Dr. James Henley Thornwell served the Lord from 1835 to 1862. His life and ministry manifested a desire to know God and a passion to serve Him through the ministry of the church. I read the Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell years ago and recently reviewed it to refresh my memory. Reading his letters makes me wonder; was yesterday, today? Thornwell’s discernment and insight should have awakened the church leaders during his life time. I’ll share a few quotes from Thornwell’s letters that were written over 150 years ago.
On the subject of education I quote from a letter to General James Gillespie, August 27, 1834: “Harvard Commencement took place to-day, and was truly a poor exhibition of talent and learning. Could old Johnson or Walker have risen from the tomb, they would have shuddered at the mongrel dialect of the Harvard scholars; for it was, in truth, neither Latin, Greek, nor English. The pronunciation of English is most shamefully neglected here, both by teachers and students; and when occasion requires, they coin words without any compunction.” One wonders how much Harvard has degenerated over the past 150 years.
Before para-church organizations were called para-church I quote from a letter to Rev. John Douglas, August 4, 1840: “I am satisfied that there is a dangerous departure, in the present age of bustle, activity, and vain-glorious enterprise, from the simplicity of the institutions which Christ has established for the legitimate actions of the Church. … I believe that the entire system of voluntary Societies and ecclesiastical Boards for religious purposes, is fundamentally wrong. The church, as organized by her Head, is competent to do all that He requires of her.” If Thornwell was alive today he would be aghast that the church has relinquished much of its mission and ministry to outside organizations. The biblical mandate is for elders to rule, not boards to rule.
Thornwell expressed serious concern over pragmatism and secularism in a letter to Dr. R. J. Breckinridge, July 24, 1846: “I am seriously afraid that the foolish liberality of the age will speedily plunge us into the same disasters from which we have just escaped. Our whole system of operations gives an undue influence to money. Where money is the great want, numbers must be sought; and where ambition for numbers prevails, doctrinal purity must be sacrificed. The root of the evil is the secular spirit of our ecclesiastical institutions. What we want is a spiritual body; a Church whose power lies in the truth, and presence of the Holy Ghost. To unsecularize the Church should be the unceasing aim of all who are anxious that the ways of Zion should flourish.”