Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

John Witherspoon

WITHERSPOON was minister of the parish of Beith for twelve years, devoting himself diligently to the duties of his office. From the be-ginning of his ministerial career he conceived a high idea of it. He was fond of study. His sermons were carefully prepared, being fully written, committed to memory and delivered without notes. He was not a pleasing speaker, his voice being somewhat harsh, but he was a good preacher. When he exchanged pulpits with neighbouring clergymen he was - always heard with acceptance, and his own parishioners were devoted to him. It does not appear that he ever made any attempt to be transferred to another parish. His work at Beith was done in the spirit of one who expected and would be glad to spend his life there. Although a studious man with a well-trained mind, he wrote little for publication in the earlier years of his ministry at Beith. The children of the parish were duly well catechized, their parents teaching them first the Shorter Catechism, and later the longer, of the Westminster Assembly, the

minister visiting their homes statedly and testing the knowledge of the boys and girls. Those visits for catechizing were ordeals not relished by the youngsters, but Witherspoon was fond of children and got along well with them.

His theology was the strict Calvinism of the Westminster Confession of Faith from which he never departed. That he was sincere in his adhesion to its doctrines is beyond doubt. But he was not unacquainted with other teachings. His correspondence and literary productions, as well as his sermons, show that, for the times in which he lived he was a wide reader. History was one of his favourite fields. Of course he was thoroughly acquainted with the Greek and Latin classics, quoting them with easy familiarity. He was as easily at home in the realm of French literature and philosophy. Montesquieu was his favourite French author. He also knew the works of German writers. But for the most part he was happiest in 'preaching to his people the familiar doctrines of his church.

Shortly after going to Beith he was married to Elizabeth Montgomery, of Craighouse, Ayrshire, whose father, Robert Montgomery, was a distant kinsman of the Earl of Eglinton, by whom Witherspoon was appointed to the parish.

A story has come down to us which makes him a side hero of the battle of Falkirk. Be-cause of his remote descent from the royal house of Stuart the incident has been used as evidence of his sympathy with the Pretender, while others have gone so far as to say that he led a company of volunteers against him. The truth seems to be that, prompted by curiosity, he went upon a hill in the neighbourhood of the battle-ground or, more probably, along the line of retreat followed by the Pretender's army. Lest he should give information to the English forces he was made prisoner by the rebels and confined for some days in the neighbouring castle of Donne. Some of the thinner men among the prisoners escaped by creeping along the coping of a wall but Witherspoon was too large for the narrow and perilous space and was obliged to remain behind until his release by the collapse of the rebellion.

With this exception his ministerial life at Beith was uninterrupted by any unusual event. But his activities were not confined to his profession as a clergyman. For a short time he was one of the overseers of the highway in the parish. In the discharge of the duties of this office he showed the same zeal and the same independent spirit which he manifested in every situation of his life. In 1754 the commissioners of the county proposed a new scheme for repairing the roads, assessing the tax and requiring the labour of the people. This made necessary a list of every farmer together with the number of horses owned and the number of servants employed by each. The commissioners also announced, as the first step in their plan to build good roads, that the most public roads would be repaired first. Witherspoon and his associates proceeded to comply with the demand to send in the lists asked for. But upon undertaking to make these, many difficulties were encountered. And when they carefully examined the new plan they found many objections to it. It was not possible for a man like Witherspoon, nor any other high-spirited Scotchman, for that matter, to submit without protest to what he regarded as an injustice. He called his fellow overseers together and prepared a paper to be sent by them to the approaching meeting of the justices of the peace and commissioners of the highway, these officers being entrusted by Scotch law with the management of the shire. In this paper he objects to the scheme as proposed. It is difficult to send lists of owners of horses because many men buy horses for their necessary work and sell them again in a short time, not finding it profitable to feed them through the winter. Servants also are hired for short periods, so that it is impossible to give an accurate list of those who, being employers, would be required to pay a larger tax or do more work upon the roads than others. He will, however, endeavour to make as careful a list as possible and await the action of the meeting. A more serious objection lies against the scheme. The failure of former schemes for making good roads is not due to the common people but to the gentry who absent themselves from meetings and fail to fulfill their obligations. Further, what assurance have we, he asks, that the officers under the new scheme will be any more zealous and diligent than they have been under others? But the most serious objection is that there is no agreement as to what are the most public roads. Some of the so-called public roads ran through great tracts of land from which the noblemen had removed the tenants and which were little used by the common people as they travelled to market, or they were roads which ran from one county to another, and these should be kept up by those who travel greater distances than the small farmer who seldom goes farther from home than to his neighbour's or to church.

