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 3 } “THE BULWARK OF THE RELIGION
AND LIBERTY OF AMERICA”
PRESBYTERIAN REVIVALISM AND AMERICAN HIGHER EDUCATION
BEFORE WITHERSPOON

In 1767, Benjamin Rush took particular notice of John Witherspoon’s tentative references to the geographically shifting nature of reformation and human virtue. A graduate of the College of New Jersey, founded by prominent colonial Presbyterians in 1746 as an institution of higher education, Rush would go on to sign America’s Declaration of Independence alongside Witherspoon before becoming a political representative and a medical theorist. In advance of his rise to prominence, while studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, he sent a letter to the Scottish clergyman. Though marked from Edinburgh, it carried a message from America: “You can have no prospects of rising into a higher sphere of usefulness in the Church of Scotland, as far as I can understand from the present state of your ecclesiastical affairs. The present ruling faction are opposed to men of your character, and (if I am rightly informed) have marked you out as an object of their resentment for those very things which have made you so popular in America and, I may say, have procured your election to the College.”1

Rush alluded to Witherspoon’s struggle with the Moderate Kirk in his attempt to entice the Scotsman to the College of New Jersey. The institution’s trustees were searching for a new president after the death of Samuel Finley (1715–1766), an evangelical Presbyterian. In 1768, Rush gushed that the people of Princeton village yearned to “exult and triumph in the prospect of seeing their darling seminary the bulwark of the religion and liberty of America.” The college was indeed situated at an ecumenical junction, albeit between various dissenting Protestants rather than other separate creeds. Its

1. Benjamin Rush to John Witherspoon, Apr. 23, 1767, in L. H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush, 2 vols. (Princeton, N.J., 1951), I, 37. On Rush’s career, see Alyn Brodsky, Benjamin Rush: Patriot and Physician (New York, 2004).

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