Part 1 From the early Presbyterians to John Witherspoon
Rev. John MacLeod
This paper was delivered at the Free Presbyterian Church Theological Conference in 1998
IN seeking to consider the place occupied by Scotland in the history of the American Presbyterian Church and its religious institutions, it is to be noted, first of all, that the first Christian settlers in New England were not of Scottish origin but from the country from which the colony took its name. Known in history as the Pilgrim Fathers, they landed at Plymouth Rock in December 1620, bringing with them the Reformed Faith and seeking a place where they would be free to practise it without let or hindrance. “New England,” as one historian put it, “was not a plantation of trade but of religion”.1 Others, from various backgrounds, were to follow. “God,” one American has said, “sifted the foremost nations of Christendom and sowed our soil with the finest of the wheat”2. What is known as the “first written Constitution of the new world” was drafted and signed in the cabin of the Mayflower before the Pilgrim Fathers set foot on American soil, and religious liberty, as one might expect, was enshrined at its very heart. The Pilgrim Fathers “recognised the Lord as the God of nations and the Ruler of men”; the ultimate appeal was to the law of God, and the Mayflower Compact, as it is known, established the great principle of liberty under the law. It has been said that “with guaranteed personal liberty under the protection of law, the seeds of a free and independent Government were sown at their coming . . . American freedom was born in the cabin of the Mayflower.” It is further asserted that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United states were the inevitable results of the principles of liberty enunciated in this historic document. As is well known, religious toleration was so important a matter in the eyes of the framers of the Constitution of the United States of America that it laid down that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”. And because this was considered to be an inadequate safeguard the first amendment was to lay down the rule that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Alas, the Establishment principle, so dear to Scottish Presbyterians, was deliberately laid aside.
Princeton, in the middle of the eighteenth century, was just a small New Jersey town. By the middle of the next century “this favoured spot”, as Charles Hodge was to describe it had become the centre of American evangelism. Originally known as Stony Brook, its name had been changed, in 1724, in memory of William III, Prince of Orange. Its location is significant and of interest to us because we are informed that “most of the Presbyterian emigrants from Scotland and Ireland, in the Caroline period, settled in the middle colonies East and West Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland”.3 Princeton seminary was founded as a Presbyterian Seminary and ipso facto the connection with Scotland, the home of Presbyterianism, was established. Those who were set for the defence of Presbyterianism of course regarded it as the form of church government that was jus divinum, of divine right. Erastianism was anathema to the martyrs, and in resisting unprincipled kings and prelates who were seeking to usurp Christs prerogatives many loved not their lives unto the death, suffering in the fields and on scaffolds, while many others were sent into exile. It was to be expected that the arrival of some of them in the American colonies would prove to be to the furtherance of the gospel and the consolidation of Presbyterianism there.
There were apparently only three institutions of higher learning in the American colonies at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century Harvard, Yale and the Virginia College of William and Mary. Each was the College of but a single colony being established at a time when the colonies stood separate from one another, each colony valuing most highly what was distinctive in its own constitution, and conscious only of a loose union with the other colonies through the common government across the seas. The fourth American College was that which was to be established at Princeton. It was distinctive in that it was not the college of an established church, nor was it the college of a single colony. In the middle colonies the Presbyterians had spread themselves widely and had come to be allied with Puritan settlers Independents from New England. It was this alliance that gave rise to an organised Presbyterian Church. As this organisation developed it became the strongest bond between a large part of the growing population in the three adjoining colonies. It united them into a single Church. It often brought together and at stated times their religious leaders and it constituted for these people a far stronger social tie than that of the common sovereignty of Great Britain. Puritan clergymen from East Jersey who were graduates of Yale and Harvard, and Pennsylvanian ministers of Scottish or Ulster extraction, who had gained their degrees at Glasgow or Edinburgh Universities, met and conferred at Synod meeting times, and after their return to their own parishes corresponded with one another on the welfare of their congregations. The first Presbytery was organised in Philadelphia in 1706, and the first Synod, composed of three Presbyteries, was formed in 1716, while the first General Assembly was convened in Philadelphia in 1789. On that occasion the constitution of the national Presbyterian Church was framed and adopted. The Westminster Confession was adopted as its subordinate standard but with some alterations almost exclusively on points relating to civil government and the duties of the magistracy.
