Charles Hodge (1797-1878)

Charles Hodge (1797-1878)





Charles Hodge (Dec. 27, 1797 - June 19, 1878) was born in Philadelphia, son of Dr. Hugh Hodge, a surgeon in the Continental Army and later in Philadelphia, and Mary Blanchard. Hodge never knew his father who died in 1798 from the effects of yellow fever. He was highly influenced by his mother who had been brought up in the Second Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, under the ministry of Ashbel Green. The family had been able to live well, owing to their owning a portion of the Philadelphia shipping yards, but the war with England and Thomas Jefferson’s embargo reduced the family to poverty. Hodge’s mother was determined to send her boys to college and worked at taking in boarders and so saw her two sons through college. Hugh, the elder brother followed his father and became a physician and looked out for his younger brother, including financial care.

He matriculated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1812, which was the date of the founding of the college, and after graduation entered in 1816 the theological seminary in Princeton, having among his classmates his two lifelong friends, John Johns, afterward Bishop of Virginia, and Charles P. Mollvaine, afterward Bishop of Ohio (Class of 1815 and graduated 1819). His training in theology, especially his instruction by Archibald Alexander (1772-1851) and Samuel Miller were later to shape his thought and his life's work. Dr Alexander, in particular, took upon himself the role of a ‘second father’ figure to Hodge and coached him and took him as a companion on preaching trips out amongst the churches.

In 1819, Hodge was licensed as a minister, by the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and he preached regularly at the Falls of Schuylkill, the Philadelphia Arsenal, and Woodbury, New Jersey over the subsequent months. “In the morning of May 6th 1819, young Charles Hodge, then approaching the end of his Seminary course, happened to call upon Dr. Alexander in the study in the wing of the small wooden house on Mercer Street ... which the Doctor occupied before his entrance upon his permanent residence. After the business which brought him had been transacted, Dr. Alexander without preparation, suddenly said, ‘How would you like to be a professor in the Seminary?’ Our father, often in after years, told us, that this question overwhelmed him with surprise and confusion. The thought had never entered his imagination before. The Doctor, without waiting for an answer said, ‘Of course I have no power to determine such a result, it will depend upon the judgment of the great Assembly. Say nothing now, but think upon it. My plan for you, at present, is simply that you spend the next winter in Philadelphia learning to read the Hebrew language with points with some competent instructor.’”[1] He became an instructor at the seminary in 1820, and taught there all his life, except for two years of study in France and Germany (1826-1828). His subjects were Biblical and Oriental literature from 1822 to 1840, after which date he concentrated on theology. In 1822, he was appointed to Princeton, by the General Assembly, Professor of Biblical and Oriental Literature. “His inaugural address emphasised the importance of piety among the qualifications for interpreting Scripture, a theme to which he frequently returned.”[2]

In 1822, he married the great grand-daughter of Benjamin Franklin, Sarah Bache, daughter of Dr. William Bache and Catharine Wistar. They had met when his mother took boarders and in 1813 this included the widow Mrs Bache and her three daughters. The eldest daughter, Sarah drew Hodge’s attention. After a long friendship and courtship, they married and had eight children who survived infancy. Two of their eight children, Archibald Alexander and Caspar Wistar, became professors at Princeton Theological Seminary. His first wife died in 1849, and in 1852 he married Mrs. Mary (Hunter) Stockton.

Hodge felt the need of further studies from the great centres of learning in Europe, as well as the need to improve his personal competence in the languages so that he might read the theological works coming from these countries. He arranged a plan, with which all agreed upon it usefulness and having made the arrangement he went abroad from1826 to 1828, to prosecute special studies, and in Paris, Halle, and Berlin attended the lectures of  Tholuck[3], Hengstenberg , and Neander.

In 1824, he helped to found the Chi Phi Society along with Robert Baird  and Archibald Alexander. In 1825, he founded the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, and during forty years was its editor and the principal contributor to its pages. In 1840, he transferred to the chair of didactic theology, retaining, however, the department of New Testament exegesis, the duties of which he continued to discharge until his death. He was moderator of the New Jersey General assembly in 1846.

