Witherspoon and the Great Awakening

If there was a Great Awakening in America that had a monumental affect on our Founding Fathers, then it was the Signer, John Witherspoon, who is to blame.

“Presbyterian John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), attended the Continental Congress as a delegate. In Virginia, even a Church of England minister supported the Revolutionaries, shouting out “God preserve all the just rights and liberties of America” to a stunned congregation.”

Above is a photo of Dorothy (Dottie) Witherspoon and myself in taken in 1971. She descends from John, and the Calvinist, John Knox. When I was told by a Seer I have two children, Dottie came to mind as being the mother of one of my children, before my daughter came into my life when she was sixteen. Until I did the math I wondered if Reese Witherspoon was my child.

There is a debate whether there was a fourth Great Awakening. Dotty and I became involved in alternative religions that so called hippies were exploring that might constitute this last awakening that perhaps is the dreaded leftist attack on Christian Americans that Newt Gingrich speaks of.

“Gingrich said that the religious foundation of America is being attacked on two fronts: “We have a secular elitist wing that deeply, deeply disbelieves in America, that wants to create a different country based on a different set of principles,” he said. “And we have a radical Islamist one which legitimately and authentically hates us and should.”

It is interesting that Newt gives radical Islamist THE RIGHT to hate us, but denies leftist hippies the same right to hate the right-wing military christian complex that ruthlessly oppressed us, and demonizes us to this day – for political and religious gain. The truth is, hippies hated radical Islamists and their use of violence because they turned mainstream Americans against the Peace Movement that saw itself a True patriots.

Jon the Nazarite

John Witherspoon was one of the people who effective spoke in a way that brought those influenced by the Awakening and Enlightenment together. Witherspoon pointed out the public repercussions of private belief, arguing that people who did not fear God would do whatever they could get away with, until anarchy reigned and a fearsome government arose in reaction. In the excerpt from his writing below notice how he speaks of ministry in the presence of God, a theme we are all familiar with.

John Witherspoon: The Forgotten Founding Father

Though I have called John Witherspoon the “Forgotten Founding Father,” I want to suggest that Witherspoon’s role in the American founding, as signer of the Declaration of Independence among other things, was just one of the three lives he led in the English-speaking world of the eighteenth century.

First, he was a leader of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland–the Kirk–and spokesman for its strongest and deepest religious traditions. Then, he was America’s foremost educator: As president of Princeton University, John Witherspoon would be the single most important pedagogical influence in the thirteen colonies and the conduit of exciting new ideas and principles into American intellectual and cultural life.

Finally, both these earlier lives flowed together into his third role as American patriot: A key figure, perhaps the key figure, whose importance in the founding of this country goes far beyond his role as signer of the Declaration of Independence.

In all these capacities, Witherspoon remained true to a single principle: the importance of religious belief and faith in God to the moral life of the nation, that faith in God opens a window onto the world and onto our own destiny. There was no more important apostle of the principle of religious freedom in this country–religious freedom conceived as inseparable from political freedom. Indeed, if there is a notion of America as “one nation under God,” we owe it to John Witherspoon.1

Although he played such an important part in the shaping of the American republic, John Witherspoon did not arrive in this country until he was forty-five. He was born and bred in Scotland, in Yester parish in East Lothian near Edinburgh, the son of a clergyman.2 He remained true to his Scottish roots right down to his death. He entered Edinburgh University at age thirteen, which was not so unusual in Scotland at that time: David Hume was only twelve when he matriculated there, and received his degree in divinity at a time when the Scottish Presbyterian Church was locked in a battle between two opposing camps. The Evangelicals argued for a strict adherence to biblical principles and the teachings of its Calvinist founder, John Knox–particularly on predestination. A younger generation, inspired by more “enlightened” ideas from England and calling themselves the Moderates, were questioning that rigid position.

