settings icon
share icon

Who was Albert Barnes?

Albert Barnes

Albert Barnes (1798—1870) was an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author who advocated for temperance, women’s rights, and the abolition of slavery. He is best remembered for his extensive Old and New Testament commentaries, first published in 1832 and still widely read today. His interpretations of the Bible broke from strict Calvinist thought and placed Barnes at the center of the 1837 schism of the Presbyterian Church in the United States.

Albert Barnes was born in Rome, New York, to Methodist parents. In his early years, Albert was a skeptic. However, while studying law at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, Barnes was deeply moved by the writings of Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish Presbyterian preacher known for his outspoken defense of the poor. Barnes became a Christian and, upon graduating from Hamilton, decided to become a Presbyterian minister. He entered Princeton Theological Seminary in 1820 and was ordained in 1825 by the presbytery of Elizabethtown, New Jersey. He began pastoring at the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, New Jersey.

By the time he was called to pastor the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia in 1830, Barnes had become embroiled in the controversy between Old School and New School Presbyterians. Those of the Old School held to traditional Calvinist doctrine, while New School preachers like Barnes believed in the human exercise of free will in response to God’s offer of salvation. In a printed sermon, Barnes challenged Old School Presbyterians with his views regarding the imputation of Adam’s sin, original sin, and unlimited atonement. He was suspended from ministry for a time by the Presbyterian General Assembly on charges of doctrinal heresy but eventually was acquitted in 1831, though not without censure.

In 1835, Albert Barnes was again accused of departing from the Westminster Confession of Faith after publishing his book Notes Explanatory and Practical, on the Epistle to the Romans (1835). His views on critical doctrines, such as justification by faith and the righteousness of Christ, came under scrutiny. He was brought to trial again before the General Assembly, but Barnes was exonerated and fully restored to the pastorate in 1836.

Barnes’ case brought sharp focus to the broadening gap between conservative and progressive Presbyterians, culminating in a complete separation. After the Auburn Declaration in August of 1837 failed to produce the desired unifying effect, for the next three decades, the Presbyterian Church existed as two separate denominations (New School and Old School), with both claiming to be the official church. Barnes lived just long enough to see the healing reunion of the two entities in the northern states between 1869 and 1870. The first gathering of the reunited Presbyterian churches was held in his Philadelphia church in 1870.

Albert Barnes continued to pastor the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia until 1868, when failing eyesight forced him to retire. His devoted congregation insisted that he retain pastor emeritus status. Throughout his life, Barnes supported numerous social reforms, including the Prohibition movement. He took a firm and vocal stance against slavery, presenting the Bible’s resounding condemnation of it. He diligently promoted Sunday school in the church and served as a founding director of the Union Theological Seminary and President of the Pennsylvania Bible Society.

As a writer, Barnes possessed a knack for clarity. He wrote more than one hundred devotional and practical books, including Development of the Christian Character (1832), The Way of Salvation (1836), An Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery (1846), and The Church and Slavery (1857). Albert Barnes’ commentaries on the entire New Testament and portions of the Old Testament are his most significant and famous legacy. More than one million volumes of his commentaries were sold while Barnes was still living, and they continue to be used today.

Active until the end, Albert Barnes died suddenly on Christmas Eve of 1870 while ministering to grieving friends near his home in Philadelphia.

Here are a few gems from the pen of Albert Barnes:

“‘Praise’ now is one of the great duties of the redeemed. It will be their employment forever” (Barnes’ Notes on Hebrews).

“It does not require great learning to be a Christian, and to be convinced of the truth of the Bible. It requires an honest heart, and a willingness to obey God” (Barnes’ Notes on Matthew and Mark).

“There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it” (An Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery, p. 383).

“Christianity may produce agitation, anger, tumult as at Ephesus; but the diffusion of the pure gospel of Christ, and the establishment of the institutions of honesty and virtue, at whatever cost, is a blessing to mankind” (quoted by Gilbert, J., in Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers, W. B. Ketcham, 1895, p. 134).

Return to:

Questions about Church History

Who was Albert Barnes?
Subscribe to the

Question of the Week

Get our Question of the Week delivered right to your inbox!

Follow Us: Facebook icon Twitter icon YouTube icon Pinterest icon Instagram icon
© Copyright 2002-2024 Got Questions Ministries. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy
This page last updated: March 14, 2024