The Southern Presbyterian Review
Digitization Project: Author Biography

Robert Jefferson

(1800 - 1871)
by Barry Waugh, Ph.D.
©PCA Historical Center, 12330 Conway Road, St. Louis, MO, 2003. All Rights Reserved.

R. J. Breckinridge's Scotch-Irish ancestry in America shows a history of political, military and ecclesiastical service from the earliest decades of the eighteenth century. His great-grandparents, Alexander and Jane Preston, the sister of John Preston (1699-1747), arrived in the port of Philadelphia in 1728 and about ten years later moved to settle in the area of what is presently Staunton, Virginia. They obtained land, built a home and raised a family of seven children. In 1741, Alexander was placed on a committee to build a Presbyterian meetinghouse to be used for worship

R.J. Breckinridge [1800-1871]
[Source: an original cartes de viste (cdv) photo
on file at the PCA Historical Center]

by the Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church. When Alexander died in 1744 he was buried in the Tinkling Spring cemetery in an unmarked grave, but his brother-in-law, John Preston, had a large obelisk crowned monument placed on his grave in the 1850s funded partially by Alexander's great grandson, Robert J. Breckinridge. The Breckinridges and the Prestons would enjoy close relations through the course of the succeeding generations.

Upon Alexander's death, the family property went to his son, Robert, who served as a justice of the peace and the captain of the local militia. Robert's first wife, Mary Poague, died having born him two sons, Robert and Alexander, during their short married life. In 1758 he married his first cousin, Letitia Preston, the daughter of John Preston and Elizabeth Patton; Letitia's second child, John, was born December 2, 1760. In 1761, Robert was elected one of the trustees for Staunton, but sometime in 1761 the Breckinridges moved further up the Shenandoah Valley to Fincastle in what was to become Botetourt County. Robert was involved in service to his community as justice of the peace, county sheriff, and lieutenant colonel of the militia. The first county court of Botetourt was held in the Breckinridge home. Despite Robert's Scotch-Irish Presbyterian ancestry, he served as a vestryman in the Church of England, but he resigned in 1769 because the Church of England was enforcing its requirement for subscription to the Anglican standards. After a life of public and ecclesiastical service, Colonel Robert Breckinridge died in August of 1772 leaving a widow, seven children, an estate with ten slaves, and 2,000 acres of land.

John, at only twelve years of age, took responsibility for the considerable estate left by his father. His two older half-brothers, Robert and Alexander, had left home to be on their own, and William, the next in line, was deemed incapable of handling the responsibility of the estate. John obtained what education he could and then, from 1774 to 1779, he worked as a clerk in the local surveyor's office. William Preston, John's uncle, encouraged him to further his education, so he went to study law at William and Mary in Williamsburg in the fall of 1780. While a student, he combined his studies with the responsibility of representing Botetourt County in the Williamsburg House of Delegates. As he served he worked with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, John Tyler and Patrick Henry. In 1784, he was a member of the Committee on Religion and supported the Jefferson-Madison plan for religious liberty. He contended that religion should be supported by voluntary efforts and not by coercion and public taxes. After he passed his law exam in the spring of 1785, he married sixteen-year-old Mary Hopkins Cabell. They settled in Albemarle County, Virginia, on a four hundred acre farm given them by Mary's father, Colonel Joseph Cabell. John's law practice was becoming increasingly more difficult because of the competitive atmosphere created by an abundance of lawyers in his area, so he made a scouting trip to Kentucky, at his brother's recommendation, and purchased 30,000 acres for his new home. He moved to Kentucky, late in March of 1793, where he established his relocated law practice. On December 19, 1793, he was appointed attorney general of Kentucky, where he served until November 7, 1797. He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1797, elected Speaker of the House in 1799, and served in the House until early in 1801. John continued public service as a United States Senator playing an important role in Jeffersonian policy victories between 1801 and 1804. In 1805 he was appointed Attorney General of the nation by President Jefferson, but this service was short-lived, because John died December 14, 1806 leaving his wife, seven children, a mansion, 20,000 acres of land (10,000 acres of the original tract had been sold for a profit at an earlier date), fifty-seven slaves, a stable of thoroughbred horses, and personal property valued at more than 20,000.00. The operation of the Breckinridge plantation fell to John's widow, who was thirty-seven at the time of her husband's death.

Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, John and Mary's third son, had been born at Cabell's Dale, Kentucky, March 8, 1800, while his father was busily involved in public service. Robert was just six years of age when his father died. As he grew up with his mother, he studied for his early education under Dr. Louis Marshall, the brother of Chief Justice John Marshall. Marshall's school was a classical school and Robert was well educated in preparation for college. Robert's brother, Cabell, had graduated Princeton in 1810, and his brother, John, was a student at Princeton when Robert was considering where he would further his education. With a Princeton precedent set by his brothers, Robert enrolled in the sophomore class in February of 1817. Robert continued his studies until he was near graduation when, after a fighting incident, he was suspended. He was restored to his class following the suspension, but the experience did not leave him with a good opinion of Princeton, so he decided to leave and was granted an honorable dismissal. Despite Robert's disciplinary problems at Princeton and failure to graduate, he would be awarded an honorary Master of Arts by the institution in 1832. Robert went to Yale to complete his college education, but after three months at Yale he found out that a year residence was required to graduate and he was unwilling to meet this requirement, so he moved to Union College where he graduated in 1819 with a Bachelor of Arts.

Robert returned to Kentucky following graduation, but he did not have any direction regarding a definite career. He became a man-about-town as he wandered from party to party, dance to dance, and bar to bar. He also was a frequent participant in games of chance in Frankfort and Lexington. During one of his partying trips to the state capital in Frankfort, he offended a man who then challenged him to a duel. Breckinridge refused to accept the challenge resulting in his being called a coward. He did obtain a pair of pistols in preparation for the duel, but it never took place. Through the intervention of the Masonic lodge, of which both men were members, a reconciliation was achieved and the matter ended. Robert's boisterous lifestyle that had caused his discipline at Princeton followed him into his wandering post-graduate years.

Within the course of a few years there would be some major changes in Robert's life. During the summer of 1822, he became romantically interested in his second cousin, Ann Sophonisba Preston of Virginia. On March 11, 1823, the two cousins were married in the bride's home in Abingdon, Virginia. Cabell, Robert's older brother, had encouraged and directed Robert to practice law, but when Cabell died suddenly in September of 1823, the management of the Breckinridge estate fell to Robert. Along with managing the estate, Robert had taken his vocational direction when he obtained his license to practice law on January 3, 1824. The practice of law, though, did not satisfy Robert; he had a desire to follow in the Breckinridge tradition of public service. In November of 1825 he was elected to his first term in the House of the Kentucky Legislature and was then reelected three more times serving until late in 1828 when he removed himself from public office.

Robert left public service because of personal difficulties he was facing. Following an illness, from which he almost died, his daughter, Louisiana, died in 1829. Before Louisiana's death another daughter had died. Through these troubling events and the pastoral influence of his brother John, who was a Presbyterian minister in Baltimore, he was converted by God's grace. He made his profession of faith in the McChord Presbyterian Church of Lexington, Kentucky, but he soon transferred to the Mt. Horeb Church in Fayette County.

Robert's conversion affected his thinking about his life and duties, he decided, in the summer of 1830, to appear one more time before the people of Kentucky as a political/social speaker, but this time he argued issues based on his Christian commitment. This time he was concerned to argue against enslaving Africans and the transportation of mail on the Sabbath. He saw it as his Christian responsibility to speak against these reoccurring issues that he understood as evils in his nation. Robert's Christian commitment also led him to participate in and host what was called a "woods-meeting" on his farm in the Fall of 1831. It was through the influence of this meeting that he felt called to the ministry. Pursuing the proper course for presbytery oversight of his ministerial training, he came under the care of the West Lexington Presbytery. During his care proceedings at presbytery, it was commented by one senior presbyter that:

