Columbia Old and New: A Review Essay

Sean Michael Lucas
Chancellor’s Professor of Church History
Reformed Theological Seminary

For many conservative Presbyterians, the professors and supporters of Columbia Theological Seminary represent a collection of theological giants. In the nineteenth century, the Columbia faculty had leaders like Howe, Jones, Smyth, Thornwell, Palmer, Leighton and Ruggles Wilson, Girardeau, and Adger. The story of “Old Columbia” has received treatment in the past, but finds a renewed telling in To Count Our Days from the eminent historian and Columbia Seminary professor emeritus, Erskine Clarke.[1] One could hardly imagine a better teller of this story than Clarke, winner of the Bancroft Prize for his brilliant account of the white and black family of Charles Colcock Jones in Dwelling Place (2005). Likewise, Clarke covered similar territory in his book, Our Southern Zion (1996), which charted the course of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches of the South Carolina Lowcountry, and By the Rivers of Water (2013), which told of the missionary career of John Leighton Wilson and his wife Jane.[2] All of that previous research and story-telling is brought to bear here in To Count Our Days and the result is a fascinating tale of how these brilliant leaders shared Columbia Seminary as a common project and concern.

A Tragic Legacy

One of the real strengths of this first half of this book was Clarke’s sense of the tragic in Columbia’s founding generation. In Greek tragedy, the hero is truly heroic—a powerful warrior, a brilliant statesman, a telling poet—and yet undone ultimately by a fatal flaw. In Clarke’s account, the fatal flaw in the founding generation was its defense of race-based slavery. Of Thornwell, Palmer, Adger, and the others, he noted that “they were the most brilliant and influential generation in the seminary’s history. But they were to bear, as Thornwell feared they would have to bear, the reproach of the world. They were to be accused, as Thornwell foresaw, of seeking their own freedom by perpetuating the slavery of black men, women, and children. This reproach, these accusations, and this burden of their history would be their most enduring legacy” (90). Even with this fatal flaw, Clarke’s treatment of this generation was a genuinely sympathetic-critical account. As a reader, I felt the power, brilliance, culture, and even heroism of men like Charles Colcock Jones, who gave his life to evangelizing slaves; Thomas Smyth, who used his money, his books, his influence to further the work of the seminary; and of course, James Henley Thornwell, who led an entire state from his positions at the church, college, and seminary in Columbia. To be sure, the fatal flaw was always present and presented, but Clarke’s telling seemed eminently even-handed and fair. Because of his telling, one wished to be able to be part of that nineteenth-century world for a moment to know it and to understand it.

In addition, Clarke’s account of the evolution controversy, which centered on James Woodrow, was sure-footed and well-told. Woodrow, the Perkins Professor of Natural Science in Connexion with Revelation, was a brilliant polymath: chemist who worked on munitions for the Confederates during the Civil War, minister who served in church as moderator of presbytery and synod, publisher who oversaw both the Southern Presbyterian newspaper and the Southern Presbyterian Review. Though some had raised concerns about Woodrow’s views on the method of God’s creation, most notably Union Seminary professor Robert Lewis Dabney, it was not until the late 1870s that Woodrow’s views came under scrutiny within the seminary’s constituency. Clarke showed how the seminary’s financial instability and struggling student enrollment served as the context in which Woodrow’s views were surfaced and attacked by John L. Girardeau and his proxy on the seminary board J. B. Mack. The results for the seminary were devastating—a lengthy disciplinary process that cost Woodrow his job but exonerated him in the courts of the church, that led other faculty to resign and students to flee, and that would divide friends, allies, and even family members from one another. While Clarke breaks little new ground, his telling makes understandable the seminary’s weakness in the aftermath, those forty years between 1880 and 1920.[3]

The seminary’s weakness—in terms of both enrollment and endowment—invited a number of potential merger conversations. One of the more fascinating bits in Clarke’s account were the machinations in the early decades of the twentieth century that sought to merge Columbia with Union Seminary in Virginia, with Louisville Seminary, or even with Louisville and Austin seminaries as part of a new “western” seminary in Memphis. It is hard to imagine how different the history of the southern Presbyterian church would have been had such a merger taken place: if there had been two seminaries instead of four, if there had been two seminaries in border states, if the faculty at Columbia in the 1920s had merged with the Union faculty right at the time the latter was hiring E. T. Thompson and E. C. Caldwell. The entire southern Presbyterian story and even the birth of the PCA would have changed.

