February 16: Death of B. B. Warfield [02/16/1921]

Our post today is drawn from a brief article by the esteemed church history professor, Dr. David Calhoun. The article is titled “The Pastoral Heart of Old Princeton.” On this day, the anniversary of the death of Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield, February 16, 1921, we would draw your attention to this particular portion of that article by Dr. Calhoun, notably the final paragraph of this excerpt:—

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield graduated from Princeton Seminary in May 1876. The previous summer he had supplied the Presbyterian church in Concord, Kentucky, and after graduation served for several months as stated supply at the First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, Ohio. He was assistant pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Baltimore from November 1877 to March 1878.  Eagerly sought by Western Theological Seminary, he accepted the invitation to teach New Testament.  After nine years at Western, he came to Princeton.

Warfield became one of America’s greatest scholars but remained an earnest “pastor” of the seminary students.  In his classroom he constantly drew the connection between solid theology, godly living, and faithful service.  For example, he showed the students that the statements of the Westminster divines were not speculative theology, but “the pulsations of great hearts heaving in emotion.”  Like all the creeds, these were given to the church “not by philosophers but by the shepherds of the flocks, who loved the sheep.”  These “shepherds” not only “[knew] what God is; they [knew] God, and they make their readers know Him.”

Southern Presbyterian William Childs Robinson was present for Dr. Warfield’s last lecture on February 16, 1921.  Twenty-eight years later Robinson described the scene.  Because of his physical weakness, Dr. Warfield asked to be excused from his usual custom of standing to lead the opening prayer.  He then “plunged into a glowing exposition of the third chapter of 1 John.  The discourse quickly gathered about the sixteenth verse as a center: ‘Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.’  All the eloquence of Dr. Warfield’s Christian heart,” stated Robinson, “all the wisdom of his ripened scholarship, focused on the interpretation of that text.”  “The laying down of His life in our stead was a great thing,” said Warfield, “but the wonder of the text is that He, being all that He was, the Lord of glory, laid down His life for us, being what we are, mere creatures of His hand, guilty sinners deserving His wrath.”  The more fully we realize his glory and his gift and our sinfulness, Dr. Warfield continued, the deeper becomes “our wonder at His grace and our wish to glorify His name.”

Words to Live By:
Let us repeat that thought yet again for your reflection. Carry it with you today as your prepare your hearts for times of worship this Lord’s Day:

“The laying down of His life in our stead was a great thing,” said Warfield, “but the wonder of the text is that He, being all that He was, the Lord of glory, laid down His life for us, being what we are, mere creatures of His hand, guilty sinners deserving His wrath.”  The more fully we realize his glory and his gift and our sinfulness, Dr. Warfield continued, the deeper becomes “our wonder at His grace and our wish to glorify His name.”


ADDENDUM—FURTHER STUDY: How and When did Warfield Die?

Today, having read our post for this day, my good friend R. Andrew Myers wrote:

I was wondering if you have any thoughts on the discrepancy between two historians on the circumstances of Warfield’s death:

“On December 24, 1920, Warfield collapsed of a heart attack. On February 16, 1921, he suffered another heart attack and died that evening. James T. Dennison Jr. and Fred Zaspel both state that Warfield collapsed in the Vos’s front yard. They differ on the date. Zaspel believes that Warfield collapsed in Vos’s yard of a heart attack on Christmas Eve. Dennison believes that it was on February 16. Dennison writes:

Jerry and Bernardus Vos reported to friends and relatives that Warfield collapsed from a heart attack in the Vos’s front yard at 52 Mercer Street on his way home from class on February 16, 1921. Warfield died that evening at his home. See New York Times, February 18, 1921, p. 11, for a brief obituary notice.[60]

Zaspel writes, “On December 24, 1920, Warfield was walking along the sidewalk to the Vos home, just a few hundred yards across campus from his own home, when suddenly he grasped his chest and collapsed.”[61] Both Dennison and Zaspel agree, however, with Machen’s words to his mother. Machen wrote that when they carried Warfield out at his funeral, Old Princeton went with him.

