Thoughts on Literature by Thomas Bloomer Balch

“Some have well and truly observed that the interest of religion and good literature hath risen and fallen together.” – Increase Mather

“Visit many good books, but live in the Bible.” — Charles Spurgeon

These two maxims were certainly taken to heart by Thomas Bloomer Balch, a Southern Presbyterian (1793-1878). Son of the well-known Georgetown Presbyterian minister, Stephen Bloomer Balch, both men were graduates of Princeton. T.B. Balch was ordained to the ministry in 1816, and served pastorates in Georgetown; Maryland; and northern Virginia. Carrying forward Princeton’s goal of providing for “an able and faithful ministry,” Balch did much to promote a love of pious learning (“Daniel Webster said of Dr. Balch that he was the most learned man that he had ever known,” Thomas Willing Balch, Balch Genealogica, p. 364). He contributed articles both to the Southern Literary Messenger and The Christian World. He wrote Christianity and Literature: In a Series of Discourses (1826). Also, one of his Ringwood Discourses (1850) is titled “An Outline of Christian Reading.”

Consider the table of contents for Christianity and Literature:

  • Discourse I: The Temptations of Literature

  • Discourse II: The Literature of the Scriptures

  • Discourse III: Obstacles to the Piety of Literary Men

  • Discourse IV: Christianity Miscellaneously Applied

  • Discourse V: The Relation of Christianity to Polite Literature

  • Discourse VI: The Superior Value of Christianity to Literature

  • Discourse VII: Humility an Ornament to Literary Men

  • Discourse VIII: The Church a Field for Literary Men

Balch’s “Outline for Christian Reading” was written with the aim of guiding Christians in the choice of their evening or Sabbath afternoon reading. He encourages the Christian reader to consulate the best commentaries on Scripture (“for individuals, no commentary is to be preferred before old Matthew Henry’s”). To Balch, the study of the early church was important, but he cautions against delving into the early church fathers directly; he does commend Samuel Miller’s Presbyterianism the Truly Primitive and Apostolic Constitution of the Church of Christ. He recommends histories of the Reformation, and Robert Baird on the Waldenses. Among the great Christian classics, he commends Richard Baxter, A Call to the Unconverted and The Saints’ Everlasting Rest; Joseph Alleine, An Alarm to the Unconverted; and John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Further, he highlights the writings of Anglican divines, Scottish Covenanters, French Huguenots, and Seceding Scottish divines, such as Thomas Boston, and Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine. And he commends the reading of Christian biographies, such as those of Thomas Halyburton, Robert Leighton, Thomas Boston, Thomas Scott, Henry Martyn, John Calvin, David Brainerd and many others. Additionally, for Balch, who was a poet himself, Christian poetry is to be included in the reading list - for example, he cites James Grahame on the Sabbath. (A suitor to his daughter Julia, E.P. Miller, was inspired to write Ringwood Manse: Pastoral Poem (1887), as a tribute to T.B. Balch.)

“This, my Christian friend, is a reading age,” Balch wrote in 1850. And hence, the Christian has every reason to “give attendance to reading” (I Tim. 4:10, his text for this particular discourse). With a view toward extending his usefulness to the kingdom of God, equipping himself in defense of the faith, discerning error from truth, and promoting the glory of God and the happiness of man, the reading of edifying literature is a necessary component of the Christian life.

As one of his recommended writers, Richard Baxter, said, "It is not the reading of many books to make a man wise or good, but the well-reading of a few, could he be sure to have the best." Balch has given principles and specific guidance to attain this goal, which we would do well to heed even in this internet age. Log College Press very much shares this vision.