Colonial Pastors Who Influenced American Government – American Minute with Bill Federer

A descendant of Protestant Reformer John Knox, Witherspoon was educated at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and afterwards served as a Presbyterian pastor.

His writings brought him to the attention of the trustees of the College of New Jersey, who sent Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton to Scotland to persuade him and his wife, Elizabeth, to come to the American colonies.

Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton later joined John Witherspoon in signing the Declaration of Independence.

Sailing to America in 1768, John Witherspoon became the President of the College of New Jersey, which was later renamed Princeton University.

There, Witherspoon taught 12 members of the Continental Congress, and 9 of the 55 writers of the U.S. Constitution, including James Madison.

Witherspoon’s other Princeton students included:

  • 1 U.S. Vice-President,
  • 3 Supreme Court Justices,
  • 10 Cabinet Members,
  • 13 Governors,
  • 28 U.S. Senators,
  • 49 U.S. Congressmen,
  • 37 judges, and
  • 114 ministers.

John Witherspoon was elected as a delegate from New Jersey to the Continental Congress.

He declared:

“Gentlemen, New Jersey is ready to vote for independence … The country is not only ripe for independence, but we are in danger of becoming rotten for the want of it!”

On note, is that John Witherspoon was prominent clergyman who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Clergymen were often the most educated individuals in their communities.

Whereas most Church of England ministers held allegiance to the King and left for England when the Revolution began, patriot pastors supported the American cause.

Pastors preached on the topics of:

  • self-government;
  • government from the consent of the govern;
  • purpose of government to secure God-given rights;
  • rights of conscience;
  • equality before the law;
  • freedom to speech;
  • freedom to assemble;
  • freedom of press;
  • self-defense;
  • the right to possess and bear arms;
  • no taxation without representation; and
  • trial by a jury of peers, rather than a partisan, king appointed judge.

President Calvin Coolidge acknowledged in his address at the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, in Philadelphia, July 5, 1926:

“The principles of human relationship which went into the Declaration of Independence … are found in the texts, the sermons, and the writings of the early colonial clergy who were earnestly undertaking to instruct their congregations in the great mystery of how to live …”

Coolidge added:

“They preached equality because they believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They justified freedom by the text that we are all created in the divine image, all partakers of the divine spirit …

Placing every man on a plane where he acknowledged no superiors, where no one possessed any right to rule over him, he must inevitably choose his own rulers through a system of self-government …

In those days such doctrines would scarcely have been permitted to flourish and spread in any other country …

In order that they might have freedom to express these thoughts and opportunity to put them into action, whole congregations with their pastors had migrated to the colonies …”

Coolidge added:

“Rev. Thomas Hooker of Connecticut as early as 1638, when he said in a sermon before the General Court that:

‘The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people … The choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God’s own allowance.’

This doctrine found wide acceptance among the nonconformist clergy who later made up the Congregational Church.

… The great apostle of this movement was the Rev. John Wise of Massachusetts.

He was one of the leaders of the revolt against the royal governor Andros in 1687, for which he suffered imprisonment …

His works were reprinted in 1772 and have been declared to have been nothing less than a textbook of liberty for our Revolutionary fathers …

… That these ideas were prevalent in Virginia is further revealed by the Declaration of Rights, which was prepared by George Mason and presented to the general assembly on May 27, 1776.

This document asserted popular sovereignty and inherent natural rights, but confined the doctrine of equality to the assertion that ‘All men are created equally free and independent.’

It can scarcely be imagined that Jefferson was unacquainted with what had been done in his own Commonwealth of Virginia when he took up the task of drafting the Declaration of Independence …”

Coolidge continued:

“These thoughts can very largely be traced back to what Rev. John Wise was writing in 1710. He said … ‘Democracy is Christ’s government in church and state.’

Here was the doctrine of equality, popular sovereignty, and the substance of the theory of inalienable rights clearly asserted by Wise at the opening of the eighteenth century, just as we have the principle of the consent of the governed stated by Hooker as early as 1638.

When we take all these circumstances into consideration, it is but natural that the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence should open with a reference to Nature’s God and should close in the final paragraphs with an appeal to the Supreme Judge of the world and an assertion of a firm reliance on Divine Providence …”

Coolidge concluded:

“In its main feature the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document …

Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man – these are not elements which we can see and touch … They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions …

Unless the faith of the American in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We cannot continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause …

If anyone wishes to deny their truth … the only direction in which he can proceed … is … backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people …

… The duly authorized expression of the will of the people has a divine sanction …

The ultimate sanction of law rests on the righteous authority of the Almighty …

It was in the contemplation of these truths that the fathers made their Declaration and adopted their Constitution …

Their intellectual life centered around the meeting-house. They were intent upon religious worship … While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures …”

President Coolidge continued:

“We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create the Declaration. Our Declaration created them.

