“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.”
As 1776 progressed, the Continental Congress understood that momentous events lay ahead. In line with common practice at the time, they called for a day of fasting to help people focus on the decisions that needed to be made and on the likelihood that the conflict in New England would expand to other areas. In response to the call for religious preparation, John Witherspoon, president of what is now Princeton University, delivered a sermon to the gathered community in which he proclaimed the need for repentance, based on his understanding of the Christian faith, and presented his views on the political situation. In Witherspoon’s mind, political freedom and religious freedom were intricately linked, so that one could not truly exist without the other. Given the recent tightening of British control over colonial affairs, Witherspoon regarded revolution as inevitable.
The Revolutionary War began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. It was in that year that the colonies began to organize an army to confront the British; by March 1776, enough American military forces had amassed in the area of Boston that commander in chief George Washington was able to begin an attack. At the same time, the Continental Congress was trying in a variety of ways to prepare for the uncertainty and strife that lay ahead. A resolution was passed in early April to proclaim May 17, 1776, a day of fasting, prayer, and humility in hopes of unifying Americans in the various colonies. It was clear to everyone that the fighting in New England was just a prelude to a much larger conflict. Even though the British had withdrawn from Boston by May 17, raising the hopes and morale of the colonists, preparations remained under way to defend New York. In this dramatic moment, John Witherspoon wrote and delivered a sermon calling all Americans to unite in the cause of civil and religious liberty.
Those who gathered in Princeton, New Jersey, to hear Witherspoon speak were not yet American leaders, although some went on to leadership positions. He spoke to college students, faculty, and members of the community so forcefully that requests were made, and granted, that his sermon be published for mass distribution. Copies were also printed in Britain, adding to the British certainty that American religious leaders played an important role in causing the unrest.
The American people were facing an important point in their history. Although fighting had started, it had been thus far been confined to the radical area of New England; as it was poised to spread to the south, collectively the colonies had to ask whether the people really wanted to split from Great Britain and if they were prepared for the war that was looming. Witherspoon’s words were chosen not only to honestly convey his understanding of the situation but also to add to the fervor for freedom from Britain. As an ordained minister, Witherspoon called for faith in God; as a political leader, he called for faith in the emerging America. While the response to his first point is not well documented, the response to the second was strongly in the affirmative for a new and free nation of united colonies.
John Witherspoon was born in Gifford, Scotland, on February 15, 1723, the first child of Anne Walker and ordained minister James Alexander Witherspoon. After earning a master of arts degree from the University of Edinburgh, Witherspoon remained there to study divinity. He became politically active in opposition to the Jacobite rebellion against the English; although Witherspoon supported Scottish nationalism, he did not support the Stuart family. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in the Church of Scotland and, in 1745, began serving the parish in Beith, Ayrshire, Scotland. During his thirteen years in Beith, he married Elizabeth Montgomery, with whom he had ten children. In 1758, he moved to Laigh Kirk, Paisley, Scotland, where he continued as a local church pastor. During this time, he continued to write and study, earning additional degrees from the University of Saint Andrews.
In 1768, Witherspoon accepted the invitation to become the president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), which was founded by members of the Presbyterian Church. He would hold this post until his death in 1794. When he arrived, the college was in desperate straits. In addition to teaching, Witherspoon excelled at the central tasks of a college president, namely raising money and assisting the school in moving toward a more optimal structure. He transformed the college by strengthening the course of study, basing it more on that of Scottish schools, and introducing a new philosophy and purpose. His work on the curriculum and with the library allowed the college to move toward parity with the top New England colleges. Just when Witherspoon’s goals were being reached, the Revolutionary War caused the closure of the school and the destruction of some of its, and his, resources; after the war, however, he successfully rebuilt the college into a top-tier academic institution.
Although Witherspoon had been in the colonies for only a few years when the revolution started, he was a strong supporter of the effort. By 1774, he was taking an active role in Somerset County, New Jersey’s committee of correspondence, which worked to replace the British government. He was a member of the Second Continental Congress and voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence. He helped develop the Articles of Confederation and later advocated for the Federalist cause in the adoption of the Constitution.
