Saturday, February 1, 2014

John Witherspoon in Covenantal Context

'In 1781 John Witherspoon coined the word 'Americanism,' writes Glasgow's Susan Manning, 'which he declared to be 'exactly similar in its formation and signification to the word Scotticism.' What could he have meant?'. It's the same way with Kuyper's stone lectures on Calvinism. What could he have meant?

The Solemn League and covenant taken by the House of Commons, September 25, 1643 provides the context for Joseph Warren and Samuel Adams's solemn league and covenant which was signed july 4th 1774 (the same day as the date on the declaration of independence) in Massachussets. This obviously places presbyterianism at the core of the American revolution. But what do we mean by 'presbyterianism'?

People often speak of a vague Calvinist influence on the American constitution. But without going into the nitty gritty this can mean almost anyting. It therefore makes sense to trace back the history of the covenanters and what this means for our understanding of the American revolution and the Republic. Gideon Mailer has, for example, researched the influence of the Scottish covenant on the election of representatives in the new American Republic.


In 1651 Reverend James Guthrie preached on the great danger of backsliding and defection from covenanted Reformation Principle. A sermon introduced and promoted by Ebenezer Erskine in 1739. Keep in mind that Ebenezer Erskine had been a teacher of the famous Dutch pastor Alexander Comrie, loved by Abraham Kuyper and his student A.G. Honig writes Klaas Schilder on page 569 of book two of his commentary on the Heidelberger Catechism (Klaas Schilder himself seems to have some reservations here and there though). A.G. Honig even wrote his dissertation (second at the Free University in 1892) on Alexander Comrie. Honig went on to become the succesor of Herman Bavinck as dogmatics professor in Kampen. His book on dogmatics (1938) has been for many years the handbook on dogmatics for many reformed theology students in Kampen.

James Guthrie became a preacher of the Gospel in 1638, the year when the National Covenant was signed. 'His name, too, is set there on that great spiritual magna Charta.'


The pamphlet 'The Causes of the Lord's Wrath against Scotland' was used to condemn and execute him. His defense before 'the drunken parliament':
'My Lord, my conscience I cannot submit But this old crazy body and mortal flesh I do submit, to do with it whatsoever ye will, whether by death, or banishment, or imprisonment, or anything else; only I beseech you to ponder well what profit there is in my blood. It is not the extinguishing of me or of many others that will extinguish the Covenant or work of the Reformation since 1638. My blood, bondage or banishment will contribute more for the propagation of these things than my life in liberty would do, though I should live many years.'
Both Francis Hutcheson and John Witherspoon should be understood in this covenantel context and guide us in establishing their place (in relation to) the Scottish enlightenment. The conference March 27 in Glasgow might be a great place to further reflect on these issues, with Mailer on John Witherspoon on Scottish-American foreign policy, Onnekink on William III's continental foreign policy and Dr. Brendam Simms, some background here and criticism here, on 'the history of a concept'.

It's obvious this debate and this conference isn't just about history, it's about politics in Europe, in the US and in the world today.

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