John Witherspoon's American Revolution: Enlightenment and Religion from the Creation of Britain to the Founding of the United States

By Gideon Mailer | Go to book overview

{ CHAPTER 2, }
“OF LOCAL AND TEMPORARY REFORMATION,
LOCAL AND OCCASIONAL DEPRAVATION”
Kirk Divisions and American Prospects at Midcentury

Alexander Carlyle and John Witherspoon were both Presbyterian. They went to the same Edinburgh university classes. They once flirted with the same “companions of the fair sex.” They studied for the same theological qualifications. Yet, by the 1760s, they had become personally estranged, theological and philosophical rivals in the same Kirk and in the same new British state. During the era of the American Revolution, moreover, they would support separate warring unions using very different theological and philosophical justifications. Their conflict highlighted the perceived divergence between moral philosophy and evangelicalism in Scotland and the wider Atlantic world during the second half of the eighteenth century. They came to define their civil theologies in common opposition, using increasingly vitriolic justifications, as a consequence of their differing perception of the Church of Scotland’s continued autonomy in Britain after the 1707 Act of Union.1

Like Witherspoon, Carlyle supported the Hanoverian order against Jacobite threats during the 1730s and 1740s. But, in contrast to the evangelical minister, he believed that proper university learning would allow graduating students to harness their common moral sensibility toward civic cohesion in Britain. In the decades following the 1707 Act of Union, the idea of prerational moral perception became more popular as educated Scots sought to moderate their loss of political sovereignty. Following the dissolution of the Edinburgh Parliament, they were no longer in proximity to political governance. They suggested instead that a common ethical sensibility supplied societal cohesion, irrespective of any legislative mandate from political representatives. Educated Scottish elites—including those such as Carlyle whom Witherspoon came to oppose—assumed an ironic degree of paternalism and social stratification in describing what ought to be verified by the

1. Alexander Carlyle, Autobiography of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Carlyle, Minister of Inveresk: Containing Memorials of the Men and Events of His Time (Edinburgh, 1860), 65.

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