John Witherspoon Mean by "Property"?
Would he defend property rights against
health care reform?
by Gene TeSelle, former Issues Analyst
of the Witherspoon Society
John Witherspoon, in his
famous 1776 sermon entitled "Dominion of Providence," linked religious
and political freedom, saying,
There is not a single instance in history in which civil
liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore
we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the
conscience to bondage.
Two features of this
statement seem to call for explication. One is the emphasis on civil
liberty and the way it is related to religious liberty. The other is the
use of the word "property," which is as controversial in our own day as
it has ever been.
1. The emphasis on civil
liberty goes back to the events surrounding the "Glorious Revolution" of
1688, during which William of Orange, the Dutch stadholder, landed an
army in England and replaced James II as king. A recent book by Steve
Pincus of Yale 2
emphasizes that this "revolution" was European in its significance,
since royal absolutism had been growing and was strongly championed by
France's Louis XIV. His military power enabled him to intervene
frequently in the affairs of other nations, and he controlled the
Catholic Church in France using the principles of "Gallicanism."
Protestants were required to convert after the revocation of the Edict
of Nantes in 1685, and this aroused further apprehensions around Europe.
The policies and practices of Louis XIV were opposed by Catholic Spain,
the Holy Roman Empire, and even the pope.
An alternative political
model was offered by the Netherlands, a federation that gave space for
political decentralization, economic enterprise, and religious diversity
(these principles persisted despite the tendency of the House of Orange
to extend its power at the expense of the States General). The
wide-ranging cultural overtones of this Dutch leadership are explored in
another new book by Lisa Jardine. 3
English leaders — or at
least one group of them, the Whigs — secretly invited William to come
over with his army and become the new king. In 1689 the Declaration of
Rights limited the powers of the ruler in specific ways, and the
Toleration Act, supported by several Anglican leaders, gave new freedoms
to Dissenters. Pincus argues that "confessional politics," which had
been so destructive during the Wars of Religion, the Puritan
interregnum, and then the Restoration, were now superseded by a shared
concern for politically guaranteed freedoms. Language was still cautious
in 1688-89 in order not to offend Tories, who felt that the new ruler
was king only de facto. It became much more affirmative after the
failed Assassination Plot of 1696. All in all, the Glorious Revolution
and its aftermath ended a long period of instability in English politics
and ushered in a new era, not only for Britain but for Europe and then
Issues of church and state
were still in transition, as a careful reading of chapter 25 of the
Westminster Confession will indicate. Already in the 1640s it had put
all persons under the authority of the civil magistrate – believers and
infidels alike, and "ecclesiastical persons" as well, making the special
point that the Pope has no special jurisdictional power over either
priests or members (C-6.130). But changes had to be made to this chapter
because of the new situation in the United States. The paragraph C-6.129
was written during the transitional period after independence from
Britain but before the adoption of the Constitution and the First
Amendment – a time when the Episcopal and Methodist churches became
independent of Britain, and the Presbyterian, Congregational, and
"Reformed Dutch" churches were seized by a spirit of cooperation that
has rarely been seen since. The power of the civil magistrate to call
synods and enforce their decisions was removed. In its place John
Witherspoon and others affirmed the duty of civil magistrates, as
"nursing fathers" (cf. Isa. 49:23), to "protect the church of our common
Lord without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians
above the rest" (C-6.129). We have been dealing with this new kind of
situation ever since, especially after the addition of the First
Amendment and its application to state as well as federal
2. The word "property"
springs out of the page and seizes the reader's attention, for it has
been a point of contention from the 17th century until today. A check of
the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that it has indeed been used for
possession of land and other goods. But the term has always retained its
broader meaning: "what is one's own." John Locke's Essay
Concerning Civil Government became the classic, and when you look
through it you find that for him property means "life, liberty, and
estate" (§87), "person and possessions" (§123), "life, liberty, or
possession" (§135), "lives, liberties, and possessions" (§171), "lives,
liberties, and fortunes" (§221). The purpose of government, he says, is
to protect "peace, quiet, and property" (§136) or "property, peace, and
Pincus's book confirms
this more general meaning of the term. He quotes the bishop of Norwich,
who said that James II had set the laws aside in a "general invasion of
property" and tried to "destroy the fundamental constitution of a
and also the bishop of Salisbury, who spoke of England as "a free
nation, that has its liberties and properties reserved to it by many
positive and express laws."
