Cincinnati, Ohio

Lane Theological Seminary

View of Lane Theological Seminary from the General Catalogue. 1829-1899

View of Lane Theological Seminary from the General Catalogue. 1829-1899

Lane Theological Seminary was founded by the Presbyterian church during the wave of evangelical revivals known as the Second Great Awakening with the express purpose of educating pastors to serve the growing population of the old Northwest Territory. Its location in Cincinnati was strategic: as members of the class of 1833 would later explain,

[The West] was our expected field; we assembled here, that we might the more accurately learn its character, catch the spirit of the gigantic enterprise, grow up into its genius, appreciate its peculiar wants, and be thus qualified by practical skill, no less than by theological erudition, to wield the weapons of truth. (“Statement of Reasons,” From The Liberator, vol. 5, no. 2, Jan. 10, 1835, pp. [5]-6)

The nation’s most significant inland city, Cincinnati’s location on the Ohio River made it a center of commerce and communication, the pivot point between not only Eastern and Western States, but between North and South as well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the school quickly became the site of a major rift in American Protestantism over the issue of slavery.

Portrait of Lyman Beecher, between 1855-1865. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-cwpbh-02529.

Portrait of Lyman Beecher, between 1855-1865. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-cwpbh-02529.

The college trustees recruited prominent New England preacher Lyman Beecher to serve as the Seminary’s first president in 1832. Beecher–an evangelical who combined theology with activism–encouraged the students to reflect on the application of Christianity to the serious social and political problems of their time, including slavery. Although some of the students came from Southern families, even they tended to be view the institution of slavery as an evil in need of reform: the question for the Lane student body was not whether slavery should be brought to an end, but how.

Up to this point in the nation’s history, anti-slavery advocates had largely taken one of two positions: gradual emancipation, or colonization. As the nineteenth century wore on, the question of slavery weighed ever more heavily upon the conscience of Americans in the northern and western states, some reformers like William Lloyd Garrison began to demand the immediate end of slavery in the United States. These radical abolitionists spoke with a sense of moral imperative: with fiery rhetoric, they denounced not only the evils of slavery, but also their more moderate counterparts in the anti-slavery movement as little better than co-conspirators with slaveholders.

Abolition Debates of 1834

The seminarians organized an eighteen-day event to consider two central questions:

  • “Ought the people of the slaveholding States to abolish Slavery immediately?”
  • “Are the doctrines, tendencies, and measures of the American Colonization Society, and the influence of its principal supporters, such as render it worthy of the patronage of the Christian public?”

Representatives from the student body who had first-hand experience with slavery spoke for nine evenings on each question. By the end of the debates, it was clear that the majority of the students had not only reached the opinion that colonization was un-Christian, but also that immediate abolition was the only possible position compatible with Christian beliefs. The formed an anti-slavery society with the goal of “the immediate emancipation of the whole colored race within the United States: The emancipation of the slave from the oppression of the master, the emancipation of the free colored man from the oppression of public sentiment, and the elevation of both to an intellectual, moral, and political equality with the whites.” To achieve these ends, the students vowed to use their theological training to help shift public opinion on the issue, as well as to improve the condition of the black population in their midst. 

Preamble and constitution of the anti-slavery society of Lane Seminary. [c. 1834]. Library of Congress,

Preamble and constitution of the anti-slavery society of Lane Seminary. [c. 1834]. Library of Congress,

The students not only “published facts, arguments, remonstrances and appeals” they also “threw [them]selves into the neglected mass of colored population in the city of Cincinnati, and that we might lead it up to the light of the sun, established Sabbath day and evening schools, lyceums, a circulating library, &c..” [1] The radicalization of the student body unnerved the local population, and the school’s governing board responded to their complaints by censoring all anti-slavery speech and activity on the grounds that it was unrelated to the scholarly work of the institution. Nearly forty members of the student body left in response to the Board’s actions: these “Lane Rebels” eventually found a home at Oberlin College, where they contributed to its reputation as an institution at the forefront of social and cultural reform.

The Aftermath: Two Visions of Freedom and Religion

In the immediate aftermath of the controversy over the abolition debates, two strikingly different visions of the relationship between religion and freedom emerged. To the students and their supporters, the Board’s actions were a clear infringement upon their natural right to free inquiry. In a lengthy statement published in The Liberator, the Rebels explained their decision to leave the seminary. 

We believe free discussion to be the duty of every rational being. It is the acting out of the command ‘prove all things.’ It is inquiry after immutable truth, whether embodied in the word, or hid in the works of God, or branching out through the relations and duties of man. We bound to conduct this search, wherever it may lead, and to adopt the conclusions to which it may bring us. And, whereas, the single object of ascertaining truth is to learn how to act, we are bound to do at once whatever truth dictates to be done. This duty of discussion and action is not conferred by human authority, and we have no licenseto resign it upon entering into any association, literary or political. Free discussion being a duty, is consequently a right, and as such, is inherent and inalienable. It is our right. It was before we entered Lane Seminary: privileges we might and did relinquish; advantages might and did receive. But this right the institution ‘could neither give nor take away.’

