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Presbyterians and the Fourth

Psalm 48 & Romans 12

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 6th July 2003

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

At the corner of Connecticut Avenue and “N” Street in Washington, D. C. there’s a beautiful statue of John Witherspoon (1723-1794).  It’s easy to miss him as you’re driving up Connecticut.  Most of the people who walk by the corner, I’m sure, have never noticed him standing there.  Many are rushing to get their double-skim-caramel-macchiato-latte-no-foam at Starbuck’s, which is located just behind him.  To the right of the statute there is an office building, with a Citibank branch on the ground floor.  If you look to the right of the bank entrance, on one of the columns in front of the bank, you’ll see a plaque indicating that the National Presbyterian Church once stood on that site, before it moved up to Nebraska Avenue where it stands today beside the NBC Studios and a few blocks from leafy Chevy Chase.  The statue and the plaque are often overlooked, ignored.  Friends in Washington, who walk along Connecticut almost daily, have never noticed Witherspoon standing there above them until their history-obsessed-Presbyterian-minister friend pointed it out to them.

Why is Witherspoon so important?  Did you know he’s the great-great-great-great-grandfather of Reese Witherspoon, currently starring in “Legally Blonde II”?  But that’s not why he’s important. We’ll get to that in a minute. 

I think that statue represents a kind of historical amnesia.  It powerfully represents the general amnesia both within the culture in general and the church in particular of the substantial role Presbyterians played in the formation of this country, starting first with their participation in the revolution, a revolution of political power, but also a revolution of the mind and of the heart.

Presbyterians were at the center of the American Revolution  – at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the rebellion.  In the Houses of Parliament in Westminster (London), the political unrest in the American colonies was often referred to as that “Presbyterian rebellion.”  The leading figures we associate with the War for Independence were all powerfully influenced by Presbyterian philosophers and theologians, primarily in Scotland.  Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), John Adams (1735-1826), James Madison(1751-1836), Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), for example, were all directly influenced by political ideas that were pouring forth from Presbyterian writers in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and even St. Andrews, many of whom were Presbyterian ministers or children of the manse.  To be Presbyterian means to be engaged with the political powers in order to ensure that government serves the wider purpose of God’s vision for humanity in the world - of living out a life like what Paul describes so vividly in Romans 12. 

Presbyterians have always been political creatures -  not necessarily partisan, but political.  Presbyterians have always pushed for equality (which Romans 12 upholds) and social justice, caring for the weakest members of society, building up a society that seeks to reflect the vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus not only preached, but embodied.  As a result, Presbyterians have never been afraid to be critical of the powers that be, especially when they see injustice at work or oppression.  The Presbyterians pushed very hard for the separation of church and state for two reasons.  One is that they did not want to have an official state religion (as in England).  And because, secondly, the church wanted to be free to critique the political powers when they stand in the way of reform.  “When in the course of human events,” we come to see leaders who have become tyrants, then the people have a right to rebel.  This principle, at the heart of our own Declaration of Independence, is a Presbyterian-Reformed idea.  Jefferson didn’t come up with it on his own.   The seeds for such an idea were planted by John Calvin (1509-1564) in his magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), written in the sixteenth century. And then these ideas were nurtured by the Scottish Enlightenment in the early 1700's.  

Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin, and Witherspoon, to name a few, were all influenced by the political philosophers –  who just happened to be Presbyterian – teaching in Edinburgh and Glasgow and Aberdeen.[1]  Even the phrase, “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” which we associate with Jefferson, was taken from the Scottish philosopher and Presbyterian minister, Thomas Reid (1710-1796).   The route to the knowledge of truth is not through abstract  reason, he believed, but through experience.  Reid wrote, “The evidence of sense, the evidence of memory, and the evidence of the necessary relations of things, are all distinct. . . .  To reason against any of these kinds of evidence is absurd. . . .  They are first principles, and as such fall not within the province or reason, but of common sense.”  The equality of all people, that people are endowed with certain inalienable rights, is not a conclusion drawn from abstract reason, but through experience, they are “self-evident.”  They are “no sooner understood than they are believed,” he said, because they “ carry the light of truth in itself.”  When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia he put the writings of Reid at the center of his curriculum.  When Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was writing about the necessity of independence, he was told by Benjamin Rush  to use Reid’s catchphrase “common sense” as the title of his treatise.

An anonymous Hessian officer said in 1778, “Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion.”  One-third of the signers of the Declaration where Scottish Presbyterians and one was a Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton), whose name was John Witherspoon. 

