The Personal Side of Charles Hodge
Alan D. Strange
Charles Hodge (1797–1878) embodied the ethos of Old Princeton, whose two hundredth anniversary we celebrate this year. Hodge was not the passionate pulpiteer that Princeton’s first professor, Archibald Alexander, was. Nor did he enjoy the sheer brilliance of his celebrated pupil and successor, Benjamin B. Warfield. In the fifty-eight years that Hodge taught at Princeton Theological Seminary, however, he shaped more lives with his gentle good humor and unflappable fidelity to God’s Word than any other professor who taught there.
He modeled for his students a learned piety that marked nineteenth-century Old School Presbyterianism at its finest. Princeton was appreciated by many, and despised by others, for its moderation with respect to many of the issues of the day, and Hodge embodied that moderation. He was, as Andrew Hoffecker has written in his new biography (reviewed in this issue of New Horizons), an Old School Presbyterian with New Side sympathies. He reflected, for some of us, the best of both worlds: a warm piety married to a staunch orthodoxy. In this essay, I would like to shed light on Charles Hodge, not only as a theologian or churchman, but as a Christian who was not that much different from the rest of us.
When Charles was only six months old, his father died. His brother, Hugh, who was a year and a half older than he, eventually became a sort of surrogate father, as well as a close confidant and friend. Their mother worked hard to give them every advantage. They were well taught in several schools and were catechized by Ashbel Green, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in their hometown, Philadelphia. Green later became president of the College of New Jersey (which was renamed Princeton University in 1896) and was an ardent leader of the Old School when it split from the New School in 1837. His relationship with Hodge was tense due to Hodge’s moderation when it came to Presbyterian division (as opposed to hard-liners like Green and Robert J. Breckinridge).
Hugh was a doctor, like his father (who had died treating yellow fever). He became a leading physician in Philadelphia, practicing and teaching obstetrics and gynecology (helping to establish it as a specialty, in fact) and pioneering techniques, some of which are still in use. The wealthy Hugh, both on his own initiative and at Charles’s request, gave gifts to his brother, especially when Princeton fell short in paying him. In a letter of November 22, 1860, Charles reflects his surprise that Hugh has just sent him $400 for a new carriage, protesting, “I never bought anything but a second hand carriage in my life, and I feel too old to begin to splurge now. If I get any such thing, I will label it all over, ‘A Present from a rich Friend!’ ”
Perhaps a more significant surrogate father, certainly in terms of his theological development, was Archibald Alexander. Hodge came to Princeton in 1812 for college. Alexander met him when he first came there and the seminary was just beginning. Alexander recognized some gifts in Hodge that others seemed to have missed, asking him to accompany him on a preaching tour in 1816, before Hodge entered seminary. Alexander greatly supported and encouraged Hodge—and later encouraged him to come and teach at Princeton Seminary.
The Second Great Awakening, which was still in its earlier Calvinistic phase, touched Princeton when Hodge was a college student there, and in 1815 he made a profession of faith in a local Presbyterian church. His profession and Alexander’s continual encouragement—it was also Alexander who insisted that Hodge replace him in 1840 as professor of exegetical and didactic theology—set him on the path that he would follow for the rest of his life.
Hodge was a good student and worked hard. Curiously, his mother and even his brother, according to their correspondence with him, regarded him as somewhat lazy, and they were always urging him on in his work. In addition to the biblical tongues, he mastered at least Latin, German, and French. He was widely read in philosophy and science, as well as theology. He was interested in farming, horses, and many other things that would mark him as industrious.
Despite all of this, he seemed unable at times to please his mother or even his brother. As close as the brothers were, their correspondence reflects certain tensions. Paul Gutjahr, in his recent biography of Hodge (reviewed in this issue of New Horizons), speaks of the distance that developed between him and his mother, especially during and after his 1826–1828 trip to Europe (Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy, pp. 147–48). So does Hoffecker, who quotes Hodge with respect to his mother after his return from Europe: “She appeared to have lost a good deal of her feeling for me” (Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton, p. 127).
Charles suffered from a number of maladies, particularly lameness in his right thigh, which led him to teach all his classes in his home study from 1833 to 1836. He chronicled his and his family’s maladies at length, increasingly as the years went by, in his correspondence with Hugh—which is not surprising, since Hugh was both a doctor and his closest confidant. One wonders if Hugh did not consider him something of a hypochondriac, though. In a letter of January 1862, Charles recounted several ailments, including chest pains, and wistfully observed, “All this is, I suppose, what you call nervous. Nevertheless it is dispiriting not to be able to work.” Charles had noted ten years earlier that their correspondence had lessened from earlier years (it became spotty in the 1850s, though it picked up during the war years, 1861–1865), lamenting, “It is painful, however, that we should thus drift asunder as we grow older.”
With respect to this tension, I’ll recount a particular incident, but here is the background: In 1822, the year in which Hodge became professor of oriental and biblical literature, he married Sarah Bache (a great grand-daughter of Benjamin Franklin). Hodge was a loving and attentive husband and father; he and Sarah had eight children together. Sarah died in 1849, leaving Hodge heartbroken. He sought to share his grief with Hugh. Now for the troubling episode: Charles wrote to Hugh on June 18, 1850, “This is a weary day. Twenty-eight years ago this day my blessed Sarah gave me her hand. What she was then rises as a beautiful vision ... the spirit of departed happiness before my mind. What she is now I cannot realize. I only feel that she is gone—as to this world forever. No day for months has been so hard for me to get through. But I must stop these unavailing regrets. You have not much patience for them and seem to think I ought to be good enough to [forget?] I ever had such a wife—I sometimes think it would be well for me if I could leave Princeton and never come back to it. She is so associated with everything here that no moment passes without some appeal from her.” Two years later, Hodge married again. He married Mary Stockton, a friend of his first wife.
Hodge had a wonderful life, in many ways, and was deeply grateful to the Lord for all his blessings, but it is important to look at a few of these neglected matters, particularly the later tension with his brother—all I have read portrays their relationship as idyllic—so that we can that much more appreciate Hodge as a man who faced trials, tribulations, and disappointments, just like the rest of us. I agree with Hoffecker that Hodge “remained uniformly cheerful throughout his academic career” (p. 126), despite illness, church conflict, the terrible Civil War, and the strained relationship with his mother and even his beloved brother, Hugh. One might argue that Hodge’s relationships with his family members, colleagues, students, and close friends (he had and kept them) made up for that. I think, however, that his “remarkably optimistic demeanor,” as Hoffecker calls it, was such because of his unquenchable relationship with his Savior, which served him through all the ups and downs of his life.
The author is an OP minister and an associate professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. All the letters cited are in the Charles Hodge Papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. New Horizons, Sept. 2012.