The Moderates looked at the Kirk’s regime of “godly discipline”–strict Sabbath keeping (people could be arrested for plucking a chicken on Sundays), no dancing, no theater (until the 1750s any dramatic presentations had to be held in private homes), no card-playing, harsh punishments for adultery and fornication–and condemned it as close-minded, lacking in Christian compassion, and above all uncivilized and “unrefined.” Their leader was Francis Hutcheson, the great teacher of Adam Smith and leading light at the University of Glasgow. They included many of the intellectual elite who would form the Scottish Enlightenment: Hutcheson, Thomas Reid, William Robertson, and Hugh Blair.3

Witherspoon knew the Moderates well–he was a classmate with Robertson and Alexander Carlyle–but in the end his sympathies remained with the Evangelicals. His reasons were not just theological. The Moderates were deeply unpopular with ordinary Scots. They liked their old-time religion and hated the newfangled innovations and changes Moderate clergymen tried to introduce. For this reason, the Moderates came to rely on the political patronage of the rich and powerful to secure their parishes: Church consistories had to watch as the local landlord threw out their old familiar ministers and installed new, unfamiliar ones, with fancy educations and “advanced” notions about how the Lord was to be worshiped, which to the average Presbyterian smacked of Popery. Parishioners fought back. Riots broke out across Lowland Scotland in the 1740s. Thomas Reid had to be installed in his parish by armed redcoat soldiers.4

Witherspoon’s sympathies were entirely with the local parishes. He took the name Moderates used to describe the Evangelicals, the “Popular Party,” with pride. He saw himself as truly a preacher to the people: the farmers and shopkeepers and apprentices and tenant laborers and crofters who were the backbone of the Kirk. Witherspoon believed they deserved a say in who their ministers were to be, and how the Gospel, their Gospel, was to be preached. He perceived in his Moderate classmates a pernicious elitism. A minister who believed himself better than his congregation was the true violator of the precepts of Christian compassion.

In 1753, he anonymously published a devastating satire of the Moderate position, which he titled Ecclesiastical Characteristics. It offered mock advice to the aspiring Moderate clergyman; for example, it provided directions for writing Sunday sermons in the new “with it” style:

· All his subjects must be confined to social duties, as opposed to religious doctrines.

· There must be no reference to an afterlife.

· His authorities must be drawn from pagan writers, and none from Holy Scripture.

· He must be very unacceptable to the common people. 5

Ecclesiastical Characteristics was a huge success. It was so funny that even Moderates bought copies and read it. It made Witherspoon’s reputation, but it could not save the Evangelical party. By 1756 the Moderates were in firm control of the Kirk’s General Assembly and Witherspoon could read the writing on the wall. He took up his living in Paisley, then a tiny town on the western edge of Glasgow, and settled down to teach and preach to his grateful congregation for the next decade.

For Scottish Evangelicals like Witherspoon, the loss of their Kirk was a deep disappointment. They began looking to a new place where the True Gospel might find a home, a new hope for the future:America.

America was in the midst of its Great Awakening. Presbyterian ministers up and down the thirteen colonies (most of whom were either Scottish-born or Scottish-trained) were sparking a powerful religious revival, celebrating the glory of God and the coming of Christ’s kingdom in America. It would be the new home of the righteous, the righteous of all faiths, who would join together in a single great community. So it was with a great sense of opportunity that John Witherspoon received an invitation in 1766 to come to America to lead the Presbyterian College of New Jersey at Princeton.

Princeton was one of a series of distinguished colleges founded in the wake of the Great Awakening–Dartmouth was one, the College of Rhode Island (later Brown University) was another–and the leader of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, was its first president. But Edwards died after less than three months in office. Princeton went through four more presidents in fewer than twenty years. Its trustees hoped that the distinguished minister from Paisley could give it the continuity and stability it needed, as well as the proper evangelical spirit.

For Witherspoon, it was a wrenching decision. He was now settled in Paisley, with a growing and grateful flock. His wife was terrified by the journey: Many had died making the very same trip across the Atlantic. But Witherspoon was swayed by a vision of America as the next great Christian commonwealth. One of his fellow ministers had written to him: “I have long thought it the intention of Providence…to fix the great seat of truth and righteousness in America; and that New Jersey seemed to promise fair for being the nursery of the most approved instruments for carrying on that great design….”6

Witherspoon accepted the offer and on May 18, 1768, he and his wife boarded a ship at Greenock bound for Philadelphia. They arrived on August 7, where he met with a throng of church officials and well-wishers. Five days later they set out by carriage for Princeton. That night they came up the drive to Nassau Hall, the principal college building, and found it ablaze with light. To greet their new president, the Princeton students had hung every window with dozens of candles and lanterns–turning the college into an iridescent beacon of light in the surrounding darkness.7

Witherspoon was determined to make Princeton not just the best college in the colonies, but the best in the entire English-speaking world. The model he chose for its curriculum was that of his own alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. He introduced the same rigorous humanist education in Greek and Latin, as well as philosophy, history, geography, science, mathematics, and theology.