Brethren, you had better be careful how you receive young Mr. Breckinridge, he will either make or break the Presbyterian Church. Before his conversion, he was considered the best dancer, the best hunter, and best stump speaker in Kentucky. (Sanders, Sketch, p. 18)

Seven months later, on April 5, 1832, he was licensed to preach. Following the General Assembly of 1832, where he sat as a Ruling Elder, he moved to Princeton, New Jersey, to study theology for a few months under the direction of Samuel Miller. Robert left Princeton when he received a call to be the pastor of the Second Church of Baltimore succeeding his brother, John. He was ordained and installed in November of 1832 and he served at the church for twelve years.

While in Baltimore, Robert became one of the leaders of the Old School Presbyterians, but it was not without having participated in what was seen as a New School practice-a revival incorporating measures. In 1833, the moderator of the General Assembly was Dr. William A. McDowell, the pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina. While he was on his way from Charleston to accept the post of General Agent for the Board of Missions, he stopped in Baltimore to lead revival services for Robert Breckinridge. Over one hundred thirty were converted with ninety of that number seeking admission to Robert's congregation. Robert was excited by the services, but his jubilation was tempered by the counsel of his brother, John, his mentor, Samuel Miller, and his friend, Joshua Wilson. These men warned of the dangers of using measures, such as the anxious bench, in the highly emotional climate of a revival. His counselors were further concerned that it appeared Robert had abandoned the doctrine of limited atonement. One correspondent, Ezra Styles Ely, encouraged Robert to continue in his use of revival measures despite the criticism of the Old School, but he was persuaded by his Old School counselors and grew to affirm Calvinist orthodoxy.

It was during Robert's pastoral years in Baltimore that the growing differences between the Old and New School perspectives led to a division of the Presbyterian Church. According to Edgar Mayse, R. J. Breckinridge was viewed by the New School as the foremost and most obnoxious proponent of the Old School views (109ff). This seems an odd turn of events when one considers that he had participated in revivals using measures and argued against slavery-both these issues were hallmarks of the New School.

There were several issues between the Old and New Schools. One issue exemplifying the differences is seen in Breckinridge's contention that the office of ruling elder had fallen into disuse due to the New School's depreciation of its importance. This failure to use the ruling elder was specifically rebuked by Breckinridge with respect to the Synod of the Western Reserve. Further, contended Breckinridge, the roots of this problem were planted in a fundamental disparagement of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Western Reserve's allowing men into the ministry without their subscription to the Presbyterian standards. Another issue, for both Robert and John, involved how missions were to be conducted and governed; they believed that missions were to be governed by the courts of the Presbyterian Church through its boards and not through voluntary agencies (i.e. what we today might describe as non-denominational or para-church mission organizations). The voluntary agencies were seen by the Old School as a threat to the proper governing of missionary work because they were not under the review and control of the Presbyterian Church; for Robert Breckinridge, the ministries of the church should be under the direct rule and discipline of the church. The proper application of church polity to missionary ministry, the significance of the office of ruling elder, and the ever present antebellum issue of slavery were some of the hot topics leading up to the ejection of 1837, but fundamentally, the problems the Old School saw with the New School grew out of the foundational issue of subscription and the Old School believed this could be traced specifically to the infusion of the New England theology into Presbyterianism by the Congregationalist churches as a result of the Plan of Union.

