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Samuel Miller’s Triumph over Pastoral Distraction

Samuel Miller (1769-1850) became one of the most honored and revered of Princeton Seminary’s earliest faculty members.  Prior to joining Archibald Alexander at Princeton in 1813, Miller had been a pastor in New York City for twenty years.  Although Miller was only twenty-three when he became a pastor, the Presbyterian church he served in was one of the most prestigious and wealthy churches in the nation.  He had never aspired to any position other than “an ordinary country charge,” and he was surprised to be thrust from rural anonymity into such a high profile ministry.

Miller’s entry into ministry brought with it a host of temptations that led him down certain paths he would later renounce.  Even in the midst of pastoral responsibilities, Miller was soon drawn into a variety of social and literary societies which city life had to offer.  Miller joined the Masonic lodge and a number of literary societies which stimulated his interest in literary and intellectual matters.  He began gathering historical materials with the intention of writing a history of New York.  He also labored tirelessly to produce a monumental two-volume intellectual survey of the eighteenth century, called A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century (1803).  The wide-sweeping survey it provided of eighteenth century science, art, and literature established Miller’s reputation as a scholar.

As Miller grew more interested in intellectual matters, he also became increasingly involved in partisan politics.  When he had been a student in Philadelphia, Miller had observed men like Washington, Hamilton, and Franklin as they gathered to draft the Constitution, and these experiences likely gave him an early interest in public affairs.  But while in New York, Miller became a zealous partisan for the Democratic-Republican party of Thomas Jefferson, over against the Federalist party of Hamilton and Adams.  Even though he knew that Jefferson was “suspected of Deism,” his zealous adherence to democratic ideology caused him to write in 1800 that “I had much rather have Mr. Jefferson President of the United States, than an aristocratic Christian.”

When Miller became a professor at Princeton, he renounced the social, intellectual, and political entanglements that had ensnared him as a pastor in New York.  By the time he arrived at Princeton he had already renounced all connections with the Masonic Lodge.  He also came to renounce his Jeffersonian political views and see his former political partisanship in a negative light altogether.  Toward the end of his life, Miller would write:

I look back on that whole part of my early history with entire disapprobation and deep regret.  …I was wrong in suffering myself to be so warmly and actively engaged in Politics as I was during that period.  For though ministers have the rights and duties of citizens, and, probably, in most cases, ought to exercise the right of voting at elections; yet when party politics run high, and when their appearing at the polls cannot take place without exciting strong feelings on the part of many against them; and when their ministry among all such persons will be therefore much less likely to be useful, I cannot think that their giving their votes can have an importance equivalent to the injury it is likely to do.  I think I was wrong in talking, and acting, and rendering myself so conspicuous as a politician, as I did.  I fear I did an amount of injury to my ministry, which could by no means have been counterbalanced by my usefulness as a politician.

Miller came to embrace a course regarding politics which he felt was in accord with the “soundest evangelical wisdom” for a pastor and a seminary professor.  Specifically, he stated that he

…determined to do and say as little on the subject [of politics] as could be deemed consistent with the character of a good citizen:–to attend no political meetings; to write no political paragraphs; to avoid talking on the subject much either in public or private; to do little more than to go quietly and silently to the polls, deposit my vote, and withdraw; and, in the pulpit, never to allow myself, either in prayer or preaching, to utter a syllable from which it might be conjectured on which side of the party politics of the day I stood.

As a professor in Princeton, Miller had come to see that the greatest good he could do his nation was to promote the interests of Christ and his Church.

As a young pastor in New York City, the influence of intellectual societies and worldly acquaintances had been too powerful for him to resist.  Miller’s son would write that

In later years Mr. Miller seemed to look back at his life in New York, as having been, in more than one respect a life of sore temptation; and no one can recur to its remaining records, imperfect as they are, without concluding that he could not have escaped entirely unharmed, from influences far too worldly, by which he was surrounded.  The choice of a history of New York as the first great task for his pen, though a task never completed; and his subsequent actual preparation of two volumes of a general ‘Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century,’ clearly prove, that he had not yet learned to give himself wholly and rigorously—an absolute condition of great spiritual success—to his bare gospel work.

But however much the young New York pastor became co-opted by eighteenth century political and intellectual culture, it was a fall from which he recovered.  Even though, according to his son, Miller’s “growth in grace and experimental knowledge” may have been “seriously retarded” while serving in New York, “his spiritual progress was much more decided, constant, and vigorous after his removal to Princeton.”

As a professor at Princeton, Miller would devote himself to preaching and building up the pastoral office through his teaching and publications.  He is often remembered for these publications on pastoral issues, including his Letters on Clerical Manners (1827) and his famous An Essay on the Warrant, Nature, and Duties of the Office of the Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (1831).  It is often overlooked, however, that he had struggled to maintain his pastoral focus and unswerving devotion to his pastoral duties while a pastor in New York.  His eventual triumph over pastoral distractions would win him universal esteem of his colleagues, and by the time he reached his maturity as a professor, the younger James W. Alexander, would be able to look on him with admiration and say, “I think [Samuel Miller] one of the most conscientious and pious men I ever knew.”

Gary Steward is an editor for Credo Magazine. He served as pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada from 2004-2011.  He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Church History and Historical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.  He received his Th.M in Historical Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary (PA), where his thesis focused on J. W. Alexander and his views on Christian social reform.  He coauthored a curriculum for youth on biblical manhood and womanhood with Children Desiring God, entitled Rejoicing in God’s Good Design, and he is the author of a forthcoming book from P&R, called Old Princeton: A Guided Tour of Its Leading Men and Their Writings.  Gary grew up in rural South Dakota, and he and his wife Amy have three children: Anna (7), Katie (4), and Joshua (1).

Read other articles like this one in the recent issue of Credo Magazine, “Old Princeton.”

To view the Magazine as a PDF {Click Here}

Each of us are indebted to those theologians of ages past who have gone before us, heralding the gospel, and even fighting to their last breath to keep the God of that gospel high and lifted up. It is hard to think of a group of men more worthy of this praise than those of the Old Princeton heritage. Men like Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and many others, stand in this rich heritage, men who defended the faith once for all delivered to the saints against the ever-growing threat of liberalism around them.

Since this year marks the 200th anniversary of Old Princeton (1812-2012), it is fitting that we devote ourselves to remembering and imitating these great theologians of yesterday, not because they are great in and of themselves, but because their example points us to the great and mighty God we worship. And who better to introduce us to these Old Princetonians than James M. Garretson writing on Archibald Alexander, W. Andrew Hoffecker making our acquaintance with Charles Hodge, Fred Zaspel reminding us of B. B. Warfield, and D. G. Hart increasing our love for J. Gresham Machen? Not to mention a very in-depth interview with Paul Helseth on Old Princton and the debate over “right reason.”  May these articles and interviews inspire us so that in our own day we might experience a revival of this rich orthodoxy that has stood the test of time.

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