July 1, 2001

July 1, 2001 | Commentary on

Minister to Freedom

On July 30, 1776, British troops, flush with bravado as they prepared to run George Washington's battered army off of Long Island, burned the general in effigy. Alongside Washington they torched the figure of a minister, the Reverend John Witherspoon. "An account of the present face of things in America would be very defective indeed," complained an English officer, "if no mention was made of this political firebrand, who perhaps had not a less share in the Revolution than Washington himself." That wasn't just sour grapes. As much as any figure in the colonial era, Witherspoon embodied the explosive alliance between faith and freedom that would inflame the American struggle for Independence. Not long after becoming president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), he was accused of turning the campus into a "seminary of sedition." Following a weekend visit, John Adams called him "as high a son of liberty as any man in America."

Few could have seen it coming. A native of Scotland, Witherspoon spent his early years of ministry preaching and teaching. In September 1758, from the Abbey at Paisley, he rebuked pastors for getting entangled in public affairs. He called it sinful and reckless for them "to desire or claim the direction of such matters as fall within the province of the civil magistrates." Twenty years later the same minister would help persuade the American Continental Congress to keep General Washington and his army up and running.

No religious figure of the era exerted greater influence on national politics. Witherspoon's mailing list included the likes of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Ben Franklin, and Benjamin Rush. He signed the Declaration of Independence-the only cleric to do so-and lost a son in the Revolutionary War. As a state legislator and delegate, he helped ratify the Constitution. And as the principal instructor at Princeton, he groomed a generation of men-including James Madison-for leadership roles in the new nation. Historian Garry Wills has called him "probably the most influential teacher in the entire history of American education."

Not in recent memory has the nation's political culture seemed more primed for-or needful of-the statesmanship of a John Witherspoon. President George W. Bush is making the redemptive work of religious organizations a central feature of his domestic agenda. In so doing, he and his allies apparently hope to reestablish the historic link between robust faith and a healthy civil society. As they continue to collect and fend off their critics, there is much to be learned from the Princeton divine.

Preamble to Liberty
Witherspoon entered the ministry precisely when Scottish Presbyterianism was in schism. One faction, the so-called Moderates, levered the British patronage law to get the upper hand over the more conservative Popular Party, or evangelicals, in the church's General Assembly. The young minister emerged as a leader of the evangelicals, who defended the rights of congregations to elect clergy and control their own affairs. The divisions got ugly. Armed soldiers forced ministers on parishes; others were deposed. There were riots. Thousands bolted from the Church of Scotland. Witherspoon, while strenuously defending orthodox doctrine, became known as a conciliator.

These ecclesiastical outbursts were not occurring in a vacuum. In 1747, when Witherspoon attended his first General Assembly meeting, Francis Hutcheson was busy launching the Scottish Enlightenment with his philosophy of "Common Sense." David Hume was proofreading his Essay Concerning the Human Understanding. And Adam Smith was teaching literature and likely gathering material for The Wealth of Nations. The Moderates in the Scottish church, says one historian, were "only another expression of the general stir of intellectual liberty of the eighteenth century."

For the Calvinist cleric it was a bit too liberating. Enlightenment theology tended to cast off orthodox doctrine and flatten Christianity into an ethical system. Nevertheless, Scotland's social and intellectual elite eagerly embraced the new ideas. Alexander Carlyle, for example, claimed that Hutcheson possessed "a fervent and persuasive eloquence which was irresistible." There were lessons in all of this ferment, ones that Witherspoon would carry with him across the Atlantic.

Faith and Freedom
American Presbyterians were trying to quiet their own doctrinal squabbles. When the president's post opened at the College of New Jersey, an incubator for Presbyterian ministers, church leaders turned to Witherspoon. After two years of negotiating, he agreed to come. His main task when he arrived in Princeton in 1768 was to get the college on a firm financial footing. That required fundraising trips throughout the colonies-and constant exposure to the temper of the times. "A man will become an American," he concluded, "by residing in this country three months … more certainly than by reading or hearing of it for three years, amidst the sophistry of daily disputation."

Along with the disputations came the Boston Tea Party, the closing of Boston Harbor, and the "Coercive Acts" of Parliament in March and April of 1774. That year Witherspoon joined 72 representatives from New Jersey to help elect state delegates to the first Continental Congress. In June 1775, shortly after armed fighting broke out at Lexington, he drafted a pastoral letter for the Presbyterian Synod of New York and Philadelphia. It gave unqualified support to the Congress and warned that if British aggression continued, "a lasting and bloody contest must be expected." According to one historian, the letter "changed the role of the Presbyterian clergy from uncommitted observers to active supporters of the revolution." A year later, Witherspoon joined the Congress as a delegate and led the movement in New Jersey to depose the royal governor.

There was nothing extraordinary about preachers in the Revolutionary era getting mixed up in politics. Many served in state legislatures; quite a few used their pulpits to put an apocalyptic spin on current events. What distinguished Witherspoon was his steely logic about the bond between faith and freedom. In Witherspoon's most famous sermon, "The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men," he joined political and religious liberty at the hip. "There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire," he warned. "If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage."

Indeed, Witherspoon went even further: He made piety indispensable to republican government. Virtually all the Founders, even the most secular-minded, praised the social utility of religion. But few argued as effectively as Witherspoon about its ability to keep a free people from plunging into chaos. "Nothing is more certain," he said, "than that a general profligacy and corruption of manners make a people ripe for destruction." The remedy: "He is the best friend of American liberty who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion."

