04 July 2011

A Christian Founding Father

I must confess that while looking for an Independence Day topic, I did a google search.  Not much came up.  Christianity Today's website has "This Week in Christian History," but the most interesting thing that I could find for July 4 happened in 1187 with Saladin's Muslim force defeating the Third Crusade at the Battle of Hattin.  While important and influential, this event didn't really seem appropriate for a holiday celebrating America's birthday.  So, I went back to the drawing board.

A topic that seems to cause quite a bit of controversy when discussion turns to the founding of the United States of America is the impact that Christianity had on the founding fathers.  Often, it seems, people fall into two extremes on this argument.  A group on one side of the spectrum tries to argue that almost all of the founders were Deists in the Enlightenment mold and that they attempted to set up a completely secular state that only moderately cared about religion, if at all.  These folks definitely have an agenda and a bias behind them.  On the other side of the spectrum is a group that tries to argue that, while there may have been a couple of Deist outliers like Ben Franklin, the vast majority of the founding fathers were conservative evangelicals.  Much like the secularist crowd, these folks have an agenda and a bias behind their argument.

I would argue that both arguments are in some ways in error and that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It's difficult to argue that at the very least cultural Christianity had little impact on the Founding Fathers.  However, the Constitution nowhere mentions God in any way.  The Declaration of Independence does not mention Jesus or Christianity specifically, although it does refer to a Creator and "Nature's God."  That is not to say that there were no professing Christians in the Continental Congress.  Most of the founders belonged to one denomination/sect or another.  In fact, two of the signers were ordained ministers, one of whom was active at the time of the signing itself.

Lyman Hall is one of the ordained ministers that signed the Declaration of Independence.  Although he was an ordained Congregationalist minister, he is better known as a physician.  The active minister who signed the Declaration was John Witherspoon, a recent Scottish immigrant who held ordination in the Church of Scotland (AKA the Presbyterian Church of reformer John Knox).  Witherspoon came to America to become the president of Princeton College.  Witherspoon preached fairly frequently in the revolutionary era, having come to America only in 1768 and was a leading figure on the Second Continental Congress that put out the Declaration of Independence.  Witherspoon served on some of the more important committees in the Congress during this era.  As president of Princeton, he held to Scottish Common Sense philosophy and saw no conflict between faith and reason.

An interesting fact about Witherspoon, in addition to his itinerant preaching, was a motion he made to have the New Jersey legislature end their day before dinner because he had trouble staying awake.  The motion failed and he informed his colleagues that ``there are two kinds of speaking that are very interesting . . . perfect sense and perfect nonsense. When there is speaking in either of these ways I shall engage to be all attention. But when there is speaking, as there often is, halfway between sense and nonsense, you must bear with me if I fall asleep.''

John Witherspoon was definitely a Christian Founding Father, and few can argue otherwise.

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