Monday, July 03, 2006

John Witherspoon:

Interesting article by Roger Kimball on Founder John Witherspoon.

As the article notes, Witherspoon was a very important Founding Father, and mentored James Madison at Princeton (where Madison studied and Witherspoon was President). Interestingly, Witherspoon was both an orthodox Calvinistic Protestant, but also supported and taught the Enlightenment principles which provided the basis for the Revolution.

This debate thread on Worldmag illustrates some of the controversy over Witherspoon's legacy. Was it his orthodox Christianity, or his being imbibed in Enlightenment principles which were key to understanding his contribution to the Revolution? See way back when I was just a "reader" of Sandefur's Freespace when I wrote him with Walter Berns's theory on the matter. Here is what I wrote:

Although [Walter] Berns is generally a social conservative and anti-libertarian, he actually has quite a strong understanding of this nation's secular foundation. Chapter 2 -- "God Before Country" -- in Making Patriots provided me with some pretty valuable insights regarding America's secular founding.

That book also notes that John Witherspoon, contrary to Sheldon's claims, was as much of a Lockean as he was a Calvinist (He was a Presbyterian -- which Calvin founded. Maybe that's why Sheldon claims this). From Berns: "Like Jefferson and Madison, [Witherspoon] had obviously read Locke with care and was persuaded by him of the importance of liberty of conscience -- which put him at odds with the founder of Presbyterianism, John Calvin. (For Calvin, liberty of conscience meant just that, and no more than that. If someone gave voice to his conscience, thus being heard or read by others, he might rightly be punished. So it was that, as the effective governor of his city of Geneva, Calvin had one of his anti-Trinitarian critics put to death.)" Making Patriots, p. 42.

Witherspoon's importance to our founding seems to be that he acted as sort of a "mediator" between the Enlightenment philosophers and Christian theology, and led Christians to believe that Enlightenment philosophy was perhaps more compatible with their orthodox Christianity than perhaps it really was. The philosophers who articulated "Natural Right" were either non-Christians or non-Trinitarian heretic Christians. "Nature's God" who, according to the philosophers, grants us inalienable rights certainly wasn't the God of orthodox Christianity. And the notion that Jehovah or Jesus grants us inalienable rights is "wrong as a matter of doctrine -- where does the Bible speak of unalienable natural rights, or the liberty to worship or not to worship as one pleases?" Id.

However, it made very good political sense for a nation founded on Enlightenment principles, yet populated by many orthodox Christians, to get such Christians to believe in this. And Witherspoon greatly helped in making this a reality (too successful--how many times do we hear today the religious right claim that this nation was founded on Christianity because the Declaration states that our rights come from the "Creator" which they interpret as the God of Biblical Christianity?). "Witherspoon could speak unreservedly of 'natural liberty' and 'natural rights'; and of the 'state of nature' and like Locke...of its 'inconveniences,' inconveniences that caused men to leave it for the 'social state.' But in the same lecture he could admonish his listeners and readers to accept 'Christ Jesus as he is offered in the gospel,' for 'except that a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' In a word, Witherspoon saw no conflict between the new political philosophy and the old religion, which is to say between the principles set down in the Declaration of Independence and what he understood as orthodox Christianity." Id.

One note on the Kimball article. While I have no quibble with most of it, Kimball is completely off track regarding Madison's religious beliefs. As Sandefur's original post noted, Madison's relationship with Witherspoon is the source of an urban myth that Madison himself was an orthodox Christian, of Calvinist bent. In fact, Brit Hume during his Fox special on religion in America erroneously asserted that Madison converted to Presbyterianism. Kimball apparently believes in the myth. He writes:

Madison is often called "the father of the Constitution." His contributions to "The Federalist," especially his analysis of the danger of and remedy for "faction," is a masterpiece of political philosophy. The two great formative influences on Madison's outlook were his own Calvinist beliefs and Witherspoon's tutelage....For us looking back on the generation of the Founders, it is easy to deprecate the religious inheritance that, for many of them, formed the ground of their commitment to political liberty. Theological skeptics and even atheists there were aplenty in late eighteenth-century America. But for every Jefferson who re-wrote the Bible excising every mention of miracles, there was a platoon of men like Madison who wrote commentaries on the Bible.

First, Madison was not a Calvinist, but, like Jefferson, Washington, a lifelong Anglican/Episcopalian (though, even before his time with Witherspoon, Madison was educated by some Scottish Calvinists). While Madison may have had a brief flirtation with orthodox Christianity sometime in his early life, for most of his time, his religious beliefs were exactly like Jefferson's, Franklin's and the other key Whig American Founders.

And I have no idea what Kimball means by "for every Jefferson who re-wrote the Bible excising every mention of miracles, there was a platoon of men like Madison who wrote commentaries on the Bible." Jefferson wrote far more commentaries on the Bible than Madison. Madison, in fact, wrote very little on religion, like Washington, didn't give us much at all to indicate what he really personally believed in.

But from the credible evidence we have, Madison's personal beliefs on religion seemed to be exactly the same as Jefferson's. One Episcopal Bishop who knew the Madison family quite well commented on Madison's youthful flirtation with orthodox Christianity:

"His religious feeling, however, seems to have been short-lived. His political associations with those of infidel principles, of whom there were many in his day, if they did not actually change his creed, yet subjected him to the general suspicion of it...."

Here is one eye-witness account from an 1815 dinner table conversation with Madison:

“He talked of religious sects and parties and was curious to know how the cause of liberal Christianity stood with us, and if the Athanasian creed was well received by our Episcopalians. He pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines.”

See this post for the primary sources.

Note, because Madison was hiding in a religious closet, there are little if any direct quotations of him that are on point regarding his specific beliefs. As a general matter, we can evidence plenty of quotations that show Madison believed in a warm-intervening Providence. Yet, Madison, again, like all of our other key Whig Founders virtually never spoke in Scriptural terms but rather invoked a generic, amorphous "Nature's God."

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