Who is the most unfairly neglected American Founding Father? You might think that none can be unfairly neglected, so many books about that distinguished coterie have been published lately. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington--whom have I left out? It has been a literary festival of Founders these last few years, and a good thing, too. But there is one figure, I believe, who has yet to get his due, and that is John Witherspoon (1723--1794). This Scotch Presbyterian divine came to America to preside over a distressed college in Princeton, New Jersey, and wound up transmitting to the colonies critical principles of the Scottish Enlightenment and helped to preside over the birth and consolidation of American independencePCUSA could use him right now.
Witherspoon deplored the gentrification of religion, its subordination to the genteel, humanistic, and worldly precepts fostered by self-declared Moderates and such pillars of the cultural establishment as Francis Hutcheson. In 1745, the year he was ordained, Witherspoon anonymously published "Ecclesiastical Characteristics, or the Arcana of Church Polity". Alluding pointedly to Shaftesbury's "Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times" (1711)--a specimen example of the sort of aestheticizing moral philosophy that Witherspoon rejected--"Ecclesiastical Characteristics" baldly satirized the capture of religious understanding by the forces of polite sentiment. "In fine," Witherspoon writes in a section called the "Athenian Creed," "I believe in the divinity of Lord S[haftesbury], the saintship of Marcus A[urelius], the perspicacity and sublimity of A[ristotle], and the perpetual duration of Mr. H[utcheson]'s works, notwithstanding their present tendency to oblivion. Amen."
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
Read the whole thing and round out your national IQ on this day.
BTW, in the background you have the brother of my direct ancestor. Another clue!