The Founding of Princeton Theological Seminary

By John Vander Brink

In the preceding article, an outline was given to show the religious purpose for which Harvard, Yale and Princeton Universities were originally founded. Today we know that religious orthodoxy in those institutions is completely gone. We saw what has happened.

But it didn’t disappear overnight. Some of these institutions maintained religious orthodoxy for many years. Several generations of men were affected in a positive way before the downhill trend started and they began to depart from the Word of God. This will become evident as we begin to examine the history of Princeton University and its later founding of Princeton Theological School.

At first Princeton University itself existed primarily to train ministers. But as time passed the curriculum became broader (1760-1800) and included the sciences and liberal arts and the school’s religious distinctiveness began to fade. The school as a whole focused as much on training for leadership in society as on training for leadership in the church. A specific distinctive college within the university became necessary. And so Princeton Theological Seminary was founded in 1812. And for many years this was a blessed institution indeed.

Those who treasure orthodoxy and living piety will remember with fondness the men who founded and developed Princeton Theological Seminary. Never before or since in the history of this country have men of such combined learning and piety met and worked together as did those who worked in these institutions during the 18th and early 19th century. Men like Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Miller, Archibald Alexander, Ashbel Green, the Tennant family, and Charles Hodge were among those who for many years taught and lived a standard of orthodoxy that has not been paralleled since. Their work had small and humble beginnings, but their motives were pure, God’s blessings were abundant, and the result was one of the most blessed and prestigious educational institutions this country has even known.

Princeton Theological Seminary officially opened in 1812, but really carried on the original purpose of New Jersey College, later called Princeton University, which opened its doors in 1746. Actually its roots go back even further to the so called Log College in the early 1700’s when William Tennant trained his five sons for the ministry in colonial America. Tennant saw a growing need for an orthodox institution where men could be trained for work in a society which was beginning to feel the effects of the theological liberalism of Harvard and Yale. So it was that this humble institution of one professor and just a few students each year became by God’s blessing hand the seedbed and root of a sound ministry for many parts of colonial America.

But as time passed, the academic quality of the Log College began to be called into question. And eventually the leaders of the Presbyterian Church called for a more learned institution, and established in 1746 a college to provide basic training and education for prospective ministers. It was located approximately halfway between the two metropolitan areas of New York and Philadelphia. The result was the College of New Jersey located in Princeton, New Jersey founded for the express purpose of training ministers. It was understood that men who were pursuing the ministry, after graduation from this institution of learning, would then reside with a minister as a member of his family. During this period of residency he would receive specific ministerial training by assigned readings, writing papers on Bible topics, engaging in theological discussions, preaching occasional sermons, and accompanying the minister on visits to parishioners. When this was all completed and the student was examined by the presbytery, he would be declared eligible and suitable for ordination.

Princeton University, in its early years, produced many ministers. From its first twenty-one classes, 158 men subsequently were tutored under various ministers and eventually entered the ministry. But as the century came to a close, a smaller and smaller percentage of Princeton graduates followed the ministerial tutorial program, and the alarm began to sound.

Three other issues of concern were developing at the same time. One was the growing westward movement of colonial settlers. In 1790, 94% of the nations four million people were settled in the original 13 states, but as time passed more and more people pushed westward in pursuit of available western crop land. Consequently, there was a need to send with them ministers or pastors to teach and preach the way of salvation. More ministers were needed and fewer were coming out of Princeton!

The second issue was the influence of other denominations. At first most colonial settlers were Presbyterians who believed in the need for an educated ministry. But the Baptists and Methodists who relied on circuit riding preachers required little formal education for their ministers and they were becoming more influential in the expanding society. The Presbyterians were faced with a dilemma - a need for ministers existed and someone else was filling the need!

The third issue was a lack of direct control of the College of New Jersey. While this institution was established and operated by the Presbyterian Church, the pre-ministerial training of its program seemed to be drifting more towards a scientific and academic endeavor. Piety and the ministry no longer seemed to be the central issue. Some of its leaders seemed to be at odds with the Presbyterian leadership and yet it was difficult for the leaders to do anything about it. The solution to all these issues seemed to be the establishment of a related institution over which they would have direct control which they did and which they called Princeton Theological Seminary. This happened in 1812.

In particular, it was Jacob Green, the father of Ashbel Green, who as early as 1775 raised the idea of developing a special curriculum for the training of qualified ministers. Though his plans were not immediately or directly utilized, it was Samuel Miller who wrote a couple of decades later to Ashbel Green about founding a specific theological seminary. Committees were assigned to study the feasibility of this endeavor, and in 1811, the General Assembly adopted a plan to build and start a seminary in Princeton. At the same time, President Smith of the College of New Jersey (later called Princeton University) had begun to spread unbiblical teaching resigned. Much opposition arose and he resigned and was replaced by Ashbel Green. Clearly, the prospects for orthodoxy appeared bright.

The first of the professors to the seminary appointed by the Board of Trustees was Archibald Alexander. Alexander was born into a farming family in western Virginia. After his conversion and call to the ministry he was for some time a missionary preacher in the rural areas of Virginia. He later became president of Hampden Sydney College, a position which required travel to distant places such as New York, New Jersey and New England. It was on one of these trips that he became acquainted with Princeton, and his piety and learning soon became noted by the Board Trustees. He was well qualified for the important position he received as the first professor of the newly founded theological school.

Only one year later, the well-known Samuel Miller was appointed as the second professor at the new seminary. Miller was born in Delaware and was the son of a Presbyterian minister. He entered the University of Pennsylvania and was graduated with honors in 1789. He quickly became known in larger Presbyterian circles for his preaching and writing ability. He wrote extensively and soon became involved in positions of leadership in the General Assembly and in the Board of Trustees of the College of New Jersey.

Ashbel Green, mentioned earlier, was also the son of a minister. He graduated from the College of New Jersey and in 1783 delivered the valedictorian address in the presence of George Washington. He too served first as a trustee of the college, was clerk of the General Assembly, and even the chaplain of the United States Congress. He served as pastor of the Presbyterian Church founded by Gilbert Tennant until he became president of his alma mater during the time of the conception of the theological seminary.

The writings and teachings of these three men are well-known and loved both yesterday and today. They have left in their generation a rich example of warm and selfless devotion to the God whom they so longed to serve.

They were the ones that were the most intimately involved with the founding of Princeton Theological Seminary. Today it is hard to believe that men of such piety and orthodoxy held such a position of influence in a well-known seminary, and even throughout colonial America. And now it is gone. Would to God there would be such a return to vital godliness in our institutions and in our land today. May the Lord raise up capable men who can still serve in this capacity both in and outside our church walls. The following is a list of some of the books and materials written by or about the three founders of Princeton Theological Seminary.

  1. Fasting - Samuel Miller
  2. The Guilt, Folly and Sources of Suicide - Samuel Miller
  3. The Log College - Archibald Alexander
  4. Princeton Seminary - David B. Calhoun
  5. Princeton Theological Seminary - William K. Selden
  6. The Ruling Elder - Samuel Miller
  7. Thougbts on Public Prayer - Samuel Miller