Presbyterians of the Past

J. A. Alexander, 1809-1860

They said he looked like Napoleon Bonaparte, his students entered the lecture hall in fear and trembling, he read his sermons with his head bowed motionless over the pulpit, and he found social situations very uncomfortable. He absorbed languages like a sponge; it is believed that he knew over thirty. However, there was a softer side to Addison, as he was called, a side that was rarely seen even by his closest friends. The physical resemblance is not so strong based on these portraits, so maybe the similarity of faces in the students’ eyes was influenced by their experiences with Addison in the classroom and his Napoleon like command.

Joseph Addison was born the third son of the minister of the Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Archibald Alexander, on April 24, 1809. His mother, Janetta Waddel Alexander, was the daughter of James Waddel who served as a minister in Virginia for many years. Archibald Alexander continued his pastoral service in Philadelphia until he was called by the denomination to open the doors of the Presbyterian Seminary at Princeton in 1812.

By the age of ten Addison had learned the fundamentals of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He entered Princeton College with the junior class at the age of fifteen and graduated in 1826 with the highest honors of his class of twenty-nine. His fellow students commented that his intellect and speaking ability surpassed that of some of the college faculty. He was elected a tutor at Princeton College, but instead, at the age of nineteen, he became the teacher of Latin, Modern and Ancient History, Ancient Geography, and Composition in the Edgehill School.

Addison studied theology on his own with guidance from his father and others at the seminary including Charles Hodge. He began his teaching career as Adjunct Professor of Ancient Languages and Literature at Princeton College, 1830-1833, during which time he was licensed and then ordained by New Brunswick Presbytery. Following a trip to Europe, Addison began his work in Princeton Seminary as Instructor of Oriental and Biblical Literature, which was followed by a promotion to Associate Professor of Oriental and Biblical Literature, 1835-1840, and then he achieved the final step as the Professor. He was transferred to the Chair of Biblical and Ecclesiastical History in 1851, and then to the department of Hellenistic and New Testament Literature in 1859.

As is sometimes the case with genius like that of J. A. Alexander his interpersonal skills were not the best. T. V. Moore, a student and friend of Alexander, went on to describe Addison as a “recluse in his habits and reserved in his manners” and mentioned that the students regarded him as a “prodigy of learning” who was susceptible to a pointed sarcasm that they hoped would not pierce them to the oratory wall in shame for their lack of study. T. V. Moore’s own friendship with Addison began in his Hebrew language classes, but he added, “I never could wholly divest myself of a certain fear in my association with him, but I found him much more accessible and kind than I expected.”

A particularly memorable example of Dr. Alexander’s propensity for sarcasm was related by Moore. In a discourse given by a student on the book of Genesis which was described by Moore as “very pretentious,” when it came time for Professor Alexander to make his remarks he said that the discourse “consisted of two parts; that which everybody knew, and that which nobody knew; and that he did not think that under either head the student had added to the stock of their knowledge.” Moore commented that sometimes Addison used his satire severely, “though I do not think unjustly.”

The closeness of the friendship between Addison Alexander and T. V. Moore is seen in his account of visits made by him to Richmond where he lodged with the Moore family. Addison conducted himself in the manse of the First Presbyterian Church of Richmond “very much as he would have done in his own” home. Moore had a bit reluctantly invited his former professor to visit because he knew that Addison generally avoided staying with private families. However, Moore was relieved when his visitor became as one of the family and his finest and most congenial guest. Moore commented that he regretted that he had not tried to draw out information from Addison that was more personal because he generally would not speak of himself. On one occasion, one of the Moore children was in bed recovering from a common malady. At one point, the Moores realized that they had not seen Alexander recently. They searched the house and found him amusing the sick child with stories. It may have been that Addison’s own lack of wife and family was blessed and filled by his relationship with T. V. Moore’s family.

J. A. Alexander, Title Page of His Matthew Commentary, 1860, 8-7-2015

Joseph Addison Alexander suffered a hemorrhage and died in his study, January 28, 1860, at the age of only 50 years. The New York Times commented in an obituary that as a scholar he “had no superior” in America and he spoke almost “all the modern languages of Europe.” He was described as “retired in his habits” and not a socializer in “general society.” The Times ended its memorial observing that his “loss as an instructor will be keenly felt by the seminary.” Addison Alexander’s funeral took place in Princeton in the afternoon of January 31. He was buried in the Princeton Cemetery next to his brother James Waddel Alexander who had died just six months earlier at the age of just fifty-four.

J. A. Alexander was a prolific writer. In the seminary journals alone he published over seventy articles and reviews. His books include, The Earlier Prophecies of Isaiah, 1846, and The Later Prophecies of Isaiah, 1847; The Psalms: Translated and Explained, 1850, in three volumes; The Acts of the Apostles Explained, in two volumes, 1857; The Gospel According to Mark, 1858; Notes on New Testament Literature and Ecclesiastical History, 1860; Sermons, in two volumes were also published in 1860; and finally, The Gospel According to Matthew, which the preface describes as the “last work on which the pen of Dr. Alexander was engaged,” was published in 1860. He earned the A. M. from Princeton College in 1829 and was given the Doctor of Divinity first by Rutgers and then later by Franklin and Marshall College.

Barry Waugh

Notes–Clarification editing was done by the author and the Moore portrait and book title page were added on August 7, 2015. The main source for this biography is Henry Carrington Alexander’s two volume work about his uncle titled, The Life of Joseph Addison Alexander, New York, 1870, note that the page numbers are sequential from vol. 1 to vol. 2, and the T. V. Moore items were found in 1:478-79 and 2:753-56. The Life of Archibald Alexander, D.D., LL.D., by his son, James W. Alexander, 1856, was also consulted. The inked portrait is of T. V. Moore. In the side by side picture Alexander is on the left.

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