… If it be objected that such a system of government is liable to abuse by students, we answer, be it so. Moral agency is abused by every sinner. Liberty is liable to abuse, and so is religion. Heaven was abused by devils, and Paradise was prostituted by Adam. The best principles, as well as the best things, are most liable to abuse. But there is a remedy; the same that God adopted with the fallen angels and our first parent, —Expulsion. We know of no other. Inhibition of free discussion is ruin, not remedy.[2]

Thus, what happened at Lane Seminary is often cited as a landmark in the development of the modern conception of academic freedom–a concept that in its origins, draws explicitly upon a Christian understanding of freedom of conscience and religious exercise. 

Meanwhile, Beecher sought to use his position as the head of the seminary to promote his vision of a theologically conservative and moderately reform-minded Protestantism as the key to national peace and prosperity. Ironically, in A Plea for the WestBeecher argued that popular support of mainline protestant educational institutions (like Lane) was the only way order to secure the “religious and political destiny” of the nation. National identity–threatened by radical Protestantism of the sort represented by the Lane Rebels–was equally threatened by the growing influence of Catholicism in the United States, with its historic associations with monarchical and even despotic regimes.

[1] Statement of the reasons which have induced the Students of Lane Seminary, to dissolve their connection with the Institution. Cincinnati: 1834. From The Liberator, vol. 5, no. 2, Jan. 10, 1835, pp. [5]-6

[2] Ibid.

Princeton, New Jersey

Presbyterian Evangelicalism

Frontispiece to An Account of the College of New-Jersey, Woodbridge, N.J., 1764 | Gilbert Tennent. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 19, 2016.

Frontispiece to Gilbert Tennent,  An Account of the College of New-Jersey (Woodbridge, N.J., 1764). New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 19, 2016.

The sister-institutions of Princeton University (then known as the College of New Jersey) and later, Princeton Theological Seminary have been at the center of American Presbyterian education and scholarship. Founded in 1746 to provide training for New Light (evangelical) ministers during the Second Great Awakening, the college moved into Nassau Hall (shown above, from a sketch drawn by Gilbert Tennent) in 1756. Ministerial training ceased to be the primary goal of the college after John Witherspoon was named to the presidency in 1768, although Princeton retained a strong evangelical identity and connection to American Presbyterianism until the end of the nineteenth century. 

John Frelinghuysen Hageman, History of Princeton and its institutions (J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1879), 324.

John Frelinghuysen Hageman, History of Princeton and its institutions (J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1879), 324.

As the curriculum at Princeton became more broadly academic, it became apparent that a new institution where ministerial candidates could go to obtain specialized theological training was needed. Accordingly, in 1809, the Presbyterian Church in the United States voted to establish a seminary where students might be taught in accordance with the great creeds and confessions of Presbyteriansim. Naturally, given Princeton’s long-standing associations with American Presbyterianism, as well as its desirable location in the mid-Atlantic, the denomination hoped to be able to locate their new seminary near the existing college. In 1811, the General Assembly reached an agreement with the new president of Princeton, Ashbel Green, in which the college ceded a portion of its land to be used to create the campus for the new seminary and pledged to accommodate the seminarians in its own buildings until construction of the theological school could be completed. 

Relations between the seminary and the college remained close for almost a century; indeed, Charles Hodge, professor and second president of the seminary served as a member of the college’s Board of Trustees from 1850-1878, where he used his influence to help keep religious instruction central to the college’s mission and curriculum. Professors at one institution were regularly invited to give lectures at the other, and together, the College and the Seminary combined to offer the nation a model of excellent, religiously-influenced education with a strong orientation towards public service as an expression of personal piety.

At the seminary, Archibald Alexander and his successors in the theology department over the next century–Charles Hodge, Archibald Alexander Hodge, and B.B. Warfield– developed this general attitude towards life and learning into a unique strain of Reformed evangelicalism, eventually known as “the Princeton school.” Characterized by a combination of robust scholarship and strict confessionalism with “concern for religious experience [and] sensitivity to the American experience,”[1] for over a century, Princeton theology epitomized orthodox Christian scholarship in America. The writings of Princeton theologians, were not limited to academic audiences, but were widely distributed throughout the country in both book and article form. Through their students’ ministries and their own writings, Princeton’s theologians aimed at cultural transformation in the name of furthering Christ’s kingdom on earth, while simultaneously adhering to the most rigorous standards of academic scholarship.

The Clash of Cultures: Christianity and Liberalism

All of that changed in the 1900s, when the college and the seminary both fell under the influence of liberal, secularizing scholarship. In response, J. Gresham Machen, an esteemed professor at Princeton Theological Seminary published Christianity and Liberalism in 1923. Machen’s book undertook a defense of orthodox Christian doctrine against what he saw as the tendency of American Protestants to water-down the gospel in search of the elusive and transitory goals of relevance and ecumenicism. (Machen had been one of the most vocal opponents of an earlier attempt to unify the nation’s Protestant denominations into one “Organic Union” on the grounds that such an agreement, aimed at the “consolidation… of particular churches” into one generic and doctrinally imprecise ‘church’ was both impractical and unbiblical; see “Protestant Churches Make Plan For United Action,” Scarsdale Inquirer, Number 13, 7 February 1920.)

Machen’s concern only grew stronger after his own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, adopted the Auburn Affirmation in 1924. Intended by its authors and signatories as a statement in favor of freedom of conscience and the congregational governance at the heart of Presbyterian polity, Machen and other critics saw the Affirmation as a rejection of the authority of the Bible and an abandonment of traditional Reformed doctrine. For the next several years, Machen would work to prevent this sort of theological pluralism from prevailing at the seminary and in American Christianity more broadly. Although often labeled as a fundamentalist for his staunch adherence to Biblical inerrancy and other traditional orthodox doctrines, Machen wrote:

I never call myself a “Fundamentalist.” There is indeed, no inherent objection to the term; and if the disjunction is between “Fundamentalism” and “Modernism,” then I am willing to call myself a Fundamentalist of the most pronounced type. But after all, what I prefer to call myself is not a “Fundamentalist” but a “Calvinist”—that is, an adherent of the Reformed Faith. As such I regard myself as standing in the great central current of the Church’s life—the current which flows down from the Word of God through Augustine and Calvin, and which has found noteworthy expression in America in the great tradition represented by Charles Hodge and Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield and the other representatives of the “Princeton School.” (Machen to F.E.  Robinson, Esq., President of the Bryan University Memorial Association, June 25, 1927. Reprinted in THE PRESBYTERIAN, vol. 97, no. 27, July 7, 1927)

When, in 1929, a reorganization of the Seminary’s administration allowed for the inclusion of not only liberal, but also non-Reformed professors on the faculty, Machen and three other members of the faculty (Robert Dick Wilson, Oswald T. Allis, and Cornelius Van Til) left to found Westminster Theological Seminary in nearby Philadelphia.

Machen’s Church Trial

Machen’s efforts to stem the tide of modernist heresy in the Presbyterian church did not end with his retreat from Princeton Theological Seminary. In 1933, after he became convinced that the official missions activities of the Presbyterian Church were more in keeping with the teachings of modernist philosophy than Christian orthodoxy, Machen founded the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. The General Assembly of the PC(USA) accused Machen of undermining the denomination’s efforts and ordered him to disassociate himself from the Independent Board. When Machen refused, on the grounds of conscience, he was brought before a church court in the New Brunswick Presbytery for a disciplinary hearing.

Clipping from an unknown newspaper. Image provided by the PCA Historical Center, St. Louis, MO. Used by permission.

Clipping from an unknown newspaper. Image provided by the PCA Historical Center, St. Louis, MO. Used by permission.

Machen’s trial, held at the First Presbyterian Church in nearby Trenton, NJ, garnered nationwide attention; it was reported in the major newspapers of Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore, as well as in Time Magazine (Monday, Mar. 11, 1935). The irony of Machen’s position–being harried out of a denomination that only ten years earlier had ‘affirmed’ the primacy of individual conscience to scripture–was not lost on outside observers who pointed to the trial as a watershed moment in the history of American Christianity. Indeed, two years after Machen’s trial (and subsequent suspension from the PC(USA), followed by his departure from the denomination to found the Orthodox Presbyterian Church), satirist and cultural commentator H. L. Mencken–normally quite critical of Christianity–applauded the theologian for his astute grasp of the peril presented to the church by modernism, and for the logical tenacity with which Machen defended his beliefs.

He [Machen] saw clearly that the only effects that could follow diluting and polluting Christianity in the Modernist manner would be its complete abandonment and ruin. Either it was true or it was not true. If, as he believed, it was true, then there could be no compromise with persons who sought to whittle away its essential postulates, however respectable their motives. (H. L. Mencken, “Dr. Fundamentalis,” Baltimore Evening Sun 18 January 1937, 2nd Section, p. 15.)

As Mencken observed, for a man of Machen’s faith and learning, there had been literally no other course to take.


[1] Mark A. Noll, The Princeton Theology 1812–1921 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 13. is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

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