Archibald Alexander and his Thoughts on Religious Experience

Personal introduction

By the grace of God I was brought up in a God fearing family. My father who was a engineer was a lover of the writings of the Dutch practical writers, the Puritans and Scottish theo­logians as Thomas Boston Ralph and Ebener Erskine. Also Luther and Kohlbrugge (the latter is less well known in the English speaking world) were among his favorites. Actually he preferred the English and Scottish Puritans a little bit above the Dutch writers. He found them more urgent and affectionate. When he became in elder in the local independent reformed congregation where we worshipped as a family, just as the other elders he was expected to read a sermon when no minister could officiate. My father read sermons of the noted Boston and the Erskine brothers, but also of John Flavel, Thomas Watson, J.C. Ryle and Robert Murray MacCheyne.

Already when I was in the secondary school, I started to read the books in the library of my farther. A library that was modest compared to the library of full time pastors, but all the books it contained, were valuable. All books were in Dutch (my farther possessed the book of the English writers in Dutch translations), with one exception: The Select Sermons of George Whitefield. It was a published by the Banner of Truth. In those days I did not knew anything about this publishing house. That changed in the summer of 1974. After having finished high school I visited with my younger brother Scotland. We stayed with a Free Presbyterian family in Inverness. During that visit I bought in the local evangelical bookshop my first Banner book, namely The Body of Divinity of Thomas Watson. Looking through its pages in the bookshop I was impressed.

The people in the bookshop told me that the Banner of Truth also published a magazine. So, from the beginning of my study of theology I became a subscriber of the Banner of Truth magazine and many Banner books were ordered during my student days. My mother sometimes was afraid that nearly all money was spent for spiritual food at the expense of natural food.

Coming in contact with Archibald Alexander’s Thoughts on Religious Experience

When I was a pastor in my first congregation, I bought a Banner book during one of the first Leicester conferences I visited, that made on me a lasting impression. It was written by a Princeton theologian of whom I had never heard before. Until then the only Princeton theo­logian I knew was Charles Hodge and also this man I only knew though his Systematic Theo­logy. The book I bought was Thoughts on Religious Experience written by Archibald Alexan­der. By means of the introduction written by W.J. Grier I got some information of this really mar­ve­lous man. I immediately realized that his man was no mean theologian and Christian. Reading the book itself I was completely confirmed in my view.

Thoughts on Religious Experience confirmed me in the view that real Christianity is always experiential Christianity. Alexander reflects here not only Reformed and Puritan theology, but also the great Augustian-Bernardian tradition of the ages of the Early and Medieval Church. Especially with regard to the experience of faith we clearly see the unity of faith during all ages of church history. The Princeton theologians in general and Alexander in particular were catholic in the best sense of the word. Alexander testified that real Christians of all ages, regardless toe what stream of Christianity they belong glorify and enjoy the triune God as the God of complete salvation.

By reading Thoughts on Religious Experience I came to realize even more then until then that what really matters in true Christian experiential religion, is not that you know the time you were called from darkness to light, but that you show daily the evidences of a new life and walk humbly with God trusting on Christ and his righteousness alone. What spiritual value does it have that a person states that he knows the day when he was born again, but does not show the marks of a true Christian in his life? And is it really a spiritual hindrance that you do not know that exact time when in your life the Sun of righteousness rose above the horizon, but can testify and experiences that you walk in the light of this Sun now?!

In the Dutch language there are several works which have as main theme them: the Christian experience, but not of them approaches in acuteness and breadth and depth Thoughts on Religious Experience. Not without reason Alexander was called by dr. Theodore Woolsey ‘the Shakespeare of the Christian heart.’ I find that Alexander in his description of the expe­rien­tial element of the Christian religion surpasses Jonathan Edwards who can be seen as the great theologian not only of revival but also of Christian experience in church history. I name especially Edwards’ work Religious Affections. Alexander himself felt the difference between his approach and that of Jonathan Edwards. He stated that as follows: ‘And if there be a fault in the writings of this great and good man on the subject of experimental religion, it is that they seem to represent renewed persons as at the first occupied with the contemplation of the attributes of God with delight, without ever thinking of a Mediator.’

Who was Archibald Alexander (1772-1851)?

Archibald Alexander was brought in a Presbyterian family in Roxbridge County, not far from the city of Lexington in Virginia. His grandfather, who emigrated from Northern Ireland to America, was converted during the Great Awakening. The preaching of men as George White­field and William Tennent was blessed to his soul. It seems that the religion of his parents lacked the experiential flavor of his grandfather. It is true that they gave their children a strict Presbyterian upbringing. Archibald, who was their third child, knew the Shorter Catechism by heart before he was seven years old. But they never spoke about their own communion with God.

When he was old, Archibald still remembered that his parents spoke critically about a lay preacher, who’s urgent and affectionate sermon about the coming judgment and the need of a living faith had made a deep impression on him as a ten years old boy. Later in his life more than once Alexander pointed to this event to warn parents not to quench the religious impressions and interest of their children by speaking disapprovingly about stirring sermons.

