John Witherspoon and the Connecting of American Presbyterians
Speech given at the 84th General Synod of the Bible Presbyterian Church
meeting in Cape Canaveral, Florida, August 9, 2021.
by Rev. Douglas J. Douma
[Introductory Remarks: On the theme of connectivity at the level of the general assembly (or synod in the case of the BPC), I have been asked by the illustrious Rev. Dr. Len Pine to speak about the illustrious Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon. It was Witherspoon who, in the New Jersey State Legislature, once said, “there are two kinds of speaking that are very interesting—the one is perfect sense, and the other is perfect nonsense.” He continued “When there is speaking in either of these ways I shall engage to be all attention. But when there is speaking, as there often is, half-way between sense and nonsense, you must bear with me if I fall asleep.” (Collins, Vol. II, p. 231) It is my goal that my speech falls at least into one of those two pure categories, most preferably the former. Today I’ll be speaking on “John Witherspoon and the Connecting of American Presbyterians” in four parts:]
PART I – A BRIEF SURVEY OF 18TH CENTURY AMERICAN PRESBYTERIAN HISTORY
PART II – CONNECTING JOHN WITHERSPOON AND AMERICA
PART III – JOHN WITHERSPOON’S CONNECTING OF AMERICAN PRESBYTERIANS
PART IV – AMERICAN PRESBYTERIANS CONNECTING TODAY
PART I – A BRIEF SURVEY OF 18TH CENTURY AMERICAN PRESBYTERIAN HISTORY
Students of American Presbyterian history are familiar with the chart that displays—in various splits and the mergers—the family tree of American Presbyterian denominations. Versions of this chart typically begin with 1789, the year of the first meeting the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. The biggest flaw in these charts is that they entirely skip over almost a century of American Presbyterian history.
Whole churches, presbyteries, synods, and “sides” came and went before there ever was a PCUSA. While the first presbyterians in the colonies depended heavily on Scotland, Ireland, and England for trained ministers, the churches themselves were home grown, not plants from any particular old world presbyterian church body. They developed organically and with little bureaucracy. Churches came together into presbyteries (starting in 1706) and synods (starting in 1717). 1
To visualize this pre-1789 American Presbyterian history, I’ve created a new chart showing the presbyteries and synods that were precursors to the first General Assembly. In tracing only these precursors, the chart does not include other presbyterian groups, like the Covenanters and Seceders, who did not join the main national presbyterian body.2
Looking at our new chart we can see that the split into Old Side and New Side factions was a significant event in 18th century American Presbyterian history. Presbyteries and synods were rearranged as ministers and churches went either the way of the orderly Old Side or the revivalist New Side. The original synod—that of Philadelphia—became known as the Old Side. The New Side formed a new synod—the Synod of New York—with parts of some of the presbyteries that left the Synod of Philadelphia along with the addition of other presbyteries (New York and New Brunswick) that previously had no synodical membership.
When the Old Side – New Side split was “healed” in 1758, all of the presbyteries came together in one synod called the Synod of New York and Philadelphia. The relative growth of the New Side seems to have provided the strength to put “New York” ahead of “Philadelphia” in that synod name. Ironically, only after the presbyteries came together in this united synod did the Presbytery of Philadelphia for a time divide into “First of Philadelphia” (comprised of Old Side men) and “Second of Philadelphia” (comprised of New Side men). Clearly the “healing” was far from complete. Following the American Revolution however we find the split more fully healed and the church coming together like never before, forming a national-level General Assembly.
One might accurately say that from 1789 to 1837 we have the period in American history in which the largest percentage of presbyterians were united together in one ecclesiastical organization. The “unitedness” or “connectedness” of American Presbyterians in that period certainly is attributable to many factors. But among these factors we cannot ignore the role of the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, the most central figure connecting the American Presbyterian church in the revolutionary era.
Before we look at how John Witherspoon connected American Presbyterians, we will look at how John Witherspoon first connected to America.
