Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May 17, 1776: Rev. John Witherspoon

In Princeton, New Jersey on May 17, 1776, Rev. John Witherspoon delivered the sermon "The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men," based on Psalm 76: 10: "Surely the Wrath of Man shall praise thee; the remainder of Wrath shalt thou restrain."

Witherspoon maintained that "the ambition of mistaken princes...and even the inhumanity of brutal soldiers, however dreadful, shall finally promote the glory of God...." In fact, the misconduct of British soldiers alienated many Americans, turning Americans against the Crown. Witherspoon added, "...in the mean time, while the storm continues, his mercy and kindness shall appear in prescribing bounds to their rage and fury."

Born in Scotland, John Witherspoon came to Princeton in 1768 to serve as the sixth president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). As a delegate from New Jersey in the Continental Congress, Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon also served in the New Jersey Ratifying Convention (1787), which ratified the federal Constitution.

Witherspoon's prominance and activism energized the clergy, especially his fellow-Presbyterian clergymen, as promoters of American independence. Witherspoon authored "A Pastoral Letter from the Synod of New York and Philadelphia," to be read from the pulpits of the churches of the synod on June 29, 1775. Thomas Miller writes that the letter "changed the role of the Presbyterian clergy from uncommitted observers to active supporters of the revolution."

Jeffrey H. Morrison, John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 2005), 2; Thomas Miller, ed., The Selected Writings of John Witherspoon (Carbondale: Southern Illinoi University Press, 1990), 29.
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