1884 Presbyterian Encyclopedia

Archibald Alexander, D.D., LL.D. (1772-1851)

No other name on the records of the Presbyterian Church carries with it a greater charm than this, to the denomination of which he whom it designates was so distinguished and beloved a representative. It is blended with the most endearing and enduring associations, and invested with an admiration and an honor which are imperishable.

Dr. Alexander was born near Lexington, Va., April 17th, 1772. His classical and theological studies were pursued under the direction of the Rev. William Graham, of Liberty Hall, afterward Washington College. He was licensed at the early age of nineteen, and on expressing his diffidence. Presbytery assigned him tor a text, "Say not I am a child" (Jer. 1:7). After spending a year or more in missionary labor, according to the rules of the Synod, he was ordained, and installed pastor of Briery Church, November 7th, 1791. In 1796 he was chosen President of Hampden-Sidney College, at the age of twenty-four. May 20th, 1807, he was installed over Pine Street Church, Philadelphia. In the same year, being thirty-five, he was elected Moderator of the General Assembly, and in his sermon made the suggestion of a Theological Seminary. In 1812 he was appointed Professor in the Theological Seminary just established at Princeton. Here he remained for the rest of his life, moulding, during forty years, the studies and characters of two generations of ministers. His name was widely known in other lands, as well as our own. When the late Dr. Thomas Smythe, of Charleston, S. C., was a student in Highbury, England, and thought of coming to America, he asked his Professors to what seminary he should direct his steps. They told him, by all means, to go where Drs. Alexander and Miller were.

When in the prime of life, Dr. Alexander was thin, though he afterwards grew more stout, with an inclination to corpulence; his complexion was clear, and his soft brown hair already beginning to be silvered, albeit, it never became altogether white; his countenance was wonderfully mobile and animated, and his eye like that of an eagle. Latterly he had a stoop of the shoulder and a characteristic swaying, irregular gait. A broad cloak hung at an angle on one side, and he would dart sudden downward glances to the right or left. He was of mercurial spirits, and in the social circle and at the home fireside often full of vivacity, affectionate gaiety, and humor. In his best moods it would be hard to find his equal as a raconteur. He was, however, subject to fits of silence and depression. Few men were ever
more deeply reverenced or widely loved. His life was "hid with Christ in God." For an hour, at twilight, every evening, he suffered no interruption of his privacy, and was believed to be then engaged in devotional or serious meditation. His face came to show unmistakable traces of a mellowed Christian experience. His very appearance was that of a holy as well as aged and benevolent man. When preaching the funeral sermon of his colleague, Dr. Miller, he announced his own departure as near at hand, and made his preparations for the great journey as calmly and methodically as if he had been going back to Rockbridge, among his native mountains in old Virginia.

Dr. Alexander was seized with his final illness in the summer of 1851. When Dr. Hodge visited him for the last time, he expressed his desire that Dr. John McDowell should preach his funeral sermon, but with the injunction that he should not utter one word of eulogy. He then, with a smile, handed Dr. Hodge a white bone walking-stick, which had been presented to him by one of the chiefs of the Sandwich Islands, saying, "You must leave this to your successor in office, that it may be handed down as a kind of symbol of orthodoxy." In his illness, his early days seemed to pass in review before him, and during one of those nights in which his devoted wife was watching by his side, he broke out into a soliloquy, rehearsing God's gracious dealings with his soul. "He was especially thankful," says his son, "that our dear mother was permitted to wait on him to the last, and when approaching his end, he said, with great tenderness, 'my dear, one of my last prayers will be that you may have as serene and painless a departure as mine.'" He died October 22nd, of that year. The Rev. William E. Schenck, D. D. , who was at that time pastor of the church with which Dr. Alexander's family was connected, thus refers to the closing scene: "There was nothing excited, nothing exultant, and yet it seemed to be thoroughly triumphant, a calm, believing, cheerful looking through the gloomy grave into the glories of the eternal world. It was the steady, unfaltering step of a genuine Christian philosopher, as well as an eminent saint, evincing his own thorough, heartfelt and practical belief in the doctrines he had so long and so ably preached, as he descended into the dark valley of the shadow of death."

On Friday, October 24th, Dr. Alexander's precious remains were deposited in the cemetery at Princeton, in the presence of a group such as had seldom been gathered in one spot in any part of our land. There were the students and Faculty of the College of New Jersey, and those of the Theological Seminary, the entire Synod of New Jersey, and many members of the Synods of New York and Philadelphia, besides a crowd of other spectators, a numerous company of God's ministers and people, all feeling that a great man in Israel had fallen.

As a preacher, Dr. Alexander was equaled by few and surpassed by none. There was a charm in his ministrations that no one who ever heard him can forget. His unique and inimitable manner, so simple, so vivacious, so earnest; was sure to rivet the attention. His discourses were replete with instruction drawn fresh from the fountain of wisdom. He had the rare faculty of making didactic and familiar topics interesting, even to persons of no religion, for his sermons partook of the vitality and freshness of his mind, which was like a perennial fountain sending off its sparkling waters. He also possessed the capacity of exciting religious emotion in a most remarkable degree. He could set forth the gospel in its adaptation to the endlessly diversified states of human feeling, with a skill and effect trulywonderful. And the facility with which he could awaken emotions of gratitude, praise, contrition, joy, and the like, gave him a rare control over any Christian auditory. Another element of his power in the pulpit was his earnest sympathy with his kind. He never sank the man in the philosopher, nor the citizen and patriot in the divine. His sterling common sense formed a bond of union between himself and his fellow men, which neither his scholastic pursuits nor his high spiritual attainments ever weakened or tarnished; but, above all, his eminent piety was the source of his great power as a preacher, and in all the spheres he occupied, it was to his character what the soul is to the body—the pervading, life-giving, governing principle, and it would be difficult to speak of him in any of his relations or pursuits without recognizing the fact of his singular attainments in holiness. It was his rare fortune to maintain an unsullied reputation for superior piety, wisdom, benevolence and consistency, throughout a ministry of nearly sixty years.

Of American divines, the names of Edwards and Alexander take the first place, and between the lives of Brown, of Haddington, and Dr. Alexander, there is a striking resemblance; they both, in early life, were educated under difficulties, with irrepressible desires for knowledge; they not only overcame their disadvantages, but became distinguished for their learning. Their studies and their works were to advance the practical and the useful. They both became the educators of numerous ministers who treasured their instructions and revered their virtues. They were both happy in their domestic circumstances, and left behind them a numerous family of children and grandchildren, who, trained under happier auspices, built on the foundation they had; laid, and made the names more illustrious. They were respected by the men of their own time, and their names, and their writings will descend as the heirlooms of the godly to all generations. Dr. Alexander's published writings are too numerous to recite here. We may only mention "History of the Colonization Society, " " Evidences of the Christian Religion," "Thoughts on Religion," "Counsels to the Aged," "Practical Sermons," all of which are works of much interest and value. He also published numerous tracts, and was a frequent contributor to the Princeton Review.