MEET DR. WITHERSPOON
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
July 3, 2016; non-lectionary sermon
Psalm 76; John 8:31-36
“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
We’ve all heard the names of the great men associated with the founding of this great country, a half-dozen or so in all: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Henry, Hancock. In the past year or so, another man — Alexander Hamilton, younger than the rest — has enjoyed something of a revival (thanks to a certain Broadway musical).
Yet there’s another founding father, whose name has sunk into obscurity — who, I think, deserves a similar rehabilitation. I’d be surprised if anyone ever writes a hip-hop musical about him, but hey, you never know. Stranger things have happened.
If John Witherspoon is known anywhere, it’s here in New Jersey: because he was one of our four signers of the Declaration of Independence. He led New Jersey’s delegation to the Continental Congress.
We Presbyterians know John Witherspoon — or at least we ought to — because he was one of our own. He was a Presbyterian minister: the only active minister of any faith to sign the Declaration of Independence.
This morning I’d like to introduce him to you: because John Witherspoon is someone you truly ought to know about.
It’s an unfortunate thing, but sometimes it happens that those who teach American history in public schools try to scrub out any and all mention of religion. The separation of church and state is a very important principle of government — and one I happen to believe in, as an American — but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the role religion plays, and continues to play, in the history of our nation. John Witherspoon did not get to Independence Hall on July 4, 1776 independent of his Presbyterian faith. His faith was part of who he was: and his belief in God-given principles of human freedom are what led him to personally put his life on the line, and sign the Declaration.
Of all the members of the Continental Congress, John Witherspoon was possibly the one who had been in America the least amount of time. He had only come here in 1768, just 8 years before. Prominent American Presbyterians had recruited him in that year to come over from Scotland to head the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton University.
Witherspoon was 45 years old when he came to America, along with his wife, Elizabeth, and their five children. The two of them had had ten children altogether, but only five survived into adulthood — a sad and common enough story, for that day and age.
His was a brilliant mind. His father, a minister, taught him to read as a very young child. He was reading the Bible at age 4. At age 13, he entered the University of Edinburgh. He graduated just after his 16th birthday with a Master’s degree, and 4 years later, at the tender age of 20, he was named Doctor of Theology and licensed to preach in the Church of Scotland.
By the time the Princeton board came after him 25 years later, he was well-known as one of the great preachers and theologians of his time.
The first time they asked, he said no. You can understand why. At 45 years of age, he was in the prime of life — perhaps even beyond it, considering the shorter life expectancies of that time. To load wife and children and worldly goods onto a ship, and sail off across the stormy North Atlantic — probably never to return — was more than an adventure. Some would call it foolhardy.
Witherspoon arrived in Princeton with his personal library of 300 books. Those books provided a real boost to the College of New Jersey’s one-thousand-or-so volumes. He found the college in terrible financial shape: he had to start fund-raising immediately. On a fund-raising swing through Virginia, he recruited a young student named James Madison — who would eventually become a President of the United States, but would also be the principal author of the U.S. Constitution. Having learned Presbyterian church government in the lecture hall of Dr. Witherspoon, Madison brought the same principles of representative government, and checks and balances, into what would become the United States government.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. When storm clouds of revolution began to gather, Witherspoon proved himself an ardent patriot. The battles of Lexington and Concord had recently taken place. The colony of Massachusetts was up in arms. Everybody knew New Jersey — with its large population of Scottish and Scots-Irish immigrants, who had no great love for the English — would not be far behind.
It was during that perilous time — May of 1776 — that John Witherspoon preached a sermon called “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men.” It was published immediately in pamphlet form, and became an overnight sensation throughout the colonies. Just a month later, he was elected to the Continental Congress. Two weeks after that, in Independence Hall, John Hancock offered him a quill pen and he added his name to the Declaration of Independence.
The sermon I’ve just mentioned was based on Psalm 76, our Old Testament Lesson for today. Specifically, he based it on verse 10 in the King James version, which goes like this: “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain.”
It’s a mighty fine scripture text for revolution. Witherspoon took “the wrath of man” to refer to war. In the sermon, he constructs a case for Christians to go to war in pursuit of a righteous cause.
It’s not that Witherspoon’s a war-monger by nature. He starts off by emphasizing how terribly destructive war is:
It is shocking to think, since the first murder of Abel by his brother Cain, what havock has been made of man by man in every age. What is it that fills the pages of history, but the wars and contentions of princes and empires?
