Witherspoon’s Pastoral Ministry

This public censure, though considered appropriate by his congregation, landed Witherspoon in a 14-year legal battle in which he faced opposition from a hostile presbytery and formal charges of libel and slander.

Church members presumed that clergy would not only preach on Sunday, but also visit the people from house to house and be intimately involved in their lives (even if they sometimes complained of the involvement).[13] So when scholars conclude that “Few aspects of the history of Scottish Presbyterianism are more repugnant to the modern mind than kirk session discipline with its connotations of public humiliation, voyeurism and smug self-righteousness”[14] the verdict reflects more about contemporary standards of privacy than what 18th-century Scots expected from their local parish.[15]

 

During my study leave this summer I worked on two dissertation chapters: one on Witherspoon’s ministry in the Kirk, and the other on Witherspoon’s relationship to the Enlightenment. The excerpt below is taken from the first of those chapters. In this section, I trace Witherspoon’s approach to church discipline, making use of presbytery and session records housed in Edinburgh at the National Records of Scotland. I’ve kept in most of my footnotes, though I’ve cut out a couple long digressions. One last note: the “Snodgrass affair” refers to an episode in which Witherspoon publicly rebuked and named several young men (among them, the lawyer John Snodgrass) for a drunken party that included a mock Communion service. This public censure, though considered appropriate by his congregation, landed Witherspoon in a 14-year legal battle in which he faced opposition from a hostile presbytery and formal charges of libel and slander.

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The long, circuitous Snodgrass affair is noteworthy on many levels—as a precedent-setting legal case, as a salacious glimpse into the messiness of real life in Presbyterian Scotland, and as a personal headache (and possibly a motivation for heading to America) for Witherspoon. What is most striking, however, at least for our purposes, is how the two Snodgrass episodes reveal Witherspoon as a man caught between two times. His adherence to the old Scottish paths won him a loyal following on a local level and among the evangelical wing of the Kirk, while at the same putting him out of step with the ecclesiastical powerbrokers and polite fashions of the day.

Witherspoon’s commitment to church discipline is an instructive case in point. When Ashbel Green noted that his mentor “had been known as the strenuous advocate, not only of the orthodox doctrine, but of the strict discipline of the Scottish church,”[1] there was more evidence than the Snodgrass affair to make his point. “They that desire to banish discipline,” Witherspoon wrote, referencing one of the early Reformers, “desire to banish Christ from his church.”[2]

Most of the items recorded in the minutes of the Beith Kirk Session (sadly, the minutes from Laigh Kirk are not available for Witherspoon’s tenure) deal with the sins of church members. On September 25, 1747, Margaret Snodgrass (no known relation to the aforementioned John) was called before the elders and asked if she was with child. She responded that she was and that the father was John Sheddan of Cuff. In October, Sheddan was brought before the session and denied having had “any carnal dealing with” Margaret. A few days later William Mitchell and Elizabeth Cochran, who had been rebuked by Witherspoon for their irregular marriage (i.e., conducted in secret without the sanctioning of the church), stood before the session and agreed to pay the Kirk dues for a regular marriage. [3] Although most cases were concerned with adultery (and the resulting pregnancy) and irregular marriages, the session dealt almost every kind of serious transgressions, like the time Matthew Swan and Matthew Sheddan were accused of beating a poor woman and exhorted to beware of drunkenness,[4] or the time Thomas Caldwell and David King were rebuked for “very indecent behavior in the church” and (after their failure to appear before the congregation) received the sentence of lesser excommunication.[5]

While Witherspoon’s persistence in the Snodgrass Affair may seem excessive to modern sensibilities, it was not at all unusual for a minister, together with the session, to follow through with ecclesiastical oversight for several years following the initial allegations. Margaret Snodgrass and John Sheddan first appeared before the Beith session in the fall of 1747. Not relenting after an initial denial, in March 1748, the session ordered Robert Sheddan, John Sheddan of Marshland, and William Caldwell to speak with John Sheddan to see whether he would make a statement under oath before the Presbytery. Three years later, in July 1752, the issue was still resolved: Margaret and John were now married, but both had been found guilty (again) of “uncleanness” and ordered to appear before the congregation.[6] Since Margaret had lied under excommunication she could only be absolved of her sin by the Presbytery, while John would not be absolved without evidence of good behavior.[7]

