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A Christian America: John Witherspoon and the Presbyterian Roots of American Independance

By Roger Schultz
May 01, 2003

According to an old story, the most fiery and compelling pro-independence speech at the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, came from the Rev. John Witherspoon.1 Though the story is apocryphal, it illustrates the patriotic leadership of this Presbyterian minister and the level of respect accorded him by his generation. Unfortunately, Witherspoon is largely forgotten today. For example, I can't remember the last time I saw a mainline college history text that makes a reference to him.

To contemporary observers, however, who sometimes see the War for Independence as a "Presbyterian rebellion," Witherspoon played a key role. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence — the only clergyman to do so. He was president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), which was a "seedbed of sedition." Throughout the Independence conflict Witherspoon was in Congress, and he served on several key committees.

As late as 1778, British leaders considered Witherspoon to be the chief leader of the revolutionary cause. (It shouldn't surprise us that they automatically assumed that the main colonial troublemaker was a Presbyterian from Scotland. As one famous English commentator put it, "cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.")2 And the venerable doctor did speak forcefully for independence. Upon his arrival in Congress, Witherspoon was briefed on conflicting arguments for immediate independence and prolonged waiting (some said the colonies weren't "ripe for independence"). He responded that the colonies were not only "ripe" for independence, but were "in danger of becoming rotten for want of it."3 Tories hated him for his resolute stand. They burned Witherspoon in effigy and scorched him in song. The refrain from one Tory tune was: "I'd rather be a dog than Witherspoon!"4

So why has Witherspoon been forgotten? In large part, it is because historians have been hostile to or ambivalent about the role of religion in American history. And those historians willing to examine the influence of Christianity are hampered by a lack of documents. Rushdoony argues that historians lack both desire and resources to assess the role of religion in history. Witherspoon is a perfect example, he argues, as major research libraries have little information about this profound figure.5

Pilloried by Modern Leftists
Unfortunately, Witherspoon has had rough treatment from Christian historians. Some condemn him for being too political and patriotic. The evangelical left criticized Witherspoon's political engagement, for instance, because it associated his activism with that of the Christian Right.6 I am convinced that evangelical lefties pilloried Witherspoon as a sneaky way of attacking the Moral Majority.7

Some Reformed writers have joined the attack on Witherspoon, hinting that the venerable Princeton president was too influenced by the Enlightenment. Gary North, for instance, calls Witherspoon an apostle of "Apostate Covenantalism."8

Witherspoon is worthy of our attention for a number of reasons. First, he was a genuine Christian. In the recent book, The Piety of John Witherspoon, Gordon Talt underscores Witherspoon's Biblical convictions and religious devotion.9 His theology resonated with Calvinistic themes of human depravity, the free grace of God, and justification through the imputation of Christ's righteousness. The earnestness of his theology is expressed in his advice to a young preacher: "It is a difficult thing, and it is a dreadful thing, to preach an unknown Saviour."10

Second, Witherspoon was a zealous advocate of orthodox Christianity. While still in Scotland he led the Evangelical (Orthodox) Party in opposition to the liberal Moderate Party and its "ecclesiastical tyranny." Witherspoon's EcclesiasticalCharacteristics was a delightful satire on the liberalism of his day, and it made him a transatlantic champion of Biblical Christianity.

Third, Witherspoon had an unparalleled record as an educator. He was president of the College of New Jersey for over twenty-five years. His graduates included a president of the United States, a vice-president, ten cabinet members, six members of the Continental Congress, 39 U.S. representatives, 21 U.S. senators, 12 governors, 56 state legislators, 30 judges, three U.S. Supreme Court judges, six members of the Constitutional Convention, and 13 college presidents.11 And Witherspoon's Princeton also produced a disproportionately high number of Independence leaders.

Fourth, Witherspoon was a great patriot and statesman. He emerged as a popular independence leader in 1776 with the publication of a sermon, "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men." The sermon is still well worth reading. It combines a justification for independence with strong statements of God's sovereignty and a powerful evangelistic appeal.12

Fifth, Witherspoon was a churchman who took a leading role in the formation of the Presbyterian Church. At the Third General Assembly (1791), for instance, over two-thirds of the ministers were Princeton men, and nearly half had been Witherspoon's personal students.

Sixth, Witherspoon was a staunch free market advocate. His "Essay on Money" was a classic defense of hard money. Witherspoon had seen first-hand the dangers of a debased currency and crippling inflation during the Revolutionary era. He also spoke against the wage and price controls that some advocated, warning about the incipient statism of the proposals. Wrote Witherspoon: "Remember, laws are not almighty. It is beyond the power of despotic princes to regulate the price of goods...."13