John Witherspoon came to the understanding that the British government was attempting to stifle freedom in all its forms in the colonies, which led him to call for a separation between Great Britain and America. He did not do this as a political radical or as one seeking the glory of the battlefield. Witherspoon’s Christian faith gave him direction for his life, and this included a social dimension; for him, public morality was not possible without personal morality. Recognizing that war was unfolding in front of him, Witherspoon called for his listeners to seek salvation by developing a strong personal faith in God. In addition, he asked that they seek God’s guidance and blessing to achieve the true freedom of a democracy, which would ensure not only civil liberty but religious liberty as well.
Sermons in the eighteenth century tended to be long, and Witherspoon’s is no exception. The full text of “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men” is about eight times the length of the extract printed in this text. In the opening section, he identifies two related points that will be the essence of the sermon. The first proposes that people’s anger can actually be used to serve God; the second applies this theological proposition to current events. This second point is where the excerpted text begins.
In order to understand the application of this theological proposition, it needs to be briefly described. The progression of thought, according to Witherspoon, begins with the human passion of wrath. Witherspoon states that this emotion illustrates the fact that human nature is corrupt, or sinful. In his theology, the anger people have with each other leads to the problems of society, and these social problems, in conjunction with individual greed, create the conditions for social destruction, including war. Witherspoon continues that these destructive results should cause people to consider the love and grace offered by God. Human anger, and the physical manifestations of it, can bring people to repent because of the suffering it causes. Witherspoon believed that in the face of great suffering, people cannot be indifferent to God or to faith. Thus he asserts that human passion (anger), resulting from the sinful nature of all people, causes suffering, which in turn creates the conditions for salvation by doing away with people’s ability to be indifferent to articles of faith. Witherspoon also cites historical examples of persecution to illustrate how human anger can lead to salvation, referring to ways in which religious persecution has strengthened the church, up to and including the settling of New England. Thus, for Witherspoon, God can use human passions in such a way that good can arise from evil intent.
Applying this to the situation in which he found himself, Witherspoon sought to discover what course of action Americans could take that seemed to be most in line with this theological thesis. As might be expected of an evangelical preacher, he first turned to personal salvation. In line with his theological beliefs, Witherspoon reminds those hearing or reading his sermon that there are opportune times for salvation, saying that “there are times when the mind may be expected to be more awake to divine truth.” He considers uncertainty or adversity to be central to these times of spiritual wakefulness; what is happening in the colonies, according to him, is a “season of public judgment.” Witherspoon asserts that everyone should have “a clearer view of the sinfulness of [their] nature” because of the calamity facing them. Using biblical language, he describes the current events as “the rod of the oppressor.” Because for Witherspoon this is not just a secular endeavor, he describes preparations for war in terms of religious garb, as “putting on the habit of the warrior.” The seriousness of the situation is emphasized by the graphic depiction of weapons as “instruments of death.” He saw the massive preparations for the war, in the process of unfolding as he spoke, as the primary task before the colonists.
As a Patriot (one who opposed the British policy regarding the colonies), Witherspoon understood the obsession many colonists had with stockpiling the things that would be necessary during a war, whether they be provisions with which to sustain oneself or the “weapons of hostility.” As a Christian minister, however, he called upon the people to think beyond the physical aspect of life and turn more to the spiritual. Temporal things are important, he argues, but of “truly infinite importance” is the “salvation of your souls.” Witherspoon urges the people to put God first in their lives and to seek salvation—a priority very much in line with mainstream Christian thought down through the ages. A skilled preacher, he questions the things people thought were important in the 1770s, asking whether it is “of much moment” for those gathered that day that their families be “rich or poor, at liberty or in bonds”; the economic state of one’s family had always been a consideration for most people, while the emphasis on freedom or servitude was seen as a vital issue of the day by the colonists. Witherspoon asks rhetorically if it is important that the country prosper in both rural and urban areas. He asks if it is important whether free and strong Americans be sustained in this manner or whether the colonies become virtual serfs of the British government, neglected and declining in productivity. These issues were on people’s minds because of the perceived threat posed by the British government to the colonial way of life. When Witherspoon asked these questions, he would have expected his congregation to agree that such things were important and they should take steps to make certain a positive future comes to pass. Anticipating this, he then changes direction; if these things are important, he asks, is it not at least as important to plan for what will happen throughout eternity as it is to plan for what will happen in this temporary place of residence? He wants his audience to consider “what shall be [their] state through endless ages.”
