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Reformed Literature
A Presbyterian Internet Journal

James Petigru Boyce

A Southern Baptist Statesman

Thomas Nettles

P&R (American Reformed Biographies Series)

I was first aware of the influence of J P Boyce when I read the life of Ernest C. Reisinger (reviewed about two years ago). Reisinger underwrote the Banner of Trust republication of An Abstract of Systematic Theology by Boyce and in that book, its author, Thomas notes that in 1888 Boyce visited London to speak at the ‘Pastors College’ at the invitation of C. H. Spurgeon. Anyone that was admired by Reisinger and a friend of Spurgeon would seem to me worth of being noticed.

This book is part of the excellent American Reformed Biographies series (previous reviews of both Dabney and Van Til in the same series – I didn’t review the less orthodox Nevin) that is being edited by D. Hart and S. Lucas. I understand that a future volume in the same series could be a much needed life of B. B. Warfield.

Boyce was born in 1827 and was brought up in a wealthy Southern family, indeed his father was spoken about as the richest man in Charleston. J Boyce’s daughters would remember his love of beautiful textiles, elegant book bindings, art, music and punctuality and the delight he took in trees, flowers, quaint houses, social grace and impeccable manners. At the same time they were surprised that he made the household purchases of carpets, curtains, table linen, furniture, china and silver with little or no advice from the rest of his family. In 1860, he owned over $120,000 of land and had a personal estate in excess of $330,000.

In 1845, at the age of 18, his father sent Boyce to complete his education at Brown University. At the time the president of this university was Francis Wayland, who had started life as a pastor and had grown up in a household that read and discussed Gill, Fuller, Romaine, Toplady and Newton. During Boyce’s first year at the university, the president invited a former student, Adoniram Judson to speak to the students. The effect of hearing the missionary speak sent a thrill into the young Boyce that would never depart. His classmates at university made the subject of his spiritual welfare and area for their special prayer and that his gifts and wealth might be used in the master’s cause. In Spring 1846, James Boyce professed saving faith and was publicly baptized. Without wanting to hark back to the previous month’s review about Christianity in Education, surely all must look at moments like these at see the need for Christians in Education that have an outgoing concern for those young minds in their care. Equally, who can deny the need for Christian young people to be in classrooms and praying for and hopefully having an effect on their classmates. We might not know the names of the obscure faithful Christians who enjoyed ‘power in prayer’ for the conversion of James P. Boyce, but how many fellow sinners before the Great Day will have cause to rejoice in their faithfulness and open desire for the souls of their classmates.

Boyce went to study theology at Princeton. Archibald Alexander had a love for Virginia and this showed in his treatment of Southern students. Boyce would study under Archibald Alexander when he was seventy-seven years old and he taught him both pastoral and polemic theology. Boyce records his appreciation of both Alexander and his sons. One student who pressed his rhetorical gifts to their limits in describing God’s creation of light evoked the remark from the aged Alexander , ‘You’re a very smart young man, but you can’t beat Moses.’ He would also be taught by Samuel Miller and his favourite professor, Charles Hodge.

Dr. Boyce after several pastorates went on to found the Southern Baptist Seminary and really gave his life to it. Boyce would give substantial and sacrificial donations from his own wealth to maintain the institution that he founded. His abstract of Systematic theology is really the essence of his own Calvinistic Baptist classroom teaching. He viewed the book as a practical textbook in the truth of the Bible that was written for his students and pastors without a seminary training.

One student who had to leave the Southern Baptist Seminary before the end of his course and was able to return after a few years’ absence, said that his anticipation was to attend the Systematic Theology course and to hear Dr. Boyce pray.

When his colleague, and co-founder, Dr John Broadus was ill, Boyce paid the expenses for him to enjoy a holiday. Arriving at the hotel, Broadus was too weak to climb the stairs to his room. J. P. Boyce then lifted his friend in his arms and carried him upstairs. When Broadus later reflected on the incident he said, ‘He seemed strong as a giant and he was as tender as a woman.’

My own interest in Ernie Reisinger (whose life I have so much enjoyed – see that review) was sparked by a DVD copy of a CBS documentary called ‘With God on our side’ given to me by a close friend in the United States. In that documentary one of the commentators remarks that the Southern Baptists are the only mainstream US denomination that became more reformed rather than less reformed in the last fifty years. Clearly, there was something happening in the Southern Baptists that I needed to understand.

After Reisinger’s own conversion, he read Boyce and assisted the Banner of Truth with the reprint. Reisinger then paid to give a gift of the Boyce book to all graduating seminarians in the Southern Baptists. Boyce’s abstract helped in some measure to shape a new ethos amongst the Southern Baptists.

The gift of Boyce’s abstract was Reisinger’s way of saying thank you to the many evangelical Christians amongst the Southern Baptists. Reisinger remarked that ‘Many a life has been changed by one book’ and that Boyce’s theology did not contain ‘new fangled ideas belonging to some carpetbagger who was a stranger to the Southern Baptist Convention but represented the best of our first founding fathers’.

Although the witness of these men lies outside the testimony of the Free Presbyterian Church, it is a delight to read the lives of those who had a real effect on the cause of Christ and who continue to do so. I would recommend this book.