[Andrew stated that he is quoting from this source: https://opc.org/os.html?article_id=662&issue_id=130]

And on receiving his question, I then searched and found the following comparisons. Hopefully this will, cumulatively, provide some addition insights. In summary, I would have to conclude that Dr. Warfield suffered a first heart attack on Dec. 24th, and that this was the one that Johannes Vos remembered. Sproul erroneously understood that to have been the fatal heart attack. Whether Johannes Vos implied or stated as much is another question. But it was the later heart attack, on the evening of February 16th, that took Warfield’s life.

SOURCE COMPARISONS:

Olinger, Danny, Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian. Reformed Forum, 2018, page 230:

On December 24, 1920, Warfield collapsed of a heart attack. On February 16, 1921, he suffered another heart attack and died that evening. James T. Dennison, Jr. and Fred Zaspel both state that Warfield collapsed in the Vos’s front yard. They differ on the date. Zaspel believes that Warfield collapsed in Vos’s yard of a heart attack on Christmas Eve. Dennison believes that it was on February 16. Dennison writes:
Jerry and Bernardus Vos reported to friends and relatives that Warfield collapsed from a heart attack in the Vos’s front yard at 52 Mercer Street on his way home from class on February 16, Warfield died that evening at his home. See New York Times, February 18, 1921, p. 11 for a brief obituary notice.[60]
Zaspel writes, “On December 24, 1920, Warfield was walking along the sidewalk to the Vos home, just a few hundred yards across campus from his own home, when suddenly he grasped his chest and collapsed.” [61] Both Dennison and Zaspel agree, however, with Machen’s words to his mother. Machen wrote that when they carried Warfield out at his funeral, Old Princeton went with him.
[60] James T. Dennison, Jr., “The Life of Geerhardus Vos,” in Letters of Geerhardus Vos, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 49.
[61] Fred Zaspel, Theology of B.B. Warfield (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 35. Zaspel draws from the account of Warfield’s death reported in the Princeton Theological Review 19, no. 2 (1921): 330, in which it was reported, “Dr. Warfield was taken suddenly ill on Christmas Eve. His conditions were serious for a time, but it improved very greatly and on the 16th of February he felt able to resume his teaching in part and met one of his classes in the afternoon. He apparently suffered no immediate ill effects from the exertion but died that evening at about 10 o’clock of an acute attack of angina pectoris.

Dennison, James T., “The Life of Geerhardus Vos,” in Letters of Geerhardus Vos, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 49.

Vos was an inveterate walker. His daughter recalls him walking “arm in arm” with B.B. Warfield. [143] This last portrait—Vos and Warfield walking arm in arm about the Princeton quadrant—is a symbolic tribute to the harmony of the theological disciplines: the great Princeton systematic theologian and the great Princeton biblical theologian in perfect, brotherly harmony and affection. Such a portrait evades the polarizers and agenda-manufacturers of the present day. For Vos and Warfield, biblical theology and systematic theology were simpatico. [144]
[143] Cf. also Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, 2:210. Calhoun’s volume contains a photograph of the seminary campus with a key labeling the Vos home and others (plates between pp. 298 and 299 of volume 2). “[Dr. Warfield] and my father both like to take walks along the stretch of Mercer Street in fron of the Seminary campus” (Bernardus Vos to Roger Nicole, July 3, 1967).
[144] Jerry and Bernardus Vos reported to friends and relatives that Warfield collapsed from a heart attack in the Vos’s front yard at 52 Mercer Street on his way home from class on February 16, 1921. Warfield died that evening at his home. See New York Times, February 18, 1921, p. 11, for a brief obituary notice. J. Gresham Machen wrote his mother an account of Warfield’s last day; see Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, 309-10.

Stonehouse, Ned B., J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954, p. 309-310.

THE DEATH OF WARFIELD

In the midst of elation over the victory in his presbytery [i.e, JGM vs. New Brunswick Pby] there came a crushing blow in the passing of Dr. B.B. Warfield on Feb. 16, 1921. The following day Machen recorded his profound sorrow:

My dearest Mother:
I am writing to tell you of the great loss which we have just sustained in the death of Dr. Warfield. Princeton will seem to be a very insipid place without him. He was a really great man. There is no one living in the Church capable of occupying one quarter of his place. To me, he was an incalculable help and support in a hundred different ways. This is a sorrowful day for us all.
Dr. Warfield had been in poor health since Christmas, having suffered from shortness of breath ever since his attack. But yesterday he took one of his classes for the first time since his illness. He seemed to suffer no ill effects. But at eleven o’clock at night—after about twenty minutes of acute distress—he died.