The two sides in the Presbyterian conflict continued to polarize as further points of disagreement came to the fore. The signing of the Act and Testimony, of June 1834, established the main points of contention between the Old School and the New School and angered the New School because it was composed and adopted by what they believed was effectively an Old School para-church meeting. The New School was being criticized for its para-church interests by the Old School while the Old School resorted to the outside-the-church meeting that composed the Act and Testimony-for the New School, this was a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Robert Breckinridge was chiefly responsible for the composition of the Act and Testimony and he was seen as one of the more stringent Old School men. Charles Hodge, Samuel Miller and others believed a more moderate course than the Act and Testimony would have been the better route. Differences increased with the Albert Barnes case as the Old School men contended his teaching on important elements of biblical doctrine was in error, but the New School wanted to allow Barnes the freedom to differ. The Old School looked to the Confession and other secondary standards as summary blueprints from the Bible for how the church was to go about its ministry; the New School saw the secondary standards as reference documents to be used in the event of crisis caused by the failure of its pragmatic approach to ministry. The result of all the disagreement was the ejection of the New School in 1837 leaving the Old School to continue as the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.

The issues that divided were to a great degree solved by the split of the Presbyterians. The Old School continued its ministry in both the north and south of the nation, and Robert Breckinridge was an active participant in the Old School's work. Robert continued to minister as a pastor in Baltimore following the upheaval of 1837. He was honored by the Old School in 1841 by being elected moderator of the General Assembly.

The next few years of Robert's life would be particularly eventful as he returned to his homeland of Kentucky. A particularly difficult aspect of his Baltimore ministry was the death of his beloved wife, Ann Sophonisba, in 1844. Maybe it was the lingering memories of life in Baltimore with Ann that led him to accept, in 1845, the position of president of Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. His brother, John, had advised against his taking this position. Maybe John was right. College administration did not turn out to be Robert's cup-of-tea and after two trying years he left Jefferson to accept a call, in 1847, to pastor the First Presbyterian Church of Lexington, Kentucky. 1847 turned out to be an event filled year because during its course he was awarded the LL.D. by Washington and Jefferson College, he married the widowed Virginia Hart Shelby, and he was appointed superintendent of public instruction for the state of Kentucky. It was the latter position in which Breckinridge excelled because during his six years of service he saw school attendance grow from 20,000 to over 200,000. Robert Breckinridge is still considered an important figure in the development and growth of the Kentucky public educational system.

Robert's next vocational move would be his last and it may have been the most suitable ministry for a man of his experience and temperament. He left his public service work in education to become the first Professor of Exegetic, Didactic and Polemic Theology in the new Presbyterian seminary at Danville, Kentucky. The seminary at Danville had been established by the General Assembly in May of 1853 and its first session began on October 13 of that same year. The original appointees for the faculty included E. P. Humphrey, B. M. Palmer, Phineas P. Gurley, and Breckinridge, but Palmer and Gurley declined. The two who declined were replaced with Stuart Robinson and Joseph G. Reaser. Breckinridge served as a professor for many years continuing at Danville until his retirement in 1869.

As the sectional crisis increased and Robert's ministry at Danville developed, he faced another difficult time. Once again, in 1859, he lost his wife. Virginia and Robert had three children, one of which, Nathaniel Hart, had died when he was only three years old.

While Robert served as a professor at Danville, he had an opportunity to preach at the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, during the ministry of Thomas Smyth. One person, in a letter dated June 6, 1860, observing the sermon commented that:

Dr. R. J. Breckinridge preached here last Sabbath Day; I suppose his reputation is too well known for me to say anything to you about him, yet his feeble voice, want of teeth, and want of all the graces of an Orator, caused a severe disappointment among the vast audience who had collected to hear him. (Smyth, Autobiographical Notes, 557-58)

These less than gracious comments show that the man who had once partied and fought with vigor was no longer a formidable, handsome physical specimen, at least according to this Charleston belle. Maybe this southern woman's sectional perspective prejudiced her assessment of the anti-slavery, Kentucky preacher and theologian.

The Civil War has been described as the war of brother against brother and father against son and this was especially true in the case of Robert J. Breckinridge and his family. As the war progressed and victory seemed to be coming to the Union, Kentucky turned more of its support to the south because of Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves. This conflict within Kentucky was reflected among Robert's descendants and kin. His sons, Robert Jr. and Willie, took sides with the southern cause against their father. Issa Breckinridge, Willie's wife, was particularly angry with Robert and his support of the north, and in protest, she would not let him see two of their newest children until Willie convinced her to do so in 1867. Theophilus Steele, the husband of Robert's daughter, Sophonisba, donned Confederate gray and rode with John Hunt Morgan. It is likely that Robert's intervention with the Union Army resulted in Edwin M. Stanton's imprisoning Theophilus as a prisoner of war rather than executing him as a guerilla raider when he was captured by Union forces. Robert's nephew, John C. Breckinridge, became a southern Democratic candidate for the presidency when the pro-slavery forces were the minority at the 1860 Democratic National Convention that nominated Stephen A. Douglas to run against Lincoln. Despite these kin turning against R. J., his sons Joseph and Charles along with three sons-in-law fought with Lincoln's forces.

The tensions Robert faced within Kentucky increased when he was nominated to the Baltimore convention that re-nominated Lincoln in 1864, and he made a speech at the convention denouncing the anti-union position of many Kentuckians. James Klotter notes that James G. Blaine, who had just entered the U. S. House of Representatives in 1863, commented that Breckinridge's appearance was strong and "patriarchal" and that his speech was the most inspiring of the convention (85-86). The speech was against slavery and Blaine's praise may reflect his sectional perspective just as the lady from Charleston, quoted earlier in this article, showed her southern sympathies in her assessment of Breckinridge's preaching. Lincoln managed to carry Kentucky in 1864 with the smallest margin of victory achieved by any of the states voting for his return to office.

The closing years of Breckinridge's life included another marriage after eight years as a widower. His third wife was Margaret Faulkner White, whom he married on November 5, 1868. As age slowed Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, he left his professorship at Danville in December 1869 and he died in Danville on December 27, 1871 after an extended illness. Breckinridge's life and work had been tumultuous and colorful. He had survived as a vocal opponent of slavery in Kentucky, he had been a leader of the Old School in its ejection of the New School, he had improved the quality and quantity of Kentucky education, and he had worked to bring ministerial education to the rough Kentucky frontier at Danville Seminary. Just as R. J. Breckinridge came from a notable ancestry, his family and descendants also enjoyed prominence. Robert and his first wife, Ann Sophonisba, had eleven children together, six girls and five boys. One daughter, Mary Cabell, married William Warfield in 1848 and on November 5, 1851, Benjamin Breckinridge was born. B. B. Warfield would mature in Kentucky and be educated for the ministry at Princeton Seminary. Warfield then served as a professor at Western Theological Seminary from 1878 to 1886 when he moved to Princeton to become the Professor of Theology at the seminary and remained there until his death on February 16, 1921. William "Willie" Campbell Preston Breckinridge, married a Kentuckian, Lucretia Clay, the granddaughter of Henry Clay, and he, like Henry Clay, worked in politics. Willie served in congress from 1884 to 1892. Robert's second wife, Virginia Hart Shelby, had been married to Alfred Shelby, who was the son of Isaac Shelby, Kentucky's first governor (1792-1796) as well as the fifth (1812-1816). Isaac also fought in the Revolutionary War and commanded the troops that defeated the British at the battle at King's Mountain, North Carolina.

Sources Used:
Brown, Richard D., The Presbyterians: Two Hundred Years in Danville, 1784-1984, (Danville: Presbyterian Church, 1983).
General Catalogue of Princeton University, 1746-1906, (Princeton: Published by Princeton University, 1908). Klotter, James C., The Breckinridges of Kentucky 1760-1981. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1986.
Mayse, Edgar Caldwell, Robert Jefferson Breckinridge; American Presbyterian Controversialist,
Ph.D. Dissertation, (Richmond, VA: Union Theological Seminary, 1974). This is a massive and excellent work contained in two volumes. The short biography above is especially indebted to Mayse for his extensive work.
Nevin, Alfred ed. Presbyterian Encyclopedia, 1884. This source has a fine drawing of R. J. Breckinridge.
Sanders, Robert Stuart, Sketch of Mount Horeb Presbyterian Church, 1827-1952, (n.p, n.d.)
Shattuck, Gardiner H., Jr. "Breckinridge, Robert Jefferson." American National Biography, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Coulter, Ellis M. "Breckinridge, Robert Jefferson." Dictionary of American Biography, Ed. Allen Johnson, American Council of Learned Societies. Centenary Edition. (New York: Scribner's, 1929, 1946).
Thompson, Ernest Trice, Presbyterians in the South, Vol. 1, 1607-1861. (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1963). Wilson, Howard McKnight, The Tinkling Spring: Headwater of Freedom, A Study of the Church and Her People, (Fisherville: The Tinkling Spring and Hermitage Presbyterian Churches, 1954).

