Who Are The Southern Presbyterians?

Charles Jacobi

When the names Robert Lewis Dabney, James Henley Thornwell, or Benjamin Morgan Palmer are mentioned at evangelical bible studies most draw a blank. At this moment, a sea of brilliant theological writings, sermons, and essays go unread and lay buried under the production of pop culture blogs and prints of postmodern theologians’ work. The authors of these unread writings are not the magisterial Reformers, the Puritans, or New England Revivalists. They are the Southern Presbyterians, and it’s a shame the men of this tradition have been neglected by the common readers’ eye for so long.

Southern Presbyterian Origins

To have a full-orbed understanding of the origins of Southern Presbyterianism, we need to go back to the Old School—New School schism of the early-mid 1800s. In brief, The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America fractured over revivalist theology, advanced by the “New School” Presbyterians led by figures like Charles Finney and Nathan William Taylor. As the descriptor “revivalism” suggests, these New School Presbyterians were proponents of placing high importance on experiential conversion, were not skeptical of high affections, and fully embraced revival theology. New School Presbyterians were more ecumenical in their standard of polity, embracing congregationalism, and tended to sway from strict confessionalism. Old School Presbyterians were skeptical of revivalism and placed higher emphasis on adherence to the Westminster Standards, theological orthodoxy as communicated by Old Calvinism, and strict Presbyterian polity. Tensions reached a boiling point once Old School Presbyterians expelled four New School synods in 1837.

Further Schism

Revivalism would not be the final schism. The issue of slavery would further parse American Presbyterians—both Old and New School. Among the New School, those opposing the abolition movement formed the United Synod of The South in 1857. Old School abolition opposers broke off from the PCUSA to form the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America in 1861. Finding a thread of unity in theological differences, the United Synod of The South and the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States joined forces in 1864. This southern Old and New School reunion is what would form the Presbyterian Church in the United States after the dissolution of the Confederacy. For years, this new church was commonly referred to as the Southern Presbyterian Church.

Theological Competency

The Southern Presbyterian Church established several seminaries during its time. But Virginia’s Union Theological Seminary and South Carolina’s Columbia Seminary were the chief powerhouses. The modern inclination to associate the word “southern” with anti-intellectualism is, in no mild terms, baseless. Professor Thomas C. Johnson describes the theological competency of the Southern Presbyterians in his History of the Southern Presbyterian Church, “No part of the church had a more cultivated ministry than the Southern Presbyterian Church of the Old School. Their seminaries were manned by some of the very ablest men in either of the two churches. North and South.”

Robert Lewis Dabney

The theological acumen of the southern minds is evident upon surveying their commitment to Christian orthodoxy. No stronghold against the house of faith stood unaddressed during the height of the Southern Presbyterians. Out of Union Theological Seminary, Professor of Systematic Theology Robert Lewis Dabney produced his Systematic Theology in 1878 wherein he defended a classical exposition on The Doctrines of Grace and an Old School treatment of The Westminster Standards. Dabney levies critiques against the unorthodox positions and opposing worldviews gaining popularity in his day, such as Socinianism, Unitarianism, Darwinian evolution, and materialism. Dabney would crown his 24-year tenure at Union by publishing his Sensualistic Philosophy of the Nineteenth Century Examined, a tour de force that expounds on the incoherence of philosophies that rely purely on sense data. Dabney would later accept the chair of Mental and Moral Philosophy at the newly established University of Texas Austin, where he would also co-found the Austin School of Theology. At UT-Austin Dabney produced The Practical Philosophy and his prolific Discussions, a collection of essays written throughout his life. These Christian works delve into psychology, epistemology, ethics, and philosophy of science. Robert Lewis Dabney was unanimously respected among his southern peers as a pious man and towering theologian. A. A. Hodge, the first professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, referred to Dabney as “The best teacher of theology in the United States, if not the world.”

James Henley Thornwell

Columbia Seminary produced its own giant: James Henley Thornwell. Before obtaining a Professor of Theology at Columbia, Thornwell was Professor of Logic at South Carolina College where he taught logic, literary criticism, and metaphysics. It was here where Thornwell cemented himself as an intellectual of uncanny ability. Quickly, the South Carolina faculty realized his academic acumen, as put so elegantly by Benjamin M. Palmer in his biographical writings of Thornwell, “The peculiar bent of his genius, his scholarly tastes, his rare learning at so early an age, his insatiable thirst for knowledge, and above all, his peculiar facility in imparting these spoils to others all pointed to academic life as the sphere in which he would acquire most repute, and be also the most extensively useful.” Thornwell served for only a few years at South Carolina College before taking up the pastorate at the esteemed Presbyterian Church of Columbia. Making haste of those few years at the college, Thornwell produced extensive manuscripts on philosophy and logic. It is said that his writings were so coveted by students that they were borrowed and often never returned, barring proper publication of the writings. Thornwell would eventually be drawn back into academic life and take up the presidency at South Carolina College for a second tenure there before his election as Chair of Didactic and Polemic Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary. Thornwell was known as a literary behemoth among his peers with a keen sense for argumentation. Much of his writings are found in The Southern Presbyterian Review, which he founded. The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, edited by J. B. Adger and J. L. Giraedeau, was published after the reverend’s death in 1871. These writings shine on his piercing logic and include an analysis of Calvin’s Institutes, multiple addresses on Roman Catholicism, a daunting treatment of the church-state relationship, and many more essays on theological issues.

Benjamin Morgan Palmer

Thornwell’s life would be distilled into the publication of The Life and Letter of James Henley Thornwell, authored by a third southern Presbyterian instrumental in the theological and intellectual development of the South: Benjamin Morgan Palmer. Palmer was a bright minister in his own right, graduating with top honors from the University of Georgia and then attending Columbia Theological Seminary. After seminary, Palmer would take up the pastorate in 1843 at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, and eventually find himself among the southern intelligentsia. He was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity from Oglethorpe University and taught at Columbia Seminary whilst holding the pastorate. Palmer was regarded as a pastor and orator of pristine quality and was even extended an offer to chair Pastoral Theology at Princeton. Palmer declined this offer but went on to publish influential writings in The Southern Presbyterian Review and books such as The Theology of Prayer and a mighty work on Christian assurance, The Threefold Fellowship, and The Threefold Assurance. During the Civil War Palmer spent much of his time delivering sermons and addresses. His “Thanksgiving Sermon” is said to have energized the Southern efforts of secession. Palmer’s appearance was not all that intimidating, but his argumentative and rhetorical capacity was formidable. One account of Palmer before his censure against the Louisiana Lottery describes him well, “There he stood, a modest little gentleman but with a mouth and eyes, a fire-tipped tongue able to pour forth a torrent of argument alike beautiful and terrible, able to lay bare iniquity in the social fabric and burn it as a surgeon an ugly sore with a hot iron.”


The Southern Presbyterians were some of the most theologically robust writers our country has ever produced. This is certainly not an exhaustive list. Other important figures in the Southern Presbyterian tradition are Charles Colcock Jones, John L. Girardeau, Thomas E. Peck, and Robert J. Breckinridge. It will be a glorious day when modern evangelicalism discovers its literary riches and treats them with the same appreciation as the contemporary authors they incessantly print. But as it stands, their work lays dormant. May this swiftly change.

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