Blacksmith Letter of
Relates to the
Heresy of Decisional Regeneration
John Witherspoon expresses in the Blacksmith Letter a disgust with Presbyterian Sacramental meetings. The "strange appearances" went contrary to the "verbal restrictive" view of the Holy Spirit. After reading it, you will see why John Witherspoon kicked out the ‘enthusiast” staff at the College of New Jersey, including Jonathan Edwards, Junior, within a year of his taking charge as president in 1768.
A Letter To The Ministers and Elders Of The Church Of Scotland 4th edition published in 1759 by John Witherspoon (1722-1794).
Right Reverend and Right Honorable, I Have presumed to address you upon a subject, which appears to me of the greatest importance, and worthy of the consideration of the ministers and elders of the church of Scotland; thank God, I have reason to hope, from your wisdom, learning, and piety, that I shall be favored with a fair and patient hearing, tho* my sphere in life, be low, and my sentiments set off with no other advantages than sincerity and truth, as far as I can distinguish it; for God, and my own heart, bear witness, that I present this address with no other view than to promote (as much as I can) the glory of God, the interests of true religion, and the honor, purity, and peace of the church of Scotland.
Could I have found any better method of communicating my thoughts than by a letter, I would willingly have chosen it; or had I hoped ever to have seen a more favorable season than the present, I would patiently have waited for it. But now we are blessed with a learned body of clergy, with a prince well disposed to promote true piety among his people, and we have the happiness to live in an age, in which the prejudices of parties are mostly worn off, the rage of dispute abated, and men disposed to hear truth, and obey reason; such peaceful happy days are designed by heaven, and ought to be employed by men, to repair in religion, what has been pulled down by mad passions in turbulent times, to restore to its first beauty, whatever has been defaced by party prejudices in the days of contention, and to recover the purity of our faith, and decency of our worship, from the rust and low superstition which they have contracted in the ignorant ages; and tinctures of enthusiasm they imbibed in the shock and tumult of the reformation.
Note: To understand Witherspoon, it would be wise to read Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. The empirical view of determining truth was the guiding light of Scottish Common Sense Realism. As such, the immediate activity of the Holy Spirit was eliminated as a possibility, and the Holy Spirit was limited to “quickening” Scripture truth to the rational mind.
This made all the “strange appearances” of Presbyterian sacramental meetings the result of “animal motives”, “superstition” and “enthusiasms”. Witherspoon believed that psychology (material causation of the mind) would ultimately answer all the questions of human behavior, and redefined “spiritual” to mean “rational thoughts of truth”.
Almost 300 years later, supernatural regeneration is still is the only way God changes sinners into saints. Psychology (material causation of the mind) still does not answer the question of why man sins and why some men stop sinning.
There was no church that met with greater opposition, or was more violently agitated than ours -, and tho' (thank God) it stood out the storm, yet it suffered very severely; and when the fury was in some degree abated, and men had time to look about them, our church appeared little better than a ruin; her sacred buildings levelled with the ground, or bare shattered walls, the (landing monuments of religious madness; her treasures robbed by sacrilegious hands; her registers destroyed, or carried off-, her funds applied to profane uses; and her clergy left to starve: would to God me had suffered only in these less essential things.
Note: Witherspoon refers to religious wars between the Catholic Church and various Protestant churches of Scotland and England, including struggles for ascendancy between church and state.
But along with these she contracted a singular and whimsical taste, her principles of faith grew dark and mysterious, and her method of worship defective and unreasonable; some of these ruins she never can repair; some of them indeed time has in a great measure patched up; and some of them remain to be repaired by the present rulers of our church, or by succeeding generations: of this kind is our public worship; in which there are several things that demand your serious attention, and call loudly for the diligence and learning of the present age.
Note: Witherspoon thinks the empirical method of Francis Bacon has replaced old, outdated theories of saving faith. Witherspoon does not believe in a “special grace” in regeneration. He believes like a deist that material causations of the mind called “truth impressions” are the sum total of regeneration as a “tipping point” when the rational mind is convinced to begin serving God over self.
This eliminates the possibility that the power of the Lord’s Supper is anything more than a rational thought process. Witherspoon blames the religious wars for “superstitions” related to the Lord’s Supper. Actually, what Witherspoon thinks of as superstition, Calvin called “the true presence of Christ in the Supper”, the “orthodox view assailed by turbulent spirits” (like Witherspoon).
The Scottish Common Sense Realists abhorred the sacramental meetings because they encouraged faith in God doing supernatural things.
They thought Calvin was mistaken, not having the benefit of modern science, when he wrote, “The sum is, that the flesh and blood of Christ feed our souls just as bread and wine maintain and support our corporeal life. For there would be no aptitude in the sign, did not our souls find their nourishment in Christ. This could not be, did not Christ truly form one with us, and refresh us by the eating of his flesh, and the drinking of his blood. But though it seems an incredible thing that the flesh of Christ, while at such a distance from us in respect of place, should be food to us, let us remember how far the secret virtue of the Holy Spirit surpasses all our conceptions, and how foolish it is to wish to measure its immensity by our feeble capacity.
Therefore, what our mind does not comprehend let faith conceive — viz. that the Spirit truly unites things separated by space. That sacred communion of flesh and blood by which Christ transfuses his life into us, just as if it penetrated our bones and marrow, he testifies and seals in the Supper, and that not by presenting a vain or empty sign, but by there exerting an efficacy of the Spirit by which he fulfils what he promises. And truly the thing there signified he exhibits and offers to all who sit down at that spiritual feast, although it is beneficially received by believers only who receive this great benefit with true faith and heartfelt gratitude.
For this reason the apostle said, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ"? (1 Cor 10:16.) There is no ground to object that the expression is figurative, and gives the sign the name of the thing signified. I admit, indeed, that the breaking of bread is a symbol, not the reality. But this being admitted, we duly infer from the exhibition of the symbol that the thing itself is exhibited. For unless we would charge God with deceit, we will never presume to say that he holds forth an empty symbol. Therefore, if by the breaking of bread the Lord truly represents the partaking of his body, there ought to be no doubt whatever that he truly exhibits and performs it.
The rule which the pious ought always to observe is, whenever they see the symbols instituted by the Lord, to think and feel surely persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is also present. For why does the Lord put the symbol of his body into your hands, but just to assure you that you truly partake of him? If this is true let us feel as much assured that the visible sign is given us in seal of an invisible gift as that his body itself is given to us.
Scottish Common Sense Realists like Witherspoon considered Calvin’s sentiments to be ignorant “superstition”.
I will presume, with due deference, to point out a few of them - hoping that my poor endeavors may at least obtain pardon, out of respect to the importance of the subject, and the sincerity of my intention; and that some able head and good heart, will take the hint, and fully point out the flaws, in our present way of worship, and direct us how to amend them.
Some unprejudiced, and happy genius, may perhaps appear, whose persuasive eloquence, refined expression, and conclusive arguments may command attention, and gain assent; in spite of the bigotry of the ignorant, the vain ambition of those, that are fond of popularity, and the whimsical opinions of enthusiasts.
'Till such an one shall appear, I hope you will not take it amiss, that I offer my remarks, especially as I beg leave to assure you, that this my address does not proceed from a fondness of novelty, much less any intention to disturb the peace of the church established by law, or indeed from any other or any worse motive, than that her public service may be such as seems best calculated for promoting the interests of religion and virtue; and most suitable for reasonable creatures to offer, and an infinitely wise God to accept.
FIRST, I submit to your serious consideration, whether a larger portion of the scriptures should not be read every Lord's day in our public assemblies; the reading of the scriptures always made a part of the public service in all the churches of God; the law and the prophets, were solemnly read in the synagogues every Sabbath day -, our Savior countenanced and sanctified this practice with his presence and example; the apostle Paul peremptorily commands Timothy to give attendance to reading, as well as to exhortation and doctrine; and the primitive church religiously observed this command, as Justin Martyr bears witness.
"Upon the day that is called Sunday (says he) all that live in the country, or in the towns, assemble in one place, and the commentaries of the apostles, or the writings of the prophets are read, 'till the time allotted for them be expired." Nay more, our own directory for Public worship, (which perhaps may have more weight with some, than the example of our Savior, the command of his apostles, or the practice of the purest antiquity) recommends that ordinarily one chapter out of each Testament should be read at every meeting.
I am at a loss whether to ascribe the negligence of this essential part of our service to the pride of the clergy, or the perverseness of the people, perhaps it may be in some degree owing to both -, the clergy, probably, think that it would not give them a sufficient opportunity to display their own talents; and the people, that it does not so fully please their ears, always itching with the desire of something new: to the first I shall only observe, that tho' we have, as we always ought to have, a very great respect for the observations and discourses of our spiritual guides, yet at the same time we cannot but wish to hear what the Spirit faith unto the churches, in his own words; we have room to wish for this,, as we are told told by the apostle, that the scriptures are profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness -, and that by them the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
It is true you indulge us now and then with ten or a dozen of verses of pure scripture in our public assemblies, but as we have no regular plan of reading the scriptures, of consequence we only hear detached places, chosen at the pleasure of the preacher, and applied to what purposes he thinks fit -, this leaves our understandings too much in the power of the clergy, and exposes the simple and ignorant (who make the greatest part of our congregations) to be seduced by the party principles and whimsical opinions of the preacher.
Note: Witherspoon is always for clergy control over laity within church buildings, performing church ordinances. The idea that in this one case clergy control is wrong is laughable. Witherspoon makes the point in most cases that laity has no ability to discern truth apart from the clergy leading them.
It may at first sight appear, that the whole plan of our worship is as happily calculated for making a property of the laity, and keeping their judgements and consciences in the power of the parson, as any part of the popish system; for the minister needs not read any part of the scriptures unless he pleases, he may choose what place he thinks proper, may begin where he inclines, and break off when he has a mind; he may mangle them in any manner he thinks fit, and make them say whatever he would have them to say.
Note: Witherspoon espouses the books of the Bible be read publicly in order, as the Presbyterian Directory suggests. Witherspoon abhors extemporaneous preaching and does not believe ministers are led immediately by the Holy Spirit.
He believes extemporaneous preaching is from “animal motives”. Witherspoon thinks all “spiritual” activity is limited to the operations of the rational mind, and the activity of the Holy Spirit in salvation is limited to the “quickening” of scripture truth to the rational mind. This eliminates any “spiritual” power coming from the Lord’s Supper apart from the reading or hearing of scripture (the verbal restrictive theory).
But allow me to tell you, that as the reading of the scriptures in public assemblies is of divine appointment, no power upon earth can dispense with the obligation; as the contain they articles of our faith, and the rules by which we are to regulate our lives, nothing can supply, and therefore nothing ought to usurp their place; and as all the reformed churches are agreed, that the scriptures are plain in things necessary to salvation, we ought to hear them as they are, without your glosses and comments -, nay, what can be more effectual for our salvation, or so proper for instruction, seeing they bear witness for themselves, that the word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of the soul and spirit, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
Note: Witherspoon believes the spirit of man is merely the higher rational mind.
That it converts the soul and makes the simple wise. Is there any thing that can be substituted in the place of the scriptures, from which, such great and happy effects may be expected? But if this (shameful negligence be owing to the perverse humor of the people, who perhaps may think that the reading of the scriptures is a dry insipid part of the service, you will not, I hope, take it ill if I say, that amusements are more their errand to church than instruction, that they are more desirous of new words than sound doctrine, and that in fact their hearts are carnal, and estranged from the things of the Spirit -, for the apostle informs us, that the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit, for they are foolishness to him.
Pardon me if I think that your compliance with this humor is like Aaron's to the folly of the Israelites -, as he set up a calf made with his own hands, to be the object of the people's worship, instead of the living God; so you set up your own compositions, to direct the faith and regulate the manners of the people, in the place of the scriptures of truth, dictated by the Holy Spirit.
The service of God in the way of his own appointment ever was, and ever will be disliked by the bulk of the people; the Jews would willingly have embraced any religion, but that which
was given them from heaven, they would have sacrificed in any place but in that pointed out by their Maker, and thought no rites burdensome but those that God was pleased to appoint; but with respect to those the prophet upbraids them with saying, as our people say, Behold what a weariness is it.
It is the business and duty of ministers to check and resist this humor of the people, and not encourage it by a mean compliance with a vitiated taste, and a base betraying of the trust reposed in them; but, alas! the taste of the people in this coincides with the inclinations of the pastor, and flatters his pride and vanity too much to be retrained; however, with all humility I presume to beg, that you would be pleased to confider, how you can answer to God, to your own consciences, and to us your hearers, for such a dangerous and willful neglect.
As to praise, we seem to study to give this part of our worship as much the air of rusticity, and contempt of God as possible; because we thought that the engagement of the heart was (as indeed it is) the offence of this part of worship, we have whimsically thrown out every thing that helped to engage and elevate the heart, many of the words we use are obsolete and low, the verification is mean and barbarous, and the music harsh and ill performed; our harmony, other ways not very sweet, is entirely lost, and the sense broke off at every line -, our posture too is the most indecent, negligent, and improper for singing well, that we could have contrived; it is true the posture is of no importance, farther than as it expresseth our
reverence to the God whom we worship; yet it is as necessary that it should be decent, as that our words should be proper, for both are only signs of
Note: Witherspoon says if scripture was preached adequately from the pulpits of Presbyterian churches, then the people who attend those churches would not be tempted to travel long distances to be part of the Sacramental Meetings. Notice how he lumps the “indecencies and follies” with “animal motives” inspired by superstition. Witherspoon was all about rational faith to the exclusion of superstition. Since Witherspoon thought “spiritual” things are imparted only through “higher rational thought”, it was an easy thing (even necessary) for him to consign “irrational” behavior to “animal motives” caused by superstition.
According to the empirical method of determining truth, Scottish Common Sense Realism limited the activity of the Holy Spirit to the limits of the “verbal restrictive” theory…that eliminates the possibility of the Holy Spirit being the cause of “irrational” phenomenon, and makes salvation impossible apart from the effects of “truth impressions”. This, of course, was not the orthodox view of regeneration as a supernatural change of disposition of the heart. Scottish Common Sense Realism regeneration was merely the “tipping point” when the rational mind was convinced to serve God over self…it was deistic Pelagianism.
of inward sensations; should we find a fellow crying very bitterly, and dancing very briskly, these are signs of so opposite sensations, that we would be apt to imagine that he was diffracted; and what shall we conclude, when we hear a congregation addressing God in some ardent hymn, or earnest petition, and see them fitting upon their breech, or lolling with the most negligent air and posture upon their seats? the signs here point to very different sensations!
