The Southern Presbyterian Review
Digitization Project: Author Biography
Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield
(5 November 1851 - 16 February 1921)
by Barry Waugh, Ph.D.
©PCA Historical Center, 12330 Conway Road, St. Louis, MO, 2003. All Rights Reserved.
Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was born to William and Mary Cabell Breckinridge Warfield in the rolling bluegrass country of Lexington, Kentucky, on November 5, 1851.  His father bred cattle and horses and was a descendant of Richard Warfield, who lived and prospered in Maryland in the seventeenth century.  William also served as a Union officer during the Civil War.  Benjamin enjoyed both the finances and heritage of the Breckinridges of Kentucky, along with the prosperity and ancestry of the Warfields.  His mother’s father was the minister Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, who was a leader of the Old School Presbyterians, an author, a prominent Kentucky educational administrator, a periodical editor, and a politician.  The Warfields financial prosperity enabled them to have Benjamin educated through private tutoring provided by Lewis G. Barbour, who became a professor of mathematics at Central University, and James K. Patterson, who became president of the State College of Kentucky.  L. G. Barbour wrote some articles for the Southern Presbyterian Review on scientific subjects and his own scientific interests may have encouraged Benjamin in a scientific direction.  Ethelbert D. Warfield, Benjamin’s brother, has commented that:

Dr. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield

His early tastes were strongly scientific.  He collected birds’ eggs, butterflies and moths, and geological specimens; studied the fauna and flora of his neighborhood; read Darwin’s newly published books with enthusiasm; and counted Audubon’s works on American birds and mammals his chief treasure.  He was so certain that he was to follow a scientific career that he strenuously objected to studying Greek.  (page vi).

Following the years of private tutorial instruction, Benjamin entered the sophomore class of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) in 1868 and was graduated from there in 1871 with highest honors at only nineteen years of age.  Having concluded his college years, he then traveled in Europe beginning in February of 1872 following a delayed departure due to illness in his family.  After spending some time in Edinburgh and then Heidelberg, he wrote home in mid-summer announcing his intent to enter the ministry.  This change in vocational direction came as quite a surprise to his family.  He returned to Kentucky from Europe sometime in 1873 and was for a short time the livestock editor of the Farmer’s Home Journal.

Benjamin pursued his theological education in preparation for the ministry by entering Princeton Theological Seminary in September of 1873.  He was licensed to preach the gospel by Ebenezer Presbytery on May 8, 1875.  Following licensure, he tested his ministerial abilities by supplying the Concord Presbyterian Church in Kentucky from June through August of 1875.  After he received his divinity degree in 1876, he supplied the First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, Ohio, and while he was in Dayton, he married Annie Pearce Kinkead, the daughter of a prominent attorney, on August 3, 1876.  Soon after he married Annie, the couple set sail on an extended study trip in Europe for the winter of 1876-1877.  It was sometime during this voyage that the newly weds went through a great storm and Annie suffered an injury that debilitated her for the rest of her life; the biographers differ as to whether the injury was emotional, physical, or a combination of the two.  Sometime during 1877, according to Ethelbert Warfield, Benjamin was offered the opportunity to teach Old Testament at Western Seminary, but he turned the position down because he had turned his study emphasis to the New Testament despite his early aversion to Greek (vii).  In November 1877, he began his supply ministry at the First Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, where he continued until the following March.  He returned to Kentucky and was ordained as an evangelist by Ebenezer Presbytery on April 26, 1879.

In September of 1878, Benjamin began his career as a theological educator when he became an instructor in New Testament Literature and Exegesis at Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh.  Western Seminary had been formed by the merger of existing seminaries including Danville Seminary, which R. J. Breckinridge, Benjamin’s grandfather, had been involved in founding.  The following year he was made professor of the same subject and he continued in that position until 1887.  In his inaugural address for Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Literature, April 20, 1880, he set the theme for many of his writing efforts in the succeeding years by defending historic Christianity.  The purpose of his lecture was to answer the question, “Is the Church Doctrine of the Plenary Inspiration of the New Testament Endangered by the Assured Results of Modern Biblical Criticism.”  Professor Warfield affirmed the inspiration, authority and reliability of God’s Word in opposition to the critics of his era.  He quickly established his academic reputation for thoroughness and defense of the Bible.  Many heard of his academic acumen and his scholarship was awarded by eastern academia when his alma mater, the College of New Jersey, awarded him an honorary D. D. in 1880.