“The Phraseology of the Past”

These clear strengths in Clarke’s account demonstrated how significant Columbia Seminary was—for those throughout South Carolina and Georgia, Columbia was “our seminary,” a source of identity and pride. Indeed, the book’s first hundred pages or so were extremely strong and valuable. It was frustrating that the last hundred pages, which covered the more recent past, did not match their excellence. It was perhaps inevitable—every institutional history struggles with whether or not to hold on to a narrative thread or to forsake that thread by mentioning a cast of characters who were part of the institution, but not a truly significant part. Unfortunately, Clarke chose the latter, apparently feeling the need to mention nearly everyone who was associated with Columbia, especially during his own years at the seminary. In one paragraph (on page 263), he mentioned twenty-seven different staff members! While it was kind to mention them, it does not make for good historical narrative. Likewise, he surveys the range of faculty members—especially as the faculty expanded in the 1980s and beyond, the comings and goings of faculty members became a blur of names and disciplines. And Clarke took the opportunity to mention a range of programs and initiatives, some of which he himself led, that were certainly interesting at the time, but seemed oddly placed for thinking about the significance of the institution (239; 247-49; 275).

There were opportunities and even hints toward the larger narrative framework that he wanted to pursue: the transitions from a hierarchical and organic society that shaped the seminary in the nineteenth century to an egalitarian and inclusive society that shaped it presently, and the movement from the more agrarian values of an early age to the market-oriented values of the present age (227-229). And yet, these were hints that were not fully developed. Even more, possible themes from earlier in the book were dropped. Much was made early on of “Columbia moderation” or the “middle way”—but such moderation did not make much of an appearance as the book came to the latter half of the twentieth century. And this was a special fault in Clarke’s treatment with J. McDowell Richards, who served as president of the seminary from 1932 until 1971. If anyone represented such moderation, it was Richards: he was constantly tacking and balancing the forces that buffeted his institution in the post-World War II era. One of the missed opportunities of the book was to tell the story of this undeniably important southern Presbyterian institutional leader with the same care that was taken with the nineteenth-century leaders and faculty.

Clarke’s lack of care was most obvious in his treatment of conservative Presbyterians, especially those who would form the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), but also those stretching back to Girardeau who represented an antimodern stance within the southern church. Clarke uses Girardeau’s 1871 Confederate Memorial Day speech as evidence of his commitment to the “phraseology of the past,” whether politically, socially, or theologically (97-100). It merged together Lost Cause ideology with white paternalism toward blacks alongside of propositional theology. This commitment to talking about the past with the received doctrines of the past would keep the southern Presbyterian church and Columbia Seminary mired in an intellectual backwater, Clarke argued. Indeed, Girardeau’s perspective represented a “constricted world,” in which the “horizons were limited by the bitterness of defeat, by an engulfing poverty, [and] by a deep nostalgia for a lost world” (106). Coupled together with Girardeau’s leading role in the Woodrow controversy, it seems as though Clarke had a ready-made villain who was “deeply fearful of modern scholarship and had little engagement with the great intellectual issues of the day” (133).

The fault here was in not treating the antimodern stance as a legitimate critique of the developing New South ethos. Girardeau, of course, was not the only one who provided such a critique; he was joined by a range of thinkers inside and outside the church who stood for a “southern conservative tradition.” It birthed not only a political stance, but a cultural one as well, represented by the Agrarians who wrote I’ll Take My Stand (1930). Again, such a movement is not beyond critique—it should be criticized especially for its racial traditionalism and defense of segregation. But by not placing Girardeau and his fellow southern Presbyterian conservatives rightly, Clarke missed an opportunity to describe that to which some Columbia institutional leaders were responding and how the seminary sought to stand between antimodernism and modernism to carve out its own stance.[4]

Girardeau’s conservative emphases and perspective would be represented on the faculty by W. M. McPheeters (on faculty from 1888 until 1933) and William Childs Robinson (faculty from 1927 until 1968). Neither McPheeters nor Robinson fare well in Clarke’s telling. Though McPheeters served for nearly forty-five years on faculty, many of those years as chairman of the faculty, he comes across simply as a crank, a representative of “a strident and embattled white Southern Presbyterian orthodoxy” (178). To be sure, toward the end of his life, McPheeters was very concerned about the direction of his church. And yet, there is little about McPheeters’s life (his father was a significant Presbyterian minister in his own right), his writing or editorial work, or his effort to sustain the seminary during the lean years.[5] The result is that McPheeters comes across as a cardboard character, one that stands in contrast to the careful account that Clarke gave for characters like Thornwell, Jones, and Smyth.

In a similar fashion, Robinson carries on the Girardeau-McPheeters’ legacy at the seminary. He stood as an example of “the suspicious nature and fighting spirit of fundamentalism,” one that evidenced “a deep fear of modernity and held tightly to the values of an older rural America,” and “viewed the Bible as containing a rational system of divinely inspired propositions” (178). Clarke’s proof for this characterization for Robinson was his early stance against a faculty member who objected to promising not to teach any doctrine “contrary to the Scriptures as interpreted by these [Westminster] standards.” Robinson’s concern was that by unhitching the Scriptures from the Westminster Standards, the board would no longer have a baseline for what true doctrine would be. If someone was teaching heresy, on what basis would the board discipline such a faculty member? To be sure, the way Clarke reports Robinson’s concern, the professor comes across as arrogant and impolitic. But historian Clarke also shows an insensitivity to Robinson himself by failing to present his own argument in a way that he would likely recognize.