Quintillian Teems to think that there may be a solecism in gesture as well as in the expression, and if such a thing can be, we seem guilty of a very great one, in using the most indifferent, negligent posture, when we are employed in the most interesting and serious affair, I mean offering praise to the living God.
I cannot help thinking, that all the rational people of our communion must be shocked with the indecencies, and follies, that attend the administration of our Lord's Supper, known among the common people by the name of an occasion. We accuse the Roman church of superstition, and that very justly; but in this instance me may fairly retort and tell us, that we blame in others, what we approve of, or at lead allow in ourselves; for if our people did not imagine that there was some superior virtue, in sermons preached upon these occasions, some sanctity in the place, or some merit in their attendance, it is unlikely that such Numbers, who have no intention to communicate, should crowd from all quarters, leave their parish churches almost empty, and flight as good sermons, which they might hear without the fatigue of traveling, or the inconveniencies that attend a crowd.
Superstition in all countries has the fame effect, though it may be directed to different objects: in Popish countries, people crowd from place to place to visit the shrines downwards, or covered with their bonnets; there you find a knot of young fellows and girls making assignations to go home together in the evening or to meet in some ale-house; in another place you see a pious circle fitting round an ale barrel, many of which stand ready upon carts, for the refreshment of the saints.
The heat of the summer season, the fatigue of travelling, and the greatness of the crowd naturally dispose them to drink; which inclines some of them to deep, works up the enthusiasm of others, and contributes not a little to produce those miraculous conversions that sometimes happen at these occasions; in a word, in this sacred assembly there is an odd mixture of religion, sleep, drinking, courtship, and a confusion of sexes, ages, and characters.
When you get a little nearer the speaker, so as to be within the reach of the sound; though not of the sense of the words, for that can only reach a small circle, even when the preacher is favored with a calm -, and when there happens to be any wind stirring, hardly can one sentence be heard distinctly at any considerable distance; in this second circle you will find some weeping, and others laughing, some pressing to get nearer the tent or tub in which the parson is sweating, bawling, jumping, and beating the desk; others fainting with the stifling heat, or wrestling to extricate themselves from the crowd; one seems very devout and serious, and the next moment is scolding and cursing his neighbor, for squeezing or treading on him; in an instant after, his countenance is composed to the religious gloom, and he is groaning, sighing, and weeping for his fins; in a word, there is such an absurd mixture of the serious and comic, that were we convened for any other purpose, than that of worshipping the God and governor of nature, the scene would exceed all power of farce.
But when one considers, what solemn awe should accompany the pronunciation of his name, and what decent gravity attend his worship, and fees such an unhappy contrast, if his heart be not entirely unacquainted with the feelings of humanity, the sigh will force its way, and the pitying tear start into his eye; especially if he knows, that many of the clergy encourage this absurdity; that this is the time, when they vie with one another for popularity, and try who can convene the greatest mob; that some of the elders are so fond of these religious farces, that they have threatened to abandon their churches, if the absurd practice of preaching without doors would be discontinued; and that even those of the clergy, who have sense to perceive its inconveniencies, and ingenuity to own that it is wrong, yet want courage to oppose the popular frenzy, and resolution to reform what in their own hearts they cannot but condemn.
Whether we confider this practice in a moral, political, or religious light, we mail find it attended with very bad consequences; how much must it encourage drunkenness when such crowds are convened, from all quarters; what must the consequence be, when a whole country fide is thrown loose, and young fellows and girls are going home together by night, in the gayest season of the year -, when every thing naturally inspires warm desires, and silence, secrecy, and darkness encourage them?
When I was a young fellow at my apprenticeship, I was a great frequenter of these occasions, and know them so well, that whatever others may think, I would not choose a wife that had often frequented them, nor trust a daughter too much among those rambling saints; old maids may
perhaps be allowed to revenge themselves of the world, by growing religious at the easy rate of running from sacrament to sacrament; and they who are in pain to be provided with husbands, may possibly find their account in frequenting those sacred assemblies; but I would advise others to go but seldom, and never to a greater distance than that they can return before sun-set; lest by frequenting them too much, they contract an idle disposition of mind, and by staying too late, they get into a bad habit of body.
Nor are the consequences of this practice considered in a political light, more favorable than in a moral; our church disclaims all holy days, and I mould offend at once again the truth and the rules of our church, if I said that we observe any such-, but I presume that the number of our idle days will fall very little short of that number in the Popish calendar, and all the difference is, that their holy days are fixed, and, our idle days moveable; theirs are dedicated to some saint, and ours are devoted to some occasion \ theirs foster superstition and idleness, and so do ours; theirs are signalized now and then by miraculous cures, by which the patient's health is seldom bettered; and ours by miraculous conversions, by which the convert's morals are rarely mended , and to do the
Papists justice they deal more fairly in their miracles than we, for a man can see if a crooked limb be made straight, because it is the object of the sense, but a miracle wrought instantaneously in the mind, must be taken upon the word of the patient or the parson; but the truth is, their holy days, and our idle days, whatever miracles they may produce, do hurt to true religion:
Note: The last sentence is particularly revealing, and typical Witherspoon. Scottish Common Sense Realism taught that the change of regeneration is merely a “tipping point” when the rational mind is convinced to begin serving God over self. “a miracle wrought instantaneously in the mind” against everything he believed about salvation.
1) Salvation for Witherspoon was a progressive illumination of the mind until it reached a “tipping point”, not an instantaneous change at all. In fact, Witherspoon believed that the moment a person became a saint, he could only be 51% saint and 49% sinner.
2) Salvation for Witherspoon was NOT A MIRACLE. Since God used material cause and effect “truth impressions” to gradual convince the rational mind, no miracle was needed or wanted. In fact, miracles were completely out of the question, because Scottish Common Sense Realism was designed to conform to Francis Bacon’s empirical standards of truth. For this reason, the “truth impression” theory limited the Holy Spirit to “quickening Scripture to the understanding, what is called the “verbal restrictive” theory.
3) Notice Witherspoon does not say salvation is a miracle wrought in the heart. Scottish Common sense Realists made the heart and the spirit appendages of the mind.
Witherspoon passed on his disbelief in miracles to his students. All the authorized Presbyterian histories of the Sacramental Meetings in America (called camp meetings in order to disassociate them from the Presbyterian church), dismissed the idea of miracles altogether. These histories are a shame and a reproach on the writers who instead of giving glory to God, took the same bigoted and ignorant view expressed in the Blacksmith Letter.
the people lose many laboring days by them, and the Country is deprived of the fruit of their industry.
I have seen above three thousand people at one of these occasions; but supposing that one with another there are only fifteen hundred, and that each of them one with another might earn sixpence a day, every sacrament, by its three idle days, will cost the country 27,000 pounds sterling, not including the days that they who live at a great distance must lose in coming and going, nor the losses the farmer must sustain, when occasions happen
in the hay, harvest or feed-times; the man of business, when they chance to fall upon the market days; or the tradesman when any particular piece of work is in hand that requires dispatch: now supposing the sacrament should be administered only twice a year, in all our churches, which if it be not, it ought to be, these occasions, as they are managed at present, will cost Scotland at least 235,00 pounds sterling, an immense sum for sermons!
The greatest part of which might be saved, much disorder and irregularity prevented, would the assembly be graciously pleased to appoint some particular Sundays in the four seasons, for the administration of this sacrament, over all the kingdom.
Note: Imagine the arguments in the days of Moses against celebrating the feasts! And what about the 7 year rest and the 49 year jubilee? By the way, this way of looking at expenditures is called “zero sum gain”. It is only logical if God Himself does not benefit society directly, and all spiritual gain is merely by “self-realization”. Of course, this is precisely what Witherspoon believed. That is, that “spiritual gain” was merely rational mind improvement, and rational mind improvement was not helped by “novelties” not based on reason.
We were too fond of novelties, and perhaps established practices founded on reason, and approved by long experience; and we could hardly have pitched upon a more unnatural method than the present, confider it in what light you will , for if the design of this sacrament, next to setting forth the death of our Lord, be to remain as a pledge of love and charity among Christians, it does not with us seem at all to answer the design; as
as our congregations like discontented children, take a private hour as it were, and eat their bread by themselves in a corner; whereas all the rest of the Christian world, do Christian like communicate together three times in the year ; and as they shew forth the same meritorious death, they shew it forth at the same season, and like brethren sit down at once to the same love feast, BUT besides this, the great noise that we make about these occasions, leads our people to lay too great a stress upon them, and to imagine that there is something meritorious, nay, that the life of religion lies in hearing a great number of sacramental sermons; they serve nearly the fame ends in our church, that confession, and absolution, do among the Papists; our people put on a very demure look some days before the sacrament; the gloom gradually gathers upon their faces as it approaches; and they look like criminals going to execution when the day is come, just so may it be seen in Popish countries, in the seasons set apart for confession and penance; but in both countries the professed repentance proves only a flash of devotion, and as matters were made up with the Deity, and all former accounts cleared, the Papist soon puts off his penitential countenance, and the Presbyterian lays by his sacramental face, and they and we in a little time are the same men that we were before.
And as these occasions make our people lay too great a stress upon the outward means, while they neglect the great end of all religion, I mean to better the heart, and reform the conduct, so they raise contention, heart burnings, envy, and factions among our clergy, while they contend for popularity, vie with one another who mall convene the greatest crowd, and work up the mob to the highest pitch of enthusiasm; and they often succeed
so well, that they bring the weak and ignorant, to the very brink of downright madness. I have seen scenes of this nature, that had much more of the fury of the bacchanalia, than the calm, serious, sincere devotion of a Christian sacrament. It is here that the ministers display the false eloquence which catches the crowd, and consists in a strong voice, a melancholy tone, and thundering out at random damnation, death, and hell-fire, and flames, devils, darkness and gnashing of teeth; any one who has good lungs, and can borrow the beggar's cant, and the merry Andrew's action, may become very popular, and make a great figure at an occasion: for the contention there is not, who may reason most justly, deliver most gracefully, or direct their discourse in the best manner for bettering the heart, and reforming the manners of the audience -, but who may appear more frantic, cry loudest, speak with the deepest, strangest and most hollow tone; and be most rapt up in mystery, and scholastic terms. I have known these qualifications make
nonsense triumph over sense, ignorance be preferred to learning -, and incoherent, unintelligible, and contradictory rhapsodies, be received with admiration by the gazing crowd; while plain, learned, and pious sermons, delivered with a becoming modesty and. gravity, have been preached almost to the empty pews.
Quintilian, aligning the reasons why the ignorant orators were heard with more applause by the mob, than the ingenious and learned, paints so justly the methods by which our ministers contend for popularity at the occasions, that the passage is worth transcribing, “Clamant ubique, et omnia levata (ut ipfi dicunt) manu emugiunt, multo difcurfu, anbelitu, jactatione, gefta, motuque capitis furentes - mire ad pullatum circulum facit – cum ille eruditus modeflus et effe, et videri malit - at illi banc vim appellant, que eft potius violentia”
Note: Witherspoon uses the Latin explanation of a Roman heathen, with no interest in the possibility that The Holy Spirit could be behind the “strange appearances”. He thinks the Holy Spirit is limited to “quickening Scripture” understanding to the rational mind as described in the “verbal restrictive” theory. Witherspoon translates the Latin so: “They always cry loud, and deliver all their discourse in a sort of ecstasy, with a hollow bellowing tone, a frantic action, deep sighs, furious gestures, violent tossing of their arms, and mad-like notions of their heads. 'tis wonderful what effect these things have upon the surrounding mob; a man of learning suits his pronunciation and action to his subject, chooses to be modest, and to appear so; they call this delivering their discourse with force, tho' it be rather with force”.
The art of managing mankind (says Mr. Addison, speaking of quacks in physick) is only to make them stare a little, to keep up their astonishment and to let nothing be familiar to them; this art is perfectly well understood by our parsons, for at these occasions they try who shall make the people stare most , and sometimes they make them stare so long and so eagerly, that the poor people turn almost stark flaring mad: we are damned an hundred times over in one day -, and damned too, without any sort of discretion; for most of our ministers that I have had occasion to hear, seem to have embraced, and to certainly propagate, Hoadly's notions of the sacrament of the supper ; and yet they go on damning us still, when their master says, and they sometimes say, that the communion is little more than a mere ceremony.
Note: Witherspoon refers to Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who espoused a Baconian, material causation view of salvation in his Addison's Evidences of the Christian Religion, something Witherspoon wholeheartedly agreed with. Witherspoon refers to Benjamin Hoadly (1678-1761), who espoused a supernatural impartation view of the Lord’s Supper in his Plain Account of the Nature and Kind of the Lord's Supper. Hoadly promoted a supernatural salvation APART from church membership, something abhorrent to Witherspoon on two fronts.
Poor lay men I own ought not to presume to dictate to the parson, what notions he is to embrace, and teach; but I humbly hope that we have a right to expect that the parson be consistent with himself, so far at least as not to damn us, where at other times he teaches us that there is no danger. But as it is not likely that these opportunities of speaking great and swelling words will be given up, while men are so presumptuous and self-willed; I submit to your consideration, whether it would not
to be proper to pitch upon the place designed for the scene of the field preaching, at lead upon the communion Sunday, at a considerable distance from the church; this would draw off the mob, the contrast between the solemn action within doors and the comical scene without, would be less striking; the communicants would breathe a freer air, they would be less distracted in their devotions, have easier access to come up to the table or to return to their seats, and the whole might be transacted with less bustle and confusion, and with more decency and order.
As it is managed at present, it is liker any thing than the administration of the supper of our Lord; not a man among us would be content with a common meal served up in such confusion; I am sure that it is impossible for me, and I believe it is very difficult for any one, to carry up with him that sedateness of soul, and calmness of thought, that I presume to think are necessary, when he approaches the table of the Lord.
How should he? when he is forced to wrestle through a crowd, to push and to be pushed, stunned with a general hubbub, the feats rattling, the galleries founding, the people singing, the communicants jostling one another in the crowded passages, some falling, others fainting, and in all corners of the church, hurry, confusion, and noise.
I never see our tables filled up, but it gives me an idea of the diffraction at Babel when the confusion of languages began to be felt. I submit it, whether the apostle's censure of the Corinthian church be
not pertinent here, That is not to eat the Lord's Supper.
Perhaps the communicants should be left a little more to their own meditations, at least for my own part I could wish, that while the elements are handing about, there were observed (if it be possible) a solemn and universal silence, that we might have time for our private devotions, and an opportunity to ask the blessing of God upon his word and ordinances; especially as it is either forbidden, or become unfashionable with us, to do so when we take our seats or finish the service.
