Old Pine St. Presbyterian Church
412 Pine Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
As a signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon was one of the great patriots in the founding generation. A direct descendant of the reformer of Scotland, John Knox, he was like his forbearer: a man of the church and a man of the public square. As a public leader, he was a representative in the New Jersey legislature when it voted to ratify America’s new Constitution. As a churchman, here in Philadelphia, John Witherspoon helped to organize the new American branch of the Presbyterian church, presiding at its first General Assembly in 1789.
John Witherspoon came to America from Scotland to assume the role of President of the College of New Jersey, which today is Princeton University. Throughout his career in both the church and state, he emphasized the providence of God. Scholars have stated that Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence was amended at the suggestion of Witherspoon with the words “with the firm reliance on the protection of divine providence,” which then continues with Jefferson’s immortal words: “we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” The idea of divine providence is found in Genesis 22:14 where it says, “on the mountain of the Lord it will be provided” (NIV) and in Ephesians 1:11, “[he] who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (KJV).
Only a few days before arriving as a delegate to the Continental Congress, Witherspoon had preached a sermon entitled, “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men” on May 17, 1776, in which he said, “If your cause is just—you may look with confidence to the Lord and entreat him to plead it as his own. You are all my witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit. At this season however, it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.” He declares, “There is not a greater evidence either of the reality or the power of religion, than a firm belief of God’s universal presence, and a constant attention to the influence and operation of his providence. It is by this means that the Christian may be said, in the emphatical scripture language, ‘to walk with God, and to endure as seeing him who is invisible.’”
In his patriotic sermon, he not only emphasizes God’s providence and the justice of the American cause, but he also calls on his listeners to embrace the Christian faith: “There can be no true religion, till there be a discovery of your lost state by nature and practice, and an unfeigned acceptance of Christ Jesus, as he is offered in the gospel. Unhappy they who either despise his mercy, or are ashamed of his cross! Believe it, “there is no salvation in any other. There is no other name under heaven given amongst men by which we must be saved.” Unless you are united to him by a lively faith, not the resentment of a haughty monarch, but the sword of divine justice hangs over you, and the fullness of divine vengeance shall speedily overtake you. I do not speak this only to the heaven daring profligate, or groveling sensualist, but to every insensible secure sinner; to all those, however decent and orderly in their civil deportment, who live to themselves and have their part and portion in this life; in fine to all who are yet in a state of nature, for ‘except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”
John Witherspoon argued for independence in 1776 and became the only clergyman who signed the Declaration. He regularly assisted congress in their annual call for a day of “prayer, fasting, and humiliation.” As Witherspoon said in his sermon at the first National Day of Prayer, “While we give praise to God, the supreme disposer of all events, for his interposition on our behalf, let us guard against the dangerous error of trusting in, or boasting of, an arm of flesh… If your cause is just, if your principles pure, and if your conduct is prudent, you need not fear the multitude of opposing hosts.” Again, we see his trust in God’s providential care.