If you’ve swallowed the popular lie that the American founding fathers believed that church should in no way influence the affairs of state, you haven’t heard of New Jersey’s John Witherspoon. Some only recall that he was in our state’s delegation to the 1776 Continental Congress.
He was there as the president of an influential seminary. He was also there as a man of vision. He opined of the congress: “It has been said that the present is an important era to America. I think it is an important era in the history of mankind.” He had spoken and written much in fostering the idea that all men are created equal. “Let America,” He urged “be a model for European union and hand down the blessings of peace and public order to many generations.” It was and it did!
John produced the New Jersey Plan that supported the rights of the small states. His disciple James Madison modified it into the blueprint for the Constitution. Madison later forsook Witherspoon to follow Hume. Vice president Aaron Burr studied under him, as did 6 members of the continental congress, 21 senators, 39 congressmen, 3 supreme court justices, 12 governors and possibly as many as 200 public officials.
How did this Scotsman get to be so influential? He was a profound scholar. In his splendid library at Nassau Hall, later ransacked by the English army, he wrote pamphlets on justice, liberty and equality. His work “Thoughts on American Liberty” fueled debates in meeting places all over New Jersey. There might have been nights, in Bohnell’s Tavern in Clinton, when patriots were inspired by his ideas. It’s even more likely that, after services at Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, groups of farmers discussed what liberty might bring.
Rev. John Witherspoon was the president of Princeton College. He accepted the appointment in 1768 after the untimely death of Jonathan Edwards. Before that he was a Presbyterian pastor at Paisley in Scotland. Many large churches were keen for him to lead them.
He also preached with influence. On May 17, 1776, two days after the congress had taken the first steps towards separation from Britain, he delivered a sermon (later published and widely read) entitled The Dominion of Providence (God) over the Passions of Men. Here’s a quote: “The confederacy of the colonies (resulted from) a conviction that our civil & religious liberties depended on the issue.” He taught what was at stake was the principle of a Christian commonwealth dedicated to God.
These Bible-based ideas were the lightening that sparked the fire of the American Revolution. God-fearing patriots were encouraged to throw off tyranny by the sermons of caring pastors. The Great Awakening, a national revival inspired the colonists. The church fostered the American state. The USA was born in church!
Even in the English parliament they recognized what was happening. Horace Walpole’s speech concluded: “There is no use crying about it, cousin America has run off with this Presbyterian parson.”
Now that the flames of relationship with God have ebbed low in a very wealthy and secular nation, some Americans would like to rewrite Revolutionary History. We want to recreate the past in our own image. Heed the Jewish prophet’s warning: “The arm of the Lord is not too short to save, but your sins have hidden God’s face from you so that He will not hear.”
Americans need another revolution. A new form of enslavement has come upon us. Our King George is the despot of personal selfishness. Is there a John Witherspoon in your pulpit or on the page you read? God says this is the day of your liberty. The Bible proclaims: “If we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves” but also: “If we confess our sins He (God) is faithful and will forgive.” Selfish One, stop pretending to be free. Let God strike your materialistic chains. Seek Him today.
Andrew Paton of Clinton Church of the Nazarene, born in Africa, has pastored in Hunterdon County since 1997. Before that he ministered in Durban and Bedfordview, South Africa and prior to that was an officer in The Salvation Army. He has been in full time Christian leadership since 1975. He and his wife Carol have two married sons and five grandchildren.
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