The Magazine

Church, State, and John Witherspoon

Scholar, cleric, philosopher of independence.

Nov 28, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 11 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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In part because so little can be learned of the personal dimensions of Witherspoon's life, Morrison focuses his attention upon Witherspoon's thinking, especially his political thought, so much of it rooted in his Presbyterian convictions. For Witherspoon, religion, even if deeply held like his own, was instrumental, and clerics were the instrument that applied and interpreted it.

"When the manners of a nation are pure, when true religion and internal principles maintain their vigor," he argued, "the attempts of the most powerful enemies to oppress [a people] are commonly baffled and disappointed." Moreover, he wrote in 1782, "by the influence of [clerics'] religious government, their people may be the more religious citizens, and the more useful members of society."

Witherspoon promoted a kind of generalized, nonsectarian Christianity, his emphasis upon practice more than faith, and he sharply criticized sectarian distinctions as detracting from the unity and comity of spirit necessary to the governance and tranquility of a federal republic.

"I do not wish you to oppose anybody's religion," he once preached, "but everybody's wickedness." Since "civil liberty cannot be long preserved without virtue," he argued, true religion is a guarantor of the integrity, happiness, and constitutional strength of the union. His was a capacious, tolerant species of worship and belief. In these respects, Morrison rightly concludes, Witherspoon was "swimming in the mainstream of 18th-century American political thought." One might add that his Common Sense philosophy had become part of that mainstream and had unacknowledged influence on others. After all, Jefferson once explained away the distinctiveness of his statements in the Declaration of Independence as "the common sense of the matter."

Perhaps nothing better reveals Witherspoon's unerring adopted Americanness than his reputation among contemporaries. Had his convictions not reflected the Christian republicanism of most others, he would have been neither as widely known and influential nor as universally liked and respected, and his sermons and political tracts would never have been so broadly circulated and read. Given the fact that he was a devout Reformed Calvinist, and a cleric at that, this is all the more noteworthy.

It's easy to forget that, at the very birth of the nation, many Americans, none more so than some of the most celebrated Founders, deeply distrusted clerics, if not religion itself. John Adams thought men of the cloth "as dangerous to liberty as the army." Jefferson believed them to be "a very formidable enemy against the civil and religious rights of man." Such views made little difference to Princeton's president. He insisted on wearing his clerical garb while serving in the Continental Congress, and he deplored provisions of state constitutions that forbade clerical service in government. Yet no one held any of this deeply against him.

He was also a constitutional unionist. No one surpassed this dominie in ardent nationalism and, after the Constitution was adopted in Philadelphia in 1787, support of the new frame of government. So deep were Witherspoon's convictions about federalism, nationalism, and representative government that (as Morrison astutely points out) the constitution of his Presbyterian Church that flowed from his pen that same year bears many commonalities with the federal constitution being created just down the street--about which, because of the secrecy in which it was written, Witherspoon knew nothing. This is just another indication of the immigrant Scot's absorption of fundamental American ways of thinking about government.

Morrison's book, though written with unusual fluency and engagement, won't appeal to everyone. A political scientist, he doesn't write in literary cadences, and his subject's words can't please us as do the grand rhetorical flourishes of Jefferson, the fervor of Adams, or the brilliance of Hamilton. They're similar to Madison's drier, yet profounder, prose: great weight but little song. What's more, Morrison the scholar is at pains to place Witherspoon's life and works within the recent historiography of the political and constitutional developments of the early nation. That's important for anyone wishing to grasp the cleric's true and great significance in the nation's early years. But it doesn't guarantee a large audience for the book, or a new following for the man who is its focus.

And so while Morrison makes a strong, and entirely convincing, case for Witherspoon's neglected importance, the pastor is likely to remain in the shadows of his greater contemporaries. Part of the reason is that he didn't join with the bite and edge of so many of his contemporaries in the great ideological and political fights of his day but was, instead, content always to take the middle, quieter road. Whether he would have done battle with others had he lived beyond 1794, just as the bitterest partisan warfare in the nation's history broke out, can't be guessed with any confidence. But part of the reason for Witherspoon's comparative neglect is that while we associate him with the world-historical developments of his day--forming a nation, creating a republican constitution, establishing a new American church--we can't associate him with a particular partisan ideology or expression of faith.

Instead, he was a kind of grand generalist, joining and promoting, but not initiating, just about every major endeavor of his times. Like Jefferson, he steered his bark "with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern." Like all his great contemporaries, Witherspoon was deeply engaged in the realities of his own day and rarely looked back. If he sought inspiration in his forebears in church and statecraft, he wasn't hawsered to the past, or to an earlier version of anything, but instead wrestled vigorously with his own time's complex problems, and differed from many of the other great figures of the moral tradition, yet endeavored to join his contemporaries in what the Founders thought to be the greatest of all endeavors: the creation and governance of a state.

That should be enough to earn him, as Morrison hopes, an honored and more widely acknowledged place in our history and memory.

James M. Banner Jr. is a cofounder of the National History Center and general editor of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Washington, D.C.