John Witherspoon, Protestant Statesman

Christian Political Action at America’s Founding


In October of 1753, John Witherspoon wrote a discernment blog. What the anonymous Ecclesiastical Characteristics lacked in the pugnacity and inaccuracies of today’s discernment blogs,  it made up for in its pointed satirical critique of the leaders of his own Church of Scotland (the Kirk). Having been a pastor for eight years in “North Britain,” Witherspoon (1723-1794) was jumping into the fray of denominational and political conflict in a Kirk divided into two warring factions. He was a leader in the Popular party of evangelicals who affirmed the faith of the Westminster Standards and prioritized personal regeneration. His opponents in the Moderate party, who made up Scotland’s theological and philosophical elite, defined Christianity as the pursuit of ethical ideals and rhetorical excellence which could lead their provincial nation into enlightened greatness. These theological battles would prepare Witherspoon for his second career as the president of what would become Princeton University, where he would train many younger American founders including Aaron Burr, Henry Lee, and James Madison. The only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence, he set forth a uniquely Protestant understanding of the American Revolution, insisting on personal regeneration for the war’s success and the new nation’s public virtue.

The same Moderate theologians with whom Witherspoon battled throughout his ministerial career led the burgeoning Scottish Enlightenment. Many adopted the views of Francis Hutcheson, who proposed an enlightened natural law theory in which all humans possess a pre-rational moral sense which guides them toward virtue and sociability. In such a system, natural depravity and the need for individual regeneration take a backseat to societal improvement through cultural refinement. Rather than trusting in the common morality of all people to cultivate civic cohesion, Witherspoon and his compatriots in the Kirk preserved a heritage of confessional Calvinism which reached back to the 1643 Solemn League and Covenant. Because of the ravaging moral effects of human depravity, Witherspoon insisted, moral improvement was not sufficient to bring about Scottish national flourishing; regeneration of human hearts by the Holy Spirit was essential.

Witherspoon’s first career as a pastor raises the question as to why ehe used the terminology and categories of Scottish Enlightenment philosophers (including Hutcheson) as a part of his teaching and political advocacy. Examining Witherspoon’s corpus of undergraduate lecture notes, sermons, and congressional addresses, most recent scholarship has posited that Witherspoon underwent a “sea change” after his move to America. Historians such as Mark Noll, Douglas Sloan, and Jeffry Morrison previously asserted that Witherspoon served as a transmitter of a positive view of man’s nature and capacity for moral action, and that this was  significant in paving the way for American independence.

Gideon Mailer’s John Witherspoon’s American Revolution, published in 2017, questions the decades-long assumption that Witherspoon was “a simple conduit for enlightened sensibility in America.”1 An Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, Mailer is an accomplished historian of the early modern Atlantic World. In an extensive study of both Witherspoon’s writings and his intellectual and political contexts on both sides of the Atlantic, he proposes that Witherspoon continued to believe in the necessity of personal conversion for Christian faith and civic virtue throughout his time at Princeton, eventually applying his reformed orthodoxy to the political debates surrounding the American Revolution.

Having experienced Parliament’s overreach in Scottish church life, Witherspoon worried, Mailer writes, “that the civic realm would impose barriers to the Kirk’s encouragement of spiritual salvation” (4). Later, perceiving the potential turmoil of the American Revolution, Witherspoon persisted in his conclusion that Hutcheson’s sensory natural law was insufficient to preserve American democracy’s moral convictions: personal faith in Christ was required. By examining the theological currents in Scottish and American Presbyterianism, as well as the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, Mailer presents a Witherspoon who is concerned for theological fidelity in a New World more open to the spread of the gospel than an Old one paralyzed by theological controversies and political obstacles.

Witherspoon the Enlightened Philosopher?