This paper shows where Witherspoon's sympathies were. On broad grounds he contended that not only popular rights, but also the nation's strength, demanded that the gentry should not compel the tenant to bear the greater part of the expense, but that this should be distributed equably. Holding his position by the grace of a noble patron, he knew his rights under the law of Scotland, and feared not to protest against injustice whether it bore upon himself in the church or upon the people in their business and on their farms. This fine spirit, so far from bringing him the enmity of the nobility, won for him respect. His opinions were always expressed with courtesy. He found no fault with the social order of his day. But he plead for justice to all alike. He believed and taught that religion will enable a man, whatever be his station, to conduct him-self, both towards superiors and inferiors, so that their relations shall be harmonious and mutually satisfactory.

The church, however, was Witherspoon's most congenial field. Nor was it merely as a parish minister that he regarded himself. He belonged to the church of Scotland; its honour was partly in his keeping; for its ministers a high standard of character must be maintained. Such events as have already been described were recurring in the church. They were unusually numerous during his residence at Beith and his indignation rose higher with each fresh case of injustice. People were compelled to accept as ministers men whom they did not like, or could not respect. It goes without saying that a clergyman who would accept a charge under such circumstances was hardly fitted to assume its duties. His ministrations would accomplish little good, his presence tended to excite enmity and to alienate people from religion. Witherspoon and men of his stamp found graver fault. Many of the ministers who were thus installed were unorthodox. They were obliged to declare upon oath that they believed and accepted doctrines which they privately repudiated and publicly ignored or criticised. Whatever one may think of the doctrines themselves such conduct was nothing else than dishonest.

Besides this many of the ministers were otherwise morally unfit for their duties. Total abstinence was rare among any class in those days. Everybody used wine and Witherspoon himself liked the best he could get. But many of the ministers, courting the favour of the patrons of vacant churches, acquired habits of intemperance. When there was a meeting of Presbytery or Assembly to act upon cases of disputed settlements, the patrons interested in 'the litigation often opened public houses to entertain the ministers and elders. Everybody drank freely and one can readily imagine the effect. The ministers were a jovial set, fond of drinking, seeking the loose society of the wild young bloods. It is related of one of them that "he could pass at once from the most un-bounded jollity to the most fervid devotion; yet I believe," says the writer of this account, "that his hypocrisy was no more than habit grounded merely on temper and that his apt-ness to pray was as easy and natural to him as to drink a convivial glass." This itself is the judgment of a clergyman and indicates the mildness with which the practice was regarded by many of the clergy. Not such was the temper of Witherspoon whose sense of decency was outraged by the vulgarity and coarseness of these scenes. To an orthodox clergyman who had a high conception of the ministerial office hypocrisy and drunkenness were shocking. It grew out of the evil system of patron-age. On every possible occasion Witherspoon combated the practice of forcing objectionable ministers upon unwilling people. In all the meetings of the church, where protest was proper, he championed the cause of popular rights against those who, because of their loose and easy theology, were called Moderates, and who were almost always in a majority in the General Assembly.

It must not be inferred that all the Moderates were men of low character or inferior abilities. They numbered among them such a man as William Robertson, principal of St. Andrew's University, a polished and courtly gentleman, an historian of note, with a character above reproach. The fault lay in the system by which it was possible for a man of gross habits and inferior ability to be placed in charge of a Christian church through the influence of a patron who had no further interest in religion. That there were incompetent men who shirked their duties, neglected their parishes, and disgraced their office, is evident not only from Witherspoon's writings but from the newspaper press of the day, from the pictures of the times in Scott's novels, and from the minutes of the General Assembly. In 1751 it was necessary for the Assembly to order the Presbyteries to inquire whether the Lord's supper was administered at least once a year and if not what excuse could be given for the omission. Parishes complained to Presbytery of the inattention of their ministers.

