Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Why John Witherspoon promoted Common Sense

Sophie Rosenfeld is quoted concerning Thomas Paine's use of Scottish Common Sense Realism arguing:
'He used two ideas from Scottish Common Sense Realism: that ordinary people can indeed make sound judgments on major political issues, and that there exists a body of popular wisdom that is readily apparent to anyone'
The Calvinist flavor of this statement is obvious. John Witherspoon's background gives even more information on the nature of this link. Varnum Lansing Collins writes in the introduction to the 1912 re-publishing of Witherspoon's lectures on Moral Philosophy:

'The Scottish Church at this period was in the midst of a struggle between two parties known as the Moderate and the Popular. Moderatism voiced the new spirit of the age, the new element of liberalism permeating the Church.It was, moreover, as Scottish historians have pointed out, an ecclesiastical policy whose chief feature was the absolute enforcement of the artistocratic law of patronage, whereby in practical disregard of parishioners concerned, church livings were at the disposal of patrons. The Popular party, on the other hand, was the conservative and strictly orthodox party. It earnestly combatted the decline of personal religion and the relaxation of the old standards of faith and conduct, which it claimed were results of the rising tide of liberalism; and it opposed strenuously the undemocratic features of the patronage law. With this party Mr. Witherspoon identified himself, and speedily became its leading champion. All of his early publications owe their inception to this truggle, his anonymous 'Ecclesiastical Characteristics' (1753), a biting satire on the Moderates, being the best known and passing through several editions,....'
This statement reminds us immediately of Dutch Calvinism , the emphasis on the perspicuitas of scripture in Calvinist theology. and the definition of freedom in Calvinism. 

Sofar the relationship between the perspicuitas of the scriptures and common sense seem to have been ignored or implicitly denied by those studying this topic. Astonishing. John Rattray McIntosh writes in the introduction to his dissertation on this neglected topic:
'The Popular party in the eighteenth century Church of Scotland has received little attention from historians and there has never been a comprehensive analysis of its nature and ideology.'
He writes in the summary:
'The Popular party in the Church of Scotland between 1740 and 1800 emerges as a doctrinally complex party, including within its membership the full range of doctrinal opinion from Moderatism to traditional orthodoxy. The most influential section within the party, however, was an evangelical grouping which combined doctrinal orthodoxy with an Enlightened learning.'
Benjamin Rush (nephew of Samuel Finley, Princeton's President until 1766, who convinced John Witherspoon to accept the presidency of Princeton after Finley's death in 1766) exclaimed in 1768 of Witherspoon that 'he exceeds any Preacher I have heard since I came to Scotland.' What impressed Rush more than Witherspoon's delivery was the sermonic content: 'His Appearance in the Pupit is Solemn and graceful. His Sermons are loaded with good Sense, and adorned at ye same time with all the Elegance and Beauty that Language can give them.... After hearing additional sermons, Rush commented that 'there was nothing in Dr. Witherspoon's sermons to recommend them but their uncommon good sense and simplicity"

L. Gordon Tait adds his own, interesting, observations based on some of Witherspoon's sermons:

'One more careful review of his Scotish sermons does disclose an important development in his thinking and preaching. In several of those sermons he gave notice that he was beginning to think in terms of his later common sense philosophy. These early suggestions of a philosophy are rare and tetative. It was noted earlier that Witherspoon rejected allegory and accepted statements in the Bible in a straightforward manner. What a close reading of his sermons reveals is an unformed interest in reason and experience in the process of interpreting the Bible. Direct appeals to scripture are the norm, but on several occasoins he summons Bible and reason, or Bible and experience. Here are some exampels of 'Bible and reason':

Justification is agreeable to scripture and sound reason.

Reason, as well as scripture, teacheth us, that in all acts of worship, the sincerity of the heart makes the chief ingredient.
Placing ourselves in God's hands is the doctrine of scripture, but also agreeable to reason and good sense.
This is the dictate both of scripture and reason, to whomsoever much is given, of them much will be required.'
It was on his (Benjamin Rush) urging that Thomas Paine wrote a strong tract on behalf of complete American independence to which he gave the title, suggested by Rush, Common Sense.

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