John Witherspoon and the Early American Understanding of Religious Liberty
Religion & Liberty Online

John Witherspoon and the Early American Understanding of Religious Liberty

With the concept of religious liberty being treated as an antiquated and obsolete notion, it’s refreshing to be reminded of the great, but oft-forgotten, Founding Father John Witherspoon. As John Willson writes, Witherspoon—who was a signer of the Declaration, member of Congress, and President of Princeton—had a profound understanding of how the government should relate to religion:

Witherspoon had not the slightest doubt that there was truth, and that it can be apprehended in the gospel of Jesus Christ as expressed in the Bible: “Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners.” Yet, he wrote in the Introduction, “there are both truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ.” This was good enough reason, he felt for Presbyterians to assert the rights of private judgment in religion, repudiate all ties to civil governments in religious matters, and stand for full freedom of religion for all.

Furthermore, he said, Presbyterians “do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and, at the same time, equal and common to all others.” What may this have meant, given Witherspoon’s devotion to Truth, to Reformed Christianity, and to the intimate relation between morality and good government?

First, because Dr. Witherspoon was sure that American constitutions put civil authority at the state and local levels, the Christian sensibilities of the people would protect and secure religious liberties. It would never have occurred to him that the national government had any power whatsoever regarding religion, except that it was prohibited from establishing it in the old European sense. Second, Witherspoon and most American political thinkers (including, by the way, even nationalists like Hamilton) believed that society was antecedent to government; that is, social institutions, rooted in the family, village life and voluntary associations, existed prior to government and took precedence over it. In practical terms, this meant that the commanding position of Christianity in American society would allow religion to flourish as long as government did nothing to interfere with it.

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).