These things I have mentioned, and I submit my thoughts to the wisdom and candor of the rulers of our church. There still remains a very solemn and interesting part of our worship, I mean that of public prayer, upon which I beg leave with all submission to make some few remarks, earnestly entreating that they may be considered with calmness and impartiality by your reverences, and the other, members of our church; and that tho’ my sentiments should not please, yet in charity you will believe that I wish well to the Protestant cause, the interest of religion, and the purity and peace of the church of Scotland.
These, I presume to think, would be greatly promoted, by the composition and establishment of some devout liturgy, or form of prayer, for public worship. Have patience, and hear me out! I was once as much prejudiced against a proposal of this nature as you can be at present, and if you will confider the inconvenience that attends our present way of worship as calmly as I think I have done, you may perhaps see the necessity and advantages of a form of prayer as clearly as I do.
you then to reflect, that our present extemporary way of worship is contrary to the practice and opinion of all mankind, in all ages, and of all religions; until it was introduced amidst the ferment and confusion of the fifteenth century; for before that time, whatever was the object of men’s worship, whatever the matter of their prayers, or however widely they differed in the articles of their creed, yet they agreed as unanimously in the use of forms of prayer for their public worship, as they did in the belief of a God.
Note: Extemporaneous prayer, especially prayer of females and children, will always be a point of friction in evangelical versus state church debates. Witherspoon wanted prayer, singing, preaching, counseling, teaching and the Lord’s Supper done in a church building according to the specific rules of educated clergy. State church religion will always want control and predictability. This, of course, limits the Holy Spirit, and forces God to work only through clergy, which is exactly what Witherspoon wants.
Consistent with the state church position was the preference of education over passion. The state church position is uneducated ministers are dangerous, even if they are regenerate, while educated ministers are safe, even if they are unregenerate. This too will always be a point of friction in evangelical versus state church debates.
But Witherspoon wants control and predictability and educated ministers for another set of reasons. Control and predictability and education are also the goals of the Baconian system of determining empirical truth. In fact, the empirical system does not allow for any activity of the Holy Spirit that is not demonstrably repeatable through experimentation. This, of course, eliminates the immediate activity of the Holy Spirit altogether.
There is still another reason Witherspoon wanted educated clergy. Class distinction. Class distinction will always play a role in the evangelical versus state church debate.
David Brainerd (1718-1747) made an indiscreet remark at Yale in 1742, at the height of the First Great Awakening. He said one of his tutors was as "destitute of grace as the chair". He was expelled, because it highlighted the debate in which state church advocates preferred unregenerate educated clergy over regenerate clergy who had not graduated from an accredited university.
The Tennants educated ministers in their Log College, which was not accredited. These ministers were passionate about “ye must be born again”. George Whitefield sided with the Tennants and also spoke against unregenerate clergy. The state church advocates did not recognizing ministers that were educated at the Log College. Evangelicals were another class of people…they were “enthusiasts”, firebrands that upset the state church order.
It was the expulsion of Brainerd from Yale that precipitated the establishment of the College Of New Jersey. The evangelicals, led by Jonathan Edwards, wanted a university that was sympathetic to them. That is why it is so ironic that in 1768 Witherspoon became president of the College of New Jersey and every evangelical teacher left within a year.
Greeks and Romans, the Magi and the Mahometans, Jews and Christians, have all agreed in this practice. I have often heard our Mass John, honest man, urge the universal consent and opinion of mankind, against the atheists, as a proof of the existence of a Deity; if this argument be conclusive when applied to the first and greatest article of religion, I mean the existence of God, sure it will be so too, with respect to the best and fitted way of worshiping him.
Note: Christianity is like no other religion precisely because of Pentecost. Ichabod should be posted over every church entrance that has abandoned the immediate activity of the Holy Spirit in favor of the Baconian view of truth.
But what is still more, God himself prescribed this way of worship to the Jews, as in the cases of murder, when the person who committed it was unknown; of suspicion of adultery; and when the first fruits were presented, his son our Savior honored this way of worship with his presence (for the worship of the synagogues was by a form prayer;) he sanctified it by his practice, for in his agony in the garden, he rose up, awakened, and rebuked the disciples, returned to the same place, repeated the same form of words three times over; and, before he expired upon the cross, he offered up his devotions, in the words of the twenty-second Psalm; he authorized it by his command, for our directory for prayer informs us, that our Lord's prayer, is not only a pattern for prayer, but itself a most comprehensive prayer;
so that if the command of God himself, the example, practice, and command of his Son be sufficient to point out, in what way he would be worshiped, a form of prayer is pointed out for that purpose: whereas it cannot be proved that ever God commanded extemporary public prayer; that ever his Son attended worship performed in that way; that ever he practiced it, or ever commanded it; nay I am not certain, that there is one example of extemporary public prayer in all the Bible, at least I am sure there is not an instance that will correspond with our situation, or authorize us in the use of it, when so many and so great inconveniencies do attend it.
Note: I am sure the reader at this point has his mouth open in wonder at Witherspoon’s profound prejudice against extemporaneous prayer. But remember, Witherspoon was a state church advocate with the added belief that the Holy Spirit never affects people immediately. I must also add that the sermons of Presbyterian ministers at the sacramental meetings encouraged laity to become emotionally affected by the prospect of partaking of the Lord’s Supper. The contemporary reader can not understand what Witherspoon was coming against unless he reads some sermons from the meetings. Two recent books to read for the context of what Witherspoon is reacting to are Holy Fairs Scottish Communions And American revivals In The Early Modern Period by Leigh Eric Schmidt and The Eucharistic Theology Of The American Holy Fairs by Kimberly bracken Long.
We complain, and very justly too, that the Popish clergy are too assuming, and claim a superiority over the laity, inconsistent with the natural rights of mankind, and the relation of brethren formed by the covenant of grace; pardon me, gentlemen, if I say that you claim a very extraordinary superiority over the laity, in the case before us; every one of you claims an exclusive privilege of manufacturing our public prayers, and assumes a right of making us say to the Deity, whatever he thinks fit.
In the most momentous affair in which we can be concerned upon earth, we must depend entirely upon the discretion, honesty, and ability of every private parson, and take the words and matter of our addresses to our God and Maker, such as he is pleased to give, without ever feeing, examining, or judging for ourselves.
This is really treating us as if we were children or fools; we allow that you have a right to offer our prayers; and is it not fit that we mould all speak, the minister may be called the mouth of the congregation, but the mouth of the congregation should speak the mind of the congregation. In our
congregations the mouth runs before the mind, and speaks without giving us any opportunity of thinking what we ought to speak, and often says things that we would certainly reject, and sometimes offers petitions that we would absolutely abhor, had we time calmly to examine them: our mouth leads us into the gross blunder of presenting our addresses to the Deity first, and next judging whether they be proper addresses after they are offered, when we cannot mend what is wrong, or alter, what is improper; we absurdly begin where we should end; for, in the natural order of things, the congregation mould first be satisfied that the prayers are proper to be offered, and then the minister should offer them in their name; just as a prudent man will think before he speaks -, but in our admirable plan of worship the congregation speaks by its mouth, before it has considered what it is to say; that is, the parson offers up the petition, and the people may judge of its propriety after it is offered, if they please.
The absurdity here is so glaring, that it is astonishing that it escapes the observation of the laity; and it would not escape them in any other instance. Should the ablest member in the house of commons, propose to offer an address to his majesty, in the name of the house, without communicating it to the members, the impropriety would be immediately perceived.
Note: Witherspoon does not believe in the immediate activity of the Holy Spirit. For that reason, he can not recognize the following passage as relevant:
1 Corinthians 14:26-33: “when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God. Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints”.
It is not necessary to believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still active in order to believe that the Holy Spirit still affects saints immediately. It is not necessary to believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still active in order to believe that saints still have an obligation to participate in church. But the state church view is that everything must be locked down, and laity can not be locked down, therefore any participation by saints must be discouraged.
When the estates, or counties, design to address their sovereign, offer your service, and tell them, "Pray gentlemen give yourselves no trouble about the matter, we and our brethren will each of us address the King in our own way, trust the whole affair to us, every individual of the cloth is more than sufficient for the undertaking; it is your business to approve of whatever we are pleased to say for you; or
or at least, you may consider how you like the address, after it hath been offered," Take this advice, and try if the laity will be as complicit with respect to the honor of their prince, and the concerns of their bodies, as they are with respect to the honor of their God and the interests of their souls; yet one would be tempted to think (if the common consent of this nation were not against the opinion) that the laity are as much interested in an address to the Deity, as in one to the King; and that they would be at least as loath to trust the first, as the last, to the discretion, ability, or honesty of every man who chanced to put on a black coat or wear a starched band.
Note: Witherspoon did not believe every minister had the authority to say “thus saith the Lord”. He wanted everything “locked down” by the leadership of the Presbyterian Church.
But the grossest absurdity will be swallowed down when it is in fashion, and I think there can hardly be a grosser one, than that a gentleman mould mount the pulpit, of whose principles or discretion we have no knowledge at all, and that this man should have a right to dictate the prayers of a whole congregation. If we will believe the author of the Characteristics, who seems to speak from experience, there are among you many whose principles are very dangerous, and very inconsistent with the religion of Jesus; yet these men not only lead, but even compose the devotions of the people, and make us poor lay men address our Maker upon any principles that they please.
Note: Witherspoon first published Ecclesiastical Characteristics in 1753, and finally acknowledged himself the author in another book he published in 1763, A Serious Apology for the Characteristics.
I have come from my house a found orthodox Christian, and have hardly taken my seat in the church, when I have found myself praying, or at least one was praying in my name, as a rank Socinian. I have been made an Arian as to my prayers very often; and in short, there has hardly any whimsical opinion been broached among the clergy
Note: a Socinian is a person that agrees with Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) that Jesus was just a man and not God. An Arian is a person that agrees with Arius (lived in the late 300’s) that Jesus was just a man and not God.
for these forty years, that I have not sometime or other found mixed with my public prayers, tho' for my part I am a plain old-fashioned man, and content myself with the apostles creed. Sometimes, indeed, for my heart I could not have told upon what particular principles my prayers were offered, they were so excellently well contrived, and so free from all narrow notions, that they would have served a Jewish synagogue, a Mahometan mosque, or a congregation of Persian magi, as well or better than a Christian assembly. If the minister that officiates be a sceptic, I am made to pray like a sceptic , if an enthusiast, he addresses God in my name, according to his own enthusiastical notions; when he chances to be a fractious firebrand, or a keen party man, tho' I be a very peaceable tradesman, my prayers breathe faction, my devotions in public are flaming with party heat, and tinctured with the fury of his faction.
It is well known, that when any disputes happen, and differences arise among the clergy in their synods or assemblies, both sides appeal to Heaven in their public prayers, and force the laity to appeal with them (we are not supposed to have any right to judge for ourselves in these cases;) and what is even worse, by an unlucky change of ministers, or by stepping into another church, I have often been made to appeal to heaven as an advocate for both fides of the question, and pray for and against each of the parties in one day: for tho' our churches have the appearance of the same worship, they are as different as the tempers, principles, and parties of the parsons who manufacture it; and this leads the laity into the dangerous blunder of offering contradictory petitions, and praying at different times, upon principles as opposite to one another, as light is to darkness.
Note: Witherspoon would rather have a cold, lifeless church that is “locked down” by leaders educated in Scottish Common Sense Realism. Within a year of Witherspoon taking over the College of New Jersey, every evangelical teacher left, including Jonathan Edwards, Jr.. I do not consider Witherspoon to be an evangelical because he did not believe that saving grace is anything different than common grace, which is what Pelagius promoted and Augustine and Calvin rejected. Witherspoon taught that regeneration is merely the “tipping point” when the rational mind is convinced by “truth impressions” to begin serving God over self…this would be called evangelical “saving faith” after the American Civil War, which was the beginning of the heresy of decisional regeneration
It is an usual thing amongst
us to pray for and against presentations in one week; I have thanked God for his decrees of election and reprobation in the forenoon, and in the afternoon offered my humble thanks that all men have equal access to salvation, by faith and virtue.
In a word, there is no party, nor different principle among our clergy, with respect to which I have not been made to play fast and loose with the Deity, to ask what I did not want, and to pray against what I most earnestly wished for.
This we call worshiping God! But did we deal so with our fellow men, they would call it mockery, and take it as a gross affront: I cannot help thinking, gentlemen, that this will appear, even to yourselves, hard treatment of the laity, and that you will acknowledge, that their judgment ought not to be so entirely made a property of, as to oblige them to have their public worship offered upon what principles the parson pleases to espouse; or upon opposite principles, as the minister for the time is of this or the other party.
One of your cloth complains that we betray visible impatience till prayer be over -, is it any wonder if we do? for as it is managed at present, prayer is to us a very dangerous part of worship, for as that judicious gentleman observes, A great deal more, a vast deal more, depends upon our performance of this duty with judgment and propriety, than most people seem to be aware of.
They who are aware of this, cannot help being impatient and uneasy, when a duty of such vast importance is trusted to every individual of the clergy, and they who seldom think of its nature or importance will always esteem it a dry and lifeless part of our service.
I am apt to think, that it is sometimes happy for our laity that they only hear prayer as they do sermons, and cannot, I believe, as it is at present performed, or lead I am sure do not join in it, for tho' it be criminal not to worship God in public, yet it seems to be as great if not a greater crime to offer an irrational worship, to insult him with contradictory petitions with ministers of opposite parties, and to have our devotions tinctured with the spirit of faction, the wild dreams of enthusiasts, the dangerous notions of skeptics, and the absurd follies of men whose heads are filled with vapors and whims.
Tho' these should sometimes be mixed with your discourses, the hardship and danger would not be half so great. If they did instruct, they might amuse; and we needed not embrace your notions unless we pleased; our own reason might expel the poison. But when they are wrought into our public prayers, there remains no remedy; we must take these as you are pleased to give them, or go away without public worship.
THE Popish clergy indeed put a great hardship upon the laity, by offering their prayers in an unknown tongue; but tho' the hardship be great, it admits of some remedies; they may have their prayers translated into their respective languages; they may have them explained by those that understand the language, and constant use of the same forms, may in time enable them to annex proper ideas to the words: but the hardship put upon us admits of no remedy -, we must offer what prayers every clergyman pleases, we must understand them the best way we can, we must pick up the words as we can catch them, according to the strength of your voices, the distinctness of your pronunciation, and the largeness of the church; the fall of
of a Bible, the opening of a seat, or a cough in any corner of the church, will lose us half a sentence; and yet if we would pray with the understanding, we must collect the several parts of the sentence, supply the words that are lost, compare it with what went before, examine, approve, and offer it, and this must be all done in a breath. I question whether the parson could perform this task himself; and I am convinced that it is impossible for the flow and ignorant part of the audience; especially as some of you speak so soft, that we cannot keep pace with you barely in hearing what you say; others deliver so slowly, that our memories cannot serve us to collect the several parts of the sentence; some are so fond of new and learned words, that one half of the congregation cannot know their meaning; and many of you have such a perplexed, intricate way of expressing yourselves, that we find it impossible to discover the import of your petitions; and perhaps would
find this a difficult talk, tho’ we had an opportunity to consider them at leisure in our closets.