Witherspoon was not a charismatic speaker-"no flowers in my prose, or in my garden," he liked to say-but his "Dominion" sermon was a rhetorical gem. Delivered in May 1776, it captured the mood of the colonies and was widely distributed. William Warren Sweet, dean of American church historians, has called it "one of the most influential pulpit utterances during the whole course of the war."

Two months later Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence, pledging with his compatriots "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." By November the vow was put to the test. Word came that the King's troops were headed toward Princeton. Witherspoon was forced to cut the term short, dismiss the college, and flee with his wife and family. Washington and his army marched through town on December 2. Within a week a brigade of British troops arrived, quartered themselves in the empty college building, and staged the battle of Princeton.

The Christian Statesman
Princeton would play host to another battle, this one a war of ideas. The crisis with Britain had created the need for a new breed of social leader: a political leader able to engage the vital issues of the day, while brokering political differences. "In 1740 America's leading intellectuals were clergymen and thought about theology," writes historian Edmund Morgan. "In 1790 they were statesmen and thought about politics."

No religious figure was more crucial to this transition than Witherspoon. Here again his fight against the Moderates in the Scottish Church would prove fateful. Witherspoon was not timid about taking intellectual challenges head on. Indeed, he often warned his students against using spirituality as a mask for anti-intellectualism. "We see sometimes the pride of unsanctified knowledge do great injury to religion," he said in an address to the senior class. "On the other hand, we find some persons of real piety, despising human learning, and disgracing the most glorious truths, by a meanness and indecency hardly sufferable in their manner of handling them."

Moreover, the intellectual contests washing onto American shores were inescapable; they touched politics, philosophy, and religion. To counter them, Witherspoon put in place rigorous courses in rhetoric and moral philosophy. He introduced the lecture system in American colleges. He bought state-of-the-art scientific equipment and greatly expanded the college's library. His grammar school soon became one of the best in the colonies.

In his Lectures in Moral Philosophy, a required course, Witherspoon articulated a system of social and political ethics drawn both from his Calvinist tradition and the seventeenth-century English Whigs. Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1690), which found a place in Witherspoon's personal library, was mandatory reading. He also borrowed heavily from Hutcheson, his old nemesis, in emphasizing man's moral sense and capacity for virtue. Indeed, Witherspoon grappled all his life with Common Sense philosophy, scorning its rosy view of human nature, yet willing to use reason as an aid to revelation. "If the Scripture is true," he said, "the discoveries of reason cannot be contrary to it, and therefore, it has nothing to fear from that quarter." With Witherspoon's synthesis, "a force was present at Princeton which would combat the products of eighteenth century rationalism." Indeed, he instigated the most important response to the Enlightenment in American higher education.

Witherspoon had a politician's keen sense of the moment. He rightly envisioned the College of New Jersey assuming a crucial role in providing leadership to the new nation. Toward that end, he launched the most extensive program of oratorical study in revolutionary America. He taught Lectures on Eloquence, an impressive introduction to the art of persuasion. He revved up student philosophical societies to help train students in public speaking. (And speak they did, gathering nightly to deliver orations on free trade, civil disobedience and the horrors of war.) He awarded honorary degrees to political figures, and played host to future presidents and Supreme Court justices.

As much a practitioner as he was an educator, Witherspoon modeled for his students the application of the lessons he imparted to them. He personally delivered assistance to Gen. Washington and the Continental Army. He spent five years in the Continental Congress, serving on more than 100 committees. During a crucial debate over the Articles of Confederation, he challenged Ben Franklin's claim that a confederacy based on equal votes would soon expire. The union must be agreed to now, Witherspoon argued, when all the states faced a common enemy; otherwise, as the conflict deepened they easily could lose heart. "Shall we establish nothing good, because it cannot be eternal? Shall we live without government because every constitution has its old age and its period?"

As an educator, Witherspoon's aim was to "fit young Gentlemen for serving their Country in public Stations" and to place them "in offices of power or trust." That goal was met. As a teacher of theology and ethics, he naturally exerted much influence through his students bound for the ministry. Of the 469 graduates of the college during his presidency, 114 became pastors in churches throughout the colonies.

Though significant, the number might have been larger. Before Witherspoon's arrival, nearly 50 percent of all Princeton graduates became ministers; by the end of his 25-year administration, only half that many would so. The political crisis surely had much to do with this, but so did the president's broad vision of Christian vocation.

The result was that Reverend Witherspoon, an evangelical minister, presided over the foremost school for statesmen at the most strategic point in American history. Among his graduates was one U.S. president (James Madison, B.A., 1771); a vice president (Aaron Burr, B.A., 1772); 12 members of the Continental Congress; five delegates to the Constitutional Convention; 49 U.S. representatives; 28 U.S. senators; three Supreme Court Justices; eight U.S. district judges; one secretary of state; three attorneys general; and two foreign ministers. Another 26 served as state judges, 17 as members of their state conventions that ratified the proposed Constitution.

In August 1768 a somewhat austere Scottish minister arrived in Princeton with his wife and five children. He found the main college building, Nassau Hall, lit from top to bottom with candles to greet him. Perhaps none of those who welcomed him could have guessed that he would help set the campus ablaze with revolutionary fervor. John Adams, writing on the eve of independence, feared that "we have not Men, fit for the Times." But those men did in fact appear, thanks in no small measure to this preacher-cum-politician.

Given the flourishing of religion in America, it is easy to forget that political liberalism in Europe came laced with antireligious venom. It would not be so in the United States, and Witherspoon's career was part of the reason. "It is in the man of piety … that we may expect to find the uncorrupted patriot, the useful citizen, and the invincible soldier," he said. "God grant in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable and the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may in the issue tend to the support and establishment of both."

Joseph Loconte is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

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