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John Witherspoon

What Did 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. 1

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 America.

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 laws.                 

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 unity" (§226).

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 society," 4 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." 5 "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, 2009).

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    [3-31-06]

An old friend and frequent visitor to this website, the Rev. John Mann, is now serving as a Church of Scotland pastor in Glasgow. 

He 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 them):

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.

How 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 Georgetown University.

Thought this might be of some interest to the Witherspoon members and friends.

Kindest personal regards.

Rod Martin

John Witherspoon in (stained) glass

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 right."


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 Presbyterian Debacle

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 sermon began,

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 bondage.

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 and innuendo

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 Presbyterian Church."

This 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 thoughtful community.


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 Flushing, NY.


John 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 up.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


Plan now for our 2010 Ghost Ranch Seminar!


July 26-August 1, 2010



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