known: he labeled Darwin's evolutionary theory atheism because it contradicted his understanding of divine providence. However, his criticisms of Darwin did not make Hodge a "scientific creationist." Moreover, Hodge, influenced by Yale's James Dwight Dana, found the day-age interpretation of Genesis 1-2 to be compatible with science. Warfield was even more hospitable to evolution and had little trouble harmonizing it with his theology. Modern-day "creationists" like Ken Ham love Warfield's doctrine of biblical inerrancy, but they would dismiss him as an atheist because of his acceptance of his theistic evolution.

Moorhead also examines important questions about the history of religion and America culture. As a cultural historian, he takes ideas seriously. Beliefs, in other words, are not mere pretexts masking more fundamental political commitments. And yet, while people's beliefs might inspire them and their institutions to pursue cultural change, theology does not stand alone. Moorhead's account of the founding of the seminary provides a telling example of how a host of cultural, political, and philosophical assumptions closely accompanied the theology espoused at Princeton. The suspicious fire that destroyed Nassau Hall in 1802, followed by a student riot, as noted above, fostered the trustees' misgivings about the direction of the college under Smith. These events, and the trustees' reaction, were a response to disturbing trends in American politics. Trustees read the upheaval at the college in light of Federalist beliefs that Jeffersonians had embraced anti-Christian views and were leading the country down the road to anarchy. Consequently, Princeton's Federalist trustees saw the turmoil at the college as a manifestation of that same spirit. Their political commitments motivated them to institute changes at the college and establish a seminary directly under the denomination's control.

Presbyterians, like other Reformed Christians, often speak of Christ transforming culture. Christians would do well to pay careful attention to the ways that culture returns the favor. Moorhead astutely examines not only how religious beliefs influence culture but also how cultural commitments, political convictions, and philosophical assumptions shape theology and the church's sense of mission.

If Moorhead's thoughtful history explores the changing contours of Protestant theology, Frederick Houk Borsch's Keeping Faith at Princeton examines how religious beliefs have influenced Princeton University and, through it, American culture. A 1957 graduate of the university, the former dean of chapel, and a university trustee, Borsch artfully combines autobiographical reflections with an intriguing analysis of the changing role of religion at Princeton in particular and in American higher education more generally.

He begins by reflecting upon the halcyon days of Princeton in the 1950s. The university had a few professors like the historian E. Harris Harbison who understood themselves as Christian scholars, and a dean of the chapel, the Scotsman Ernest Gordon, who preached, as Borsch recalls, an "earnest" Protestant message. However, religion was "mostly secondary and not at the heart of what the university was about." What most stood out about the spiritual ethos of Princeton during Borsch's college days was that Protestantism was largely possessed and expressed as a cultural heritage, which made non-Protestants, especially Jewish students, feel like outsiders.

How did the university get to this place, where Princeton's commitment to the importance of religion seemed to be "official" but was largely on the periphery? To answer his question, Borsch surveys the history of Protestantism at the university. Drawing upon the typology George Marsden offered in The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Non-Belief (1994), Borsch notes that colleges took one of two paths in regard to religion. Some pursued the "Jeffersonian" model of nonsectarianism. While allowing religious groups to propagate their own distinctive beliefs, colleges, like the federal government, remained neutral about religion. In this way, the college, like the state, served as a place where members of different sects learned to live harmoniously in a diverse culture. The establishmentarian model, by contrast, promoted a particular version of Protestant orthodoxy at colleges through both the curriculum and extracurricular activities. As Borsch reminds us, Princeton, while founded by champions of Protestant orthodoxy, moved gradually toward the Jeffersonian model.

By the 1960s, the prevailing liberal Protestant ethos of the university seemed to be just as sectarian as evangelicalism had been in the early 20th century. The growing recognition of the nation's cultural diversity served as a catalyst in this realization. If Princeton aspired to serve the nation, as its president Woodrow Wilson had challenged it to do decades earlier, then the student body and faculty needed to look more like the nation. Moreover, Princeton's history of treating Roman Catholic and especially Jewish students as outsiders was not in keeping with its professed ideals. Consequently, as the university changed its admissions policies in the 1960s, it also began to take steps to disestablish liberal Protestantism. A key change was the abolition of the mandatory chapel requirement for first-semester freshmen in 1964.

Borsch reviews Princeton's efforts to find a better way to promote religion that was in keeping with the diversity and character of a secular university. The administration took advantage of the impending retirement of Gordon in 1978 as an opportunity to reassess the entire chapel program. It made two significant changes: all official university religious exercises had to be interfaith in character and all religious organizations had to have equal status on campus and work under the authority of the dean of the chapel. The university hired Borsch as the dean to oversee the implementation of a more inclusive approach to religion. Some alumni protested the changes, especially after the cross was removed from the chancel of the University Chapel during the opening exercises of 1980. This latter act nicely symbolized the end of Protestant hegemony over the university.

Borsch describes the efforts to make the university more hospitable to all religious groups, including struggles to give official university-sponsored ceremonies a more interfaith or multi-faith character. This transition from a predominantly Protestant to a more pluralistic position was not unique to Princeton. Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, Stanford, and the University of Southern California all followed a pattern similar to that of Princeton.

In the final chapter, Borsch reflects upon the state of religion at Princeton. In Borsch's opinion, a "secular nonsectarianism" prevails at the university. Within this context, different religious organizations as diverse as the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship and the Princeton Muslim Association reportedly thrive as voluntary organizations meeting the spiritual needs of students and faculty. To Borsch, Princeton models how people of different faiths can learn to live and work together within the community of a secular university. For Borsch, Princeton provides a model for the nation (just as Woodrow Wilson had wanted).

In many ways, Borsch's study of the history of Christianity at Princeton University, like Moorhead's work on the seminary, provides a map of both the history of Protestant higher education and the history of Protestantism in American culture. Protestantism, evangelical or "mainline," no longer enjoys the largesse of being the established religion in one of the nation's key culture-shaping institutions, the elite research university.

For those who still want to fight a culture war over the secularization of American education—and their own symbolic loss of cultural influence—Borsch's volume could provide some useful cannon fodder. For those less nostalgic who are seeking to move beyond the politics of ressentiment, the work raises some pertinent questions about Christians in the academy. Campus ministries seem to be doing pretty well as purely voluntary organizations. Evangelical groups, like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, have had two generations of experience working outside the halls of academic power. The campus ministries of mainline denominations now find themselves at the same place and are learning to adjust to their new status on campus. Perhaps the marginalized position that Christians of all theological persuasions now find themselves in provides the Christian community with a new opportunity to exercise the kind of "faithful presence" that James Davison Hunter advocates in To Change the World. Moreover, organizations like the Christian Studies Center at the University of Virginia or Chesterton House at Cornell University provide Christians at major universities with opportunities to explore ways that faith can integrate in a meaningful way with the academic enterprise.

Still, one might ask if religiously informed perspectives that meet the criteria of first-rate scholarship and serve the good of the university might not be able to find a constructive place in the classrooms of a secular university committed to diversity and pluralism. The work of self-identifying Christian scholars like Princeton's Robert Wuthnow and Robert George might provide good examples of this sort of engagement. Moreover, one does not necessarily have to embrace Borsch's theology of religious pluralism in order to promote civility among people of different faiths. For instance, the Kuyperian approach of principled pluralism offers one pathway for religiously informed perspectives to have a constructive place in diverse civic institutions.

Borsch's provocative reflections also raise an impertinent question: are colleges and universities that still profess to be Christian or church-related really so sectarian that they are unable to serve the same civic mission as élite secular universities like Princeton? Wheaton College, Valparaiso University, and the University of Dayton, for instance, represent distinctive ways that lively Christian traditions in our post-Protestant culture seek to make the faith relevant to the larger civic mission of higher education.

P.C. Kemeny is professor of religion and humanities at Grove City College.

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