Founders and the Constitution
John Witherspoon (1723-1794)
One 45-minute class period.
In this lesson, students will study the life of John Witherspoon and his influence on religious freedom in America. They will learn about the significance of Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution, the concept of a “religious test” for public office, and much more.
Freedom of Religion
The freedom to exercise one's own religious beliefs without interference from the government is essential to the existence of a free society.
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
Representative / Republican Government
Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
Nothing is more certain than that a general profligacy and corruption of manners make a people ripe for destruction. A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery must ensue. - John Witherspoon
John Witherspoon, a Scottish immigrant to America, was a minister, member of the Continental Congresses, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He made his most important contribution to the causes of American independence and liberty, however, in his role as an educator. Witherspoon was president of the College of New Jersey (later, Princeton University) for twenty-six years, between 1768 and 1794.His ideas about religion, education, and free enterprise had a significant impact on his contemporaries. Witherspoon himself taught one president (James Madison) and one vice president (Aaron Burr). He also instructed nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three justices of the Supreme Court, and twelve state governors. Five of the fifty-five members of the Constitutional Convention were his former students.
Witherspoon’s impact on the ministry of the Presbyterian Church was also significant. Of the one hundred seventy-seven ministers in America in 1777, fifty-two of them had been Witherspoon’s students. As a clergyman active in public affairs, Witherspoon resented the clause in Georgia’s new constitution of 1777 that expressly forbade clergymen of any denomination from sitting in the legislature. He wrote a letter protesting this exclusion, but the clause was not removed until 1798, four years after Witherspoon’s death.
In this lesson, students will learn about John Witherspoon. They should first read as background homework Handout A—John Witherspoon (1723–1794) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to these questions in class, the teacher should have the students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. The teacher should then review what the Constitution (in Article VI) says about a religious test for office. Next, the teacher should introduce the students to the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: John Witherspoon on the Clergy in Politics, in which Witherspoon offers his ironic commentary on the role of the clergy in politics. As a preface, there is Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document, and, as a follow-up, there is Handout D—Discussion Questions.
There are Follow-Up Homework Options that ask the students to analyze and reflect upon the role of the clergy in politics today. Extensions provides opportunity for thought as students are asked to compare religious liberty in the United States today with the role of religion in other historical or cultural environments.
- understand the significance of Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution
- compare and contrast the statements about religion in the Georgia Constitution of 1777 with those in the federal Constitution
- analyze the concept of a “religious test” for public office and apply that concept to contemporary society
- appreciate the ironic humor of John Witherspoon
- Handout A—John Witherspoon (1723–1794)
- Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C—In His Own Words: John Witherspoon on the Clergy in Politics
- Handout D—Discussion Questions
Additional Teacher Resource
- Answer Key
CCE (9–12): IIA1, IIC1, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10
Ask students to read Handout A—John Witherspoon (1723–1794) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.
Warm-up 10 min.
- Review answers to homework questions.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
- Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of John Witherspoon.
John Witherspoon was a minister, college president, member of the Continental Congresses, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. His ideas about religion, education, and free enterprise had a significant impact on his contemporaries.
Context 5 min.
- Explain to the students that the Constitution explicitly prohibits religious tests for office at the federal level. Write on the board (or distribute copies of) Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office of public Trust under the United States.
- Point out to the students that many of the Founders did not object to religious tests for office at the state level. Indeed, at the time the Constitution was adopted, several state constitutions included religious tests for office, for voting, or both. The Constitution indirectly acknowledges the validity of such religious tests for voting. Article I, Section 1 declares that each state’s voting qualifications for its lower house shall be the voting qualifications for the United States House of Representatives:
The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several States, and the elector in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State Legislature.
- Explain to the students that the Founders did not intend for the liberties and rights guaranteed by the first ten amendments to apply to the states. The idea that the amendments to the Constitution should apply to the states came much later, in the “incorporation” decisions issued by the Supreme Court. The establishment clause of the First Amendment, therefore, was binding only on the federal government:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
In His Own Words 20 min.
- Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions.
- Distribute Handout C—In His Own Words: John Witherspoon on the Clergy in Politics and Handout D—Discussion Questions. Give students a few minutes to review the questions.
- Read the letter aloud to students, emphasizing the irony and sarcasm of Witherspoon’s writing. (Students sometimes find it difficult to determine the tone of a passage when reading it on their own.)
- Ask students to pair up with partners to answer the discussion questions in Handout D.
- Bring the class back together for large-group sharing.
Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.
Ask the students to answer these questions:
- What is a “religious test” for office?
A “religious test” for office means that a person must belong to a certain religious domination or adhere to certain religious beliefs in order to serve in elected office. This was a practice in England and in some of the American colonies.
- Why does the Constitution prohibit such a test?
Because of the multiplicity of religious sects in America, the Founders determined that the official establishment of a particular religion at the federal level was both impractical and unjust.
Follow-Up Homework Options
Students could answer the following questions in a class discussion or for homework:
- Was the Georgia prohibition on ministers in public office a type of religious test?
- Should members of the clergy (e.g., rabbis, ministers, priests, imams) be elected to public office? Why or why not?
Students could compare and contrast the constitutional freedom of religion in the United States today with the role of religion in these societies:
- seventeenth-century Massachusetts
- eighteenth-century Virginia
- contemporary Iran or Saudi Arabia
- Afghanistan under the Taliban
Miller, Thomas, ed. Selected Writings of John Witherspoon. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.
Morrison, Jeffrey Hays. “John Witherspoon and ‘The Public Interest of Religion.’” Journal of Church and State 41 (Summer 1999): 551–574.
Noll, M. Princeton and the Republic, 1768–1822. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Stohlman, Martha Lou Lemmon. John Witherspoon: Parson, Politician, Patriot. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989.
Trait, L. Gordon. The Piety of John Witherspoon: Pew, Pulpit, and Public Forum. Louisville: Geneva Press, 2001.
“John Witherspoon.”U.S.History.org. <http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/signers/witherspoon.htm>.
By John Witherspoon
- Lectures on Moral Philosophy
- Handout A: John Witherspoon (1723–1794)
- Handout B: Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C: In His Own Words: John Witherspoon on the Clergy in Politics
- Handout D: Discussion Questions
- Thematic Essays