The things of the spirit come first.

Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp … We must not sink into a pagan materialism.

We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed.

We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped.”

Because of the activism of Rev. John Wise, his hometown of Ipswich, Massachusetts, calls itself “The Birthplace of American Independence.”

Through his wife, John Wise was a great-uncle of John Adams.

Rev. John Wise stated in a sermon at Chebacco Parish of Ipswich (Essex), circa 1700:

“The first human subject and original of civil power is the people … and when they are free, they may set up what species of government they please. The end of all good government is … the good of every man in all his rights, his life, liberty, estate.

Many of the founders, or their wives, were children of ministers or deacons.

Many graduated from institutions founded as seminaries to train clergy and missionaries.

Numerous founders were both political leaders and, at some time in their career, chaplains, ministers or preachers, such as:

  • Abraham Baldwin (Georgia);
  • Lyman Hall (Georgia);
  • John Peter Muhlenberg (Pennsylvania);
  • Frederick Muhlenberg (Pennsylvania)
  • Robert Treat Paine (Massachusetts);
  • Jonathan Trumbull (Connecticut);
  • Hugh Williamson (North Carolina);

Many founders supported Bible organizations, societies for the propagation of the faith, and abolitionist societies.

Often overlooked by secular scholars is that when the founders set up state governments:

  • nine of the original state constitutions required all officeholders to be Protestant;
  • three required officeholders to just be Christian;
  • and one, Rhode Island, had no religious requirement, as it was thought that unscrupulous politicians would be tempted to say they believe just to be elected, and that would be hypocritical.

Since religion was under states’ jurisdiction, the founders placed a restraining order on the power of the Federal government – the First Amendment.

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote in Commentaries on the Constitution, 1833:

“The whole power over the subject of religion is left exclusively to the State governments, to be acted upon according to their own sense of justice and the State Constitutions.”

In the Continental Congress, John Witherspoon served on 120 Congressional Committees.

He was a primary proponent of the separation of powers, insisting that since man had a fallen, selfish, human nature, there needed to be checks be placed on the power of government.

Rev. Witherspoon explained:

“The corruption of our nature … is the foundation-stone of the doctrine of redemption.

Nothing can be more absolutely necessary to true religion, than a clear conviction of the sinfulness of our nature and state …”

He continued:

“Men of lax and corrupt principles take great delight in speaking to the praise of human nature, and extolling its dignity, without distinguishing what it was at its first creation from what it is in its present fallen state …

The evil of sin appears from every page of … the history of the world …

Nothing is more plain from Scripture … than that man by nature is in fact incapable of recovery without the power of God specially interposed.”

The same day the Continental Congress declared a Day of Fasting, May 17, 1776, Rev. Witherspoon told his Princeton students:

“If your cause is just, if your principles are pure, and if your conduct is prudent, you need not fear the multitude of opposing hosts.

He is the best friend to American liberty, who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion, and who sets himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind.

Whoever is an avowed enemy of God, I scruple (hesitate) not to call him an enemy of his country …”

Witherspoon added:

“It is in the man of piety and inward principle, that we may expect to find the uncorrupted patriot, the useful citizen, and the invincible soldier …

God grant that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may in the issue tend to the support and establishment of both.”

Witherspoon’s sacrifice for the patriotic cause was personal, as he lost two sons in the Revolutionary War.

When peace was made with Britain, John Witherspoon exhorted all in his “Thanksgiving Sermon” to live for:

“… the Glory of God, the public interest of religion and the good of others, as civil liberty cannot be long preserved without virtue.

Republic must either preserve its virtue or lose its liberty.”

John Witherspoon resisted “tyranny of conscience,” citing:

“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 … property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage …

Governments are to defend and secure rights of conscience.”

In his Pastoral Letter, Rev. John Witherspoon explained:

“Universal profligacy (immoral behavior) makes a nation ripe for divine judgments and is the natural means of bringing them to ruin;

Reformation of manners is of the utmost necessity in our present distress.”

In his Lectures on Divinity, Rev. John Witherspoon stated:

“Religion is the grand concern of us all … the salvation of our souls is the one thing needful.”

After his wife died in 1789, John Witherspoon headed up a committee in the New Jersey legislature to abolish slavery.


John Witherspoon died near Princeton, New Jersey, on NOVEMBER 15, 1794.

John Adams he described Rev. Witherspoon as:

“A true son of liberty … but first, he was a son of the Cross.”