Princeton and Confessionalism in the Early Republic

Princeton Seminary’s faculty in the Early Republic worked honestly and consistently to create a religious milieu devoted to historic creeds and confessions while also affirming the broad religious liberties enacted by the constitutional regime. Their efforts worked. While latter-day skeptics on the right question—often with good reason—the limits of liberalism, Early Republic Princetonians offered a vision of flourishing religiosity for the American republic that wedded a throaty orthodoxy and orthopraxy with encomiums for wide-ranging civil and religious liberties.

Princeton’s Early Republic luminaries—Samuel Miller, Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge—trained two generations of Protestant intellectuals and pastors. The Seminary’s graduates filled Presbyterian and to a lesser extent Episcopalian pulpits throughout the Nineteenth Century. The ecumenical composition of the student body, however, did not mean that the Seminary’s principal Archibald Alexander and his fellow faculty members adopted an ecumenical telos in their instruction. Throughout the Early Republic, Protestants believed that disestablishment meant that denominations should maintain clear lines of ecclesiastic division. The very reason for disestablishment was religion freedom, not a sort of contrived American religious unity.

Episcopal and Presbyterian students built strong and influential friendships at the seminary. Future Episcopal bishops William Meade and John Johns both maintained warm fraternal social attachments to Charles Hodge throughout their lives. But both Meade and Johns understood that proper churchmanship lay not in some sort of hybridized Anglican-Presbyterian religiosity but in submission to ecclesiastical hierarchy determined by particular historic Protestant confessions and the creeds. They both chose to remain in the Episcopal Church after their time at Princeton. Their decisions and the decisions of others who made similar ecclesiological distinctions did not preclude rich theological agreement, affirmation, or debate from Protestant intellectual life. It did however make clear what defined and differentiated Anglicans and Presbyterians. Soteriological and sacramental unity defined the fraternity shared by Princetonian Episcopalians and Presbyterians; on questions of ecclesiology and the rule of worship they remained unreconciled.

Nineteenth Century Protestants did not view unreconciled ecclesiological differences as problematic or tragic. Presbyterians supported disestablishment not in order to secularize society but in hopes that the American federal state would recognize the essentially denominational, if not sectarian, reality of voluntarist religion. Because Americans could choose what communion they adhered to, it made it all the more important for Protestant churches to be true to their particular confessions. Princeton professor Samuel Miller worried that the democratic spirit of the United States might obliterate confessional fidelity. He warned that the “spontaneous feelings of many, especially under the free government which it is our happiness to enjoy,” too often “rose up in arms against what they deem, and are sometimes pleased to call , the excessive ‘rigour’ and even ‘tyranny’ of exacting subscription to Articles of Faith.”

Creeds and confessions, in fact, created a truer unity than contrived ecumenicism did. Without them, Miller noted, “it is not easy to see how the ministers and members of any particular church, and more especially a large denomination of Christians, can maintain unity among themselves.” Miller argued that confessions created a unity of spirit necessary to healthy churchmanship. Disestablishment kept the state out of ecclesiological matters and helped maintain confessional fidelity and true Protestant fraternity based on faithful denominational orthopraxy.

The American republic’s disestablishmentarian religious order created a regime in which Protestant intellectual life flourished. Many of the greatest intellectual and technological insights of the Modern Era came out of the Early Republic United States. In the 1830s Lutherans escaping religious persecution at the hands of coercive Calvinist ecumenicism emigrated from Prussia and Saxony and added further to the richness of American Protestantism. Protestant life experienced a golden era of a sort precisely because Protestants understood and valued their respective ecclesiastical identities. Questions of confessionalism and denominationalism will no doubt be debated by churchmen and historians for some time, but its worth noting that on some level, they both fulfilled important socio-ecclesiological roles in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.

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