Further, there was more nuance in Robinson’s theological position that Clarke gives him credit for. While Clarke grudgingly noted that Robinson was aware of European theological movements (229), he was far more than that. Robinson enthusiastically engaged the work of Karl Barth, studying with him in Basel in 1938 and seeking to find points of commonalty between his own orthodox commitments and the neo-orthodox movement. That was, perhaps, why Robinson helped to recruit Shirley Guthrie to the faculty at Columbia, a move that he would later regret, but one that is only understandable when Robinson’s engagement of Barth is accounted for. Robinson sought to defend a classical Reformed position that harkened back to the sixteenth century itself, to Calvin especially and his later interpreters, a position that caused theological liberals to reject him and conservatives not to understand him fully. It is sadly the case that Robinson defended white supremacy and southern segregation in the pages of the Southern Presbyterian Journal. Yet Clarke’s account of him was too facile and in the end too convenient.[6]

The same could be said in general about the way Clarke handled the post-World War II conflict in the southern Presbyterian church. When he summarized the continuing church movement that produced the PCA, he typified it as a movement that “believed that Christian faith involved a rational system of divinely inspired propositions—especially as articulated in late nineteenth-century fundamentalism. They insisted that the Bible was an inerrant text and that all theological teaching proceed[ed] by rational argument. They rejected evolution. And they provided vigorous support for a segregated South” (235). Clearly, for Clarke, these are bad things—but to understand the conflicts that Columbia endured in the 1950s and 1960s, it might have been profitable to treat the Columbia students and graduates who joined the continuing church movement and formed the PCA with more charity. How did these students—university, not “Bible school,” graduates who were Columbia alumni—come to believe that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God? Why was that significant to them and why were they concerned that Columbia was moving away from historic orthodoxy? What is “propositional truth” and why is that a bad thing? Which propositional truths are we to give up—the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the Trinity—and still have Christianity or the Reformed tradition? Why did these Columbia alumni believe that these truths were important enough to leave their church, which they loved? By not asking these kinds of questions, Clarke’s historical analysis fails to match the generosity of understanding that he extended to the founding generation of Columbia faculty or even those who opposed Woodrow.[7]

All of this is disappointing because Clarke is a far better historian than he showed in the latter part of To Count Our Days. Like the Presbyterian historian E. T. Thompson, Clarke was a participant-observant in many of these scenes and knew many of these people; perhaps that colors his judgment at points. Regardless, for those who know this history well, it was a disappointment not to receive a fuller, more nuanced picture.

Mainline or Oldline

There were other questions that I had, especially concerning the seminary in the post-World War II world, which were left unanswered. For example, while noting repeatedly that southern Presbyterian conservatives held on to the racist heritage of the later nineteenth century, Clarke does little meaningful reflection about the seminary’s lack of leadership on racial justice during the 1950s and 1960s. It is the case that the seminary’s president, McDowell Richards, boldly preached a sermon, “Our Brothers in Black,” in 1940 that urged racial reconciliation. And yet, there was little significant movement towards recruiting black students. As Clarke noted, in the 1960s, the seminary had one black student, Joe Robinson: “the seminary was overwhelmingly white…Columbia’s white campus and white curriculum and white assumptions reflected—and reflected very clearly—the power of race and racism in shaping the contours of the nation’s life and the theological education of pastors and priests” (221). Could it be that the white moderates who ran Columbia in this period were as racially complicit as the more obviously racist actors in the southern church?

This is one of those places where asking harder questions might have brought greater nuance and sympathy in the latter sections of Clarke’s account. As historian Kevin Kruse has noted, white flight in places like Atlanta fueled much of modern political conservatism.[8] But I wonder if the white flight that also fueled the growth of Decatur, Georgia, the seminary’s location since 1927, during this period did not also affect the seminary in a range of ways. Clarke is generally so attentive to the significance of place in his work, most obviously in his treatments of low country South Carolina and Liberty County, Georgia. Too, the seminary board was regularly led by corporate CEOs based in Atlanta. How did their leadership shape the general institutional slowness to address and engage racial justice in the 1960s? Perhaps the location and constituency of suburban Atlanta would have provided fruitful clues to the lack of movement by the seminary’s leadership on these issues.

