Old Princeton: Her Missionary Outreach by Dr. David Calhoun
According to Kenneth Scott Latourette the 19th century was “the great century” of missions. He, therefore, devoted three of the seven volumes of his History of the Expansion of Christianity to the nineteenth century.
Princeton Seminary’s history began during the early part of the “great century” of missions. From its beginning the seminary supported and promoted the world-wide missionary cause. The first professors—Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller, and Charles Hodge—were early and strong advocates of world missions.
John C. Lowrie, who became a missionary to China, remembered how often Drs. Alexander and Miller moved the hearts of the students “by their impassioned appeals for the heathen.” Among Samuel Miller’s New Years resolutions for 1832 was this one: “I will direct more attention than I have ever yet done to the precious cause of missions, foreign and domestic.” Student Daniel McGilvary thought that Charles Hodge “never spoke more impressively than when he was pleading the cause of foreign missions.”
The Princeton faculty supported the missionary movement, but it was even more the students who made Princeton Seminary a center of missionary zeal and activity. The stated purpose of the student Society of Inquiry on Missions was to investigate the whole subject of missions “with a view of ascertaining our personal duty.” The society was open to all those who were considering foreign and home missions, as well as those preparing to be “settled pastors of congregations” in the United States (asking only that they have a heartfelt concern for world missions). In its early years virtually every student at the seminary was a member of the Society of Inquiry. Over eighty per cent of the students became members during its fifty—year history at Princeton.
As the “great century” of missions unfolded, Princeton Seminary students began to take their places in missionary work at home—on the frontier, among the African American slaves, and the Native Americans (the latter curiously viewed as foreign missions, and the former as home missions). Soon Princeton graduates were serving overseas as well. Some went to India, including the son of Charles Hodge, Archibald Alexander Hodge. Others went to Africa, soon to be known as “the white man’s grave.” Because of its dangers, the mission boards sent to Africa only those candidates who felt a strong call to serve there. The Princeton connection with Africa was especially poignant.
In 1832 the newly formed Western Foreign Missionary Society (organized by the Presbyterian Synod of Pittsburgh) wrote to the Society of Missionary Inquiry at Princeton Seminary asking for missionaries for western Africa. John Pinney, a native of Baltimore and a graduate of the University of Georgia, volunteered. Joseph Barr, who had transferred to Princeton from Andover Seminary to please his Presbyterian father, cut short his studies to accompany Pinney. Barr wrote to his father: “After seeking divine guidance, and consulting my professors, who were unanimous in the opinion that I had better go, I have written to the board that I will go.” On October 12, 1832, Joseph Barr and John Pinney were ordained by the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Archibald Alexander preached on “the last command” of Christ to make disciples of all nations, and Samuel Miller delivered the charge to the missionaries. Before their ship sailed for Africa, however, Barr was suddenly stricken with cholera and died. His death deeply stirred the seminary community. The student Society of Missionary Inquiry asked Samuel Miller to preach a memorial sermon. Miller, who just days before had lost his own nineteen-year-old son, challenged the Princeton students to receive Joseph Barr’s death as a personal call to missions. Miller said:
O, if we could see 120, or 130 heroic youths here assembled, all of them burning with the same love and zeal that burned in … the beloved Barr, what impression under God, might not be expected speedily to be made on this community; and ultimately on the world?
Dr. Miller concluded a sermon he preached on the twenty-sixth anniversary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions with these moving words:
What more worthy object can we seek, than contributing to fill the earth with the glory of the Lord? [Let us] pray that [we] may not be found wanting in the payment of that mighty debt [we] owe to [our] Divine Master and to a perishing world. And let us all, more and more, aspire to the honor of being “workers together with God” in hastening the triumphs of Immanuel’s universal reign. Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly; and let the whole earth be filled with thy glory! Amen! and Amen!
Dr. David Calhoun is Emeritus Professor of Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis, Missouri. He has taught at Covenant College and Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University) and served as principal of Jamaica Bible College. Prior to his appointment to Covenant Seminary in 1978, he was the overseas director of Ministries in Action. He is the author of a two-volume history of Princeton Seminary – Princeton Seminary, Faith & Learning 1812-1868, and The Majestic Testimony 1869-1929.