Review of The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders (2.1) – Witherspoon

There will be two reviews of chapter 2. This post will focus on Dr. Frazer’s analysis of John Witherspoon. See my review of chapter 1 here.


One of the most influential Founders was the theologian John Witherspoon. As the president of Princeton for many years, he taught and mentored six who became members of the Continental Congress, six who became members of the Constitutional Convention, three who became Supreme Court justices, and many others who would move to influential positions (39).[1] He also mentored James Madison. Witherspoon served as a member of the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. John Adam’s said of him that he was “as high a son of liberty as any man in America” (39).

There is no doubt that Witherspoon influenced the Founders. The question is, in what ways? Frazer argues that he influenced the Founders by his “method or approach or how to think about religion and politics.” Frazer argues that on matters of politics Witherspoon appeals almost exclusively to reason alone, not revelation, and this approach to politics influenced his students’ approach. Frazer is likely correct on this point, but he continues: and it “was decidedly rationalistic and naturalistic” (40). In other words, Witherspoon, who is “philosophically schizophrenic,” has incorporated “Enlightenment philosophy” into his method, despite his debates with the Enlightenment philosophers back in England (e.g., Hume and Hutcheson). Frazer concludes that “it was not Witherspoon the Calvinist but Witherspoon the rationalist and naturalist who influenced a generation of American political leaders—and Madison in particular” (41).

Frazer thoroughly misrepresents Witherspoon’s thought in this section, and he betrays a misunderstanding of the Reformed tradition concerning reason. Witherspoon’s understanding of reason and revelation is perfectly in agreement with the Reformed tradition.

In his Lectures on Moral Philosophy, Witherspoon attempts, in his words, “an inquiry into the nature and grounds of moral obligation by reason, as distinct from revelation” (42). He argues that “belief of a Divine Being” is “well supported by the clearest reason.” Witherspoon is confident that “reason will validate revelation” and that “there is nothing certain or valuable in moral philosophy, but what is perfectly coincident with the scripture” (43). He also said that “we ought to take the rule of duty from conscience enlightened by reason, experience, and every way by which we can be supposed to learn the will of our Maker.”

Frazer quotes some authorities who say that Witherspoon had a “conversion” to philosophy and that his thought is “frankly naturalistic” and “lack[s] essential elements of a genuinely Christian approach to public life” (44).

It is quite startling how Frazer and those he quotes misunderstand the Reformed tradition. Witherspoon’s appeal to reason alone for certain matters (e.g., politics and morality) is perfectly in line with the Reformed tradition going all the way back to Calvin. Calvin said that “earthly things” can be understood by reason alone. He states:

By earthly things, I mean that which related not to God and his kingdom, to true righteousness and future blessedness, but have some connection with the present life….Since man is by nature a social animal, he is disposed, for natural instinct, to cherish and preserve society; and accordingly we see that the minds of all men have impressions of civil order and honesty. Hence it is that every individual understands how human societies must be regulate by laws, and also is able to comprehend the principles of those laws. Hence the universal agreement in regard to such subjects, both among nations and individuals, the seeds of them being implanted in the breasts of all without a teacher or lawgiver. (II.ii.13)

Political theorist Glenn Moots concludes: “So while Calvin was skeptical about the role of nature and traditional philosophy in reaching spiritual things, he did not extend that skepticism to earthly things and to politics in particular.”[2] Calvin appealed to natural law against the Anabaptists in his Institutes (II.ii.15). He also said, concerning the ancient pagan philosophers, they “teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature, notwithstanding of its having been despoiled of the true good” (II.ii.15).

Glenn Moots writes:

Calvin refers to the natural law every place that moral questions are treated in his theology. This does not mean that Calvin always agreed with his medieval predecessors on the precise use of moral law in prescribing morality. But his disagreement was not with the content of the natural law. Rather, Calvin’s disagreement with medieval predecessors concerned man’s ability to pursue the good apart from divine grace. Reformers agree with their medieval predecessors on man’s knowledge of the natural law. Where they disagree was in the natural ability to obey it. Conscience, according to Calvin, is more a function of the intellect than of the will. That is, it was more readily known that obeyed.[3]

Frazer even admits that Witherspoon limits his use of reason to “politics and morals” (45). As shown above and below, this was the proper realm and limit of the use of the reason in Reformed theology. Witherspoon is perfectly consistent with Reformed thought.

