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 7 }
“HOW FAR THE MAGISTRATE OUGHT TO
INTERFERE IN MATTERS OF RELIGION”
Public Faith and the Ambiguity of Political
Representation after 1776

John Witherspoon’s contribution to the developing American political landscape as a congressional delegate raises the question of the relationship between Presbyterian ecclesiology and political federalism. Yet it remains difficult to find specific evidence of Scots or former Scots, including Witherspoon, who articulated their direct conceptual association. It is certainly possible to highlight theoretical parallels that might have allowed their greater understanding of layered governance under the Articles of Confederation. The federal theology of international Calvinism had always transcended local boundaries without threatening the specific institutional identities of its constituent peoples, towns, and nations. Scottish Presbyterians, more particularly, incorporated local congregational concerns in a wider ecclesiastical confederation. All degrees of authority corresponded to expanding geographical areas, each of which acted as a check to the other while still remaining part of a wider whole. Contrary to episcopacy, higher layers of Presbyterian governance did not correspond to a separate bishopric that exerted central authority from the top down. Rather, they were composed by representatives and figureheads whose power was vested in lay elders—and the laity itself.1

1. The general structure of Presbyterian ecclesiology conformed to the political institutions that had first shaped Reformed Protestantism in German, Swiss, and Dutch confederations. See Glenn A. Moots, Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology (Columbia, Mo., 2010), 178. The structure of Presbyterian representation incorporated a degree of federal authority through the General Assembly. But, whether they lived in Scotland or North America, Presbyterians had envisioned most aspects of their ecclesiology in looser confederal terms. They perceived a balance of representative power between laymen in specific congregations and the General Assembly. They generally refrained from defining the central authority of the assembly as innately superior in jurisdictional terms. Rather, it contributed to a balanced relationship be-

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