John Witherspooon

The founders of the United States of America were not trying to create a Christian nation in 1776. But they did view the Christian faith as beneficial to the type of republic they hoped to form. The man who led the way in articulating this benefit was John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister and influential founder who flies under the radar of most American history classes.

Witherspoon contended that the contribution of “true religion” to the public order is the morality of its people. If we were to translate this into our contemporary lingo we’d say, “The gospel’s influence on society is transformed lives.”

Witherspoon’s explanation is a piece of very applicable logic.

Biographer Jeffry H. Morrison gives a summarizing line and then quotes Witherspoon:

Religious leaders were to play a vital role, perhaps even more important than the laws themselves, in a republican society.

The return which is expected from them to the community is, that by the influence of their religious government, their people may be the more regular citizens, and the more useful members of society. I hope none here will deny, that the manners of the people in general are of the utmost moment to the stability of any civil society. When the body of a people are altogether corrupt in their manners, the government is ripe for dissolution.

Good laws may hold the rotten bark some longer together, but in a little time all laws must give way to the tide of popular opinion, and be laid prostrate under universal practice. Hence it clearly follows, that the teachers and rulers of every religious denomination are bound mutually to each other, and to the whole society, to watch over the manner of their several members [“Thanksgiving Sermon,” in Works, 5:265].

(John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic, [Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 2005], 23), paragraphing mine.


By Jonathan Parnell. ©2012 Desiring God Foundation. Website:


2 Responses to Gospel’s Influence on America

  1. Dan Witcher says:

    I believe Witherspoon here to be taken out of context or entirely misquoted. Witherspoon as many of our founding fathers had been influenced by the reformation in Scotland and particularly the book by Samual Rutherford -“Lex Rex” or Law is King. Witherspoon knew God’s Law in the Supreme’s principles to be paramount in the self and civil – governing of man as he stated in his speach before the Continential congress –
    “Shall we establish nothing good because we know it cannot be eternal? Shall we live without government because every constitution has its old age and its period? Because we know that we shall die, shall we take no pains to preserve or lengthen our life? Far from it, Sir: it only requires the more watchful attention to settle government upon the best principles and in the wisest manner that it may last as long as the nature of things will admit.” – United States Founding Father, Signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon, “The Works of John Witherspoon, (Edinburgh: J. Ogle, 1815), Vol. IX, p. 129, “Speech in Congress upon the Confederation”
    Witerspoon did not believe that God’s Law must give way to popular opinion or to the rule of man – O’ to have Witherspoons in our pulpits today!

  2. Dave says:

    You make good points, however, it seems to me that today’s culture is proving accuracy of Witherspoon’s statement that laws will ultimately give way to public opinon as we see in areas such as abortion and now the push for same-sex marriage. Laws are external; public opinion is of the “heart.” Proverbs 4:26: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” I think Witherspoon’s specific point was that as we turn away from the truth of the gospel and “watching over our hearts,” we turn to our own desires and self-interests, which, in time, become public opinion.

    But, oh how I do agree with your last statement!