James Henley Thornwell

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One of Thornwell’s Students.

A name not widely known today, but a man, a pastor, a servant of the Lord who was widely known in his day, to the point that parents named their children after him. That is a mark achieved by few in life or death. The life and ministry of the Rev. Edward Henry Buist should be particularly of interest as he was a close student of James Henley Thornwell. It was said of Buist that “As a theologian, he was indoctrinated by the living principles enunciated by the great Thornwell, at whose feet he sat, like Paul at the feet of Gamaliel, an enthusiastic pupil of an enthusiastic teacher.” For that reason, as the student here provides some reflection of the character of the teacher, so the qualities of Buist’s life and ministry are almost undoubtedly a reflection of Thornwell.

Rev. Edward Henry Buist was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on the 5th of October, 1837. He was the son of Rev. Arthur Buist, and the grandson of Rev. George Buist, D.D., the first pastor of the Scotch Church in Charleston, SC, and a minister of much celebrity in the Presbyterian Church.

Mr. Buist was graduated from the South Carolina College in 1858, taking the first honor in a large and talented class, and studied theology in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Columbia, SC.

Aveleigh Church was his first charge. While still a licentiate he began to supply the pulpit in 1861, and was ordained at Newberry in June of 1862.

He was married in 1864 to Miss Carrie Sebring of Charleston, SC, (formerly of Tarreytown, NY.) He left Newberry in the summer of 1865, and went to Tarrytown where he remained for sometime. He became the pastor of the church at Cheraw, SC, in 1869. His pastorate at Cheraw continued until his death which occurred on the 11th of September, 1882.

By reason of his talents, his scholarly attainments and his social qualities, Mr. Buist should be ranked among the foremost preachers who have filled the different pulpits in Newberry in the past. I prefer that those who were more intimately associated with him than myself should speak of his virtues, and it affords me pleasure to be permitted to present the following extract from a memorial adopted by the Session and read before the congregation of Aveleigh Church, on the 8th of October, 1882 :

‘Rev Edward Henry Buist was taken from us so suddenly, that it is hard for us as yet to appreciate the void his death has occasioned. It is proper that Aveleigh Church should offer some testimonial to his memory, as it was here that his ministerial life began. This was his first charge. While still a licentiate, he supplied this pulpit, beginning June, 1861, and it was not until June, 1862 that he was ordained pastor. It shows his great conscientiousness that he hesitated twelve months before he could be induced to accept the pastorate. This relation though practically severed the year previous–was not formally dissolved until the 15th of February, 1866–so great was the desire of this congregation to retain his services. His life during these years of civil strife is closely interwoven with that of the Church.

“Although young, his character even then had been sufficiently developed to enable us to give a proper estimate of it, and to judge from the fruits of his efforts at that time, what influence he must exert when his faculties were fully matured. He was scholarly in his manner, and in all his ways–as a pulpit orator and as a debator. He was a fine linguist, especially proficient in the ancient languages; learned in ecclesiastical history; a master of logic and a profound student of metaphysics. His natural talent for the last science and love of it, tinctured his whole line of thought and mode of expression. He greatly resembled in this respect his beloved teacher, Thornwell, with whom he had also in common that thorough earnestness which carries conviction to the mind of the hearer.

“As to his moral qualilties, what mainly distinguished him was his conscientiousness, his charity both in opinion and action, and his exceeding cheerfulness which so thoroughly imbued him, that he imparted it to all with whom he came in contact; it divested his religion of all gloom–although he was orthodox–invested it with a warmth to which may be ascribed a great share of his success.

“In the wider sphere of the Presbyterian Church as in the pulpit, he was distinguished by his clearness of thought and logical statement, which caused his opinions to be treated with great consideration. His loss will be felt, his memory cherished throughout our entire Church.”