That did not stop Clarke from repeatedly observing that Columbia Seminary was a “world-class” theological school. While the school has attracted highly credential scholars as part of its faculty and its facilities are magnificent, such a perspective represents an overestimation of its importance in today’s world of theological education. While there are always ebbs and flows in student enrollment, it is still the case that the mainline Presbyterian seminaries have been in general decline for many years and are significantly smaller than their peer conservative Presbyterian seminaries. For example, the 2017-18 Association of Theological School’s data tables report that Columbia Seminary has 98 full-time equivalent (FTE) students in their Master of Divinity program and 191 FTE total. By comparison, Reformed Theological Seminary has 283 FTE Master of Divinity students and 585 total; Westminster Theological Seminary has 208 FTE Master of Divinity students and 516 total; and Covenant Theological Seminary has 152 FTE Master of Divinity students and 342 total. In other words, each of the three seminaries that supply students to the PCA have been one and half to three times more FTE students than Columbia has. Despite this, historians that tell the stories of mainline Presbyterian seminaries continue to overestimate the importance of their own schools in the larger theological world.[9]

Such a reality raises the question about the mainline Presbyterian denomination in general and whether it is truly “mainline” anymore. A similar question is whether or not Columbia Seminary is meaningfully Presbyterian or contributing to the life of the Presbyterian church anymore. That question came through in almost side-reflections offered by Clarke (268; cf. 276). But he also observed that while the faculty pledged themselves to further the work of the church, it was not “in service to some narrow denominationalism” (269). As more faculty represented denominations other than Presbyterianism, ties to Presbyterianism weakened and the distinctively Presbyterian culture of the school weakened as well. Somewhat ironically, Clarke pins much of the movement away from Presbyterian identity at Columbia on the evangelical seminary president, Steve Hayner (279-90). But such a movement away from a Presbyterian commitment occurred much earlier than 2009; it started when the faculty added Irish Catholic and Disciples of Christ members in the 1980s. And it accelerated as the Presbyterian Church USA began unraveling over issues related to homosexuality and ordination.

A further question might be asked about Presbyterian identity for institutional cohesion. If one forsakes a doctrinal component for Presbyterian identity, then how does the story get told? How do institutions and institutional loyalties and commitments form? As I have suggested elsewhere, it is difficult for mainline Presbyterian historians to tell denominational stories because of a deep present commitment to pluralism. That same difficulty can also be found in the larger denominational commitments with which the PC(USA) struggles. As more and more students and faculty at schools like Columbia have only a tangential commitment to Presbyterian identity—its distinctive beliefs, practices, and stories—the question remains whether Columbia Seminary will be a recognizably Presbyterian theological school in the decades to come (291-92). It would be ironic that the school in which James Henley Thornwell taught when he was accused of “ultra-Presbyterianism” might no longer champion Presbyterianism at all by the mid-twenty-first century.[10]

It is a credit to Erskine Clarke that an institutional history of a theological seminary could range so far and provoke such reaction. One of the great historians of southern Presbyterianism of this present generation, his work of worthy of such an engagement. While this may not represent his best work, To Count Our Days still offers an important telling of a school that has shaped and continues to shape various branches of Presbyterianism. If it causes us to engage these stories more thoroughly, it will have served a worthy cause.




[1] David B. Calhoun, Our Southern Zion: Old Columbia Seminary (1828-1927) (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2012).

[2] Erskine Clarke, Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005); Clarke, Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996); Clarke, By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth Century Atlantic Odyssey (New York: Basic, 2013).

[3] Monte Harrell Hampton, Science, Religion, and Evolution in the Civil War Era (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2014); Sean Michael Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2005), 170-178.

[4] For a comparable for Girardeau’s antimodernism in the church, see Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney, 180-82. For a treatment of the southern tradition itself, see Eugene D. Genovese, The Southern Tradition: The Achievements and Limitations of an American Conservatism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).

[5] McPheeters’s father was Samuel B. McPheeters, who was at the center of controversy for the spirituality of the church during the Civil War; see Preston D. Graham, Jr., A Kingdom Not of This World: Stuart Robinson’s Struggle to Distinguish the Sacred from the Secular During the Civil War (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2002), 64-89. For McPheeters’s controversies toward the end of his life, see Sean Michael Lucas, “‘Our Church Will Be on Trial’: W. M. McPheeters and the Beginnings of Conservative Dissent in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.,” Journal of Presbyterian History 84 (2006): 52-66.

[6] David B. Calhoun, Pleading for a Reformation Vision: The Life and Selected Writings of William Childs Robinson (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2013), 40-42; Sean Michael Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2015), 231-232n.20. For Robinson’s racial intransigence, see Lucas, For a Continuing Church, 113-15.

[7] As Clarke notes, “Columbia Seminary graduates were intimately involved in the formation of the PCA.” Over half of the pastors were graduates; twenty-two of the third pastors who worked on the Book of Church Order were as well (235).

[8] Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[9] (accessed 9 September 2019).

[10] Sean Michael Lucas, “Presbyterians in America: Denominational History and the Quest for Identity,” in American Denominational History: Perspectives on the Past, Prospects for the Future (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008), 50-70.