By Fred Zaspel–
(reprinted from Banner of Truth Issue 595, April 2013)
Believe it or not, since the publication of my The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary in early 2010 I have received more inquiries regarding Warfield’s wife, Annie, than any other single Warfield subject. This is a curious thing, given the many other topics of important and relevant study related to this Princetonian giant. Perhaps it’s just the humanness of it all that is so intriguing, or just the simple fact that she is such an unknown. I’m sure the particular reasons for inquiry have varied, but because Annie remains an item of such interest for historians and other curious Reformed types, I will provide here just some miscellaneous information on matters of most common inquiry.
Born April 7, 1852, Annie was from Lexington, KY, like Warfield. She is descended from the famous Revolutionary War general George Rogers Clark, Hannibal of the West” as he was called. Her father, George Blackburn Kinkead, was an eminent Lexington attorney who had successfully defended Abraham Lincoln in a case in 1855. Her family were members of Lexington’s prominent First Presbyterian Church. (The Warfields, by the way, were members of Lexington’s Second Presbyterian Church, the only local Presbyterian Church to affiliate with the Northern Presbyterians in the division between the north and south around the time of the civil war.) A well-educated girl, especially for the times, she is described as brilliant, witty, and beautiful. Her correspondence reveals a fun and loving wit and keen intellect, and it seems her evenings were customarily spent in the house with her husband, reading, writing letters, sharing thoughts and comments. Benjamin and Annie were married in August 3, 1876, and soon were off to Europe where he would continue his theological studies.
In biographical sketches of Warfield today, it is common to read of Annie’s ill-health, but it is surprising to learn that the story frequently goes a bit beyond the historical evidence. Reports that she was struck by lightning early in marriage, paralyzed the rest of her life, that Warfield provided meticulous care for his invalid wife for the entirety of their marriage, and such, are common.
We have but a few sources of factual information about Annie’s health. First, we have this brief account from O.T. Allis, a 1905 graduate and later a junior colleague at Princeton.
In his distinguished and eminently successful career, there was an element of tragedy. After graduating from the Seminary at the age of 25 he had married and taken his wife to Germany, a honeymoon during which he studied at Leipzig. On a walking trip in the Harz mountains, they were overtaken by a terrific thunderstorm. . . . [I]t was such a shattering experience for Mrs Warfield that she never fully recovered from the shock to her nervous system and was more or less of an invalid during the rest of her life. I used to see them walking together and the gentleness of his manner was striking proof of the loving care with which he surrounded her. They had no children. During the years spent at Princeton, he rarely if ever was absent for any length of time. Mrs Warfield required his constant attention and care.1
We also have a brief mention from J. Gresham Machen, also a 1905 graduate and later junior colleague of Warfield. This from Machen is from a letter to his mother shortly after Annie’s funeral in 1915:
I have faint recollections of her walking up and down in front of the house in the early years of my Princeton life, but even that diversion has long been denied her. I never spoke to her. Her trouble has been partly nervous, and she has seen hardly anyone except Dr. Warfield. But she remained, they say, until the end a very brilliant woman. Dr. Warfield used to read to her during certain definite hours every day. For many, many years he has never been away from her more than about two hours at a time; it has been some ten years since he left Princeton (on the occasion of the experiment of taking her away in the summer). . . . What the effect of her death upon him will be I do not know; I think, however, that he will feel dreadfully lost without her.
As Mrs. [William Park] Armstrong said, he has had only two interests in life — his work, and Mrs. Warfield, and now that she is gone there may be danger of his using himself up rather quickly.2
Additionally, we know from the Warfield correspondence3 that in 1881 Annie is “pining for a baby.” We also know that in 1892 she was becoming ill and needed a nurse. We also know that Warfield had to miss a speaking engagement in Staten Island, NY, in 1893, because of “family illness.” And we know that Annie was diagnosed with neurasthenia — a rather common ailment at the time, afflicting mostly women, marked by fatigue, weakness, anxiety, and depression. The word “invalid” begins to find use in the Warfield correspondence beginning in the mid 1890s, and her 1915 obituary article in The Presbyterian mentions broadly that she had been sick for twenty years. And to this we might add a detail from Hugh Kerr, who mentions in his Princeton lecture on Warfield in 2004 that Annie spent her last two years bedridden4 — assuming, given his position there at Princeton, that even though so long after Warfield his information is well grounded.
So, with this rather scanty information, what do we actually know about Annie’s health? Evidently a thunderstorm early in their marriage (1876 or 77) resulted in some kind of nervous disorder that became gradually worse until finally she became bedridden. And we know that the two were very close and that Warfield was a devoted and caring husband, choosing to be near her always in her relatively frail condition rather than accepting engagements away.
It is truly a tragic story, and Warfield deserves the credit he receives for his faithful concern for his afflicted wife. Yet it should be noted that Allis’s remarks overstate the case somewhat. We may grant the accuracy of his tracing Annie’s health problems to a thunderstorm in Germany, although there is no corroboration from elsewhere, even from Warfield’s own contemporary correspondence. In fact, it is a curious thing that in the Warfield correspondence from Germany at this time there is no mention at all of illness on the part of Annie — only of Warfield himself, a factor that frustratingly hindered his studies. What appears exaggerated is Allis’s statement that Annie was more or less an “invalid” for “the rest of her life.”
In their earlier years of marriage we do begin to read in the Warfield correspondence of Annie’s health issues, as I said, and by the mid 1890s the word “invalid” begins to appear. But 1) we cannot understand this in absolute terms, given Allis’s mention that after the turn of the century she still was walking outside. And 2) we cannot use the term in any sense to describe Annie’s earlier years. For example, when Warfield was teaching at Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny (Pittsburgh), he and Annie would host students in their home, at which time Annie would play the piano for her guests. The couple regularly traveled home to Kentucky for Christmas and other vacation times. We read in 1879 of a recommended special diet for Annie, but as this kind of thing was common it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything. In 1884 the couple traveled to Belfast to attend the Pan Presbyterian Council, and while they were there they visited around Northern Ireland and England also. The trip was difficult for Annie, but she was able. For some years after their arrival at Princeton (1887) they summer vacationed in the Keene Valley in the Adirondack mountains in New York and then in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania. It may be that they had to miss the vacation in 1888 because of Annie’s ill-health, but this is not certain, and in any case they continued vacationing in the Poconos at least until the mid to late 1890s. It may be that these vacations were viewed as therapeutic, especially in the later years, for there is mention in the correspondence of getting away from the heat in Princeton. In 1896 Annie was ill, but they thought the mountain air would be good for her, so they went as usual — although the trip was hard on her. Further, Annie maintained an active role in their First Presbyterian Church of Princeton until the early 1890s. Still in the 1890s we know that Annie loved to go “driving” — out and about driving her horse-drawn carriage. And Annie maintained an active role in their First Presbyterian Church of Princeton until the early 1890s. And very tellingly, as I note in the introductory chapter of my The Theology of B.B. Warfield (p.29), I discovered a New York Times mention that Annie served as a patroness at a formal event in Princeton on April 30, 1892. All this to say that the “invalid” terminology must be understood as relevant only in the later years and then only in a relative sense. Allis is doubtless a reliable witness to what he saw, but all of these examples predate his time at Princeton. The fact is he over-generalizes: Annie was able to serve in a public role at an important event at least as late as 1892, drive her own carriage about Princeton and travel to the mountains well into the 1890s. And the legends we commonly hear today, of course, go even beyond even Allis’s reports.
Although it is evident that Warfield was the caring husband Allis and Machen describe, it is not certain how much “hands on” care she actually required even during her later years. If Kerr is correct that Annie was bedridden for her final two years, and if by this he meant that she was completely bedridden, then of course she required much care for that final period of her life. The impression we are given from reports today is that he gave her extensive personal care in the home, but we just do not know these details. And for that matter the Warfields were rather well to do and had servants to help in the home.
Just briefly, it is common today to read that Annie was a recluse, perhaps inferring this from Machen’s remark that “she has seen hardly anyone except Dr. Warfield.” But it should be noted that Machen gives no time-frame for this at all, no indication whether he is speaking of her final months or the final couple years. And in any case it is not clear at all that he meant to indicate that she was a recluse. Also, there is a photo of Warfield and New Testament professor George T. Purves sitting in Warfield’s study at home around 1900, so people were in the home at least until then.
The long and short of all this is that Annie was somehow affected by a thunderstorm in Germany in 1876 or 77, and that this had a debilitating effect on her until in the mid 1890s she became increasingly “invalid” and homebound. Tragic as this is (and I certainly don’t mean to minimize it), it has been overstated in many more recent accounts. Annie was not paralyzed, we don’t know that she was struck by lightning, and she was not absolutely invalid until perhaps in her very final years. But the thunderstorm event was traumatic, and evidently it did have gradually debilitating effects. And Warfield was obviously concerned to be close and provide well for her. Please note that my intention here is not to relegate the entire story to mythology, only to check the over-statements.
The Warfields had no children, though from her correspondence it seems she was well-loved by her nieces and nephews. And their marriage was quite evidently a happy one, as evidenced by the lovely witness to this effect from those who knew them, the much regular and meaningful time Benjamin and Annie spent together, and his own choosing to be near her in her relatively frail nervous condition rather than accepting engagements away.
Annie died on November 19, 1915. Though she had passed more than five years before him, in Warfield’s last will and testament he gave her remembrance, funding a lectureship in her memory at the seminary — the “Annie Kinkead Warfield Lectures” — that continues still today.
Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010) and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012).
1. Banner of Truth 89 (Fall 1971), p. 10.
2. Cited in Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), p.220.
3. For most of this and the following information regarding the Warfields’ early years together I am gratefully indebted to Dr. Bradley Gundlach. Brad has done more extensive biographical research on Warfield and has a closer acquaintance with the Warfield correspondence than anyone else. Hopefully we’ll one day see his work in print.
4. Princeton Seminary Bulletin, XXV:1. New Series, 2004, p.85.