In his sermon, Witherspoon raises an issue that is not uncommon in what might be called civil religious ceremonies. It is important to remember that, at the time this sermon was preached, similar services were being held throughout the thirteen colonies, the object of which was to seek “the blessing of God on the counsels and arms of the United Colonies.” If this is the case, Witherspoon asks, how can people expect this to happen if they are “unconcerned” about their personal relationship with God? In accordance with traditional Christian thought that this universe is not eternal, Witherspoon raises the issue of the relative value of transient things of this world versus those things that are eternal. The manner in which he asks these questions, in the opening paragraph of the document excerpt above, makes it clear that while physical preparation is important, spiritual preparation is even more so.
Like many evangelistic preachers, Witherspoon continues the sermon with a plea for people to respond immediately. He states that no one knows when death will come and urges his audience to find salvation now, reminding them “that there is no time more suitable.” He has no doubt that the war will soon be upon them, and many will soon fall in battle. Witherspoon expresses his conviction that most people who have not yet found salvation have simply never gotten around to it, and he entreats them not to wait for a “more convenient season” but to accept salvation “now.”
If one were inclined to accept what Witherspoon says about salvation, this might lead to the question of how to achieve it. The third paragraph of the excerpted text deals solely with this issue. Witherspoon is adamant that salvation is only possible by “an unfeigned acceptance of Christ Jesus.” As an educated individual, he was aware of many of the other religions that existed throughout the world, but for him there was only one “true religion.” The faith of salvation, for Witherspoon, was more than just an affirmation of the goodness of Jesus or the general need for a moral system such as he found in the Bible. He argues that only a faith that changes lives can be the true faith. As noted earlier in regard to the section of the sermon not in this text, Witherspoon states that only when people discover their true nature (that is, weak and sinful) can the process of salvation begin; those who discovered the true nature of humanity without accepting Christ, he believed, would live a wretched life. He says that some willfully reject God’s grace, while others are uncertain of truthfulness of the message of Christ crucified, but for most, as in the preceding paragraph, it is just laziness that keeps them separated from God. Witherspoon argues that “the sword of divine justice hangs over you” and that the members of the congregation must accept salvation through Christ. He understands that fear of things of this world does affect how some act, because they do not want to face earthly consequences; however, Witherspoon proclaims that a real change can occur and true morality can come about only when a person accepts the “grace of God.”
In the fourth paragraph, Witherspoon begins to address current events, recounting recent military successes, especially those in the area of Boston. While the British did withdraw from Boston because of the American control of the surrounding highlands, Witherspoon seems to be exaggerating a little when he asserts that British military discipline had turned into “confusion and dismay” when confronted by the American troops. All that had happened prior to May 1776 was seen by Witherspoon as coming from God’s blessings.
The fifth paragraph of the text sees Witherspoon repeat his thanksgiving to God. In line with many American theologians and preachers of his day, he saw the positive results of the first few engagements of the war as blessings directly from God. While as a Presbyterian, Witherspoon was not directly a part of the Puritan tradition, his view of the United Colonies was very much in line with that tradition, in which the colonists had become God’s chosen people. Because of this, Witherspoon advocates trusting in and giving thanks to God, rather than attributing any military success solely to the soldiers’ or the generals’ prowess. He speaks about his displeasure with the “ostentatious, vaunting expressions in our newspapers” regarding the power and success of the American forces. While Witherspoon desires for the Americans’ “arms [to be] crowned with success,” he urges that even though much is due to the physical preparations of the military and its leaders, they should not allow pride to overwhelm the need to thank God, saying that pride and vanity will lead to destruction.
In the following passage, Witherspoon continues to discuss national pride. He uses the image of Goliath to represent Britain, citing the pride Goliath had just prior to his death when facing David in individual combat, and considers the “unfavourable” “national character and manners” demonstrated by the names given to British naval ships. Then, in the last two paragraphs of the printed text, Witherspoon reaffirms his understanding of God’s relationship with the faithful. According to his theology, those who are believers, who have God’s “countenance and approbation,” will ultimately do well. He tries to deny that he is “speak[ing] prophetically,” and yet here he is projecting into the future his beliefs regarding God’s promises.
