Scottish Presbyterianism, with its robust theology, disciplined government by elders, and strict piety, would significantly influence America through the waves of Scots-Irish immigrants that became the backbone of the Revolutionary era. Descended from lowland Scots, the Ulster Scots had begun settlement in northern Ireland during the reign of James VI and I, eventually organizing themselves into presbyteries within the established Irish Anglican Church. The Scots-Irish were required to pay taxes to support the established church; only in America would they eventually be free to practice their Presbyterianism within the context of complete religious liberty.
The great American Presbyterian pioneer was Scots-Irish minister Francis Makemie (1657–1708), who was ordained in 1682 by the Irish Presbytery of Laggan and departed the next year for Maryland, responding to pleas for a Presbyterian clergyman. His early American years were spent in evangelistic work in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, where he established five congregations. Makemie’s designation as the “Father of American Presbyterianism” is associated with his role in the founding of the first American presbytery in 1706 in Philadelphia.
One of the reasons American Presbyterians had organized themselves was a belief that joint effort could strengthen religious toleration. Under the 1689 Toleration Act of William and Mary, Makemie and other ministers had secured Dissenter licenses. Makemie’s house had been designated as an authorized preaching point in Anglican-established Virginia, but he was arrested in New York by the governor, Lord Cornbury, for illegal preaching. He was jailed and eventually tried, but was acquitted in 1707. Makemie’s exoneration was a notable milestone in the advancement of religious liberty in the colonies and made Presbyterians popular with Dissenters.
Within a decade of Makemie’s trial, the massive immigration of Scots-Irish would commence. Beginning in 1717, a steady stream of Ulster Scots populated the Middle Colonies, particularly the frontier in western Pennsylvania. By the time of American independence, nearly five hundred thousand Scots-Irish had come to America. The Virginia and Carolina Piedmont areas were unoccupied before 1730, but Scots-Irish settlers coming down the “Great Philadelphia Wagon Road” began to populate the backcountry. By 1750, they had moved into the South Carolina Piedmont and north Georgia. Scottish Highlanders settled along the North Carolina seaboard and coastal areas of Georgia.
The most remarkable spiritual event to shape Scots-Irish colonists in the generation preceding the Revolutionary War was the revival known as the First Great Awakening. Many Presbyterians were keen supporters of revivalist preachers George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, who deepened American passion for freedom to worship God according to the dictates of one’s conscience.
One fruit of the revival was renewed Christian piety, which many American clergy saw as central to God’s blessing on the colonies. There were also millennial overtones to the Spirit’s work as a sign of America’s providential destiny. These elements helped create fertile soil for the American Revolution, and Presbyterian ministers utilized these themes as advocates for independence from Britain.
As Presbyterian churches in the South and Middle Colonies proliferated under the revival, the need for more clergy made a theological school imperative. Pro-revival Presbyterian ministers in 1747 received a charter to start the College of New Jersey for college studies and training ministers. Several prominent leaders served as president of the new college, including Jonathan Edwards. By the 1760s, the school needed a new president, and the trustees selected a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, John Witherspoon (1723–1794), to lead the fledgling school. In 1768, the Witherspoon family arrived in New Jersey.
The spirit of colonial America captured Witherspoon, who had embraced the vision of representative government. He became involved politically as he witnessed the oppression of the colonists by the British crown, believing their rights as Englishmen were being violated. In 1774, Witherspoon was part of the state convention in New Brunswick and soon was thrust headlong into the War for Independence.
His first political sermon, preached in May 1776, urged resistance to tyranny as obedience to God and encouraged listeners to trust in God to bring good out of evil. The published sermon was dedicated to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. The sermon drew praise for Witherspoon as a patriot, but British loyalists hated him, burning him in effigy. A member of the British Parliament exclaimed, “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.”
When Presbyterians in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, got word about the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, they gathered at the Charlotte Courthouse in May 1775 and issued the Mecklenburg Declaration, proclaiming independence from Britain. Having learned the skills of using a musket in the backcountry against Indians, the Scots-Irish frontiersmen were adept fighters. The American forces that defeated the redcoats at Kings Mountain were predominately Scots-Irish, led by five colonels who were Presbyterian elders.
The Scots-Irish filled the ranks of General George Washington’s army for the duration of the Revolutionary War. At Valley Forge, when many had deserted, the Scots-Irish remained, enduring the cold and hunger. During the war, a Hessian officer wrote home: “Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion.”
When the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia, Witherspoon served as the only clergy delegate and signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Witherspoon also signed the Articles of Confederation (1778), helped ratify the Constitution (1787) as a member of the New Jersey convention, and served on the Board of War and Board of Foreign Affairs.
The College of New Jersey was a hotbed of patriotism during the war as numbers of students entered the Continental Army.
The War for Independence cost Witherspoon dearly; he lost two of his sons in battle. He was keenly aware of God’s providence in the conflict and wrote several proclamations on behalf of Congress, calling on Americans to offer God thanksgiving for His mercy.
One of the fascinating questions associated with American representative government is the degree to which Presbyterian church government influenced the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Only Pennsylvania and New Jersey were represented at the convention by Presbyterians, and there is no record of any mention of Presbyterian structure by the delegates. There are certainly parallels in the structures, such as the people’s right to choose their own representative leaders and the idea of confederation—union of presbyteries in a general assembly and individual states’ union in a federal government. There are also significant ways that Presbyterianism differed from the American constitutional government with its executive, judicial and legislative branches, two distinct legislative houses, and a powerful executive office.
It is more probable that the greater Presbyterian inspiration upon American government came through Witherspoon’s most prominent student, James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” and fourth president of the United States. Madison studied at the College of New Jersey, even staying an extra year after graduation in 1771 to study Hebrew. Witherspoon had taught his students about balanced political structure where misuse of power may be corrected. Madison had apparently also imbibed from Witherspoon the old Calvinist doctrine of total depravity and man’s natural inclination to vice and political corruption. Largely through Madison’s influence as a chief architect of the U.S. Constitution, the genius of the American republican democracy would include a complex system of checks and balances, preventing political power from ever resting in the hands of a tyrannical few.
Witherspoon believed that the maintenance of civil and religious liberties demanded both public and private virtue. The people should choose godly magistrates who would encourage a virtuous stable society. Witherspoon was also a stout defender of freedom of conscience, stating, “Everyone should judge for himself in matters of religion.” Madison was a key advocate of the Bill of Rights, including its enshrinement of religious freedom in the First Amendment.
When evaluating Witherspoon’s influence upon the U.S. government, it only begins with Madison. In addition to his famous student who became president, Witherspoon’s former pupils included a vice president, twelve members of the Continental Congress, five delegates to the Constitutional Convention, forty-nine U.S. representatives, twenty-eight senators, and three Supreme Court justices.
The Scottish Reformation was a rebellion established upon the deeply held conviction that practicing one’s faith, according to conscience informed by Scripture, was an inalienable right. This became a founding principle of the United States government. When George Washington was elected president in 1789, the Presbyterian General Assembly sent him a congratulatory letter; Washington replied, reminding the Presbyterians, “All men within our territories are protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of their conscience.”
In our time, when this liberty appears to be threatened again by politicians imposing policies that churches deem immoral, a good dose of the old Scots-Irish spirit may again be in order. Fighting for religious liberty is about as quintessentially Scottish and American as it gets.