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True Religion & Civil Liberty


By Ted Schroder
July 4, 2004

"Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover up for evil; live as servants of God." (1 Peter 2:16)

John Witherspoon (1723-1794) was the sixth President of Princeton (the College of New Jersey), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and from 1776 to 1782 a leading member of the Continental Congress. Garry Wills has called him "probably the most influential teacher in the history of America education," and Princeton under his tutelage produced a bumper crop of politician alumni: a U.S. president, twenty-one senators, twenty-nine congressmen, and twelve state governors. (Wills, Explaining America, 15) The following epitaph is inscribed on his grave: Beneath this marble lie interred the mortal remains of JOHN WITHERSPOON, D.D. LL.D. a venerable and beloved President of the College of New Jersey.

He was born in the parish of Yester, in Scotland, on the 5th of February, 1722, O.S. And was liberally educated in the University of Edinburgh, invested with holy orders in the year 1743, he faithfully performed the duties of his pastoral charge during five and twenty years, first at Beith, and then at Paisley. Elected president of Nassau Hall, he assumed the duties of that office on the 13th of August, 1768, with the elevated expectations of the public. Excelling in every mental gift, he was a man of pre- eminent piety and virtue and deeply versed in the various branches of literature and the liberal arts.

A grave and solemn preacher, his sermons abounded in the most excellent doctrines and precepts, and in lucid expositions of the Holy Scriptures. Affable, pleasant, and courteous in familiar conversation, he was eminently distinguished in concerns and deliberations of the church, and endowed with the greatest prudence in the management and instruction of youth. He exalted the reputation of the college amongst foreigners, and greatly promoted the advancement of its literary character and taste. He was, for a long time, conspicuous among the most brilliant luminaries of learning and of the Church.

At length, universally venerated, beloved, and lamented, he departed this life on the fifteenth of November, 1794, aged 73 years. William Safire in his anthology Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, includes Witherspoon's sermon: The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men, preached at Princeton on May 17, 1776. Witherspoon is famous for his response to a member of the Continental Congress who said that the colonies were not ripe for independence. "In my judgment, sir, we are not only ripe but rotting!" Witherspoon was reluctant to speak about politics from the pulpit.

But by 1775 he was ready to speak out on the events at the start of the Revolutionary War, in terms of how he saw the hand of God directing current events. His sermon on May 17, 1776 was occasioned by the General Fast that was appointed by the Congress throughout the United colonies. His text was Psalm 76:10 "Surely the wrath of men shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain." "Hostilities had begun a year earlier, and a consensus for independence was mounting. Clearly it was time for a political sermon... Witherspoon's main point is a familiar one: God's power is absolute and human passions are ultimately under the control of divine providence.

Witherspoon states his intention before developing the announced text: 'That all the disorderly passions of men whether exposing the innocent to private injury, or whether they are the arrows of divine judgment in public calamity, shall, in the end, be to the praise of God: Or, to apply it more particularly to the present state of the American Colonies, and the plague of war, - the ambition of mistaken princes, the cunning and cruelty of oppressive and corrupt ministers, and even the inhumanity of brutal soldiers, however dreadful, shall finally promote the glory of God, and in the meantime, while the storm continues, his mercy and kindness shall appear in prescribing bounds to their rage and fury.'" (The Piety of John Witherspoon, L. Gordon Tait, 156) Witherspoon spells out the many ways in which human wrath praises God.

He gives thanks for the ways in which providence has intervened on behalf of the Colonies. He assures the patriots of a happy outcome as long as three conditions are met: "If your cause is just, - if your principles are pure, - and if your conduct is prudent, you need not fear the multitude of opposing hosts." Witherspoon felt that a sermon touching on political matters was only suitable for a national day of fasting or thanksgiving, not for regular Sunday worship. "You are my witnesses," he declared, "That this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit. At this season, however, it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature... The confederacy of the colonies, has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of deep and general conviction, that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in great measure the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity depended on the issue. The knowledge of God and his truths have from the beginning of the world been chiefly, if not entirely, confined to these parts of the earth, where some degree of liberty and political justice were to be seen... [In truth] there is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire.

If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage." For Witherspoon, this is the real reason why Americans must take up arms and why their cause is just: if civil liberty is lost, religious liberty would follow. This is how he ends his sermon: "What follows from this?

That he is the best friend to 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. Whoever is an avowed enemy to God, I scruple not to call him an enemy to his country. Do not suppose, my brethren, that I mean to recommend a furious and angry zeal for the circumstantials of religion, or the contentions of one sect with another about their peculiar distinctions. I do not wish to oppose anybody's religion, but everybody's wickedness. Perhaps there are few surer of the reality of religion than when a man feels himself more joined in spirit to a true holy person of a different denomination than to an irregular liver of his own.

It is therefore your duty in this important and critical season to exert yourselves, everyone in his proper sphere, to stem the tide of prevailing vice, to promote the knowledge of God, the reverence of his name and worship, and obedience to his laws.... God grant that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable, and the unjust attempts to destroy one may in the issue tend to the support and establishment of both." Witherspoon's legacy to us is the reminder the civil liberty and personal virtue in the nation go together. A healthy and free society requires faith and virtue of its citizens.

The Scriptures admonish us to "live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God." Followers of Christ know that in the world they are free from all forms of enslavement, even enslavement to one's passions. We are free to do our duty, free to work for a more virtuous society, and free to be political when we must. We are free to take history seriously, and to try to see our place in it. In times of peace, Witherspoon said, as well as in those difficulty and trial, "it is in the person of piety and inward principle that we may expect to find the uncorrupted patriot, the useful citizen and the invincible soldier."


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