What’s true of war in general, he says, is even more true of civil war, of the citizens of one nation squaring off against fellow citizens:
How deeply affecting is it, that those who are the same in complexion, the same in blood, in language, and in religion, should, notwithstanding, butcher one another with unrelenting rage, and glory in the deed? That men should lay waste the fields of their fellow subjects, with whose provision they themselves had been often fed, and consume with devouring fire those houses in which they had often found a hospitable shelter.
If war teaches us anything, says Dr. Witherspoon, it’s the depravity of human nature. And that, he points out, highlights the necessity of getting right with God. So, even in the midst of all the revolutionary rhetoric, his sermon includes an evangelistic call to enter into relationship with Jesus Christ:
Can you have a clearer view of the sinfulness of your nature, than when the rod of the oppressor is lifted up, and when you see men putting on the habit of the warrior, and collecting on every hand the weapons of hostility and instruments of death? I do not blame your ardor in preparing for the resolute defence of your temporal rights. But consider I beseech you, the truly infinite importance of the salvation of your souls.
Then comes a forthright call to arms, an exhortation to courage on the battlefield:
…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.
It was probably inevitable, Dr. Witherspoon goes on, that America and far-off Great Britain would eventually come to a separation:
There are fixed bounds to every human thing. When the branches of a tree grow very large and weighty, they fall off from the trunk. The sharpest sword will not pierce when it cannot reach. And there is a certain distance from the seat of government, where an attempt to rule will either produce tyranny and helpless subjection, or provoke resistance and effect a separation.
Witherspoon concludes his sermon by making a strong connection between patriotism and religious faith. To those who would soon take up arms in defense of their homeland, he gives this advice:
…remember that your duty to God, to your country, to your families, and to yourselves, is the same…. so in times of difficulty and trial, it is in the man of piety and inward principle, that we may expect to find the uncorrupted patriot, the useful citizen, and the invincible soldier. 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 issue tend to the support and establishment of both.
It’s no wonder, with such words coming from one of America’s most prominent pulpits, that the English politician Horace Walpole would rise up in Parliament and complain, “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.” I think we know who he had in mind!
But you won’t hear that sort of thing in history class, in most schools — not even here in New Jersey, where we have special cause to claim John Witherspoon as one of our own. You’d think, from some history textbooks, that it was sheer accident that this man happened to be a minister: that serving in the Continental Congress was just a little hobby of his, unrelated to his religious vocation!
No, for Witherspoon, personal faith and the search for political justice were intimately connected. In a pamphlet he co-wrote with several others a year before that sermon, that the General Synod circulated to all Presbyterian churches, Dr. Witherspoon makes that perfectly clear. Here’s a small section from that pamphlet, entitled “A Pastoral Letter, Written in Perilous Times.” It speaks to the need for those who engage in the struggle for independence to strengthen their personal faith:
The Synod cannot help thinking that this is a proper time for pressing all of every rank, seriously to consider the things that belong to their eternal peace. Hostilities, long feared, have now taken place; the sword has been drawn in one province, and the whole continent, with hardly any exception, seem determined to defend their rights by force of arms. If, at the same time, the British ministry shall continue to enforce their claims by violence, a lasting and bloody contest must be expected. Surely, then, it becomes those who have taken up arms, and profess and willingness to hazard their lives in the cause of liberty, to be prepared for death, which to many must be certain, and to every one is a possible or probable event.
Witherspoon and his co-authors go on:
…to exhort, especially the young and vigorous, by assuring them that there is no soldier so undaunted as the pious man, no army so formidable as those who are superior to the fear of death.
It’s ironic — and rather sad — that John and Elizabeth Witherspoon would have personal reason to reflect on those words. A year later, one of their own sons would be killed, fighting in the Continental Army at the Battle of Germantown.
Clearly, they would agree with the line from today’s Gospel lesson, from John 8, verse 32: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Those who commit sin, Jesus goes on to say in that passage, are slaves to sin. In the strict pecking-order of the Roman world, slaves were at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. They had no status, no rights, no position: they could be sold on a whim, and transported to another household.
There was one, however, who held a strong and unquestioned position: the son of the master of the house. “So if the Son makes you free,” our Lord teaches, “you will be free indeed.”
Doubtless there were many in the American colonies, in that troubled year of 1776, who feared that, in the eyes of the governing authorities across the ocean, they were little better than slaves. It took a courageous and faithful preacher like John Witherspoon to teach them God had a better plan. That plan was founded on a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Truly, it was those among them who had claimed that relationship for their own who were in the best position to fight for their political freedom.
As it was then, is it not still true today?
Our hymn, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” is set to a tune that was well-known to John Witherspoon and his contemporaries. It was — and still is — the British national anthem, “God Save the King” (or Queen, as is the case today). Let us sing it now as our closing prayer.
Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.