Review of David B. Calhoon, “Our Southern Zion: Old Columbia Seminary”

Reviewed by Robert Beede, D.Min.

Author: Dr. David Calhoun, Emeritus Professor of Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary (Banner of Truth Trust, 2012), hardcover, 380 pages.

I smiled as I held Dr. Calhoun’s newest book in my hands.  I was excited to read it as I had enjoyed and was so blessed by his two volume set, Princeton Seminary (Banner of Truth Trust, 1996).  I was not disappointed.  Dr. Calhoun has written another home run with his newest tome.  Our Southern Zion highlights the heritage and legacy left by Columbia Seminary during its tenure in South Carolina. But the book does much more than this.

It documents the impact Southern Presbyterianism had on the conversion of slaves to Christianity.  It discusses in detail political and religious issues during the 1800s such as evolution and higher critical thinking, which are still impacting the church today.  The book also highlights how the Presbyterian Church impacted the War Between the States and how that war divided the Presbyterian Church into two separate bodies for many years.

Yet this book is not some dry, dusty cataloguing of facts.  Dr. Calhoun spends much time talking about the lives of many of the professors and the impact they had on their students, upon the culture of South Carolina, and ultimately around the world through foreign missions.

Our Southern Zion is of great value for reading as a devotional.  Take, for example, the life of Dr. James Henley Thornwell, then president of South Carolina College.  Dr. Calhoun tells how this man of God grieved over his mother’s death, which was shortly followed by the death of his nine year old son.  Dr. Calhoun tenderly tells how Dr. Thornwell dealt with his son’s death: “I believe the covenant which God has made with His people, and is sealed to their faith in the baptism of their offspring, to be a real and precious thing… (I have) laid hold upon this covenant and pleaded its promises (that) ‘I will be a God to thee, and to thy seed’” (p. 105).

If that hardship was not enough, a few short years later Dr. Thornwell’s oldest daughter became ill and died on the eve of her wedding.  She was buried in her wedding dress.   On her tombstone Dr. Thornwell had inscribed, “Prepared as a Bride Adorned for her Husband” (p. 107).  For any Christian who has lost a child, these words can provide encouragement and guidance when the way seems dark and lonely.

Dr. Calhoun briefly documents the “slow but steady decline” in historic Reformed orthodoxy at Princeton Seminary during the late 1920s and of Columbia Theological Seminary, which “saw in time the departure from the theological convictions of its founders” (p. 365).  This is a good warning for us to guard our faith.

In this book we are left with much encouragement and direction for ministers.  Dr. Calhoun gives the account of Dr. William Plumer, professor of theology.  His long white beard reached down to his waist.  At graduation he gave each graduate a small Bible, saying, “By this Book you shall live, by this Book you shall preach, and by this Book you shall be judged at the last day” (p. 207).  These are good words for pastors to remember.

Dr. Calhoun’s book traces the hand of God on his people in the past.  It is very profitable for use as a personal devotional as it gives great insight into giants of the Christian faith, their successes and their trials, and how now they beckon us to run the race that is set before us.

He concludes by encouraging us to stand firm for “the Bible as God’s inspired Word, for the Calvinism of the Westminster Confession of Faith as a true theological expression of the Bible’s teaching, for a true Presbyterian church, and for the spread of the gospel throughout the Southern United States and the whole world” (p. 367).  It couldn’t have been said better.