PART II – CONNECTING JOHN WITHERSPOON AND AMERICA
In the beginning of The Works of The Rev. John Witherspoon there is a prefatory memoir that briefly summarizes some of the man’s credentials: “Minister of Christ (1745-94), President of Princeton University (1768-94), Member of the Continental Congress (1776-79;1789-82), Signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, Member of the New Jersey Convention for the Ratification of the Constitution, Organizer of the Presbyterian Church along national lines, Author of numerous books and essays, etc.”3
In some of these areas of Witherspoon’s life and work entire books have been written. In addition to at least three biographies of the man4, there are relatively recent books published on John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic;5 John Witherspoon’s American Revolution6, and on the Piety of John Witherspoon.7 Comparatively little however has been written on that which he would have considered his primary occupation—Minister of Christ—and the work he did as a minister to organize the PCUSA. And his work there is substantial. So influential in fact on the American scene was Witherspoon, and so quickly did he embrace American ideals that one might risk overlooking that the man was indeed Scottish and spent more than half of his life in his native country. That risk is now mitigated by Kevin DeYoung’s recent (2019) Ph.D. dissertation on “John Witherspoon and ‘The Fundamental Doctrines of the Gospel’: The Scottish Career of an American Founding Father.”
DeYoung’s dissertation reminds us that before coming to America to be the President of the College of New Jersey, Witherspoon was a minister of the Gospel—and sometimes a controversialist—in the Church of Scotland. There Witherspoon was a well-known leader in the Popular Party which supported the right of each congregation to chose its own minister. He and his Popular Party brethren were, unlike their adversaries in the Moderate party, clearly evangelical.
Witherspoon’s name came to the attention of the trustees of the College of New Jersey, an institution then critical in the training of American presbyterian ministers, and an institution that was again looking for a new president. As an evangelical Witherspoon was attractive to the trustees of the college. Even more, he had not participated in the Old Side – New Side controversy. This made him an excellent choice for the presidency. While the controversy was officially over, strong feelings remained. The choice of Witherspoon as president promised to bring greater unity to the American church.8
Taking on the presidency of the College of New Jersey, however, did not bring with it much assurance of personal health and safety. In fact, if past results were at all indicative of future expectations, it was a downright dangerous job! The reason the College was “again” looking for a president was that of each the four previous presidents had died on the job. DeYoung comments, “As the institutional heir to William Tennent’s pro-revival Log College, the College of New Jersey had been run by a succession of New Side pastors, capable men whose chief weakness was a penchant for dying after assuming the role of president.”9
So when the trustees wrote to Witherspoon in Scotland with hopes that he would accept their election of him to the presidency of the college, their first subject of business was to assure him of the healthfulness of place. The President of the Trustees, William Peartree, wrote to Witherspoon (Nov. 19th, 1766):
“The Loss of four Presidents in the compass of a few Years, hath been owing to singular circumstances, & occasioned by a variety of Infirmities which attended them previous[!] to their removal to Nassau Hall. Mr. Burr, the first who presided, was a Gentlemen of infirm Constitution, almost worn out before[!] he came to the College. Mr. Edwards dyed of the Small Pox. Mr. Davies constitutionally prone to inflammatory disorders, being let Blood, on a Cold he had taken, an inflammation seized his Arm, which brought on a Fever, & proved mortal. Dr. Finley dyed of a schirrous Liver & consequent Dropsy, the foundation of which disorder was laid some years before [!] his appointment.”10
The call must have taken the Witherspoon’s by surprise. The doctor was in fact the first ever to be invited from abroad to be the president of an American college.11 The chief difficulty in getting him to accept the position however turned out not to be any fear of the health of New Jersey’s air nor of any presidential curse, but rather it was the trepidation of Mrs. (Sarah) Witherspoon in her considering leaving Scotland behind, undergoing the journey to America, and living in a new place entirely apart from family and connections.12 Strenuously “did she protest against this unheard-of transatlantic migration.”13
The Rev. Doctor explained the circumstances in a letter to Richard Stockton of the college, saying:
“I felt a very strong Inclination to have accepted the office to which I was chosen, but Family Difficulties Continue as great as ever & indeed I am now convinced are insurmountable. My wife continues under such Distress on the Subject that for some Weeks after you left us she was scarcely ever half a Day out of bed at a time till I told her at any Rate to make herself easy for whatever Inclination I might have to it, the Removal was of such a Nature that I would not insist upon it unless she could be brought to agree to it.”14
Pastors, be glad you don’t have to convince your wife to embark on a three-month sea journey to your pastoral call!