So that putting all these difficulties together, I imagine that it will appear that the laity of the kirk of Scotland lie under greater hardships, with respect to public worship, than the laity of any church upon earth, and this hardship is made still more galling to those who have sense enough to feel it, by the pompous harangues that we are frequently entertained with, upon the privileges that we possess above other Christians, the religious liberty we enjoy, and the singular purity of our worship.
Sure, gentlemen, you must mean yourselves, when you ascribe these great blessings to our church, or you insult us in the more cruel manner; if you mean that you enjoy great privileges, and
a most extensive liberty, it is very true; for you pray
what you please, you sing what you please, you teach what you please, and our whole public worship is so much of your own manufacturing that there can hardly be found room for a verse or two of scripture, and these you choose as you please; in a word, every parish minister is a little pope, subject to none but a general council, and, like the great pope, not subject to that, but when he pleases: for it seems to be a point as much disputed in the Presbyterian church, whether a minister is obliged to submit to the sentence of a general assembly, as it is in the popish, whether his holiness ought to yield obedience to a general council.
So that it must be acknowledged that you enjoy a great many privileges, and a most extensive liberty. But pray what privileges, do we enjoy, when one man's judgment prescribes to a whole parish? When we must pray for or against whatever party the parson pleases? offer our devotions according to the religious or political principles that the minister for the time chooses to embrace? shift sides as your humors change, and address our God, as Arians, Socinians, or Sceptics, as the gentleman in the pulpit is inclined?
Sure, if our civil liberty were not something more substantial,
we mould be the greatest slaves in Europe! Again, what purity can there possibly be in our worship, when the passions, prejudices, and whimsical opinions of every minister may, and do mix with it?
I have always been at a loss to determine whether your confidence in entertaining us with such harangues, and your power of face in keeping your countenances, stifling the laugh, or our stupidity in not perceiving the gross affront, and patience in not resenting it, were most to be admired.
Note: Witherspoon speaks as a typical state church spokesman when he desires a regimented worship and prayer. If you attend a Presbyterian high church service, or a Lutheran or an Anglican or a Methodist, or a Catholic, you will understand what Witherspoon is advocating.
I cannot imagine you are so weak as to think with the bulk of our people, that our worship must of consequence
be pure, if it be different from the practice of the church of Rome, and that we can only err upon the side of superstition. If this be your opinion, it resembles the conduct of some Germans, of whom I have read, who, for fear of the Roman army, ran into a river and were drowned.
Just so the greatest part of our people (for I believe better things of you) conclude that our worship must be pure, if we do not worship images, pray to saints, or adore the virgin Mary, tho* it be mixed with the whimsical notions, enthusiastic opinions, and silly nostrums of every quack doctor in divinity.
It would be happy if you would content yourselves, with insulting the people only, with such harangues; but you often make them insult their God, or at least, you do it in their names, by thanking him for establishing a pure worship which he did not establish; a work which cannot possibly be pure; and which even in our own opinion is not pure; for if the moderate party consists of such ministers as the author of the Characteristics (who is said to be one of your order) has represented them to the world, God have mercy upon the fouls committed to their care. And may the Almighty pity and relieve the congregations whose devotions they compose, dictate, and offer.
Yet in all probability if the moderate men were to write Characteristics, they would give us as forbidding a picture of the party that our author is pleased to call orthodox.
Note: Witherspoon first published Ecclesiastical Characteristics in 1753, and finally acknowledged himself the author in another book he published in 1763, A Serious Apology for the Characteristics.
What then must become of us poor lay men, whose fouls were bandied about between the factions, and our prayers offered sometimes upon the principles of the one, and sometimes upon the principles of the other? would it not be happy for us, that we had some pious,
primitive form of' prayer, that would secure the purity and reasonableness of our prayers, let the ministers private opinions be what they would? As things are at present, it is impossible that our service can either be reasonable, perfect, or pure; unless we can suppose, that our church has a privilege, which no church upon earth ever had or ever claimed; I mean, that no weak or whimsical minister, no factious fire-brand, no skeptic or enthusiast can mount our pulpits; or that after men of these characters get into them, they will pray better than they are able, upon principles that they do not believe, or with a calmness which they do not possess.
Now supposing, that there are only an hundred of our ministers of some or other of the above characters, and that one with another each of them has 500 fouls under his charge, there will be 50,000 persons in Scotland, who never worship God in public in the way of his own appointment, and whose public worship must be dangerous to themselves, and unacceptable to the deity. Where must the blood of these poor people fall, but upon the rulers of our church? who, tho’ they have found by fatal experience, that all the subscriptions in the world will nor
hinder men of pernicious principles from creeping into the church, yet will not take the only effectual method to prevent them from doing mischief there. BUT besides the injustice of assuming to yourselves a right to dictate to us what prayers you please; besides the absurdity of making us offer contradictory petitions, and leaving our public
worship exposed to the whims and follies of the skeptic and enthusiast, there are many other inconveniences that attend our present method. First, it is a question whether the laity can join at all in our public prayers, for we must either suppose that they go along with the minister, offering every word as he utters it, or wait until he has finished the sentence, and then examine it, and give their assent.
If the first be their method, it is evident that they place an absurd and dangerous confidence in the honesty and ability of the parson, and embrace in their prayers all the whimsical notions and pernicious principles that he may chance to mix with them: and further, that many of them, will, like parrots, talk what they do not understand, since many words will occur, whose meaning and importance they are not able all at once to conceive.
At least I find it so with myself. Perhaps our people may be inspired with more than ordinary penetration in the time of prayer, but, at other times, I find it difficult enough to make many of them comprehend an ordinary message, delivered in the plainest words that I can possibly find , and after repeating it over and over again, have the mortification to find, that they misunderstand me, tho’ the whole passage does not exceed two sentences.
That these men should understand all the expressions in an extemporary prayer, and with their understandings and judgments keep pace with the minister for half an hour, or twenty minutes, to me appears impossible, and I believe, will appear even to you very miraculous. But suppose that our people wait till the minister has finished the sentence, and then compare the several parts, examine the whole, and give their assent, God knows how unfit many of them are for this talk; but let them be ever so fit, if a word be lost, if one occurs whose meaning they do not understand,
or if the arrangement of the words be perplexed, it is evident that they cannot give a rational assent: and if they take time to examine what may be suspicious, to supply what is lost, or to unravel what is perplexed, let them be as quick as they will, the subsequent sentence will be loft. I do not indeed suppose that the bulk of our congregations ever dreamt of these difficulties, because they give themselves no trouble about understanding, examining, or assenting; but content themselves with being humble hearers, and perhaps in all their lives never once gave a sincere and rational Amen to public prayers; though hearing another pray, and joining in prayer, be very different things.
Another inconvenience that attends our way of worship is, that young gentlemen, just come from the university, full fraught with philosophy, and fond of showing their learning, very injudiciously vent their notions in our public prayers. A young spruce gentleman the other Sunday converted us in an instant, from plain country people, into profound philosophers, and these too of the dogmatical kind; for we told God Almighty many things concerning his own works, which the learned gentleman, it seems, though they did not know before, many things that we neither understood nor believed; we traveled so high, that our heads began to turn, and after all lost our gentleman, for fifteen minutes, amongst things that he called vortices, and began indeed to suspect that he was swallowed up by them, or had gone where Milton tells us all vain and empty things go,
- Up whirl’d aloft, Fly o'er the backside of the world far off, Into a limbo large and broad, since called The paradise of fools.
Whether he visited that place or not we cannot tell, but we found him at last upon earth, chasing a mole. Had he been pleased to tell us these things, stripped of their philosophic garb, in a sermon, some of them might have been entertaining, some of them useful, and most of them tolerable; but to make us inform; the Deity of things that we neither knew nor believed, and as it were instruct our Maker in the nature, beauty, and order of his own works, (I humbly think) was imprudent and presumptuous.
However, he made a shift, by new coined words, and terms of art, to be far above the reach of our understandings; and to pray with him, we must have read Euclid, studied Newton's works more than our Bibles, and brought half a dozen dictionaries to church with us, to help us to the meaning of his words.
The gentleman however obtained his end, the people stared, and, when they came out, concluded that he was admirably learned, and that none was so fit to be their minister. Upon this whim, they vigorously oppose the settlement of a pious and prudent gentleman, presented to the charge by the patron, and are most piously supported in their wise opposition by a set of the clergy, I suppose for conscience sake.
But I beg pardon, digression is a fault. My business is only with our public worship; and I flatter myself that you will own, that upon that Sunday it was but poorly performed: yet such farces as these we are often forced to bear with and instead of the humble expressions, of penitents, the concise petitions of poor mortals, and the grateful thanksgivings of rational creatures, to their merciful God, our prayers frequently consist of the foolish ostentation of learning, and the harsh jargon of hard words.
Neither does our worship suffer more by the ostentatious folly and pedantic humor of our young dominies, than by the natural and necessary decays of the invention, memory and judgment of our aged ministers; for as the clergy are foolish enough to vie in the expenses of dress, table, and equipage; with the landed gentlemen, most of them are unable, and all of them are unwilling to call an assistant, as long as they are able to creep up to a pulpit, and prattle out something like a prayer; so that you will frequently find a man inventing and dictating the devotions of a congregation, who is superannuated to all the other affairs of life.
This man it seems has a right to make us address our Maker, in what manner and with what words he thinks proper; tho’ in common conversation, we cannot help perceiving that his memory has lost its strength, that his understanding is decayed; and all the powers of his mind are sadly declined. It would perhaps be cruel, to give instances of the blunders, blasphemy, and nonsense that have been mixed with our prayers by this misfortune, tho’ many instances might be produced; but it is (I humbly think) more cruel and highly unreasonable, to put the aged ministers under the necessity of exposing their weakness, and dishonoring the service of their Maker; and the laity under the hardship, either of offering nonsense, or blasphemy, instead, of pious ardent and expressive prayers, or of reducing their minister, to want and, beggary in his old age, by forcing him to call an assistant whether he can maintain him or not; especially, as all danger, might be prevented, and all the deficiencies supplied, by composing and establishing a pious form of prayer; for he might read a prayer very devoutly, and distinctly, when he cannot invent readily, or dictate
an extemporary prayer to the congregation with propriety and judgment; or if he chanced to blunder, or pronounce indistinctly, having the form before us, we could easily supply the defects; we could much better put up with trifling in his sermons, and patiently hear him prattle about his subject and about it, because we could supply our loss, in some measure, by reading some of the best sermons ourselves, or to our families; but public prayer is a matter of that importance, that there is no possibility of supplying it by our own industry, no rectifying mistakes after the prayer is offered, and no possibility of preventing very gross and dangerous blunders, while we perform this part of our worship after the present method: for tho' our aged 'ministers should retain all the powers of their minds to the last, which is not the case with one in an hundred;
tho' they should be able to invent extemporary petitions, with propriety; yet as the organs of the body decay, it is impossible that they can express them with that strength of voice, and
distinctness of pronunciation, which are necessary to us before we can give a very rational assent, if we can at all give a rational assent to prayers that we never have examined; no, nor yet the minister himself.
Note: In New England, George Whitefield and the Tennents condemned unregenerate clergy for dead sermons read off a page and dead prayers repeated from memory. Witherspoon takes exactly the opposite position. He does not want ministers using their own words and certainly not if they think they are being led of the Holy Spirit, which would be, according to Witherspoon, enthusiasm. Any educated minister could read a prayer or sermon without the benefit of regeneration, the state church way.
The weak voice, the trembling body, the want of teeth and other infirmities incident to old age, do often render the pronunciation so indistinctly, that in our present way of worship one half of the congregation is at as great a loss, as if the gentleman prayed in an unknown tongue; or at most they can only pick up a word here and there, without any connection. Let us suppose that among more than a thousand ministers, there are only eighty whose understandings, or bodily organs, are thus decayed, and that, one with another, each of them has
five-hundred fouls under his charge; it would be a misfortune to those who are under the care of the first, if they did join in the public worship as it is performed amongst them; and they who are under the care of the last cannot possibly do it; so that there must be in Scotland at least forty-thousand persons, who are debarred from the most essential part of public worship, by the old age of our ministers, joined with the absurdity of our present plan; to which if we add the 50,000 I mentioned before, there will be ninety thousand persons in this nation who cannot worship God at all in public, or worship him a way unworthy of him, and dangerous to themselves, whose blood must be crying to heaven against the rulers of our church.
For whether the above calculations, be allowed to be just or not, there; must certainly be a very considerable number of our brethren in this distressed situation; unless we suppose, contrary to known matter of fact, that the ministers of our church are not yet subjected to the same infirmities of body and mind that other men are subject to, and that they are secured, by some sacred infallibility, from embracing enthusiastical or skeptical opinions.
But further, our worship as it is performed at present, is not only corrupted by the contrary petitions of contending parties; not only tinctured with the heats and animosities that arise in synods and assemblies; not only mixed with the whimsical
opinions, and pernicious principles of libertines and enthusiasts, that climb up into our pulpits; not only rendered obscure and contemptible by the pedantry and affected learning of the younger, and the weaknesses of mind and body of our older ministers; but frequently interlaid with ill-timed compliments to the great, or the minister's favorites,
and the grossest abuses of those who have the misfortune to be out of favor. I could produce numerous instances of both, and, were it not an invidious task, point out the persons, places, and times. Upon the marriage of a certain noble peer in this nation, the parson carried his compliments so far in the public prayers, that he exceeded all the bounds of decency, and made his female hearers blush; and I would blush to repeat to the rulers of our church in a letter the expressions that he made use of to the God of heaven and earth in the face of a congregation; so extravagant and ill chosen were his words, that the lady was forced to direct the clergyman, and entreat him to forbear his rude petitions. A minister, even in one of our royal burghs, observing a young gentleman, son to one of the magistrates, in church, after a journey to London, made all the congregation thank God, that he had brought back their friends from foreign lands.