According to Samuel Craig, Dr. Warfield was offered the Chair of Theology at the Theological Seminary of the Northwest in Chicago in 1881, but he did not end his service at Western until he went to teach at Princeton Theological Seminary beginning the fall semester of 1887.  He succeeded Archibald Alexander Hodge as the Charles Hodge Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology.  His inaugural address, delivered May 8, 1888, was titled “The Idea of Systematic Theology Considered as a Science.” As he taught theology, he did so using Hodge’s Systematic Theology and continued the Hodge tradition. The constant care Annie required and the duties associated with teaching at Princeton, resulted in a limited involvement in presbytery, synod, and general assembly.  Annie lived a homebound life limiting herself
5Commemorative plaque placed in Miller Chapel at Princeton Seminary in honor of B.B. Warfield.
Photo by Dr. Barry Waugh.
Click the image above to view a larger version of the photo.
primarily to the Princeton campus where Benjamin was never-too-far from home.  The Warfields lived in the same campus home where Charles and Archibald Alexander Hodge lived during their years at Princeton.

Benjamin enjoyed a busy schedule at Princeton.  One of his duties at Princeton included editing the Presbyterian Review, succeeding Francis L. Patton.  When the Presbyterian Review was discontinued, he planned and produced the Presbyterian and Reformed Review until the Faculty of Princeton renamed it the Princeton Theological Review in 1902.  During his Princeton years he was awarded several times with honorary degrees in addition to his D.D. including:  the LL.D. by the College of New Jersey in 1892, the LL.D. by Davidson College in 1892, the Litt.D. by Lafayette College in 1911, and the S.T.D. by the University of Utrecht in 1913.

After thirty-nine years of marriage, Annie died November 19, 1915.  She was buried in the Princeton cemetery of what is now the Nassau Street Presbyterian Church with a bronze, vault sized ground plate marking her location.  Benjamin continued to teach at Princeton until he was taken ill suddenly on Christmas Eve of 1920.  Until this illness, Dr. Warfield had followed an active and busy teaching schedule into his seventieth year of life.  His condition was serious for a time, but he improved enough that he resumed partial teaching responsibilities on February 16, 1921.  Despite not feeling ill effects from the class he taught that day, he died of coronary problems later that evening.  He was buried next to his beloved Annie with a similar marker for his grave.  The Warfields did not have any children.

B. B. Warfield’s collected writings were massive, but he is not known for writing a systematic theology and publishing books was the exception rather than the rule; his writings were primarily articles for periodicals, book reviews and notices, papers, pamphlets and lectures.  Sometimes his articles would be republished in pamphlet or book form.  His apologetic sense for responding to error in a timely fashion most often led him to use scholarly journals and other periodicals.  Francis Patton’s memorial speech for Warfield confirms this perspective as he commented that, “It was the discussion of particular doctrine in connection with the most recent phases of thought that he gave the greater part of his attention” (“A Memorial,” 386).  Some of Warfield’s chief concerns included:  the inspiration and authenticity of the Scriptures, perfectionism, evolution, the history and theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the canonicity of the books of Scripture.  In connection with his interest in the Westminster Confession, he had opportunities to write concerning revising the Confession in both the 1880s and the early twentieth century.  One area of particular concern Warfield addressed frequently was defending the New Testament against the German higher critics and their teachings.  Some have wondered why B. B Warfield did not publish a systematic theology.  Francis Patton’s perspective on this was that B. B. Warfield believed Charles Hodge’s three volumes constituted the best text for teaching systematic theology (“A Memorial,” 386f).