The establishment, it may be remarked, worked harm in another way. It imposed upon the clergyman a creed from which he could not conscientiously depart so long as he held his office, within the limits of which all his thinking must be done, beyond which his mind might not range. This fettered the mind. It made originality impossible and was in itself a form of intellectual tyranny which the Moderates combatted. Commenting on this phase of the situation, Cunningham remarks that few Scotch ministers have dared to think for themselves. The two conditions of compulsory orthodoxy on the one hand and loose living on the other makes applicable to a certain type of Scotch minister Milton's famous line,

" New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large."

Whatever lack of originality might be found in Witherspoon there was no lack of sincerity, conscientiousness or high principle. One wonders, after all, not merely at the necessity but at the possibility of originality in one who devotes his life to proclaiming the principles of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. As the evil continued from year to year and seemed to be increasing, Witherspoon fought it with all his power. Loyal to the doctrinal standards of his church he was not content to rest under an execution of the ecclesiastical law which manifestly worked a wrong, and while he did not attempt to change the law, he strove hard to combat the evils of its working. In the Presbytery he was usually successful, but on appeal, the General Assembly, as has been already stated, almost invariably decided in favour of the patron against the congregation. That it was not altogether the system itself but its abuse, of which Witherspoon and his friends complained, seems evident from the fact that he himself had accepted, and later accepted again, an appointment by a patron; but in his case the appointment was confirmed each time by the congregation. The positions of the two parties have been so admirably stated by Cunningham that I can do no better than to quote his words.

"When men are considered as individuals," said the Moderates, "we acknowledge that they have no guide but their own understanding and no judge but their own conscience; but when joined in society the right of private judgment is superseded the conscience of the individual is merged in that of the community and the minority must yield to the dictates of the majority." Think of the spiritual descendants of John Knox using an argument which is one of the strongholds of Roman Catholic logic "These maxims," they continued, "form the basis of Presbyterian church government. The two capital articles, by which Presbytery is distinguished from every other ecclesiastical polity, are the parity of its ministers and the subordination of its courts. By the one, individual ministers are prevented from exercising lordship over their brethren; by the other, confusion and anarchy are prevented. Wherever there is a subordination of courts, one must be supreme; and though it be not infallible, yet its sentences must be absolute and final. No inferior court may disobey its mandates with impunity, or all government is at an end; no individual may set up his own scruples against the decisions of the whole church or authority sinks into contempt. Accordingly every minister is required at his ordination to vow that he will submit himself to the discipline and government of the church. Submit himself, therefore he must, or if he cannot there is but one remedy, he must withdraw himself from its communion."

"The popular party argued that this was to introduce despotism into the church—to subject the servants of God to the rigours of a military law. They did not deny the necessary subordination of the ecclesiastical courts; but so long as the General Assembly was fallible, they demurred to its sentences being absolutely binding. The Church of Scotland, said they, is but a branch of the Church of Christ, and within it the law of Christ must be paramount. God alone is Lord of the conscience. He who sins against his conscience sins against God; and no order of a superior court can make good evil or evil good. No man, no Christian, can resign the right of judging for himself. Is the General Assembly, they continued, resolved to compel Presbyteries to execute its sentences at all hazards? is conscience to be stifled? is the strong conviction of duty to be disregarded? is everything that is sacred to be sacrificed to the single principle of submission to authority? What will be the result of such compulsory measures ? The honest and the brave will be compelled to seek for liberty of conscience without the pale of the Establishment; the unprincipled and the cowardly may remain, but they will remain with consciences debauched by the high stretch of church authority, by being compelled to do what their hearts tell them they ought not to do. We plead not for license to every man to do as he pleases, but we plead that we may not be bound hand and foot by a crushing despotism; that the law may relax something of its sternness in cases where con-science is concerned."

