John Witherspoon Delenda Est

Iconoclastic Rage at Princeton

Graduate students in Princeton University’s philosophy department recently set up a petition to have the statue of John Witherspoon on campus removed. The ostensible reason was of course Witherspoon’s relationship with slavery. Witherspoon owned two slaves in his lifetime, and was not a noted abolitionist. Abolitionism, in fact, was virtually non-existent in Witherspoon’s lifetime. Presbyterian minister and seminary professor Kevin DeYoung offered a reasonable defense of Witherspoon’s legacy. He was faulted—by so-called evangelical Christians, interestingly enough—for positing the argument that Witherspoon was a man of his time, wherein DeYoung supposedly excused Witherspoon’s slaveholding. DeYoung did no such thing; he simply didn’t make Witherspoon’s slaveholding the center of his intellectual or religious life. And neither should we.

If anyone deserves to be applauded by evangelical Christians, it’s John Witherspoon. His writings and his views on philosophy created the intellectual and social space for Protestants in the United States to live in harmony with the liberal precepts of the late Eighteenth Century that eventually were written into the fundamental laws of the United States. Disestablished religion, religious toleration, and the first amendment as we know it all are owed to the influence of John Witherspoon.

Christian nationalism and “theocracy” have become a prominent (and sensationalized) fear among the secular American public and among contemporary neoliberal Evangelicals. The publication of works purporting to support Christian nationalism are of varying quality and varying seriousness, but it’s fair to say that the vast majority of American Protestants, even conservative ones, are comfortable with the first amendment’s provisions regarding freedom of religion. How then were Protestant denominations like Anglicanism and Presbyterianism—which did have theocratic or even Christian nationalist foundations—able to not only survive but also grow in the new American republic which disestablished a national state religion? The answer lies in the thought of John Witherspoon and his teachings on the Scottish Common Sense realist tradition.

Like most Protestant intellectuals, Witherspoon believed that religiously-informed virtue was a necessity for a functioning society. In order to ensure his students understood the role religion and virtue played in shaping society and in shaping statesmen, he revamped the curriculum and made the study of moral law and natural law fundamental parts of a Princeton education. Although he remained a fixture of the Eighteenth Century’s republic of letters—the intellectual fraternity that traded ideas and works across North America and Western Europe in the Eighteenth Century—he understood that the uniqueness of the North American British colonies’ politics and the uniqueness of colonial society meant that law, religion, and society would be litigated and understood in different ways than in London or France. His modernization of Princeton’s education meant that with reading the Classics students would also read Machiavelli, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and even noted Scottish freethinker David Hume, whose irreligiosity rankled Witherspoon.

The implementation of the study of natural law at Princeton, a willingness to learn from the Enlightenment, and a commitment to Scottish common sense realism informed Princeton’s students. Witherspoon divided morality into spiritual and temporal parts, and in doing so proposed that even those outside of the Christian faith could lead virtuous lives and become good citizens. He never wavered from his commitment to orthodox Christian soteriology that posited that Christian atonement was the only way to avoid damnation. And he believed that every virtuous society needed some sort of public—although not state—religion. But his commitment to natural law and common sense realism provided a framework wherein people of various religious backgrounds and even those who did not identify with any religion could know through nature the basic foundations of the virtuous life. Witherspoon thought that a Christian had claims to eternal salvation that a deist or freethinker did not have, but he believed they both could be model citizens.

Witherspoon influenced scores of students, but his influence on James Madison Jr.—later the fourth president—proved to be monumentally important for the development of the United States. Madison struggled to reconcile himself to traditional Christian doctrines, but believed Christianity, and especially its moral influence, provided a foundation for virtue in a republican society. Madison, like many educated Virginians of his era, loathed the established Church of England and established churches in general. Witherspoon, his Presbyterian teacher, lived his entire life as a dissenter outside the Anglican establishment. Witherspoon thought disestablishment freed churches to pursue their spiritual mission without interference from government. Madison, never particularly devout, nonetheless agreed. Society didn’t need a state church to enforce morality; natural law capable of doing that without infringing on the consciences of non-Anglicans or even non-Christians. In 1785, after the American victory in the War of Independence Madison and his friend Thomas Jefferson, put their beliefs into practice by implementing Jefferson’s Statute on Religious Freedom, which the Virginia General Assembly made law at the beginning of 1786. Madison also was an instrumental—perhaps the instrumental—hand in the creation of the First Amendment that guaranteed freedom of religion.

Modern American religious liberty stems from Witherspoon’s thought and his influence on his students. Removing his statue erases the major thinker who made Protestantism a vital and free religion it became in the American republic. Witherspoon mitigated theocratic dispositions in Protestantism. Conceiving of him primarily as a slaveholder is not only ahistorical, it’s a cartoonish and unserious anachronism. The choices for American religion in the late colonial era were not John Witherspoon, or an abolitionist liberty-loving regime that magically actuated social-civil values of the early Twenty-first Century in the 1770s. The choice was between Witherspoon and more theocratic or “Christian nationalist” Protestantism that still defined Europe. It is worth remembering that Rousseau fled Calvinist Geneva in 1728 because it was more Medieval and theocratic—authoritarian even—than the absolutist Roman Catholic monarchy in France in the same era. American Presbyterians and Anglicans were able to throw off theocracy precisely because Witherspoon’s influence prevailed. The Constitutional settlement on religion, and the United States commitment to freedom of religion, remain worthy of commemoration, perpetuation, and veneration; so also is the memory of its inspiration, John Witherspoon.

*Image Credit: Pixabay

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Miles Smith

Miles Smith is Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College. He specializes in intellectual and religious life in the Nineteenth Century United States and the Atlantic World.