J.A. Alexander 1809-1860

Article by   July 2014
Joseph Addison was born the third son of the minister of the Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Archibald Alexander, D.D., on April 24, 1809. His mother, Janetta Waddel Alexander, was the daughter of James Waddel who served as a minister in Virginia and was sometimes called "the blind preacher of Virginia." Archibald Alexander continued his pastoral service in Philadelphia until he was called by the denomination to open the doors of the Presbyterian Seminary at Princeton in 1812. At the time of Archibald Alexander's death in 1851 his seven surviving children included one daughter, Janetta (named for her mother), James Waddel, Archibald, Samuel Davies, Henry Martyn, William Cowper, and Joseph Addison. Three of the sons were ministers, two were lawyers, and one was a physician.

According to contemporary accounts, "Addison," as he was known, was a natural born student with a particular genius for languages. By the age of ten he had learned the fundamentals of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He entered Princeton College with the junior class at the age of fifteen and graduated in 1826 with the highest honors of his class of twenty-nine men. His fellow students commented that his intellect and speaking ability surpassed that of some of the college faculty. He was elected a tutor at Princeton College, but instead, at the age of nineteen, he became the teacher of Latin, Modern and Ancient History, Ancient Geography and Composition in the Edgehill School. The school had been opened by Robert Bridges Patton in November 1829 as a high school in Princeton. Patton had recently resigned from the College of New Jersey after four years as its professor of languages. It would have been an obvious choice for Patton to select the young man to join his faculty who must have been his star student.

Addison studied theology on his own and his curriculum was guided by his father and others at the seminary, including Charles Hodge. He began his teaching as Adjunct Professor of Ancient Languages and Literature at Princeton College, 1830-1833, during which time he was licensed and then ordained by New Brunswick Presbytery. He went to Europe in 1833 where he visited the Universities of Halle and Berlin. At Halle, via his letter of introduction from Charles Hodge, he was able to meet Friedrich A. Tholluck. He heard lectures by Tholluck during his short time in Halle, and then moved on to Berlin where he met E. W. Hengstenberg and enjoyed his teaching as well. When he returned to Princeton, he began his work in the seminary as Instructor of Oriental and Biblical Literature, which was followed by a promotion to Associate Professor of Oriental and Biblical Literature, 1835-1840, and then he achieved the final step as the Professor of the subject. He was transferred to the Chair of Biblical and Ecclesiastical History in 1851, and then to the department of Hellenistic and New Testament Literature in 1859.

One of his students, T. V. Moore, who has been described by H. C. Alexander as Addison's "pupil and friend," has commented on his mentor's character and traits. Moore observed that when he entered the seminary in 1839 he first saw the four faculty members seated in a row in the oratory--Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller, Charles Hodge, and J. A. Alexander. He noticed, as others also have commented, that the head and face of Professor Addison Alexander was "very much like Napoleon's."

As is sometimes the case with genius like that of J. A. Alexander, his people and interpersonal skills were not the best. Moore went on to describe his friend as a "recluse in his habits and reserved in his manners" and mentioned that the students regarded him as a "prodigy of learning" who was susceptible to a pointed sarcasm that the students hoped would not pierce them to the oratory wall in shame for their lack of study. T. V. Moore's own friendship with Addison began in his Hebrew language classes, but he added, "I never could wholly divest myself of a certain fear in my association with him, but I found him much more accessible and kind than I expected."

Professor Alexander expected his students to perform their recitations accurately and with a certain degree of penetration to the depth of the subject. He could become incensed and impatient at students showing laziness, but he showed forbearance with those students whose capabilities were limited but worked hard and did their best. Simply put, Dr. J. A. Alexander expected his students to work up to their capabilities and not let any propensity for indolence to achieve its end.

Two particularly memorable examples of Dr. Alexander's propensity for sarcasm were related by Moore. The students were studying Genesis and their presentations had been, as Moore put it, "lame." Dr. Alexander abruptly brought the session to a close and said that the lesson for the next day would be adapted to the limited perspicacity of the class in that, instead of the usual twelve to twenty verses, only one would be required. In another discourse given by a student on the book of Genesis, which Moore described as "very pretentious," when it came time for Professor Alexander to make his remarks he said that the discourse "consisted of two parts; that which everybody knew, and that which nobody knew; and that he did not think that under either head the student had added to the stock of their knowledge." Moore commented that sometimes Addison used his satire severely, "though I do not think unjustly." There may be some teachers and professors reading this biography that could sympathize with Dr. Alexander's frustration released in sarcasm.

The closeness of the friendship between Addison Alexander and T. V. Moore is seen in his account of visits made by Alexander to Richmond where he lodged with Moore. Addison conducted himself in the manse of the First Presbyterian Church of Richmond "very much as he would have done in his own" home. Moore had a bit reluctantly invited his former professor to visit because he knew that Addison generally avoided staying with private families. However, Moore was relieved when his august visitor became as one of the family and his finest and most congenial guest. Moore commented that one regret he had was not trying to draw out more personal information from his mentor because he generally would not speak of himself. Rev. Moore commented further.
Were I to designate his character as a guest in a single phrase, it would be that he was as simple, natural, and gentle as an unspoiled, unaffected child. He would amuse himself with the children by pronouncing Arabic and Chinese words, and getting them to repeat them after him; would invent plays for them, and tell them stories. He once taught them an alphabet of characters to be used for secret correspondence, very simple and easily learned by a child... (Carrington, 2:756).
On one occasion, one of the Moore children was sick and in bed recovering from a common malady. At one point, the Moore's realized they had not seen Dr. Alexander recently. They searched the house and found him amusing the sick child with stories. It may have been that Addison's own lack of wife and family was blessed and filled by his relationship with T. V. Moore's family.

As Nevin's Presbyterian Encyclopedia expresses it, "Dr. Alexander's gigantic mind was in full vigor until the day before his death." His usual practice at the beginning of each day at the time of his death was reading Walton's Polyglot because he read the Scriptures in six different languages as part of his daily devotions. He had noted in the margin the day before his death the passages he had read that day. He suffered a hemorrhage later that day and died in his study the following day, January 28, 1860, at the age of only 50 years.

The New York Times, two days later, commented in an obituary for Dr. Alexander that as a scholar he "had no superior" in America and he spoke almost "all the modern languages of Europe." He was described as "retired in his habits" and not a socializer in "general society."  When he preached he did so from written notes and was "seldom known to take his eyes from the paper, though he kept up the interest of his auditors." The Times ended its memorial observing that his "loss as an instructor will be keenly felt by the seminary." Dr. Joseph Addison Alexander's funeral took place in Princeton at 2:00 in the afternoon of Tuesday, January 31, 1860. He was buried in the Princeton Cemetery next to his brother James Waddel Alexander who had died six months earlier on July 31 at the age of 54 years.

J. A. Alexander, as with other members of the Princeton Seminary faculty, was a prolific writer.  In the seminary journals alone he published over seventy articles and reviews. His books include, The Earlier Prophecies of Isaiah, 1846, and The Later Prophecies of Isaiah, 1847; The Psalms: Translated and Explained, 1850, in three volumes in which he acknowledges a great debt to and use of E. W. Hengstenberg's work; The Acts of the Apostles Explained, in two volumes, 1857; The Gospel According to Mark, 1858; Notes on New Testament Literature and Ecclesiastical History, 1860; Sermons, in two volumes were also published in 1860; and finally, The Gospel According to Matthew, which the preface describes as the "last work on which the pen of Dr. Alexander was engaged" was published in 1860.

He earned the A. M. from Princeton College in 1829 and was given the Doctor of Divinity first by Rutgers and then later by Franklin and Marshall College in 1845. It is believed that during Addison's life he had acquired proficiency in over thirty languages.

Dr. Barry Waugh is an independent scholar and church historian.
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The main source for this biography is Henry Carrington Alexander's two volume work about his uncle titled, The Life of Joseph Addison Alexander, New York, 1870; the information on the Edghill School was found in vol. 1, 212; note that the page numbers are sequential from vol. 1 to vol. 2; the T. V. Moore items are found in 1:478-79 and 2:753-56. David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary: Faith and Learning, 1812-1869, Banner of Truth, 1994, which is volume one of his two volumes set includes a biography on pages 198-202. The Life of Archibald Alexander, D.D., LL.D., by his son, James W. Alexander, 1856, was also consulted.

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