Born in Scotland, educated at Edinburgh, and a leader among the Presbyterian Jacobites during the great Rising of 1745, John Witherspoon came to America in 1768 to be president of Princeton College. He has been called the most influential professor in American history, not only because of his powerful writing and speaking style but because of the vast number of leaders he trained and sent forth. Nine of the fifty-five participants in the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were his students--including James Madison. Moreover, his pupils included a president and a vice-president, twenty-one senators, twenty-nine representatives, fifty-six state legislators, and thirty-three judges, three of whom were appointed to the Supreme Court.
His sermon, The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men, caused a great stir when it was first preached in Princeton and published in Philadelphia on this day in 1776, about two months after he was elected to the Continental Congress.
In the sermon, he made a strong Biblical argument for the Declaration of Independence--and even a war for freedom, if necessary--based on the covenantal violations of king and Parliament as evidence of God’s providential dealings in this poor fallen world.
He wrote: "The doctrine of divine providence is very full and complete in the sacred oracles. It extends not only to things which we may think of great moment, and therefore worthy of notice, but to things the most indifferent and inconsiderable; Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing, says our Lord, and one of them falleth not to the ground without your heavenly Father; nay, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. It extends not only to things beneficial and salutary, or to the direction and assistance of those who are the servants of the living God; but to things seemingly most hurtful and destructive, and to persons the most refractory and disobedient. He overrules all his creatures, and all their actions."
He continued asserting, "Thus we are told, that fire, hail, snow, vapor, and stormy wind, fulfill his word, in the course of nature; and even so the most impetuous and disorderly passions of men, that are under no restraint from themselves, are yet perfectly subject to the dominion of Jehovah. They carry his commission, they obey his orders, they are limited and restrained by his authority, and they conspire with every thing else in promoting his glory. There is the greater need to take notice of this, that men are not generally sufficiently aware of the distinction between the law of God and his purpose; they are apt to suppose, that as the temper of the sinner is contrary to the one, so the outrages of the sinner are able to defeat the other; than which nothing can be more false. The truth is plainly asserted, and nobly expressed by the psalmist in the text, Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee; the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain."
The sermon was instrumental in convincing a large number of very reluctant patriots to see the issues if independence through the lens of covenantal obedience rather than through the lens of revolutionary fervor--a critical distinction. In the end, Witherspoon's argument won the day and independence was declared.
I have included the complete sermon in my book, The Patriot's Handbook, published by Cumberland House.