“True religion is not a form but a living principal within, not a name but an active energetic influence which governs the whole man and directs his views and exertions to the noblest object. Therefore, become real Christians; make religion a personal concern; attend to it without delay.” —Archibald Alexander, in a special service on Dec. 28, 1811, following the burning of the theater in Richmond
Archibald Alexander was born near Lexington, Virginia, in 1772, the son of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. As a young boy, he was greatly influenced by Christian revival movements, which led him to seek a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. Following a “profound experience of spiritual change,” he decided to become a pastor. He was licensed to preach in 1791 and ordained by the Presbytery of Hanover in 1794, following which he worked for several years as a rural pastor and itinerant missionary on the Virginia and Ohio frontiers. Alexander was called to be the president of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia in 1796. Yet he soon began to question whether this was his true vocation, and he later resigned and traveled to New England, where he met his wife, Janetta Waddel. There he accepted a call as pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, one of the city’s largest congregations at the time. He was the second youngest person to be elected as Moderator of the PCUSA General Assembly in 1807.
In 1812, the General Assembly and the Presbytery of Philadelphia called for the establishment of a theological seminary, and Alexander was unanimously chosen as the first professor. He began with a class of fewer than a dozen students, whose studies included Hebrew, Old Testament, Bible history and geography, Greek, and English Bible. Classes were held in Alexander’s home, which can still be seen today on Mercer Street. The next year, more students enrolled, and Alexander was joined by the Seminary’s second professor, Samuel Miller. Alexander, who firmly believed in the importance of an educated ministry, taught at Princeton Seminary for nearly forty years. Alexander’s students were not only influenced by his teaching in the classroom, but also by the faithful way in which he lived his life. He had a deep heart for people, which has led some historians to describe him as a “theologian of the heart.” Former Seminary President John Mackay wrote, “In the great Pauline tradition, Archibald Alexander had a shepherd’s heart. He loved people and was the friend and counselor of all who needed help.” The Seminary’s first building, Alexander Hall, completed in 1817 to house a dormitory, library, refectory, lecture hall, and chapel, was named in honor of Alexander.