He held a commanding position in the Presbyterian Church through both active participation and his articles in the Review. He was moderator of the (Old School) General Assembly in 1846, as well as being on both the missionary and education boards. In the church schism of 1837, he supported division and argued against the New School views. Although rigid in his views, he was also tender-hearted and affectionate.

 On the death of Dr. Alexander in 1851, Hodge became the principal of Princeton Theological Seminary and he held this position until he died in1878. He enhanced his reputation as one of the greatest exponents and defenders of historical Calvinism in America during the 19th century. “Princeton Seminary had the most diverse student body of any American seminary, with students coming from every region of the United States and from several foreign countries, especially Britain and Canada. Among Hodge’s more than three thousand students were more than fifty moderators of Presbyterian general assemblies and at least 170 foreign missionaries.[4]

Fifty years of his professorate were completed in 1872, and the event was most impressively celebrated on April 23rd of that year. A large concourse, including 400 of his own pupils, assembled to do him honour. Representatives from various theological institutes, at home and abroad, mingled their congratulations with those of his colleagues; and letters expressing deepest sympathy with the occasion came from distinguished men from all quarters of the land and from across the sea. Hodge was an extremely gifted teacher, able to arouse the minds of his students with his tools of clear analytical statement, strong certainty, solid learning, and knowledge of contemporary thought. However, his personal religion and piety were more powerful tools of instruction, as demonstrated by his famous Sunday afternoon conference addresses. His theology was centrally Calvinism, as purported by the Westminster divines, but also from other sources, notably Turretin. His theology was always deeply Biblical, and he held it unchanged, even in the face of disintegrating Calvinism (in America), altering conceptions of the Bible, and the emerging force of Darwinism. The theology he established at Princeton was a powerfully conservative force, not only in the Presbyterian Church, but also in other churches.


He started in 1825 the publication that would come to be known as the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, which he edited for more than 40 years. In his essays contributed to it, he defended vigorously the Princeton theology, especially against that of Andover. “Hodge was a lion in controversy. His adversaries ranged across the theological spectrum – from Schleiermacher and other Romantic Theologians of inward subjectivity, through representatives of the Oxford Movement and 19th century conservative Roman Catholicism, to Americans such as Charles G. Finney, Horace Bushnell, John W. Nevin (1803-1886) and Philip Schaff (1819-1893) of Mercersburg, and Nathaniel W. Taylor (1786-1858) and Edwards Amasa Park (1808-1900) from New England. Hodge’s point of view was consistent. He contended for 16thand 17th century understandings of Calvinism. He proclaimed the dangers of unchecked religious experience, whether in the form of sophisticated European Romanticism or frontier American revivalism”.[5] His first book, A Commentary on the Epistle of the Romans, brought him high repute. His other works include The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, commentaries on other Pauline epistles, The Way of Life, and finally his Systematic Theology, which had extensive circulation. A work was posthumously published was Discussions in Church Polity, a book of much importance, and also Conference Papers.

Hodge enjoyed what President Woolsey, at the jubilee just referred to, hoped he might enjoy, "a sweet old age." He lived in the midst of his children and grandchildren; and, when the last moment came, they gathered round him. "Dearest," he said to a beloved daughter, "Don't weep. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. To be with the Lord is to see him. To see the Lord is to be like him." Of the children who survived him, three were ministers; and two of these succeeded him in the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary, C. W. Hodge, in the department of exegetical theology, and A.A. Hodge, in that of dogmatics.

Literary and teaching activities

Hodge was a voluminous writer, and from the beginning to the end of his theological career his pen was never idle. In 1835 he published his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, his greatest exegetical work, and one of the most masterly commentaries on this letter that has ever been written. Other works followed at intervals of longer or shorter duration - Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (1840); Way of Life; Commentary on Ephesians (1856); on First Corinthians (1857); on Second Corinthians (1859). His magnum opus is the Systematic Theology (1872–3), of 3 volumes and extending to 2,260 pages. Apparently the primary reason for the long delay in the release of these three volumes by Hodge was the fear that if Hodge’s lectures were available in print, this would act as a strong disincentive for students to enroll at Princeton to hear Hodge lecture! His last book, What is Darwinism? Was published in 1874, when Hodge was in his mid-seventies – there was no resting on his oars for Hodge. In addition, he contributed 130 articles to the Princeton Review, many of which, besides exerting a powerful influence at the time of their publication, have since been gathered into volumes, and as Selection of Essays and Reviews from the Princeton Review (1857) and Discussions in Church Polity (ed. W. Durant, 1878) have taken a permanent place in theological literature.

