John Witherspoon: Forgotten Founder

[John] Witherspoon was particularly important as a political activist, an advocate for and architect of American independence. As early as 1774, in an essay called “Thoughts on American Liberty,” [3-page pdf] he wrote that “We are firmly determined never to submit to, and do deliberately prefer war with all its horrors and even extermination itself, to slavery riveted upon us and our posterity.” He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the only clergyman among that group of fifty-six. In May 1776, when the colonies teetered on the edge of war with England, he preached a sermon titled “Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men.” [html] The church historian William Warren Sweet called it “one of the most influential pulpit utterances during the whole course of the war.” Arguing that “There is not a single instance in history, in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire,” Witherspoon articulated a link between spiritual and temporal liberty in a way that that spoke vividly to the passions of the moment. In July 1776, when the question of succession was hotly debated and one delegate argued that the country was not yet “ripe” for independence, Witherspoon shot back: “In my judgement the country is not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of becoming rotten for the want of it.”

The forgotten founder: John Witherspoon,” by Roger Kimball, The New Criterion, June, 2006

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