[excerpted from Reminiscences of Newberry: Embracing Important Occurrences, Brief Biographies of Prominent Citizens and Historical Sketches of Churches;… by John Brown Carwile. Newberry, SC: Walker, Evans, Cogswell, 1890, pp. 132-134.

Words to Live By:
Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

(Matthew 7:17-20, KJV)

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van rensselaerYesterday we had brief mention of Dr. Cortlandt Van Rensselaer [1808-1860, pictured at right], who was noted for a letter he had written to the Rev. James Henley Thornwell. Today for our Sunday Sermon we will look at a portion of a sermon that Dr. Van Rensselaer delivered in memory of the Rev. George Washington Doane, an Episcopalian Bishop.

Dr. Van Rensselaer served four years as a pastor in Burlington, New Jersey, and it was during this time that he came to know Bishop Doane. Leaving the Burlington pulpit, Van Rensselaer was called to head the  PCUSA’s Board of  Education, and there he served for  fourteen years. Some measure of the friendship between these two men is thus marked  by the fact that this sermon came thirteen years after Van Rensselaer left Burlington.  Bishop Doane died in April of 1859;  Van Rensselaer would himself pass into eternity just fifteen months later.

Over the last ten or twelve years, I have gotten the impression from my reading that nineteenth-century American Protestants tended to be evangelical Christians first, and only attached to their various denominations in a secondary way. A number of examples could be produced, and this sermon is  another good example. A strictly evangelical sermon, delivered by a Presbyterian, in memorial to the life and ministry of an Episcopalian! Would or could we even have such a thing today?

The closing comments of Van Rensselaer’s sermon follow:

LESSONS AT THE GRAVE

Before separating, it is well for us, as immortals, to try to learn a few lessons at a Bishop’s grave.

I. Death comes alike to all. My hearers, are you ready to die? Ye of gray hairs, or in vigorous manhood, or in sublime youth, are ye prepared to meet your God? What a solemn thing to be coffined away from human sight, and then lowered down into a chamber, digged out for our last abode, with six feet of earth thrown on to roof it in? Ye living mortals, your funeral day is at hand. Come, prepare for the change; for the change is coming.

II. The honours of this world are fleeting nothings. Crown and crossier, sceptre and cross, vestment of distinction and laurel of renown, are all left behind. When the spirit enters its new existence, if it has been redeemed by blood, it carries with it graces of righteousness, which abide forever. But earthly honour and power, the elevation of outward position, the distinctions of learning and rank, all the superficial framework of the vanity of the world, and all its real glory, whatever there be of it, sink away like a vision of delirium. O, godly poor, be contented! Worldly, or unworldly high ones, fear!

III. Let us grow in circumspection, both ministers and people. Religion cultivates prudence. It enjoins its disciples to “walk in wisdom towards them that are without.” In our unguarded moments, we are in danger of going astray, and often are led to do what we have charged ourselves to forbear. Human resolutions are frail; but God can, and will, give strength to all whose eyes, in tearful penitence, plead for help and mercy. A single act of indiscretion, or of guilt, may be followed by the heavy retribution of embittered calumny, or unrelenting exaggeration. The officers of the Church, above all others, should be above suspicion. “See that ye walk circumspectly; redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”

IV. Let us not be weary in well-doing. Activity is the law of Christian life. The new birth inspires high motive, and nurtures the spirit of self-denial and suffering. Church idlers are a spectacle to the profane. Shall Christians be “created unto good works,” and not perform them? Shall the grace of the Spirit plead in vain? Shall the example of Christ and the blood of his cross be without efficacy to those who profess to follow the one and to be washed in the other? Brethren, “be not weary in well-doing; for in due time ye shall reap, if ye faint not.”

V.Charity is the bond of perfection.” Love binds all the graces together; and all the graces are formed out of love. The same Divine likeness is impressed upon them all. Charity covereth a multitude of sins. Charity suffereth long, and is kind. If our fellow creatures transgress, can they not be forgiven? Does not God, for Christ’s sake, pardon the penitent? And shall man be forever hard-hearted and unrelenting against his fellow-sinners? May the Lord clothe us, dear brethren, with every grace, and girdle our garments with love! Charity is compatible with Truth and Justice. “Put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.”