This record of Hodge's literary life is suggestive of the great influence that he exerted. But properly to estimate that influence, it must be remembered that 3,000 ministers of the Gospel passed under his instruction, and that to him was accorded the rare privilege, during the course of a long life, of achieving distinction as a teacher, exegete, preacher, controversialist, ecclesiastic, and systematic theologian. As a teacher he had few equals; and if he did not display popular gifts in the pulpit, he revealed homiletical powers of a high order in the "conferences" on Sabbath afternoons, where he spoke with his accustomed clearness and logical precision, but with great spontaneity and amazing tenderness and unction.

Hodge's literary powers were seen at their best in his contributions to the Princeton Review, many of which are acknowledged masterpieces of controversial writing. They cover a wide range of topics, from apologetic questions that concern common Christianity to questions of ecclesiastical administration, in which only Presbyterians have been supposed to take interest. But the questions in debate among American theologians during the period covered by Hodge's life belonged, for the most part, to the departments of anthropology and soteriology; and it was upon these, accordingly, that his polemic powers were mainly applied.

Character and significance: Though always honorable in debate, one would not gain a correct idea of Hodge's character through judging him only by the polemic relations in which his writings reveal him. Controversy does not emphasize the amiable side of a man's nature. Hodge was a man of warm affection, of generous impulses, and of John-like piety. Devotion to Christ was the salient characteristic of his experience, and it was the test by which he judged the experience of others. Hence, though a Presbyterian and a Calvinist, his sympathies went far beyond the boundaries of sect. He refused to entertain the narrow views of church polity which some of his brethren advocated. He repudiated the unhistorical position of those who denied the validity of Roman Catholic baptism. He gave his sympathy to all good agencies.

He was conservative by nature, and his life was spent in defending the Reformed theology as set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith. He was fond of saying that Princeton had never originated a new idea; but this meant no more than that Princeton was the advocate of historical Calvinism in opposition to the modified and provincial Calvinism of a later day. And it is true that Hodge must be classed among the great defenders of the faith, rather than among the great constructive minds of the Church. He had no ambition to be epoch-making by marking the era of a new departure. But he earned a higher title to fame in that he was the champion of his Church's faith during a long and active life, her trusted leader in time of trial, and for more than half a century the most conspicuous teacher of her ministry. Hodges' understanding of the Christian faith and of historical Protestantism is given in his Systematic Theology.


Hodge supported slavery in the 1830s, and while he condemned the mistreatment of slaves he did not condemn the institution of slavery itself. The background to this attitude, however, was not primarily his understanding of the Bible's teaching on the matter, but rather his churchmanship.

The Presbyterian Church was divided along the same lines that would later split it during the American Civil War. Hodge himself was torn between the abolitionists in the North and the conservatives in the South, and he used his considerable influence in an attempt to restore order and find a middle ground between the two factions. In 1846, however, he became convinced that slavery was wrong, reversing his earlier anti-abolitionist stance, and he then publicly denounced slavery and supported both the Abolitionist movement and President Lincoln (Adams, 2003).


In 1871, Hodge published a study, What is Darwinism? He claimed that Darwinism was, in essence Atheism. He finds it hard to believe that natural laws alone could create complex organisms that fit into their niches almost perfectly. While he did not consider all evolutionary ideas to be in conflict with religion, he was concerned with its teaching in America, especially in the colleges. “Hodge argued that what was distinctive to Darwin’s view was the rejection of teleology, the rejection of purpose in the natural world.[6]

His Legacy

Gutjahr in his biography noted the tendency of Princeton to rely on family dynasties (the Hodges were not alone in this respect for they followed the Alexanders in this). He also noted that the reunion of Old and New School Presbyterians in 1869, Hodge and Princeton had gradually grown estranged after well-intentioned efforts to co-publish a journal in tandem with Union Seminary, New York. Gutjahr portrays Princeton at the ‘fin de siecle’ as increasingly isolated in its theology – all the while still known for its very considerable rigour. As portrayed, the eventual division at Princeton Seminary in 1929 was the predictable outcome of a seminary that in resisting the theological trends of the age made itself vulnerable to forced reorganisation by its parent denomination, which, in spite of Princeton, reflected those very trends.

