The Pope of Presbyterianism
Abstract and Keywords
The Prologue argues for the importance of Charles Hodge in nineteenth-century American Protestantism through his publications (including forty years as the editor of the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review) and his fifty-six year career as a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. It is impossible to fully understand the current shape of American Presbyterianism, American Calvinism, and much of twentieth-century Protestant Fundamentalism without carefully studying the theological influence of Charles Hodge.
Keywords: Charles Hodge, American Presbyterianism, American Calvinism, American Protestant Fundamentalism, nineteenth-century Protestantism, Princeton Theological Seminary, Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review
Hodge’s semicentennial celebration offers but a glimpse of the immense influence he exercised over nineteenth-century American Protestantism. During his fifty-six-year (p. 4 ) career at Princeton, he taught over three thousand seminarians. No American professor had taught more graduate students. He extended his influence through his aggressive and savvy use of the country’s growing print culture by founding the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review in 1825, a quarterly theological journal he directed for nearly five decades. By editing over one hundred and twenty issues and contributing more than two hundred articles to its pages, Hodge established himself as a major voice in the most important religious controversies of his day. By the time he left the journal to others in 1872, it stood as the second oldest quarterly publication in the United States and enjoyed so great an international reputation that the British Quarterly Review called it “beyond all question the greatest purely theological Review that has ever been published in the English tongue.”3
In addition to his articles for the Repertory, Hodge completed several longer book-length works: commentaries on four New Testament books including a world-renowned volume on Romans, the first extended critical analysis of Transcendentalism, a major history of the American Presbyterian Church, a landmark critique of Darwinism, the immensely popular devotional The Way of Life, and his magnum opus, a three-volume Systematic Theology. Almost all these works are still in print today, and his Systematic Theology remains a foundational text in the study of American systematic theology.
While Hodge towered in the theological circles of his day, his fame has dimmed as the years have passed. When the great men of nineteenth-century American Christianity are named, figures such as Charles Finney, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Bushnell, Joseph Smith Jr., Henry Ward Beecher and D.L. Moody come quickly to mind. Charles Hodge does not. Biographies are but one indicator of who perseveres in the American religious imagination. In the past fifty years, three biographies of Bushnell have appeared, five of Emerson, six of Finney, and a staggering seven of Joseph Smith Jr. Only a single biography exists on Hodge, completed just two years after his death in 1878 by his son Archibald Alexander Hodge. No one has deemed Hodge worthy of his own biography for more than one hundred and thirty years.
Within this biographical lacuna, opinions have varied as to Hodge’s importance. Some have claimed him as America’s greatest theologian, while others see him as little more than a derivative thinker who simply taught and disseminated the ideas of others.4 Still others have sounded darker notes, believing him to be a pro-slavery racist whose every trace should be erased.5 Whatever judgments exist, the truth remains that in the life of Charles Hodge one finds a stunning panoramic view of nineteenth-century Protestantism. His story touches many, if not all, of the most critical developments in the American Christianity of his era, and whether one admires or despises Hodge, there is no denying that he exercised a profound influence in his day with lasting consequences after his death. As one historian has noted, without Hodge (p. 5 ) “American Presbyterianism and American Calvinism would have received an entirely different shape.”6
Through his heartfelt personal piety, encyclopedic intellect, and position of influence at the country’s most important Presbyterian seminary, Hodge spent his nearly-sixty-year career crafting a uniquely American strain of Reformed theology. Mainly through his writings in the Repertory, but in numerous other venues as well, he brought his confessional beliefs to bear on issues as diverse as slavery, temperance, presidential politics, war, international diplomacy, advances in science, educational reform, and domestic and foreign missions.10 He firmly believed in the rational faculties and that no realm of creation stood beyond the reach and essential insights offered by the Bible and theology. His tender heart offered a sympathetic and optimistic, yet thoroughly conservative, type of Calvinism, which encouraged the cultivation of personal piety and eschewed such harsh doctrines as infant damnation. He believed the world was improving and that God wanted to save more people than he damned. Convinced that there was only a single human species, Hodge’s sympathy extended across cultural and racial divides, making every person equally capable of enjoying Christ’s promise of salvation.
While many today may be unaware of Hodge and the enduring influence of his theological legacy, his ghost lingers throughout contemporary American Christianity. This biography is based on the simple premise that few Americans can match the depth, breadth, and longevity of Hodge’s theological influence, and perhaps no single figure is better able to help one appreciate the immensely powerful and hugely complex nature of conservative American Protestantism in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries than the deeply pious, keenly intelligent, and yet largely forgotten Charles Hodge. (p. 6 )
(1) . Weather recorded in Charles Hodge Memorandum Book, Vol. 6, p. 115, CHM, Box 30, Folder 3.
(2) . Letter from Columbia faculty, Apr. 8, 1872, CHM, Box 32, Folder 5.
(3) . LCH, 257.
(4) . Ralph J. Danhof, Charles Hodge as Dogmatician (Goes, the Netherlands: Osterbaan and le Cointre, 1929), 171. D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, How Would Jesus Vote? (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Waterbrook Press, 2008), 56.
(5) . In the spring of 1989, a group of Princeton Theological Seminary students removed Hodge’s portrait from its place in Hodge Hall and replaced it with a signed petition protesting the school’s “commemoration of a man who advocated the enslavement, oppression, and disenfranchisement of African Americans and women.” Hodge’s portrait was eventually rehung, but not before a flurry of documents were circulated on the appropriateness of publicly remembering him as a key figure in the school’s history. PTS, William Harris’s personal loose file on Charles Hodge.
(6) . Danhof, Charles Hodge, 172. See also Sydney E. Ahlstrom, “Theology in America: A Historical Survey,” in The Shaping of American Religion, ed. James Ward Smith and A. Leland Jamison (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961), 262–263.
(7) . John W. Stewart, “Introducing Charles Hodge to Postmoderns,” CHR, 36–39.