B.B. Warfield in Dayton

B.B. Warfield photographed during his later years as principal of Princeton Theological Seminary.

When it comes to the history of Dayton, Ohio, my home for the past three years, there is pretty much one name that you need to know: Wright, as in the Wright Brothers, creators of the world’s first practical airplane. The successful test flight famously took place on the beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, but all of the grunt work was done here in Dayton, where Wilbur and Orville Wright applied their bicycle-making expertise to a loftier venture. The town is full of things named after them, most particularly Wright State University and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

True to this heritage, Dayton is known to this day for its association with all things aviation. My husband often jokes that, “There are three things to do in Dayton. There’s the Air Force Museum…and I’m still trying to figure out the other two.” That is surely an exaggeration: we also host the first four games of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament each year, a nearby village has one of the world’s biggest Christmas light displays, and if none of that strikes your fancy, Cincinnati is just an hour down the road.

What Dayton is not particularly known for is its religious heritage. We do have a major Catholic university in town – the University of Dayton – and for those of a more evangelical fervor, there’s Cedarville University out in the neighboring cornfield. But upon the streets of Dayton, you will find neither megachurches nor world-renowned seminaries. As much of Ohio was settled by German immigrants, we are also a bit lean on what you might classify as the Reformed brand of Protestant Christianity. If you want some Reformed heritage, your best bet would be to go to downtown Cincinnati and visit the mother congregation of Reformed Judaism.

No, this is not a relative of B.B. Warfield. Photo by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Therefore, I was rather surprised recently to learn that back in the year 1876, B.B. Warfield himself spent some time in Dayton. Who was B.B. Warfield, you ask? No, he was not a relative of BB-8, the lovable droid from the new Star Wars trilogy. He was a theologian active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly famous for his defense of the inerrancy of scripture. He rose to become the principal of Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution associated with Princeton University. Along with Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, and A.A. Hodge, he was one of the major proponents of “Princeton Theology”, a conservative Calvinist response against the increasing theological liberalism of that time.

Many people within conservative Reformed circles today would point to Warfield as the last great theologian at Princeton before the unfortunateness happened. By unfortunateness, I refer to the seminary’s decision in the 1920s to reorganize along “modernist” lines, which amounted to going in a more liberal direction doctrinally. This caused a group of professors to leave and found a new institution, Westminster Theological Seminary. The era of B.B. Warfield, the so-called “Lion of Princeton”, is now viewed with a certain degree of nostalgia by those who lament the liberalizing trend. His vast body of work is pored over by academics, pastors, and yes, even some common folk who seek a better understanding of scripture.

That very limited introduction hardly does justice to the man whom R.C. Sproul has called “second only to Jonathan Edwards as America’s greatest theologian”. Yet, when the young Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield came to Dayton to serve as a “supply pastor” for First Presbyterian Church, he was surely as unknown to them as he is to much of the general public today. Having just graduated from Princeton Seminary, he had not yet established his own reputation and would have been best known for his famous family. His grandfather and brother were also Presbyterian ministers. His great-grandfather was a U.S. Senator and served as Attorney General. One of his uncles had even been Vice President of the United States under James Buchanan before becoming a Confederate general and Secretary of War. Suffice it to say, young Benjamin had some big shoes to fill.

First Presbyterian Church of Dayton had a similarly impressive pedigree. It was the first church in town, starting out as a simple log cabin meeting house in 1799. From such a humble beginning, it was to become an integral part of the city. One of its ministers, Phineas Gurley, even went on to preach at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. The debate over slavery was certainly on the minds of many congregants in the mid-19th century, as evidenced in the records they left behind.

A depiction of the original log cabin meeting house used by First Presbyterian Church of Dayton. (Taken from the book by Clarke McDermont)

The post-war period was not an easy one for this congregation. In 1874, Rev. John McVey left under the kind of circumstances every church hopes to avoid. Church historian Clarke McDermont wrote the following about this incident.

The Church prospered under his ministry until near the close of his second year, when a lurking dissatisfaction developed itself and was found to be so general that the session deemed it necessary to advise him of the fact. At the same time they assured him of their inability either to state the cause of the dissatisfaction, or to remove it, and suggested that the pastor’s resignation was the only remedy for the evil. Mr. McVey complained of the session’s failure to advise him earlier of the existing opposition, and of their neglect to take proper measures to suppress it, in its incipiency.

