Archive for the ‘Ernest Trice Thompson’ Tag

Feast of James Woodrow (January 17)   Leave a comment

Above:  James Woodrow

Image Scanned by Kenneth Randolph Taylor


JAMES WOODROW (MAY 30, 1828-JANUARY 17, 1907)

Southern Presbyterian Minister, Naturalist, and Alleged Heretic


Let the Church show herself the patroness of learning in everything…and let her never be subjected by mistaken friends, to the charge that she fears the light.

–James Woodrow, November 22, 1861; quoted in Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Vol. 1, 1607-1861 (1963), 508


Above:  Logo of the Presbyterian Church in the United States

Image Scanned by Kenneth Randolph Taylor


James Woodrow, brother-in-law of Joseph Ruggles Wilson (1822-1903) and uncle of President (first of Princeton University then of the United States of America) Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), comes to this, A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  An Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days, via two authors.  For this post I draw from Clayton H. Ramsey’s article about Bethany Presbyterian Church, Greene County, Georgia, in the Autumn 2018 issue of Georgia Backroads magazine.  I also derive information from the first two volumes of Ernest Trice Thompson‘s magisterial three-volume work, Presbyterians in the South (1963-1973).  I also derive information from Journals of Southern Presbyterian General Assemblies.

James Woodrow, a native of England, spent most of his life in the United States.  He, born in Carlisle on May 30, 1828, emigrated with his family as a youth.  He graduated from Jefferson College, Washington, Pennsylvania, in 1849.  Then he studied under naturalist Louis Agassiz at the Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard.  After teaching in Alabama, Woodrow was a professor at Oglethorpe University, Midway, Georgia, from 1853 to 1861.  He taught geology, botany, chemistry, and natural philosophy.  Our saint also took a few years off to earn graduate degrees at the University of Heidelberg.  When he graduated in 1856, he could have become the Chair of Natural Sciences at Heidelberg, had he accepted the offer.  Woodrow studied theology after returning to Oglethorpe University.  He became a minister in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (Old School) on October 15, 1859; the ordination occurred at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Greene County, Georgia.

Columbia Theological Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina, created an endowed professorship, Woodrow’s next job, in 1861.  Judge John Perkins, of Mississippi, provided the funding for the position, with the intention that the Perkins Professor of Natural Science refute Evolution and prepare seminarians to do the same.  Woodrow, who started the job in late 1861, insisted on academic freedom, though.  He also carried into the professorship his conviction that God could not contradict himself in the Bible and in science, and that any seeming contradiction between the Bible and science must result from the misinterpretation of scripture.  This position left Woodrow, who refused to dismiss rock layers and fossil records, open to accepting Evolution, which he did by 1884.

The Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA) formed at First Presbyterian Church, Augusta, Georgia, on December 4, 1861.   Wilson became a charter member of the new denomination.

The Civil War disrupted elements of church life in the South.  Columbia Theological Seminary closed for most of the conflict.  Furthermore, The Southern Presbyterian did not always go to the presses.  Woodrow remained busy, though.

  1. He edited The Southern Presbyterian.
  2. He became the Treasurer of the PCCSA’s Foreign Mission Committee in 1861.
  3. He became the Treasurer of the PCCSA’s Home Mission Committee in 1863.
  4. He taught chemistry at the College of South Carolina.
  5. He managed the Medical and Chemical Confederate Laboratory, which made silver nitrate for wound care.

In December 1865, after Confederate defeat, the PCCSA renamed itself the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS).

When Columbia Theological Seminary reopened and The Southern Presbyterian resumed publication, Woodrow’s roles at them resumed, also.  He was one of the more progressive members of his denomination; he favored friendly relations with the “Northern” (actually national) Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.  As Woodrow became more accepting of Evolution, he moved in a direction opposite of that of the PCUS.  By 1884 his alleged heresy had become so controversial that the seminary closed for two years, reopening in 1886.  The seminary board requested in 1884 that Woodrow resign; he refused.  The heresy trial, held at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Greene County, Georgia, in 1886, ended in an acquittal.  Nevertheless, the seminary board fired our saint on December 8, 1886.

