Jonathan Edwards and the Southern Presbyterians

In the 1840s and 1850s the debates over the eucharist between Charles Hodge and John Williamson Nevin raged in the pages of The Princeton Review and The Mercersburg Review. The editors and writers of The Southern Presbyterian Review weighed in on the subject as well. Brooks Holifield noted in his Gentleman Theologians that none of the major southern Presbyterian intellectuals of the era–Robert J. Breckenridge of Danville Seminary, James Henley Thornwell of the South Carolina College, and John B. Adger of Charleston–shared “Hodge’s reservations” concerning Calvin’s and Nevin’s relatively high view of the eucharist.  Southerners also took aim at another scholar controversial in the era, Jonathan Edwards. Beginning in the mid-Eighteenth Century Princeton Seminary exported Edwardean theology throughout both Old School and New School churches in the North but a significant strand of southern Calvinism remained aloof from the New Englander.

John Bailey Adger’s defense of Nevin and the historic Calvinist doctrine of the eucharist led him to evaluate the North American Calvinism in the context of the broader historic Calvinist tradition. Adger’s public opposition elicited annoyance from older and specifically northern-trained ministers in the South who long relied on Edwards’ theology to “prove that that the will was powerless to choose the good without the special influence of divine grace but that the reprobate were yet responsible for their decision to capitulate to that sinfulness.” New England educated John Bocock boasted in The Southern Presbyterian Review that “no man would undertake to refute Edwards if he understood him,” a claim which prompted a prominent southern Methodist to state derisively that Edwards had left nothing behind but a legacy of “difficulties and confusion.”  [1]

Adger indicted Edwards for falling away from Calvin’s views on the Lord’s Supper, and he argued that Edwards’ innovations unhealthily even affected otherwise conservative Old Schoolers who reflexively accepted the former’s doctrines without comparing them to the Reformers. Adger included Edwards in his list of “modern theologians, of more or less repute, for soundness in the faith, who have evidently fallen away very much from the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s supper.” Adger specifically faulted “the tendencies of the age, especially in New England,” which were “rationalistic.” Edwards and his successor northern Presbyterians, influenced by what Nevin had called modern puritanism, were according to Adger “often too much inclined to suffer a disparagement of the supernatural.”[2]

The particular practice that galled Adger was the attempt to make Edwards’ views a prerequisite for ministry. Adger and other southern Presbyterians pointed out that candidates who rejected Edwards’ theology, particularly relating to the divine will, were “generally accepted by the ministry.” James Henley Thornwell opposed Edwards, and southerners who took a high view of the Eucharist and the church saw no reason to make Edwards a new Americanist orthodoxy over and above the Reformers. They described as preposterous the notion, held by some Princeton-educated ministers, that a seminary professor should be disciplined for disagreeing with Edwards.

Edwards’ influence, although important, was never as total as Twentieth Century church historians implied. The outsized influence of Princeton undoubtedly played a role in his prominence, but the intellectual intransigence of southerners towards Edwards, especially southern Presbyterians with high views on the eucharist and those opposed to the New Divinity, should not be discounted in an attempt to create a tradition wherein Edwards is primary progenitor of Calvinist thought in North America.


1 Brooks Holifield, The Gentleman Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture, 1795-1860 (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1978), 178, 191.
2 John Bailey Adger, My Life and Times, 1810-1899 (Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee on Publication, 1899), 325; John Williamson Nevin,  The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed Or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (Philadelphia, J.P. Lippincott, 1846), 139.


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