James Henley Thornwell and the Metaphysical Confederacy

A review of The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values (Second Edition; Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1999) by James Farmer

The role of religion leading up to the War Between the States is sometimes overlooked. However, there is no question that Christian clergy had a major influence on the Old South, including the politics that led to secession and the subsequent war. Ministers were influential because of their many activities, including preaching, publishing books and journals, and teaching in school and colleges.

In all of this, there was likely no more important theologian in the antebellum South than James Henley Thornwell (1812–1862). Few books are available on the man, which makes James Farmer’s work, The Metaphysical Confederacy, all the more valuable. Originally published in 1986, the 1999 printing includes a forward by Eugene Genovese, who praised the book as one “which gets better with every rereading.”

The Metaphysical Confederacy is primarily an intellectual biography of Thornwell, surveying important areas of his thought. The book begins with broad surveys of Thornwell’s philosophy and theology and then focuses on Thornwell’s views of slavery, politics, and secession.

Thornwell the Man

Farmer provides interesting biographical information on the man. Thornwell initially had his sights set on law, but at the age of 16 he abandoned this pursuit for theology. He married Nancy White Witherspoon, whose father was the nephew of John Witherspoon (former president of the College of New Jersey and the only active clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence). Sadly, four of their nine children died while young.

Thornwell did not systematize his teaching or publish a great work, which he likely would have done with more time on earth. Yet he still accomplished much. He served in a number of callings, including one year as minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, South Carolina. He served a tenure as president of South Carolina College, but left in 1855 for the chair of Didactic and Polemic Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary. Thornwell founded the Southern Presbyterian Review in 1847, and his Collected Writings were published in 1871–1873.

Thornwell was a man esteemed by the greats of his generation. Benjamin Morgan Palmer, his disciple and biographer, described Thornwell’s speech as “logic on fire.” Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster told William Campbell Preston that a Thornwell sermon he sat under was “one of the finest exhibitions of pulpit eloquence I ever heard” (62). John C. Calhoun compared Thornwell to Timothy Dwight, his teacher at Yale. He was also impressed by Thornwell’s knowledge of government and politics. After a conversation with Thornwell in 1843, Calhoun said, “I was not prepared for the thorough acquaintance he exhibited with all the topics that are generally familiar only to statesmen” (153).

Some think Thornwell should have pursued politics and instead wasted his talents in theology and academia. However, Thornwell often exhibited a distaste for politics. Moreover, this was a society where the church and politics were intertwined and preachers had great influence on the political realm. As Farmer notes, “Perhaps in no other culture has a particular form of religious expression been so prevalent and so influential as has orthodox Protestantism in the American South. Lacking the religious pluralism that produced the more tolerant increasingly secular societies of the North and West, the South did not develop a strong tradition of church-state separation” (285).

Thornwell’s impact would have been even greater were his life not cut short prior to his 50th birthday. He died shortly into the war on August 1, 1862 due to declining health. His death left a hole for other Southern Presbyterians to fill after the war, such as Robert Lewis Dabney of Virginia and Benjamin Morgan Palmer.

Thornwell’s Intellectual Milieu

Covering his intellectual milieu, Farmer highlights Thornwell’s use of Scottish Common Sense philosophy in opposition to the naturalistic science of his day (88–98). A product of the 18th-century Scottish enlightenment, this philosophy criticized empiricism and affirmed that principles may be established independent of experience (94). Developed most fully by Thomas Reid (1710–1796), Scottish Common Sense philosophy was brought to America by John Witherspoon, who schooled many significant Americans in this view at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton).

Scottish Common Sense philosophy was especially popular among Southern clergy. Farmer connects Thornwell’s Scottish Common Sense philosophy to his theology, showing how Thornwell depended on both natural theology and Scripture to defend his views (138–148). Thornwell considered natural theology a valuable aid to Scripture, but in his view, Scripture is ultimate.