Even more protracted was the case of George King and his servant Margaret King. When Margaret accused her master of committing adultery with her and being the father of her child, George denied the accusations and charged Margaret with sleeping around. The Beith session, not believing George’s denials, appealed to the Presbytery of Irvine for help. They too did not trust George’s profession of innocence, finding him “guilty of gross prevarication of such indecent behavior that he deserves to be publicly rebuked.” A decade later, in the summer of 1756, just after Witherspoon had received a call to Paisley, George King finally admitted before the Presbytery that he was guilty of adultery with Margaret. The Presbytery of Irvine then began the process of “removing the sentence against him” and referred the matter back to the session of Beith.[8]

In pursuing such exacting oversight of his flock, Witherspoon was in step with the rigorous pattern of pastoral care that had reigned in Scotland for nearly two centuries.[9] As Margo Todd has demonstrated in her magisterial work on the culture of Protestantism in early modern Scotland, the Reformation took root in Scotland in a way it never did in England because the latter lacked local kirk sessions to reorient religious practices and systematically administer thoroughgoing church discipline.[10] Even Crawford, who is quite critical of Witherspoon in his handling of the Snodgrass Affair (calling it “a largely forgotten and infinitely darker side to Witherspoon’s life”), admits that Witherspoon’s actions were in keeping with the duties placed upon him as a Kirk minister.[11] Indeed, as Ashbel Green was keen to point out, Walter Steuart’s Collections and Observations (1709)—a polity and disciplinary manual for the Church of Scotland—called for the relevant ecclesiastical judicatories to make a “timeous [i.e. prompt] notice of all Scandals.”[12]

Church members presumed that clergy would not only preach on Sunday, but also visit the people from house to house and be intimately involved in their lives (even if they sometimes complained of the involvement).[13] So when scholars conclude that “Few aspects of the history of Scottish Presbyterianism are more repugnant to the modern mind than kirk session discipline with its connotations of public humiliation, voyeurism and smug self-righteousness”[14] the verdict reflects more about contemporary standards of privacy than what 18th-century Scots expected from their local parish.[15]

And yet, by the middle of the century, even these expectations were changing. Within a day or two of the publication of Seasonable Advice (1762), George Muir came to Witherspoon’s aid with a published sermon of his own entitled The Excision; or, Troublers of the Church Characterized and Cut Off(Glasgow: Robert Urie, 1762). It was a vigorous defense of the session’s duty to discipline unholy men. But come September, Muir’s Excision would be mocked by William Thom (1710-1790), a Popular Party minister in Govan who sometimes exchanged pulpits with Witherspoon.[16] A little more than a year later (November 8, 1763), John Erskine weighed in with a sermon before the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale entitled Ministers of the Gospel Cautioned Against Giving Offence in which the “enlightened evangelical” sounded a softer note, enjoining his fellow pastors to rebuke “the open practice of scandalous crimes,” but not in a way that allowed “sober reasoning” to be silenced “by raillery, by dark malicious innuendoes, by bitter satirical invectives, or by noisy cries for a vote.”[17]

With an increasingly prosperous society less tolerant of ecclesiastical intrusion, and a Moderate regime intent on softening the Kirk’s hard edges, the traditional expression of pastoral care was changing, even within the ranks of evangelical clergy (like John Erskine) who hoped the old paths could be walked in new ways. William Maxwell’s summary is apt: “Under presbytery and episcopacy the disciplinary system pursued its relentless way, practically unchanged till the middle of the eighteenth century, when it was very gradually dropped.”[18] This slow but profound change marked Witherspoon as a man caught in an age of transition—on the one hand embracing traditional ministerial practices familiar to most of his countrymen, while at the same time having to defend those practices in a world that was not sure it believed in them anymore.[19]

[1] Life, p.87.

