James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) was born in the Marlborough District of South Carolina on December 9, 1812. His father died when James was eight. He attended the Cheraw Academy and the College of South Carolina. Thornwell was a meticulous scholar in every respect. This dedication began early in his college career. While a student at the College of South Carolina he studied 14 hours per day on what he called “severe study,” and on Saturday read history for leisure. One professor said he made “an extraordinary impression” on the faculty. President Thomas Cooper was particularly impressed and noted that Thornwell would be a man of great accomplishments.
After graduation from college, he made a public profession of his faith at the Concord Presbyterian Church in Sumpterville, South Carolina (1832). Not long after he enrolled in Andover Seminary (Massachusetts). He soon left Andover because, as he wrote, it was an “awfully New School,” and, he said, “the habits of the people are disagreeable to me.” Probably the main reason he left Andover was because it did not offer German, Syriac, Chaldee, and Arabic. In fact, he said, “nothing, in short, is taught here which is not taught equally well at Columbia.” Simply put, Andover could not satisfy Thornwell’s social or academic standards. So, he transferred to Harvard that next summer. But he did not stay long there either, mainly due to the weather and the prevailing Unitarianism on the campus. Practically every student he came in contact with had succumbed to Unitarianism. He came home and enrolled in Columbia Seminary. He was ordained early due to a shortage of southern Presbyterian ministers. One of his examinees (a professor in the seminary) said of the 21 year old — “Brethren, I feel like sitting at this young man’s feet, as a learner.”
Thornwell’s exceptional abilities later earned him possibly the most complementary title one could have in South Carolina — the “Calhoun of the Church.” This comparison went deeper than mental abilities. In many respects, Thornwell and Calhoun were similar. Both understood the long-term consequences of political decisions probably better than anyone.
Thornwell commanded the respect of many. Daniel Webster heard him preach saying it was “one of the finest exhibitions of pulpit eloquence I ever heard.” George Bancroft called him the “most learned of the learned.” John C. Calhoun himself said Thornwell was the equal of Timothy Dwight of Yale. Henry Ward Beecher said he was “the most brilliant minister in the Old School Presbyterian Church.”
Thornwell married in 1835 and would have 9 children (4 would not outlive him). In 1838 he became Professor of Rhetoric and Belle Letters at the College of South Carolina. Later he became Professor of Sacred Theology and Christian Evidences at the College of South Carolinla. And in 1852 he became the president at the College of South Carolina and served in that post until 1856, when he moved to Columbia seminary. At age 43 he became the youngest (before or since) moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly. In the midst of a very active teaching, preaching, and church administrative life, Thornwell wrote substantial theological works. There is no way of knowing how much more he could have produced had he lived a longer life. He died in 1862 at the age of 50.
The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, 4 vols. Edited by John B. Adger and John L. Girardeau, 1871-1873.
See also a purchasable download: James Henley Thornwell Collection (10 vols.).
This collection includes the four volume set of collected writings, other theological writings, sermons, and Benjamin Palmer’s biography, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell.
Also Consider the following Books About Thornwell:
Farmer, James. The Metaphysical Confederacy. Mercer Univ. Press, 1999.
Kelly, Douglas F. Preachers with Power. Banner of Truth, 1993.
White, Henry A. Southern Presbyterian Leaders: 1683-1911. Banner of Truth, 2000.