These principles of the Popular party Witherspoon afterwards expressed in the preliminary principles drawn up by him and prefixed to the constitution of the American Presbyterian Church, which has not always acted in their spirit nor in conformity to his ideas of the best manner of mingling authority and liberty. The question in the Scotch Church was more than an academic one. The Moderate majority in the Assembly continued to drive their measures through by the sheer force of numbers. Two men were deposed from the sacred office for nothing worse than refusing to serve upon committees appointed to install unacceptable ministers over protesting congregations. Protests were answered by censures and threats of removal. It became unsafe for men to oppose the will of the majority, and all this, it will be remembered, was in Protestant Scotland.

Failing to make any impression by appeals to reason and justice Witherspoon determined to try the power of ridicule. In 1753 he issued, anonymously and so safely, a little book which he entitled "Ecclesiastical Characteristics, or the Arcana of Church Policy," in which he pretended to give " a plain and easy way of attaining to the character of a moderate man as at present in repute in the Church of Scotland." After a short introduction wherein he declares his purpose "to enumerate distinctly and in their proper order and connection all the several maxims upon which moderate men conduct themselves," he propounds twelve of these, following each maxim with an explanation and illustration of its meaning. The maxims profess to show that all ecclesiastical persons of whatever rank that are suspected of heresy are to be esteemed men of great genius; when any man is charged with loose practices or tendencies to immorality he is to be screened and protected as much as possible, his faults being regarded as good humoured vices; it is a necessary part of a moderate man's character that he always speak of the confession of faith with a sneer; a good preacher must take such subjects as "social duties," quote as little Scripture as possible and be very unacceptable to the common people; he must cultivate the air and manner of a fine gentleman; he must have no learning but the works of Leibnitz, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson. Here is inserted what he called "The Athenian Creed," to be believed by every moderate man. I quote it in its entirety.

"I believe in the beauty and comely proportions of Dame Nature and in Almighty Fate, her only parent and guardian; for it hath been most graciously obliged (blessed be its name) to make us all very good.

"I believe that the universe is a huge ma-chine, wound up from everlasting by necessity, and consisting of an infinite number of links and chains, each in a progressive motion towards the zenith of its perfection and meridian of glory; that I myself am a little glorious piece of clockwork, a wheel within a wheel, or rather a pendulum in this grand machine swinging hither and thither by the different impulses of fate and destiny; that my soul (if I have any) is an imperceptible bundle of exceedingly minute corpuscles, much smaller than the finest Holland sand; and that certain persons in a very eminent station are nothing else but a huge collection of necessary agents, who can do nothing at all.

"I believe that there is no ill in the universe, nor any such thing as virtue absolutely considereci; that those things vulgarly called sins are only errors in judgment, and foils to set off the beauty of Nature, or patches to adorn her face; that the whole race of intelligent beings, even the devils themselves (if there are any) shall finally be happy; so that Judas Iscariot is by this time a glorified saint and it is good for him that he hath been born.

"In fine I believe in the divinity of L. S. (Lord Shaftesbury) the saintship of Marcus Antoninus, the perspicuity and sublimity of Aristotle, and the perpetual duration of Mr. Hutcheson's works, notwithstanding their present tendency to oblivion."

The remaining maxims show that the moderate man must endeavour, as much as he handsomely can, to put off any appearance of devotion; in church settlements, which are the principal causes that come before ministers for judgment, the only thing to be regarded is who the patron and the great and noble heritors are for; the inclinations of the common people must be utterly despised; the unpopular candidate must be praised for remarkable abilities; but if, after being settled, he shall succeed in gaining the people's affections he must be despised; orthodox opposers must be compelled to assist in installing the unpopular minister, especially if they have scruples of conscience against it; moderate men must always speak of their opponents as knaves and fools; they must have great charity for atheists and deists and for persons of loose and vicious practices, but none at all for the pious and strictly moral; all moderate men must never fail to support and defend one another to the utmost.