Witherspoon’s reference to “the principles of God’s moral government” is a slight against the British; philosophically, he was a strong advocate of public morality for government officials. His understanding of public morality came from a combination of sources: biblical, personal, and spiritual morality and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. From both perspectives, he believed that the British were trying to infringe upon the civil and religious rights of the colonists, and it is on this basis that he states the colonists “need not fear the multitude of opposing hosts.” In this context, Witherspoon again rhetorically claims not to speak with “certainty,” but what he says leaves no doubt that he is in fact certain.
The last paragraph of the text moves into the heart of the matter for those in Princeton. While Witherspoon claims that this sermon is his “first time . . . introducing any political subject into the pulpit,” he continually, throughout the revolution, incorporated politics into his preaching. It was at this time and place that he clearly moved beyond a theoretical application of his theology to current political and military events, stating that “the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.” Witherspoon’s belief and proclamation that the revolution was “not only lawful but necessary” was a major step in gaining more support for the effort. With many other Scottish emigrants having settled in America, the Presbyterian Church was very influential among what might be seen as average citizens; thus, as Witherspoon was a leader among Presbyterians in America, his assertion of the need to rebel against British rule had an effect well beyond Princeton.
Witherspoon’s analysis of what had recently occurred gave strong support to colonial leaders. The revolution was not based upon “pride, resentment, or sedition”; these aspects of sinful human nature, against which Witherspoon speaks during the first half of this sermon, were not the foundation of the American cause. Rather, it was the fact that “civil and religious liberties” would be at risk if there were no rebellion. The revolution, according to Witherspoon, would have ramifications not only in terms of earthly kingdoms but also with regard to people’s relationship with God. For him, the facts were simple: if religious liberty were not preserved, then personal salvation would not be possible. Because, as he asserts, “civil liberty” has never been lost without a corresponding corruption of “religious liberty,” then in Witherspoon’s view, to give up colonial freedoms to the British would result not only in political subjugation but also in the loss of the possibility of salvation.
Following the excerpted section, there remains another third of the sermon, in which Witherspoon continues to speak forcefully against the British leaders, political and military. He asserts that he would never say from the pulpit what he would not say in private conversation, thus assuring that his congregation will take to heart his statements regarding British leaders. He then goes on to discuss the strong consensus in the colonies, the need to be faithful to the cause, and his belief in the American church as the purest form of Christianity. Witherspoon concludes his sermon with an exhortation to serve God and the emerging nation. He was certain that if the colonists did so, the American soldiers would be invincible in their struggle against the British.
Of all the sermons preached on the day of fasting proclaimed by the Continental Congress, the most significant one was John Witherspoon’s. Shortly after it was delivered, it was printed for wider distribution. When it was reprinted in Great Britain the following year, the publisher felt it necessary to add numerous footnotes, through which he tried to demonstrate the errors of Witherspoon’s theological and political positions. The confidence with which Witherspoon addressed the prospects for the revolution was extraordinary; he was utterly certain that God wanted the revolution to succeed in order to preserve religious freedom and would guarantee the Americans’ victory. One of the consequences of this sermon, and similar ones, has been the persistent belief that the United States is a Christian nation, and Witherspoon’s certainty regarding God’s position on the Revolutionary War, in combination with the Puritan vision of the colonies as the new Israel, has been used to support this belief. Thus the impact of the sermon has gone well beyond the events Witherspoon discussed.
After moving to America in 1768, John Witherspoon quickly became active in colonial affairs. He became convinced of the need for a new path for the colonies, one that would lead to separation from Great Britain. To Witherspoon, the basis for the revolution was the sinful nature of humanity; more specifically, he saw it as the result of the corrupt nature of those leading the British government, with the image of the “haughty monarch” in the sermon being an indirect reference to King George III. If the Americans do not revolt, Witherspoon argues, then his imagined future of “scanty produce” from “neglected fields,” tended by the “timid owner” who has to give everything to the “publicans,” will come to pass. In the context of urging people to seek salvation, Witherspoon was able to use theological concepts as barbs against the British. The “analogy of faith” and “moral government” he mentions were not only a positive for America but also, in his view, lacking in the British government.
It is clear that Witherspoon’s preaching, as well as his other work, did assist in boosting morale and creating broader support for the war. If people are truly certain that God supports their position or efforts, most of them will work more diligently to bring such things to pass. While one sermon did not transform the war effort any more than Witherspoon’s plea for everyone to seek personal salvation resulted in widespread mass conversion, it did play an important role in convincing many to persevere against the British.
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