In chapters on the various intellectual challenges that  Witherspoon faced, Mailer attempts to demonstrate how Presbyterian orthodoxy influenced his positions. While Chapter 1 and part of Chapter 2 lay a groundwork describing the state of the Kirk in the mid-eighteenth century, the book’s title indicates its American-centeredness. In his adopted country, Witherspoon sought to transform Princeton into a modern institution that could contribute to a developing  political theology for the new nation. In both of these, Mailer convincingly demonstrates that Witherspoon lost none of his Scottish confessional fervor. The perceived conflict between the philosophical idealism of Jonathan Edwards, Princeton’s president ten years prior, and Witherspoon’s affinity for Thomas Reid’s common sense realism has long confounded scholars. But Mailer suggests that Witherspoon’s realism aided his theological vocabulary: “a philosophical language that focused on sentiments and perception helped Witherspoon explain how individuals might come to terms with their sin through a passionate religious conversion and how a new sense of revealed morality could be implanted through grace in the regenerated heart” (147). While Edwards and Witherspoon disagreed on the philosophical principles of realism and idealism, both were theologically committed to the necessity of conversion.

As one of the most prominent religious leaders in colonial America, Witherspoon supported the Revolution with theological caveats not emphasized in either New England Puritanism or Lockean liberalism. Whereas many founders such as Benjamin Franklin used Hutchesonian moral sense theory to defend the superior virtue of the patriots against their British oppressors, Witherspoon maintained that all people, regardless of their nation, are naturally in bondage to sinful depravity. Thus, personal regeneration is essential to beneficial civic religion and public virtue (a note Witherspoon would sound again and again throughout his American sermons and political writings).

Further, just as he disliked Parliament’s meddling in the ecclesial affairs of his native Scotland, he supported the provincial desire of Americans to live apart from heavy-handed British rule, which he saw as limiting the free spread of Christian evangelism. After the 1707 Act of Union, which brought Scotland under the control of the British Parliament, ministerial appointments would be made by the  local nobility who tended to prefer Moderate, enlightened ministers in their parishes. For this reason Witherspoon would spend much of his time in Scotland challenging the “patronage controversy,” and the way it prevented the Kirk from focusing on the important work of evangelism.

Witherspoon Among the Moderates

Throughout the book, Mailer explains the historical context behind the era, places, and people which influenced Witherspoon. While these diversions are occasionally drawn out, they almost always provide essential nuances to Witherspoon’s intellectual influences, which other works do not adequately acknowledge. Chapters 1 and 2, “Augustinian Piety in Witherspoon’s Scotland” and “Kirk Divisions and American Prospects at Midcentury,” explain how an orthodox, popular minister like Witherspoon interacted with a Scottish intellectual culture which was rapidly changing  during the Enlightenment.

Most twentieth century treatments of Witherspoon’s moral philosophy merely highlight the similarity between his statements in Lectures on Moral Philosophy, delivered at Princeton, and ideas developed by Francis Hutcheson, Thomas Reid, and other Moderate philosophers. However, John Witherspoon’s American Revolution begins by noting the great diversity in Scottish higher education when Witherspoon was a student at the University of Edinburgh. Future Moderate ministers like Alexander Carlyle, a classmate and future fierce opponent of Witherspoon, would claim years later that his friend had abandoned the Moderate, refined education they received. However, Mailer notes that the Augustinian theology of the Westminster Standards, with its skeptical view of human nature, maintained a strong hold on some Scottish divines well into the eighteenth century. Samuel Rutherford’s regency a century earlier and the transmission of Reformed scholastics like Francis Turretin and Benedict Pictet through Dutch professors into Scotland ensured continuity with continental Reformed convictions.

While Hutcheson’s theory of an innate moral sense was predominant in Scottish intellectual life, it was not universal. “Depending on which minister or teacher they encountered, Carlyle and Witherspoon could be taught about the innateness of human moral understanding, the necessity of salvation for ethical sensibility, and many gradations between the two viewpoints” (46). In a later Scottish sermon, Witherspoon would protest that Hutcheson would  “think, and speak, and reason on the perfections of God, as an object of science” rather than endeavoring to “glorify him as God, or to have a deep and awful impression of him upon our hearts.” (67) Another example of this phenomenon is Gershom Carmichael, an earlier Scot who, like Witherspoon, would use the prevalent terminology of somewhat unorthodox philosophers (Samuel Pufendorf, in his case), to express orthodox ideas. Mailer’s short passage on Carmichael begs for further comparison on this fascinating relationship, but he cannot be blamed for saving that discussion for another book.

