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Archive for September, 2017

Journal Issue #3 Fall 2017

Enjoy this year’s issue of Edwardseana Journal. The third edition of Edwardseana features two Books of the Year, written by Philip Fisk and Douglas Winiarski, a feature article about the JESociety, and more. Learn more in this third installment.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: John Witherspoon’s American Revolution

Gideon Mailer, John Witherspoon’s American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

WitherspoonThis book is not about Edwards. But it does discuss Edwards, revising the way we think about the legacy of his Calvinist engagement with British moral philosophy.

John Witherspoon was one of Edwards’ successors in the presidency of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Born in Gifford, East Lothian, Scotland in 1723, he sailed to America 1768, serving as Princeton’s sixth president and a major civic leader in the nascent U.S. (Edwards had died a decade earlier, in 1758, while serving as the school’s third president.) During his 26 years in office (1768-94), he taught one U.S. president (James Madison), one vice president (Aaron Burr, Jr.), 49 members of the House of Representatives, 28 Senators, three Supreme Court justices, one secretary of state, three attorneys general, and two foreign ministers. More than 11% of his graduates became college presidents. Witherspoon himself served as a delegate to the Continental Congress (1776-82), worked on three national standing committees and dozens of congressional committees during the Revolution, and was the only ordained clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.

In a fine summary statement of his book and its significance, Mailer, a British historian trained at the University of Cambridge but based now at the University of Minnesota Duluth, writes, “John Witherspoon’s American Revolution considers the ways in which Witherspoon’s Presbyterian evangelicalism could compete with, combine with, or even supersede the civic influence of Scottish Enlightenment thought in the British Atlantic world. It uncovers the association between evangelical Presbyterian religion and Anglo-Scottish unionism and the impact of such an association on social, religious, and political developments in American patriot discourse and in early national America. And it highlights the eventual legacy of Presbyterian political theology, through Witherspoon’s students, in nineteenth-century America” (pp. 12-13).

For several decades, most scholars have suggested that Witherspoon underwent a major sea change as he moved to America. Though an evangelical Calvinist and leader of the Popular party in the Church of Scotland, he became a leading promoter of the moral sense theories of the Scottish Moderate party as he settled in the colonies–thus functioning, ironically, as a conduit of the less Calvinistic Scottish Enlightenment in America during the age of Revolution. (The Scottish Popular party emphasized total depravity and the role of conversion in enabling civic virtue. The Moderates, by contrast, held a more optimistic view of the moral and intellectual potential of the populace, regardless of conversion. Their disagreement became especially important during the era of the American Revolution, many of whose leaders agreed that the health and success of their republic, or any democracy, would depend on the inculcation of virtue in its citizens.)

Mailer disagrees with the sea change thesis, claiming that Witherspoon retained and taught a Calvinistic view of human potential till the end, thus serving as a conduit of both kinds of Scottish thought in early U.S. history. As he told the boys at Princeton, conversion was required for the best kinds of civic virtue in the new nation. Or as Mailer explains the matter in the book’s introduction, “Witherspoon continued to claim that religious regeneration initially required a personal admission of sin, with the help of the Holy Spirit. The latter assisted individuals as they struggled to acknowledge the necessity of grace in supplying a regenerated moral sensibility. Provided their acknowledgment of iniquity was genuine, individuals would then receive divine mercy and a new moral understanding wrought by the ‘grace of God’ and the ‘Grace of hope.’ Societal stability, in such a formulation, required enough individuals to become similarly awakened. Moral sensory philosophy [i.e. of the Moderate kind], in Witherspoon’s opinion, failed to acknowledge such a requirement. Common sensory perception might allow individuals (and their leaders) to apprehend the difference between right and wrong in some circumstances. But Witherspoon’s evangelical hermeneutic tended to differ from the notion of sensus communis [taught by the Moderates] in warning that initial moral conceptions did not imply a predictable ethical reaction, benevolent or otherwise” (pp. 10-11).

Just as Edwards, then, repackaged traditional Calvinism vis-à-vis the work of the British moralists, employing their philosophy to valorize the moral lives of everyday people even as he distinguished this from truly Christian virtue, so Witherspoon did the same in his own day and age—for a broader body politic engaged in the founding of a righteous new republic. “The nature of the association between Witherspoon’s developing moral philosophy and the earlier values of the College of New Jersey founders, Samuel Finley, Samuel Davies, and Jonathan Edwards,” Mailer argues, “needs reassessment as well. In many ways, Witherspoon continued their synthesis of evangelical moral theory and formal instruction . . . . It is important to keep in mind that revivalism was not always antithetical to the conceptual terminology of moral sense theory” (p. 146).

This book will be tough sledding for all but specialists in early American intellectual history, but it sets the record straight on a most important aspect of the legacy of Edwards. Highly recommended.