Some of the issues Dr. Warfield addressed are still contended today including:  deaconesses, issues related to the “Freedmen” (i.e. African Americans), evolution, seminary curriculum, ministerial education, baptism, the victorious Christian life, can dreams convey revelation, and women speaking in the church.  He also published, in 1889, selections from Dr. John Arrowsmith’s Armilla Catechetica.  Warfield’s gifts included writing poetry and composing hymns, including a hymn for the inauguration of Robert Dick Wilson as a professor at Princeton Seminary.  A short pamphlet of Dr. Warfield’s hymns and poems was published by him titled, Four Hymns and Some Religious Verses by Benjamin B. Warfield.  Consistent with his “Breckinridge” heritage, he wrote the biographical entry for his grandfather, Robert J. Breckinridge, in Nevin’s Encyclopedia of the Presbyterian Church.  The readers of his works were not limited to English speakers since some of his publications were translated into other languages such as, “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race” (1911), which was translated into Chinese, and “The Theology of the Reformation” (1917) and “The Plan of Salvation,” (1915), which were both translated into Japanese.  Other works were translated into Dutch and Spanish.

The tremendously helpful bibliography of Warfield’s works by James Meeter and Roger Nicole shows the diversity of his interests, which included not only subjects of direct relevance to his discipline but subjects of little or no relevance as well.  One of his non-theological interests was collecting postcards.  In the early twentieth century, the production of postcards was a growing industry that supplied the new hobby of postcard collecting.  The colorful, inexpensive, and handy cards were used by tourists to inform their friends of the progress of their trips and give them a glimpse of lands they would probably not be able to see otherwise.  Postcard collecting was an activity that the Warfields could have enjoyed together, though Annie may have had the greatest involvement in the collection due to her homebound situation.  Included in the collection are cards from Switzerland, France, Italy, England, Kentucky, California, Holland, Canada, Scotland, Germany, Pennsylvania, California, Mexico, and many other places.  One card was from C. D. Kinkead, presumably one of Annie’s relatives, and it pictures the auditorium where Calvin lectured on theology in Geneva.  Another card shows Samuel Rutherford’s grave marker in “Divinity Corner” at St. Andrews Cathedral.  There are several cards from Oxford University picturing scenes from the various colleges.  Another view is of Luther’s study in the Wartburg, which was sent by “J. C. Stout.”  One card, postmarked 1908, shows the beautiful old sanctuary and majestic steeple of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia.  Each of the cards collected by the Warfields was placed carefully in its album and ordered according to the part of the world from which it came.  Whether the collection of cards reveals Benjamin’s desire for further foreign study, or Annie’s yearning to be free of her infirmity and travel to the places pictured, or a combination of the two, are questions that will remain unanswered.

B. B. Warfield was particularly prolific in publishing book notices and reviews.  Meeter and Nicole note in the preface to their bibliography that they excluded over a thousand book reviews and notices that were less than one page in length or judged of little interest to the typical theologically oriented user of their book.  Despite these exclusions, the list of reviews show a diversity of subject matter including:  the personal life of the missionary David Livingstone, ancient Egyptian life, the spiritual life of Charles Darwin, the history of the Old South Church, plantation life before slave emancipation, poetry, E. A. Poe’s poetry, Medieval book printing, Martin Luther’s letters, monasticism and mysticism.  The items excluded by Meeter and Nicole included notices and reviews concerned with architecture, novels, brain development and growth, sociology and travel.  Dr. Warfield’s academic efforts were often directed towards issues concerning the Westminster Confession and this is reflected in books he read about the lives of Westminster Assembly members including Sir Henry Vane, Jr. and Alexander Henderson, as well as books addressing the theology and history of the Confession.

Warfield’s intellectual capacity, diversity of interests, and penetrating analysis could be placed at the apex of the scholarly pyramid of his contemporaries.  Consider the course of academic events in his life.  When he accepted the position in New Testament at Western Seminary, the previous year he had already turned down an appointment at the same institution to teach Old Testament.  When he went from Western to Princeton Seminary, he went from New Testament to a position combining the disciplines of Systematic Theology and Apologetics.  When we consider that he was also known for his historical studies on the background and editions of the Westminster Confession, as well as the relationship between Augustine and John Calvin, it is not going too far to say that he could have qualified, in his era, as a one man seminary faculty with abilities in Old Testament, New Testament, Apologetics, Systematics, and Church History.

