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A Short Biography of B. B. Warfield (1851-1921)

Warfield%20--%20youth.gif“One Productive Life” – A Short Biography of  B. B. Warfield

Abridged from my Ph.D. dissertation, "The Lion of Princeton"

Princeton College alumni who remembered Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield's student days at Princeton recall that on November 6, 1870, the young Warfield and a certain James Steen, "distinguished themselves by indulging in a little Sunday fight in front of the chapel after Dr. McCosh's afternoon lecture."  Warfield, it seems, "in lieu of taking notes" during Dr. McCosh's lecture, took great delight in sketching an "exceedingly uncomplimentary picture of Steen," which was subsequently circulated among the students (Hugh Thomson Kerr, "Warfield:  The Person Behind the Theology,"  1995, 21).  The resulting fist-fight between the two young men ultimately didn't amount to much, though years later many still remembered Warfield's nickname earned that Sunday—"the pugilist" (21-22.).

It may be instructive to note that B. B. Warfield's earliest days at Princeton, as well as his last, are characterized by a passionate defense of his personal honor.  Princeton Seminary colleague, Oswald T. Allis, tells the story about Dr. Warfield's encounter with Mrs. Stevenson, the wife of the Seminary President, shortly before Warfield's death and during the height of the controversy at Princeton over an "inclusive" Presbyterian church.  When Mrs. Stevenson and Dr. Warfield passed each other on the walk outside the Seminary, some pleasantries were exchanged, and then Mrs. Stevenson reportedly said to the good doctor, "Oh, Dr. Warfield, I am praying that everything will go harmoniously at the [General] Assembly!"  To which Warfield responded, "Why, Mrs. Stevenson, I am praying that there may be a fight" (O. T. Allis, "Personal Impressions of Dr Warfield," in The Banner of Truth 89, Fall 1971, 10-14).  As Hugh Kerr, formerly Warfield Professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary reflects, "from the very beginning to end, Warfield was a fighter" (Kerr, "Warfield:  The Person Behind the Theology," 22).

B. B. Warfield was not only a fighter, he was also a theological giant, exerting significant influence upon American Presbyterianism for nearly forty-years.  John DeWitt, professor of Church History at Princeton during the Warfield years, told Warfield biographer Samuel Craig, that “he had known intimately the three great Reformed theologians of America of the preceding generation—Charles Hodge, W. G. T. Shedd and Henry B. Smith—and that he was not only certain that Warfield knew a great deal more than any one of them but that he was disposed to think that he knew more than all three of them put together” (Samuel G. Craig, "Benjamin B. Warfield," in B. B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies, P & R,1986, xvii). This was quite an accolade from one (DeWitt) who was himself a man of great scholarship.  Unlike many of today's "specialists," B. B. Warfield was fully qualified to teach any of the major seminary subjects—New Testament, Church History, Systematic or Biblical Theology, and Apologetics (xix.).

Click here: Riddleblog - A Very Productive Life

Reader Comments (8)

The picture that you use of a young B.B. Warfield, looks a little bit like a young Dr. Michael Horton!
July 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLloyd
I once heard R C Sproul tell a story in an RTS Chapel service. RC told of how he needed to know what Augustine had stated on a certain topic. This was about 17 years ago long before a Google Search had arrived.

RC told us he thought he'd go to Dr Roger Nicole a brilliant Reformed Baptist theologian also teaching on our faculty at RTS.

When asked what Augustine had written on a topic, RC conveyed that Nicole told RC to go to a certain wing of the RTS library, go to a certain row, an exact shelf, the color of the book, the title of the book, and yes, even the pages!

The place broke up laughing; RC assured us he was not exaggerating. RC told us he thought Nicole's knowledge was amazing!

thought you might enjoy the story...
July 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterIvan
"Oh, Dr. Warfield, I am praying that everything will go harmoniously at the [General] Assembly!" To which Warfield responded, "Why, Mrs. Stevenson, I am praying that there may be a fight"

There are some guys that always seem to be looking for a fight; or an opportunity to show someone how they are more "Reformed". Those guys are a danger to Presbytery, the local church.

On the other hand, there are guys who always want things to go harmoniously, peaceably. The latter are just as dangerous, sickening, bowing at the feet of their hearers, succumbing to the temptation to cower in fear of offending those who pay their salary. Indeed, they will have many who proclaim their praises, but how can they look themselves in the mirror knowing their are gutless to stand for Jesus, and in bondage to other sinners, from whom Christ has set them free.

May we see this example of Warfield fighting the issue of "an inclusive church" to remind us the preaching ministry is not about being liked by fellow sinners, it is about worshiping a Holy God, a gracious Savior.

May God give us wisdom to know when to go out of our way to make peace in HIS church, and when to make the necessary effort to fight for the glory of Christ in HIS church.

Great story, Thanks Kim!
July 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterIvan
1 Tim 3:3 a bishop must be ---no striker (pugilist)--- not a brawler ---

Warfield comes across as a contentious man, no? If I am not understanding your article please forgive me.

Your website is wonderful. The amillenial position answers all the doubts and questions I had. Thank you!!!

July 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn Aleven

Contentious, no . . . Determined to fight for the truth, yes . . .

July 11, 2008 | Registered CommenterKim Riddlebarger
Hello Carolyn,
Ecclesiastes 3 says there is
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace".

Looking at the history of American Presbyterianism, I'd say Warfield was right, but many more piously rationalized their cowardice to stand for Jesus and truth, with being nice and harmonious.

Blessings to you, Carolyn
July 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterIvan
The quote below, from Francis Landey Patton's Memorial Address for Warfield, gives some good insight [see the full document at]

"No man of my acquaintance ever held his own opinion with more tenacity than he of whom I am speaking. No man sought counsel less in forming that opinion. There was an aloofness and a detachment about him that might easily have been mistaken for a haughty disregard of what other people think. He was habitually objective in his thinking and neither made revelations of his own subjectivities nor cared much apparently for the subjectivities of other people. Few and short were his words of praise for other men, and he was silent regarding himself."
July 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterWayne Sparkman
it's good to see this information in your post, i was looking the same but there was not any proper resource, thanx now i have the link which i was looking for my research.
April 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDissertation

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