Presbyterians of the Past

William S. Plumer, 1802-1880

William Swan was born to William and Catherine McAlester Plumer in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, July 26, 1802. He received his education at Washington College in Virginia, which was followed by divinity education at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey. New Brunswick Presbytery licensed him to preach in 1826, after which he was ordained by Orange Presbytery in 1827. William married the widow Eliza (Garden) Hassell in Hillsboro, N. C., June 11, 1829.

Several churches were served by his more than fifty years of ministry, but his most extended terms were at First Presbyterian Church, Richmond, Va. (1834-1846), where his successor was T. V. Moore; Franklin Street Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, Md. (1847-1854); and Central Presbyterian Church, Allegheny, Pa. (1854-1862), which he pastored while serving as a professor at Western Theological Seminary. He continued his pastoral work in Pennsylvania by preaching in the Arch Street Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia (1862-1865), and then the Second Presbyterian Church, Pottsville (1865-1867). Dr. Plumer spent his later years teaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, South Carolina, where he was initially the Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology (1867-1875), and then at his own request he changed his position to be the Professor of Pastoral, Casuistic, and Historical Theology (1875-1880). Professor Plumer’s abilities were acknowledged by honorary degrees including three D.D.s and the LL.D. He moderated the P.C.U.S.A. Old School General Assembly in 1838, which was a particularly difficult meeting due to the bitter feelings among many concerning the division into Old and New Schools in 1837. In 1871, he was moderator of the General Assembly of the P.C.U.S. Dr. Plumer died in Baltimore, Oct. 22, 1880. His body was transported by train to Richmond for burial in Hollywood Cemetery. His grave is marked by a tall obelisk that was given in his memory by his grateful students. Eliza had preceded him to the grave, Oct. 30, 1878, and it is inscribed on her grave marker next to Dr. Plumer’s, “Endowed with mature judgment, great prudence and earnest love, her price was indeed far above rubies, and the heart of her husband did safely trust in her. Her children also rise up and call her blessed.”

Publications by William Plumer total more than twenty-five books including commentaries on Romans, Hebrews, and Psalms, numerous tracts, and articles for both newspapers and journals. Many of his shorter works were published anonymously, so his total literary output cannot be accurately determined. From 1837-1845, Dr. Plumer was the sole editor of The Watchman of the South, which he founded during his ministry at First Church, Richmond. His concern for the poor and disabled led him to spearhead the founding of The Institution for the Blind, Deaf, & Dumb in Staunton, Virginia, in 1838.

Dr. Plumer had a particular interest in publishing material on biblical and theological subjects that was written for the average members of the local churches, new Christians, and children. An example of one of his titles for the laity is Truths for the People: Or, Several Points in Theology Plainly Stated for Beginners, which was published by the American Tract Society in 1875. The title clearly shows Plumer’s intention was to bring the fundamentals of doctrine to Beginners or new Christians, whether young or old. Little regarding his readers’ knowledge of Christian terminology is taken for granted. For example, the first chapter of the book is titled “Theology” and it opens with a simple definition of the word for his readers who did not know its meaning.

The word THEOLOGY means a discourse concerning God. It [the word “theology”] is not found in the Scriptures. We have there “the word of God,” “good doctrine,” “sound doctrine,” “form of doctrine,” “doctrine of God,” “doctrine of Christ,” “form of sound words,” “the Scriptures,” and such like phrases. Theology is divinity, as a theologian is a divine. Theology treats of the being and perfections of God, of his relations to us, his purposes towards us, his promises made to us, his will concerning us, and the right way of pleasing him (p 7).

Every page of the book bears quotations from Scripture, some of which have their references provided but others do not. The language of the Westminster Standards is also echoed in the text, but there are no citations of the catechisms or the confession (maybe due to the book being published by the interdenominational American Tract Society). As the book continues it covers subjects including: the attributes of God, the Trinity, man the sinner, Christ the mediator, justification, death, hell, and heaven. The book has thirty-three chapters, and the topics of the chapters somewhat coincide with those of the thirty-three chapters of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

W. S. Plumer, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Inscription Panel, 8-19-2015If there is only one lesson to be learned from the life and ministry of W. S. Plumer, it is from his marriage of sound doctrine with simple brevity of expression for those who want to know the doctrinally driven basics of Christian living. In the case of Dr. Plumer, his ability to be plain in his teaching may have resulted from his extensive experience as both a professor and a pastor. Sometimes the education required for a candidate to be ordained a Reformed minister produces a preacher whose sermons are more like lectures than exposition and application of God’s Word to God’s people. It could be said that as the design, complexity, and mechanism of an old pocket watch are interesting, so are the intricacies and unplumbable depths of the Word of God, but in the end what is most beneficial about the pocket watch is that it provides the correct time via a simple reading of its numbers and hands, just as the Word of God provides direction for obedience and service when its doctrine is applied through faithful preaching.

Many of Dr. Plumer’s numerous works are available for download on the Log College Press site, “William Swan Plumer (1802-1880).” The page also has several additional portraits.

Barry Waugh

Sources–The header photograph taken by the author shows the original carriage house from the Robert Mills House in Columbia, South Carolina, in its current location on the campus of Winthrop University; the carriage house presently on the Mills House property is a replica. The carriage house was used by the seminary to hold chapel services and it is believed to be where future president of the United States Woodrow Wilson professed faith in Christ, his father, Joseph R. Wilson, was a professor at the seminary. The Mills House was the campus of Columbia Theological Seminary from 1830 until it relocated to Decatur, Georgia, in 1927. The photograph of Plumer’s grave marker in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, was taken by the author in June 2009.

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