Charles Hodge the Biblical interpreter was summed up by B.B. Warfield, Hodge’s successor: “I thought then and I think now, that Dr. Hodge’s sense of the general meaning of a passage was unsurpassed ... Nothing could surpass the clearness with which he set forth the general argument and the main connections of thought. Neither could anything surpass the analytical subtlety with which he extracted the doctrinal contents of passages ... He seemed to look through a passage, catch its main drift and all its theological bearings and state the result in crisp sentences, which would have been worthy of Bacon; all a single movement of mind. He had, however, no taste for the technicalities of Exegesis ... On such points he was seldom wholly satisfactory ... He made no claim, again to critical acumen; and in questions of textual criticism he constantly went astray ... Even here he was clear, analytical thinker, rather than a patient collector and weigher of detailed evidence. He was great here, but not at his greatest. Theology was his first love”.[7]

His Books

  • Romans [1835]
  • The Way of Life [1841]
  • Ephesians [1856]
  • 1 Corinthians [1857]  
  • 2 Corinthians [1859]
  • Systematic Theology New York, 1872-3
  • What is Darwinism? (1874)

Biographic Studies and appreciations

  • Hodge, A. A. (1880). The Life of Charles Hodge: Professor in the Theological seminary, Princeton, N.J.C. Scribner's sons. Reissued 1979 by Ayer Co. Pub.
  • Hoffecker, W. A. (1981). Piety and the Princeton Theologians: Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, and Benjamin Warfield P&R Publishing.
  • Noll, Mark A. (1988): ‘Charles Hodge’, New Dictionary of Theology, Edited Ferguson, S.B. & Wight, D.F.: Leicester, Intervarsity Press
  • Hicks, Peter (1997). The Philosophy of Charles Hodge: A 19th Century Evangelical Approach to Reason, Knowledge and Truth Edwin Mellen Pr.
  • Noll, Mark A., ed. (2001). Princeton Theology, 1812-1921: Scripture, Science, and Theological Method from Archibald Alexander to Benjamin Warfield. Baker Publishing Group.
  • Stewart, J.W., and J.H. Moorhead, eds. (2002). Charles Hodge Revisited: A Critical Appraisal of His Life and Work. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
  • Wallace, P.J.: (2003) ‘Charles Hodge’, Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, edited Larsen, Timothy, Leicester, InterVarsity Press
  • Adams, John H. (April 21, 2003) ‘Charles Hodge: A voice for today's PCUSA?’ The Layman.
  • Noll, Mark A.: (2007) ‘Charles Hodge (1797-1878)’, Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, edited McKim, Donald K., Nottingham, InterVarsity
  • Gutjahr, Paul C.(2011): Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy: New York: Oxford University Press




[1] Hodge, A. A. (1880). The Life of Charles Hodge: Professor in the Theological seminary, Princeton, N.J.C. Scribner's sons. (Reissued 1979 by Ayer Co. Pub) [10%]

[2] Wallace, P.J.: (2003) ‘Charles Hodge’, Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, edited Larsen, Timothy, Leicester, Intervarsity Press, 306

[3] Hodge found a mutually appreciative relationship with Tholuck, whose knowledge and learning he admired and thought the German system of education superior to anything he had found as yet. “The great superiority of German learning (and the superiority is great) arises not from the mode of instruction in the universities, but from the excellence of their primary schools. A boy is so well grounded in Greek and Latin that he has no trouble with these languages. As these are the great instruments of learning in all departments, they have nothing to do but to apply them.” Hodge letter to his wife: 9 March 1827, cited in Hodge, A.A. biography of his father, op cit, 19%

[4] Ibid: 307

[5] Noll, Mark A. (1988): ‘Charles Hodge’, New Dictionary of Theology, edited Ferguson, S.B. & Wight, D.F.: Leicester, Intervarsity Press, 313

[6] Wallace: op cit 307

[7] Warfield, B.B.: ‘Dr Hodge as a Teacher of Exegesis’ in A.A. Hodge’s Life, op cit, 589-90