What difference can covenantal discipleship and substantive education make? It can make all the difference in the world. The circumstances surrounding the birth of our own nation are instructive in this regard.
The coronation of King George III in October 1760 marked a turning point in the relations between England and her American colonies. His German great-grandfather and grandfather, George I and George II, had allowed the powers of the Crown decline under their rule. When he arrived from Hanover, George I spoke no English, and the ministers of state, who spoke no German, were forced to speak to him in ecclesiastical Latin to conduct any conversation. George II was an absent king, spending most of his time back home in Hanover and leaving the administration of the country to his wife, Caroline, and his Prime Ministers, Sir Robert Walpole and William Pitt.
However, the new king was determined to be a new kind of English monarch, and a bold adjustment of style and policy was in order. Eager to assert his authority over his dominion, he began by dismissing many of ministers of state that had been appointed by his grandfather, George II.
The most notable dismissal was William Pitt, the popular Prime Minister, who everyone acknowledged had been running the country during the entire course of the Seven Years War. Pitt’s departure from the government only served to increase the problems for the new king. The Peace of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War, had left the British with the enormous problem of governing and protecting a vast new empire. On one side of the globe, they had added the subcontinent of India to their holdings; on the other they had added Canada and all the land west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River.
Victory in the war presented the king with a major defensive headache. British North America more than doubled in size, and now included many more hostile Indians and unfriendly Frenchmen. The king felt it necessary to station some 7500 soldiers in the American colonies as a permanent defense against French and Indian raids along the frontier. Nearly half of the soldiers were earmarked for Canada, a quarter for duty in the West, almost a quarter for Florida, while seven hundred were left in the old colonial seaports to handle supplies destined for the soldiers on the frontier. The presence of these soldiers would prove to be a great source of trouble to colonists, who did not believe that the British government should maintain a standing army in peacetime and grew suspicious that the intended purpose of these troops was to suppress their liberties.
But, all that was hardly the worst of it. Unknown to George at the time, a new kind of threat to his absolute authority as king was about to land on the American shores. John Witherspoon was a well-known Presbyterian preacher, reformer, and educator in Scotland who was called by the struggling College of New Jersey to assume the helm as president. The problem the college trustees were facing was that their presidents kept dying in rapid succession, including Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Davies who both died just a few months into their terms. Little did the trustees know how good of a choice they had made in their selection. Assessing the importance of Witherspoon’s arrival to the colonies, Woodrow Wilson, who would himself serve as president of Princeton and then later be elected Governor of New Jersey and President of the United States, said, “It was a piece of providential good fortune that brought such a man to Princeton at such a good time.”
Witherspoon, who had been imprisoned like so many other Scots patriots following the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Stewart royal cause by the German Hanoverians, quickly took to his new office, and he began to aggressively transform the college into new kind of institution that was focused on creating Christian cultural leaders. His biographer, Varnum Lansing Collins, noted the importance of this shift: “However little others may have thought of it or he himself have realized just then was the belief that the function of such a college was not merely to educate candidates for the ministry, but also to send out into the widening spheres of colonial life Christian gentlemen and scholarly men of affairs.” The classical curriculum would now be devoted to more than just theology; it would prepare them for the whole of life.
Students would devote their time to learning “the permanent things,” Witherspoon determined. New topics were incorporated into Witherspoon’s Moral Philosophy lectures, including ethics, political science and law--none of which were being taught at a college anywhere in the colonies at the time. Economics was also a part of the broadened academic focus, and he lectured against the use of paper money in favor of hard currency and the virtues of the free market.
These studies rooted the students in the Reformation doctrine of calling and vocation. Witherspoon emphasized the pervasive role of religion to guide and inform every area of study, and the necessity of every man to do his duty, and he would echo this theme in a sermon delivered just days before he would sign the Declaration of Independence. “Upon the whole, I beseech you to make a wise improvement of the present threatening aspect of public affairs, and to remember your duty to God, to your country, to your families, and to yourselves, is the same. True religion is nothing else but an inward temper and outward conduct suited to your state and circumstances in providence at any time.”
Faith must be translated into action, and the whole discipleship process at the College of New Jersey would be founded on this fundamental belief. Academics at the college were intended to build these “Christian gentlemen” who exhibited the traits of practical determination, spiritual devotion, a love of liberty and virtue, and vigilance against tyranny and apathy. Witherspoon was dedicated to building a new, peculiar kind of man who was animated and activated by a Christian worldview, and the impact of his efforts would profoundly influence the direction that the entire country was about to take by training a whole generation of American leaders and statesmen. Garry Wills, a modern historian, was not overstating his case when he said that Witherspoon was “probably the most influential teacher in the history of American education.”
And that made all the difference!