Bibliography for the Works of Robert Jefferson Breckinridge:
Articles published in the Southern Presbyterian Review--
Denominational Education, 3.1 (July 1849) 1-19.
Documentary History of the Assembly of 1837, 33.4 (October 1882) 747-780.
Presbyterian Government Not a Hierarchy, But a Commonwealth, 33.2 (April 1882) 258-290.
Presbyterian Ordination Not a Charm, But an Act of Government, 33.3 (July 1882) 463-518.
Some Thoughts on the Development of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 2.3 (December 1848) 311-340.
The Christian Pastor, One of Christ's Ascension Gifts, 35.3 (July 1884) 449-500.

Other published works--
The Knowledge of God, Objectively Considered, (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1858).
The Knowledge of God, Subjectively Considered, (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1859).
Memoranda of Foreign Travel, 2 vols. (Baltimore: D. Owen and Son, 1845).
Papism in the XIX Century in the United States, (Baltimore: D. Owen and Son, 1841).
Secreta Monita Societatis Jesu: The Secret Counsels of the Society of Jesus, Edited by R. J. Breckinridge, 2nd American edition. (Baltimore: E. J. Coale, 1835).
He also published pamphlets and articles on several subjects including: public education, African slavery, preaching, Charles Hodge, "ardent spirits," education, history of the Presbyterian Church, and instrumental music in worship. Breckinridge edited the periodicals: The Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine, (1835-1841); Spirit of the XIX Century, (1842-1843); The Danville Quarterly Review, (1861-1864).

Works About R.J. Breckinridge--
Bocock, John H., "Letter to the Rev. Dr. Robert J. Breckinridge." Southern Presbyterian Review, 15, 372ff. Garrison, William Lloyd, Discussion on American Slavery between George Thompson and Robert J. Breckinridge, 2nd American edition. (Boston: I. Knapp, 1836).
Hartness, Robert Worley, The Educational Work of Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, Ph. D. dissertation, Yale University, 1936.
Moore, Edmund Arthur. The Earlier Life of Robert J. Breckinridge, 1800-1845,. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1932.
Palmer, B. M., "A Vindication of Secession and the South." Southern Presbyterian Review. 14:1 (April 1861). 134-177. In this critical review B. M. Palmer interacts with two of Breckinridge's publications: Discourse Delivered by Rev. Dr. R. J. Breckinridge, on the day of National Humiliation, January 4th, 1861, at Lexington, Ky, and Our Country; its Peril and its Deliverance. From Advance Sheets of the Danville quarterly Review for March, 1861. By the Reve Robert J. Breckinridge, D.D., LL.D., Professor in Danville Theological Seminary.
Sandlund, Vivien, "Robert Breckinridge, Presbyterian Antislavery Conservative," Journal of Presbyterian HIstory, Volume 78, Number 2 (Summer 2000) 145 - 154.
Thornwell, James Henley. "Breckinridge's Knowledge of God, Subjectively Considered." Southern Presbyterian Review 12:3 (October 1859). 604-623. ________. "Breckinridge's Theology." Southern Presbyterian Review 10:4 (January 1858). 593-622.
Vaughn, William Hutchinson, Robert Jefferson Breckinridge as an Educational Administrator, Ph.D. dissertation, George Peabody College for Teachers, 1937.