Witherspoon, being a smart man, declined the call. But Benjamin Rush—a graduate of the college of New Jersey and then at that time a medical student in Edinburgh, wasn’t quick to give up on him.15 Responding to Rush’s plea to again reconsider the presidency, Witherspoon promised a second attempt. He wrote, “I am resolved once more to make trial of proposing the thing to my Wife & if it can be made agreeable it will be a great pleasure to me.”16 But this attempt did not prove any more successful than the first. It seems to have only made things worse. Witherspoon wrote again to Rush explaining:
“Since I wrote You on Wednesday I have again proposed the scheme of going to N. Jersey to my Wife but I cannot say with much or indeed with any hope of success. She was excessively struck with the bare Mention of it again as having believed it to be quite over & discovered the same or if possible a greater Aversion at it than ever plainly saying that such a Resolution would be as a Sentence of Death to her. I shall however be very desirous if convenient to see You here on Monday or Tuesday next that we may have a concluding Conference upon the subject—If she will enter into Conversation with You It will be more in your power than in mine to give such an Account of the Place & Manner of Life there as to remove prejudices.”17
Finally, when Benjamin Rush visited the Witherspoon’s in person there was success. “Finally he had talked away her fears and objections.”18 The success is noted in Benjamin Rush’s journal from August 16th of that year:
“In consequence of an Invitation & an Appointment I set off this Day to pay a visit to the Revd: Dr: Wetherspon at Paisley, a flourishing village About 5 Miles beyond Glasgow. The Design of this visit was to cooperate with the Doctor in endeavoring to remove his wife’s Objections to going to America. After spending some days at his House we were so happy as to succeed in Our Persuasians, and embraced an Opportunity wch: very fortunately offered a few days Afterwards, of writing to the Trustees of the College that the way was now open for the Doctor’s accepting of the Presidents: Chair shd. The Trustees think proper to choose him a second time. This Affair turned Out according to our wishes, for in Jany: 1768 we received the vote of the Trustees confirming the Doctor’s Reelection.”19
“Mrs Wetherspoon like another Sarah was willing to follow her husband.”20 Witherspoon was coming to America. One graduate of the college said — sarcastically, for he was a Scot himself — “Whotherspoon is presidt. Mercy on me! We shall be overrun with Scotchmen, the worst vermin under heaven.”21
Despite his heavy brogue, it wasn’t long before Witherspoon was considered very much an American, embracing the principles of his new land and even leading in the cause for independence. For Witherspoon it was always “providence” that brought him to the New World. And “providence” would lead him also in his church affairs. It is to that subject then that we now turn.
PART III – JOHN WITHERSPOON’S CONNECTING OF AMERICAN PRESBYTERIANS
The contributions of John Witherspoon toward the connecting of American Presbyterians were wide and varied. At the time of his coming to the College of New Jersey, the American Presbyterians were still recovering from the Old Side – New Side controversy. By the time of his death twenty-six years later, the church had a national-level General Assembly and was prepared to grow into the great force it would become in the 19th century.