VI. A man’s work survives his life. A useful and active Christian leaves imperishable memorials. Good done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, can never be buried. It survives with a multiplication of its power. It sends down accumulated influences to distant generations. It lives forever. Sermons preached, institutions established, catechisms taught, aid given to the poor—all virtue, of whatever kind, lives in perpetuity. And so, alas! does evil, unless counteracted and circumvented by Providence and grace.

VII. Let us learn, as Churches, to sympathize with each other more. If we all love Christ, what interests have we apart? Why need we misrepresent each other’s doctrines, depreciate each other’s worthies, and call in question each other’s piety. If there be separate folds, is there not also a large field in common where all the good Shepherd’s sheep may feed on the green pastures and drink the pure waters? I have had my share of controversy, but have never relished it, and dislike it with increasing aversion. We need not, we must not surrender our principles; but what is called principle is often nothing more than denominational interest. Brethren, our hearts beat together today. We mourn in sympathy. Can we not in sympathy live together and work together?

VIII. The passport to Heaven consists, not in merit or station, but in simple faith. The Gospel condition of eternal life is the same to men of all nations and generations. The Bishop enters heaven in the same way with the sexton. The saints become one in Jesus Christ, in the same true and living way, opened alike to every creature. In dying, the Christian goes back to the first principles of his religion. As he began with Christ, so he ends with Christ. The conquest of death is won through faith. No forms and ceremonies; or liturgical repetitions; or imposition of hands; or baptismal, or immersional regeneration; or Church connection; or office-bearing, be it that of Pope, Bishop, Priest, Deacon, or Minister, Elder, Superintendent, or Class-leader—ever have, or ever will, or ever can, save a single soul. Bishop Doane, in his dying hour, had a clear conviction that Christ was the only hope for a sinner, lost by nature. This doctrine was fundamental in his theology; and no one taught it more beautifully than in that immortal hymn of his own composition:

“Thou are the Way; to thee alone,
From sin and death we flee;
And he who would the Father seek,
Must seek him, Lord, by thee.

“Thou are the Truth; thy word along
True wisdom can impart;
Thou only canst inform the mind,
And purify the heart.

“Thou art the Life; the rending tomb
Proclaims thy conquering arm,
And those who put their trust in thee,
Nor death nor hell shall harm.

“Thou art the Way, the Truth, the Life;
Grant us that way to know;
That truth to keep, that life to win,
Whose joys eternal flow.”

May Heaven grant to us all, brethren, the right to live and die in the truth of the Apostolic Church, and to find our title to Heaven in the apostolic words: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shall be saved.”

[excerpted from A Funeral Sermon on the Occasion of the Death of Bishop Doane. Preached in the Presbyterian Church, Burlington, N. J. , on May 1st, 1859, by Cortlandt Van Rensselaer. Published by J. M. Wilson, Philadelphia, 1859.]

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BCO is Presby-speak for Book of Church Order. It is the document that guides the organization, the discipline and the worship of the Church. Every Presbyterian denomination has a similar constitutional document, though they may call it by slightly different names.

The PCA was organized in 1973, but based its BCO on that of the denomination that they were separating from, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (aka, the Southern Presbyterian Church). To trace the lineage further, it may be less confusing to simply set out a chronology:

1789 – Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. adopts its Constitution, including the Form of Government,  Forms of Process and Directory for Worship.
1821 – First revision of the PCUSA Book of Church Order.
1837 – Division of the PCUSA into Old School and New School factions.
1857 – The Old School PCUSA moves to revise the Book of Discipline section of their BCO [see our story below]
1861 – The Old School PCUSA divides north and south, thus creating the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka, Southern Presbyterian Church)
1867 – First draft of the PCUS Book of Church Order
1879 – First approved edition of the PCUS BCO [though minus the Directory for Worship]
1925 & 1929 – Major revisions of the PCUS BCO were adopted
1933 – This was the edition of the PCUS BCO upon which the PCA based its BCO, with some important revisions. (and we’ve been tweaking it ever since!)

If you’re still with us, here now is an account of the story behind the PCUSA’s attempted revision of their Book of Discipline, in 1857. Though never actually adopted, the committee’s draft is important because that work so reflected the thinking of James Henley Thornwell, and while Thornwell died early in 1862,  he had greatly influenced the men who later picked up the work of drafting a Book of Church Order for the Southern Presbyterians. This 1857 draft of the Book of Discipline was a masterful revision of the old PCUSA Book, and it served as the guiding model for the discipline section of the PCUS Book of Church Order and thus, in turn, the PCA’s Book of Church Order.

So, coming to our story, in The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, by Benjamin M. Palmer (pp. 428), we read the following account :

ThornwellJH_sm“The only part of the proceedings of the Assembly of 1857 with which these Memoirs are concerned, was the appointment of a Committee to revise the Book of Discipline, with Dr. Thornwell as its Chairman.  The subject came up before the Assembly through two overtures, one from Dr. R.J. Breckinridge, proposing a change from Presbyterial to Synodical representation, and a limitation of the General Assembly to fifty ministers and fifty ruling elders, each; the other from the Presbytery of Philadelphia, proposing a form of judicial proceedings.

The first suggestion was, to commit these topics to suitable men for consideration, who should report to the next Assembly.  This was enlarged so as to require an examination and revision of the whole Book of Discipline.  The Rev. Dr. Hoge, of Ohio, proposed to add the Form of Government also as a subject for revision, which was resisted by Dr. Thornwell, on the ground that the Church was not yet prepared for this.  This measure was therefore dropped, and the Book of Discipline was put for revision into the hands of a committee, consisting of Rev. Drs. Thornwell, Breckinridge, Hodge, Hoge, McGill, Swift, and Judges Sharswood, Allen and Leavitt.

It may be added, that the subject continued to be under discussion until the breaking out of the war, and the separation of the Southern Church from the Northern.  It was taken up in the Southern Assembly after its organization, under a committee of its own, which reported a revised code for adoption.  The Presbyteries not being sufficiently agreed, the work was laid by; and thus the matter at present rests.  The reader will be interested in the following letter from the lamented Dr. Van Rensselaer, the Moderator by whom the appointment of the original committee was made.  It is addressed to Dr. Thornwell:

Philadelphia, August 10, 1857.

van rensselaerMY DEAR BROTHER:  I feel some solicitude about the results of the action of the committee, appointed by the last Assembly, to revise our Book of Discipline.  I say solicitude, chiefly because I had the responsibility of the appointment of the committee, as Moderator.  On reviewing the whole matter frequently, I have always come to the conclusion that I could not have done better.  I firmly believe that it is in your power to bring in a report satisfactory to the great body of our people.  The reasons why I named you as chairman were, first, your conservative views on the subject of altering our Book; second, your influence in carrying the question in the Assembly; third, the great confidence and love of the Church towards you, and the respect entertained of your mental endowments; fourth, I wished to avoid the appearance of giving too much predominance to this section of the Church; fifth, I was strongly drawn towards you that night, by an influence which seemed to me more like a special Divine influence than anything I remember to have experienced during my whole life.  My mind was led to you, and to none but you.

“Under these circumstances, I have a strong desire to see the work done, and done by you; and I believe that, under God, you can do it.  Alterations in the book are unquestionably called for; and if they are made with judgment and decision, and are not too numerous, the Presbyteries will adopt them.”

Here follow some matters of detail, as to the meeting of the committee.  Then the letter concludes:

“Praying that you may fulfill the best hopes of the Church in the important work committed to your care, I am,
“Yours respectfully and fraternally,
C. VAN RENSSELAER.”

Words to Live By:
Despite how things may seem at times—and they can seem bleak indeed—we must keep coming back to this firm assurance, that God is sovereign over His Church. He is guiding it inexorably toward His intended destination, and He will never fail in His purpose.

Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen. (Jude, vss. 24-25, KJV)

Postscript:
The 1879 PCUS Book of Church Order was widely commended, and for one, it prompted the PCUSA to return to the work of revision in 1884. As both the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Bible Presbyterian Church were formed by people leaving the PCUSA  circa 1936, it is not surprising that the OPC and BPC Books of Church Order are based on prior editions of the PCUSA BCO.  To put it one way, both those denominations follow a northern tradition of church polity, while the PCA follows a southern tradition. There are similarities between the two traditions, but there are also substantial differences.  [The OPC has in recent years made further and extensive changes to their Book of Church Order.] Meanwhile, the RPCNA and ARP Books remain quite different, since they don’t derive from either the PCUSA or PCUS Books.

Image sources:
Engraved portrait of James Henley Thornwell, from The Encyclopaedia of the Presbyterian Church, by Alfred Nevin (1884), p. 941.
Photograph of Cornelius Van Rensselaer, from The Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, vol. 1, no. 5 (September 1902): facing page 317.

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The Greatest Divine of the South

ThornwellJH_smWhen the great Southern theologian died on August 1, the South was winning her independence from the Union.  But that was only one year into the War Between the States.  In 1862, James Henley Thornwell finally succumbed to a life-long affliction from tuberculosis, at the age of 50.  Three years later, his beloved Confederacy would be a defeated people.  He did not live to see that defeat and feel that sorrow.

James Thornwell, as our title puts it, was the greatest divine of the South. Biblical philosopher, Calvinistic theologian, and Old School Presbyterian defender—all these descriptions characterized Dr. Thornwell.  He believed in principle rather than expediency.  And his writings continue today in both North and South.

When he was just twenty years old, he came to Christ, making a public profession of faith.  Determined from that time forward to enter into the field of theology, he began to study first up north, and then in his beloved South, where the weather was better suited to his nature.  Due to a scarcity of preachers, even before he finished seminary, he was able to be licensed and ordained two years after his salvation.  Other than a few years in the pastorate, he labored primarily as a teacher at South Carolina College, serving there for the next 18 years, with only a few intervening terms as a pastor, each for only a short time.

Active in the regional and national courts of the Presbyterian Church, he was chosen to serve as Moderator of the General Assembly when he was just 34 years old. His gifts of leadership, wisdom and insight were apparently evident to all, and neither before nor since has anyone that young been called to serve in that capacity. When the General Assembly of 1861 became a political agency in the eyes of Southern Presbyterians, as it voted to swear allegiance to the Federal government, Thornwell became the guiding light for the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America.  He  wrote and published the Address to all Churches, which stated why they as the Old School Presbyterians of the South could no longer be a part of the Old School Presbyterians of the North.  He would pass on to glory  in the next year.

Words to Live By: What saith the Scriptures?  It was said that this question, and the subsequent answer, were together the all-embracing rule of Thornwell’s faith and life.  Regardless of how we stand on the great national issues of the Civil War, that same question must be our own standard for believing and living. How often do you go to the Bible to guide your thoughts, words, and actions? Since it is our rule for faith and life, your answer should be—indeed, must be—all the time. And yet before it can be so, you must know the Bible. That is why we have accompanying this historical devotional, a plan for reading through the Bible. Don’t overlook that column over there on the right!  It is the most important part of this devotional blog.