Most men, I presume, will remember how grossly the royal commander of his majesty's forces, during the last war, was abused by having his praises wrought into our public prayers, by rough and unskillful hands; some allowances, I own, are to be made for the clergy in this instance; the augmentation scheme was then in agitation, and the weaker part of them foolishly thought, that this would pave the way for it.
On the other hand, he must be a great stranger in our congregations, or very heedless when he comes there, who has not observed that sometimes a well-meant zeal, and sometimes too warm an attachment to party opinions with respect to religious subjects, and private resentments too, have taught ministers of keen passions, to use several expressions, not only inconsistent with the charity of
of Christians, but even with the humanity of men; Vex them in thy wrath, and plead with them in thy displeasure through all eternity, was the unchristian petition of Mr.------ with a respect to papists; Pour down the vials of thy wrath upon them, and burn their flesh with fire, was Mr. C-----'s ungenerous wish.
Nothing but heat of zeal and hurry of passion could have dictated these petitions, and I am far from thinking that many of our ministers suffer themselves to be driven to so great lengths. But all of them are subject to passions, and what is left to the discretion of the minister, is left also to the indiscretion and passions of the man; and we frequently find the two last, where the first was designed to take place.
Many instances could be given of the ill-timed flattery of friends, and unchristian expressions with respect to enemies, that have been vented in our public prayers; but I am tender of the reputation of the clergy, and do not choose to expose their errors, farther than is absolutely necessary to show: the danger and absurdity of our present way of worship; and to persuade them to recover and secure its purity and decency; and therefore, I humbly entreat you to consider, whether the ill-timed, ill-chosen compliments of sycophants upon the one hand, and the unchristian expressions of keen zealots upon the other, do not render our public worship contemptible and dangerous -, and whether there be any thing so likely to prevent them from indulging their humors, to the dishonor of God
and disgrace of religion, a some well chosen, pious, public form of prayer.
After flattery we may mention politics, in which our ministers will be dabbling, in, spite of grace, nature, and common sense, as another very fruitful source of blunders in our public worship, few
of them have genius, fewer still have sufficient intelligence, and all of them are at too great a distance from the seat of government, or to comprehend the secret intrigues of courts, or to perceive, in spite of the varnish by which they are disguised, the real views of parties; yet all of them will be meddling, and in every dispute our prayers must take a side, and the poor lay-men must address their Maker, sometimes upon the faith of a foolish rumor, and often upon the credit of a common news.
To say nothing of the times very wittily but very truly described by Butler in his Hudibras,
When gospel trumpeter, surrounded With long-ear’d rout, to battle founded And pulpit, drum ecclesiastic, Was beat fist instead of stick
Not (I say) to mention these days, whose history will be an eternal disgrace to our religion, and would furnish as many instances of nonsense and blasphemy vented in our public prayers, as would be sufficient to fill up a large volume; even in latter days, politics have introduced very gross absurdities,
into our public service.
I am not yet an old man, and I remember to have been made to pray, that God would pull down the bloody house of Austria: during the last war, I earnestly begged that he would build it up; now I begin to give broad hints that I would have it pulled down again, and am expecting every Sunday, to be made to desire it, in a formal manner.
The Interests and leagues of the states of Europe shift so frequently, that we are often flung out in our prayers, and pray for our enemies as if they were our friends, and against our friends as if they were enemies. Would our ministers be contented
to make us pray in general for our friends, and against the devices of our enemies, we would never be wrong: but they choose to mention whom they mean, left omniscient wisdom would mistake, or at least that their people may know that they are great politicians, and very zealous for the public good.
Many a time have I thanked God for giving us glorious victories, when we have been shamefully beat, for inspiring courage into our troops, when they have run away; for success granted to our arms in battles that were never fought; and for deliverances from plots that were never formed.
Our public worship, in the present way, has always been and will always be tinctured with the spirit of party, and made the property of faction in church and state. When the famous Cambuslang's conversion was going on (I shall never forget it),
one Sunday morning I was made to thank God for the manifestation of his power in that conversion, and entreat him to continue the great work he had begun, in the afternoon, by an unlucky change of ministers, I was made to pray that God would put a stop to the delusions of the devil, by which the ignorant and simple were deceived, and give us grace to resist that spirit of enthusiasm that had gone out into our land: thus what I ascribed to God in the morning, I ascribed to the Devil in the afternoon; and what I had requested God to promote, I requested him too to give me grace to resist.
Note: Witherspoon believes the Holy Spirit is limited to being a “mere influence” (Spurgeon’s term to describe a problem of “Downgrade” theology) in “truth impressions” received by preaching and reading scripture. That is why Witherspoon condemns of spontaneous preaching and prayer. He believes spontaneous preaching and prayer are fleshly by default, since Witherspoon does not believe the Holy Spirit inspires apart the higher rational mind understanding spoken or read scripture.
The Cambuslang Sacramental Meetings in Scotland in the 1740’s were every bit as exciting and the Holy Spirit as active as in the Cane Ridge Sacramental Meetings in Kentucky in the early 1800’s. Many letters were exchanged between ministers in Scotland and Jonathan Edwards of what God was doing in both sides of the Atlantic in the First Great Awakening. Witherspoon did not see the manifestations of the Holy Spirit as beneficial.
Mr. M'Culloch wrote from Cambuslang, Aug. 13, 1743 to Edwards, “The happy period in which we live, and the times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord, wherewith you first were visited, in Northampton, in the year 1734; and then, more generally, in New England, in 1740, and 1741; and then we, in several places in Scotland, in 1742, and 1743; and the strong opposition made to this work, with you and with us, checked by an infinitely superior power”.
But Witherspoon had a material cause and effect view. He did not believe the Holy Spirit was independently working apart from the preaching. Witherspoon did not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper and thought grace was limited to that which could come through “truth impressions” according to the verbal restrictive theory.
I prayed long and earnestly with Walpole's enemies, before their intrigues and my prayers could pull him down; and when he fell, I was made to thank God for the great deliverance; though it was soon discovered, that it was nothing more than a struggle for power between parties, and a matter of no moment to me or my country which of the parties was in or out: however, all ranks contributed
Note: So what does the motives of politicians and the delusions of the moment have to do with the activity of the Holy Spirit? The same types of argument could be made for questioning the value of marriage of the value of discussing things with people. Does Witherspoon say that marriage vows are a farce and communication useless, since most people fail to live up to their vows and commitments? The 21st century logical positivism of atheists has the same source as the verbal restrictive theory…the false presumption of the Baconian empirical truth system. Both are fatalistic systems in which material causation determines everything. The only difference between logical positivism and the verbal restrictive theory is the necessary acknowledgement that the Holy Spirit is somehow a mere influence in the effective “truth impression” of the verbal restrictive theory, even though the “truth impression” must come by way of spoken or written scripture.
something to raise the clamor; the mob made bonfires, the magistrates rung bells, the ministers gave their prayers, and the mountain brought forth a mouse.
NAY, I have known the private piques and little quarrels
between the parson and his neighbors, introduced into our public worship and made a part of our prayers: even when the parson was the first aggressor, he had the assurance to complain to God (as he called it), and what was still more unreasonable, made his parishioners complain with him, or at least, he complained in their names, though most of them were very sensible, that he himself had done the injustice; how his complaints were received in heaven I cannot tell, but I know that they had their effects upon earth, for his antagonist, unable to bear the flaring of the congregation every Lord's-day, was forced to sit down under the injustice.
It is hard to determine in this respect, whether you have the meanest opinion of your God or your hearers, for it seems you think that both are obliged to shift sides as you are pleased to direct them, and, right or wrong, be still of the party which the parson for the time thinks fit to embrace.
That you mould treat the laity with so great contempt in this case, is not so surprising, as you may be convinced from long experience, that they will swallow down the grossest absurdities in their public prayers, and trail the propriety of their worship upon Sunday, to the discretion and ability of a man, whose folly and weakness perhaps they laugh st all the week. But I own it is amazing that you can use such freedom with the Deity, to desire him to do and undo as the fancy strikes you, or your designs chance to alter.
Our prayers are, for the most part, too historical and seem rather designed to instruct the congregation,
than to confess their sins, express their wants, or offer their grateful thanksgivings.- I do not at all suppose that you are ignorant, as our people seem to be, of the difference between preaching and praying, or that you are not sensible that a very good sermon, will make but a very bad prayer; but I cannot help thinking that you comply too far with the popular taste in this respect, and strive to please, by giving our public prayers as much the air and manner of a sermon as possible; or knowing that many of your people judge of the propriety and excellency of a prayer by its length, to come up to the common standard you are forced to fill up a gap with what materials come first to hand; and this 1 am more apt to believe to be the
case, because we sometimes find half a dozen of sentences from scripture poured into our prayers all at once, without the least connection among themselves, or the least relation to what went before, or follows after; and frequently too, without
the least affinity to any of the parts of prayer.
What Mr. Fordyce means, by that certain happy irregularity in our public prayer, which he is pleased to recommend, I profess I know not; but I know very well, that there is a certain unhappy irregularity in most of ours, that renders them very improper for public worship.
Note: Witherspoon refers to James Fordyce (1720-1796)
The several parts of prayer are most absurdly confounded, though they require very different dispositions of heart; confession is jumbled with thanksgiving; petition is mixed with narration; and sometimes we have all the parts of prayer in one single sentence. By these means the mind is held in suspense, and cannot settle to that humility, conviction, and sorrow, that ought to attend confession; nor is it raised to that
Warm gratitude, and ardent love, that ought to enliven our thanksgivings; neither is it filled with that sense of dependence, nor formed to that serious earnestness and lively faith, with which our petitions ought to be sent forth
Instead of these, amused with the novelty of expression, and distracted with the quick and the regular successions of the several parts of prayer, it fluctuates between these sensations, and feels not much of any of them.
When all the powers of the soul should be employed in their proper places, and making their greatest efforts to offer a spiritual worship to the Father of spirits, our curiosity is only awake, and we are listening to a prayer no other ways than we do to a sermon.
I would beg leave further to observe, that are extemporary worship in the church, produces very bad effects with respect to our worship in our families; for as praying to God extempore is the prevailing fashion, and how as our people are talked to despise worship offered by a form, so those of them who want memory, learning, and invention, to express themselves extempore with propriety, and have modesty to be ashamed of indecent expressions, and reflection to think of the danger of unreasonable and unchristian petitions, never pray with their families at all.
On the other hand, when ignorance and self-sufficiency meet in the matter of a family, their worship of consequence is a miserable mixture of nonsense, error, and blasphemy.
The most ignorant are always the most presuming, and the less sense that a man has of the nature and importance of prayer, the more readily will he venture upon extemporary worship. In fact it is true, that many of our people who can hardly repeat their creed, and know very little more of their religion than a few hard words that they have gleaned out of our catechisms,
From this point on till the end of Blacksmith Letter, Witherspoon expresses the opinion that the Catholic Church had it right in having nothing but written prayers. He does not argue they were correct for reasons you might consider. His problem is with allowing ministers or laymen to think they have any unction from the Holy Spirit. For those who think Witherspoon was an evangelical, the rest of this book will disillusion you.
Witherspoon was an unapologetic State Church advocate. He thought any extemporaneous prayer or sermons were harmful. As you read his Straw Man arguments, remember, he REALLY believed the “verbal restrictive” theory of the Holy Spirit. He really believed that the Holy Spirit does not affect man except when he hears or reads Scripture. This was a necessary basis for the empirical truth system of Scottish Common Sense Realism. Extemporaneous prayers and sermons are considered “enthusiasm”, driven by animal motives and dangerous.
catechisms, imitate our Parsons in praying extempore; and approach their maker with as great familiarity, as they would do to their neighbors, and with much less respect and reverence than they dare treat their laird. Good God!
What pitiful scenes have I seen of this kind! What rude and shocking expressions, what blasphemous petitions have I heard! How often have I trembled when the ignorant and proud enthusiast kneel down with his family to his extemporaneously worship! How often have I shuddered at the whimsical notions that he wrought into our prayers, the insolent and unchristian expressions which he used, and the nonsense that he offered in our name.
How often has my heart bled in secret for the sad situation of many miserable families, who by our unhappy attachment to ask temporary prayer, either want family-worship altogether, or offer their worship in such a manner as dishonors God, disgraces religion, and is very dangerous to themselves! But I would be very far exceed the bounds of a letter, and I am afraid weary out of patience, if I should endeavor to lay before you all the inconveniences that attend our present way of worship; and I flatter myself, if you will add to these already taken notice of, the blunders of ignorance, the flights of vanity, the needless silly repetitions, the unguarded expressions, and the childish thoughts that are mixed, with our prayers (and must be mixed with them, unless you can suppose that all our ministers are men of the greatest abilities, elocution, and prudence) and will see, that our present way of worship is defective, unreasonable, and dangerous; and that the hardships that the laity labor under, and the danger to which they are exposed, can only be removed by some devout and approved form of prayer.
To support the present absurd practice to make the laity sit quietly down with the injustice done them, and to blind their eyes that they may not perceive the disadvantages that they labor under, and the danger to which they are exposed, it has been said that a form of prayer will limit the inspiration of the Spirit; that it deadens the devotion of the people; that all the wants of a Christian congregation cannot be expressed by a form: and some have been so foolish as to say, that it is unlawful to worship by a form of prayer.
Will you pardon my presumption, and hear me with patience, if I humbly offer my thoughts upon these heads; I hope you will. As to the first, I might boldly appeal to your own consciences, and ask you in the name of God do you believe that you are inspired? Have you indeed so mean an opinion of the understanding and judgment of the laity, as to imagine that any of them, who think it all, can ever be brought to believe, that the prayers we commonly hear are dictated by the Holy Ghost?
This is where Witherspoon departs entirely from rational thought in a futile attempt to justify the “verbal restrictive” theory. He uses an absurd straw man argument, equating any effect of the Holy Spirit with inspiration of Scripture. He departs from Calvin, Augustine and EVERY ORTHODOX THEOLOGIAN.
Or have you so little regard to the honor of God and the interests of religion, as to ascribe your extemporary effusions to the Holy Spirit? No, I am persuaded that none of the rankest enthusiast will ever urge this argument against a form of prayer; and I will beg leave to ask such, are the words or the matter of your prayers, or both inspired? That the words are not inspired, is evident from the difficulty that you frequently have to find proper words; from the improper and sometimes indecent expressions that fall from you; from the ill-timed pauses that you are forced to make, and that most useful supplement of coughing, groaning, and spitting, they must come into your assistance. But supposing that you were indeed inspired with words, it would be of small importance to yourselves or to us, unless the matter of your prayers be
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be inspired too: and if the matter of them be inspired, your prayers are of equal authority with the Scriptures themselves, and should be entered into the canon.
From this point on Witherspoon makes absurd comparisons between the inspiration of the canon of Scripture and the Holy Spirit influencing ministers and layman in prayer and sermons. Witherspoon’s objective is he wants to say the same thing Pelagius said around 400 A.D. in his dispute with Augustine; that is, that the Holy Spirit does not do anything for man except work in conjunction with the higher rational mind understanding of the Holy Scriptures. Pelagius has a higher motive for this argument than Witherspoon…he was trying to prove that God was not responsible for immorality in the church. Witherspoon, on the other hand is just trying to justify Scottish Common Sense Realism…what we would call today the psychological theory of material causation of salvation by illumination of the rational mind.
By the way, Calvin said the Holy Spirit affects the thoughts of sinner and saints alike, in the same way He hardened Pharos heart. Scottish Common Sense Realism is far from orthodox…because it denies the immediate activity of the Holy Spirit, it is half-Pelagian (the half that says salvation is by common grace understanding of Scriptures).
Witherspoon writes a few paragraphs of absurd sarcasm.
I know not how to execute the negligence of the people of this nation correction I know not how to excuse the negligence of the people of this nation, in suffering so much sound doctrine to be lost; and might have cleared up some difficult passages in Scripture, and decided several important disputes. I know not what to say for this piece of negligence, unless our people think that all things necessary for Christians to know, to believe, and to practice, are revealed in the holy Scriptures; and that they may be taught by them what to ask in prayer, and had to regulate their lives; and if this be true your inspiration is a very great gift bestowed for very poor purposes, only to save you the pains of searching the Scriptures, and the trouble of composing a form of prayer by the instructions and examples contained in them.
The heathen poets themselves had a greater reverence for the deity than this, for it was a maxim among them
neck deus intosit, nisi dignus vindice nodus Inciderit –
Translation: “Never let a god be introduced, unless there happens to be some difficulty worthy of such an agent”. Spoken like a deist.
I submit, whether you do not transgress against this rule, by introducing the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, if the Scriptures be sufficient to direct us who want to ask in prayer; if they be not sufficient for this, the revelation of the will of God for our salvation is defective in a very important point; and neither the prophets, nor the apostles, nor no nor our Savior himself, though he enterprise it, have taught us how to pray. But supposing that it were necessary, that the words and matters of our prayers
should be inspired by the Holy Ghost; why might not a number of pious and learned divines, meet together with such an interesting and great design as that of composing a form of prayer for the whole church, have as much reason to expect, and be as likely to receive the assistance of the Holy Spirit, as a private clergyman inventing the trends sent prayer of a particular congregation?
But this supposed inspiration in our extemporary way, will involve us in a very great, nay inseparable difficulties? For we shall be as much puzzled where to find our miraculous inspiration, as the papers are where to fix their wonderful infallibility for if we suppose that this inspiration is confined to any one of the several sections that use extemporary prayer, we prescribe to the Holy Spirit, and limit him with a witness, and shall be sadly perplexed to determine to which particular party this wonderful privilege is given.
This same strawman argument is used by the atheists who say that if God exists, then why are there so many religions? The answer is, just because there are many types of desserts, such as ice cream and pastries, that does not deny that desserts exist.
If we suppose that this privilege is common to the ministers of all the sects, then we must conclude that the Holy Spirit inspires opposite petitions to men of opposite principles, and directs one sect to pray against another: for instance, if you inspires the Burghers to pray against the principles of their seceding brother in the anti-Burghers, and to cut them off from their communion by excommunication; we cannot suppose that he inspires the anti-Burghers to return the compliment: and if he inspires the ministers of the sects to pray against the principles of the church established by law, he does not direct the ministers of the established church, in their public prayers, subject to call the secession a dangerous schism: that the ministers of the
several sects to pray for the success of their several parties, and that God would hinder the spreading of the principles of the other sects, is evident to all the world.
Now unless we would be guilty of the boldest blasphemy, and say that the Holy Ghost chimes in with the principles of the parson, whatever they be (as the people are forced to do), we must conclude that this inspiration is not granted but to one of the sects; and I shall only request each of them to use a form of prayer, until they shall be approved at this gift of inspiration belongs to them. –
Using Witherspoon’s logic, no none should pray for something they are not sure (from Scripture) is according to God’s will. That would include prayers for victory in battle, freedom from draught, disease, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc., etc. It would blasphemy to pray for these things since scripture does not say whether these things are according to God’s will…
And that the established church, with which I have to do, may be more willing to hear and grant my request, I will produce some strong presumptions that it does not belong to them: indeed the instance that I have given above are more than sufficient for this purpose; but I shall further add, first, that if the Confession Of Faith be true, none of our ministers are inspired in their prayers; for there are for there all mankind are divided into two classes, the elect and the reprobates; yet it is evident beyond all possibility of dispute, that the elect pray as if it were possible that they may be damned; and the reprobates as if they were possible that they may be saved; and yet it is impossible that the Holy Spirit inspires either of them with these prayers unless we be so in pious as to imagine that he directs them to pray upon false principles, and inspires them to pray for or against what he knows can never happen; and though some of you urge this argument of inspiration against your adversaries, yet our church has in fact very fairly disclaimed it, by publishing and authoring a directory for public prayers; unless we would suppose them so presumptuous as to direct the Holy Spirit how to pray. In truth are Presbyterian inspiration, is as mysterious and as useless as a gift of
popish infallibility. The popish church has an infallibility lodged somewhere, but she knows not where to find it in time of need; we Presbyterians have an inspiration among us, but we know not to which of all the sects it belongs.
Witherspoon continues his sarcasm…he does not agree with Calvin and Augustine and every orthodox theologian that the Holy Spirit affects the thoughts of men…of course, these thoughts have NOTHING IN COMMON WITH THE INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURES, AND TO SUGGEST SUCH IS TO REVEAL THE HERESY OF SCOTTISH COMMON SENSE REALISM…THAT IS BASED ON THE “VERBAL RESTRICTIVE” THEORY, LIMITING THE HOLY SPIRIT TO BEING A “MERE INFLUENCE” (Spurgeon in describing the Downgrade of theology).
The infallible church is filled with disputes, which her infallibility cannot determine; and the inspired church has nonsense, contradiction, and whimsical opinions, vented in her public prayers, which her inspiration does not prevent; the infallible church has the most unreasonable and absurd creed of any church upon earth; and the inspired church has, and will have (while she adheres to her present plan), a very defective, unreasonable, and dangerous kind of public worship: and fully, and justly, does the Providence of heaven confute the vain pretensions of presumptuous men.
But it may be said and it has been said, that this gift of inspiration is not universal to all our ministers, nor uniform and constant to any of them, but granted now and then by fits and starts, something (I suppose) like the Quakers spirit.
I cannot help thinking, if this be the case, that the Quakers proceed much proceed more judiciously than we; they patiently wait in silence while they feel, or imagine they feel the influence of the Spirit; but if he does not come call, we ventured to do without him: they humbly submit to his will, to inspire whom he pleased with; but he confine him to the minister: they stopped short when his influences ceases; but we run our glasses, let his influences cease when they will.
I would therefore humbly propose, either that, like Quakers, we should wait the Spirit, and permit any one of the congregation, who chanced to be inspired, to dictate our devotion; or that a form of prayer be composed and authorized, only to be used when the minister feels no inspiration let him
have full liberty to depart from the form, when he feels upon his mind the miraculous influences of the Holy Spirit suggesting the matter of his prayers.
Witherspoon continues his sarcasm.
By this method, we shall gain two very considerable advantages; first, we shall always worship, either by inspiration or by an approved form, and be certain (unless the parson deceives us), that the ignorance, affectation, ill-timed zeal, pride, or passions of the man himself cannot tincture our public worship, or mix themselves with our prayers.
And next, we shall discover when our parsons are inspired; for, as things are managed at present, this miracle is as much lost in our Presbyterian church, as the famous miracle of transubstantiation is among the papists. In both churches there is a wonderful manifestation of all Almighty power, yet no one is able to perceive it in either cut. The papists are convinced that bread and wine are converting to flesh and blood, though to all the senses they remain blood bread and wine still; we Presbyterians are persuaded that our ministers are sometimes inspired, though we cannot tell when the inspiration begins or ends; and though our ministers in this case, lie under the same misfortune that Hudibras did,
“when with greatest art he spoke, you’d think, he talked like other folk:”
So it unluckily fares with them; when they pray most by inspiration, they only pray like other people; and all my attention and skill has never been able to discover the inspiration in one single instance. But by the method that I am proposing, we shall discover that the inspiration immediately begins, when the minister departs from the established form, and perhaps we may make another discovery; I mean that the rage of party, the spirit of
of pride and enthusiasm, as frequently inspire our ministers, as the spirit of peace and love. In a word, let those ministers who have pride enough to believe, and presumption to affirm that they are inspired, and can find people so ignorant and credulous as to believe them, or so tame and indifferent as to trust their devotions to an imaginary inspiration, let these I say, use the present method, but have pity upon us who see the difficulty, disadvantages, and great danger of our present way of worship.
It is obvious why all the evangelicals (including Jonathan Edwards, Jr.) on staff at the College of New Jersey left within a year of Witherspoon assuming the presidency.
As we cannot find in Scripture and he promise of such a gift, as we are convinced that there can be no need of it (unless we suppose that the Holy Spirit ghost has not fully revealed the will of God for our salvation); as we are absolutely certain that you are not all inspired, have no reason to believe that any one of you is so; we presume most humbly and most earnestly to request, that some pious form of prayer may be composed and authorized. The only inspiration that is promised in Scripture, that is necessary or that can be useful, is that the Holy Spirit will inspire the hearts of the faithful with affections proper for this important duty; such as shame and sorrow in confession, and humble Christian hope of obtaining what we ask in our petitions, gratitude and love in our Thanksgiving, and such other affections as her suitable to the several parts of prayer; and no man I believe will say that the Holy Spirit cannot, or prove that he will not, inspire hearts with these affections, as easily and as readily when we pray by a form, as when we pray without one.
The ironic thing about Witherspoon say “feelings” are the only thing the Holy Spirit can effect in the saint is he took the opposite view when it came to the Sacramental meetings…then he said the emotional manifestations were from “animal motives” or “herd mentality”.
And as far as prayer may be concern considered as one of the means of inspiring these affections, a form seems better calculated to answer that purpose, in public assemblies, than extemporary effusions: for in the extempore way,
they hear or (if he has any sense of the nature and importance of prayer) must begin the duty with a trembling heart, and go through it with a continual diffidence, as he trusts it entirely to the discretion of another man; sometimes to a man whom he never saw before, and always to a man who has not so much as calmly considered it himself. He must often suspend his assent, when he is not satisfied of the propriety of the expression; he must lose the sense, where the sentence is intricate, and through the whole, be in perplexity suspicion, fear, and real danger.
Whereas when prayers are offered by a form, no word needs escape him, he understands every word, he perceives the connection of every sentence; and let the ministers judgment be ever so weak, his learning ever so little, his manner of expressing himself perplexed, his principles pernicious, his passions ever so keen, and his party prejudices ever so violent, yet in spite of all these he offers a reasonable service, and breaths forth the warm feelings of his soul, indecent, devout, heart-affecting, and heart-approved prayers.
This observation may in a great measure obviate the second objection; I mean that a form of prayer does not so much enliven the devotion of the people; but I beg leave further to observe, that they who are used to worship in the extemporary way cannot be competent judges in this case; because they have not fairly made the experiment, that reason only from speculation. When they drop into us place where forms are used, they come in with strong prejudices, their entire strangers to the form, and archive perplexed in all the parts of it. – It happens with them in this case, as it does with men in every other thing: that correction, that they have not been accustomed to, appears strange, what they are unacquainted with, seems perplexed, and
And what they do not know reasons for, is apt to appear unreasonable. It may be too, that the ignorant miss the unnatural cant, the frantic gestures, and fearful distortions of the face, that in their opinion are essential parts of prayer. But let a man of sense and candor, make himself master of a form, and try the experiment for a year or two, by attending carefully to prayers offered in that way; and then and not till then, will he be able to determine whether the form, or the extemporary method, has the noblest effect to enliven his devotions. At least it is certain, that many who have tried both, give their opinion in favor of a form; and that they who use a form of prayer, constantly affirm that they feel it ten times more enlivening, and better calculated to inspire devout affections, then extemporary effusions.
Witherspoon breaks with every Protestant Reformer who railed against the Catholic Church for canned prayers repeated in rote. Catholics that convert to some form of Protestant Christianity UNIVERSALLY tell us the repeated form prayers mean NOTHING to most Catholics other than a way of obeying the priest and feeling self-fulfilled because of works, not grace. Unfortunately, the majority of persons within the State Church Protestant sects (Lutheran, Presbyterian and Anglican) have gone into liberalism and heresy. Charles Spurgeon identified the Presbyterian church as the origin of the Downgrade of theology at the end of the nineteenth century.
And there must be something in it, because the professors of all religions under the sun have chosen this method; the Christian church universally used it till the 15th century, and indeed may be said to do so at present, for we make such a small part of the Catholic Church, that our practice hardly deserves to be considered as an exception.
Witherspoon cites the fact that all religions except Christianity use form prayer and not extemporaneous prayer as an argument for using form prayer. I hope the reader is shocked.
I shall not dwell long upon the speculative arguments that are offered by either side, because ingenious men will always find something plausible to say in defense of a practice that answers their purposes. They are they who use forms, say that their minds are free from all distraction, and fear and have nothing else to do but attend to the object of their prayers, and maintain upon their minds a constant and lively sense of the importance of the business in which they are engaged, free from the care of examining every sentence before they offer it as their petition; secure that no indecent or unchristian expression can mix with their devotions,
being already satisfied of the propriety of the whole form.
They say the mind of man is not able to attend too many things at once, and that in our way of worship, if the people offer a reasonable service, they must examine every sentence, here every word, and understand every word they hear; that they must remember what went before, if they would conceive the connection, that they must unravel what is expressed in a perplexed manner, if they would pray with judgment; and in fine, that they must give their Amen to their prayers, with a more superficial examination of them, and a much less perfect knowledge of their contents, and they would venture to set their subscription to an address to their superiors upon earth.
Witherspoon assumes the role of Devil’s Advocate…he pretends to be people he opposes…he pretends to be the side that believes extemporaneous prayer is better than form prayer.
