Thornwell College was built in 1913 as a residence hall to accommodate the college’s increased enrollment, numbered at 500 students. It was the first residence hall the college had built since 1868. New wings were added to the building in 1937 as part of a New Deal building program. The building was named after college president and theologian James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862). It was common practice to name campus buildings after university presidents, and Thornwell did not have a direct connection to the purpose of this building. The building currently houses administrative offices.1
Thornwell’s ties to South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina:
- Graduate, class of 1831
- Professor, 1837-1839, 1841-1850
- President, 1851-1855
- Board of Trustee member, 1855-1862
- Was a leading proslavery theologian, known throughout the state and the country
- Authored proslavery sermons such as “The Rights and the Duties of Masters” (1850) “Relation of the Church to Slavery” (1851), and “The State of the Country” (1861) that were widely disseminated and often published
- Enslaved at least seven people
- Supported secession and the Confederacy
- Delivered the “Inaugural Address at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America” (1861)
James Henley Thornwell was born in Marlboro District (north of Society Hill), South Carolina, on December 9, 1812, to James Thornwell, a plantation overseer, and Martha Terrell. His education was funded by two neighbor patrons when his father died in 1820. Thornwell attended Cheraw Academy, then South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) in 1830-1. As a scholar of the school of Scottish commonsense realism and the Westminster Confession of Faith, he decided to become a minister. In 1834, Thornwell enrolled in the Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, but found New England and later Harvard’s Divinity School disagreeable socially and theologically. He returned to South Carolina and became ordained in 1835 as the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Lancaster. He left after two years to spend much of his life in Columbia, South Carolina. Thornwell’s time in Columbia placed him at the center of Presbyterian intellectuals like Columbia Seminary colleagues Benjamin Morgan Palmer and George Howe, physician and college professor Joseph LeConte, and political essayist Louisa Cheves McCord.
On December 3, 1835, he married Nancy Witherspoon, and they had nine children, seven of whom lived to adulthood: Nancy Thornwell, Jennie Thornwell Anderson, Pattie Thornwell Hague, Gillespie Robbins Thornwell, James Henley Thornwell Jr., Jackson Witherspoon Thornwell, and Charles A Thornwell. Nancy’s father was formerly a lieutenant governor of South Carolina.2
In 1837, Thornwell became a professor of logic at South Carolina College. In 1838, he added metaphysics to his teaching repertoire. After serving briefly as pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Columbia in 1840, he later returned to the faculty, teaching sacred literature and evidences of Christianity. He also founded the Southern Presbyterian Review in 1847. Thornwell served as pastor of a Presbyterian church in Charleston for one year in 1851 before he returned to Columbia as president of South Carolina College from 1851 to 1855. He served on the Board of Trustees from 1855 until his death in 1862.
Thornwell was a popular professor and then president at the college and was an advocate for public school education throughout the state. He believed that the state, rather than the church, should assume responsibility for educating its citizens. Public opinion would prevent state-administered schools from instilling anti-Christian principles in their students.3 Thornwell also introduced written examinations to replace the college’s oral exams and increased the entrance requirements to the school to the highest they had been since its opening.4 As a theologian, he was responsible for persuading the majority of Presbyterian ministers nationwide to deem Roman Catholic baptism invalid and requiring a Protestant baptism for Catholic converts.5
In 1855, Thornwell became professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian seminary housed in a former private residence designed by architect Robert Mills. Part of the school’s endowment came from the sale of enslaved African Americans. The Theological Seminary perceived itself as prompting a “middle way” in its divergence from radical proslavery thought, but others found this approach hypocritical and no less evil than those who denied the humanity of African Americans.6 Historian Hilary Green argues that tuition dollars at Columbia Seminary “came from the profits of elite families’ use of enslaved labor…enslaved labor guaranteed the enrollment of the targeted student body, institutional prestige, and Thornwell’s employment at Columbia Seminary.” This argument can also be applied to South Carolina College’s student body.7
Thornwell died of tuberculosis on August 1, 1862 at the age of 49. He is buried in
Columbia, South Carolina, at the Elmwood Cemetery.