While not central to his theology, the circumstances of his day make Thornwell’s view of slavery important to examine. In 1818, the Presbyterian General Assembly concluded that slavery was “utterly inconsistent with the law of God,” but it took no action against Christians slaveowners. In fact, later in 1845 the Assembly affirmed Thornwell’s statement in his report “that the existence of domestic slavery is no bar to Christian communion.” Thus, the Presbyterian church followed Thornwell’s view that Christians were permitted to own slaves.

Theology could not be separated from politics in the antebellum South in part because of the impact that slavery and secession had on the church. Thornwell had opposed the idea of secession until Lincoln’s election, but he considered the Republican Party’s hostility toward slavery to threaten the security of the South. This issue of secession ended up dividing the Presbyterian church. In May 1861, Dr. Gardiner Spring of New York introduced his infamous Resolutions before the Presbyterian General Assembly, and in a vote of 156 to 64, the Assembly adopted what is known as the Spring Resolutions, which required Presbyterians to “uphold the Federal government in the exercise of all its functions.” Partly in response to this vote, the Southern Presbyterian churches left and formed the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America on December 4, 1861 in Augusta, Georgia.

Thornwell and the Spirituality of the Church

A topic often associated with antebellum Southern Presbyterianism is that known as the “spirituality of the church.” In advocating this doctrine, Thornwell meant that the church’s task is spiritual, not political, in nature. The church has the task of the preaching the gospel of Christ and administering the sacraments. As Farmer says, “The conception of the church as a spiritual institution dictated that it restrict itself to preaching the Gospel and instructing its members in matters of personal piety and morality” (175).

Farmer charges Thornwell with inconsistency in regard to the spirituality of the church, claiming this doctrine was not consistently applied by Southern Presbyterians prior to the war (256). Old School Presbyterians, such as Thornwell, were heavily concerned with social issues that they thought the Bible prohibited (e.g. dancing, Sabbath-breaking), but they cited the spirituality of the church in regard to slavery because the Bible did not outright condemn the practice. Thus, they tended to limit themselves to criticism of the system’s abuses and instruction for slave-master relationships, while avoiding interference in the legality of slavery. Farmer more pointedly argues Thornwell was inconsistent in applying the spirituality of the church to the issue of Southern secession, charging that “Thornwell abandoned the doctrine proclaiming the church’s noninterference in political questions” (189).

Yet Farmer also defends Thornwell’s involvement in politics and the slavery question by explaining that he was “reacting rather than initiating” (167). He suggests that Thornwell was forced into these battles by the involvement of other religious leaders who attacked the South and the practice of slavery. This reactionary spirit is illustrated in Thornwell’s famous words—“The parties to this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders—they are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, jacobins on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battleground—Christianity and atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity at stake” (11).

It should be noted that many preachers throughout American history found it important to educate Christians on political issues to which the Bible speaks. Representative of this view are the words of Presbyterian Thomas Smyth, who wrote in the Southern Presbyterian Review in 1859, “To convert the pulpit into an instrument of political agitation is most certainly to invade its sacredness . . . But to make it the means of instructing Christians in the Christianity of their political relations, is simply to accomplish one of the ends for which it was intended” (176).

In addition to speaking on slavery, Thornwell warned Christians against popular activities in which they may be tempted to partake, such as dancing and excessive drinking. But as a man who enjoyed expensive clothes, drank alcohol, and smoked cigars, Thornwell was no ascetic “fundamentalist” as some today may presume. He was not seeking to prevent Christians from enjoying the innocent pleasures of life but to keep them from sin.

The Quintessential Preacher-Sage

Thornwell was an intellectual giant who helped shape the Southern church and the South as a whole, creating the “metaphysical confederacy” that had to precede the “physical Confederacy” (16). Farmer claims this metaphysical confederacy was a “creature of paradox,” as Southerners sought security in the idol of nationalism (288–289). Men will differ in their evaluation of the Confederacy, along with the Southern Presbyterian church to which Thornwell belonged. Yet there can be no denial—“The mid-nineteenth century was the classic age of the preacher-sage in the South,” and James Henley Thornwell was the “quintessential example” (286).

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