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Wrapping Your Mind around John Witherspoon: American Presbyterianism in 1789

During our symposium, “Crossroads of Conviction,” D. G. Hart had a spirited exchange with Timon Cline regarding establishmentarianism. With respect to the American founding, Dr. Hart made a comment regarding John Witherspoon (at 1:14:05 in the video). Several have asked about the relevance and meaning behind his remark.

To contextualize the comment, I recommend reading D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, “Turning Points in American Presbyterian History Part 4: A National Presbyterian Church, 1789.” In this brief article, Hart and Muether describe how the establishment of the first General Assembly in Philadelphia in 1789 marked the beginning of a more structured and unified Presbyterian ministry in the new republic. The election of John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence, as the moderator of the first General Assembly highlighted the close ties between the new nation and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA).

The political independence of the United States allowed churches to establish denominational structures free from Old World governance and enabled a more direct response to American conditions. Prior to the General Assembly, there were calls for revisions to the church’s foundational documents. The most notable changes were made to the Westminster Confession, particularly regarding the roles of the civil magistrate and synods.

The revisions to the Westminster Confession and the broader ecclesiastical adjustments of the era were not merely administrative changes; they were reflections on the essence of Presbyterianism in a new political and cultural context. While Presbyterians perhaps had the opportunity to push for a federal established church, they did not. There were inconsistencies and ironies. Still, many—including Hart and Muether—see this as a positive development.

Watch the full panel discussion on Dr. Alan Strange’s Empowered Witness featuring panelists Timon Cline, D. G. Hart, and C. N. Willborn.

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