This is adapted from my 1993 short book, John Witherspoon and the Presbyterian Constitution. It is intended to tell part of the story of the early American understanding of religious liberty, and to leave to the reader its bearing upon the current controversy, so utterly wrongly pictured by many as a “Catholic” issue or one merely about moral and sexual matters.
After being declarers of independence, Americans became constitution-makers. One of the great wrong-headed pictures portrayed by the Progressive History Lesson is that we were preoccupied with politics. Many more Americans were concerned with—and participated in—the making of church constitutions than in the making of state and national constitutions. In the 1780s Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, and even Congregationalists and Baptists formed national, regional, and local covenants and constitutions. The two most visible, because they were large and Philadelphia-based, were the attempts of Presbyterians and Episcopalians to form orderly national churches. It was not uncommon, in 1787, to see men moving from one constitutional convention to another, and most of them would have been hard pressed to say which was more important.
The most prominent in this group was the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, prominent Scots-Presbyterian, signer of the Declaration, member of Congress, President of Princeton (and also primary agent of the “American philosophy,” the basis of the liberal arts in America for over a hundred years), and author of the Introduction to “The Form of the Government and Discipline of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.” One can argue, and I often have, that he was as important to the formation of the republic as his student in theology, James Madison.
Witherspoon had not the slightest doubt that there was truth, and that it can be apprehended in the gospel of Jesus Christ as expressed in the Bible: “Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners.” Yet, he wrote in the Introduction, “there are both truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ.” This was good enough reason, he felt for Presbyterians to assert the rights of private judgment in religion, repudiate all ties to civil governments in religious matters, and stand for full freedom of religion for all.
Furthermore, he said, Presbyterians “do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and, at the same time, equal and common to all others.” What may this have meant, given Witherspoon’s devotion to Truth, to Reformed Christianity, and to the intimate relation between morality and good government?
First, because Dr. Witherspoon was sure that American constitutions put civil authority at the state and local levels, the Christian sensibilities of the people would protect and secure religious liberties. It would never have occurred to him that the national government had any power whatsoever regarding religion, except that it was prohibited from establishing it in the old European sense. Second, Witherspoon and most American political thinkers (including, by the way, even nationalists like Hamilton) believed that society was antecedent to government; that is, social institutions, rooted in the family, village life and voluntary associations, existed prior to government and took precedence over it. In practical terms, this meant that the commanding position of Christianity in American society would allow religion to flourish as long as government did nothing to interfere with it.
It is true that there was another American opinion. It was well represented by Witherspoon’s student, James Madison, and Madison’s more secular mentor, Thomas Jefferson, among others. Their heartstrings plucked by the enlightened potential for progress they saw in reason, were skeptical of religious organizations because of their supposed historical tendency to limit freedom of thought. Jefferson wrote the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom and Madison was closely associated with the Bill of Rights. Both used Jefferson’s metaphor of a “wall of separation” between church and state (and, implicitly, between faith and reason) frequently, which has given ammunition to later generations to proclaim that the wall was what the founders intended to build.
While it is a metaphor favored by the Supreme Court and by most progressive scholars of the last century, it is not a view shared by the most careful scholars of religion and the early American culture. The late Sydney E. Ahlstrom, in his magisterial A Religious History of the American People, perhaps understates his own position when he says, “Few cultures [as the American] are so intractable to purely secular categories of historical interpretation.” Mark deWolf Howe, one of America’s most eminent legal historians, writes, “I find it impossible to deny that [theological] pre suppositions did not find their way into the Constitution.”
Such elegant understatements ask us to recall what Witherspoon’s generation knew very well: American law was the English Common Law, modified by colonial precedent and early American constitutions. Christianity had been embedded into the Common Law for almost eight hundred years. Furthermore, an American evangelical tradition going back to Roger Williams insisted that the “Garden of Christianity” was safe from the corruption of the “Wilderness of the World” only if governments could be held at bay and Christian consciences allowed to flourish. This evangelical principle (adopted readily, as Brad Birzer has shown, by American Catholics like Daniel Carroll) was the foundation of the American consensus on religious liberty. The purpose of the separation of church and state was not to protect citizens from narrow-minded Christians, but to protect true religion from corrupt and powerful governments.
Witherspoon didn’t consider it necessary to say in detail what religious liberty was. In fact, most Americans didn’t consider it necessary to define liberty in general very sharply. That there was little separation between the two is indicated by Americans from George Washington to humble village ministers using the description of liberty from Micah 4:4—”They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree, and none shall make him afraid”—much more than any other. We can be sure, however, that there was a broad agreement on what it was not: It was certainly not a use of the civil authority, on any level of government, to deprive ordinary American citizens of easy access to their Christian heritage.
It is a long story how a progressive culture managed to derive, as a Supreme Court justice once said, a rule of law from a Jeffersonian metaphor. It is a story, however, that is not true to the generation of Americans who founded the republic. It is also not true, ironically, of the intentions of the millions of Americans who have joined the republic (such of it as is left) int the years since.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.