Presbyterians of the Past

J. W. Alexander, 1804-1859

James W. Alexander, Frontispiece from Vol. 1 of his Memoirs by Hall, 7-28-2015James Waddell Alexander was born to Archibald and Janetta Waddell Alexander in Louisa County, Virginia, on March 13, 1804. The infant had been named for Janetta’s father, James Waddell, D.D., who had ministered in the Shenandoah Valley many years and was known as “The Blind Preacher of Virginia.” Young Alexander graduated the College of New Jersey in 1820 and then studied divinity at Princeton Seminary.

His first ministry following his ordination by Hanover Presbytery was in the Presbyterian Church, Charlotte Court House, Virginia, which began with him preaching as the stated supply and then he served briefly as the called pastor. He then moved to Trenton, New Jersey, where he served that congregation, 1829-1832. His longest single service was as the Professor of Rhetoric and Latin Language and Literature in the College of New Jersey, 1833-1844.

Because of a renewed desire for pastoral ministry, he accepted a call in 1844 to the Duane Street Church in New York City where he continued until 1849. He returned to Princeton that year to serve briefly as the Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government in the seminary. However, he once again yearned to serve a congregation and took the opportunity to return to New York City to be the minister of Fifth Avenue and Nineteenth Street Church. Hoping to relieve an illness, Dr. Alexander took time from his church and visited Red Sweet Springs, Virginia, where he died, July 31, 1859, at the age of only fifty-five years. His body was returned to Princeton to be buried near his father. J. W. Alexander had been honored during his lifetime with the D.D. by both Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, 1843, and Harvard University, 1854.

Twenty-five years after J. W. Alexander’s death, the alumni of Princeton Seminary erected the Alexander Tablet in the campus chapel as a memorial to Archibald, James Waddell, and Joseph Addison Alexander and their ministries not only to the seminary but also to the church in general. J. W. Alexander was remembered Title Page, J. W. Alexander, Vol. 1, American Mechanic, 9-3-2015at the service through a brief message presented by Theodore L. Cuyler, D.D., who had been a student of Alexander during his teaching years at the College of New Jersey. Cuyler commented that Dr. Alexander was a prolific writer but he personally rated most highly “his ‘Charles Quill’ letters to workingmen—which have the simplicity and pith of Benjamin Franklin” (p. 23). The Charles Quill letters had been published under the pseudonym as a series in the Newark Daily Advertiser. The series was then published in succession as a two volume set. The first was titled The American Mechanic, 1838, and the second part was published in 1839 under the title, The Working Man. The books were republished in a set in 1847 under the single title of The American Mechanic and Working Man. J. W. Alexander commented that he was motivated to write the articles because of his great concern for those Americans moving from the rural areas for jobs in the factories of the rapidly growing and densely populated cities (The Life of J. W. Alexander, 1:145-46, 246, 266). Alexander thought, like several of his contemporaries, that even though industrialization was bringing economic benefits and employment, it was also affecting the employees negatively with respect to their spiritual, family, and social lives.

J. W. Alexander, Snippet of Portrait in The Alexander Memorial, 1879, 9-25-13These books might be useful tools for home schooling and Christian schools. Though many aspects of the books are dated, Dr. Alexander tells several personal stories to illustrate some of the principles he presented in the book that might be of interest to children. An advantage of this type of antiquarian book is that it not only provides wisdom for living, but also vocabulary, trades, and cultural aspects which could be incorporated in the teaching of history. Professions such as the cooper, tanner, and turner have for the most part changed as wooden barrels have become steel or plastic, leather is processed with newer and safer technology, and manufacturing lathes are often fully automated. Today’s children might enjoy learning how in some cases those who practiced the trades adopted the name of the trade as a surname; for example, John the cooper became John Cooper, William the tanner became William Tanner, and Andrew the turner became Andrew Turner.


Links to Articles on Presbyterians of the Past of Associated Interest

“The Student Woes of J. W. Alexander,” click HERE

“J. W. Alexander’s Concern for the Poor,” click HERE

Notes—It was unavailable to the author at the time of the writing of this biography but an additional resource about J. W. Alexander is Gary L. Steward’s Th. M. thesis at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, titled, “James W. Alexander’s Christian Social Reform in its Antebellum American Context,” 2010, which is available in book form via print on demand; Dr. Steward has also published the article, “Old Princeton and American Culture: Insights from J. W. Alexander,” in The Confessional Presbyterian 8 (2012), pages 55-64 [added 1/13/2017].
Sources—This biography was revised September 3, 2015. The Alexander Memorial, 1879, includes the memorial presented by T. L. Cuyler for J. W. Alexander on pages 19-27; The Life of J. W. Alexander: Forty Years of Familiar Letters, 2 vols., New York: Charles Scribner, 1860; the picture of Dr. Alexander is the photograph in The Alexander Memorial.

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