"Property" could indeed mean what one possesses in the way of land,
house, or goods; but it could include all one's rights, especially of
life and liberty. And even the Whigs knew that property rights were not
absolute. It was an old tradition to differentiate between ownership and
use, and it was understood that government can regulate the use of
property for the public good or to prevent harm.
We might note that an
alternative theory of property in both its senses had already been put
forth. Thomas Hobbes, a defender of royal absolutism, was dismayed by
the Puritan interregnum and the spirit of anarchy that it not only
expressed but further encouraged. Hobbes disliked federalism, separation
of powers, and the autonomy of religious organizations. For him there is
no "propriety," no "own," no "mine and thine," and therefore no justice
or injustice, except what is given by the absolute sovereign, who both
proclaims the law and enforces it (Leviathan, Part I, chs. 13-14,
15). This also meant that the private person, while he has a "propriety"
in his land and goods against other subjects, has no such right over
land and goods against the sovereign (Part II, ch. 29).
It must be added that
Hobbes did not leave persons totally defenseless against the sovereign.
For him the law of nature meant that prior to the state each person has
the right to everything needed for his own "security," and this right
cannot be given up in a way that conflicts with the "end" for which the
social covenant was made and "for which the sovereignty was ordained,"
namely personal security and mutual peace; indeed, a monarch may
relinquish sovereignty by failing to protect his subjects (Part I, ch.
14; Part II, ch. 21). The point is that, for Hobbes, natural rights
against the state were limited to life and security.
Puritans and Whigs, aware
of the English legal tradition (including the Magna Carta, but by no
means limited to it) wanted to make sure that "liberty" and "property"
belonged to the list, on the principle that these are natural rights,
valid prior to the state.
The intervening centuries
have seen many disputes over the list of rights, whether "natural" or
"civil" or (as in the case of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
and many other treaties and conventions) international. For some,
property in the narrow sense seems to be the principal right. For others
the list of rights has been expanded (or perhaps just re-verbalized) to
include privacy, reproductive freedom, asylum, and immunity from torture
and extra-judicial confinement.
Finally, we should recall
that, as the institutions of democracy or representative government
developed, there was a growing concern for rights against "the tyranny
of the majority," no matter how overwhelming it may seem.
The point that emerges
from an inquiry like this is that all of these rights, contested though
they may be, can belong to the notion of "property," "what is my own,"
in its broad but authentic and indeed original sense.
1 The Selected Writings of John
Witherspoon, edited by Thomas Miller (Carbondale and Edwardsville:
Southern Illinois University Press, 1990), pp. 140-41.
2 Steve Pincus, 1688: The First
Modern Revolution (New Haven and London: Yale University Press,
3 Lisa Jardine, Going Dutch:
How England Plundered Holland's Glory (San Francisco: Harper, 2008).
4 Pincus, p. 418.
5 Pincus, p. 419.
Another glimpse of John Witherspoon
An old friend and frequent visitor to
this website, the Rev. John Mann, is now serving as a Church of Scotland
pastor in Glasgow.
recently visited Paisley Cathedral in Glasgow, where a plaque commemorates
the life of Witherspoon.
He adds, "I find that the words inscribed on the
memorial that were spoken by him so many years ago to be particularly
timely in our current social and political climate."
Witherspoon's words (in case it's a bit hard to read
If your cause is just, you may look with
confidence to the Lord, and entreat him to plead it as his own.
These words were also cited
by former Stated Clerk William P. Thompson, when he spoke about
John Witherspoon at the Witherspoon Society luncheon during the
206th General Assembly.
John Witherspoon made his mark [10-1-02]
Rod Martin, former president of the Witherspoon
Society, sends this send about the Presbyterian minister and signer of
the Declaration of Independence, from whom our group takes its name.