Thornwell on Slavery and Secession
Though he did not own a plantation, Thornwell owned seven slaves in 1860.8 Though Thornwell refused to accept the “radical” proslavery position that people of African descent were subhuman, he was extremely influential in arguing that slavery was morally right and justified by the tenets of Christianity, and increasingly spoke publicly on these views from the late 1840s onward. Thornwell was a rigid literalist when it came to Scripture, thus because “The master is nowhere rebuked as a monster of cruelty and tyranny” in the Bible, and “the slave is nowhere exhibited as the object of peculiar compassion and sympathy,” it was beyond the reach of the Church to end the institution.9 Thornwell allowed that while slavery was “a part of the curse which sin has introduced into the world,” he viewed it alongside poverty and war as earthly sins that would only vanish with the Biblical end of days. “Gospel,” he wrote, “does not propose to make our present state a perfect one — to make our earth a heaven.”10
To Thornwell, Christians were not called to upend larger structures and systems, but rather urge individual slaveholders to treat enslaved people humanely and spread Christianity to them. The Church was not “a moral institute of universal good” and did not have a divine commission to “construct society afresh” or “rearrange the distribution of its classes.” Rather, the Church must “put her hand upon her lips” on issues like slavery, which lacked explicit Scriptural condemnation. All Southern Christian individuals could do was devote themselves “toward making the institution as faithful to the Christian model as human frailty would permit.” The Church only needed to minister to the slave, not change their legal status — that was the role of the State.11
Thornwell claimed that the Scripture only discussed slavery in “cool, dispassioned, didactic” language and likened it to hierarchical relations such as wives to husbands, children to parents, servants to magistrates. While he believed that slaves had human rights, they did not have the rights of a citizen as these rights are not “essential” to humanity, or else women and children would also have these rights.12
Thornwell was against “radical” abolitionists and equated the industrializing North with atheism. At the General Assembly in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1845, Thornwell boasted to his wife that he defeated antislavery efforts in a city that was “the stronghold of abolition.” He told Nancy that he was responsible for “having drawn up a paper” to advise the committee making the decision on antislavery views, and if they took his advice “abolitionism will be killed in the Presbyterian Church, at least for the present.”13 When the Synod of South Carolina had its statewide meeting in 1851, all pastors and elders in attendance adopted Thornwell’s thoughts on the church and slavery without protest. Thornwell feared that industrial capitalism, more widely embraced in the north but spreading quickly, was moving toward social anarchy. “The progress of humanity” was at stake, he claimed, with abolitionists and Republicans on the side of atheism and socialism in opposition to “friends of order and regulated freedom” and Christianity.14
Current Columbia Theological Seminary faculty member William Yoo notes that Thornwell’s thoughts on slavery in 1850 and 1851 leave out critical components of the practice:
What is glaringly missing in Thornwell’s preaching and writing on slavery is any mention of the widespread physical abuse and sexual violence that enslaved persons experienced. There is no attempt to address abolitionist criticisms of southern slavery as unjust and anti-Christian because of the absence of laws protecting the marriages and families of enslaved persons from separation when slaveholders decided to sell them and the prevalence of white slaveholders raping enslaved African American women. One would think even a moderate approach to reforming the practice of slavery, despite the faulty premise, would seek to protect families from separation and women from sexual violence. Yet, Thornwell’s sermon from 1850 and report from 1851 focus exclusively on the duties of slaveholders to provide enslaved persons with regular access to Christian education and worship. The documents reveal a man invested far more in defending slavery than reforming it. In the former, 3 of 51 pages are devoted to ensuring enslaved persons have access to Christian education and worship. In the latter, 1 of 17 pages are devoted to such.15
Though a Unionist throughout the antebellum period, Thornwell was an ardent supporter of the Confederacy after secession was achieved. In summer 1860, he privately wrote to a colleague that the “gradual emancipation” of enslaved people was the “measure that would give peace to the country.”16 A mere six months later, however, in the midst of secessionist fervor in his home state, Thornwell now predicted that “The triumph of the principles which Mr. Lincoln is pledged to carry out, is the death-knell of slavery.” In 1861 Thornwell published a theological justification for slavery, which was widely cited in support of the Confederacy and slave society. He argued that Lincoln’s election would force the South to consent to a government “fundamentally different upon the question of slavery, from that which our fathers established…secession becomes not only a right, but a bounden duty.”17 1861 the “Old School” Presbyterian Church split along sectional lines, creating the Presbyterian Church of the Confederacy.18 Thornwell preached the first sermon and wrote the first address.
1 Faithful Index: The University of South Carolina Campus, a Guide to Buildings and People (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 34.
3 Dennis W. Jowers “Thornwell, James,” Association of Religion Data Archives accessed 29 Nov 2020.
4 Faithful Index: The University of South Carolina Campus, a Guide to Buildings and People (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 35.
5 Jowers, “Thornwell, James”
6 William Yoo, “‘What, then, is the Church?’: The Perpetuation of Racial Injustices and the Failure of Repair at Columbia Seminary in the Antebellum United States,” Columbia Theological Seminary @ This Point-Theological Investigations in Church and Culture 14.1 (Spring 2020).
7 Hilary N. Green, “‘What, then is the Church?’: A Path Forward for Columbia Seminary and Its Slave Past,” Columbia Theological Seminary @ This Point-Theological Investigations in Church and Culture 14.1 (Spring 2020).
8 Eighth Census of the United States, Slave Schedules, South Carolina, Richland County, City of Columbia, p. 108.
9 James Henley Thornwell, “Relation of the Church to Slavery,” in The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, Vol. IV, edited by John B. Adger and John L. Girardeau (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1873) 385
10 Thornwell, The Rights and the Duties of Masters: A Sermon Preached at the Dedication of a Church, Erected in Charleston, S.C., for the Benefit and Instruction of the Colored Population (Charleston: Walker & James, 1850),
11 Thornwell, The Rights and the Duties of Masters, 30-32; Thornwell, “Relation of the Church to Slavery,”382-384.
12 Thornwell, The Rights and the Duties of Masters, 30-32.
13 James Henley Thornwell to Nancy Thornwell, 19 May 1845 in Benjamin Morgan Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell (Richmond: Whitter & Shepperson, 1875), 286
14 Thornwell, The Rights and the Duties of Masters
15 Yoo, “‘What, then, is the Church?’: The Perpetuation of Racial Injustices and the Failure of Repair at Columbia Seminary in the Antebellum United States”
16 Yoo, “What, then, is a seminary?: Examining the History and Legacy of Columbia Seminary with Hilary N. Green, Mitzi J. Smith, and John White” Columbia Theological Seminary @ This Point-Theological Investigations in Church and Culture 14.1 (Spring 2020).
17 Thornwell, The State of the Country: an Article Republished from the Southern Presbyterian Review (Columbia: Southern Guardian, Steam Power Press, 1861).
18 The 1837 split reflects the division between the New School and Old School Presbyterianism, and the Old School then split upon sectional lines at the start of the Civil War. James Moorhead, “Presbyterians and Slavery,” Princeton & Slavery accessed 29 Nov. 2020.