Thornwell’s Bicentennial, Part 1

This year is the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of James Henley Thornwell, a 19th century Presbyterian to whom the Presbyterian Church in America owes much of her ecclesiological distinctiveness, including the parity of the ruling and teaching elders. He was born in 1812, and passed away just months before he turned fifty in 1862. He was in many ways the theological and ecclesiological father of the Southern Presbyterian Church, and his early death solidified his legacy among Southern Presbyterians. James Davison Hunter has bemoaned the “great man” view of history, and has argued instead that “the key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network, and the new institutions that are created out of those networks.” Certainly the history of the Southern Presbyterian Church is due to more than one man, and it would be a fruitful study to apply Hunter’s contention to the Presbyterian Church in the United States (the official name of the Southern Presbyterian Church). Yet it is even more certain that Thornwell’s influence upon both the individuals and the institutions of Southern Presbyterianism was incalculable, and remains to this day – even though so many are either oblivious to it, or purposefully choose to ignore it.

Indeed, when it comes to Presbyterian history and theology, the entire period of the 19th century (and the geographical area of the southern United States in particular) is often overlooked – sometimes by unfamiliarity, and sometimes by prejudice against those who were prejudiced. The Southern Presbyterians were not perfect; but the proverbial baby is thrown out with the bathwater when we neglect or dismiss the total body of work of a group of men due to positions many held on race, slavery and secession. As John Piper has noted in regard to Martin Luther King, “From a distance we can make distinctions. We can say: This was an admirable trait but not that. This we will celebrate, and that we will deplore” (Brothers, We are Not Professionals, 200). If we can accept it, twenty-first century Christians, and especially pastors, have unmined riches waiting to be discovered from the likes of Thornwell, Benjamin Morgan Palmer, John Lafeyette Girardeau, Robert Lewis Dabney, Thomas Ephraim Peck, John Bailey Adger, Stuart Robinson, George Howe, Moses Drury Hoge, Thomas Smyth, Daniel Baker, Charles Colcock Jones, William Swan Plumer, John Leighton Wilson, and the rest of the Southern Presbyterian pastors and teachers (see Henry Alexander White, Southern Presbyterian Leaders: 1683-1911, published by Banner of Truth Trust in 2000, for a bibliographical introduction to these men).

One hundred years ago, on October 23-24 at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina (where Thornwell preached many times and even pastored for two brief seasons), a centennial celebration was held to commemorate the life and thought of the deceased father in the Lord. It is unlikely that any bicentennial celebration will be held this year, but fortunately we have the lectures delivered in 1912. The first one may be found here. It will give you an introduction to Thornwell’s life, as well as to his preaching and teaching, from one who heard him in the flesh just before he passed away.

The preface to the published volume of lectures reads thus:

“The REVEREND JAMES HENLEY THORNWELL; D. D., LL. D., was born near Cheraw, S. C, December 9, 1812, and was reared in the same section of this State. Left in poverty and obscurity by the death of his father while yet a child, he was taken up in early life and educated by General James Gillespie and Mr. William H. Robbins; and at their expense, together with that of General Samuel W. Gillespie, he was sent through South Carolina College, where he was graduated in 1831, with the first honors of his class.
While teaching in Sumterville in 1832 he made profession of faith in Christ, uniting with Concord Church, and immediately began to prepare for the ministry, to which he was ordained by Bethel Presbytery in 1834. His subsequent life, extending to August 1, 1862, was spent entirely in connection with the Synod of South Carolina, in which he rendered most valuable and distinguished service to the Church and the State.

“It therefore seemed meet to the Synod to make appropriate celebration of his illustrious career and eminent services near the Centennial of his birth, and accordingly at its sessions in Newberry, October, 1910, it adopted the following resolution:

The 9th of December, 1912, will be the centennial of the birth of the Rev. James H. Thornwell, D. D., LL. D., a son of this Synod, who spent his whole ministerial life in our bounds, and who rendered most eminent service to our Church in defining her theological views, and in expounding, organizing, and applying her ecclesiastical polity. Therefore,

Resolved, That the Synod during its sessions in 1912 make appropriate celebration of this noteworthy centennial; and that a committee of three be now appointed by the Moderator to make the necessary arrangements for this celebration, and report to the next meeting of Synod.

The Moderator appointed the following as the committee, Rev. Drs. T. H. Law, and E. P. Davis, and Elder H. E. Ravenel, who reported to the next Synod, recommending that the meeting for 1912 be held in the First Church, Columbia, which Dr. Thornwell had twice served as pastor, and in the city where nearly all his eminent services to the Church had been rendered; and that three set addresses be delivered during this meeting, on several specified phases of Dr. Thornwell’s life and work, by speakers named. This report was adopted; and during the sessions of the Synod in the First Church, Columbia, October 23d and 24th, 1912, the addresses were delivered as appointed, in the presence of large congregations assembled with the Synod to hear them. And with reference to them, the Synod adopted the following:

Resolved, That we have heard with genuine profit and pleasure the eloquent and learned address delivered by Rev. Thornton Whaling, D. D., on “Dr. Thornwell as a Theologian;” by Rev. A. M. Fraser, D. D., on “Dr. Thornwell as an Ecclesiologist;” and by Rev. Thomas H. Law, D. D., on “Dr. Thornwell as a Preacher and a Teacher,” all of which addresses were delivered as part of the celebration of the Centennial of the birth of the Rev. James H. Thornwell, D. D., LL. D.; and the Synod now desires to put on record its appreciation of these valuable contributions to the life and memory of our distinguished divine.

Resolved, further, That the Stated Clerk of Synod, with W. A. Clark, of Columbia, and John McSween, of Timmonsville, be appointed a committee and authorized to procure from the speakers copies of these addresses, and, with the consent of the speakers, have the same printed for distribution among the members of Synod; and be authorized to meet the expenses thereof out of any funds in the hands of the Treasurer not otherwise appropriated.

In compliance with these resolutions, this little volume is now sent forth.
Spartanburg, S. C, December 31, 1912.

Tolle lege!



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