Pursuing a Principled Government—John Witherspoon (1723 – 1794)

John Witherspoon was a Scottish pastor with a University of Edinburgh education before he accepted an invitation to become the College of New Jersey’s (Princeton) sixth president in 1768—a post he held until he died. A member of the Continental Congress, Witherspoon was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence.

Seeing public life as but the reflection of private virtue, Witherspoon sought carefully to integrate faith with public policy. All the secular ideas which sought to divorce the Bible from public life he opposed—not with organized campaigns or political machinery, but with preaching God’s Word to God’s people. He did not believe, however, that political action was sinful. His position on the importance of politics and government is evident in the following passage taken from a speech he delivered to the Continental Congress in June 1776. Here he approached government with a Christian humility, recognizing that since people are fallen, governments will be imperfect. Nonetheless, they are necessary and should be established on the “best principles” possible.

There is one thing that has been thrown out by which some seem to persuade themselves of and others to be more indifferent about the success of a confederacy—that from the nature of men, it is to be expected that a time must come when it will be dissolved and broken in pieces. I am none of those who either deny or conceal the depravity of human nature, till it is purified by the light of truth and renewed by the Spirit of the living God… Shall we establish nothing good because we know it cannot be eternal? Shall we live without government because every constitution has its old age and its period? Because we know that we shall die, shall we take no pains to preserve or lengthen out life? Far from it, sir: it only requires the more watchful attention to settle government upon the best principles and in the wisest manner that it may last as long as the nature of things will admit.[1]

[1] John Witherspoon, “Part of a Speech in Congress, Upon the Confederation,” in The Selected Writings of John Witherspoon, ed. Thomas Miller (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990), 150.