A History of the First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, Ohio from 1845 to 1880, page 60

The fallout from this event was exactly what you might expect. The presbytery “passed resolutions reflecting on the congregation for ill-usage of their pastor” and required that this be read from the pulpit. We are then told that, “The Church session entered a strong protest in its minutes.” Anyone who has ever been forced to suffer through a tense church committee meeting can now sympathize with what was taking place.

Photo of B.B. Warfield from earlier in his life – photographer unknown

Into this difficult situation stepped the young B.B. Warfield. By the time he arrived in Dayton, the congregation had been without a permanent minister for almost two years. Due to the dispute with the local presbytery, they were likely viewed as somewhat toxic. How exactly Warfield was chosen to serve as their supply pastor, I cannot say, but he was no doubt viewed by some not as a lion, but rather as a lamb prepared for the slaughter. Completely lacking in pastoral experience, the odds against his success were long indeed.

If Warfield was experiencing any trepidation, it apparently did not show when he addressed the church. Here I must thank Fred Zaspel for allowing me to view the newspaper report containing the text of one of Warfield’s sermons at First Presbyterian of Dayton, delivered in July 1876. (He plans to write more about this sermon in a forthcoming book that should be a treat for those interested in Warfield’s life and theology.) The text for this sermon was a phrase employed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 3:4 – “Let God be true, but every man a liar…”

Now, it must be said that sermons are rarely as riveting on the printed page as they are when proclaimed out loud. Nevertheless, in reading Warfield’s words, I could tell that they must have made an impression on the congregation. This is a tour de force of a sermon. It covers so many important themes: revelation, truth, the inerrancy of scripture, the Trinity, Creation, the dual nature of Christ, the sovereignty of God, human reason, covenants! I imagine that this sort of preaching must have been a cut above the usual fare at First Presbyterian. Here is a quote from the first few minutes of the sermon:

And in the broadest and fullest sense the words can bear, we say, ‘Let God be true, but every man a liar,’ by which we mean that, however men may oppose themselves to him, may scoff at his revelations and laugh at his promises, he will be infinitely and eternally true, even though thereby all men be proved to be liars. He has made us a revelation of his nature and purposes and commandments in his word, and the doctrines and statements of that revelation are, without exception and without admixture of error, simply and only true, though all men should gainsay them.

Here already we can see Warfield’s deep reverence for the Word of God. In 1881, he would partner with A.A. Hodge to publish an important article on the inspiration of scripture. Ever since Enlightenment thinking had come to the fore in the West, traditional views of the Bible had been challenged. There was a great belief in the power of human progress and ingenuity. Many scholars sought to apply something like the scientific method to the study of scripture. Warfield was not opposed to science, but he did see a limit to human ability. The Bible, he argued, was a divinely inspired document that revealed truths beyond the simple powers of human reason; more importantly, it was true because of its source.

Now, all this, I say, be self-evident, for if there be a God at all, he must be perfect in his being and infinite in his attributes; and a God of infinite and perfect truth cannot but be true. If he had told us anything at all, therefore, either of his nature, or of his actions, or of his purposes and promises. Those revelations must be true, absolutely true, though all men should reject and deny them.

Given our current perceptions of the debate between “science” and “religion”, it is perhaps interesting that Warfield also said in his sermon that God created the world but “I care not whether by a momentary act of power, or by a long-continued course of development”. Though he clearly endorsed the important doctrines of Creation being ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) and man bearing the imago Dei (“image of God”), Warfield’s seeming openness to some of the principles of evolution is a good reminder that at this point in the history of American Christianity, the battle lines were not so clearly drawn.

The congregation of First Presbyterian Church evidently appreciated what Warfield had to say. McDermont writes that “in less than six weeks the congregation gave him a unanimous call to become their pastor, at a salary of $2,500 a year”. Yet, Warfield chose not to accept this call. The first reason for his decision is the one provided by McDermont.

At this time Mr. Warfield was suffering from disease of the throat, and decided to make his acceptance of the call contingent on the advice of his medical counselors. They advised him to abstain from preaching for several months, and the call was declined.

A History of the First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, Ohio from 1845 to 1880, page 61

The exact nature of this “disease of the throat” is a mystery. It could be that he had simply stressed his vocal chords, or perhaps he had some kind of virus. Either way, this condition was evidently more effective in getting Warfield to shut up than all the efforts of his opponents in later years. It is also possible that the young man was hesitant to hitch himself to a congregation that was not known at the time for its cordiality, but here I merely speculate.

The more commonly known fact is that within two weeks of delivering the sermon I just mentioned, B.B. Warfield was married to Annie Pierce Kinkead. His decision to marry at that time no doubt affected his thinking in regard to Dayton. Had he been desperate to take on the ministry at First Presbyterian Church, it is likely that they would have waited for him to recover from his throat condition. Yet, it seems that Warfield’s heart was set on further study, and he and his new wife departed for Germany, where he studied in Leipzig. Unfortunately, Mrs. Warfield was to suffer from certain health issues throughout the remainder of her life, the exact nature of which are difficult to determine. He would end up spending much of his time caring for her.

As for First Presbyterian Church, it fell on some truly hard times just after Warfield’s departure. On August 15 of that year, the organ caught fire and the blaze quickly spread to the ceiling. The combined damage from the flames and the water used to soak them rendered the building essentially unusable. Happily, McDermont does report that neighboring congregations stepped in to offer help and allowed the displaced congregants to use their facilities until the church building had been repaired. Later that year, Leigh Richmond Smith began a four-year tenure as minister of First Presbyterian, and the church survives to this day as Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Drawing of the 19th century Princeton Theological Seminary by John Frelinghuysen Hageman

I was delighted to learn of Warfield’s association with Dayton, however brief it may have been. The period that he spent here was a formative one not only for the congregation, but also for Warfield himself. It was a time of new beginnings. Although Warfield’s destiny did not ultimately lie in Dayton, it seems that the few weeks he spent here helped him to clarify his sense of direction in life, as evidenced by the choices he made in the following months. It is hard to say how things might have gone differently if he had decided to remain at First Presbyterian Church. On the one hand, the congregation would have benefited from his significant intellectual gifts. On the other, the world as a whole probably would have been less aware of those same gifts, which were most fully exhibited in his time at Princeton Theological Seminary.

There was some small disappointment when I looked through the church archives, which are held at Wright State University. I found heaps of deacon and session minutes written in nearly illegible handwriting, as well as scores of turn-of-the-century recipes saved for future generations. Yet, the congregation preserved none of the words that Warfield spoke. I only got those from Fred Zaspel, who had access to the original transcript in the Dayton Daily Democrat. When it comes to the church’s own records, Warfield is only mentioned in that one early book by McDermont. The more recent examinations of the congregation’s history left out Warfield entirely. The length of his stay in town certainly does not warrant much attention, but in light of what he achieved later in his career, one would think the church might wish to trumpet its early association with him.

When I came up empty, I turned to the two graduate students who were helping me and said, “You know, sometimes the absence of information can tell us as much as the presence of information.” That is to say, the fact that Warfield’s words were not mentioned may well mean that they didn’t have much of an effect on the people who heard them. “How could they not remember B.B. Warfield?” someone might ask. The answer is that in 1876, he was not “B.B. Warfield” as we think of him today. He was just a 25-year-old young man fresh out of seminary. His words were substantial, but they were not yet backed up by that towering reputation that he was to earn through years of hard work.

This reminds me very much of something in my own past. When I was a freshman at Taylor University, just a few weeks into my illustrious (or perhaps not so illustrious) academic career, we had a chapel speaker from Britain address us as part of the Charles Simeon memorial lecture series. I could tell that the school officials were treating him with a great deal of respect, so he seemed to be important. The lecture he delivered was not bad by any means, but I didn’t remember what he said. It was only later that I realized what a priceless opportunity had been afforded to me to hear from one of the leading voices in Anglicanism and a true theological giant: John Stott.

In the coming years, I came to know more about John Stott. I realized what an important figure he was within Christianity. Unfortunately, he has since passed away, and thus I will never have a chance to hear him speak again except in recordings. This opportunity had come to me at a time in life when I could not truly appreciate it. Isn’t that often the way things go?

Had B.B. Warfield spoken to that Dayton congregation in 1920, it would probably have made a bigger impact. They would have known that they had a true luminary in their midst. Yet, it was the Lord’s will that they should hear from him in 1876, at a time when they could not fully appreciate his words. Nevertheless, it seems that he was able to provide a breath of fresh air to a church that badly needed it, and the congregation has gone on to play a major role in the city of Dayton. Although it was indirect, I submit that Warfield did have some influence here, even if it was not to the level of what he achieved at Princeton.

The moral of the story: whenever someone speaks to you from the pulpit, pay attention! Whether or not that person ever becomes a giant of theology, they proclaim the Word of God. Listen to what they have to say and take it to heart. Our ministers put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into bringing us that message every week, and this deserves our respect and attention. Thank God for people like B.B. Warfield who faithfully proclaimed the gospel even in difficult times!

I am immensely grateful to the following people who assisted me with this article –