We answer, that the novelty and variety of the expression in our extemporary method, help to fix the mind and keep up the attention. They ask us upon what is the mind fixed, upon the object in matter of our prayers, or upon the novelty in a variety of expressions? If we say upon the object in matter of our prayers, they will tell us that, that there are in these, now neither novelty nor variety to assist us; because our prayers are always addressed to that Being who is the same today, yesterday, and forever; and the matter of our prayers in public must always be nearly the same; but if our minds be fixed upon the variety of the expression, or novelty of the phrase, they say (and I fear they speak truth) that this is not prayer, but mere amusement; such as the mind receives from music, a song, or an entertaining piece of history; that it might perhaps prepare the mind for prayer, but is not prayer any more than a sermon is prayer. It is evident that many of the ministers are sensible, that their people attend only to the outward circumstances of their prayers, and that the way
way to be popular is to tickle their ears with strange sounds, or please their eyes with antic gestures; else why do many of them affect such an unmanly whining cant? Why use such dismal heavy tones, and draw out their words to such an immoderate length? Or why do they affect such distortions in their faces? All the world will acknowledge that these are neither necessary nor useful parts of prayer, unless to please the filthy vulgar, who regard little more than the sound and circumstances of our prayers.
But whatever weight may be, in the speculative arguments upon either side, experience and matter of facts are fairly against us; for they who say that forms of prayer enliven devotion, seem, by a certain decency observable amongst them in time of service, to confirm that they what they say; while the visible inattention and indifference of our congregations, flatly contradict our arguments, and proved to the very senses, that our extemporary prayers do not enliven our devotions.
Witherspoon would rather an orderly dead service than one where the people are actively engaged by a preacher like George Whitefield. Witherspoon considered Whitefield to be a troubler, and when he became President of the College of New Jersey in 1768, within a year EVERY evangelical sympathetic to the First Great Awakening was purged.
In assemblies where forms are used, there is at least the appearance of devotion, and an air of seriousness. None of them are seen sleeping in time of service, few of them gazing about them, not one of them ever presumes (unless in a case of absolute necessity) to remove till the whole service be ended; and they frequently meet in public for the business of prayer, which Mr. Fordyce justly complaints we never do, and seems to think that it would be very difficult to persuade our people to do it.
Witherspoon most likely speaks of James Fordyce (1720-1796).
Thus, the practice of those who use forms of prayer, proves to me more effectually than all the speculative arguments that can be offered, that they have an higher opinion of the great duty of public prayer, feel a greater pleasure from it, or are some way or other more affected by it, then our people are.
Whereas in our assemblies there is not so much as the error devotion, not even the outward appearance of seriousness and attention? Many are sleeping, more gazing about them, and all of them betray a visible impatience till prayer is over, that they may be entertained with something more to their liking. When sermon is over do we not see them remove in crowds, though one half of our service, and that the most solemn half, still remains? Perhaps it may be thought, that this is not a fair count of the matter, and that I misrepresent things.
Will you believe your own brethren? They shall vouch what I have said; let us first hear Mr. Bennet’s report of the devotion of our brethren in England; that careless air (says he) which fits upon the face of a congregation, when engaged in prayer, shows how little they know of the matter, and how few seriously join in public and solemn prayer; some gaze about them, others fall asleep – others fix their eye it may be on the minister, and are affected with what he says; but when they only hear him pray, and are moved with the prayer, just as they hear sermons and are moved thereby (a most lively picture of our public worship!) – I must profess to you, should the enemies of our way of worship be present to observe us, there is nothing I should be so much ashamed of, as our exceeding careless, irreverent, indevout manner of joining in public prayer. So far Mr. Bennett bears witness to the want of devotion in congregations in England, where extemporary prayers are used. Let us now see if this way of worship, has any better success or happy effects among us here in Scotland. Alas it is
Everywhere the same unnatural, unreasonable, lifeless thing. Let Mr. Fordyce speak for the Scott congregations: “I doubt not my brother and (speaking to the clergy) but you have frequently observed when the minister of God has been addressing him in the name, and as the mouth of the people, the greatest part of them seem to be doing anything, rather than joining in solemn service; in reality there is no exercise of a spiritual nature which the generality seem to regard so little, or to attend to so listlessly; seem did I say, the expression is much too feeble; their insensibility, their irreverence in this respect are, from the whole of their deportment, most shamefully distinguishable and flagrant”.
State churches (the Presbyterian church is a state church) have a vast majority that have never experienced regeneration specifically because regeneration is ASSUMED after completion of catechism. People who have never been regenerated will naturally not participate earnestly in prayers. But having them repeat form prayers will only them feel good about having a form of religion in their works mentality.
If this be true, as indeed it is the very truth, I may be allowed to add, that it is most shamefully impudent in us to allege that forms of prayer deaden the devotion of the people, and that our extemporary method enlivens it. The little respect, nay visible contempt, that our people show up public prayers, proved more clearly than all speculative arguments that can be offered, that are present way of worship is very ill calculated for enlivening the devotion of the people: I have proved by two unexceptional witnesses, and had it be consistent with the brevity I proposed, could have produced many more, to prove, that our devotion is not only dead, but once even all appearance of life. In truth it needs no proof, for every Sunday will show that that we want attention, and reverence, to this most important duty; and every impartial heart will tell its owner (if he understands the nature of prayer), that it is very difficult to join in our public worship as it is at present performed; that it is impossible to do it rationally; that it cannot
be attempted without great danger; and that in fact he does it very seldom, and even then in a very faint and lifeless manner.
Allow me next to consider the third objection offered against forms of prayer. I mean that the want of a congregation cannot be so fully expressed in that way, as by the extemporary method. This objection supposes that a number of the most learned and pious men of the age (for such I imagine would be employed) deliberately composing a form of prayer, calmly recollecting the matter of it, frequently reviewing the whole, furnished with all the ancient and modern liturgies, directed by all that has been written on the subject, and assisted by everyone that wishes well to religion and virtue, are more likely to omit some necessary petition, and a single person perhaps of the very indifferent talents, and very moderate education, trusting entirely to an extemporary invention, and to his own memory the man who can suppose this, hardly deserves to be reasoned with; for it is evident, that, in the first case, our prayers will be brought as near perfection as possible; that in the second, many things must be omitted, many in judicious expressed, many needlessly repeated, and the whole tintures with weakness, passions, and party principles of the speaker, and that his best performances will be as much inferior to a general form of prayer, as he himself is in discretion, learning, and judgment, to the greatest man that have wrote upon the subject, and to a number of men of the best hearts, and calmest, ablest heads, convened to compose the form.
Witherspoon is so far from the evangelical understanding of prayer led of the Holy Spirit, that I feel compelled to quote Calvin. Calvin holds the opposite view of effective prayer.
“The true object of prayer being, as we have already said (sec. 4, 5), to carry our thoughts directly to God, whether to celebrate his praise or implore his aid, we can easily see that its primary seat is in the mind and heart, or rather that prayer itself is properly an effusion and manifestation of internal feeling before Him who is the searcher of hearts. Hence (as has been said), when our divine Master was pleased to lay down the best rule for prayer, his injunction was, "Enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret, and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly," (Matt 6:6). Dissuading us from the example of hypocrites, who sought the applause of men by an ambitious ostentation in prayer, he adds the better course — enter thy chamber, shut thy door, and there pray”.
“By these words (as I understand them) he taught us to seek a place of retirement which might enable us to turn all our thoughts inwards and enter deeply into our hearts, promising that God would hold converse with the feelings of our mind, of which the body ought to be the temple”.
“He meant not to deny that it may be expedient to pray in other places also, but he shows that prayer is somewhat of a secret nature, having its chief seat in the mind, and requiring a tranquillity far removed from the turmoil of ordinary cares. And hence it was not without cause that our Lord himself, when he would engage more earnestly in prayer, withdrew into a retired spot beyond the bustle of the world, thus reminding us by his example that we are not to neglect those helps which enable the mind, in itself too much disposed to wander, to become sincerely intent on prayer. Meanwhile, as he abstained not from prayer when the occasion required it, though he were in the midst of a crowd, so must we, whenever there is need, lift up "pure hands" (1 Tim 2:8) at all places”.
“And hence we must hold that he who declines to pray in the public meeting of the saints, knows not what it is to pray apart, in retirement, or at home. On the other hand, he who neglects to pray alone and in private, however sedulously he frequents public meetings, there gives his prayers to the wind, because he defers more to the opinion of man than to the secret judgment of God”.
“As the eye of our mind should be intent upon God, so the affection of our heart ought to follow in the same course. But both fall far beneath this, or rather, they faint and fail, and are carried in a contrary direction. To assist this weakness, God gives us the guidance of the Spirit in our prayers to dictate what is right, and regulate our affections. For seeing "we know not what we should pray for as we ought," "the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered," (Rom 8:26) not that he actually prays or groans, but he excites in us sighs, and wishes, and confidence, which our natural powers are not at all able to conceive. Nor is it without cause Paul gives the name of groanings which cannot be uttered to the prayers which believers send forth under the guidance of the Spirit”.
Of course, Calvin did not believe the “verbal restrictive” theory.
“Our meaning is, that, weary of our own heartlessness and sloth, we are to long for the aid of the Spirit. Nor, indeed, does Paul, when he enjoins us to pray in the Spirit (1 Cor 14:15), cease to exhort us to vigilance, intimating, that while the inspiration of the Spirit is effectual to the formation of prayer, it by no means impedes or retards our own endeavors; since in this matter God is pleased to try how efficiently faith influences our hearts”.
Of course, Calvin did not believe “inspiration of the Spirit” was blasphemy and a challenge to the canon of scripture.
“Augustine shrewdly remarks, ‘How do the saints pray in faith when they ask from God contrary to what he has decreed? Namely, because they pray according to his will, not his hidden and immutable will, but that which he suggests to them, that he may hear them in another manner; as he wisely distinguishes,’ (August. de Civit. Dei, Lib. 22 c. 2 ). This is truly said: for, in his incomprehensible counsel, he so regulates events, that the prayers of the saints, though involving a mixture of faith and error, are not in vain”.
Of course, Calvin did not believe that prayer had to be perfectly done by man, because he believed the Holy Spirit leads saints in prayer and it is perfect in the sense that the sacrifice of Christ is perfect, enabling all saints to be a holy priesthood.
“But since no man is worthy to come forward in his own name, and appear in the presence of God, our heavenly Father, to relieve us at once from fear and shame, with which all must feel oppressed, has given us his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to be our Advocate and Mediator, that under his guidance we may approach securely, confiding that with him for our Intercessor nothing which we ask in his name will be denied to us, as there is nothing which the Father can deny to him (1 Tim 2:5; 1 John 2:1; see sec. 36, 37)”.
Calvin’s perspective is entirely alien to Witherspoon, who believes the “verbal restrictive” theory. Scottish Common Sense Realism is not Calvinistic, and not orthodox…it is half-Pelagian. But let us return to Witherspoon.
The wants, and consequently the matter of the petitions of a Christian congregation, must in the main be always the same; they will at all times have sins to confess, still have to need to ask pardon, and to implore the divine grace to direct their thoughts, words, and actions; it will ever be their duty,
to pray for all ranks of men etc. If any general calamity should happen, such as war, famine, or pestilence, proper forms may be provided; in private cases, perhaps it might be more for the honor of our religion, and decency of our worship that we did not to send to the particular circumstances, so much as we do.
It is needless to describe the disease to an omniscient God; most cases of this nature, might be comprehended under the general aims of sickness and distress; but if it be thought proper to deal with God Almighty as we do with an ordinary doctor, and to lay the case before him at full-length, methods may be found to indulge the humor of the clergy, in this respect, without leaving our whole worship to their discretion, and putting all her public petitions in their power.
To the modern reader, Witherspoon seems unreasonable. But remember, Witherspoon would rather Presbyterian ministers be educated and unregenerate rather than ministers be uneducated and regenerate. Also, Witherspoon has a pantheistic view of the activities of God, so he says people don’t need to pray for what God already knows about, which is, of course , THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT JESUS AND THE APOSTLES SAID!
Should the spiritual condition of the congregation be altered (if it possibly can alter so much, that the established form could not comprehend the case, which in my humble opinion cannot happen, if the form be well composed) let the Presbytery, synod, or commission of the assembly be applied to, and the case being calmly considered, its nature and tendency deliberately examined, and its truth and certainty that ascertained; let a form of prayer be composed suitably to the case: but this is too delicate, too dangerous, and difficult an affair, to be trusted to the discretion or capacity of anyone clergyman; for weakness, or villainy, in this respect, has more than once dishonored our public prayers, with the grossest enthusiasm, perverted them to serve very bad purposes, and expose the most solemn part of our service, as well as religion itself, to the ridicule of infidels.
In a word the ordinary wants of the Christian congregation may, name must be more fully expressed by a form
of prayer, then by extempore effusions and extraordinary cases, after they are discovered and examined, may easily be provided for, and it is not only possible, but very easy, to provide for all cases that ought to be particularly mentioned in our public prayers, in the first composition of them. But to prevent all wrangling upon this subject, and (if possible) to contend the most self-sufficient clergyman, let there be a proper place in this proposed form of prayer, where the minister may have liberty to pray for all extraordinary cases, in what words he thinks proper.
It is better than a small part of our worship be exposed to the indiscretion, ignorance and passions of the Parson, then the whole then that the whole should be liable, as it is at present, to be made the property of faction, to be tinctured with the prejudices and whimsical opinions of every private minister, and offered upon the pernicious principles of the Deist, or the extravagant notions of the enthusiast.
I shall not dwell long upon the last objection; I mean that forms of prayer are unlawful, because I believe it never will be offered by men of sense or learning; and it is losing time and pains to reason with such as are destitute of both. I shall only vaguely to observe, that they who say that forms of prayer are unlawful, in fact say, that God Almighty commanded, their Savior attended, use, and talk to his disciples and unlawful way of worship; for that he did so, I have proved already, and our own directory of public worship acknowledges that “our Lord’s prayer is not only a pattern for prayer; but itself the most comprehensive prayer”.
Here I cannot help observed with regret, that whenever wherever our directory directs well, there our clergy have despised our directory; for instance, it recommends that the Lord’s prayer be used in our public worship; that ordinarily a chapter at a beach testament be read at every meeting: the first is neglected by most,
and the last by all of them. It directs that our worship begin with prayer, but now it begins with praise; that the minister before worship shall solemnly exhort the people to the worshiping of the great name of God; but at present we run into a very solemn part of worship, without a word of previous exhortation, and I fear very often without a serious thought.
It is easy to find out the reason why the Lord’s prayer and the reading of Scripture’s have been jostled out of our service; they have been forced out to make room for Mass John’s more masterly performances; but why the other alterations have been made, the clergy, who directs all things, can only tell. To them I leave it, and resume my subject.