The rapid growth of the population impressed upon the Presbyterian ministers of the day the need of an increase in their own ranks, and some of them, who were not willing to wait for ecclesiastical action, on their own initiative established private schools. Perhaps the most famous and influential of these was William Tennents Log College built at the forks of the Neshaminy. It has been said that “back of Princeton Seminary was Princeton college, and back of Princeton College was the Log college, and back of the Log college, the school houses on the hills of Scotland and Ulster”. William Tennent was born in Ulster but he was of Scottish descent. A graduate of Edinburgh University, it is said that he was especially well known for two things his religious and missionary zeal and his exceptional attainments in classical learning. Originally an Episcopalian clergyman, he arrived in America in 1716 with his four sons and in due course became a minister of the American Presbyterian Church. It was his determination to relieve the destitution of ministers in his own church that moved him to set up the Log College. George Whitefield was a close friend of Tennents and we are indebted to his Journal for the following description of the centre of learning at Neshaminy. “The place where the young men now study is in contempt called the college. It is a log house, about twenty feet long, and near as many broad; and to me it resembled the schools of the old prophets. That their habitations were mean, and that they sought not great things for themselves, is plain from that passage of Scripture wherein we are told that, at the feast of the sons of the prophets, one of them put on the pot, while the others went to fetch some herbs out of the field. From this despised place, seven or eight ministers of Jesus have lately been set forth; more are almost ready to be sent, and a foundation is now being laid for the instruction of many others.” It was Tennent who convinced the Presbyterians of the middle colonies that they need not and ought not to wait upon Great Britain and New England for an educated ministry. “To William Tennent,” it was said, “above all others, is owing the prosperity and enlargement of the Presbyterian Church.”
The Synod formed in 1716 was to split in 1742. One reason for that was that some of the brethren were not prepared to accept the ministers trained in the log college because in their reckoning they did not measure up to the standard demanded. This split led in due time to the formation of the Synod of New York and it was members of this body, acting as individuals, who were to be instrumental in founding the New Jersey College, eventually to be situated at Princeton. It is of interest to note in passing, that the unjust expulsion of David Brainerd from Yale College had a significant bearing on the matter. Aaron Burr, who was to become the second President of the New Jersey College, expressed the view that “if it had not been for the treatment received by Mr Brainerd at Yale, New Jersey College would never have been erected”.4 The decision being taken, funds were needed for the erection of a building and accordingly two of the trustees Gilbert Tennent and Samuel Davies visited Scotland in 1754. We are told that they were well received by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
The original charter setting up the New Jersey College was granted in 1746 by the representative of the Sovereign the Governor of New Jersey. His name was John Hamilton. His father, Andrew Hamilton, Governor of East and West Jersey for ten years, was a native of Scotland and is said to have looked with favour on the rapid growth of the Presbyterian Church in the colonies. His son, although an Episcopalian, shared his fathers views and signed the charter. The very Scottish name of John Hamilton is therefore to be given a conspicuous place in any list of founders of Princeton College. Nassau Hall, the main building, was erected in 1756 and the College President, Aaron Burr, son-in-law of Jonathan Edwards, and his students moved to Princeton to take up their permanent residence there. One year after his arrival, Aaron Burr died at the age of forty-one and his father-in-law reluctantly it is said became President. Within a few weeks, however, he, also, in the Lords inscrutable providence was removed by death. His successor Samuel Davies described as a modest, scholarly, eloquent preacher upon whom the God of heaven had bestowed “prodigious, uncommon gifts”, died in 1761, at the age of thirty seven. The next President was Samuel Finley, who was of Scottish-Irish extraction. He had come to America with his parents at nineteen years of age. He was spoken of as being “a very accurate scholar and a very great and good man”. He became the first American Presbyterian minister to receive an honorary degree abroad when the University of Glasgow conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity. After five years he also was removed by death. The Colleges first five leaders, only two of whom served for more than two years, thus died before Princeton was twenty years old.
The next President of Princeton College the Rev John Witherspoon was to come directly from Scotland and was to serve for twenty-six years, longer than his five predecessors together. Principal Macleod says that in his native land “John Witherspoon came to be looked upon as the foremost of the younger Evangelical writers, preachers and Churchmen. It was his eminence in these respects that won for him the two invitations extended to him to become the President of the College of New Jersey. His practical writings speak for themselves. The concise work that he wrote on Justification and its companion volume on Regeneration show him to have been a well-equipped Reformed theologian. His going to the New World linked Presbytery at an early stage in the United States of America (or the American colonies, as they were then), with its old home in the English-speaking world. His influence on, and connection with, the orthodox Westminster teaching that came afterwards, in the early days of the Princeton Seminary, to be called Princeton Theology, show the importance of the part that he played in the exposition and defence of the Reformed Faith. In his days, before the Seminary was set up, Theology was taught in Princeton College. Witherspoon also introduced to the American public the Scottish Apologetic Philosophy of Common Sense. Though so much of his mature work or that of his later years was done in the land of his adoption to which he rendered such conspicuous service, yet Scotland will not give up her hold on one of the best gifts she bestowed on the New World.”5 The life of Princeton College appears to have been almost wholly directed and determined by the President for the time being to send a student to Princeton, it was said, was to commit him to Samuel Davies or John Witherspoon for the formation of his character, for the discipline of his faculties, and, in some measure, for the direction of his subsequent life.6
