Of Providence and Policy—John Witherspoon (1723 – 1794)
On Friday, May 17, 1776 the Continental Congress declared a general fast to prepare the United Colonies for an imminent war. John Witherspoon, Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), took this opportunity to preach what would become his most famous sermon, “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men.” War, he said, is a humbling enterprise: “Public calamities, particularly the destroying sword, is so awful that it cannot but have a powerful influence in leading men to consider the presence and the power of God.”1 As awful as the impending conflict was, he argued it must be pursued since political independence and religious freedom go hand-in-hand.2
According to the second U.S. president, John Adams, Witherspoon was dedicated to the American Revolution, “as high a son of liberty as any man in America.”3 This was a strange turn of events considering he spent the first 45 years of his life in Scotland. For 23 years he pastored, earning a name for himself at his second parish at the Laigh Kirk in Paisley. He preached two substantive sermons each Sunday, and, during the week he catechized his members.4
Proof of Witherspoon’s reputation came in 1768, when he was invited to become the sixth president of the College of New Jersey. Though he had turned down numerous pastorates to remain in Paisley, he and his wife decided that Princeton presented an opportunity too significant to refuse. They accepted, though warily, since the five previous presidents died prematurely in office. With five children in tow, on August 7, 1768, they arrived in the New World.5
Witherspoon grew sympathetic quickly to the colonists’ yearning for freedom. When his students spoke out against the British, President Witherspoon administered no discipline. In 1774 he co-founded a Committee of Correspondence to communicate support for the Continental Congress. Then, in June 1776, as a member of the New Jersey Provincial Congress, Witherspoon was elected to the Continental Congress, and on July 4 he was the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Many pastors supported and served in the Revolutionary War, but Witherspoon articulated the ideals for a fledgling democracy—ideals that ring true today. He maintained that liberty and political justice promoted the “knowledge of God and his truths.”6 And, Witherspoon objected to civil magistrates having authority over the affairs of the American Presbyterian Church.7 Furthermore, he reminded Christian citizens that private virtues should show themselves in public matters: “[R]emember that your duty to God, to your country, to your families, and to yourselves is the same.”8 Remembering this duty, he argued, is for the common good: “[W]hen the manners of a nation are pure, when true religion and internal principles maintain their vigor, the attempts of the most powerful enemies to oppress them are commonly baffled and disappointed.”9
In short, Witherspoon did not just preach the Bible, he helped found a country where the Bible could be freely preached. He did not just encourage character, he called for character to be applied for both personal and public life. He did not just advocate independence, he sacrificed for it. Some of the Founding Fathers were deists. Thankfully, the one minister to sign the Declaration of Independence was the orthodox and influential John Witherspoon.
John Witherspoon, “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men,” in The Selected Writings of John Witherspoon, ed. Thomas Miller (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990), 131-132.
Ibid., 140-141. “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty is lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.” Witherspoon ended his sermon with these words: “God grant that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may in the issue tend to the support and establishment of both.” Ibid., 147.
L. Gordon Tait, The Piety of John Witherspoon: Pew, Pulpit, and Public Forum (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2001), 16.
Witherspoon, Ibid., 140.
Joseph Loconte, “Minister to Freedom: The Legacy of Jonathan Witherspoon,” Heritage Foundation Website, 18, http://www.heritage.org/Research/features/PresidentsEssay/PresEssay2001.pdf (accessed August 14, 2006).
Witherspoon, Ibid., 147. “True religion is nothing else but an inward temper and outward conduct suited to your state and circumstances in providence at any time.”
Quoted in Tait, Ibid., 186.