Soon after arriving in America, Witherspoon set out on visits both to New England and to Virginia, raising funds for the college. This fundraising trip helped shore-up for a time the finances of the college and brought to Witherspoon connections with many presbyterian ministers.22
Witherspoon’s teaching at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) influenced the next generation (or two) of presbyterian ministers. His biographer Varnum Lansing Collins records that at the first General Assembly in 1789 of the 188 ministers in attendance, 97 had attended Princeton, and 52 of those had been students of Witherspoon. Over a quarter of the church then at the time of the First General Assembly was trained principally by this one man.
Along with his visible role as college president, Witherspoon’s leadership in national politics during the American Revolution provided him with the standing to lead in the formation of the denomination. Though his arrival to America in 1768 gave him less than a decade of teaching in peace before the revolution broke out, he quickly rallied to the American cause and contributed much to it. During the war Witherspoon voluntarily took only half his salary at the college to allow for the hiring of another professor who was needed as Witherspoon was regularly away at the Continental Congress. There he served on a number of committees and became well connected with the nation’s founding fathers. His students nearly without exception supported the American Revolution, many of them becoming officers in the army. And no doubt the war was of great personal loss to Witherspoon as his son James was killed at the Battle of Germantown in Pennsylvania.
While an entire speech could be easily written on Witherspoon’s work during the war, the focus here is on his efforts after the war, especially in connecting American Presbyterians. His role as college president and his work in both the Continental Congress and in the Legislature of the State of New Jersey provided Witherspoon with the standing to be the one to re-organize the church. But the revolution ended with the Treaty of Paris 1783 and it is not until a full six years later that we find the first General Assembly. Six years seems slow even by presbyterian standards. So what happened in those intervening years?
First, 1784 was a disaster for Witherspoon. He was sent by the college on an ill-advised fundraising trip to Great Britain when sentiment there remained strongly opposed to the new nation. Not surprisingly, the venture did not bring success. Then on the return trip, through some accident on the ship, Witherspoon permanently lost sight in one of his eyes. Making matters worse, the same year brought the death of his youngest daughter.
In 1785 we find the first proposal for the creation of a General Assembly going before the Synod of New York and Philadelphia. Delays occurred due to the necessity of writing a constitution. The church, it was argued, needed a delegated national-level gathering. The country was simply becoming too large to have all of the ministers travel each year to the Synod.23 Witherspoon, a man who found himself “as much at home in Virginia as in Massachusetts,”24 who was neither an Old Sider nor a New Sider, and who had earned respect in his work as president, professor, preacher, and statesman was trusted to do the work. He was “appointed chairman of a special committee to consider the constitution of the Church of Scotland and other Protestant churches, and … to compile a system of general rules for the government of the Synod, the presbyteries under its inspection, and the people in its communion, and to report at the next meeting of the Synod.”25 Witherspoon then proposed an overture to break up the Synod into three or more synods, making a General Assembly of the whole. He was appointed chairman also to a committee to prepare a book of discipline and government. After discussion of Witherspoon’s proposals occurred at the 1786 and 1787 synods, finally in 1788 “the whole plan, with confession of faith, the two catechisms, the directory for worship, and the form of government and discipline, was adopted”26 and it was resolved that the first meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America be held the next year with Witherspoon preaching the opening sermon.
Witherspoon was not—as is commonly misstated—the moderator of the First General Assembly. Rather he was the “convening moderator” who gave a sermon before the actual moderator, John Rodgers, was chosen. But yet his honor was no less diminished. Ashbel Green noted that “In the Synod of New York and Philadelphia, which before the foundation of the General Assembly, was the Supreme Judicatory of the presbyterian church in this country, [Witherspoon] was, when present, placed on almost every important committee. The published acts of this Synod, after he joined it in 1769, were mostly from his pen. … In forming the present Constitution of the presbyterian church his agency and influence were all but dominant.”27
But returning to our chart, we can see that with the formation of the General Assembly, no new churches were added to the denomination. Neither was the church any more geographically broad than in the preceding years. The formation of the General Assembly was a restructuring of the church, now with four regional synods comprised of a total of sixteen presbyteries.