Witherspoon was a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and was a popular minister in the Scots Kirk.  He had already turned down offers from churches in Dublin, Dundee, and the Scots Kirk in Rotterdam.  He had no desire to come to America.  He was minister of the kirk in Paisley, a growing industrial town famed for its cotton mills just outside Glasgow (I was through there just last Monday).  But everything changed when he met the young medical student, Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) from Philadelphia who was studying medicine in Edinburgh in 1767.  Rush was good friends with Benjamin Franklin who was living in London at the time and wrote letters of introduction for Rush to meet such leading intellectuals as David Hume (1711-1776).  Rush went to Paisley one day, not for pleasure but to entice Witherspoon to become the new president of the college in Princeton - an institution established to train Presbyterian ministers.  After much prayer and reflection, Witherspoon agreed.  A Scottish colleague, who had heard about the Princeton offer, wrote to him and urged him to accept: “I have long thought it the intention of Providence. . . to fix the great seat of truth and righteousness in America; and that New Jersey seemed to promise fair for being the nursery of the most approved instruments for carrying on that great design, in that wide continent.”  As a son of New Jersey, I particularly like this quote.

Witherspoon brought the structure and emphasis of Scottish Presbyterian educational institutions to Princeton.  For Witherspoon “saw education not as a form of indoctrination, or of reinforcing a religious orthodoxy, but as a broadening and deepening of the mind and spirit – and the idea of freedom was fundamental to that process.”  He swept into Princeton like a dynamo.  He chaired the Philosophy Department, the History Department, and the English Department, he gave sermons in the college chapel every Sunday and tutored students in French and Hebrew.  Witherspoon sought to combine strong evangelical Presbyterian zeal for the gospel with modern humanism.  Reading scripture was combined with all areas of learning – no form of literature was beyond the ken of the student.  The curriculum included the Greek classics, moral philosophy, rhetoric and criticism, and massive amounts of reading of contemporary philosophers.  He also encouraged students to read thinkers with whom they disagreed.  You need to read an opposing thinker to understand his arguments in order to refute them.  He fostered “the spirit of free inquiry,” which is so central to the Presbyterian spirit.  As early as 1771, Witherspoon was writing in favor of an American nation free from the abuses of British power.  He urged the Continental Congress to start thinking of itself as an American nation.  By the time war came he wrote a pastoral letter to all the Presbyterian churches in the colonies, saying that he preferred “war with all its horrors, and even extermination, to slavery, riveted on us and our posterity.”

He saw the establishment of a new nation as part of the overall Providence of God, of the formation of a Christian commonwealth dedicated to God where civil and religious liberty were available for all.  In May 1776, Witherspoon preached a sermon in Princeton later published as The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men.  He declared, “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.”  This sermon went through nine editions, with publishers in Philadelphia, London, and Glasgow.  Critics in Scotland in favor of the crown condemned the sermon and blamed the troubles in the colonies were due almost entirely to “clerical influence,” and that “none . . .had a greater share . . than Doctor Witherspoon.”  Horace Walpole (1717-1797), the former prime minister, rose in Parliament to speak.  “There is no use crying about it,” he said, “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.”  Within a year of July, 1776 the British had invaded Princeton, ransacked Nassau Hall and burned the library that Witherspoon had assembled for free enquiry of the spirit.

Presbyterians were not alone in the struggle for independence - there were also Baptists, Congregationalists, and a few Episcopalians and Roman Catholics.  And I’m not saying the Scots won the war for us.  There were some Scots who did not approve of the war and left for Nova Scotia after it was all over.  But I think we need to remember our Presbyterian heritage, the ideas and principles at the heart of Presbyterianism that have contributed so much to this nation and to the world.    After the war, when we were drawing up our form of government, our leaders turned to the Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland for guidance.  The principle of checks and balance is a Reformed idea, ensuring that power is not invested in any one body (because everyone is mired in sin).  Also the right to choose who will have positions of leadership for any governing body, whether it’s the session, the minister, the Congress or who sits in the Oval Office, is a Presbyterian idea.

We cannot afford to let this history be lost.  Not because we need to worship or glorify the past, but because in the tradition of the Presbyterian church we find the resources and vision needed for us to be faithful to God in this time and place.  We can thank God for our heritage, for the faithful fathers and mothers who have led us in the past.  But we are the ones alive today with a responsibility and a commission to live out God’s vision for the world.  Witherspoon and the others were being faithful to God in their own age and they give a framework for us to faithful to God in this age.  There is still work for us to do in America.  We have yet to fulfill Paul’s vision.  With the power of the Spirit to strengthen us and lead us, may we take up the work of Christ with renewed vigor.  This afternoon, take some time to re-read Romans 12 - slowly, deliberately, prayerfully.  Ask for the Spirit’s guidance and then listen – today, this week, this month – for what God expects from you.  Everything that Paul lifts up in Romans 12 is still as relevant and timely for us today, that we use the gifts God has entrusted to us so that it might be “self-evident” in this land, so that there is truly liberty and justice for all.


[1]The historical material in the sermon is common knowledge.  For convenience sake, I have relied upon Arthur Herman’s summation of the Presbyterian influence upon American politics and identity in How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western’s Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In it (New York: Crown Publishers, 2001).  All quotations are from his chapter entitled, “That Great Design: Scots in America,” pp. 195-225.