Seventh, Witherspoon was a vigorous Christian apologist. He advocated a system called Scottish Realism or Common Sense. Some have seen this as a compromise with the Enlightenment, and it is true that Witherspoon could have been more epistemologically and apologetically self-conscious. It is most fair, however, to see Witherspoon as employing the best tools at his disposal to refute the inroads of the skeptical Enlightenment. Witherspoon did use reason, but only in apologetic sense of appeal to general revelation. Referring to Scripture as the "unerring standard," Witherspoon stressed: "Let not human understanding be put in the balance with divine wisdom." Reason, always subordinate to the Word of God, had value in corroborating the Bible and in "inducing men to believe the other truths in scripture." As Witherspoon put it in one sermon: "If the testimony of God in scripture is to be rested on, this one passage is sufficient; but the unbelieving heart is ready to challenge and call into question every such scripture declaration. Therefore, I shall, first, briefly lay before you some of the scripture declaration on this subject; and secondly, confirm them from experience, the visible standard of the world, and the testimony of our own hearts."14

The Proper Priorities
Finally, Witherspoon is an excellent example of how a Christian establishes earthly and heavenly priorities. He was committed to the cause of independence, for instance, but he understood that this political goal paled in comparison to spiritual and eternal causes. The following excerpts from the application section of Witherspoon's "The Dominion of Providence" illustrate well his Christian focus:

I would take the opportunity on this occasion, and from this subject, to press every hearer to a sincere concern for his own soul's salvation. There are times when the mind may be expected to be more awake to divine truth, and the conscience more open to the arrows of conviction than at others. A season of public judgment is of this kind.... I do not blame your ardor in preparing for the resolute defense of your temporal rights; but consider, I beseech you, the truly infinite importance of the salvation of your souls. Is it of much moment whether you and your children shall be rich or poor, at liberty or in bonds? And is it of less moment, my brethren, whether you shall be the heirs of glory or the heirs of hell? Is your state on earth for a few fleeting years of so much moment? And is it of less moment what shall be your state through endless ages! Wherefore, my beloved hearers, as the ministry of reconciliation is committed to me, I beseech you in the most earnest manner, to attend to "the things that belong to your peace, before they are hid from your eyes." I would therefore earnestly press the apostle's exhortation, "Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6: 1-2). There can be no true religion, till there be a discovery of your lost state by nature and practice, and an unfeigned acceptance of Christ Jesus, as he is offered in the gospel. Unhappy are they who either despise his mercy, or are ashamed of his cross. Believe it, "There is no salvation in any other." "There is no other name under heaven given amongst men by which we must be saved." I do not speak this only to the heaven-daring profligate or groveling sensualist, but to every insensible, secure sinner; to all those, however decent and orderly in their civil deportment, who live to themselves, and have their part and portion in this life; in fine, to all who are yet in a state of nature, for "except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

Witherspoon was an exemplary Christian of the Revolutionary era. He was committed to the "resolute defense" of American "civil and religious liberties." Yet his ultimate commitment was to King Jesus. I wish that there were more preachers and college presidents and Congressmen like John Witherspoon today.

Notes

1. See Varnum Lansing Collins, President Witherspoon (Princeton, 1925) I: 218-220.

2. For Witherspoon's influence, see James Smylie, "Introduction," Journal of Presbyterian History 54 (Spring, 1976): 5; and Roger Schultz, "Covenanting in America: The Political Philosophy of John Witherspoon," The Journal of Christian Reconstruction 12:1 (1988): 179-180.

3. Collins, I:218.

4. Quoted in Martha Stohlman, John Witherspoon (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1976), 107-108.

5. Rousas Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), 128-129. See also Rushdoony, This Independent Republic (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1978). 3. Witherspoon's writings are being reprinted by Sprinkle Publishing.

6. Influenced by Francis Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell stressed America's Christian roots. Falwell learned that "[I]t was my duty as a Christian to apply the truths of Scripture to every act of government." In his autobiography, he further argues, "We cannot forget God's law as we live in man's world. We must work to convince others that God's law is right and will bring health and long life to the nation." Jerry Falwell, Falwell: AnAutobiography (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty House, 1997), 360, 367.

7. In all of his political sermons, Witherspoon stressed that the patriot's greatest concern should be his soul's salvation. The charge that Witherspoon was a hyper-nationalist who confused political and religious issues is simply untrue.

8. Gary North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), 317-320. He recognizes, however, that his assessment of Witherspoon is substantially different than Rushdoony's.

9. L. Gordon Talt, The Piety of John Witherspoon: Pew, Pulpit, and Public Forum (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2001).

10. Ibid, 103.

11. Collins, President Witherspoon, II:229.

12. John Witherspoon, "The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men," in Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Indianapolis: Liberty P ress, 1991), 529-558.

13. Quoted in Commager and Morris, eds., The Spirit of Seventy-Six (N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1967), 783-784.

14. Quoted in Schultz, "Covenanting in America," 227.


Topics: Biography, Christian Reconstruction, Dominion, Government, Justice, Education, Reformed Thought, American History

Roger Schultz

Dr. Roger Schultz is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Liberty University.  He previously served as Chair of the History Department at Liberty and has taught at Virginia Intermont College, the University of Arkansas, and Oak Hills Christian College. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  He holds degrees from Bemidji State University (B.A.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A.), and the University of Arkansas (Ph.D.)

His specialty is American religious history.  His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications and have been translated into Hungarian and Spanish.  Dr. Schultz frequently preaches in local churches and speaks at academic and Christian conferences.  The Schultzes have nine children.


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