What can be said of Witherspoon’s actual impact? He didn’t need to write for the denomination its own declaration of independence from any European church because it always was independent. And Witherspoon’s opposition to the “ecclesiastical high-handedness”28 operative in the patronage of the Church of Scotland would have itself found little opposition in an American church where congregations had always chosen their own pastors. Further, while the Scottish Witherspoon led the General Assembly to choose the Westminster Standards with only minor changes from the version used in the Church of Scotland, the Standards had long been accepted by the American churches. None of this changed. The main effect of Witherspoon’s work was to restructure the church and to provide it with a new book of discipline and government.
Witherspoon modified the 1645 “The Form of Presbyterian Church Government” to create the 1788 “Form of Government and Discipline.” A major difference in the documents is the addition of the “Preliminary Principles” which Witherspoon penned. These preliminary principles remain in large part in the official documents of many Presbyterian churches today, including in our own “Form of Government of the Bible Presbyterian Church.”29
So what are the “Preliminary Principles” and how do they bring connectivity to the church? The Preliminary Principles are “general principles” which are the “ground work” of the rest of the Form of Government and Discipline. Here Witherspoon writes that “They do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, equal and common to all others.”30 Also, he included the statement that “They also believe there are truths and forms, with respect to which men of good character and principles may differ: and in these, They think it the duty, both of private Christians and Societies, to exercise mutual forbearance towards each other.” On our theme of connectivity, we can say, we can only remain connected when we do exercise mutual forbearance towards others despite those places where we may acceptably differ.
The American revisions to the Standards, including Witherspoon’s “Preliminary Principles,” are more opposed to power-centralizing than the original versions were. While the divines of Westminster had opposed Erastianism, they yet retained a Church-State connection through the power of the magistrate to call a church assembly.31 This was no longer possible in the American context.
Liberty in the nation and liberty in religion were the themes of the day. To be connected as Presbyterians is to share a common faith as exhibited in the confessions, but also to remain ever-steadfast against both political and ecclesiastical tyranny.32
PART IV – AMERICAN PRESBYTERIANS CONNECTING TODAY
In this final part of my speech I want to look then at contemporary “improvements,” which is the term Witherspoon used for “applications.” What might we learn from John Witherspoon in regards to connectivity among Christians today?
It is certainly difficult to bridge the gap of so many years with such vastly different worlds. And in this time things are even more complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. Connectivity has taken on entirely new dimensions.
In a tantalizing statement the biographer Collins says of Witherspoon “he seems to have prepared for publication a volume of essays intended to promote church unity, but this project came to naught, and his manuscripts on the subject have been lost.”33 Well, that makes my task all the more difficult.
It may even be that John Witherspoon would not want to give advice. The story goes that a couple years after the death of his wife, he was, at age 69, remarried to a widow who was but 24 years of age. And visiting at the house of friend en route to his wedding, his host said to him, “Doctor, you do not seem to be well matched;” which his biographer calls a “veiled allusion to the disparity of age between himself and his bride-elect.” (Collins, Vol II, p. 169). To this Witherspoon retorted before clambering into his carriage, “I neither give advice, nor do I take any.”
But sometimes actions speak louder than words. And when we look at Witherspoon’s life, one thing is very clear in respect to connectivity: You must be involved to be connected. The obligation to serve where you are called extends beyond your pastorate to your chaplaincy, your neighborhood, your presbytery, and your synod. Involvement is crucial. To college graduates Witherspoon gave the parting advice “Avoid sloth as a dangerous enemy.”34 It is our involvement in multiple places that fostered connectivity and uncovers opportunities for evangelism.
Witherspoon’s steadfastness can also teach us about the value of involvement and how it fosters connectivity. His connections and success in one place led to connections and success in another and another. A virtuous cycle. And he neither sought escape nor retirement. He did not even put life on hold when the Redcoats came. Except for a brief period during the war, the College of New Jersey continued to train ministers. To our own situation, let us never put our work on hold for fear of a virus or anything else. We must continue ever steadfast to train Christians from the Scriptures, preaching the word of God, and leading by example to be benefit our families, our churches, and our communities.
