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Joseph Loconte

Minister to Freedom

The legacy of John Witherspoon.

On July 30, 1776, British troops, flush with bravado as they prepared to run George Washington's battered army off of Long Island, burned the general in effigy. Alongside Washington they torched the figure of a minister, the Reverend John Witherspoon. "An account of the present face of things in America would be very defective indeed," complained an English officer, "if no mention was made of this political firebrand, who perhaps had not a less share in the Revolution than Washington himself." That wasn't just sour grapes. As much as any figure in the colonial era, Witherspoon embodied the explosive alliance between faith and freedom that would inflame the American struggle for Independence. Not long after becoming president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), he was accused of turning the campus into a "seminary of sedition." Following a weekend visit, John Adams called him "as high a son of liberty as any man in America."

Few could have seen it coming. A native of Scotland, Witherspoon spent his early years of ministry preaching and teaching. In September 1758, from the Abbey at Paisley, he rebuked pastors for getting entangled in public affairs. He called it sinful and reckless for them "to desire or claim the direction of such matters as fall within the province of the civil magistrates." Twenty years later the same minister would help persuade the American Continental Congress to keep General Washington and his army up and running.

No religious figure of the era exerted greater influence on national politics. Witherspoon's mailing list included the likes of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Ben Franklin, and Benjamin Rush. He signed the Declaration of Independence—the only cleric to do so—and lost a son in the Revolutionary War. As a state legislator and delegate, he helped ratify the Constitution. And as the principal instructor at Princeton, he groomed a generation of men—including James Madison—for leadership roles in the new ...

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