Presbyterians of the Past

Alexander T. McGill, 1807-1889

The surnames of Alexander, Miller, Hodge, and Warfield represent familiar  faculty from the history of Princeton Theological Seminary, but despite his having taught in the seminary for nearly thirty years, Alexander Taggart McGill is not very well known. He was born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, February 24, 1807, to his Scots-Irish parents, John, who was a weaver, and Mary Taggart. He grew up in the Associate Presbyterian Church. For his education he remained in Canonsburg attending Jefferson College’s preparatory school and then continued his studies in the college. He graduated first in his class of twenty six in 1826 and remained on campus for two additional years teaching Latin. At the same time he was studying Hebrew and theology in the Associate Theological Seminary in Canonsburg with the intention of entering the ministry. Because of health problems, he moved south to Milledgeville, Georgia. It appears he had decided not to become a minister, or at least not yet, because he worked in Georgia as the principal of Baldwin Academy. Income from his school work allowed him to study law under the tutelage of former Georgia Governor David B. Mitchell resulting in his admittance to the practice of law. Other work done by him in Georgia included a clerk’s position in the lower house of the state legislature and he was appointed the commissioner to survey the Cherokee Land Reservation within the state.

In 1831, young McGill returned to Pennsylvania to re-enter his divinity studies in the Associate Theological Seminary for the purpose of ordination to the ministry. David Calhoun comments regarding McGill’s call to the ministry that while he was visiting “Missionary Ridge, Tennessee, McGill was so impressed by the good work of the missionaries that he decided to enter the ministry” (1:362). He finished his divinity program, was licensed in 1834, and then ordained the following year to serve a call to three congregations in the Carlisle area. When Rev. McGill left the Associate Presbyterian Church to accept a call to the Second Presbyterian Church (Old School) in Carlisle, the presbytery suspended him from the ministry. The Old School presbytery refused to recognize the action by the Associate Presbyterian Church (Calhoun, 1:362). McGill had changed his views with respect to three particular areas of Associate Presbyterian Church teaching. Later, the Associate Church presbytery apologized to A. T. McGill for their acting “hastily and with undue severity” in suspending him from the ministry. The new Old School minister was installed in Second Presbyterian Church, December 29, 1838. Before leaving Carlisle after resigning from Second Church in 1842, McGill delivered the sermon during the ordination and installation service for Second’s new minister, T. V. Moore.

Alexander McGill’s next change in call would take him from the pastoral ministry to Western Theological Seminary where he would become professor of ecclesiastical history and church government, 1842-1852, and 1853-1854. During the first two years of teaching, the seminary enrollment increased substantially from seventeen to fifty-four students resulting in the board and faculty having to rapidly adjust to the more than tripled student body. Fatigued and hoping for rejuvenation in a milder climate, McGill moved to Columbia South Carolina to teach in the theological seminary. However, he remained there only one year because he missed his family and home in Pennsylvania and he had difficulty adjusting to life in Columbia. Possibly, Mary remained home during his time in Columbia because Alexander wanted to test the situation in Columbia before the household moved to South Carolina. McGill returned to Allegheny for just one more year of teaching because he was selected by the General Assembly for a professorship in Princeton Seminary.

McGill had a difficult job ahead of him because he had to fill the shoes of Archibald Alexander who had passed away in 1851. The Assembly had already called E. P. Humphrey and then Henry A. Boardman to serve, but both declined to accept the position. Charles Hodge was greatly concerned about the faculty situation because the shortage of professors gave the appearance of instability, it overloaded the faculty and other personnel, and it had the potential of diminishing the quality of instruction. At the assembly in Buffalo, 1854, Dr. Hodge made an impassioned speech for the election of McGill which swayed the house to elect him the Professor of Pastoral Theology, Church Government, and Homiletics. He continued teaching with the seminary until he became professor emeritus in 1883.

Dr. McGill died on the Sabbath of January 13, 1889. William Henry Green led the funeral service for his fallen colleague and described him as a passionate preacher who was concerned for his students, and he was a true friend. The New York Times brief notice of his memorial service commented that the pall bearers included representatives of Princeton University–James McCosh and James O. Murray, while the seminary provided William Henry Green, Francis L. Patton, James Moffatt, and C. Wistar Hodge. The Times observed, “A number of theological seminaries sent representatives and the general attendance was large.” Dr. McGill had been married twice. His first wife was Eleanor Atcheson McCulloch, daughter of Congressman and General George McCulloch of Lewistown, Pennsylvania. They had eight children, one of which died in infancy. Following Eleanor’s death in 1873, in 1875, McGill married Catherine Bache Hodge, the daughter of Charles Hodge. Catherine died on July 3, 1884.

A. T. McGill was a churchman who was respected by his fellow presbyters and educators. At the General Assembly that convened in Baltimore in 1848 he was the moderator, preacher of the annual sermon on popery, and one chosen to serve as director of the Board of Foreign Missions for a four year term. When the assembly met the following year in Pittsburgh, the Scripture text of McGill’s retiring moderator’s sermon was an exposition of Psalm 87:7, “All my springs are in thee.” In 1857 he was appointed to the committee dealing with the controversial subject of revising the Book of Discipline which included among its members his seminary colleague Charles Hodge, Kentuckian R. J. Breckinridge, South Carolinian J. H. Thornwell, and native Virginian, James Hoge. Professor McGill was also the stated clerk of the Old School General Assembly, 1862-1870. Marshall College, Pennsylvania, honored him with the Doctor of Divinity in 1842, and later he was presented the LL. D by Princeton College. Marshall College was established by the German Reformed Church in Mercersburg in 1836 and named for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. It merged with Franklin College in 1853 to form Franklin and Marshall College.

Part of the reason McGill is not remembered as much as the Alexanders and Hodges, and Samuel Miller and B. B. Warfield is that he was not a voluminous writer. His publications were mostly sermons, articles, and discourses, but he did publish a book of his seminary lectures titled, Church Government, A Treatise Compiled from His Lectures in Theological Seminaries by Alexander T. McGill, Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1888, and another work is the first section of A Short History of American Presbyterianism From Its Foundations to the Reunion of 1869, published 1903, which covers the Presbyterians from their beginnings in the United States to the Revolutionary War.

Barry Waugh

Sources: The header shows an old church in an unknown location and is from Pixabay. The biography has been compiled from nineteenth-century published sources except for David B. Calhoun’s two volume set, Princeton Seminary, Faith and Learning, 1812-1868, 1994, and Princeton Seminary, 1869-1929, The Majestic Testimony, 1996, which was published by Banner of Truth. The portrait of McGill in his younger years is from Centennial Memorial of the Presbytery of Carlisle.

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