Princeton Seminary: The Majestic Testimony, 1869-1929

By David B. Calhoun
Carlisle, PA : Banner of Truth (1996). 560 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
9.1 (Spring 1998) : 100-102

This is the second volume of the author’s history of “Old Princeton.” For a review of the first volume, Princeton Seminary: Faithand Learning, 1812-1868 (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1994), see The Master’s Seminary Journal 6/2 (Fall 1995):241-42. The second volume takes the reader from the period just after the Civil War to the reorganization of Princeton in 1929. During this period there was a slow shift on two fronts: the Presbyterian Church was moving away from its theological foundations and embracing first critical views of Scripture and then a more liberal theology; Princeton Seminary itself was changing as the senior faculty began to retire and die. All of these changes Calhoun chronicles with great skill in both clarity of style and breadth of detail.

This volume contains a nearly 30-page subject index covering both volumes, and as with the first volume, the author has provided evidence of substantial research with over 80 pages of endnotes. There are two appendices, one listing a detailed bibliographic resource for the study of Old Princeton and the key personalities, and another providing a brief biographic sketch of various faculty members who served from 1812-1929.

The death of Charles Hodge in 1878 marked the end of an era at Princeton. Hodge had taught for over 50 years. Shunning any honor to himself or his work he stated:

All that can be said is that God has been pleased to take up a poor little stick and do something with it. What I have done is as nothing compared to what is done by a man who goes to Africa and labors among a heathen tribe, and reduces their language to writing. I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose the shoes of such a man (62). Upon Charles Hodge’s death, his son, A. A. Hodge, became professor of theology, and although not the senior professor, he was “the real power at Princeton Seminary” (100). Calhoun describes the younger Hodge as “a theologian who could preach and a preacher who could teach theology” (ibid). He details how he and the young B. B. Warfield began to defend the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scripture against the higher critical views and liberalism which were already gaining strong footholds in the American denominations. A. A. Hodge’s sudden and unexpected death in 1886 (only eight years after his father) was traumatic for both Princeton and the conservative Calvinists within the Presbyterian church. Although Hodge would be succeeded by the brilliant B. B. Warfield as professor of theology, Warfield would never have the impact in the denomination that Hodge had, and his writings, although classics in scholarly defense of the faith, would never have the popular appeal that the younger Hodge’s did.

Calhoun describes the relationship of the seminary to Princeton College and reflects on the negative impact Woodrow Wilson (later president of the United States) had on the college when he became its president. Wilson stated that “Princeton is a Presbyterian college only because the Presbyterians were wise and progressive enough to found it” (272). Wilson, the first president of the school who was not an ordained Presbyterian minister, during his administration eliminated all the previously required biblical instruction and hired the first non-Christian faculty members. Calhoun rightly describes Wilson’s impact on the college (and indirectly the seminary) as a move from “Protestant establishment to established nonbelief” (ibid).

 Most readers enjoy a book with a happy ending; however, the history of “Old Princeton” does not lend to such an ending. Calhoun describes the increasing tension within the faculty itself as men with varying commitments to the Scripture tried to work together. Calhoun calls the death of Warfield in 1920 “the end of an era” (326). The battle, which would find J. Gresham Machen as a lightning rod, would intensify until the reorganization of 1929 and the departure of Machen, Robert Dick Wilson, Oswald Allis, and Cornelius Van Til to form Westminster Theological Seminary.

This reviewer highly recommends this volume, as well as the first. Calhoun’s final chapter on “The Princeton Theology” (401-29) is an excellent summation of the institution’s distinctive theology. Calhoun writes, “Old Princeton ceased to exist in 1929, but through its history and literature it still inspires, instructs and encourages” (428).