The PCUS General Assemblies of 1886, 1888, 1889, and 1924 passed resolutions taking the position opposite of Professor Woodrow.

Life went on for James Woodrow, who remained prominent in the PCUS.  He, the editor of The Southern Presbyterian consistently since 1866, continued in that role until 1893.  On the side, he continued to teach at the University of South Carolina, where he had been on faculty since 1869.  The seminary board forbade Columbia students to attend his lectures, though.  Woodrow went on to serve as the President of the University of South Carolina from 1891 to 1897.  Furthermore, he was, for a time, the President of the Central National Bank, Columbia.  In 1896, when the Presbytery of Charleston sought to prevent African-American men from becoming ordained ministers, Woodrow sided against the presbytery and with the Synod of South Carolina.  The General Assembly supported the position of the synod.

Woodrow retained the ability to create controversy at the end of his life.  The General Assembly of 1901 elected him the Moderator for a year.  The following year, at the General Assembly, our saint offended many in his sermon; he recognized the Roman Catholic Church as a Christian organization.  The General Assembly of 1902 passed a resolution NOT to print his sermon.

Woodrow, ailing in 1906, had surrendered his leadership roles in the church.  That year, as he neared death, the Board of Directors of Columbia Theological Seminary passed resolutions praising him for his piety and orthodoxy.

Woodrow, aged 78 years, died in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 17, 1907.

The General Assembly of 1969 affirmed:

Neither Scripture, nor our Confession of Faith, nor our catechisms, teach the creation of man by direct and immediate acts of God as to exclude the possibility of evolution as a scientific theory.

Woodrow would have approved.

Good science should always overrule bad theology.

The Christian Church has a mixed record regarding science, faith, and reason.  On the positive side are giants such as James Woodrow, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Galileo Galilei.  The Society of Jesus has a venerable tradition of astronomy.  One may reach back as far as St. Clement of Alexandria (d. 210/2015), the “Father of Christian Scholarship,” who affirmed the value of truth, whether or not of Christian origin.  One may also continue that line through his pupil, Origen.  When one skips a few centuries, one arrives at St. Albert the Great (d. 1280) and his student, St. Thomas Aquinas, who affirmed the compatibility of faith and reason.  On the negative side are figures such as St. Robert Bellarmine (who confronted Galileo and whom I will never add to my Ecumenical Calendar) and William Jennings Bryan (who, likewise, has less probability than  a snowball in Hell of joining the ranks at my Ecumenical Calendar).

All this is easy for me to write, for I am unapologetic product of the Northern Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the best of Roman Catholic tradition.  My intellectualism and my acceptance of science inform my Christian faith.  God is not the author of confusion.  Furthermore, God does not deceive us with manufactured fossils and rock layers meant to test our faith.  God cannot lie, but human beings are capable of misunderstanding.





God of grace and glory, you create and sustain the universe in majesty and beauty:

We thank you for James Woodrow and all in whom you have planted

the desire to know your creation and to explore your work and wisdom.

Lead us, like them, to understand better the wonder and mystery of creation;

through Jesus Christ your eternal Word, through whom all things were made.  Amen.

Genesis 2:9-20

Psalm 34:8-14

2 Corinthians 13:1-6

John 20:24-37

–Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), 738


Feast of Samuel Davies (February 3)   Leave a comment


Above:  Samuel Davies

Image in the Public Domain



American Presbyterian Minister and Hymn Writer


To preach repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ–To alarm secure impenitents; to reform the profligate; to undeceive the hypocrite; to raise up the hands that hang down, and to strengthen the feeble knees;–These are the doctrines I preach, these are the ends I pursue…’Tis the conversion and salvation of men I aim to promote…The design of the gospel is to bring perishing sinners to heaven…I cannot help thinking [he continued, comparing his own preaching with that of the Anglican ministers in Virginia] that they who generally entertain their hearers with languid harangues on morality or insipid speculations, omitting or but slightly touching upon the glorious doctrines of the gospel, which will be everlastingly found the most effectual means to reform a degenerate world; such as the corruption of human nature in its present lapsed state; the nature and necessity of regeneration, and of divine influences to effect it; the nature of saving faith, evangelical repentance, etc.  I cannot, I say, help thinking that they who omit, pervert, or but slightly hint at these and the like doctrines, are not likely to do much service to the souls of men.

