Monday, 2 September 2013

Was John Witherspoon an Evangelical?

Today is the official launch date for Early Evangelicalism: A Reader. I had to make a lot of tough decisions on who to include and leave out in the anthology. I wanted a wide variety of excerpts from male and female authors, representing a number of denominations and geographical locations. Overall, I am very pleased with the end result of the book and hope that it will be useful and interesting to academics and laypeople alike.

Not all the authors in Early Evangelicalism: A Reader, however, have been universally accepted by scholars as "evangelicals." One example is John Witherspoon, who emigrated from Scotland in 1768 to become the sixth president of the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton University). Prior to relocating to America, Witherspoon appeared to be a firm adherent of the evangelical characteristics that David Bebbington described in his book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain.

While in Scotland, Witherspoon was associated with the so-called "Popular party," the evangelical wing within the Kirk. In 1753, he wrote a stinging satire of a group of liberal Christians, known as the Moderate Literati within the the Church of Scotland. Witherspoon vented his anger at the Moderate leaders who had succeeded in deposing the evangelical minister Thomas Gillespie of Carnock (another author in Early Evangelicalism: A Reader) for refusing to settle an unpopular ministerial candidate to the parish church at Inverkeithing by force. As a way of getting back at the Moderates for deposing Gillespie, Witherspoon wrote his hugely successful Ecclesiastical Characteristics (initially written anonymously), which mocked the polite aspirations of the theologically liberal rival party within the Kirk.

In his Ecclesiastical Characteristics, Witherspoon provided a number of "maxims" that he identified as traits associated with the Moderate party. In twelve maxims, Witherspoon satirized what he saw as characteristics of the Moderate ministers, including the defense of known heretics, immoral behavior, ridiculing the Westminster Confession of Faith, valuing polite speech and dress over preaching the gospel, studying the philosophy of G. W. Leibnitz, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, and David Hume more than scripture, and enforcing unpopular ministers on a congregation.

Ecclesiastical Characteristics was so popular that it went through several editions in the eighteenth century and brought him international attention. The trustees at the College of New Jersey turned to Witherspoon to fill the vacancy of president of the school, after the death of Samuel Finley (another author in Early Evangelicalism: A Reader) in 1766. Witherspoon was chosen as president largely because of his reputation as an ardent defender of orthodoxy in Scotland. He was furthermore attractive to many of the trustees at the college because he had not been drawn into the Old Side-New Side controversy that had divided the interests of the Presbyterians during the Great Awakening.

However, once he arrived in America, Witherspoon developed a series of lectures on moral philosophy in which he utilized the philosophy of some of the people who he had criticized in his Ecclesiastical Characteristics, most notably the Scotsman Francis Hutcheson. Some scholars like Ned Landsman, therefore, question whether Witherspoon's evangelicalism was consistent throughout his lifetime, especially once he began teaching at Princeton.

Whether you see Witherspoon as an evangelical or simply a confessional Calvinist, his Ecclesiastical Characteristics is a satire, and, at the same time, a not-so subtle defense of what it means to be an authentic Christian in the eighteenth century.

No comments: