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Saturday, August 17, 2013

John Witherspoon and the Warrior Clerics

John Witherspoon, a Scottish Presbyterian Minister, became president of The College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was then known) in 1768.  Affected by continued assertion of British Episcopacy in the Colonies, Witherspoon became caught up in the Revolutionary fervor of the times; in 1774 he joined the Committee of Correspondence and Safety.  In 1776, he was the only active cleric (as well as university president) to sign the Declaration of Independence.  He served in the Continental Congress as well as the New Jersey Legislature.  Here he is, memorialized today on the campus of Princeton University:

In Massachusetts, another cleric, Reverend Jonas Clark wrote the inscription for the monument that today stands marking the Battle of Bunker Hill and among other things, said: “The Blood of these Martyrs In the Cause of God and their Country Was the Cement of the Union and these State, then Colonies, and gave the spring to the spirit, firmness, and resolution of their Fellow-Citizens. They rose as one man to revenge their Brethren’s Blood, and at the Point of the Sword, to Assert and Defend their native Rights.” Witherspoon, when challenged in 1776 that the country was "not yet ripe" for independence, Witherspoon responded, "in my judgment, sir, we are not only ripe, but rotting."

Other men of the cloth were firebrands for the Revolution, and some paid with their lives.  It is interesting to reflect on this early role of the clergy in the formation of the American republic and the encouragement of war to achieve it, as we contemplate the rise of non-secular governments and the role of clergy in nation-building today.

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