On August 7th, 1768, a ship from Glasgow, Scotland sailed up the Delaware River bound for Philadelphia. On board was a 46 year old Scotsman who would be one of the leading figures tying a strong Christian conviction with political freedom.
John Witherspoon was born in Scotland on Feb. 5th, 1723. Enrolling at the University of Edinburgh at thirteen, he became a leader among Scottish evangelicals by presenting an orthodox Calvinism with the publication of Ecclesiastical Characteristics. A heavyset man with brown hair, large nose, bushy eyebrows and blue eyes, he had what his students at Princeton described as, â€œtremendous presence.â€
Twice solicited to become the President of the College of New Jersey, (later Princeton) Witherspoon finally accepted the position in 1768. Initially, he spent much of his time on the schools financial difficulties. Within two years, Witherspoon’s tireless fund-raising efforts (even George Washington contributed) laid a solid foundation for future years.
Witherspoon then turned his attention to educational reform. He was the first to use the lecture method at Princeton, introduced modern languages into the college curriculum and taught courses on moral philosophy.
Witherspoon’s activities at Princeton were interrupted with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Like most Americans, Witherspoon was at first slow to adopt the cause of independence, hoping instead for the two countries to reconcile their differences through the political process.
However, Witherspoon grew increasingly concerned with the attempt of the British to install an Anglican bishop over the American colonies. He viewed this as the first step toward an ecclesiastical tyranny, which could crush the religious freedoms of ‘dissenting’ churches. He was convinced that religious freedom was inextricably intertwined with political and economic liberty. “There is not a single instance in history,” he wrote, “in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If, therefore, we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”
A year into the war, Witherspoon set forth his perspective from the pulpit. In what is perhaps his most celebrated sermon, “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men,” Witherspoon laid out the case for the warring struggle for independence from a Christian perspective.
He said: “… the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature. So far as we have hitherto proceeded, 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.”
Witherspoon articulated the conviction that in a democracy whose ultimate power is based in the people; true liberty can only be maintained by a moral and virtuous citizenry. “It is in the man of piety and inward principle,” he argued, “that we may expect to find the uncorrupted patriot, the useful citizen, and the invincible soldier. 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.”
Elected to the Continental Congress by the people of New Jersey in 1776, he was a strong advocate for declaring the colonies independence. When an opposing member announced that the country was not yet ripe for such a declaration, Witherspoon responded, “Sir, in my judgment, the country is not only ripe, but rotting for the want of it.” He would be one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Witherspoon went on to serve in Congress for the next six years, playing important roles on numerous committees. He was seldom absent from his seat, and his role so prominent that King George III once called the Revolution, “that Presbyterian parson’s war.” In 1782, he retired from his congressional role and took up again the duties of being President of Princeton.
Witherspoon’s later years were filled with difficulty. His wife died in 1789. But a second marriage in 1791, to a young widow of twenty-four, provided much needed comfort and assistance as two years before his death he became totally blind. He died on November 15th, 1794.
His impact on American Christianity and politics was prolific. His students included a president and vice-president of the United States, nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three justices of the Supreme Court, and twelve state governors along with hundreds of clergyman, pastors and missionaries.
In 1 Peter 2:16, the Apostle encourages us to .. “Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.â€
Morality and freedom are inseparable. Those societies that experience the most civil liberties are those which foster moral self-restraint and virtuous behavior. Many of our founding fathers recognized this principle and integrated it into their political thinking. As John Adams later wrote, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion … Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The Christian should be the model citizen, using the spiritual freedom he now has in Christ, not as a license for evil, but as an opportunity to do good. And as he seeks to serve God and others in Christian sacrificial love, he will be the best defender of the liberties fought for and established in the American Revolution.
Witherspoon understood and declared this tie between political and spiritual freedom that, â€œ.. he is the best friend to American liberty, who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion.â€
Calhoun, Princeton Seminary Vol. 1
Fleming, Liberty, The American Revolution
Website, Colonial Hall: Biography of John Witherspoon
Website, Liberty Haven: John Witherspoon
Website, Rebelswithavision: John Witherspoon