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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. :


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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