A great part of being involved and fostering connectivity means that you, especially as a minister, must embrace your place. I’ll say that again, as I emphasize this as a key takeaway: ministers, embrace your place. You are called to a certain place and must connect with the people where you are. Not every postman gets the Hawaii delivery route, and not every pastor gets called to Cape Canaveral. The Lord has called you to where you are, with all of the challenges it presents. And it is in that place that your presence must be known. Connectivity in the church—especially at a smaller church—must start with the pastor getting to know each and every person there and being visible in the community. Get involved, be steadfast, embrace your place, fight the good fight of the faith, and, I pray, you will see the fruit both of connectivity and from connectivity issue forth in ever greater yields.
1 “Other Presbyterian churches came to America, for instance the Covenanters (Reformed Presbyterians) and the Seceders (Associate Reformed Presbyterians). But these were transplants from Scottish Presbyterianism. American Presbyterianism, however, was substantially an American original, being created without the oversight or support of Old World churches.” – Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 2007, p. 8.
2 Charting the history is complicated by the fact that some presbyteries had two names (e.g. New Castle, Snow Hill) or even three names (as in the case of the various forms of Lewes, Leweston, and Lewiston). Charles Hodges notes “There is, however, frequent inconsistency in names of the Presbyteries in the early records.” – Charles Hodge, The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Vol. 1, 1839, p. 41, n1.
3 The Works of Rev. John Witherspoon, Vol I, p. iii.
4 The Life of Revd. John Witherspoon (Vol IX of Works) by Ashbel Green, ed. Henry Lyttleton Savage, 1973; John Witherspoon by David Walker Woods Jr., Fleming H. Revell, 1906; and President Witherspoon by Varnum Lansing Collins, Princeton University Press, 1925.
5 John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic, by Jeffry H. Morrison, University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.
6 John Witherspoon’s American Revolution, by Gideon Mailer, University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
7 The Piety of John Witherspoon, by L Gordon Tait, Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.
8 “… the choice fell, not on a New Light partisan from among the Princeton family, but on an eminent foreigner who had not participated in the factional struggle that had rent American Presbyterianism. This was in itself a conciliatory move, and hints in letters written by men on both sides of the question indicate that it was understood by man.” – John Witherspoon Comes to America, by L. H. Butterfield, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953, p. 13. “Perhaps Some of what they call the old Side may write to you, in terms not so encouraging, ; for both sides seem to have centered in you, which is a Circumstance which should also have weight. If you refuse their Invitation, it is not likely that they will so soon center so unanimously on another.” – Archibald Wallace to Witherspoon, Feb. 6, 1767. Old Sider Francis Alison commented of Witherspoon’s election to president, “I think he will do better than any that they had of late year, or could have chosen in the bounds of our Synod.” – John Witherspoon Comes to America, p. 83.
9 “John Witherspoon and ‘The Fundamental Doctrines of the Gospel’: The Scottish Career of an American Founding Father.” by Kevin DeYoung, Dissertation, University of Leicester, 2019, p. 72.
10 John Witherspoon Comes to America, p. 8.
11 John Witherspoon Comes to America, p. 36.
12 “[Mrs. Witherspoon] told me to this effect, that at the time & for some time before she was in a weak state of health, & in that Scituation things appered very gloomy to her—Crossing the Sea, & that her Husband, might soon die, & she be left in a strange country &c.” – Letter of Charles Beatty to Richard Treat, Oct 15th 1767, John Witherspoon Comes to America, p. 57.
13 President Witherspoon, Vol I., p. 81-82.
14 Letter of John Witherspoon to Richard Stockton, April 18, 1767, John Witherspoon Comes to America, p. 39.
15 On 19 July Richard Stockton arrived at Princeton bringing with him the news that Witherspoon had “absolutely refused to accept the presidency.” At the very same time Benjamin Rush, who was incapable of taking no for an answer, was renewing the assault in Scotland. – John Witherspoon comes to America, p. 48.