At the age of ten Alexander entered Liberty Hall Academy which was presided over by William Graham Timber Ridge meetinghouse. Graham was a Presbyterian minister and was as Alexander himself has stated strictly Calvinistic in his views. When he was nearly seventeen years old became a tutor in the familie of General John Posey. The general himself was only a nominal Christian, but in his house was a lady, mrs. Tyler, who was a mature Christian.

Mrs. Tyler spoke often with Alexander on religious matters. She was of a Baptist persuasion but feeling the reservation of Alexander with regard to Christian experience she pointed him among others to the writings of the Presbyterian puritan John Flavel in order that he might realize that true Christian experience is not just a shade of one form of Christianity or denomination. It is found always where there is true Christianity.

The services of Alexander as a reader of sermons were quite frequently required, not only to save the eyes of the old mrs. Tyler but on the day of the Lord also for the benefit of the whole family. On one of these evenings he intended to continue his reading of John Flavel’s Method of Grace, but instead of that choose one Flavel’s sermons on Revelation 3:20, which we find in England’s Present Duty and is often better known by the title Christ Knocking at the Door of Sinners’ Hearts.

I now give a quote of Alexander himself: ‘As I proceed to read aloud, the truth took effect on my feelings, and every word I read seemed applicable to my own case. Before I finished the discourse, these emotions became too strong for restraint, and my voice began to falter. I laid down the book, rose hastily, and went out with a full heart, and hastened to my place of retirement. No sooner had I reached the spot than I dropped upon my knees, and attempted to pour out my feelings in prayer; but I had not continued many minutes in this exercise before I was overwhelmed with a flood of joy. It was a transport such as I had never known before, and seldom since. I have no recollection of any distinct views of Christ; but I was filled with a sense of the goodness and mercy of God; and this joy with accompanied with a full assurance that my state was happy, and that if I was then to die, I should go to heaven.’

After a few days however Alexander still felt the inclinations of flesh and sin. His joy disap­peared and Alexander concluded that he had faultily seen this experience as true conversion. But certainly during the time he stayed in the house of general Posey he got biblical views on the subject of justification and regeneration. In the year 1789 Alexander went home with the intention to supply the defects of his intellectual training. In this revivals broke out in the Western parts of Virginia, revivals that were a part of what is called the Second Evangelical Awakening. William Graham wanted to visit the scenes and proposed to take the young Alexander and a certain Samuel Wilson with him.

Hearing and seeing himself deep convictions of sins and sudden conversions Alexander concluded that he himself was still unsaved and that his formers hopes certainly were without foundation. Travelling back home he came a contact with James Mitchell, a Presbyterian minister. In a private conversion Alexander told him that he had not in any degree the convictions of sin which he had in others. Mitchell answered him that no certain degree of conviction of sin is required. Its only purpose is to show us our need of Christ as Savior. From then on Alexander entertained a joyful hope that he could be saved. In this state he arrived home.

The next period he read all the religious narratives he could procure to put himself into the state described in these narratives. But all these efforts failed. He therefore determined to give himself incessantly to prayer until he found mercy. Now I quote Alexander himself again: ‘I prayed, and then read in the Bible, prayed and read, prayed and read, until my strength was exhausted; for I had taken no nourishment that day. But the more I strove the harder my heart became, and the more barren was my mind of every serious or tender feeling. (…) I was about to desist from the endeavor, when the thought occurred to me, that though I was helpless, and my case nearly desperate, yet it would be well to cry to God to help me in this extremity. I knelt upon the ground, and had poured out perhaps a single petition, or rathet broken cry for help, when in a moment, I had such a view of a crucified Saviour, as in without a parallel in my experience. The whole plan of grace appeared as clear as day. I was persuaded that God was willing to accept , just as I was, and convinced that I had never understood before the freeness of salvation, but had always been striving to bring some price in my hand, or had to prepare myself for receiving Christ. Now I discovered that I could receive him in all his offices, at that very moment, whixch I was sure at the time I did.’

In August of the same year 1789 in which all these things happened, Alexander made profession of faith. Being licensed to preach and ordained to the Presbyterian Alexander served as an itinerant preacher several congregations. In 1796 at the age of twenty-four Alexander became president of Hampden-Sidney College while continuing his preaching and pastoral ministry. In1806 he accepted the call unanimous call of the Third Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. The year 1811 was a mayor turning point in the career of Alexander when he was almost unanimously appointed by the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church as the first professor of the newly formed first theology seminary of this church, the seminary that became known as Princeton Theological Seminary.

Until he died in 1851 Alexander held his professorship in Princeton Theological Se­minary. Starting with just three students he taught in total more than 1800 students not only form Presbyterian, but also from Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran and Congregational background. So he exercised a marvelous influence in his generation.

