William Lewis Breckinridge, the eighth child of Hon. John and Mary Hopkins (Cabell) Breckinridge, was born at Cabell’s Dale near Lexington, Kentucky, July 22, 1803. He would be the youngest son to grow to maturity behind the eldest, Joseph Cabell, followed in age by John, and then Robert Jefferson. Another son, James Monroe, would be born in 1806 which was the same year Hon. John Breckinridge died, but James would die at a young age. William studied at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. He had professed his faith in Christ at the age of 15, and he and his mother Mary Breckinridge, Mary Clay Smith Breckinridge, Ann Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge, and Sophia Rice Harrison, constituted the original membership of Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Church when it was organized in 1827. William was the only male in the original congregation and he was ordained the elder at the age of 24. William’s wife, Frances Prevost, whose mother was a daughter of Samuel Stanhope Smith of Princeton, united with the church two days after its organization. William entered the ministry about 1831 and served his first pastorate in the Presbyterian Church in Maysville until 1833. When his older brother, John, was made Secretary of the Board of Education for the Presbyterian Church, William was encouraged by him to accept the call to Second Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, but he instead accepted a professorship in Centre College, Danville, Kentucky.
From Centre College, William was called to the pastorate of the First Presbyterian Church of Louisville, Ky., where he began his work on the first Sabbath of January, 1836, and continued in his ministry for twenty-three years. During his pastorate the church moved to a lot on the southeast corner of Sixth and Green Streets. The building was constructed and then dedicated July 21, 1839 in a special service that included visitors from other area congregations. Pastor Breckinridge preached on Psalm 48:2, “Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth is Mt. Zion”; the evening service was led by Dr. E. P. Humphrey, of the Second Church, Louisville, who delivered his message from 1 Cor. 1:24. In May 1844, the Old School General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church met in Breckinridge’s church. Gardiner Spring delivered the opening sermon and Rev. George Junkin, D.D., was elected the moderator. W. L. Breckinridge continued to maintain ties to Danville during his Louisville years when he and his brother Robert Jefferson were selected for the first board of trustees for Danville Seminary in 1853. However, due to health problems, Breckinridge was granted leave of absence for several months to recover, but he continued to have difficulties sufficient to lead him to resign in 1858. After leaving the Louisville church, he supplied two churches in the towns of Midway and Woodford while he considered his next vocational step.
When the Old School General Assembly convened in the growing city of Indianapolis in 1859, the meeting was called to order by Nathan L. Rice due to the absence of standing Moderator W. A. Scott of San Francisco. Dr. Rice preached from 2 Cor. 5:7, “We walk by faith, not by sight,” which was not only an appropriate verse for the presbyters in general, but particularly wise counsel for the newly elected moderator, William L. Breckinridge. The New York Times commented that Breckinridge was “a mild, retiring gentleman, who has, by attending to the peaceful pursuits of pastoral life, gained the respect of all his friends, and the chief honor of the Church which he has served so well and so long.” An issue projected to be controversial for the Kentuckian as he wielded the gavel involved the Boards of the Church, which the Times predicted would set “the debaters of the Court in hot controversy on opposing sides.” One topic that yielded some discussion that the Times had not predicted was the selection of a new location for the New Albany Theological Seminary which at the time was in Indiana. The debate for the new location was between Indianapolis and Chicago, but thanks to an 100,000.00 contribution from farm equipment manufacturer Cyrus McCormick to endow four chairs in Chicago, the windy city became the location of what would be named The Presbyterian Theological Seminary of the Northwest. The Chicago move was further enhanced when a group of benefactors provided 45 acres of land for the campus.
Even though selecting the site for the seminary went fairly smoothly, the choosing of the faculty did not fare so well because when N. L. Rice was running against Dr. MacMaster for one of the chairs there developed a heated debate over slavery between them which included a 2 1/2 hour lecture by MacMaster. It must have been awkward for Moderator Breckinridge because he also was a nominee for the same chair. In the end, though, MacMaster and Breckinridge lost to Rice. Later in the meeting, Breckinridge was elected by a large margin to fill a vacant chair in Danville Seminary, which was a position he did not accept.
As projected by the Times, one of the key decisions with respect to missions was the appointment of a committee to confer with the Board of Domestic Missions and report to the next assembly regarding changes that needed to be made in the organization and methods of the board. The assembly was particularly concerned that the administration should be made as effective as possible to reach the people of the Pacific coast with missionary efforts. Several considerations for restructuring included moving the Board nearer the center of the western population; establishing several executive committees and corresponding secretaries; or establishing a single central Executive Committee, with Advisory Committees and District Secretaries. Charles Hodge commented in his article on the General Assembly in Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review that, “This report led to a very protracted and interesting debate” (552).
The length of the assembly must not have helped Moderator Breckinridge’s health because it ran two full weeks from Thursday, May 19, through Thursday, June 2.
W. L. Breckinridge moved in a southern direction in 1860 to become the president of Oakland College in Mississippi. Possibly, his not accepting the chair at Danville Seminary was due to his health problems and he hoped the warmer climate of Mississippi would relieve some of his suffering. Oakland College had been opened by the Presbytery of Mississippi in 1830 near the town of Rodney on the Mississippi River. The college continued until in 1871 the property was sold to the State of Mississippi to be used for the campus of what became Alcorn State University. Breckinridge continued as the president of Oakland until he returned to Centre College to serve as its president beginning in October 1863 and continuing there until he resigned October 16, 1868.
When he left Centre College, he moved west from Kentucky to live on a farm in Cass County, Missouri, near Kansas. He continued in the ministry in retirement serving as a minister at large supplying the pulpits of some of the small churches. At some point during his life, he had been honored with a Doctor of Divinity. He died peacefully, December 26th, 1876. After the death of his first wife, Frances, he married the widow, Sarah A. Garnett. William’s household had twelve children. Eight of the children reached maturity and all were named according to the honored names of their Cabell and Breckinridge ancestors.
James C. Klotter in, The Breckinridges of Kentucky, commented regarding the death of William that he was, “urbane and polished, yet open and unafraid to offer opinions, William Breckinridge, when he died in 1876, ended a life that had presented few opportunities for criticism” (40). An appropriate eulogy for a faithful minister, husband, and father.
BY BARRY WAUGH
Sources—E. Warren, The Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky., 1816-1896; Catalogue of the Centre College of Kentucky, 1890, Danville: The Kentucky Advocate Printing Company, 1890; New York Times, May 24, and June 3, 1859; James C. Klotter, The Breckinridges of Kentucky, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1986, 2006; Bradley J. Gundlach, “’B’ is for Breckinridge: Benjamin B. Warfield, His Maternal Kin, and Princeton Seminary,” in Gary L. W. Johnson, ed., B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought, Phillipsburg: P&R, 2007, 13-53.
Notes—Clarification editing was done by the author on August 10, 2015. Per the New York Times, June 1, 1859, the four chairs at McCormick Seminary went to Nathan L. Rice of Chicago, Willis Lord of Brooklyn, Le Roy J. Halsey of Louisville, and William M. Scott of Cincinnati. Other biographies on Presbyterians of the Past that tell about the Breckinridges include, Samuel Miller Breckinridge and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield.