Witherspoon and Christian Magnanimity

John-Witherspoon-Cropped-242x300In September 1775, only a few months after the skirmishes between Patriot militia and British regulars at Lexington and Concord, John Witherspoon preached a sermon at Princeton titled, “Christian Magnanimity.” Many of the students present would graduate from Princeton a week later and enter public life.

The title, at first glance, seems to be an oxymoron. Is not magnanimity, as Witherspoon says, “entirely of the world cast: It holds a very high place in the esteem of all worldly men; the boldest pretensions are often made to it by those who treat religion with neglect and religious persons with disdain or defiance….[T]he gospel seems to stand directly opposed to it. The humility of the creature, the abasement and contrition of the sinner, the dependance and self-denial of the believer, and above all, the shame and reproach of the cross itself seem to conspire in obliging us to renounce it.”

Indeed, even the “infidels have…affirmed that Christianity has banished magnanimity and by its precepts of meekness, humility, and passive submission to injury has destroyed that nobleness of sentiment.”

As one might expect, Witherspoon disagrees: “Christian magnanimity is more excellent than that of the world, it is also more practicable and, in fact, more universal.”

He writes,

The Holy Scriptures, it is true, do chiefly insist upon what is proper to humble our pride, and to bring us to a just apprehension of our character and state….But as the scripture points out our original dignity and the true glory of our nature, so every true penitent is there taught to aspire after the noblest of character and to entertain the most exalted hope.

According to reason, he affirms,

[E]very real excellence is consistent with every other, nay every real excellence is adorned and illustrated by every other. Vices may be inconsistent with each other, but virtues never can. And, therefore, as magnanimity is an amiable and noble quality–one of the greatest ornaments of our nature, so I affirm that it belongs only to true and undefiled religion and that every appearance of the one without the other is not only defective but false.

For Witherspoon, magnanimity is “spirit, dignity, or greatness of mind.” It is “real greatness.” To the audience of students destined for public life, the charge for public virtue would not be surprising. As he said elsewhere, his students would “apply their talents to the service of the public and the good of mankind. Education is therefore…[for] the benefit of society in offices of power or trust.” Witherspoon’s charge to be magnanimous is not for the sake of worldly gain, personal glory, one’s name in posterity, etc. It is greatness for one’s country and for mankind.

He lists the principles of magnanimity and comments on each.

1. Attempt great and difficult things.

[T]he vigorous exertion of all our powers, and particularly the application of them to things of moment and difficulty, is real magnanimity.

2. Aspire to great and valuable possessions. (More on this below).

A great mind has great capacities of enjoyment as well as action. And as there is a difference between the blessing in our view, both in point of dignity and extent, such as man will not be easily satisfied or put up with what is either mean or scanty while he can acquire and possess a better and more extensive portion. The large and increasing desires of the human mind have often been made an argument for the dignity of our nature, and our having been made for something that is great and excellent.

3. Encounter dangers with resolution.

This is inseparable from the constitutes a leading part of the character. Even the most excellent and valuable services to mankind if they are attended with no difficulty at all or meet with no opposition, though they retain the character of utility, yet for want of this circumstance, they lose that of greatness. Courage is always considered as a great quality; it has had the admiration, or rather adoration, of mankind in every age. Many when they speak of magnanimity mean nothing else but courage, and when they speak of meanness have little other idea but that of timidity. Neither is there, I think, any human weakness that is more the object of contempt and disdain than cowardice, which when applied to life in general is commonly called pusillanimity.

4. Struggle against difficulties with steadiness and perseverance.

Perseverance is nothing else but continued and inflexible courage. We see some persons who show the greatest activity and boldness for a season, but time and opposition weaken their force and seem, if I may speak so, to exhaust their courage as if they wasted the power by exertion. Perseverance, therefore, is necessary to greatness. Few things are more contrary to this character than fickleness and unsteadiness.

5. Bear suffering with fortitude and patience.

It often happens that difficulties cannot be removed or enemies cannot be conquered, and then it is the last effort of greatness of mind to bear the weight of the one, or the cruelty of the other, with firmness and patience. This virtue has always been of the greatest reputation. It is a well known saying of a heaven philosopher that a great man suffering with invincible patience under a weight of misfortunes is a sight which even the gods must behold with admiration.

Witherspoon then connects these principles with moral virtue.

1. The object of our desire must be just as well as great

2. Our desires ought to be governed by wisdom and prudence, as well as justice.

If any person either forms difficult projects or aspires after great possessions and in prosecution of his purposes exerts ever so much courage, fortitude, and patience, yet, if these designs are less useful or these possessions less valuable than others to which he might have applied the same talents, it cannot deserve the name of true magnanimity.

3. The principle of action must be honorable as well as the achievements illustrious.

If a person does things so extraordinary in their nature overcomes the difficulties or braves the most formidable dangers to make his name famous we must at once perceive how much it detracts even from his name itself. This is not the language of religion only it is the language of reason and the dictate of the human heart.

4. Every attempt at greatness must be possible and rational, perhaps probable.

Nothing is more common than to find persons under pretence of great and illustrious designs prosecuting what is not of any value when obtained and at the fame scarcely possible, and no way probable to be obtained at all. This is declining altogether from the line of greatness and going into the path of extravagance. Again, should any man undertake what he was altogether unable to perform, however excellent the design were in itself, we would not dignify it even with the name of ambition he would acquire and deserve the character, not of greatness, but of folly or madness.

He concludes this section with: “It is plain that these moral principles must enter into the composition of true greatness and that, when they are wanting, the natural characters mentioned before degenerate into vice and assume the names of pride, ambition, temerity, ferocity and obstinacy.”

Witherspoon then shows that there is “nothing in real religion contrary to magnanimity, but that there, and there only it appears in its beauty and perfection.”

1. Religion calls us to the greatest and noblest attempts, whether in private or public view.

The importance and difficulty of this struggle appears not only from the holy scriptures, but from the experience and testimony of mankind in every age….In a public view, every good man is called to live and act for the glory of God and good of others. Here he has as extensive a scene of activity as he can possibly desire. He is not indeed permitted to glory nor to build an alter to his own vanity, but he is both permitted and obliged to exert his talents, to improve his time, to employ his substance and to hazard his life in his Maker’s service or his country’s cause.

2. The truly pious man aspires after the greatest and most valuable possession.

He despises indeed the uncertain and the unsatisfying enjoyments of time. His desires after present enjoyments are subjected to the will of God. He has given them up without reserve yet his heavenly Father knows that he has need of these things and therefore he both asks and hopes to receive what is suitable and necessary and believes that a little that a just man has is better than the riches of many wicked. But the glorious object of the Christian’s ambition is the inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that fades not away The honorable relation he stands in to God as his adopted child in Christ Jesus inclines and authorizes him to hope for this purchased possession and enables him to look down with becoming indifference on all the glory of this transitory world. Let the rich man glory in his riches and the wise man glory in his wisdom; he only glories in this that he knows the Lord and shall be with him forever.

3. True piety encounters the greatest dangers with resolution.

The fear of God is the only effectual means to deliver us from the fear of man.

4. True piety perseveres with constancy in opposition to continual trial.

This is indeed what distinguishes the Christian warfare from that of every other. It continues through life, and the last enemy to be overcome is death. In all the conflicts between men on earth, the issue may be speedily expected, and the reward immediately bestowed. But in religion, it is only he who shall endure to the end that shall be saved. This adds greatly to the difficulty and seems to show not only the excellence and beauty, but the real dignity and magnanimity of the Christian character.

5. True piety endures suffering with patience and fortitude.

The believer has made an unreserved surrender of himself and his all to the disposal of Providence: His faithfulness to this promise is brought almost every day to the trial. For the Christian then to suffer reproach without rendering evil for evil or railing for railing….is magnanimity indeed; this is the most solid glory to which any child of Adam can possibly attain.

Witherspoon concludes by saying that this magnanimity is not reserved for a few, but all. It is a universal:

Worldly magnanimity is what always requires such talents as do not fall to the lot of many and such opportunities for its exercise as seldom occur. The road to heroism is not open to every man. But the magnanimity which is the fruit of true religion, being indeed the product of divine grace, is a virtue of the heart and may be attained by the person of mean talents and narrow possessions and in the very lowest stations of human life.


In a time of profound Christian passivity and weakness, we need this call for magnanimity, for greatness.

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