The Princeton Theological Review, XIX, no. 2 (April 1921): 330:
“Dr. Warfield was taken suddenly ill on Christmas Eve. His condition was serious for a time; but it improved very greatly and on the 16th of February he felt able to resume his teaching in part and met one of his classes in the afternoon. He apparently suffered no immediate ill effects from the exertion but died that evening at about 10 o’clock of an attack of angina pectoris. Until the Christmas vacation, Dr. Warfield has been actively at work and had met all his classes as usual.”

Fred Zaspel, The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 35:
One of Warfield’s closest friends was Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949), whom Warfield had helped bring to Princeton for the new chair of biblical theology. It was their regular practice for many years to walk together for refreshment and fellowship. On December 24, 1920, Warfield was walking along the sidewalk to the Vos home, just a few hundred yards across campus from his own home, when suddenly he grasped his chest and collapsed. [14] Warfield spent the next few weeks recovering until Wednesday, February 16, 1921, when he was finally ready to resume teaching. At the close of the class he returned home where that evening a heart attack took him, this time fatally. . . Warfield’s younger colleague J. Gresham Machen lamented in a letter to his mother after Warfield’s funeral that as they carried him out, Old Princeton went with him and that he was certain there was not a man in the etire church who could fill one quarter of his place.” [15]

[14] This personal report came from the elderly Johannes Vos, son of Geerhardus Vos, in private conversation with R.C. Sproul, as Sproul reports in Tabletalk, April 2005, 4. Sproul has some details wrong, however, when he reports this event as occurring in 1921 and as the event that took Warfield in death. The heart attack Vos describes would have been December 24, 1920.[15] Stonehouse, Ned B., J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, 309.

R.C. Sproul, Tabletalk (April 2005): 4.

Twenty-five years ago I gave an address at a college in western Pennsylvania. After the service was completed, an elderly gentleman and his wife approached me and introduced themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Johannes Vos. I was surprised to learn that Dr. Vos was the son of the celebrated biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos, who had written a classical work on redemptive history entitled Biblical Theology, which is still widely read in seminaries. During the course of my conversation with them, Dr. Vos related to me an experience he had as a young boy living in Princeton, New Jersey, where his father was teaching on the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary. This was in the decade of the 1920’s, a time in which Princeton Theological Seminary was still in its heyday; it was the time we now refer to as “Old Princeton.” Dr. Vos told me of an experience he had in the cold winter of 1921. He saw a man walking down the sidewalk, bundled in a heavy overcoat, wearing a fedora on his head, and around his neck was a heavy scarf. Suddenly, to this young boy’s horror and amazement, as the man walked past his home, he stopped, grasped his chest, slumped, and fell to the sidewalk. Young Johannes Vos stared at this man for a moment, then ran to call to his mother. He watched as the ambulance came and carried the man away. The man who had fallen had suffered a major heart attack, which indeed proved to be fatal. His name was Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield.
I was thunderstruck by this narrative that was told to me by the now elderly Johannes Vos. I felt like I was somehow linked to history by being able to hear a firsthand account through somebody telling me of the last moments of the legendary B.B. Warfield’s life. At the time of his death, Warfield had been on the faculty of Princeton and had distinguished himself as its most brilliant theologian during his tenure.

New York Times, February 18, 1921, page 11.

B. B. WARFIELD DEAD.

Professor of Theology at Princeton Had Published Many Books.
Special to The New York Times.
PRINCETON. N. J; Feb. 17.— Dr. Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, professor of theology at the Princeton Theological Seminary, died suddenly at his home last night.
Dr. Warfield was born at Lexington, Ky., in 1881, was graduated from Princeton in 1876 and studied for the ministry at the Princeton Theological Seminary. He was professor of didactics and polemics here, holding the chair of theology for thirty-four years. His writings are well known in this country and abroad and he was the recipient of many honorary degrees from American and European universities. He was editor of The Presbyterian and Reformed Review, a quarterly, from 1860 to 1902, and had published many books and sermons. His most recent publications were “The Plan of Salvation” and “Faith and Life.”

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