Charles Hodge: His Insecurities, His Zeal for the Lost, His Love for His Family

I have really been enjoying learning more about Charles Hodge (1797-1878) these days. I am reading Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton, by W. Andrew Hoffecker. I am about a third of the way through the book and so far I love it. I have learned about his family background, his childhood, his days in college and seminary and the beginnings of his professorship at Princeton. Right now in the book he is on a two year leave from Princeton to further his education in France and Germany. In his first year of teaching he felt insecure about his abilities. He felt like he was barely ahead of his students in his knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. He also felt like he needed to learn French and German so that he could keep up with the theological scholars in France and Germany (who were increasingly liberal) and teach his students how to respond to liberal attacks on the Christian Faith. One of the things I love about reading Christian biographies is seeing a different side of some of the great heroes of the faith with which God has blessed the church. As towering as these figures can be in their accomplishments, we can easily forget that they are still very much like you and me. They are real people with families of their own and they all struggle with insecurities, doubts, depression, sin, persecution, and many other enemies within and without. Being only a third of the way through the book, three things have stood out to me in this regard so far.

1. His Insecurities

As I have already mentioned he had insecurities as a professor, especially when he first began. He once wrote “I look forward to a pretty severe term, I must keep before my students or they will find it [i.e., his inadequacies] out” (p. 74). He also wrote to his brother that he was at “a very serious disadvantage” and “incompetent” in his teaching (p. 75). As students we often have great respect for and stand in awe of our professors. We often complain to them about the work load they give us and say things like, “but you don’t understand what I’m going through.” We also have our own insecurities. But just because they don’t share their struggles with us doesn’t mean they don’t have hardships in their life and insecurities of their own. We must remember that they are real people too and pray for and be patient with them.

In addition to his insecurities about his abilities compared to the students he was teaching, he also struggled to win his mom’s approval. His father died when he was an infant so he was raised only by his mother with the help of the local church. His mother gave him a good Christian upbringing, taking him to church every Sunday and carefully drilling him and his brother in the Westminster Catechism. She also worked hard to make ends meet. Hoffecker lists all the things she did for her boys in this regard, a pretty impressive list. And Hodge summarized his debt to his mother as “beyond all estimate.” But Hodge struggled to earn his mom’s approval. Hoffecker writes, “Hodge rose to the demands of graduate study by adopting a rigorous schedule. Perhaps in response to his mother’s low estimation of his work ethic, Hodge opened a letter of January 11, 1817 with the defensive comment “I am not quite so lazy here as I am when at home.” He mentioned that he had awakened with the prayer bell and been up an hour before beginning his letter at 8 a.m.” (p. 48). Also, when he was thinking about going to Europe to further his studies he wrote to his brother, “I shall as usual have a great deal to say for myself and satisfy Mother if I can’t you” (p. 76).

What I want to point out from this is that we can easily look at our pastors and other mentors in the faith and think that they “have it all together,” and that they don’t struggle like we do. But Hodge himself struggled with acceptance, approval, validation, etc. I recently preached on why justification is a universal desire that we all long for and that our justification before God, our Creator, which is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, is the only justification/approval/acceptance/validation that will ultimately satisfy us and free us from making an idol of the praise of men. I struggle with this, you struggle with this and Hodge struggled with this as well. The doctrine of justification was no doubt a comforting doctrine for him, just as much as it is for you and me.

2. His Zeal for the Lost

A common caricature of Calvinism is that Calvinists don’t care about evangelism. But this is just that, a caricature. It’s true of Hyper-Calvinism, but not genuine Calvinism. The Canons of Dort (1619), which is the historic confessional document of the Reformed churches in response to the Arminian Remonstrants, says this, “Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel” (Canons of Dort, 2.5).