–Samuel Davies to Thomas Sherlock, Bishop of London; quoted in Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Volume One:  1607-1861 (Richmond, VA:  John Knox Press, 1963), page 75


Samuel Davies was a Presbyterian divine and an early President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).  He also became the earliest American writer of widely accepted hymns.  His hymns included “Eternal Spirit, Source of Light,” “Lord, I am Thine,” and “While O’er Our Guilty Land, O Lord.”

Davies accomplished much.  He, born at New Castle, Delaware, on November 3, 1723, studied under Presbyterian ministers Samuel Blair of Chester County, Pennsylvania, and William Robinson of New Brunswick, New Jersey.  The Presbytery of New Castle licensed our saint to preach 1746.  The following year, although our saint’s health was fragile and even he thought he might die of tuberculosis shortly, became an evangelist in Virginia, starting in Hanover County.  Authorities in Virginia restricted the rights of religious dissenters (non-Anglicans), reserving the right to issue licenses to preach and to dictate who may evangelize.  Davies won limited yet expanded rights for dissenters, specifically those who registered their ministers and agreed to obey colonial law.  He also added many people to the rolls of Presbyterian churches in Virginia.  Davies published Miscellaneous Poems, Chiefly on Divine Subjects (1752) in two volumes.  The following year the Synod of New York (the New School faction in the North American colonies) commissioned our saint and Gilbert Tennant to travel to England to raise funds for the College of New Jersey.  Davies was so well-known that King George II invited him to preach at the Chapel Royal.  Davies, back in Virginia, helped to found the Hanover Presbytery, the first presbytery in Virginia, in late 1755.  The presbytery covered most of Virginia plus all of the Carolinas.  He led the presbytery in an evangelistic push and in numerical expansion.  After he left to become the President of the College of New Jersey in 1759, however, that growth stopped.  Davies died at Princeton, New Jersey, on February 4, 1761.  He was 36 years old.

Among the posthumous collections honoring Davies was Sermons on Important Subjects (1792)–Volumes I, II, and III.  In 1930 historian Wesley M. Gewehr described our saint’s style of preaching as

plain and pungent, peculiarly adapted to pierce the conscience and affect the heart.

–Quoted in Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Volume One (1963), page 75

The historian continued:

His eloquence and his influence in developing a new type of oratory characterized alike by naturalness, warmth and directness of expression, and great dignity of style are too well-known to need further comment here.

–Quoted in Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Volume One (1963), page 75

Davies filled his life with activities that glorified God and created long-lasting legacies that have continued to enrich the lives of many people, even to today.

Not all of us can leave such legacies, but we can glorify God via our lives.  We must also know that we will influence many people directly.  They will, in turn, influence others, who will influence still others, et cetera.  Thus we will influence many people indirectly.  Will we do so more for the good or for the bad?









O God, you have brought us near to an innumerable company of angels,

and to the spirits of just men made perfect:

Grant us during our earthly pilgrimage to become partakers of their joy;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Wisdom 3:1-9

Psalm 34 or 34:15-22

Philippians 4:4-9

Luke 6:17-23

–Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 725


Feast of Ernest Trice Thompson (March 31)   3 comments

The Seal of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (1861-1983)

“Lux Lucet in Tenebris” = “The light shines in the darkness.”

