John Witherspoon, 1794

As we have often said, “Liberty is “freedom linked to Christian morals and principles.”  Freedom without the refining influence of Christian morals and principles is Anarchy.  This definition did not originate with us, but with the great men and women of the past, many of whom were preachers.   One of the finest was John Witherspoon.

The following information is condensed from an article by John Eidsmoe of Alabama, in the January 19, 2009, issue of The New American magazine.  I heartily encourage you to subscribe to magazine at TheNewAmerican.com, where you can also sign up for alerts.  Follow them on telegram, too.  You’ll be very glad you did.  Now, for Dr. Eidsmoe’s story, in condensed form…

On November 15, 1794, a 72-year-old Presbyterian preacher lay dying on his farm near Princeton, New Jersey. For the last two years of his life, he had been blind, yet he continued to preach. He mind was still active and full of understanding and wisdom.

His name was John Witherspoon, and he was probably the most famous and respected clergyman in America at that time. For 26 years he had served as president and professor at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). In those 26 years, 478 young men graduated from the college, an average of 18 per class, so Witherspoon had considerable interaction and influence with each student. Of those men, 114 became pastors; 13 were state governors; 3 were U.S. Supreme Court justices; 20 were Senators; 33 were Congressmen; one became vice-president; one, James Madison, became president. If Madison is the Father of the Constitution, then Witherspoon should be called Grandfather of the Constitution.

During his final hours on earth, the old reverend probably reflected upon his life, wondering whether his efforts and sacrifices had been worthwhile. He may have thought about his early years in Scotland where he was born. The spirit of Scottish independence and love of self-government may have influenced Wetherspoon throughout his life. At the time when the church was split between conservatives who stressed Bible-centered sermons and moderates who favored compromise with the world in the name of “charity”, Witherspoon emerged as a leader of the conservatives.

Meanwhile, the American colonies were in the throes of the Great Awakening, a religious revival in which hundreds of thousands either became Christians or rededicated their lives to Christ. The College of New Jersey was at the center of this revival under the leadership of Jonathan Edwards. Word of Witherspoon’s scholarship and evangelical zeal reached the colonies, and when the time came to call a new president for the College of New Jersey, Witherspoon was chosen.

Witherspoon was very interested in law and politics. The spirit of independence was rising in America, and Witherspoon favored independence, although he also cautioned against excesses. As a Calvinist who believed in the depravity of human nature, Witherspoon tempered his love for freedom with the recognition of the need for government. It was this quest for balance of on the Political Spectrum that kept the American War for Independence from becoming a chaotic bloodbath like the French Revolution and the many upheavals and unholy experiments with Marxism that followed.

On May 17, 1776, Rev. Witherspoon preached a sermon entitled “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men.” Using Psalm 76 as his text, he qualified his opposition to England by saying that “many of their actions have probably been worse than their intentions,” but English cruelty and tyranny shall “finally promote the glory of God” by forcing each separate and individual colony to declare its independence. He called for attention to Christian morals and principles, declaring that “he is the best friend of American liberty who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion and who sets himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind.” He told his listeners that duty to God and country called upon them to be uncorrupted patriots, useful citizens, and invincible soldiers, and he concluded, “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 [end] tend to the support and establishment of both.”

Witherspoon later published this sermon with an appendix entitled “Address to the Natives of Scotland residing in America,” in which he urged American Scotsmen to assert “their ancient rights” and support American independence. The sermon and appendix were printed and distributed throughout the colonies. Even in Scotland, it was printed and circulated not once but twice.

In 1776, Witherspoon was elected to the Continental Congress, where he served wearing full clerical attire from 1776 to 1782. He served on more than 120 committees, including the Board of War. He helped draft the Articles of Confederation. He supported independence, but his Christian charity also led him to call for humane treatment of British prisoners, avoidance of cruelty while conducting the war, and the improvement of the morals and discipline of the soldiers. He signed the Declaration of Independence and lost 2 sons in the war.

Although Witherspoon was not physically present at the Constitutional Convention, his influence was certainly present. Nine of the delegates, almost one-sixth, were his former students, including, James Madison, Father of the Constitution, one of the three authors of The Federalist Papers, and future president of the United States.

Madison could read the Old Testament law in the original language. Under Witherspoon’s teaching, he learned the Calvinist view of law and government, that because of the depravity of human nature, government power must be clearly and strictly limited and separated among branches and levels. Madison’s oft-quoted words from The Federalist, Number 51 reflect the teachings of the “Old Doctor” as Witherspoon was affectionately known to some.

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition … It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself. [emphasis added]

And so, in those last hours of his life, Dr. Witherspoon could reflect with satisfaction on the America that he and his disciples helped create, and he could look with optimism to America’s future.

John Ramsay Witherspoon, the Old Doctor’s secretary and third cousin, described him as having “the simplicity of a child, the humility of a patriarch and the dignity of a prince.” He did not elevate himself to places of importance in the Founding of America, but his understanding of bedrock principles of Liberty (freedom linked to Christian morals and principles) caused others to elevate him. We dare say that such men in the pulpit in politics have almost vanished from American life, and therein lies a substantial part of America’s demise. For if the blind lead the blind, all will fall in a pit.