When Benjamin Warfield died, there were notices, memorial services, and eulogies in many parts of the nation.  Warfield’s own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, adopted a statement at its General Assembly that described his loss as “irreparable” and described him as “probably the most distinguished and learned theologian of the Reformed Faith in our day.”  Following the adoption of this statement, the Assembly heard a brief tribute to him by President Kelso of the Western Theological Seminary, which was followed with prayer led by President Landon of the San Francisco Theological Seminary (Minutes, 128).  In Dr. Warfield’s home state of Kentucky, sentiments were expressed in a special memorial service held in the Harbeson Memorial Chapel of the Theological Seminary of Kentucky.  During the service each of the seminary professors, all of whom but one had known him personally, spoke “tenderly of the man and his great work and his abiding influence on every continent of the world” (The Presbyterian 91:9, March 3, 1921, 31).  One writer, known only as “G. P. D.,” wrote of his three-year experience as a student of Warfield.  He said that one man stood out “above all others as a teacher and as a man of God:  and that man is Dr. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield.”  Dr. Warfield had taught him to stand “solidly upon the Rock of Ages” and he exemplified an “unswerving loyalty to the Word of God.”

The author also remembered Dr. Warfield’s continued instruction to his students to seek the resolution of difficult issues by seeing “what the Word of God says about that.”  Showing his affection for Dr. Warfield, the author mentioned that he and his fellow students thought of him as “Bennie,” a name that would not likely have been used in his presence (91:10, March 10, 1921, 10).  J. Gresham Machen, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Princeton, received a letter from LeRoy Gresham, Dr. Machen’s cousin, expressing in his own personal sorrow the sentiments of many regarding the loss of B. B. Warfield:

You may well believe that I was inexpressibly grieved and shocked at the death of Dr. Warfield.  Truly there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel.  Where shall we ever find his like as a defender of the faith once delivered to the saints?  I know what it will mean to you personally, especially at a time when the tendency is to fill our faculties with men who represent a lower ideal of scholarship.  It will be hard indeed to fill his place.  (Letter dated March 5, 1921)

Little did either LeRoy Gresham or Dr. Machen realize the prophetic sense of this comment, for it would not be long before Dr. Machen would become “a defender of the faith once delivered to the saints” as he faced the modernist controversy.

Geoff Thomas has observed that Dr. Warfield died about three months after the death of Abraham Kuyper and about five months before another Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, passed away.  The deaths of these three signified the end of an era in the history of Reformed Theology.  Despite B. B. Warfield’s obvious significance, Mark Noll could make the statement in 1999 in his American National Biography article that, “There is no full account of either Warfield’s life or his thought.”  Anyone attempting to give a “full account” of Dr. Warfield’s life and thought would be undertaking a considerable task due to the depth, extent, and breadth of his knowledge.

Sources Used:

Note:  The letter to J. Gresham Machen is in the Machen collection of the archives at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.

Calhoun, David.  Princeton Seminary:  The Majestic Testimony, 1869-1929.  Edinburgh:  Banner of Truth Trust, 1996.  See particularly pages 313-327 for Dr. Warfield.

Craig, Samuel G.  “Benjamin B. Warfield.”  At:

D., G. P.  “The Last of the High Calvinists.”  The Presbyterian 91:10, March 10, 1921.  Pages 9-10.  [The anonymous author responded to an article from another publication in which Warfield was described negatively as a “high Calvinist.”]

“Discourses Occasioned by the Inauguration of Benj. B. Warfield, D.D. to the Chair of New Testament Exegesis and Literature, in Western Theological Seminary, Delivered on the Evening of Tuesday, April 20th, 1880, in the North Presbyterian Church, Allegheny, Pa.”  Pittsburgh:  Printed by Nevin Brothers, 1880.  Includes the charge to Warfield by Elliott E. Swift and Warfield’s inaugural address.

Four Hymns and Some Religious Verses by Benjamin B. Warfield.  Philadelphia:  The Westminster Press, 1910.