Many of these maxims have little point for us. The moderate men, however, were stung to madness by them. They stirred up as much clamour among the clergy as Erasmus' New Testament did among the monks. Dire were the threats made against the author, should he be discovered. Witherspoon was not the only man suspected of having written it. A certain Mr. Johnson was accused but he easily disproved the charge. The publisher kept the secret well. The book took at once. It was eagerly read and thoroughly enjoyed by the popular party. The great cry raised by the moderate men was regarded as evidence of the truthfulness of the satire. Following each maxim were the promised elucidations and illustrations, but as there was not a single personal allusion no suit for slander or libel could be brought against the publisher. Five editions of the book were issued, each edition increasing the rage and fury of the pilloried men. As Witherspoon said, "A satire that does not bite is good for nothing." This one bit and stung. As suspicion pointed more and more to the real author, his enemies tried to fasten it upon him, but without success. Nor could they discover any way to revenge themselves upon him, until, in 1757, when he was called to Paisley, they attempted to prevent his transfer.

The method of transferring a minister from one church to another required that the church desiring to call him should present the call to the Presbytery in which it was located; the Presbytery presented the call to the minister, if he were one of its own members, or to the Presbytery to which he belonged, and that body presented it to him. If all the legal proceedings were regular and the church of which he was the pastor consented, the transfer would be made. No Presbytery had the right to refuse to call a minister if he were in good standing, no charges pending against him. The Laigh (or Low) Street Church of Paisley, Presbytery of Paisley, issued a call to Witherspoon who was a member of Irvine Presbytery. When the call came before the Paisley Presbytery, that body, a majority of whom were moderates, refused to send it over to Irvine, charging that Witherspoon was the author of a book which damaged the reputation of ministers before the people. The Paisley congregation and their pastor- elect appealed to the Synod of Glasgow, which had jurisdiction over both Presbyteries.

He had no standing in the Presbytery of Paisley and could not plead his cause there. It would have been futile to do so in the face of the prejudice against him. His only course was to appeal to the Synod. There he presented a masterly statement of his case. He declares that it is painful for him to stand before the Synod's bar in some sense an accused person, for he had been represented as "a firebrand, as violent and contentious, unfit to be a member of any quiet society." He demands evidence of this, appealing to his acquaintances, even among the moderates in his neighbourhood, with whom he lived on friendly terms. Protesting against their associating his name with any book when they have no proof of his authorship he says, "It looks as if they themselves were struck at in the performance and acted as interested persons," and asks if it is fair that they his accusers shall be likewise his judges, a thing contrary to law. That there is nothing criminal in the book may be inferred from the commendation it has received from so eminent a personage as the Bishop of London. The charge made in the book must have been just or it would have been treated with contempt. Professing himself amazed at the boldness of his accusers, considering the land in which they lived, he asks, " Is it not, and do we not glory in its being, a land of liberty? Is it then a land of liberty and yet a land of ecclesiastical tyranny? Must not a man have equity and justice in the church as well as in the state?" He defends satire as a proper mode of writing in that it serves to bring objectionable men and practices into deserved contempt. Moreover, "if in any case erroneous doctrine, or degeneracy of life, is plain and visible, to render them odious must be a duty." His enemies had "acted in a most unjust and illegal manner in passing the sentence they have done in my absence, and without any examination; . . . whatever were their particular intentions, by their violent and illegal stretches of power in falling upon it, they were plainly of the worst kind; and it always put me in mind of a Fryer of the Inquisition, with an unhappy person before you, whom they want to convict that they may burn him, stroking him, and saying to him in the spirit of meekness, 'Confess, my son, confess.' " In conclusion he appeals to the laws of the church which they had not proved him to have violated, but which, by proceeding in this inquisitorial way, without giving him an opportunity to be heard in his own defense, they had violently and arbitrarily set aside.

The Synod overruled the action of the Presbytery and ordered that Witherspoon be transferred and installed over the church which had called him.

Literary work of a more serious kind than the satire had occupied him while he was still at Beith. The year before his removal to Paisley he had published an essay on Justification; a little book which had a wide sale not only in Great Britain; but also among the English speaking churches of the continent, at Rotterdam, Geneva and elsewhere, as well as in America. The year of his transfer to Paisley another and more pretentious work on Regeneration came from his pen. This book met with even a better reception than the first. The two gave him high rank as a theological writer. He was the foremost man of his party in the Church of Scotland.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus