Theologian, college president. Thornwell was born on December 9, 1812, in Marlboro District, the son of James Thornwell, a plantation overseer, and Martha Terrell. When his father died in 1820, the family was left in distress, but two neighbors assumed financial responsibility for his education. After studying at Cheraw Academy, in 1830 he entered the junior class of South Carolina College, where he was influenced by the philosophical school of Scottish commonsense realism. After graduating at the top of his class in 1831, Thornwell taught school and immersed himself in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which he found congenial to his logical mind. He wrote in his journal, “My understanding assents [to the doctrines of Christianity], but my feelings are dead. My religion seems to be all in the head. Would to God it were otherwise.” A conversion experience finally stirred his feelings, and he determined to become a minister.
In 1834 Thornwell enrolled in Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, but New England weather, manners, and theology did not appeal to him. He tried Harvard Divinity School but found Boston Unitarians even less to his liking, and he was soon back in South Carolina. Ordained in 1835, he became pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Lancaster. On December 3, 1835, he married Nancy Witherspoon, whose father had served as lieutenant governor of the state. The marriage produced nine children.
Thornwell was elected professor of belle lettres and logic at the South Carolina College in 1837. He acquired a reputation as a brilliant young professor, and his fame soon spread. He served briefly as pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Columbia but returned to the college as professor of sacred literature and evidences of Christianity. He accepted a call to a Presbyterian church in Charleston in 1851 but was called the next year to the college, this time as president. In 1855 he became professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, a position he held until his death.
A popular professor, Thornwell could control the often-rowdy students at the college as no one else of his generation could. He was also an influential advocate for a public school system in the state. Thornwell was at the center of a circle of Presbyterian intellectuals in Columbia that included Benjamin Morgan Palmer, George Howe, Joseph LeConte, and Louisa Cheves McCord. He advocated a middle way between extremes in matters social, political, and theological. In a sermon opening a church for blacks in Charleston, he championed what he called “regulated liberty” for slaves.
Thornwell was a Unionist until 1860, but when secession came, he became an ardent supporter of the southern cause. His theological and political thought provided a powerful ideological prop for the Confederacy. In 1861 he wrote a theological justification for slavery unsurpassed in its startling brilliance. He believed that industrial capitalism was moving toward social anarchy. He died on August 1, 1862, in Charlotte, North Carolina, of tuberculosis and was buried in Columbia’s Elmwood Cemetery. His understanding of the church’s relationship to social issues dominated Presbyterian thought in the South until the 1930s.
Clarke, Erskine. Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690–1990. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
Farmer, James O. The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1986.
Palmer, Benjamin Morgan. The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell. Richmond, Va.: Whittet & Shepperson, 1875.