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.
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.