16 Letter of John Witherspoon to Benjamin Rush, August 4th 1767, John Witherspoon Comes to America, p. 49.
17 Letter of John Witherspoon to Benjamin Rush, August 14th 1767, John Witherspoon Comes to America, p. 50.
18 President Witherspoon, Vol 1, p. 86.
19 Letter of John Witherspoon to Benjamin Rush, August 14, 1767, John Witherspoon Comes to America, p. 51.
20 John Witherspoon Comes to America, p. 73.
21 Letter of William Paterson to John MacPherson, John Witherspoon Comes to America, p. 60.
22 “Within a year from this time [his arrival] Witherspoon had traveled northward into New England and southward to Virginia as the spokesman of the College he had come to preside over.” John Witherspoon Comes to America, p. 82
23 “The size of the American church was also a problem; it had outgrown its mid-century organization of Synod and presbyteries.” Seeking a Better Country, Hart and Muether, 2007, p. 81. “Each Presbytery was independent of every other, and sometimes defied the Synod, reserving to itself the right to ignore it. The Synod was not a delegated body but was composed of all the ministers of all the Presbyteries with a layman from each church.” John Witherspoon, David Walker Woods Jr., 141-142.
24 President Witherspoon, Vol. I., p. 126.
25 President Witherspoon, Vol. II., p. 160.
26 President Witherspoon, Vol. II., p. 161.
27 Ashbel Green, p. 152.
28 President Witherspoon, Vol. I., p. 58. Also, the American minster Samuel Davies had visited Scotland in that time and wrote in his diary of the moderates who “carried church-power to an extravagant height, denying to individuals the right of judging for themselves, and insisting upon absolute universal obedience to all the determinations of the general Assembly.” President Witherspoon, Vol. 1., p. 32.
29 The first six of the eleven “Preliminary Principles” in the 2011 edition of the Constitution of the Bible Presbyterian Church are nearly identical, but for a few grammatical changes, to the first six of eight “Preliminary Principles” of Witherspoon’s hand. The BPC’s ninth and tenth points are from Witherspoon’s seventh and eighth points respectively.
30 1789 PCUSA Constitution, p. 132 ff.
31 “When the Confession was written there was a strong Erastian party in England, which held that the Church was nothing more than a department of the state. The original Confession was not intended in favor of Erastianism, and in fact the Erastians argued against the section as adopted. Yet it seems today that the original section was still too Erastian. It would mean that the President of the United States could call a meeting of the General Assembly, decide what is the mind of God, and approve or veto the acts of the Assembly. If we mention by name some of the recent Presidents, the incongruity of such an arrangement would be apparent.” – Gordon H. Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe?, 1965, 2nd Edition 2001, p. 212.
32 “The Synod of New York and Philadelphia adopt, according to the know and established meaning of the terms, the Westminster Confession of Faith as the Confession of their Faith: save that every candidate for the gospel ministry is permitted to except against so much of the twenty third chapter as gives authority to the civil magistrate in matters of religion. The Presbyterian church in American considers the Church of Christ as a spiritual society, entirely distinct from the civil government; and having a right to regulate their own ecclesiastical policy independently of the interposition of the magistrate.” – A Digest Compiled From the Records of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1820, p. 119.
33 President Witherspoon, Vol II, p. 201.
34 President Witherspoon, Vol II, p. 184.
2 thoughts on “John Witherspoon and the Connecting of American Presbyterians”
Great article Doug!
John Witherspoon is one of my favorite Presbyterians. His Grandson did much for my home state of North Carolina such as forming the First Pres of New Bern and Pastoring the Hillsborough Pres in Hillsborough see https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/witherspoon-john-knox . Do you know if Deyoung has published his dissertation?
Thanks Scott! Yes, I believe he did publish the dissertation.
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