In Thoughts on Re­ligious Expe­rience we find the mater fruit of life long experience of a man who has serverd several congregations, held a professorship in theology and witnessed as a young fellow the Second Evangelical Awakening. The first edition was published in 181. A second and third edition soon followed each with editions. The third edition was published in 1844.

Alexander’s definition of religious experience

Alexander defines true religious experience as the impression of the divine truth revealed in the Holy Scripture on the human mind when they by the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit rightly apprehended. Deviations in the understanding of the truths revealed in Holy Scripture lead to deviations in experience. Hence we find, so Alexander says, that those denominations of Christians which receive the system of evangelical truth only in part have a defective experience.

Knowledge of divine truth is essential to real piety. It is difficult to state according to Alexaner how many deficiencies in doctrinal can exist alongside true piety. Here we have an evidence (only one of them) of the real catholic attitude of Alexander. In him we see the same spirit as in John Duncan, a famous nineteenth-century Scottish theologian: ‘I am first a Christian, next a Catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a Paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian and I cannot reverse this order.’

In this context Alexander stressed the great value of memorizing texts of Holy Scripture and the questions and answers of the Shorter Catechism especially for young children. Biblical know­ledge that we learned to memorize when we were young, can under the blessing of God a great value for us during or whole life. The Lord can use it to bring us back to Himself and to the church, when we broke away from our Christian upbringing.

According to Alexander the reformed understanding of faith and grace was the deepest expression of biblical truth. Experience not formed by and based up biblical truth cannot be seen as Christian experience. Diversity in experience is not only related in the extent in which divine truth is understood and apprehend but also to what Alexander calls the variety of the constitu­tions of human minds. We can also say variety in character.

Not in the last here we see the actuality and relevance of the approach and insights of Alexander. Perhaps even more then in the days of Alexander quite often strong emotionalism whatever is its religious content is seen as a fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit. Our postmodern time stresses the importance of authenticity and emotion at the expense of truth. Alexander rightly remarks that, although knowing that true piety always included emotion, strong emotions use to say more about someone’s character than about the biblical context of his experience.

As a preacher and pastor his aim was to inform the head and move the hart. Sermons must have solid biblical and dogmatic content, but a preacher must not stop here. His aim must be to set the hearts of his hearers on fire to trust in Christ, grow in the knowledge of Christ and be more conformed to Christ. There is a real danger that we are orthodox and reformed in doctrine but are lacking fervent piety and heartfelt knowledge of Christ. On the one side a person doctrinal views may be deficient and yet he may really trusting in Christ and on the other side – and it is important to examine ourselves when we profess the doctrines of grace – it can be that we our orthodoxy is above any suspicion but that we are just content with that without realizing that new birth is necessary.

The reality of the new birth and the need of self-examination

Alexander stresses the all compassing nature of new birth. Convincing us of sin and misery the Holy Spirit makes us able and willing to receive then. Until then we understand biblical truth as a blind man understand colors. But in God’s light we see the light. Is legal conviction of sin prior of our being reborn and united to Christ by a living faith a necessary element in conversion? Alexander acknowledges that quite often convictions of sin precede our new birth, but he says that is very difficult to prove from Scripture, that such a preparatory work is neces­sary as such. I give an important quote: ‘Suppose an individual to be in some certain moment regenerated; such a soul would begin to see with new eyes, and his own sins would be among the things first viewed in a new light. He would be convinced not only of the fact that they were transgressions of the law, but he would also see that they were intrinsically evil, and deserved the punishment to which they exposed him. It is only such a conviction as this that really prepares a soul to accept of Christ in all his offices ­- not only as a Saviour from wrath, but from sin. And it can scarcely be believed that that clear view of the justice of God in their condemnation which most persons sensibly experience is the fruit of a mere legal conviction on an unregenerate heart.’

It became more and more Alexander’s sure conviction that most believers cannot point to the exact moment that they were born again. The first clear and lively exercise of faith and repentance must not be seen as the date of the origin of spiritual life. Quite often it existed in a feeble state and put forth obscure acts long before. When Alexander himself was an old man he dated the beginning of his spiritual warfare earlier than he did as young believer expression as his opinion that his regeneration took place when he stayed with general Posey. Far more important than that we can determine the time our new birth is that we show daily its infallible marks or fruits, namely a heartfelt sorrow of sin and joy in God through Jesus Christ.

Here we see the importance of self-examination. In distinguishing between true and counterfeit religious experience we must realize that God is the final Judge. In his Thoughts on Religious Experience shows a biblical balance between the emphasize to point to God’s promises which are yes and amen in Jesus Christ, as the complete ground of salvation and the need of self examination whether we have a real faith wrought a by the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Both emphases are necessary in preaching.

Final word

Much more good be said about the importance of Thoughts on Religious Experience. When I may give you a final advice: When you do not have the book, buy it and read it not once but more to discover its lasting value.

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