"God’s Electing Love and Mercy": 19th Century Presbyterians and the Question of Infant Salvation

Dr. Miles Smith IV is an adjunct instructor at Liberty University Online. His teaching generally focuses on the Nineteenth Century United States, but he also enjoys lecturing on Europe and Latin America.

Ecumenical movements in North American Protestantism during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have often led Presbyterians to rhetorically negotiate the sacramental understandings associated with the Westminster Standards. Perhaps more ominously, Reformed thinkers and pastors have downplayed historic Reformed understandings traditionally meant to bring solace—both pastoral and sacramental—to the people of God.

People in the pews of Reformed churches in 2019 might be quick to assume that their forbears were stern, or perhaps formalistic, or too tied to the Standards to be missionally or pastorally effective. What they are less likely to assume is the remarkable catholicity of historic Reformed tradition, and the rich theology offered to those in grief. Remarkable advances in medicine and associated technology has to some degree lessened the immediate effects of the curse, but death still roams human existence. Tragically, death often claims infant children of Christian parents.

The need to declare the capaciousness of God’s grace typified Presbyterian polemics and preaching in the nineteenth century. William D. Smith’s What is Calvinism? addressed Presbyterians’ belief in the salvation of infants directly. He noted that a popular slander against Reformed theology leveled by Wesleyans was the idea that human depravity automatically consigned infants to hell. Smith hotly rejected that idea entirely.  Reformed Christians believed that infants were born with the same damning sin nature as adults, but nonetheless they loudly “believed in the salvation of infants.” “It was not because we believed them holy, and without sin; but, because we believed they were sinful, and would be saved, through the imputed righteousness of Christ.” Smith rightly charged Wesleyans evangelists with obfuscating statements in the Westminster Standards regarding Presbyterianism’s belief in God’s grace to infants.[1]

Charles Hodge argued passionately that not only were the infants of Christian saved, but all infants were. “All who die in infancy are saved. This is inferred from what the Bible teaches of the analogy between Adam and Christ.” To those who demurred, he wrote:

We have no right to put any limit on these general terms, except what the Bible itself places upon them. The Scriptures nowhere exclude any class of infants, baptized or unbaptized, born in Christian or in heathen lands, of believing or unbelieving parents, from the benefits of the redemption of Christ. All the descendants of Adam, except Christ, are under condemnation; all the descendants of Adam, except those of whom it is expressly revealed that they cannot inherit the kingdom of God, are saved.

Hodge’s argument did not create sensation in the era. His argument for accepting Roman Catholic baptism proved more controversial at the time, especially with his southern rival, James Henley Thornwell.[2]

Perhaps the most famous southern divine, Thornwell’s famous admonition to treat children as unregenerate until they publicly communed has sometimes been held up as evidence that southern Presbyterians did not believe in infant salvation. The accusation is not entirely unfounded. Thornwell’s ambiguous treatment of baptism often hewed away from historic Calvinism and his fellow southern divines, and his peculiar view of baptism was no exception. Yet even Thornwell believed that infants on some level had a special relationship to the Covenant of Grace.[3]

Church historians’ tendency to treat Thornwell as representative of southern Presbyterianism often overshadowed majority opinion among other religious intellectuals of the time. Thomas Smyth, pastor of Charleston’s Second Presbyterian Church and a close friend of Thornwell, argued that infant salvation was the historic position of Calvinist churches. Likewise he saw the doctrine as a powerful affirmation of the pastoral and soteriological superiority of Reformed theology. He penned his Solace for Bereaved Parents in 1848, a tome over 300 pages long filled with declarations of God’s grace to infants. His serious scholarly training did not cloud his pastoral purpose. Parental grief was natural, he wrote, and should not be accused of excess, “Your affliction is great. Your heart is left lonely and desolate. Its strings are broken. That joy which had swallowed up all remembrance of the hours of solicitude and pain, is now turned into melancholy sadness.” The joyous “current of affection and gladness which had flowed out upon the object of your regard is turned back upon the soul —its channels are dried up, and its fountain gone.” Smyth understood that “the grief of a bereaved parent can only be known by those who have endured it.” Smyth saw this grief as natural, but believed Calvinism provided substantive hope for an eternal reunification of parent and child. The very aspects of Calvinist eucharistic thought that Roman Catholics and even Lutherans found most objectionable, Smyth saw as announcing the kingdom coming even to the infant dead. [4]

Smyth particularly appealed to the Westminster standards, particularly the Confession of Faith. Twentieth-century Reformed ministers affirm Westminster Confession of Faith 10.3 and its declaration that “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the spirit.” Yet many have tended to caution against presumption that dead infants of covenant parents were among the elect.

Smyth, like William Smith, Charles Hodge, and the eighteenth-century church of Scotland, flatly rejected this circumspection as extra-scriptural. Smyth noted that in his own time the doctrine of salvation for dead infants of Christian parents was “universally believed by Presbyterians, and those who hold to the doctrine of election, that all dying infants are included among the elect, are made heirs of grace, and become members of the kingdom of heaven.” He noted that he was “not acquainted with any who hold an opposite sentiment.” He admitted that “possibly, when the doctrine is extended to the infants of Heathen parents, some might not be prepared fully to concur in it. But even then, he declared: “that there is ground from Scripture to believe that even they are included in the promises of Divine mercy, and are…all undoubtedly saved, is, I have no doubt, an opinion to which Presbyterians will, generally, subscribe.”[5]

Denial of infant salvation, Smyth warned, placed those of that opinion in the same camp with “some Calvinists, in common with many Arminians of former days…and the Roman Catholic Church.” Smyth addressed particularly the false notion that Presbyterians believed in infant damnation. Smyth noted that far from denying infant salvation, Calvin and his successors rescued the doctrine of God’s voluminous grace and that it extended to dead and unbaptized infants. “The opinion of Calvinists,” Smyth proclaimed, “is now universally in favour of the hope that all children dying in infancy are saved through the merits of Christ's death, applied by the Holy Ghost.” More importantly, this facet of Calvinist theology was not a modern innovation, but traced its roots to the beginning of Calvin’s writings in the Reformation. Calvin, noted Smyth, “was among the very first of the reformers to overthrow the unchristian and most horrible doctrine of the Romish and High-church divines, that no unbaptized infant can be saved.” [6]

Calvin’s intellectual assault on the errors of Medieval Roman Catholicism made infant salvation not merely ornamental, but crucial. Smyth refuted modern caution that the Westminster divines treaded softly on infant salvation. The Standards, he wrote, “wisely, charitably, and scripturally concludes, that this grace is co-extensive with God's electing love and mercy, and is bestowed upon the objects of that love, whether they are removed from this world in a state of infancy, or of maturity.” The Confession “overthrows the doctrine of Romanists, High Church Episcopalians, and others, who teach that this grace of salvation, by the renewing of the Holy Ghost, is tied down and limited—first, by what they most vainly and arrogantly call the only true Church, to wit, the Romanist or Episcopal Churches, and secondly by the ordinances of baptism as administered in these churches.”[7]

Nineteenth-century Presbyterians were, in many ways, more comfortable with grace extending to infants than modern Reformed thinkers. The historical record points to a consensus on infant salvation that stretched across cultural, geographic, and social lines. Smyth and Hodge, for example, disagreed on aspects of churchmanship, but they agreed that Westminster Confession of Faith 10.3 decidedly affirmed Smyth’s argument. Smyth said succinctly, and in bold type, that “Calvinists now universally agree in believing, THAT THERE IS EVERY REASONABLE GROUND TO HOPE THAT ALL INFANTS DYING IN INFANCY ARE INCLUDED IN THE DECREE OF ELECTION AND ARE MADE PARTAKERS OF EVERLASTING LIFE.”[8]


[1] William D. Smith, What is Calvinism? (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1854), 9-10. This book can be found on the Log College Press website here.

[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895), 1:26-27. This book can be found on the Log College Press website here.

[3] James Henley Thornwell, “The Revised Book Vindicated,” in James B. Adger and John L. Girardeau, eds., Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1871), 4:363-364. This book can be found on the Log College Press website here.

[4] Thomas Smyth, Solace for Bereaved Parents, or Infants Die to Live (New York: Robert Carter, 1848), 1. This book can also be found in Volume 10 of Smyth’s Complete Works on the Log College Press website here.

[5] Smyth, Solace, 26. Emphasis his.

[6] Smyth, Solace, 26.

[7] Smyth, Solace, 36.

[8] Smyth, Solace, 36.