Archibald Alexander

First Professor of Princeton Theological Seminary

By John Van Der Brink

Our United States, especially the east coast, has a rich religious heritage. Many of our nation’s early settlers were men who played a significant role in the church, in society, and in education. One such man was Archibald Alexander. A visitor to the seminary library of Princeton Theological School will see a large portrait of the man whose life and teaching was very influential throughout colonial America. This portrait stands as testimony to what our society once was, and also how far we have drifted away from our original moorings. In this article, I would like to provide a short biography of this man’s life.

Archibald Alexander was born in 1772 in a log house in Lexington, Virginia. Life was hard and crude for the young boy, but he was a good scholar, and at an early age showed signs of academic promise. His learning was, however, without piety, and his only notion of religion at this time was that it consisted in "becoming better." The idea of a second "birth" was totally strange to him.

It is remarkable how the Lord led young Archibald to his conversion. He was employed as a young tutor, and his task was to read for an old woman from the sermons of John Flavel. While reading Flavel’s sermon on Rev. 3:20, "Be- hold I stand at the door and knock," he was so struck with the patience, kindness, and forbearance of the Lord Jesus Christ to impenitent and obstinate sinners that he felt overwhelmed. His heart was moved and made anxious and inquiring. This led to an interest in the works of Owen, Baxter, Alleine, Halyburton, Boston, Erskine, Doddridge, and Whitefield. These sermons, which to him were boring before, now became moving and eloquent as they were blessed to his heart. He was led to see Christ as his only Advocate before the throne of God. He made profession of his faith in 1789 at 17 years of age.

After a time of serious illness in 1790, Alexander felt a call to the Christian ministry. A year later he was ordained to the sacred office, Immediately after his ordination, he began a preaching tour of America’s northeast. His saddle- bags were filled with tracts, and his sermons warm and evangelical. The Lord blessed his preaching, and many who had never even heard the Gospel, now experienced its power and were graciously renewed. In 1794, Alexander began an unusual pastorate of Virginia "Cub Creek" Church, and the Lord blessed his work there. He wrote that it was a lovely sight to see "seventy blacks surrounding the table of the Lord."

In 1797, Alexander became the president of Hampden Sydney College, a school to train ministers. This was a time of great theological fermentation - many doctrines and theological positions were espoused. For two years after reading John Gill’s arguments against infant baptism, he refused to administer infant baptism. He was later convinced again of its Biblical precept. In a visit to Newburyport, Massachusetts he was told that no two ministers in this town agreed. One was a Calvinist, another an Antinomian, a third espoused Arminianism, and a fourth was an Arian. What was worse, Harvard’s professors were already minimizing the importance of doctrinal differences. An age was emerging which was losing the religious vitality of an earlier day.

In 1801, Alexander met the woman who would become his wife. She was the daughter of the blind minister, James Waddel. He was attracted to her not only because of her external beauty, but more for the excellence of her character. She assisted him with research for his sermons and read to him from commentaries, even in Latin! They were married the following year.

Archibald Alexander began a pastorate of a church in Philadelphia in 1807. He had become disappointed with the behavior of students at the college, and his work in Philadelphia provided a welcome relief. He helped to found the Philadelphia Bible Society and was active in promoting local evangelism among the city’s poor people. He continued in this work for six years until he was elected by the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1812 to become the first professor of the church’s new seminary in Princeton, now known as Princeton Theological Seminary.

Archibald Alexander began his life’s most important work with a class of three theological students. Studies included "Hebrew, Old Testament, Bible history and geography, Greek and English Bible." The next year six more students were added. Classes were held in his own modest home, which can still be seen today on Mercer Street in Princeton. His students not only learned from his teaching, but were also daily influenced by his living.

So began the blessed work of a man who, though now dead, yet speaks, especially by the printed word. Alexander was a man who did not do his work "in a corner." His life and character had an influence on the culture and society in which he lived. Most of all, it was a spiritual work. It was experiential in nature, Biblical and Christ-centered in focus, crowned with many divine blessings. It is remarkable that a man of this character played such a leading role in society. Would to God that there could also be such an influence today. May the Lord yet raise up such leaders as instruments in our own day, so that our lives and our land may be refreshed with His blessing to the glory of His worthy Name.