SURPRISING PATRIOT – founding father John Witherspoon

SURPRISING PATRIOT


Only one clergyman signed the Declaration of Independence–John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian. How did a pastor, born and educated in Scotland, became one of America’s “founding fathers”? In 1768, Witherspoon was called from his church near Glasgow to be president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton. Then in 1774 Witherspoon became involved in the growing dispute between the American colonies and the Mother Country, joining in the protest against British policies throughout the colonies.

A strict Calvinist, Witherspoon was known for his sermons on providence, not politics. But that changed on May 17, 1776. Preaching to the college and community, Witherspoon came out forthrightly for the patriot cause:

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 any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature….

“The knowledge of God and his truths have from the beginning of the world been chiefly, if not entirely, confirmed to those parts of the earth, where some degree of liberty and political justice were to be seen…. [In truth] 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.”

On June 22, 1776, Witherspoon was chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and he proceeded to Philadelphia where he joined in the debate over independence. There was no time to delay, he insisted, because the people “had been for some time past loud in its demand for the proposed declaration.” Less than a month later, he signed it.

Today, as we celebrate the 234th anniversary of American independence, and listen as a pastor perhaps introduces a “political subject into the pulpit,” let us remember with thanksgiving that it is nothing new.

Source: United Church of Christ sunday Bulletin Service

Greg Cryns

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