Lessons from the Life and Theology of J.H. Thornwell
(Notes for a fellowship evening)
So, James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862). Great American Presbyterian theologian and preacher – but perhaps even less well known than James Durham…
My Dad introduced me to Thornwell one summer, probably 15 years ago while reading the Life and Letters of Palmer…
Why pay attention to Thornwell:
– Lloyd Jones loved him: “Thornwell was one of the greatest preachers that America has ever produced. Here, I think, we have the perfect combination of brilliance of intellect and profound theological and philosophical knowledge, together with pulpit eloquence of the highest order.”
– Other great preachers loved him. His contemporaries regarded him as the “prince of pulpit orators.” His biographer, and famous theologian and preacher in his own right, said “This generation will never look upon his like again; a single century cannot afford to produce his equal.”
– Because he deals with the doctrine of the church so neglected in our day…
– The Banner printed him, so he must be worth reading!
Thornwell’s Early Life
Born 1812 as a twin. Twin brother sadly died. Father also called James. Father died when he was 8. He was raised a Baptist.
His mother was poor and could not support him through college. But his intellectual brilliance was noted and benefactors saw him through college. At this stage Thornwell was not a Christian but lived a generally moral life. His worst misdemeanour at college involved the stealing of strawberries…
But while in college, he was browsing in a bookstore one day and came across a volume entitled “Confession of Faith.” Curious, Thornwell bought the volume and read it through in one sitting. He was utterly convinced of the truth of the contents of the Confession, saying that, “For the first time I felt that I had met with a system which held together with the strictest logical connection; granting its premises, the conclusions were bound to follow.”
Key Question 1: Why do we have confessions of faith?
Answer: To declare the beliefs of the church, to protect the church, to teach the church, to aid the church worship.
But he remained unconverted.
Key Question 2: Can you acknowledge the truth of Christianity and be unsaved?
Answer: Intellectual assent is not saving faith. Faith is notitia (knowledge), assensus (assent), and fiducia (trust). Calvin, “First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.” (Inst 3.1.1)
Palmer stated, “The gospel was nothing more than a sublime philosophy; and if it secured the homage of his intellect, it failed, as yet, to control the affections of his heart.” But in his final year at college Thornwell through reading the bible was convicted of his personal need of salvation and was saved. On his conversion, he professed faith in the Presbyterian church.
Thornwell’s Professional Life
Within two years he was an ordained minister (aged 22)… not normal… But after his examinations Rev. Dr Goulding (then Professor in the Theological Seminary at Columbia) said: “Brethren, I feel like sitting at this young man’s feet, as a learner.” Humility…
Already noted he was known as “the prince of preachers.” Key features of his preaching were that it was “intensely practical and plain; nothing abstract. The impression in my mind, now, is that of earnest expostulation with sinners. Now, today is the day of salvation.” But more than that someone said that there was “an inexplicable something which impressed and captivated his hearers.” A holy minister in the hands of God is a fearful weapon…
But he really struggled with his preaching. He said, “I have never made, much less preached, a SERMON in my life, and I am beginning to despair of ever being able to do it.” One anecdote may serve to illustrate the difference between Thornwell’s estimation of his work and the state of reality: “Several years ago, he was travelling near Yorkville; came to a sacramental meeting, and preached a sermon, than which he never preached a meaner in his life; got on his horse and sneaked away that he might see nobody. Two years afterward, he was passing over the same ground; came to the same place at another sacramental meeting; when two persons came forward to unite with the church, who traced their conversions to that ‘abominable sermon,’ which, he still thought was the poorest of his life.”
Key Question 3: If even great preachers can be downcast over their preaching how do we encourage our pastors today?
We now come to an interesting feature of Thornwell’s life. His continual moving from preacher to professor, to preacher to professor! Ordained 1834-37, Professor of Metaphysics South Carolina College 1837-39, Pastor in Columba 1839-40, Professor of Sacred Literature and the Evidences of Christianity South Carolina College and Pastor of College Church 1840-51, Pastor in Charleston 1851, President of South Carolina College, 1852-55, Professor of Theology Columbia Theological Seminary 1855-1862.
Key Question 4: How do we determine our callings?
Amidst all this, Thornwell married (1834), had a number of children, was elected the youngest moderator of the national Presbyterian church (age 35) and had the privilege of a trip to Europe, including Scotland. Interestingly he noted (July 1841) a declension was beginning in the church – he called it the leaven of New Schoolism. He said: “If the spirit of speculation on theological subjects should once become propagated among them, there is no telling where the evil would stop.” However, he loved the Scottish Sunday, seeing it as a “treat… to see how the Sabbath is observed in Scotland. Everything on the streets is as still as death; no travelling is allowed, and their churches are full of attentive listeners.” He took the WCoF as devotional reading on his trip…
Key Question 5: Have we ever used the Confession for devotional purposes?
Now lets pause to discuss the key theological issues raised by Thornwell, and most of them relate to the church.
Key Question 6: What should be the role of the church in public life?
Answer: The spirituality of the church.
Key Question 7: Has God given us a system of government for the church, or left it to our own wisdom?
Excursus: Thornwell v Hodge (Church boards, eldership, ordination.)
Key Question 8: What does it mean for a church to adopt a confession of faith?
Excursus: Old school, New School split
Thornwell’s Later Life
Thornwell died in 1862, while the American Civil War was raging. He was a southern man, and so supported the Southern cause wholeheartedly. He was the first moderator of the Southern Presbyterian Church and its chief theologian. This meant that he advocated slavery (although prior to the war he was moving towards the emancipation of slaves).
Key Question 9: What can we say about Thornwell’s support of slavery?