Meanwhile, colonial Presbyterians were recovering from deep divisions over the role of revival and personal religious experience. Princeton as an institution had been founded by New Side Presbyterians who, influenced by revivalist evangelists such as George Whitefield, emphasized “heart religion,” individual regeneration, and passionate expressions of faith (104). By Witherspoon’s arrival in 1768, these divisions, though still present, were decreasing in significance. Furthermore, in a state like New Jersey with no established church, revivalist Presbyterians and Congregationalists like Edwards began to find unity around common evangelical concern for personal religious faith and experience. Princeton’s college charter declared the school to be nonsectarian though implicitly Protestant. American Presbyterians hoped that a detached foreigner could cultivate much-needed unity, and Mailer convincingly demonstrates that this climate resulted in Witherspoon’s evangelical ecumenism.

Protestant Statesmanship in Practice

While Princeton’s unique commitment to public service was present from its founding, Witherspoon was  notably effective among its early presidents in practicing a vision of Christian education oriented toward public service. The capstone of a Princeton education was Witherspoon’s Lectures in Moral Philosophy, training seniors in ethics, politics, jurisprudence, and international relations. While most interpreters have read them as a simple conduit of Hutchesonian ethics, Mailer emphasizes their presentation of an Augustinian public philosophy which acknowledges human moral inability. Essential to Witherspoon’s political philosophy is the conviction that American civic virtue cannot “be enforced with rigor and precision by human laws” alone; it requires personal conversion and piety (169).

Both Witherspoon’s Lectures and his American sermons highlight the primacy of divine revelation and the individual’s experience of regeneration. While he was committed to liberal learning and rhetorical excellence, especially for clergy, he never wavered from stating that religious revival is the only sure cause of moral improvement. Even as he gave future Christian leaders sound natural law principles for statecraft, he maintained his greater concern for their conversion, which would enable them to pursue a life of public and private virtue.

As Mailer details, Witherspoon’s union of orthodox Reformed theology with the terminology of the Scottish Enlightenment was variously interpreted by future generations. His son-and-law and immediate successor, Samuel Stanhope Smith, advocated an anthropocentric ethic akin to Hutcheson. He was eventually forced out of the Princeton presidency by Ashbel Green and other doctrinally-focused Presbyterian clergy who saw themselves as the protector of Witherspoon’s legacy. They would go on to found Princeton Theological Seminary, which employed scholars such as Charles Hodge who advocated both Reformation orthodoxy and common sense realism.

Witherspoon’s support for the American Revolution was equally dependent on his doctrine of regeneration. While he shared many of his new countrymen’s distaste for parliamentary overreach, he spoke more strongly against the potential hubris caused by belief in innate ethical perception. While some of his fellow Presbyterians believed America’s civil society flourished because of a moral sense, Witherspoon believed that personal conversion was the cause. For example, revolution against the British was not justified because Americans were more enlightened than subjects of the mother country. The two nations were equally sinful, and the Revolution was in no sense a millenarian struggle of good against evil. However, since more Americans humbly recognized their sin and need for salvation, they were more likely to flourish as a nation. Witherspoon thus did not share the Puritans’ conception of America as a chosen nation which possessed a special covenant with God, its revolution being a sacred cause against evil. Also unlike the Puritans, Witherspoon had no particular animosity towards the Hanoverian monarchs. In fact, in 1746, he supported them by leading 150 soldiers against Jacobite rebels who supported the Stuarts. He even spent time as a prisoner of war. Many other orthodox Presbyterians who moved to America shared this attitude, not believing in America’s “national election” (233). Their motivation for supporting the Revolution was not founded in anti-monarchism. Rather, Witherspoon and other Scottish Presbyterians who immigrated to colonial America imported a “provincial evangelicalism” like they had cultivated in Scotland. The citizens of all nations needed personal salvation, (125), and no part of the British Empire was innately morally superior to any another.

In Witherspoon’s sermon The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men, delivered one month before he signed the Declaration, he most clearly expressed the necessity of widespread conversion for the conflict’s success. Neither side could claim moral superiority. He laments, “How deeply affecting is it that those who are the same in complexion, the same in blood, in language, and in religion, should notwithstanding butcher one another with unrelenting rage, and glory in the deed” (224). Religious virtue is thus not merely civil religion. The moral sense required for rejuvenating American society requires “true religion,” which Witherspoon defines as personal salvation. As Mailer comments, “America is distinguished from Britain because more Americans have been converted, not because they are more moral and the elect people of God as a nation.” In this sense, the American Revolution was not the “sacred cause of liberty” or good against evil (267). It did mark a progression in history, as people were allowing the gospel to shape their public life, but this state of affairs could easily regress in the future. It is for this reason that Witherspoon insists in his many sermons  that evangelization in the midst of political conflict is of the utmost importance.