Christopher Goodman, a 16th century English clergyman, commenting on Mattathias’s rebellion against the Syrian Greeks in the 2nd Century B.C., wrote,

Yea and if there were neither example nor Scripture to prove his fact; yet would natural reason compel every man to allow the same, as most Godly. And that therein he did nothing but his duty, which thing was approved in the judgment of that age, and as a lawful fact and monument write and left to be read by all posterity, the law of nature so directly their judgments.[4]

The late 16th century Huguenot Phillipe de Mornay, in Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos, cites numerous pagan sources and philosophers in support for his political positions. Appealing to natural law, he writes, “In the first place every one consents, that men by nature loving liberty, and hating servitude, born rather to command, than obey, have not willingly admitted to be governed by another, and renounced as it were the privilege of nature, by submitting themselves to the command of others, but for some special and great profit they expected from it.”

Mornay uses reason and natural law to supplement and confirm scriptural conclusions, says Moots.[5] Witherspoon said this explicitly, “There may be an illustration and confirmation of the inspired writings, from reason and observation, which will greatly add to their beauty and force” (43). Frazer suggests from this that Witherspoon considers the “discoveries of reason” to be “infallible.” This is, of course, false. Witherspoon, in agreement with the Reformed tradition, considers reason to be a legitimate, though not always reliable, means of discovering certain truths of creation. Witherspoon’s whole point is that revelation is superior to reason. He says that “if the Scripture is true, the discoveries of reason cannot be contrary to it.” In other words and negatively, any conclusion of reason that contradicts Scripture is not good reason. This why Witherspoon follows the previous statement with, “and therefore, it has nothing to fear from that quarter” (43).

The 17th century Reformed theologian Samuel Rutherford in Lex, Rex wrote,

All civil power is immediately from God in it root; in that, 1st, God hath made man a social creature, and one who inclineth to be governed by man, then certainly he must have put this power in man’s nature: so are we, by good reason, taught by Aristotle. 2d. God and nature intendeth the policy and peace of mankind, then must God and nature have given to mankind a power to compass this end; and this must be the power of government….As domestic society is by nature’s instinct, so is civil society natural in radice, in the root, and voluntary in modo, in the manner of coalescing….It is natural that they join in a civil society.[6]

Rutherford, as with many Calvinists, appeals to natural law and human nature to formulate a political philosophy.

This short overview of role of natural law and reason in Reformed political thought is enough to shake your head at the following conclusion by Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden (cited by Frazer): “Witherspoon did not derive his politics from the Bible. He did not think the Christian God had a specific role to play in public life, where the rule of nature prevailed.”[7] Frazer calls this a “low view of scripture” (43).

As Warfield shows in his commentary on the ten chapters of Calvin’s Institutes (here), Calvin distinguishes between God the Creator and God the Redeemer. God the Creator is the creator of nature. Calvin even says, with strict qualification, that “nature is God.” It is quite inappropriate then to call an appeal to nature a denial that the “Christian God” has a role to play in politics, and it does not show a low view of scripture. Witherspoon’s appeal to nature is an appeal to nature-as-creation; nature belongs to the Creator.

While it may be true that Witherspoon used the Lockean “state of nature” argument in support of a social contract theory of politics, so did Mornay, Rutherford and many others in the Reformed tradition.[8] I do not think that Calvin (see here and here), John Winthrop and others (e.g., Robert Dabney) would agree with it, but the idea of a social contract is in the Reformed tradition. So Witherspoon is Witherspoon the Calvinist—not Witherspoon the rationalist— even when doing philosophy.

As I stated above, Frazer is likely correct that Witherspoon’s influence is mostly in method and approach to politics. His students learned to consider politics through reason. But as the rest of my review shows, the use of reason does not contradict the Reformed tradition. The Founders’ use of reason is consistent with this tradition.

I suspect that Frazer’s bias against reason and what clouds him from fully understanding the Reformed tradition is his dispensationalism. When I was a student at the Master’s College, Frazer was a Christian pacifist. Some might call him one of the few consistent dispensationalists. Dispensationalism tends toward the separatist mode of thought, and I wonder whether he is reading his own theological tradition back into the 18th century. This is just speculation. Perhaps his misunderstanding of the Reformed tradition is rooted in his secondary sources. The return of the importance of natural law in Reformed theology and the Reformed tradition is fairly recent. Frazer may have missed this resurgence.

[1] I have cited Frazer’s text parenthetically.

[2] Glen Moots Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology Columbia: University of Missouri Press 2010, 121.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Emphasis mine. Superior Powers, quoted in Moots, 122.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lex, Rex 1-2. Quoted in Moots 126.

[7] Quoted in Frazer 43.

[8] Of course, Mornay and Rutherford wrote on this prior to Locke.

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