James Henley Thornwell [1812-1862]

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This Day in Presbyterian History:

A Gracious God Gave Gifts 

The examination of the young candidate in the Presbytery north of the Mason-Dixon line was proceeding in church history. The questioner asked him to identify James Thornwell and his place in Presbyterian history.  The young man professed ignorance as to his identity, much less as to any place he had in our history.  This led the questioner to state that he doubted if the candidate could be ordained in any of our Southern presbyteries.

We have already looked at the life and ministry of James Thornwell on August 1.  That historical devotional looked at his life from his confession of Christ and committment to the Presbyterian faith until his demise at the beginning of the War Between the States.  For this devotional, we wish to see how the gracious God developed his life and ministry for the Lord.

Born on December 9, 1812 in South Carolina to a father who managed a Southern plantation in the area, just eight years later his father passed away. This brought a period of poverty to his mother and other members of the family. However, Martha Thornwell was no quitter and by a determined will and toilsome work, she kept the family from starving.

Around eleven years of age, James entered a country school taught by Peter McIntyre.  Obviously, with a name like that, he was Scottish in heritage.  It became obvious that there was a willing heart and mind in young James Thornwell. He became a real bookworm, reading volumes from the libraries of friends and neighbors, besides being faithful to do the assigned lessons each day. Noticing the mental gifts of the young man, a Mr. W. Robbins took the boy into his own home for three years of study.  Others of substantial means enabled him to attend the course of study at South Carolina College.

What occurred there was no less than amazing.  In spite of a weak constitution, the young man, now eighteen years of age in 1830, studied 14 hours per day.  He continued on in his reading taking up any and every book he could lay his hands on, even memorizing large portions of the Bible and other literature. Later in life, it was said that you could begin at any portion of a book, and he would finish it word for word.

He became the best debater at the College, a gift which would stand him in good grounds later on in his life and ministry.  But what was more important than all of these high points, was his profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  While he never could pinpoint when that happened, he knew that it did, and began to plan for the gospel ministry.

Words to live by:  There was really no excuse for the young candidate in not knowing who James Henley Thornwell  was.  He was a spiritual giant in the Southern Presbyterian church. Like Timothy of biblical days, no one could despise his youth, for he took the opportunities God had given  him to become the great defender of Christian truth in the South.  None should ever cite their poor background as a reason for not excelling in the church or world.  God can and has made great servants out of those who are impoverished by this old world. Believe that, and go and make a mark for Christ and Him crucified.

Through the Scriptures:  Philippians 1 – 4

Through the Standards:  Forms of church censures

WCF 30:4
For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the church are to proceed by admonition, suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the Church, according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person.”