Today’s critics assert that Christians should not be involved with politics
or government, and especially that ministers should not be involved. Such opposition
is not new. In fact, two centuries ago, Founding Father John Witherspoon delivered
a sagacious rebuttal to these same objections.

Courtesy: Independent National Historical

John Witherspoon (1723-1794) was a distinguished Founding Father – the president
of Princeton University, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a ratifier of the U.S. Constitution. He served on over 100 committees in Congress and was head of the Board of War (essentially, he was the congressional “boss” for Commander-in-Chief George Washington). But John Witherspoon was also a minister of the Gospel – he
was the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon! In fact, Dr. Witherspoon was the Billy Graham
of his day – one of the most famous American ministers of that era, with volumes
of published Gospel sermons.

A provision in the 1777 Georgia constitution reflected the belief that ministers
should not be involved in politics. Supporters of this provision asserted the
ministry of the Gospel was so important that ministers should not be distracted
from their duty. (For example, the 1777 New York Constitution explained, “Whereas
ministers of the Gospel are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of
God and the care of souls and ought not to be diverted from the great duties
of their function; therefore, no minister of the gospel . . . shall be eligible
to . . . any civil office within this State.”) Following this same logic, the
Georgia constitution declared, “No clergyman of any denomination shall be allowed
a seat in the legislature.”

When Dr. Witherspoon learned of this prohibition, he penned the following tongue-in-cheek
piece exposing the absurdity of that position. Interestingly, when Georgia wrote
its third Constitution in 1798, a strong declaration of the rights of religious persons was inserted – a vast change from
its first Constitution.

Following is Dr. Witherspoon’s writing on why ministers should be able to serve
in State legislatures:


In your paper of Saturday last, you have given us the new Constitution of
Georgia, in which I find the following resolution, “No clergyman of any denomination
shall be a member of the General Assembly.” I would be very well satisfied
that some of the gentlemen who have made that an essential article of this
constitution, or who have inserted and approve it in other constitutions,
would be pleased to explain a little the principles, as well as to ascertain
the meaning of it.

Perhaps we understand pretty generally, what is meant by a clergyman, viz.
a person regularly called and set apart to the ministry of the gospel, and
authorized to preach and administer the sacraments of the Christian religion.
Now suffer me to ask this question: Before any man among us was ordained a
minister, was he not a citizen of the United States, and if being in Georgia,
a citizen of the state of Georgia? Had he not then a right to be elected a
member of the assembly, if qualified in point of property? How then has he
lost, or why is he deprived of this right? Is it by offence or disqualification?
Is it a sin against the public to become a minister? Does it merit that the
person, who is guilty of it should be immediately deprived of one of his most
important rights as a citizen? Is not this inflicting a penalty which always
supposes an offence? Is a minister then disqualified for the office of a senator
or representative? Does this calling and profession render him stupid or ignorant?
I am inclined to form a very high opinion of the natural understanding of
the freemen and freeholders of the state of Georgia, as well as of their improvement
and culture by education, and yet I am not able to conceive, but that some
of those equally qualified, may enter into the clerical order: and then it
must not be unfitness, but some other reason that produces the exclusion.
Perhaps it may be thought that they are excluded from civil authority, that
they may be more fully and constantly employed in their spiritual functions.
If this had been the ground of it, how much more properly would it have appeared,
as an order of an ecclesiastical body with respect to their own members. In
that case I should not only have forgiven but approved and justified it; but
in the way in which it now stands, it is evidently a punishment by loss of
privilege, inflicted on those, who go into the office of the ministry; for
which, perhaps, the gentlemen of Georgia may have good reasons, though I have
not been able to discover them.

But besides the uncertainty of the principle on which this resolution is
founded, there seems to me much uncertainty as to the meaning of it. How are
we to determine who is or is not a clergyman? Is he only a clergyman who has
received ordination from those who have derived the right by an uninterrupted
succession from the apostles? Or is he also a clergyman, who is set apart
by the imposition of hands of a body of other clergymen, by joint authority?
Or is he also a clergyman who is set a part by the church members of his own
society, without any imposition of hands at all? Or is he also a clergyman
who has exhorted in a Methodist society, or spoken in a Quaker meeting, or
any other religious assembly met for public worship? There are still greater
difficulties behind: Is the clerical character indelible? There are some who
have been ordained who occasionally perform some clerical functions, but have
no pastoral charge at all. There are some who finding public speaking injurious
to health, or from other reasons easily conceived, have resigned their pastoral
charge, and wholly discontinued all acts and exercises of that kind; and there
are some, particularly in New England, who having exercised the clerical office
some time, and finding it less suitable to their talents than they apprehended,
have voluntarily relinquished it, and taken to some other profession, as law,
physic, or merchandize[sic]–Do these all continue clergymen, or do they cease
to be clergymen, and by that cessation return to, or recover the honorable
privileges of laymen?

I cannot help thinking that these difficulties are very considerable, and
may occasion much litigation, if the article of the constitution stands in
the loose, ambiguous form in which it now appears; and therefore I would recommend
the following alterations, which I think will make every thing definite and

“No clergyman, of any denomination, shall be capable of being elected
a member of the Senate or House of Representatives, because {here insert
the grounds of offensive disqualification, which I have not been able to
discover} Provided always, and it is the true intent and meaning of this
part of the constitution, that if at any time he shall be completely deprived
of the clerical character by those by whom he was invested with it, as by
deposition for cursing and swearing, drunkenness or uncleanness, he shall
then be fully restored to all the privileges of a free citizen; his offence
shall no more be remembered against him; but he may be chosen either to
the Senate or House of Representatives, and shall be treated with all the
respect due to his brethren, the other members of Assembly.”

(Source: John Witherspoon, The Works of John Witherspoon, (Edinburgh:
J. Ogle, Parliament-Square, 1815), Vol. IX, pp 220-223.)