Hoffecker, W. A.  “Warfield, Benjamin Breckinridge (1851-1921).”  Dictionary of the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition in America.  D. G. Hart and Mark A. Noll, eds.  Downer’s Grove:  InterVarsity, 1999.

Meeter, John E. and Roger Nicole.  A Bibliography of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, 1851-1921.  Nutley:  Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974.

Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.  New series, vol. XXI, August 1921.  Proceedings of the 133rd General Assembly.  Philadelphia:  Office of the General Assembly, 1921.

Nichols, Robert Hastings.  “Warfield, Benjamin Breckinridge.”  Dictionary of American Biography.  New York:  Charles Scribners, 1946.

Noll, Mark A. “Warfield, Benjamin Breckinridge.”  American National Biography.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1999.

Patton, Francis.  “Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, D.D., L.L. D., Litt. D.  A Memorial Address.”  The Princeton Theological Review 19:3 (July 1921):  369-391.

Roberts, Edward Howell.  Biographical Catalogue of the Princeton Theological Seminary, 1815-1932.  Princeton:  Trustees of the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church, Princeton, NJ, 1933.

Scrapbooks, 8 folio vols. at the Luce Archives of Princeton Theological Seminary.  These personal collections contain postcards and newspaper clippings.

“Theological Seminary of Kentucky.”  The Presbyterian 91:9, March 3, 1921, 31.

Thomas, Geoff.  “Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield:  If they Do Not Do What is Right, There May be a Mighty Battle.”  Banner of Truth web-site at:  http://www.banneroftruth.

Warfield, E. D.  “Biographical Sketch of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield.”  Works, vol. 1, Revelation and Inspiration, v-ix.

By Warfield:

[Note:  Warfield’s many writings were published in pamphlets, books, and periodical articles over a period of many years.  The 10 volume set of his Works along with the 2 volume set on the shorter writings provide the best collection of his work, but these two sets together do not contain all his writings.]. For a comprehensive list of Warfield's works, see A Bibliography of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, 1851-1921, by John E. Meeter and Roger Nicole (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1974).

Meeter, John E., ed.  Benjamin B. Warfield:  Selected Shorter Writings.  2 vols.  Phillipsburg:  Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970, 1973.

Noll, Mark A. and David Livingston.  B. B. Warfield:  Evolution, Science, and Scripture, Selected Writings.  Grand Rapids:  Baker, 2000.  This contains an article on Scripture, “The Divine and Human in the Bible,” as well as thirty-nine articles, lectures, and reviews on the book’s subject.  This is one of Warfield’s more controversial areas of thought because he accepted the possibility of evolution in some form while denying Darwinism.

Warfield, Ethelbert D., William Park Armstrong, and Caspar Wistar Hodge, eds.  The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield.  10 vols.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1932; reprint, Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 2000.

About Warfield:

McClanahan, James Samuel.  “Benjamin B. Warfield:  Historian of Doctrine in Defense of Orthodoxy, 1881-1921.”  Ph.D. dissertation, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, 1988.

Riddlebarger, Kim.  “The Lion of Princeton:  Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield on Apologetics, Theological Method and Polemics.”  Ph. D. dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1997.

Articles appearing in
The Southern Presbyterian Review-
Dr. Edwin A. Abbott on the Genuineness of Second Peter, 34.2 (April 1883) 390-445.
Some Recent Apocryphal Gospels, 35.4 (October 1884) 711-759.
The Canonicity of Second Peter, 33.1 (January 1882) 45-75.

Articles appearing in The Presbyterian Quarterly-
New Testament Terms Descriptive of the Great Change, 5.1 (January 1891) 91-100.
Paul's Doctrine of the Old Testament, 3.3 (July 1889) 389-406.
Some Perils of Missionary Life, 13.3 (July 1899) 385-404.
The Constitution of the Seminary Curriculum, 10.4 (October 1896) 413-441.
The Doctrine of Inspiration of the Westminster Divines, 8.1 (January 1894) 19-76.
The Latest Phase of Historical Rationalism, 9.1 (January 1895) 36-67 and 9.2 (April 1895) 185-210.
The Polemics of Infant Baptism, 13.2 (April 1899) 313-334.