Witherspoon, Edwards, and Natural Law at Princeton
By Joseph DiLuzio, September 5, 2011 in Uncategorized


By the end of John Witherspoon’s first year as president of Princeton University (then, the College of New Jersey) in 1769, a small group of tutors, including the late president’s son – Jonathan Edwards Jr. – had resigned their positions at the college.  Their leave had been amicable in spite of their philosophical differences with the new president.  Though tolerant of the tutors’ idealism, Witherspoon had arrived in the colonies promoting Scottish realism and that brand of moral philosophy advocated by Francis Hutcheson and argued against by his predecessor at Princeton, Jonathan Edwards.  The philosophical shift superintended by Witherspoon would have a profound impact on the future of the institution: natural philosophy – science – would be introduced into the curriculum; an empirical, “common sense” approach would replace the theistic-centered methodology of the old regime; the college would increasingly come to be seen as a “nursery of statesmen” rather than a seminary.  In the ensuing years, Witherspoon himself would become active in politics as a member of the Continental Congress and signatory of the Declaration of Independence.

Despite the progress of the college during his tenure, I will argue in what follows that there was an inherent conflict between Witherspoon’s Scottish Enlightenment philosophy on the one hand and his Calvinist Presbyterian orthodoxy on the other.  Such incoherence did not characterize the thought of Jonathan Edwards.  Witherspoon was an epistemological optimist: he advocated an empirical approach to the study of ethics, believing “a time may come when men, treating moral philosophy as Newton and his successors have done natural, may arrive at greater precision.  It is always safer in our reasonings to trace facts upwards than to reason downwards upon metaphysical principles.”  In his Lectures on Moral Philosophy, Witherspoon teaches that “the principles of duty and obligation must be drawn from the nature of man,” though he concedes that “there is nothing certain or valuable in moral philosophy, but what is perfectly coincident with scripture” (Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon 1802: 3.470, 380, 471).

In practice, Witherspoon ignored the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, which states that original sin corrupts every aspect of the unregenerate person’s being – mind, body, and soul.  (It does not, as is popularly assumed, mean that the unregenerate person is necessarily as evil as he could be.)  Even those who have been saved by grace continue to be plagued by sin as God progressively sanctifies them.  As Paul writes to the Ephesians of his own formerly unregenerate state, “[we] were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). 

None of this is to say that the study of the (natural) moral sense is inherently incompatible with the tenets of Reformed theology.  Indeed, Jonathan Edwards promoted the study of the moral sense.  He claimed that all humans share a “natural conscience” that “should approve and condemn the same things that are approved and condemned by a spiritual sense” (Works of Jonathan Edwards 1974: 1.134, italics mine).  What distinguished the moral philosophies of Edwards and Witherspoon was their respective confidence in natural man’s ability to reason properly.  Edwards did not share Witherspoon’s optimism, and in this, he followed in the tradition of Augustine and ultimately of Paul.  In his letter to the Romans, the apostle admits that what can be known about God is plain to all but that the ungodly suppress the truth by their unrighteousness: because of their disobedience, the unregenerate have become “futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:18-21).             

As a tutor at Yale, a young Jonathan Edwards had been sympathetic with Hutcheson’s philosophy, but by the time he became president of Princeton, he was convinced that humans in our fallen state could not comprehend truth and goodness apart from grace.  Unlike Locke, Edwards believed that humans possess innate qualities such as sinfulness and the capacity to reason; the sum of personal experience combines with these qualities so that each person comes to possess a unique set of mental habits.  Sin taking the form of self-interest, prejudice, self-deception, and certain passions inhibit natural man’s capacity to reason.  By contrast, the experience of grace and the regenerating work of the Spirit, according to Edwards, “sanctifies the reasoning faculty… as it removes prejudices and so lays the mind more open to the force of arguments, and also secondly, as it positively enlightens and assists it to see the force of rational arguments…” (Misc. 628, T 251). 

Edwards did not hold that natural man was always incapable of employing reason to arrive at the right ethical conclusions.  But without the benefit of grace, natural man was like a traveler lost in the woods: he might happen upon the right destination, but he lacks confidence in his course and his fate is uncertain.  Witherspoon might have taken the role of grace for granted; given its basis in revelation, he might have seen it as unsuited to lectures on moral philosophy.  Perhaps the decision was in some way political, as Mark Noll suggests in Princeton and the Republic: “Edwards’ fiercely revelational ethics was not quite respectable in an age of reason and science” (44).  Whatever the reason, Witherspoon drew a sharp distinction between reason and revelation where Edwards did not.  In so doing, he laid the groundwork for the modern academy.

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Lee Trepanier on Sep 9, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Great post about Witherspoon and Edwards. I'm curious what each one would have thought about the academy today?

Joseph DiLuzio on Sep 10, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Good question. Obviously, I think Edwards would be more critical than Witherspoon of the modern academy. I'm just musing, but my sense is that Edwards looks back to the medieval university with its primacy on Christian education, while Witherspoon in many ways looks forward to the broader, more inclusive conception of the modern academy with its emphasis on secular, civic engagement. On the other hand, both men were pastors; the Christian faith remained integral to them as individuals and their respective conceptions of the university.

George H. Nash on Sep 13, 2011 at 6:13 am

This is a perceptive and thought-provoking post. Thanks for sharing it.

Douglas Johnson on Sep 13, 2011 at 6:45 am

Fine post. Witherspoon seems to have given himself much more room to muse freely about this and that than Edwards ever could. I'm curious if you have an idea how this differentiated Witherspoon from Edwards in his preaching and work as a pastor.

Joseph DiLuzio on Sep 14, 2011 at 7:49 am

I would say that Witherspoon was less encumbered in speaking of natural law because he doesn't seem to me to have wrestled with having to reconcile reason and revelation in his lectures. He appears to have taken it as an article of faith that human reason infallibly points in the direction of revelation. While Witherspoon was a pastor in Scotland, he had few if any pastoral duties in the States. His involvement in the Presbyterian Church, the Continental Congress, and as president of Princeton meant that his work was driven far more by political than theoretical concerns. Edwards was the opposite. He was driven by his theology, which put him at odds politically with other pastors and (in the end) his own congregation. For Edwards politics was secondary, and this freed him to pursue what were at times unpopular theological conclusions (or at least those that were not academically trendy). Having said that, the evolution of his positions at times gives the appearance of waffling.

about the author

Joseph DiLuzio
Joseph DiLuzio


Joseph DiLuzio is A.B.D. in Classical Studies at Boston University and currently teaches in the Classics Department at Baylor University.  He earned his B.A. in History from The College of New Jersey and then completed an M.A. in Classical Archaeology at Tufts University.  At Boston University, his research has focused on the law and politics of the fifth-century Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic.  His dissertation on Cicero’s rhetoric of the People looks at how the orator characterizes the Roman People, the nature of its power, and its role in Republican politics in a variety of his early speeches.  Joe has a wide range of interests, including the impact of the Classics on the American Revolutionary generation.  He and his wife, Meghan, live in Texas with their dog – Toby.