Kevin DeYoung is Senior Pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Charlotte, North Carolina and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon: Calvinism, Evangelicalism, and the Scottish Enlightenment (Routledge, 2020).
JF: What led you to write The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon?
KD: The book is a revised version of the dissertation I completed at the University of Leicester under John Coffey. My interest in John Witherspoon was first piqued while reading on the origins of religious liberty in America. I started reading more and more about Witherspoon, and quickly I wanted to read everything I could from Witherspoon. I’m fascinated by how getting to know this one figure has helped me go deeper in a variety of topics: from the theology of Reformed Orthodoxy to the history of the trans-Atlantic awakenings to controversies in the Scottish Kirk to the philosophy of the Enlightenment to the founding of America. In particular, I wrote this book to push back against the received narrative that presents Witherspoon as a confused thinker who capitulated to Enlightenment ideas once in America and infused a deleterious Common Sense Realism into the bloodstream of the colonies.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon?
KD: John Witherspoon is known for many things—he was a thorn in the side of the Moderate Party in the Scottish Kirk, a successful president at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), an influential moral philosopher, the conduit of Scottish Common Sense Realism into the civic and ecclesiastical life of the American colonies, an ardent supporter of the American Revolution, and, most famously, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Most scholars, however—in overlooking his parish sermons, his treatises on justification and regeneration, his Lectures on Divinity, his student addresses at Princeton, his lifelong commitment to the Westminster Standards, and his work as a Presbyterian churchman in the United States—have failed to see that Witherspoon was not just a president, philosopher, and founding father, he was also an important theologian and Reformed apologist.
JF: Why do we need to read The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon?
KD: John Witherspoon’s career and ministry can be divided into almost two equal halves. For twenty-five years—from his ordination in 1743 until he sailed across the Atlantic in 1768—Witherspoon was a minister in the Church of Scotland, serving two congregations (Beith and Paisley), both on the outskirts of Glasgow. After moving to America, Witherspoon labored another twenty-six years, still as a preacher, but now also as a college president and a founding father of a new republic. Witherspoon’s theology (not to mention Witherspoon the person) cannot be understood unless we see him not only engaged with the Scottish Enlightenment, but firmly grounded in the Reformed tradition, embedded in the transatlantic evangelical awakening, and frustrated by the state of religion in the Kirk. The focus in the book on Witherspoon’s Scottish career is intentional: those that know his Scottish context well tend to be less conversant with the nuances of Reformed theology, while those that show an interest in theology tend to mine the first half of Witherspoon’s career in order to set the stage for his more famous endeavors in America. Both groups are more interested in Witherspoon’s Enlightenment credentials than his Reformation roots. My contention is that Witherspoon’s ministerial career, and the theology that drove it, deserve scholarly inquiry of their own, quite apart from whatever the Scotsman would go on to accomplish in the New World.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
KD: My first calling is to be a pastor, but as a local church pastor I also have the unique opportunity to teach history and theology at a nearby seminary. I’ve always loved old books and the detective work that comes along with digging through the past. As a Christian, I consider academic history to be an exercise in loving my (dead) neighbor as myself. While we never articulate the past in a pristine way free from all biases, I strive to understand the people, movements, and ideas from the past with the same intellectual honesty and sympathy I would hope to be looked at in the future.
JF: What is your next project?
KD: I have a lot of projects in the works, most of which are on a popular level. I’m finishing up a storybook Bible along the lines of my children’s book, The Biggest Story. I’m working with the same illustrator, Don Clark, to create a book of 104 stories drawn equally from the Old and New Testaments. The big project I’ll start next is a book compiling 365 short chapters on important theological topics and terms. My hope is that the book will be used by some as a daily devotional, by some as a reference guide, and by others as a mini-systematic theology. In the future, I’d also like to see Witherspoon’s theological works and sermons published for a wider audience, and eventually I’d like to write a biography.
JF: Thanks, Kevin!