19 June 2015

Convivium 2015 Part 4: Two Perspectives on the War for Independence

On the second day of the Convivium Stephen Wolfe, a graduate student at LSU and Andrew Fulford, who is pursuing his Ph.D. at McGill University, presented papers with contrasting takes on the worldviews of pro-independence Jonathan Witherspoon and Loyalist thought generally. (You can catch up on my earlier posts about the Convivium if you'd like by going here, here, and here.)

Wolf's paper, "Witherspoon's Enlightenment in Light of the Reformed Tradition" focused on Witherspoon's separation of natural and special revelation. He was an Old Side Presbyterian when it came to theology and suspicions of "revival" but followed his erstwhile secularizing Scottish Moderates when it came to moral theory. And it was Witherspoon's moral theory that had an enormous impact on Americans generally and--perhaps, no one knows for sure--his prize Princeton pupil, James Madison.

Two-Kingdoms fans will likely find nothing objectionable in Witherspoon's dichotomization of theology and morality. After all, earlier writers including most in the Reformed tradition had held that morality could be derived from natural law. However, they regularly articulated an explicit connection between the God who was the foundation of both special and general (natural) revelation, an important element that Witherspoon neglected. Indeed, Witherspoon's blithe acceptance of the deliverances of reason--and reason likewise without an explicit foundation in biblical anthropology--set up nineteenth century Presbyterians for problems when unaided reason took a decidedly unbiblical turn.

Fulford, the friendly Canadian (and Queen's subject) that he is, then presented his paper, "The Legacy of Protestant Thought in Loyalism." Loyalists were most definitely not Tories. They, like their pro-Independence neighbors, were committed to the British Constitutionalism described by Dr. Glenn Moots. In other words, they were Whigs.

Yet if Loyalists were committed to constitutionalism, why were they not fighting for independence? Fulford finds the answer to that question in social status. In other words, while Loyalists may have chafed under authoritarian direct British rule, they feared rule by fellow Americans even more. Loyalists tended to be found among the weaker, marginalized elements of Colonial society and were concerned that their status would fall further without the stabilizing effects of rule from London.

All in all, two fine examples of the theme of Convivium 2015: "The Trans-Atlantic Legacy of Protestant Political Thought."

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