Hodge believed this and demonstrated it in his life. Hoffecker writes, “Following licensing to preach by the presbytery, Hodge sermonized twice each Sunday for thirty weeks from October 24, 1819 until May 20, 1820” (p. 58). In a footnote explaining this point he says, “Hodge preached in the mornings first at the Falls of Schuylkill and later at Cohocksink, a mission station, and at the United States Arsenal at Frankford in the afternoons.” Also, on his voyage to Europe for rigorous theological training and language studies, Hoffecker writes,”On the first Sunday in the voyage, he preached to all English-speaking passengers, though he lamented that the majority did not give “the slightest indication that it was the day of God.” Shades of his earlier missionary work!” (p. 84). Although Hodge was a staunch Calvinist and Old School Presbyterian, he also had a burden for the lost and declared the gospel “promiscuously and without distinction” to all.

3. His Love for His Family

I don’t admire revered pastors, theologians and missionaries of the past who neglected their family in the process. Paul says that one of the qualifications of an elder in Christ’s church is that he must care for his own family first (1 Tim. 3:4-5). Even though Hodge ended up having to go to Europe for two years alone, he and his wife considered all the options and tried to make it so that they could be with him. But in the end he went alone. However, Hodge was a family man and maintained intimate ties with his family through regular correspondence through letters (too bad they didn’t have Skype back then!). Hoffecker writes, “The contents of Charles and Sarah’s correspondence reveal their ardent affection for each other and the preeminent place of family in their lives” (p. 84). His correspondence with his wife through letters substantiate this claim. I quote Hoffecker at length here because this is so good. In his first letter, Hoffecker records for us,

“Hodge commented that no women or children were on board to remind him of his wife: “if you  were with me my heavy heart would be light.” Expressing his affection and piety but forgetting the difference in time zones that would separate them in days ahead, he proposed a means of maintaing connection with each other: “Dearest we can meet at the throne of God–meet me there at 10, at 1 and 9 o’clock if only for a few minutes or only in heart, every day.” A few days later he wrote, “My eye is not always dry when it turns westward. Keep youself occupied and keep your heart my dear Sarah in the work of God and you will be happy. Tho your husband be thousands of miles from you, I hope you remember our appointments.” Hodge’s love for details led him to urge Sarah to be more specific in her letters to him: “I wish my dear that you would be more particular in telling me your feelings, whether you are happy and contended, you may suppose that this is a subject on which I feel deeply anxious and upon which you may not enter too much into detail. . .A record of every work and look and action I could read and read again and again with ceaseless pleasure.

Both Charles and Sarah devoted extended paragraphs to their children. In his first letter, Hodge commented on the value of keepsakes in his possession: “I have a lock of your hair and one of dear Alexander’s but none of sweet Mary. I would be exceedingly gratified to be able to receive one of her little curls.” Sarah habitually commented on details of the children’s lives that would endear them to their father. On October 12 she penned, “AA  is a very good child, as amiable as he can be and today mastered some of the sounds. ‘Don’t you want me to write now, Mother, to dear Father?'” Two weeks later she wrote, “I wish I could share with you the comfort of our sweet dear children that I could waft to you some of the silver sounds that so constantly salute my ears and some of the cherub kisses that so frequently find their way to my lips. AAH [their son] has just sent you a kiss on the spot on which his name is written.” A circle on the page marked the spot where Alexander had kissed the paper. The pages of some letters separated at the seams where they were folded because Hodge opened and closed them so many times after he received them. The affection with which Sarah expressed herself portrayed the children and their home life in his absence led Charles to fulfill his promise to submerge himself in her letters” (pp. 84-85)

Hoffecker goes on to write another touching glimpse into Hodge’s family life:

“Hodge’s intense interest in and attention to his children not only emerged in this early correspondence but resurfaced in later sections of LCH [A.A. Hodge’s biography of his father]. His son describes how his father facilitated contacts with his children on an everyday basis in the construction of the study in his home. One door opened to the outside where seminary students could enter. But another interior door to the rest of the home had no latch but only springs. Thus even the smallest members of the family always had easy access to their father. Children remembered hearing their father sing hymns as he paced in his study and family worship in which everyone gathered about their father” (p. 85).

Like I said, I am loving this biography so far! I can’t wait to read the rest of it and I highly recommend it.


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