Witherspoon wanted Princeton to represent an education that was far more than just a form of religious indoctrination, but rather a broadening and deepening of the human spirit. He wanted it open to all religious denominations: not just Presbyterians, but Episcopalians, Baptists, and Congregationalists–even American Indians and blacks. In fact, one of several black students who studied under Witherspoon at Princeton was John Chavis, who later became a distinguished teacher and minister.8

For Witherspoon, the goal of education was to promote “virtue and happiness, as well as arts and industry,” and to do this, students needed above all else freedom. “Govern, govern always,” he told his faculty and staff, “but beware of governing too much. Convince your pupils…that you wish to see them happy, and desire to impose no restraints but such as their real advantage, and the order and welfare of the college, render indispensable.” Witherspoon abolished all forms of corporal punishment and flogging, and reinforced a “spirit of liberty and free enquiry” as the college’s guiding principle–the guiding principles of the American college ideal until today. 9

Witherspoon swept into Princeton like a human dynamo. In addition to serving as president and principal orator of the college, he was also chairman of the Philosophy Department, chairman of the History Department, chairman of the English Department, gave the sermon in the college chapel every Sunday, and then, in his copious free time, he tutored students in French and Hebrew.

Through it all he stuck to his guiding principle of the spirit of free inquiry. This is why he insisted his students read everything relevant to their areas of study, even the authors and philosophers he disagreed with, including his Scottish Moderate opponents: Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume, and Thomas Reid. Even if you disagreed with them, Witherspoon maintained that you still had to know your opponent’s arguments as well as he did in order to refute them.

The result was that Princeton students working with Witherspoon, like the young James Madison and Aaron and Henry Lee, were exposed to the full range of new ideas and insights coming out of the Scottish Enlightenment–some of which they found more compelling than Witherspoon’s own positions. In either case, for the next century Princeton became the main conduit of Scottish Enlightenment ideas into American education and intellectual life, thanks to John Witherspoon.

Witherspoon also did not shy away from contemporary issues and even political controversy. He organized student debates and speeches almost every night at Nassau Hall, and opened the debates to the general public, so that they could hear what the next generation of American leadership was thinking and discussing. The topics included the principle of free trade (the subject of Witherspoon’s first commencement address), even as the Navigation Acts and Stamp Acts were being imposed on the thirteen colonies. There were debates on patriotism, on the nature of genius, and on the importance of defending civil liberties, even to the point of death.10

Then in 1770, Princeton held a debate on man’s natural right to freedom, which had a particular relevance to a New Jersey on the verge of rebellion against the British Crown. Witherspoon’s thoughts were already moving in a direction binding him even closer to his adopted home. Although he was a Scot and a Briton (a “North Briton,” as Scots of the day liked to call themselves), his sympathies were entirely with the American colonies. He had chosen the Evangelical “Popular Party” in Scotland because he was opposed to what he called “lordly domination,” a violation of man’s right to freedom. Now the same issue was at stake in America.

America had to be free in order to fulfill its place in God’s “great design.” If Britain refused to give it to her, she would have to take matters into her own hands.

In 1774, as the first Continental Congress was meeting, Witherspoon published his Thoughts on American Liberty. He urged the Congress to start thinking about America as a single unified nation, with a distinct national interest. As such, it could take a firm stand against any attempt to dictate how it should run its own affairs. As a man of the cloth, Witherspoon was a man of peace. But he would prefer “war with all its horrors, and even extermination, to slavery riveted on us and our posterity.”11 He made a speaking tour across the colonies, rallying support for the American cause and for the principle of human freedom.

Witherspoon’s most important contribution to the American Revolution came after hostilities had begun, when in May 1776 members of the Continental Congress were assembling in Philadelphia to take the first formal steps toward separation from Great Britain. On May 17, Witherspoon stepped to the pulpit in Princeton’s chapel and delivered a sermon he later published as The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men. It began with a survey of the role of God’s Providence in world history–of how, as the Psalms put it, “not a sparrow falls but God knows it.” This was because, as Witherspoon explained, God ultimately knows and wills everything that happens in His creation, especially the fate of His chosen people. His benevolence defended the Jews, then the early Christians; it guided the Reformation, and extended it to the shores of America. Now God was guiding the turbulent events in the colonies. Witherspoon made the issue clear:

