Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men - John Witherspoon

John Witherspoon is considered "the great teacher" of the American Revolution for Independence. Witherspoon (1723 - 1794) has the distinction of being the sole clergyman who signed the Declaration of Independence. He was born in Scotland and educated in Edinburgh. This prominent preacher became an advocate of historic Christian faith when modernizing movements troubled the Presbyterian church. As leader of the Popular Party, Witherspoon was involved in Scottish church politics resisting the hereditary rights of Scotish lords.

When moving to America in 1768, Witherspoon became the President of Princeton and eventually became an outspoken advocate of pro-independence politics. Elected to the Continental Congress, Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Serving in Congress till 1782 when independence was secured, he returned to Princeton where he continued to teach until his death. He continued to serve the government of New Jersey and became a prominent national figure.

Witherspoon, as president of Princeton, was accused of turning the college into a "seminary of sedition." His impact upon his students at Princeton was profound. Concerning Witherspoon, one writer declared, "twenty future senators, twenty-five future congressmen, three future governors, and one future president of the United States - James Madison, who remained at Princeton after graduation to pursue further studies under Witherspoon." Widely read were his works liberty and the role of religion in establishing civic virture. His works were profoundly influencial in the shaping of the American Constitution.

"The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men" is a sermon preached on May 17, 1776 at Princeton. The sermon clearly reveals that John Witherspoon was a most important "political parson" of the American War for Independence againt Great Britain.

"If your cause is just - you may look with confidence to the Lord and intreat him to plead it as his own. You are all my witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit. At this season however, it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature. So far as we have hitherto proceeded, I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies, has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction, that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in a great measure the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue. The knowledge of God and his truths have from the beginning of the world have been chiefly, if not entirely, confined to those parts of the earth, where some degree of liberty and political justice were to be seen, and great were the difficulties with which they had to struggle from the imperfection of human society, and unjust decisions of usurped authority. 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..."

I have said, if your principles are pure - the meaning of this is, if your present opposition to the claims of the British ministry does not arise from a seditious and turbulent spirit, or a wanton contempt of legal authority; from a blind and factious attachment to particular persons or parties; or from a selfish rapacious disposition, and a desire to turn public confusion to private profit - but from a concern for the interest of your country, and the safety of yourselves and your posterity. On this subject I cannot help observing, that thou it would be a miracle if there were not many selfish persons among us, and discoveries now and then made of mean and interested transactions, yet they have been comparatively inconsiderable both in number and effect. In general, there has been so great a degree of public spirit, that we have much more reason to be thankful for its vigor and prevalence, than to wonder at the few appearances of dishonesty or disaffection. It would be very uncandid to ascribe the universal lardo that has prevailed among all ranks of men, and the spirited exertions in the most distant colonies, to any thing else than public spirit. Nor was there ever perhaps in history so general a commotion from which religious differences have been so entirely excluded. Nothing of this kind has as yet have been heard, except of late in the absurd, but malicious and detestable attempts of our few remaining enemies to introduce them. At the same time I must also, for the honor of this country observe, that though government in the ancient forms has been so long unhinged, and in some colonies not sufficient care taken to substitute another in its place; yet there has been, by common consent, a much greater degree of order and public peace, than men of reflection and experience foretold or expected. From all these circumstances I conclude favorably and the principles of the friends of liberty, and do earnestly exhort you to adopt and act upon those which have been described, and resist the influence of every other..."

Suffer me to recommend to you an attention to the public interest of religion, or in other words, zeal for the glory of Godand the good of others. I have already endeavored to exhort sinners to repentance; what I have here in view is to point out to you the concern which every good man ought to take in the national character and manners, and the means which he ought to use for promoting public virtue, and bearing down impiety and vice. This is a matter of the utmost moment, and which ought to be well understood, both in its nature and principles. Nothing is more certain than that a general profligacy and corruption of manners make a people ripe for destruction. A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery must ensue. On the other hand, when the manners of a nation are pure, when true religioun and internal principles maintain their vigor, the attempts of the most powerful enemies to oppress them are commonly baffled and disappointed. This will be found equally certain, whether we consider the great principles of God's moral government, or the operation and influences of natural causes."

What follows from this? That he is the best friend to American liberty, who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion, and who sets himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind. Whoever is an avowed enemy of God, I scruple not to call him an enemy to his country. Do not suppose, my brethren, that I mean to recommend a furious and angry zeal for the circumstantials of religion, or the contentions of one sect with another about their peculiar distinctions. I do not wish you to oppose any body's religion, but every body's wickedness. Perhaps there are few surer marks of the reality of religion, than when a man feels himelf more joined in spirit to a true holy person of a different denomination, than to an irregular live of his own. It is therefore your duty in this important and critical season to exert yourselves, every one in his proper sphere, to stem the tide of prevailing vice, to promote the knowledge of God, the reverence of his name and worship, and obedience to his laws.
John Witherspoon, May 17,1776

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