John Witherspoon’s Presbyterian Rebellion

Ben Franklin is the prototype for the celebrity-as-politician. His autobiography is still in print; if he were alive, he’d be on Drudge’s columnists’ list, and command speaking fees that would turn Hillary Clinton green with envy. A popular T-shirt has a quote erroneously attributed to Franklin: ‘Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.’

But John Witherspoon? He wasn’t a fan of self-promotion, which was no less prevalent then. Today, in D.C., his statue stands at a tiny triangle where Connecticut Avenue intersects with N Street and 18th Street N.W. It is routinely ignored.

At the University of Edinburgh (where he received a doctorate in divinity), its tourist pamphlet proudly touts him among its famous graduates with a plaque in his honor on the New College’s front wall. But I discovered during a recent trip the plaque is obscured by a large metal sign placed directly in front of it!

Taking a photo of it involved climbing on the New College’s fence plus a contortionist pose, with my husband supporting me so I wouldn’t fall backwards.

Obsessive? Ah, but with a Princeton grad spouse, and Witherspoon being a transformational president of Princeton (called in his day ‘The College of New Jersey’), plus a signer of the Declaration of Independence, I felt we owed him respect and gratitude.

Strolling Edinburgh’s streets, I asked why such a learned man would leave the city at its zenith as the center of the Scottish Enlightenment for a post at a colonial college.

Imagine a faculty meeting, where a professor says, “Here’s a letter from a college in the colonies. Looking for a president. Whom should we send?” Discussion ensues.

Did Witherspoon draw the short straw? Was he a victim of Sayre’s Law that academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low? Or was he invited to immigrate to Princeton?

The answer lies in a combination of the latter two questions.

When Witherspoon sailed for America 1768, he was controversial among Edinburgh’s elites; I expect some were glad to see the back of him on his way out.

If you think it was because he was a cheerless scolder of whiskey imbibers and golfers, you would be wrong.

His issue was the Anglicization of the Scottish churches. Serious stuff – congregations were the basic bits of 18th century Scottish civil society. A Presbyterian, he believed a congregation’s minister must be chosen by that congregation, not imposed upon them by the local nobility (per the English practice down south).

Soon after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s 1747 defeat ended the English-Scots wars, various Scots elites (‘moderates’) were leaning to the English way of selecting ministers.

This wasn’t an obscure intra-church feud. The central issue was whether power flowed up from the people or down from the nobility. Witherspoon was on the side of the people.

According to author James Buchan in Crowded with Genius, in 1753 Witherspoon wrote a satirical pamphlet to “open up the mysteries of moderation.”  One maxim: “He [the preacher] must be very unacceptable to the common people.”

My guess: his pamphleteering was unpopular in the university’s faculty lounge. Its members were likely enjoying the perks due to adhering to the nobility’s wishes.