I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in a great measure the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue. 12
What was at stake was not just taxes or the rights of freeborn Englishmen, but the principle of a Christian commonwealth dedicated to God. In fact, for Witherspoon the political and religious issues were inseparable: “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost and religious liberty [kept] entire.” The final proof, in Witherspoon’s mind, that this rebellion was part of God’s divine plan was that so many different religious denominations–Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Episcopalians–had come together to support it. “He is the best friend to American liberty,” Witherspoon asserted, who combined commitment to political freedom with a commitment to God. If American could do this, he said, “there will be the greatest reason to hope, by the blessing of God, for prosperity and success.”13

A Christian commonwealth dedicated to liberty and God: No political vision could possibly be further removed from the principles of the Scottish Enlightenment, or even Thomas Jefferson or John Adams. But in 1776, America hit precisely the right note. Witherspoon’s invocation helped tip the balance in the minds of colonists who might have been hostile, or at least cool, to the idea of rebelling against their sovereign king. It was the authentic voice of Protestant America. Witherspoon mobilized a revivalist fervor that the revolution needed to succeed, and that the new nation would inherit.

Dominion of Providence went through nine editions, with publishers in Philadelphia, London, and Glasgow. The Edinburgh editors of the Scots Magazine condemned it, and concluded that “the unhappy commotions in our American colonies” were due almost entirely to “clerical influence.” Of that influence, “nonehad a greater sharethan Doctor Witherspoon.”

Some equated his influence over the American revolutionary cause with that of George Washington himself. Horace Walpole, son of the former prime minister, rose in Parliament to address his colleagues. “There is no use crying about it,” he said, “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.” Everyone knew whom he meant. 14

Witherspoon was, of course, the leader of the New Jersey delegation to the Continental Congress. More than any other delegate, Witherspoon saw the Declaration of Independence as a turning point in world history. “It has often been said that the present is likely to be an important era to America,” he told his colleagues, “I think, we may safely say, it is likely to be an important era in the history of mankind… We have the opportunity of forming plans of government upon rational, just, and equal principles.”15 It was something that had never happened before in history; if they failed, he told them, it might never happen again.

On the other hand, a successful American union would serve as model for free peoples around the world. “It is not impossible that in future times all the states of one quarter of the globe [i.e. Europe] may see it proper by some plan of union to perpetual security and peace.” The United States of America could show the way to “hand down the blessings of peace and public order to many [future] generations.”16

Witherspoon left an indelible stamp on the new union. There were nine Princeton graduates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, more than any other college. The principal plan for the new constitution, the one ultimately adopted, was the Virginia Plan, authored by Witherspoon’s favorite student, James Madison. The principal alternative, the so-called New Jersey Plan, was likewise authored and supported by a brace of former Witherspoon students.

Even after his death in 1794, Witherspoon continued to have tremendous influence on the young republic. His students included a president (James Madison), a vice-president (Aaron Burr), nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three Supreme Court justices, twelve governors, thirty-three state and federal court judges, and thirteen college presidents.17

Through it all this “Presbyterian parson” had adhered to a single principle: Without political liberty, there could be no religious liberty. But it was also true that without religious liberty–the power to affirm religion’s rightful place in the public square, and as the moral center of the nation–there could be no political freedom, either. Tyranny or restrictions over the one, must ultimately doom the freedom of the other.

Witherspoon’s guiding principle is a proposition that one would be foolish to ignore, although many try. It provides us with a legacy that is impossible to overstate.

About Royal Rosamond Press

I am an artist, a writer, and a theologian.
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1 Response to Witherspoon and the Great Awakening

  1. Reblogged this on Rosamond Press and commented:

    Never before in the histroy of genealogical tales, have we seen a dog come to the rescue of a poor old man, being snubbed by his beautiful young muse, while he is hot on the trail of a good story, because he own a newspaper named after his grandfather, Royal Rosamond. When I brought Dottie Withersppon to California, her father did a background check on me, and the sheriff of Greenville, pulled up my cosusin I never met, who had a record a mile long. This good father sent his daughter a letter with a note taped tightly shut. Inside, he said “Get away from Greg. He is a dangerous criminal!” I heard Dottie let out a shout; “Greg! Get your ass in here!” She was still in bed. A month later we bought a Blue Tick hound we named Benjamin, because he was born on the Fourth of July. Dottie is kin to Reese Witherspoon who has become the matriarch of Hollywood, now the Liz Taylor is gone. I am now seeking an appology from Lara Roozemond. I will got to great lengths, to get one.

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