Thornwell, James 
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Time Period
12/9/1812  - 8/1/1862
Description
As both a Presbyterian pastor and prominent South Carolina College theologian, James Thornwell influenced 19th century Presbyterianism in three significant ways:

First, he persuaded the vast majority of ministers in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) to deem Roman Catholic baptism invalid. Due to his influence, converts from Roman Catholicism must receive a Protestant Baptism.

Second, he maintained that elders should lay hands on ministerial candidates in Presbyterian ordinations and that a quorum at presbytery meetings should require the presence of at least one ruling elder. This practice was later adopted by the Southern Presbyterian Church, which separated from the PCUSA in 1861.

And third, he argued, the state, rather than the church, should assume responsibility for educating its citizens. He argued that the Christian church should only to attend to ecclesiastical affairs, and that public opinion would ensure that that state-administered schools would not instill anti-Christian principles in their students.

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Narrative
James Henley Thornwell, the antebellum South’s most eminent Presbyterian theologian, began life in 1812 in Marlborough, South Carolina. Though his father’s death in 1820 left the Thornwell family penniless, wealthy patrons saw that James received an education. Having entered South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) in 1830 as a junior, he graduated at the top of his class in 1831. In 1832, while working as a schoolmaster in Sumterville, South Carolina, Thornwell embraced Presbyterianism. In 1833, he became a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry. Having been offered a full scholarship to Andover Theological Seminary in 1834, Thornwell undertook studies there briefly, but abandoned them in disgust at his professors’ unorthodox theology and, by his reckoning, deficient scholarly attainments. After studying Hebrew and German at Harvard, Thornwell returned to South Carolina and attained a license to preach in 1834.

Having served as a pastor in Lancaster, South Carolina, from 1835 until 1837, Thornwell, still only 25 years old, accepted an appointment as professor of logic at South Carolina College. In 1838 he became professor of metaphysics at the same institution. After briefly serving as pastor of Columbia Presbyterian Church in 1840, then, he became South Carolina College’s chaplain and its professor of sacred literature and the evidences of Christianity. Following a brief stint as the Glebe Street Presbyterian Church of Charleston’s pastor in 1851, Thornwell returned to South Carolina College as its president. In December, 1855, Thornwell assumed his last post as professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary. In 1862, he died.

Significant Contributions to Christianity in the United States

Thornwell’s principal contributions to American Christianity were three. First, he persuaded the vast majority of ministers in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) to deem Roman Catholic baptism invalid. By all accounts, his two-hour oration on the subject in the general assembly of 1845, more than any other factor, contributed to the passage, with only eight dissenting votes, of a measure that required converts from Roman Catholicism to receive Protestant baptism as a condition of joining PCUSA churches.

Second, he maintained that ruling, as well as teaching, elders should lay hands on ministerial candidates in Presbyterian ordinations and that a quorum at presbytery meetings should require the presence of at least one ruling elder. Although Thornwell failed to persuade the PCUSA to legislate these strictures, the Southern Presbyterian Church, which separated from the PCUSA in 1861, wrote Thornwell’s principles into her constitution.

Third, he argued, the state, rather than the church, should assume responsibility for educating its citizens. The doctrine of the spirituality of the church, according to which God authorized the church only to attend to ecclesiastical affairs, he argued, positively forbade her from setting up a parochial school system. The religious element in education, he admitted, surpassed all others in importance. The religious element in all activities, Thornwell reasoned however, surpasses all others in importance. Yet it would be absurd to extend the church’s jurisdiction into every sphere of human life. Public opinion in a Christian society, Thornwell argued moreover, would ensure that state-administered schools would not instill anti-Christian principles in their students.

Notable Publications

Among Thornwell’s most important literary works are his polemic against the validity of Roman Catholic baptism, "The Validity of the Baptism of the Church of Rome," originally published in the Southern Presbyterian Review and reprinted in volume 3 of his Collected Writings, and his article, "The Ruling Elder," which appeared in the same journal and was republished in volume 4 of his Collected Writings. Also worthy of mention is Thornwell’s Letter to Governor Manning on Public Instruction in which he advocates state-sponsored education.
Religious Groups
Presbyterian-Reformed Family: Other ARDA Links

Photographs

James Thornwell portrait- Internet Archive- from The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, vol 1
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442244320/The-Encyclopedia-of-Christianity-in-the-United-States-5-Volumes
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Dennis W. Jowers

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