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Vol. LXIII, No. 4
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
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John Calvin’s 500th and Tour of Rare Books Subject of Three-Day Seminary Colloquium

Dilshanie Perera

To commemorate the 500th anniversary of theologian John Calvin’s birth, the Princeton Theological Seminary hosted a three-day colloquium last week. Friday’s lecture by James Moorhead, the Mary McIntosh Bridge Professor of American Church History, detailed the political and religious climate out of which the Seminary emerged. Following the talk, Reference Archivist Ken Henke led participants on a tour of the rare books from the seminary library’s special collections.

Calvinist thought was described as a “substantial part of the Seminary’s curriculum now” by Director of Programs at the Seminary’s Center of Continuing Education Raymond Bonwell, since all students are required to take two semesters of an introduction to systematic theology and Calvin’s work is featured prominently in the course.

Mr. Moorhead’s lecture revealed that Calvinism was not universally well-received throughout history, with some in 19th century America calling it “despotic or unreasonable.”

“I’m somewhat puzzled by this. If it were so self-evidently repugnant, why bother to kick it around?” asked Mr. Moorhead, who concluded that the theology must have been “a livelier object” during that time.

The churches that were influenced by Calvinism were the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians, who played a major role in the founding of educational institutions, so “an element of class and cultural envy enters in,” said Mr. Moorhead in describing the anti-Calvinist movement.

In the late 1600s until the end of the 1700s, Enlightenment intellectuals advocated the use of reason in order to understand the physical world and the universe. The power of each individual to come to truths about the world extended to religion, and “it was this intellectual climate out of which a major critique of Calvinism emerged,” Mr. Moorhead explained.

Around the same time, beginning in the early-to-mid 1700s, America was seeing a period of religious revival, called “The Great Awakening,” which Mr. Moorhead described as “offering a heightened sense of a new spiritual birth.”

“So, a couple of powerful vectors were coming in on traditional Calvinism,” Mr. Moorhead said, “and if you add in a major change in the political and cultural life of the country, you have quite a brew.”

The idea that the Calvinist god was an “arbitrary despot” did not bode well for the popularity of Calvinism during the American Revolution. It was out of this political, cultural, and religious milieu that the Princeton Theological Seminary was founded in 1812.

Characterizing the Seminary as “a balance between the monarchical and the wildly populist” forces of the time, Mr. Moorhead said the reasons for its founding were threefold. More clergy, as well as a common curriculum that would create a sense of unity were needed, and the founders felt suspicious of other institutions teaching theology. He described the Seminary as preserving the Reformed tradition of theology, while also altering it to some extent.

Responding to a question about the early days of the Seminary and race, Mr. Moorhead said slavery was dealt with in an ambiguous way by the founders. Seminary Professor Archibald Alexander “personally didn’t like it, and hoped it would end, but still wouldn’t say that slaveholders were sinners,” explained Mr. Moorhead, adding that Alexander’s position was one of voluntary freeing and repatriation to Africa. By the late 1820s and early 1830s, Seminarians were “moving to a more stridently anti-slavery platform,” he noted.

During the tour that followed the lecture, a number of rare first edition texts were showcased. Calvin’s works published during his lifetime were on display, including the Institutes of the Christian Religion from 1536, first edition letters, and commentary. Tomes belonging to Seminary founders, complete with marginal notes, were also brought out of the archive.

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