What is, is what ought to be
: Providence and Benjamin Morgan Palmer’s public theology

  • Kenneth Alan Pierce

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (awarded by OU/Aberdeen)


Benjamin Morgan Palmer was one of the most prolific and influential Presbyterian pastors in the Nineteenth Century American South. Though his life has been examined, and he is mentioned in passing in many studies of the antebellum South, his writings on public theology have not heretofore been carefully examined. This study undertakes to examine Palmer’s public theology. We focus our attention on the relationship between Palmer’s public theology and his understanding of the Reformed doctrine of providence.
We assert that Palmer utilised the Baconian-Realist practice of inductive observation to ascertain the preceptive will of God from history, anthropology, political theory, and sociology. We establish Palmer’s worthiness as an object of study. His writings on the matter of public theology are listed and annotated. We examine the background of his understanding of the doctrine of providence as relates to public theology in the history of Calvinism. We then examine the philosophical and the Biblical-theological foundations of his public theology. We next explain Palmer’s application of the doctrine
of providence in his public theological thought on government, the relationship of the Christian and the church to civil society, and the matter of the relationship between various races. It is shown that Palmer built his public theology on the belief that the preceptive will of God was revealed in nature, society, and human history, and could be discerned and interpreted by use of the inductive method of reasoning. Palmer found moral justification for his public theology in the occurrence of events, generally adopting a ‘what is, is also what ought to be’ basis for ethical judgements on matters pertaining to
government and society. In Palmer’s view, the pastor occupied the role of public moralist and interpreter of providence, whose source material was natural revelation more than Scripture. Understanding Palmer is crucial to understanding the rationalisations of the mind of the antebellum and post-bellum American South on the entwined topics of race, class, government, and secession. Palmer’s writings give us insight into the Christian justifications for the slave society and its maintenance, even at the cost of sundering the American nation.
Date of Award13 Dec 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Edinburgh
SupervisorNick Needham (Supervisor) & Bruce Ritchie (Supervisor)

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