From the beginning of his New York ministry, Miller was not despised for his youth but instead proved an exemplary colleague. The local Reformed ministry included not only Miller’s pastoral colleagues at Collegiate, but also John M. Mason (Associate Reformed) as well as Reformed Dutch pastors John H. Livingston and William Linn. It was really a golden opportunity for Miller to serve the Lord with such experienced colleagues. He often spoke in other churches and delivered lectures before societies. Miller expressed his opposition to slavery and promoted gradual emancipation when he spoke to his fellow members of the New York Society Promoting the Manumission of Slaves in 1797.
Samuel was born Reformation Day, October 31, 1769, in Dover the eighth of nine children and the fourth son of John and Margaret (Millington) Miller. Margaret was the daughter of an English sea captain who abandoned the uncertainties of sailing the seven seas for living on the good earth as a planter in Maryland. John Miller was minister of the Presbyterian churches in Smyrna and Dover Delaware and the household lived on a hundred-acre farm. During the division of the Presbyterians into Old and New Sides, 1741-1758, he was a member of the Old Side Presbytery of New Castle. The Sides are not the same as the Old and New Schools. The Sides divided over interpretation and application of the Adopting Act of 1729 concerning subscription to the Westminster Confession. An associated issue was itinerant evangelists conducting revival meetings within presbyteries of which they were not members. The Old Side believed in full subscription to the Confession while the New opposed subscription or believed in a greatly limited commitment to its summary of doctrine. The Old Side held to strong church judicatories governed by presbyters that directed their churches with a thorough commitment to the Westminster Standards and presbyterian polity.
Samuel’s early education in preparation for college was with two older brothers under the direction of his father. He then entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1788. The university was during its years before Miller attended influenced by Francis Alison, a leader of Old Side Presbyterians. Mark Noll described Alison as “an Old Side stalwart” (Princeton & the Republic, 40). Alison’s work at the university was influential extending 1752-1779 with his positions including master of the Latin school, rector of the academy, teaching moral philosophy, professor of Greek and Latin, and vice provost. But at the time Miller attended the provost was John Ewing, pastor of First Church, Philadelphia. Ewing was taught in Alison’s New London academy then graduated the College of New Jersey (Princeton, New Side). Had Samuel been encouraged to go to University of Pennsylvania by his father because of its Old Side history during Alison’s years anticipating his continued influence through his students? Possibly, but Ewing’s views were not so rigorous as Alison’s. Young Miller, he was nineteen, graduated with high honors July 31, 1789 after only one year of attendance. As salutatorian he delivered a Latin oration against the lack of concern for educating women in his time. Note that this was the year after the United States Constitution was ratified and he was speaking of equality for women regarding education. Degree in hand, he returned to Dover.
Dover would always be home for Samuel Miller because he enjoyed the family farm and country life. John tutored his brilliant son in theology in preparation for the ministry. Licensure involved a multi-step process. He began trials at Rockawalkin Church in Somerset County, Maryland, April 20, 1791, delivering his doctrinal sermon from 1 Corinthians 15:22—
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
The weighty doctrine of federal headship correlates the fall and sin with its defeat through the perfect righteousness and atoning work of the resurrected Christ. The next step for licensure was in June, followed by further examinations during the fall meeting in October to complete the process. He was tested regarding personal piety, Latin, Greek, rhetoric, logic, natural and moral philosophy, as well as divinity. At the October meeting he delivered what was described as a “popular sermon.” During this same meeting Samuel’s recently deceased father was remembered for his forty-three years of ministry to his congregations and for the presbytery.
The usual procedure for continuing his study of divinity would have been to find a local minister and pick up where his father’s instruction ended, but in November, Miller made his way west to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Carlisle was a community settled and developed by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians; it was a western enclave for Presbyterians who felt disenfranchised by the Eastern elite. He made the move with approval of his presbytery to study with Charles Nisbet (1736-1804), the president of Dickinson College. Nisbet could speak nine languages, was a member of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and a defender of rigorous Calvinism. Nisbet had recommended John Witherspoon for the College of New Jersey Presidency. Miller commented in his biography that in the evenings for two or three hours he would meet in Nisbet’s home to inquire
on whatever subject I might desire information, whether in Theology or Literature, ancient or modern, I had but to propose the topic, and suggest queries, to draw forth everything that I wished. (Life, 1:58; “I” has been substituted for “he”)
Nisbet’s knowledge was encyclopedic. Miller had expected Professor Nisbet to be cold and distant, but instead he found the Scotsman and his family affable and hospitable. Nisbet was as important doctrinally for Miller, other than his father, as was William Graham for his future colleague at Princeton Seminary, Archibald Alexander. When Nisbet died in 1804, the search for a replacement led to Miller, but he turned it down. Miller would publish in 1840, Memoir of the Rev. Charles Nisbet, D.D., but when he was asked to edit Nisbet’s lectures for publication, he turned down the request.
In 1792 Miller was invited to candidate for a church on Long Island, but when he stopped for a visit in New York he was invited to preach in a church. That fall, he was issued a call by a unanimous vote of the Collegiate Presbyterian Church of New York to join ministers John Rodgers and John McKnight.