Scan by Kenneth Randolph Taylor



U.S. Presbyterian Minister and Renewer of the Church

Ernest Trice Thompson was one of the most important Southern Presbyterian clergymen of the Twentieth Century.  A seminary professor for 42 years, he helped transform the Presbyterian Church in the United States, once the Southern Presbyterian Church mired in racism and the cult of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, into a moderate body which addressed racism and merged with The United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Thompson entered the world in Texarcana, Texas, in 1895.  A prominent role in the Southern Presbyterian denomination came naturally, for his father was a Moderator of the General Assembly.    Thompson graduated from Hampden-Sydney College, Union Theological Seminary of Virginia, and Columbia University.  He entered the Presbyterian ordained ministry and served as a chaplain during World War I.

Thompson spent most of his career at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, where he taught for 42 years as Professor of the Bible then of Church History.  While at UTS served as moderator of his presbytery (in 1931), synod (the Synod of Virginia, in 1940), and President of the Virginia Council of Churches (1944-1946).  During his tenure Thompson faced also a heresy trial in the 1930s, for he favored higher biblical criticism.  The trial resulted in acquittal, as you might have guessed, O perceptive reader.

In 1944 Thompson founded The Presbyterian Outlook, a magazine devoted to civil rights, higher biblical criticism, and and advocacy for ecumenism.  All these causes were controversial in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) during much of the Twentieth Century.  The PCUS joined the Federal Council of Churches (a predecessor of the National Council of Churches) then withdrew then debated whether to rejoin it.  (The denomination wound up a longterm member of the National Council.)   Also, the PCUS, founded as the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, spent its early years using the Bible to defend slavery and treating its African-American members paternalistically; it was a white man’s denomination.  The Spirituality of the Church, a doctrine which stated that social and political matters were not concerns of the church, provided convenient cover for justifying slavery, Jim Crow laws, and racism–or for evading these questions of social injustice.

Yet the church began to change in the 1930s.  The 1934 General Assembly created a Committee on Social and Moral Reform, which issued its first report the following year.  Thompson served on this committee, which defined social and moral concerns more broadly than the usual suspects:  drinking, gambling, fornicating, and violating the Sabbath day.  They added political, racial, and economic issues.  The 1935 report said in part:

In other words, the Church cannot rest its efforts until all men, in all nations, are seeking to follow Christ, not only in their individual lives, but also in their corporate lives, and to build their economic life, their political life and their international life, as well as their individual lives on the teachings of Jesus.  It cannot rest until Jesus is Lord of all men, and until He is also Lord of all life.

In 1936 the committee issued its second report.  It condemned–no surprise here–gambling and violating the Sabbath day–and “the Threat of War,” “the Need of Economic Justice,” and “the Race Problem.”  The committee stated that since Church should condemn economic injustice because the Bible does.  (And it does–many times in both Testaments.)  Regarding war, the committee called for peace, human brotherhood, and mutual understanding.  And the committee condemned lynchings, supported human brotherhood, and encouraged local improvement of race relations.

One D. P. McGeachy, a Special Correspondent for The Christian Century, wrote of the 1936 General Assembly for that magazine.  He noted that the section on race and racism omitted a clause declaring the relationship between discrimination and certain crimes.  McGeachy wrote:

We are not ready to admit that the whites are in control.  One wonders whether we would insist that we are the helpless slaves of the blacks!  Nevertheless this was and is a great paper.  Its adoption, or even its consideration, would have been impossible a few years ago.  Slowly we are coming to realize that a man’s religion has to do with his actual life, and that it is not some unrelated theory with no ethical content.

By the early 1940s the changes in the denomination had caused such alarm in certain quarters that The Presbyterian Journal (the opposite number of the The Presbyterian Outlook) began publication.  The Journal midwifed the birth of the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973.  For more details consult Religion & Race: Southern Presbyterians, 1946-1983, by Joel L. Alvis, Jr.  (Aside:  I was planning to write my doctoral dissertation on the Journal‘s role from 1942 to 1973, but my program and proposed dissertation met an unpleasant fate at The University of Georgia’s Department of History.)

Thompson became more prominent in the denomination as time passed.  He served as Moderator of the General Assembly in 1959-1960, for example.  His prominence marked the liberalization of the Southern Presbyterian Church.  And Thompson left his mark in many places.  He edited The Presbyterian Outlook for many years, wrote weekly Sunday School lessons, and authored much of the Book of Church Order.

The Southern Presbyterian denomination began to address issues of civil rights seriously during World War II.  It became the first church body to support the 1954 Brown decision, which declared forced segregation in public schools unconstitutional and inherently unequal.  Thompson was on the vanguard of this movement in the PCUS.  At the Outlook he contradicted segregationist interpretations of the Bible.  (The Presbyterian Journal published such segregationist interpretations.)  In 1965 Thompson marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., at Selma, Alabama.  Keep these facts in mind as you read the following paragraph from Thompson’s 1950 book, The Changing South and the Presbyterian Church in the United States:

The movement of the Negroes in our Southern cities may furnish us the opportunity which we seek.  The author knows one Southern city where the Negroes who have been more fortunate economically are moving in rather large numbers into an area formerly occupied by the whites.  There is no Negro church in this large residential neighborhood and none that can conveniently minister unto it.  Many of the leaders of this community, it has been ascertained, would welcome and support a Presbyterian church.  It has not yet become clear whether the white Presbyterians are ready to support such a venture.

Thompson thought the Spirituality of the Church too narrow a doctrine.  An excerpt from Through the Ages: A History of the Christian Church (1965) follows:

For a generation now the Presbyterian Church in the United States has officially accepted the idea that the gospel does have implications for the whole of life.  The task of the present generation will be able to find ways in which this concept can be accepted by the church membership as a whole, particularly our lay people, the People of God, who alone can translate the principle into practical reality.  Only so can we be true to our Calvinistic, and also our Christian, heritage.  And so can we hope, in a measure, to fulfill our true spiritual mission.

One gauge of the extent of that change in official priorities is A Brief Statement of Belief (1962), which superceded a 1913 document.  The sin-related section of the 1913 statement dealt solely with individual sins.  Contrast that with the 1962 paragraph on Total Depravity:

Sin permeates and corrupts our entire being and burdens us more andmore with fear, hostility, guilt, and misery.  Sin operates not only within individuals but also within society as a deceptive and oppressive power, so that even men of good will are unconsciously and unwillingly involved in the sins of society.  Man cannot destroy the tyranny of sin in himself or in his world; his only hope is to be delivered from it by God.

Thompson wrote over 20 books.  A partial list follows:

  1. Presbyterian Missions in the Southern United States (1934);
  2. Changing Emphases in American Preaching (1943);
  3. One World, One Lord: Studies from The Gospel of Matthew (1947);
  4. The Changing South and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (1950);
  5. You Shall Be My Witnesses: Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (1953);
  6. The Gospel According to Mark and its Meaning for Today (1954);
  7. Jesus and Citizenship (1956);
  8. Meeting God Through the Beatitudes (1958);
  9. Tomorrow’s Church, Tomorrow’s World (1960);
  10. The Spirituality of the Church: A Distinctive Doctrine of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (1961);
  11. Presbyterians in the South (3 volumes, 1963-1972), an essential work in the field of Southern Presbyterian history;
  12. The Sermon on the Mount and Its Meaning for Today (1964);
  13. Through the Ages: A History of the Christian Church (1965);
  14. Plenty and Want: The Responsibility of the Church (1966);
  15. The Board of National Ministries: Its History (1973); and
  16. The Greatness of of Jesus: Words of Hope for Happy, Healthy Living (1973)

Thompson supported the ordination of women also.  The Southern Presbyterian General Assembly approved this in 1964.

Thompson died on March 29, 1985, at 90 years of age.

Every year The Presbyterian Outlook announces the winner of the Ernest Trice Thompson Award for excellence in education, church history, journalism, or social justice.



Almighty God, we praise you for your servant Ernest Trice Thompson, through whom you have called the church to its tasks and renewed its life.  Raise up in our own day teachers and prophets inspired by your Spirit, whose voices will give strength to your church and proclaim the reality of your reign, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 46

1 Corinthians 3:11-23

Mark 10:35-45

–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 60


Revised on December 31, 2016