[2] Works, 2:445.

[3] Beith, CH2/31/2/192. In 1751, the disorderly practice of clandestine marriages became such a serious matter that the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr overtured the General Assembly for help (Annals 1739-1752, p.219).

[4] Beith, CH2/31/2/201.

[5] Irvine, CH2/197/5/500-501. Lesser excommunication amounted to suspension from the Lord’s Supper and a final admonition before proceeding to greater excommunication, which meant cutting off the offender as “a heathen man” (See Walter Steuart, Collections and Observations Concerning the Worship, Discipline, and Government of the Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: W. Gray, 1770), pp.237-38.

[6] The public acts of rebuke, confession, repentance, and absolution were an integral part of Kirk worship well into the eighteenth century. For a uniformly negative assessment of these Scottish traditions, see William D. Maxwell, A History of Worship in the Church of Scotland (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), pp.145-55. A more comprehensive, and balanced, analysis can be found in Margo Todd, The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland, (New Haven: Yale, 2002), pp.127-82.

[7] Beith, CH2/31/2/209.

[8] Irvine, CH2/197/5/148-49, 151, 542.

[9] Of course, pastoral care meant much more than formal discipline. In a letter from Paisley dated April 4, 1766, Witherspoon comforted Mrs. Hogg that it had “pleased God in his holy Providence” to remove her eldest daughter from this world. After expressing his “tender sympathy,” Witherspoon borrowed the language of Scripture in holding out hope that God would give a peace which the world cannot give and work all things together for good to those who love him (Princeton University, Firestone Ms. CO 274, Box 1, Folder 5a, “Hogg, Ballie Thomas, Mrs.”).

[10] Todd, Culture of Protestantism, p.408

[11] Crawford, Lost World, pp.2, 277-78.

[12] Life, pp.86-87; see also Crawford, who points out that Witherspoon’s personal copy of Steuart’s Collections and Observations (the 1770 edition) can be found at Princeton (Lost World, pp.78-79).

[13] Cf. Works, 4:445-46.

[14] T.M. Devine, The Scottish Nation 1700-2000 (New York: Penguin, 2000), p.85.

[15] See also “Questions to Be Put to Elders and Ordination” in Papers (Bundle 2nd No. 22). Question 3 asks the elder to approve the constitution and disciplinary procedures of the Church of Scotland. Question 5 is even more to point: “Do you promise to give faithful judgement as an office bearer and ruler in the Church of Christ and in this Congregation to be strict and impartial in the Exercise of Discipline for the Correction of Offenders and the preservation of others?”

[16] Thom published two anonymous pamphlets in wake of the Snodgrass Affair: The Defects of an University Education (1762) and Scheme for Erecting an Academy Set Forth in Its Own Proper Colours(1762), both of which are including in The Works of the Rev. William Thom (Glasgow: James Dymock, 1799). The second pamphlet includes an accompanying note, entitled Uncorrupted Inhabitants of Paisley to the Public, in which Thom satirically advises that all ministers who speak favorably of educational academies should face “the EXCISION” (pp.348-50, emphasis original). Information on Witherspoon’s pulpit supply and pulpit exchanges in 1763 can found in Princeton University, Firestone Ms. CO 199, number 1141, “Manuscript 1763.”

[17] John Erskine, Discourses Preached on Several Occasions, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: D. Willison, 1801), p.63.

[18] Maxwell, History of Worship, p.146.

[19] “[A] faithful minister,” Witherspoon suggests, “who openly dares to bear witness against the apostacy of others, is traduced and slandered, loaded with imaginary crimes, and often falls a martyr to the sinking cause of truth and righteousness” (“The Charge of Sedition and Faction against Good Men, Especially Faithful Ministers, Considered and Accounted For” [1758] in Works, 2:437).

Kevin DeYoung has been the Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan since 2004. Kevin blogs at the Gospel Coalition; this article is used with his permission.