James Thornwell: Our Danger and Our Duty
A sickly boy made his way slowly through the streets of Columbia, South Carolina. Few would have predicted any kind of future for him. He was short and thin. His eyes were half-obscured by heavy lids that drooped noticeably. His skin was a sickly yellowish color. Everyone believed that he would die young. Some people jokingly said that he looked to be “twenty years old” when he was born. Young James had what was called “consumption” in the early 1800s, a wasting disease we now call tuberculosis. Sometimes he would cough up blood as he sat up late at night poring over his books.
Few would predict that this sickly boy would one day become a mighty champion of truth. His pen would deal blows against rationalism, Unitarianism, abolitionism, communism, statism, and every other error that dared threaten the truth he loved so dearly. But all of this was not yet. A small twenty-five-cent book he would buy in a small bookshop would change the course of this boy’s destiny.
James had become an orphan at the tender age of eight. A kind planter, out of respect to the boy’s parents, had decided to fund his education. James had come from his small rural village on the Pedee River to be educated at Columbia College. One thing soon became clear. Behind those droopy eyelids were eyes that glowed with an earnest search for truth. All that James read, he remembered. And he had read much.
James was considered to be the most brilliant student at Columbia College, and could quote the ancient Greek poets in the original with ease. He was also skilled in debate, in philosophy, and in English literature. However, in spite of all his learning, the boy was empty. His pious mother had committed him long ago to God, but he had been raised by an intellectual patron, and reason had gradually pushed out faith.
But one evening in Columbia, the hand of God drew young James to a bookstore. A twenty-five cent book caught his eye. It was simply titled “Confession of Faith.” The boy carried it back to his small room. It is needless to say that the book was the “Westminster Confession.” James was riveted by its contents. The hours of the night slipped by. James opened his Bible, eagerly looking up every Scripture that the Confession referenced. After long hours of study, the light of dawn began to dispel the darkness of night. Just as surely, the Light of Divine Revelation had dispelled the darkness of human reason.
James Henley Thornwell was a changed man from that moment forward. Brilliant prospects were offered to the promising student. Positions as a professor in philosophy, opportunities in law, business, and politics were all offered and rejected. Thornwell set his course for the Gospel ministry. Turning from Aristotle and Plato as philosophers, he fixed his eyes upon Christ, the fountain of true wisdom. Abandoning Locke as a teacher of natural law, he took up Moses as the source of revealed law. Thornwell would later write:
The speculations of Aristotle break down just where a higher light was needed to guide him. He tracked truth through the court and sanctuary to the mystic veil which he was not permitted to lift. . . A single line of Moses would have saved a world of perplexity.”
Thornwell laid aside prospects of brilliant advancement to take a humble pastorate in an obscure town in rural South Carolina. There he met and married the daughter of one of his church members, and Nancy Witherspoon truly proved the truth of the verse, “a prudent wife is from the Lord.” The Thornwells raised seven children to love and serve Christ.
Thornwell’s faithful preaching and fidelity to the truth soon led to other assignments. He became pastor of the Presbyterian church in Columbia, where he wielded a powerful influence over both church and state. He eventually became the president of the very college where he had once stumbled blindly after truth. At the helm of Columbia College and later the Seminary, he endeavored to point every young man under his influence to the rock of eternal truth.
As his friends predicted, Thornwell did not live a long life. He never reached the age of fifty. But in thirty years of ministry, he became a valiant and uncompromising champion of truth. He became a champion for many causes that were then and still now are unpopular. We will briefly discuss some of the positions that Thornwell took. He was a gracious but polemic writer and was not afraid to attack some cherished opinions.
Thornwell argued that seminary boards were not authorized in the Word of God. In a sharp but gentlemanly debate, he argued with Dr. Charles Hodge of Princeton that the education of ministers should be directly under church authority. He said, “I believe that the Boards will eventually prove our masters unless they are crushed in their infancy.”
Thornwell openly asserted that dancing was a shameful and licentious practice and that Christians should never be seen on a dancing floor. He said,
Just think of dancing soberly, and at the least, it cannot but appear ridiculous. And yet, like most follies, it is fatally contagious; and men freely engage in it without being aware of its enormity. It is an insult to God.
Thornwell saw the danger of German rationalism. Even while Princeton was accepting some of the tenants of higher criticism, Thornwell warned:
I am sorry to see that rationalism is making such progress in this country. If God spares my life, I intend to deal some harder blows than I have yet done . . . Upon the subject of the inspiration of the Scriptures and the authority of the Bible, we shall have some desperate battles to fight with false brethren before the enemy is subdued.
Thornwell argued that the War Between the States would radically change this country, and that the struggle was a desperate battle for orthodoxy in the church and order in the state.
The parties in 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.
Thornwell died in 1862 and, like the prophet Isaiah, never lived to see the grim realities of his warning. He wrote a pamphlet which he called “Our Danger and Our Duty.” The danger he feared was much more pernicious than the external invasion of enemy troops, and the duty he advocated was much more sweeping than even the bravest and most heroic armed resistance. Thornwell warned that only a return to the law of God would bring success to any people.
Thornwell suggested that the following amendment be presented to the Confederate Congress. It never was. Oh to God that some nation on this earth would take up these words and make them a glorious reality:
We the people of the Confederate States, distinctly acknowledge our responsibility to God and the supremacy of His Son, Jesus Christ, as King of kings and Lord of lords; and hereby ordain that no law shall be passed by the Congress of these Confederate States inconsistent with the will of God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.
The Life and Letters of J. H. Thornwell by B. M. Palmer
Preachers With Power by Douglas Kelly
Lectures on the South by Joe Morecraft
Our Danger and Our Duty by J. H. Thornwell