He held a prominent place in the New School branch of the Presbyterians during the Old School-New School Controversy, to which he adhered on the division of the denomination in 1837; he had been tried (but not convicted) for heresy in 1836, the charge being particularly against the views expressed by him in Notes on Romans (1835) of the imputation of the sin of Adam, original sin and the atonement; the bitterness stirred up by this trial contributed towards widening the breach between the conservative and the progressive elements in the church. He was an eloquent preacher, but his reputation rests chiefly on his expository works, which are said to have had a larger circulation both in Europe and America than any others of their class.
Of the well-known Notes on the New Testament, it is said that more than a million volumes had been issued by 1870. The Notes on Job, the Psalms, Isaiah and Daniel found scarcely less acceptance. Displaying no original critical power, their chief merit lies in the fact that they bring in a popular (but not always accurate) form the results of the criticism of others within the reach of general readers. Barnes was the author of several other works of a practical and devotional kind, including Scriptural Views of Slavery (1846) and The Way of Salvation (1863). A collection of his Theological Works was published in Philadelphia in 1875.
In his famous 1852 oratory, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?", Frederick Douglass quoted Barnes as saying: "There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it."
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