Witherspoon’s concern for conversion led him to a nuanced support for both civil religion and disestablishment. For him, the natural law was not a universal moral sense cultivating sociability in all citizens. A virtuous society requires regenerate Christians. Thus, while rejecting the idea of a state church which might limit genuine revival, Witherspoon viewed his pastoral and political vocations as closely connected, consistently supporting religious participation and Christians’ influence in political processes. Both political and religious authorities are responsible for promoting  virtue in the nation, but their roles are distinct. Witherspoon also consistently defended ministers’ involvement in public life, serving on numerous committees during the Revolution (representing New Jersey) and eventually signing the Declaration. As the primary author of many congressional fast day proclamations during the war, his primary aim was to impress upon readers their need for salvation, not just political action. Mailer describes this position as an “implicit bargain” in which Protestants accepted disestablishment while using their religious liberty to found institutions which would train citizens in piety and virtue (307).

Mailer suggests that this bargain, “encouraging moral governance without promoting the civil establishment of religion,” represents a “delicate task” on Witherspoon’s part which resulted in “a few inconsistencies” (386). While Witherspoon’s position is a delicate and nuanced one, it was shared by other American religious leaders of that period. For example, Aaron Menikoff has explored how Isaac Backus and other Massachusetts Baptists around the turn of the nineteenth century defended religious disestablishment as the surest foundation for public morals. It is the task of local churches to form pious, and thus virtuous, citizens. As the Christian Watchman & Baptist Register asserted in 1823: “May Heaven grant, that virtue and knowledge may be so thoroughly diffused in all our population, that the period shall never arrive, when they will have to unlearn this lesson [that religious liberty undergirds the state’s prosperity].”2

Acknowledgement of the separate jurisdictional roles of church and state does not negate the proper role of Christian ethics in providing a sound basis for just and virtuous public policy. In his next-to-last chapter, Mailer makes a convincing case that it was this understanding of religious liberty which influenced Witherspoon’s student James Madison in his advocacy for disestablishment in Virginia. As a Protestant, Witherspoon understood that the sure foundation for a Christian civilization is not an established state church imposing generic morals on a population; it is the presence of actual Christians with converted hearts and minds.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, John Witherspoon’s American Revolution is a deeply academic, yet essential study of Witherspoon’s formative role as a Protestant leader in American political life. (Readers interested in a more concise summary of the book will find this lecture most helpful.) Witherspoon is significantly understudied. His definitive biography, Varnum Lansing Collins’ delightful, yet hard to find  President Witherspoon: A Biography, went to press in 1925. Most books written since have been focused on specific aspects of his ideas rather than providing a comprehensive picture of his life and thought. Recently, excellent historical retrieval has begun anew through scholars like Kevin DeYoung, Paul Helseth, and Bradford Bow, and two primary sources will soon reappear in an accessible publication. More work is surely needed, especially at the popular level. In the meantime, Gideon Mailer has given us a fantastic study that situates Witherspoon properly within the ranks of Reformed orthodoxy. Any reader interested in a deep dive into Witherspoon and his political theology will find an invaluable resource for helping understand both the man and the intellectual climate of the Scottish Enlightenment and the American founding. Witherspoon also provides a realistic vision of Protestant political engagement which is beholden neither to a belief in national election nor to Enlightenment anthropocentrism with its claim of a neutral public square. In this biography readers will encounter a model Protestant statesman who embodies both our theological convictions and the principles of government which shaped our nation’s political character.

Image Credit: Unsplash

Show 2 footnotes
  1. Gideon Mailer, John Witherspoon’s American Revolution (2017), 36. All subsequent page references are in brackets within the text of this article.
  2. Aaron Menikoff, Politics and Piety: Baptist Social Reform in America, 1770-1860 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 25-27.
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Christopher W. Parr

Christopher W. Parr Christopher Parr is a Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has a B.S. in Humanities from Boyce College and lives in Louisville, Kentucky.