Witherspoon soon impressed his strong personality on the life of the institution and played an important influential part in making Princeton a centre of sound Reformed theological teaching. In addition, he helped frame the American Declaration of Independence of which he was one of the original signatories, and his standing is such that it is worth our while to dwell a little on the characteristics of this Scottish Presbyterian minister of whom it has been said by one historian that he “was not undeserving of being called one of the great men of his age and of the world”. An immense statue of him was unveiled in Philadelphia in 1909, and Calhoun tells us that “among the Princetonians in government and law with Witherspoons signature on their diplomas were a President and Vice-President of the United States, nine cabinet ministers, twenty-one United States senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three justices of the Supreme Court, one attorney-general, twelve state governors and thirty-nine judges.” 7
Witherspoon was born in the manse of Yester in Haddingtonshire in 1723. His great grand-father, we are told, signed the Solemn League and Covenant and a distant ancestor on his mothers side was John Knox. In 1745, while minister of Beith in Ayrshire and encouraged by the Presbytery of Irvine, he raised a party of militia in his parish and marched, himself at the head of the company, to Glasgow, where he was apparently excessively disappointed to receive orders to return home as no further recruits were required! He personally disobeyed that order and proceeded to Falkirk where the Jacobites being victorious he was taken prisoner and lodged in Doune Castle. It is not clear whether or not he escaped as others did, but in any case, after Culloden, he was set at liberty. In the years that followed, Witherspoon rose steadily in the public estimation as a preacher of unusual force. His view of ministerial duty was serious and exacting. He regarded strong personal religion as the first necessity, and thereafter the faithful preaching of the gospel of free grace. He condemned the preaching of “cold reasonings on the nature and beauty of virtue”, which was the staple diet dished out by the numerous moderate preachers of his day, whom he caustically described as being men “moderate in ability, showing a moderate amount of zeal and doing a very moderate amount of work”. It was against them that he wrote his celebrated satirical pamphlet entitled, Ecclesiastical characteristics; or the Arcana of open Church policy: being an attempt to open the mystery of Moderation, wherein is shown a plain and easy way of attaining to the character of a moderate man as at present in repute in the Church of Scotland. This lengthy title sufficiently indicates the scope and the style of the pamphlet. Having made up his mind that irony was a legitimate weapon to use, he for once gave his wit full swing and so popular was his little book that five editions were called for within ten years.8 Some of the prescriptions which he gives are quoted in Principal Macleods Scottish Theology and make interesting reading.
He also wrote against Deism and Rationalism, robustly condemning the philosophy of religion advocated by David Hume and others who were “extravagantly admired by some of the clergy who wished to be thought polite philosophers”. He expressed himself as strongly opposed to the stage, and stage plays, and “the impropriety of a Presbyterian clergyman being concerned in the production or representation of a play, he considered so extremely obvious as to require no notice further than a curt and somewhat contemptuous statement. The performance of the tragedy of Douglas by John Home, Minister of Athelstaneford and Witherspoons quondam fellow-prisoner at Doune, was uncompromisingly condemned. Witherspoons writings on Regeneration and Justification were in actual fact sermons preached on these subjects. The series on Justification has been called (in the Dictionary of National Biography) “the ablest exposition of Calvinism in any language.” As an author and as a preacher “he stressed the authority of Scripture and held up the old doctrines of the Sovereignty of God, the depravity of man, and substitutionary atonement”.9 It is said that his style as a preacher was simple, practical and straight forward, and that he hated ostentation and display in the pulpit. The following peroration is apparently a brief example of his manner: “The triumph of the wicked is but very short. In a little time all earthly relations shall be dissolved. Then high and low, magistrates and subjects, ministers and people, shall stand before the judgment seat of Christ. He shall render to every man according to his deeds. There the great and the noble shall find no partial favour; there the poor and the mean shall not escape observation; and there the slanderer shall be put to eternal silence.”
Such then was the man who stepped ashore in Philadelphia in August 1768 to take up the duties of President of Princeton College. All the learning and experience gained in his native Scotland were now to be used for the advancement of Christs kingdom in the land of his adoption.
In 1810 and 1811 conferences were held between a committee of the Princeton College trustees and a committee of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church on the subject of establishing a theological seminary for that church. It was eventually decided to site the new Seminary in close proximity to, but separate from, the College, and it began its life in 1812 as an institution of the General Assembly. In setting up the Seminary the General Assemblys aim was “to make it, under the blessing of God, a nursery of vital piety as well as of sound theological learning, and to train up persons for the ministry who would be lovers as well as defenders of the truth as it is in Jesus.”10 The emphasis was placed on “dedication to the study of the Bible in the original languages, knowledge of Reformed Theology and commitment to the Westminster Standards, the two-fold goal of piety of the heart and solid learning, the cultivation of a missionary spirit and wholehearted support of revivals.” Adherence to these ideals, it is said, made Princeton Seminary what it was.
1 The Presbyterian & Reformed Review, Volume VII, p. 108.
2 Ibid., p. 109.
3 History of the Christian Church, George Park Fisher, p. 571.
4 Princeton Seminary 1812 1868, David B Calhoun, p. 5.
5 Scottish Theology, John Macleod, p. 213.
6 The Presbyterian & Reformed Review, Volume VIII, p. 637.
7 Princeton Seminary 1812 1868, David B Calhoun, p. 18.
8 The Presbyterian & Reformed Review, Volume XI, p. 477.
9 Princeton Seminary 1812 1868, David B Calhoun, p. 11.
10 Ibid., p. 30.
To be continued