A Further Note:

The following brief report of the death of the Rev. James Henley Thornwell comes from The Christian Observer in August of 1862. :

DEATH OF REV. DR. THORNWELL

Just as our paper of last week was put to press, a telegraphic dispatch brought the sad intelligence of the death of the Rev. Dr. James H. Thornwell, of Columbia, S.C. He departed this life at the home of his friend, E. White, Esq., of Charlotte, N.C., on Friday, the 1st of August. His removal at this important crisis in the church and country is lamented as a public calamity. The mind of Dr. Thornwell was of high order, richly endowed with intellectual attainments which qualified him for the important position he held in the Church. His talents as an able theologian, accomplished writer and eloquent debater and speaker gave him a wide influence in the church and country.

Dr. Thornwell visited North Carolina about six weeks before his death with the hope of improving his impaired health.—After spending two weeks at Wilson’s Springs he came, to Charlotte, where he had made arrangements for meeting Mrs. Thornwell and setting out with her on a tour among our western mountains. The day after his arrival here, he was taken violently ill with an attack of the dysentery—a disease of which his father, a brother and other relatives died, and to which he had long been subject.

By this afflictive providence, God seems to be saying to his bereaved people—”cease ye from man;”—”Trust not in an arm of flesh; Confide in the Lord Jehovah, the Everlasting strength of his people.”—He will afflict and chasten—but He will never cast off his Church.

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This Day in Presbyterian History:

The Greatest Divine of the South

When the great Southern theologian died on August 1, the South was winning her independence from the Union.  But it was only one year into the War Between the States.  In 1862, James Henley Thornwell succumbed to tuberculosis at age 50.  Three years later, his beloved Confederacy would be a defeated people.  He didn’t live to see that defeat and feel that sorrow.

James Thornwell, as our title puts it, was the greatest divine of the South. Biblical philosopher, Calvinistic theologian, and Old School Presbyterian defender—all these descriptions characterized Dr. Thornwell.  He believed in principle rather than expediency.  And his writings continue today in both North and South.

We will think again of him when we come to his birthday on December 9, but when he was 20 years old, he came to Christ, making a public profession of faith.  Determined from that time forward to enter into the field of theology, he began to study first up north, and then in his beloved South, where the weather was better suited to his nature.  Due to a scarcity of preachers, even before he finished seminary, he was able to be licensed and ordained two years after his salvation.  Other than a few years in the pastorate, he became a teacher at South Carolina College, serving there for the next 18 years, with only a couple of intervening calls for a short time.

Active in the church government of his chosen church, he was chosen in his young age of 34 years to be Moderator of the General Assembly. Truly his leadership gifts were outstanding for this to happen.  It had not happened before or since to someone this young.  When the northern assembly became a political agency in the eyes of Southern Presbyterians in supporting the Federal government of President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Thornwell became the guiding light for the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America.  He  wrote and published the Address to all Churches, which stated why they as the Old School Presbyterians of the South could no longer be a part of the Old School Presbyterians of the North.   He would pass on to glory  in the next year.

Words to Live By: What saith the Scriptures?  It was said that this question, and subsequent answer, was the all-embracing rule of Thornwell’s faith and life.  Regardless of how we stand on the great national issues of the Civil War,  this question must be our key standard for believing and living.  How often do you go to the Bible to guide your thoughts, words, and actions? Since it is our rule for faith and life, your answer must be all the time. And yet before it can be so, you must know the Bible.  That is why there is in this historical devotional reading a through-the-Bible plan of reading God’s Word.  Don’t skip it.  It is the most important part of this  devotional.

Click here for an 1862 newspaper report on the death of James Henley Thornwell.

Through the Scriptures: 2 Kings 20, 21

Through the Standards: Proof texts of the sixth commandment:

Deuteronomy 5:17
“You shall not murder.” (NIV)

Genesis 9:6
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made man.” (NIV)

1 John 3:14, 15
“We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brothers. Any who does not love remains in death.  Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.” (NIV)

Matthew 5:21, 22
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.  Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin.  But anyone who says, ‘you fool,’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (NIV)

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