If forms are unlawful, we are on all unlawfully baptized, for that is done by a form; and all the extemporary prayers which we use up on that occasion are not essential to the sacrament, and are additions of men.
Witherspoon refers to any specific prayers or references to people during a baptism. This is indeed a hyper state church position.
We administer the Lord’s supper in an unlawful manner, for we do it by a form, I mean the words of the first institution; we are dismissed every Lord’s day with an unlawful blessing; for one of the solemn forms with which the apostles conclude their epistles, is always used upon that occasion: so that nothing can be more inconsistent with ingenuity and common sense, than for us to cry out against forms, when the most solemn and important parts of our religion and worship are performed in that way, and when we neither baptize, nor communicate, nor bless our congregations in a lawful way, unless forms be lawful; nor do these things in the best manner, unless doing them by a form be the best.
But further, if forms of prayer be not acceptable to God, and an useful way of worship for ourselves can, we grossly offend every time that we meet in church: for it is impossible to sing 18 or 20 lines of a Psalm, but we offer some important
petition by a form; and some psalms might be pointed out that are almost continued prayers; so that unless we will affirm, that our prayers are acceptable to God, and useful to ourselves when they are sung, but otherwise when they are said by a form, we must allow that we are inconsistent with ourselves when we cry out against forms; and that our ministers impose upon us, when they spirit us up against that way of worship, that they may have the better opportunity to gratify their own vanity, to manufacture our prayers after the role manner, and to mix them up with their own private opinions.
Witherspoon did not agree with some of the Presbyterian ministers that wanted more than Psalms used in worship. Believe it or not, at this time in history, most Protestant denominations did not use any musical instruments or any songs in worship other than Psalms. That is why the Restoration churches of Stone and Campbell did not use musical instruments when they started their denominations.
If extemporary worship be preferable, what good reason can be given why ministers do not sing psalms extend for in our names, as well as offer extemporary prayers? For we are as much concern to join in the last as in the first; a blunder in the one is as dangerous as in the other, and we could as well go along with him in our hearts, when he sung an extemporary psalm, as we can do when he says and extemporary prayer.
This inconsistency in our worship has not entirely escape the observation of our brethren, for many of them have warmly insisted upon it, that the Spirit of God is restrained by using the Psalms of David, and therefore proposed, that we should sing as well as pray extempore: and upon the supposition, that public worship in the extemporary way is most rational, they were certainly in the right; for no good reasons can be given for praising God by forms, that will not be equally good for praying to him in the same way; and no objection can be offered against the last, that will not be as strong against the first; for instance, if we say that praying to God by forms deadens the devotion of the people, so will praising him by forms too.
If forms of prayer room restrain the influences of the Holy Spirit, so most forms of praise. If forms of prayer cannot express all the wants of the Christian congregation, neither will forms of praise comprehend all the causes for which Christian congregation may have reason to praise God; especially, as the forms we use were composed several thousand years ago, and calculate chiefly for the Jewish religion and worship.
It is ironic that the Restoration churches, the churches that still today maintain the view of worship closest to Witherspoon, say they do not use musical instruments BECAUSE they do not maintain Old Testament ways of worship.
If forms of prayer be unlawful in themselves, so must our forms of praise, because, as I’ve observed before, they are often real prayers supposing that extemporary worship was more acceptable to God, and useful to ourselves, no man in a congregation can reap the benefit of it benefit of it but the Parson.
Our laity are most grossly mistaken, if they imagine that they pray extempore by our present method; for if they pray in the words of the minister (and in his words they must pray if they join at all in public worship), they are as much confined to a form as any other people. For example, if the minister says most gracious God forgive us our sins, preserve us from danger, and provide for our necessities; if the people repeat these words, either in their minds, or with their mouths, or both, it is evident that they pray as much by a form, as if the prayer had been composed the thousand years ago; in fact it is impossible for a congregation to join in worship other ways than by a form; and all the difference is, that we worship by a form with which we are entirely unacquainted; a form that we have never seen nor examined before; a form that is trusted to the jurors discretion and ability of the parson for the time, in which the minister himself has never once read over, nor examined, even in the slightest manner. It is hard to determine whether his presumption in putting a form
of prayer into our mouths, that he has never examined, or our compliance in using a form that neither we nor our minister have ever once read over, is most unaccountable. But that either we or he should imagine, that to worship God in this manner is most rational for us, or most acceptable to him, is such an instance of the strength of prejudice, and the effects of education, as no man could have thought possible, had it not been proved by experience.
Notice Witherspoon keeps saying the criteria for good worship and prayer is that it be “rational”. This is because Scottish Common Sense Realism equated the higher rational mind with the spirit of man, so the most “spiritual” worship and prayer would be, according to their definition, rational. Of Course this is NOT what the Apostles taught, but the “verbal restrictive” theory was unknown in the time of the Apostles, except as a doctrine of the Sadducees, and later, Pelagius.
For in fact it is to imagine that our worship is the most rational, the more we are strangers to the words and matter of our prayers, and the whole access we have had to satisfy ourselves of the property of our petitions, and the more confidence we repose in another man.
That our worship will be the more acceptable to the deity, the less care and pains that is taken about the words or matter of it by the parson, or the people, and that our prayers will be so much the sooner heard, the less chance they have to be expressed in proper words, or to consist of pious and reasonable petitions. We may sometimes have a better, or worse form, according to the judgment and capacity of the minister, but we must always have a very defective one, and our very best form must be as far inferior to a national well-composed liturgy, as the learning, judgment, and memory of the one man, is to the abilities and calm reflection of a number of the most learned and judicious men of the age.
Witherspoon gives an argument for a Protestant version of the Catholic Church, using time-honored worship, prayers and liturgies.
I must confess that I have often beheld with indignation the parson pulling out his papers for the sermon, when he trusted the prayer to his invention and memory; not that I have any prejudice against reading of sermons, or am not convinced that it is the best method, unless the minister be a man of extraordinary parts, or extensive learning, and blessed with a very good memory;
but that I look upon it as an affront offered to God and the congregation, and very absurd in this instance, as it shows that the minister is less concerned about the propriety and decency of his address to his God, then to his people; and he is more afraid of a blunder in his sermon, then in his worship; or at least, that he thinks, either that a mistake in the last is of less consequence than in the first, or that it is an easier matter to pray than to preach well.
I own that he has reason to believe that anything like a prayer will pass with the bulk of people, because in truth they do not regard it much; but this should never induce them to show that he is as careless about the matter and words of their prayers as they are themselves, and that he takes more care and pains to please them by his sermons, than to offer their prayers in a concise and proper manner.
I have often heard the members of our church, when the difficulties and dangers of our present way of worship have been fairly laid before them, satisfy themselves, by saying, that most of our ministers had a form of prayer which they used, and with which, by length of time, their people became very well acquainted. I believe it may be true, that most of them naturally fall into a form; but, if we will believe themselves (and they certainly know the best), it is rather by chance than by design, and a consequence more by good luck, than good management, or much care, if the form they fall into be a good one. However, it is here granted, that the worshiping God by a form, is not only a lawful and reasonable, but also necessary; and if this be the case, they should not our worship be rendered uniform by an established general form of prayer? Why should it not be brought as near perfection as possible, by the judgment, piety, and learning
of our ablest ministers, and other members of our church, conferring together upon the subjects? Why should not this form of prayer be communicated to the laity, as we may examine them and approve of it?
Is the Parson’s form such a secret that we may not see and examine it for ourselves? Is it evident that an advantage to our worship that he may alter, curtail, or enlarge it, as his passions or prejudices chance to direct, and warped into his form any whimsical opinions that he chances to embrace? We must, notwithstanding of his form, go to the church with trembling heart, as we know not but some ministers may officiate whose form of prayer we never have heard, our own minister may have changed this, or some unlucky and indecent petition may be thrown in, as he has it in his power to do as he pleases.
At the same time it is true, that our ministers, who carefully compose and constantly use a form of prayer, do as much as they can, in their present circumstances, to render our worship pure and rational, and to assist the devotions of their people; and therefore deserve their esteem and thanks; but yet it is evident, that these private forms have no great chance of being so full and perfect, and that they have but few of the advantages of a general establish form of prayer, and many of the disadvantages of the extemporary method.
It has been often urged in defensive extempore public prayers, that the apostles used that way of worship. If they did so, they did more than their Master either taught them, or gave them an example of, or as far as we can judge.
Witherspoon seems to be suggesting that the Lord’s Prayer is the only prayer Jesus wanted his disciples to pray. Of course, this is absurd. “Pray for them which despitefully use you” (Matt 5:44), “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth laborers into his harvest” (Matt 9:38), “Pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day” (Matt 24:20), “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation” (Matt 26:41), “when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:24-25). Etc., etc., etc.
But supposing that it were proved (which it has not been, and I doubt never will be) that the apostles use extemporary public prayer, I’m afraid we shall not be able to infer from that, that are ministers should
pray extempore, or that the people should trust every one of them with the composition, and direction of their public worship; unless it could be also proved, that every one of them is directed by immediate inspiration.
Witherspoon returns to the absurd straw man. Did Christ promise to give Scriptural inspiration to people who did as he asked?. “Pray for them which despitefully use you” (Matt 5:44), “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth laborers into his harvest” (Matt 9:38), “Pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day” (Matt 24:20), “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation” (Matt 26:41), “when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:24-25). Etc., etc., etc.
I have often blushed for our ministers, when I have heard them purge this argument, as if as it is so weak and inconclusive in itself, and betrays so much presumption and self-sufficiency in them; for in fact it is putting our present ministers upon a level with the apostle.
Some days ago, I was passing by Bedlam, and observed one of its wretched inhabitants resting wrestling with a great Iron gate; I asked him what he was about? He told me, with an air of importance, that his name was Sampson, and he and that he meant to carry up that gate to the top of an opposite hill, as his namesake did the gate of Gazza.
I did not stay to convince him that Sampson was endued with murder with miraculous strength, but I cannot help thinking that there was a great resemblance in his way of reasoning, or rather running mad, to the argument in hand; for the apostles were endued with miraculous gifts as much superior to the abilities of our present ministers, as Sampson’s strength was to that of the poor bedlam might: they lived in an age in which miraculous gifts by the goodness of God were common in the church; but in our time there is nothing miraculous unless it be the self-sufficiency and presumption of the clergy, in taking upon them to offer and asked temporary address to their maker; and each of them claiming a right to make a whole parish pray as he pleases; and the absurd confidence reposed in them by the laity; and the tame submission by which they suffer every man that chances to fill their pulp pulpits, to manufacture and makes up their prayers as he chooses. These indeed are miraculous things, such as no age, no country,
The “verbal restrictive” theory restricts the Holy Spirit, so even regeneration is not miraculous…it is merely the “tipping point” when the rational mind has been convinced to begin serving God over self….half-Pelagian.
no religion, ever produced examples of; and it is still more surprising that the clergy themselves (as I approved before), and published to the world, that the people do not join in public worship; and the most learned and sensible part of the laity feel and acknowledge that it is very difficult and dangerous for them to join in it, as it is performed at present; and yet that none of our clergy have compassion and humility to propose, nor any of the laity resolution to demand a change, but that all them sit down with an absurd and dangerous way of worship, introduced partly by necessity, and partly by enthusiasm, in the distracted days of our Reformation; disapproved of by our ablest reformers from the beginning, as witness John Knox, who composed and used a form of prayer; and only approved of and supported by the silly ignorant vulgar, who have so little knowledge, either of the nature, or the importance of prayer, that they would not give themselves the trouble to go to church, unless it were to hear a sermon; and by the turbulent and self-sufficient part of the clergy, who find that it gives them a fair opportunity to sow discord, propagate fiction, and prostitute are worship to their foolish fondness for popularity.
That the mob who placed great merit in hearing many sermons, and thinking preaching the most important part of public worship, should be fond of our present method, is no wonder it all, for our extemporary effusions are rather sermons and prayers. It is natural to for the ambitious, enthusiastical, and libertine part of our clergy to be warmly attached to our present way of worship; it most effectually answers their several purposes; it affords the ambitious a large field for displaying their popular talents, and an excellent opportunity to preach themselves; it gives enthusiasts and libertines
fair scope to vent their whimsical and pernicious principles: indeed nothing can be better calculated for propagating sedition, heresy, enthusiasm and party principles, then our present way of worship, since every minister has the composition of most of it, and the choice and management of the whole; so that it is no wonder if men of these characters be fond of it, nay it would be very surprising if they could be persuaded to give up our present method.
But it is not easy to conceive why the learned, Orthodox, and pious part of our clergy, who have no other views but the good of souls, and the glory of God, have not endeavored to remedy these ills, by composing and authorizing such a form of prayer as might enable every congregation in the kingdom to offer their prayers upon truly Christian principles: or how it comes to pass that the sensible and pious part of our laity (though they can hardly miss to see, that it is inconsistent with religion, and common sense, to trust the most solemn part of the worship to the discretion, honesty, and ability often of the strangers whom they have never seen before, and always of individuals, of whose weakness and folly they have many instances) choose to run such a terrible risk.
I have contributed my poor mite to deliver the laity from the hardships and dangers to which they are exposed by our present way of worship; and as (I think) I have made it obvious, that the present method is attended with great inconveniences and eminent danger to us poor lay man: I may likewise hope that the rulers of the church will lay our case to heart, and take such methods as may enable us to offer a rational service to the great source of reason, and to lift up holy hands with without perplexity, fear, or danger.
Witherspoon says the best service is “rational service to the great source of reason” because he sees the higher rational mind as the spirit of man and God as the Eternal Spirit that must use reason (truth impressions) to saves people...one of the MANY problems with that theory is it does not account for “ye must be born again” and the Holy Spirit activity in saints as described in the Bible.
While our case continued as it is, our churches may indeed be crowded by those who have not sense to see their danger, nor attention to perceive upon how many opposite principles they are made to pray; persons who have never perhaps in all their lives reflected upon the nature and importance of prayer, and come to church partly because it is the custom, or at most to hear a sermon; but they who consider the nature and importance of public worship will hardly choose, in a thing of so great consequence, to be blindfolded and led by the parson.
With all humility and due deference, I submit the whole to your consideration, more extensive learning, and better judgment, and to the candid reflection of all pious Christians, and am, with the greatest respect,
your most obedient,
and most humble servant,
May 8th, 1758
A. T. Blacksmith.
Now the reader can see why John Witherspoon kicked out the ‘enthusiast” staff at the College of New Jersey, including Jonathan Edwards, Junior within a year of his taking charge as president in 1768.