Have just run across an interesting book (WS member
Jeanne Welles sent me a copy of a review from the NYTimes Review of
Books) entitled, How the Scots Invented the Modern World
by Arthur Herman. (Crown 392pp., $25,95.)
A quote from the review: "...He makes much of the
work of John Witherspoon, the minister...who became president of
Princeton Seminary in 1768. During his twenty-six year tenure, he
numbered among his students a future President of the United States
(Madison), a vice-president (aaron Burr), six members of the Continental
Congress, nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine
congressmen, three Supreme Court Justices, twelve governors,
thirty-three state and federal judges and thirteen college presidents.
Witherspoon exposed all of them to the Scottish Enlightenment. James
Madison in particular fell under the influence of David Hume ...whose
ideas are apparent in the tenth of the Federalist Papers, the key to the
new constitution, in which Madison argued that countervailing public
interests, federal, state, executive, legislative, economic -- would
guarantee private liberty...."
Arthur Herman is a former professor of History at
Thought this might be of some interest to the
Witherspoon members and friends.
Kindest personal regards.
|John Witherspoon in (stained)
Witherspoon member Mitch Trigger, co-pastor of
First Presbyterian Church, Binghamton, NY, sent us the picture
from a window in the church’s chapel, which depicts great
leaders in the church.
He notes that "Calvin is, of course, the
central and largest figure, with Luther
and Knox on his left, and Mackemie and Witherspoon on the
At the 206th General Assembly
in Wichita, in 1994, Dr. William P. Thompson received the annual
Witherspoon Society Andrew Murray Award, in honor of his years of
service to the Presbyterian Church as Stated Clerk and as Moderator.
In responding to the award, Dr. Thompson reflected on
the Rev. John Witherspoon, the pastor and signer of the Declaration of
Independence from whom the Society takes its name.
Since a number of visitors to this web site have
expressed interest in his life, we are happy of offer Dr. Thompson's
remarks here, reprinted from the Summer 1994 issue of Network News.
The Witherspoon Society and the
by William P Thompson, former Stated Clerk of the
Presbyterian Church (USA)
When you invited me to speak today, I thought of the
man whose name you have chosen to include in the name of your society.
For seventeen years my wife and I lived in John
Witherspoon's town - Princeton, New Jersey. It is dominated by the
University that has grown from the College of New Jersey that
Witherspoon served as president. We were members of the Presbyterian
Church of which he was pastor, while at the same time he was heading
that neighboring educational institution. His home, Tusculum, is just
outside Princeton Borough, and the town fathers debate from time to time
what should be done with it.
But even in Princeton, little is said about the man
himself. I have recently learned that Witherspoon was born in 1723 in
Yester, Scotland, a son of the manse. He learned to read at the age of
4, attended Haddington grammar school, and entered the University of
Edinburgh at 13. Granted the Master of Arts degree 3 years later, he
remained at the University for several more years studying theology.
Ordained at 22, he served the church at Beith as its pastor for 12
years, and subsequently at Paisley for 11. His fame as a preacher and
leader of the Kirk led the board of the College of New Jersey in 1766 to
invite him to become its sixth president. He declined, it is said,
because his wife did not wish to move to the colonies.
The college board did not give up, and sent Benjamin
Rush to Paisley to renew the invitation. This time Witherspoon accepted.
He assumed the presidency of the college in 1768. In the colonies he
became a leader not only in the church but also in the struggle for
liberty from the British crown. He was a member of the Continental
Congress, and of course he was the only clergyman to sign the
Declaration of Independence. Later he was the convening Moderator of the
first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church when it met in 1789.
Even before independence his activities became well
known in Britain, where a member of Parliament remarked, "Our
American cousin has gone off with a Presbyterian parson." Jonathan
ODell, a Tory, wrote of Witherspoon,
Fierce as the fiercest, foremost of the first,
He'd rail at kings, with venom well-nigh burst.
But in the colonies the impression of Witherspoon,
widely held, was quite different.
