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Our Southern Zion – A Review by Barry Shucksmith

Category Book Reviews
Date February 19, 2013

David B. Calhoun is already the author of the highly-commended two volume history of Princeton Seminary, published by the Banner of Truth in 1996.1 He is a gifted theologian, a thorough historian, and a warm and devotionally-inspiring writer. The first six chapters of his latest work2 contain a kind of short biography of some of the most influential and effective Christian leaders of the old pre-Civil War South. However, the book ranges much more widely and further tells the story of a rare breed of orthodox Presbyterians in the USA, onwards to the year 1927.

This is a difficult book to review because of its wide-sweeping theological and cultural significance. This is not to say it is difficult to read or assimilate. Indeed, the engaged reader, regardless of churchmanship, will find much to inspire, to fire the heart, and lift the soul heavenwards. Although issues of the time, some controversial by contemporary mores, cannot be avoided, the author is, commendably, gospel and Christ-centred throughout. The chapters can be described as short and pithy, yet suggestive, full, and rich. Although dealing with a century long since gone, many of the issues raised are still with us today. This makes Dr. David Calhoun’s book eminently profitable for the next generation of gospel-preachers. Lessons in fulfilling Jude 3, ‘to contend for the faith,’ are readily available, as is the abiding need to confront error and apostasy, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head. Equally important, and perhaps not so obvious in 21st century Great Britain, is the place of zeal, prayer, and holiness, to counteract the growing influence of a godless world.

John Leighton Wilson, James Henley Thornwell, John Adger, James Woodrow, Joseph Lafayette Girardeau, and Joseph Ruggles Wilson, are just some of the characters introduced to the reader. The sins, as well as the strengths, of these great men of God are not hidden. Thornwell defended slavery, on biblical grounds, but not really as a friend of slavery. He saw slavery as part of the curse sin had introduced into the world – like poverty, sickness, disease, and death – but it was, under the gospel, turned into the means of ‘an effective, spiritual discipline.’ J. H. Thornwell argued that since the Bible and the Bible alone is the only rule of faith and practice for the Presbyterian Church, and since the Bible nowhere condemns slavery as sinful, the church cannot do so.

Chapters 7-9 show the importance of the development of literature in the cause of Christ, as well as the strategic importance of the coming of the rail to the deep South, for church growth and new places of worship and for biblical instruction. The remaining chapters have a good deal to teach us about the development of the Southern Presbyterian Church and the outstanding character of its work, despite such interruptions as the Civil War and the evolutionary issues raised by Charles Darwin and the new school of critical theologians. Again and again, almost insignificant references show how Almighty God can use a mother, a friend, another faithful minister to reproduce spiritual children for future work and witness. Remarkably, J. H. Thornwell’s mother, for example, was a Baptist but, nonetheless, taught her son the doctrines of grace from the Westminster Confession!

For almost a hundred years, the Columbia Theological Seminary made the Robert Mills Historic House its home, but it is better known for the outstanding ministers it produced, for mission-field and pastoral charge alike. Some of these men we know, many more we do not. Professor Calhoun has filled a substantial gap in Southern State history, helps us to understand the early Presbyterians, and shows us what God can accomplish through highly gifted, yet, nonetheless, flawed individuals, like ourselves. It’s a thrilling story and should be read, and prayed over, rather than reviewed.

Almost immediately after the Civil War came to an end, Southern Presbyterians were serving in Italy, Columbia, Brazil, Mexico, Greece, and Japan. A letter sent out by the General Assembly, exhorting faithfulness to the Lord in several matters, closed with the promise: ‘The Holy Spirit will be poured out from on high. Our desolation shall be repaired, until “streams shall break out in the desert, and the wilderness shall blossom as the rose”’. There were a million casualties, of whom 650,000 died, whilst much of the South was devastated, during the Civil War. It says a good deal about the spiritual health of the old Presbyterian Church, that so many godly men served in the Army, some with considerable distinction, and could still be in such a hearty spiritual tone, when it ended. There is much here we can learn for our own present national crisis. Widely recommended by many, this book is within the scope of all literate, mature Christians. It will be particularly beneficial and rewarding to ministers and theological students.

Notes

  1. Volume 1: Princeton Seminary: Faith & Learning 1812-1868; volume 2: Princeton Seminary: The Majestic Testimony 1869-1929
    • Our Southern Zion

      Our Southern Zion

      Old Columbia Seminary (1828-1927)

      by  David Calhoun


      price £16.00
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      David B. Calhoun is already the author of the highly-commended two volume history of Princeton Seminary, published by the Banner of Truth in 1996.1 He is a gifted theologian, a thorough historian, and a warm and devotionally-inspiring writer. The first six chapters of his latest work2 contain a kind of short biography of some of the most […]

This review by the Rt. Revd Dr J Barry Shucksmith Royal Navy (Rtd) appeared in English Churchman, February 2013.

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