On May 17, 1776, in the Princeton church he preached
his first sermon on the subject of the struggle against Britain. It was
the day appointed by the Congress as a "General Fast." His
If your cause is just, you may look with confidence
to the Lord, and entreat him to plead it as his own. ... There is not
a single instance in history, in which civil liberty was lost, and
religious liberty preserved entire If, therefore, we yield up our
temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into
In that sermon he emphasized the virtues that are also
well known to us. "orderliness, industry, thrift. and obedience to
God in a time of crisis."
In my judgment, the situation today in society and in
this church must properly be characterized as a "time of
crisis." Public issues are seldom discussed on their merits.
Instead of orderly public discourse, the protagonists resort to
name-calling and defamation of their opponents character. To my ear, the
most raucous participants today are from the "radical right."
And, unfortunately, religious figures are not immune to their methods.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell is even now selling for $43.00 a video-tape of
almost 2 hours duration, containing charges, among others, that
President Bill Clinton is involved in a number of murders. The tape also
includes charges that Hillary Rodham Clinton has been engaged in sexual
improprieties. On the CNN "Crossfire" program Falwell said,
"I am making no charges whatsoever ... Were simply saying these
charges are being made. Look at them and determine what is true."
He admitted that he has no independent evidence to corroborate them.
Michael Freeman, director of research of People for the American Way,
asserts that 'As far as I can tell, there's not a shred of documentation
to what he's saying." Yet Falwell's spokesman claims that "many
thousands" of the tapes have been sold.
The "radical right" has learned well the
truism that if a statement is repeated frequently enough, many hearers
will believe it sooner or later. It does not matter whether the
statement is true or false.
As in the public forum, so too the "radical
right" is present among us in the church today. In the Presbyterian
Church (U.S.A.) it is represented by The Presbyterian Layman
and its collaborator, The Institute for Religion and Democracy. These
bodies resort to outright falsehood, if necessary, but prefer half truth
They are presently blaring their nefarious spin on the
Re-Imagining Conference held in Minneapolis some seven months ago. Their
efforts have been so emotionally charged that some churches are
withholding funds from the national entities of our church- The main
target of the Layman, Mary Ann Lundy, a member of the staff of
the General Assembly Council, has resigned. The announcement of her
departure said, "Circumstances have made her goal of effective
service to the church unattainable." This, despite the fact that
the General Assembly Council has refused to fire her. Indeed, it had
refused even to review her performance. If, as anticipated, the national
programs of the church sustain the decreases in support of as much as
$2.5 million by the end of 1995, the "radical right" will have
landed damaging blows to the church they purport to serve.
This furor is but the most recent tremor along what
Stated Clerk Jim Andrews has recently described as "the fault line
in American Presbyterianism," which he stated "has become
increasingly clear in recent months, and increasingly unstable." He
continued, "We are faced with the possibility of an upheaval that
will be at least damaging, and possibly create permanent change in the
date has been corrected thanks to a note from Beatrice Beck of
Claremont, CA. As a great granddaughter of John Witherspoon, she
pays attention to these things, and knows the facts. Thanks!!
|For more information on John Witherspoon, from no less
a source than Princeton University,
Some blogs worth visiting
Voices of Sophia blog
Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog
for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:
After fifteen years of scholarship and activism,
Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of
feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students,
exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and
devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in
whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God
through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through
articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and
Witherspoon’s Facebook page
Mitch Trigger, Witherspoon’s
Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where
Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and
views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both
personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!
You can post your own news and views, or initiate
a conversation about a topic of interest to you.
John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot
Theological and philosophical reflections on
everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing,
religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture,
travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the
Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City
Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon
board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in
Shuck’s Shuck and Jive
A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as
pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs
about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and
disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening
Got more blogs to recommend?
send a note, and we'll see what we can do!
Plan now for our 2010 Ghost Ranch
GHOST RANCH SEMINAR
July 26-August 1, 2010
ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
CONFRONTING THE STRUCTURES OF INJUSTICE
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