When John Witherspoon was implored by the New Lights in New Jersey to leave Scotland and come lead struggling Princeton, it was chiefly because of his reputation as a defender of Reformed orthodoxy that they wanted him. And this well-deserved reputation was owing in large part to a satirical work Witherspoon had written lampooning the left wing off the Church of Scotland.

By the middle of the 18th century Presbyterians in Scotland were divided into two parties: the more liberal Moderate Party and the evangelical Popular Party. Witherspoon, siding strongly with the evangelical wing, published (anonymously) biting satire called Ecclesiastical Characteristics (1753) in which he laid out twelve (and later added a thirteenth) maxims for becoming a moderate man. It’s not a long work, but quite humorous and surprisingly contemporary at many points

Here are some Witherspoon’s best maxims for becoming “fierce for moderation.”

Maxim 1: All ecclesiastical persons of whatever rank, whether principals of colleges, professors of divinity, ministers or even probationers, that are suspected of heresy are to be esteemed men of great genius, vast learning, and uncommon worth; and are, by all means, to be supported and protected

Maxim 3:  It is a necessary part of the character of a moderate man never to speak of the Confession of Faith but with a sneer; to give sly hints that he does not thoroughly believe it; and to make the word orthodoxy a term of contempt and reproach.

Maxim 5: A minister must endeavor to acquire as great a degree of politeness, in his carriage and behavior, and to catch as much of the air and manner of a fine gentleman as possibly he can.

Maxim 11: The character which moderate men give their adversaries of the orthodox party must always be that of “knaves” or “fools;” and, as occasion serves, the same person (if it will pass) may be represented as a “knave” at one time, and as a “fool” at another.

Maxim 12: As to the world in general a moderate man is to have great charity for Atheists and Deists in principle, and for persons that are loose and vicious in their practice; but none at all for those that have a high profession of religion, and a great pretense to strictness in their walk and conversation.

Years later when Witherspoon confirmed that he was the author of the Characteristics, he defended himself by saying “A satire that does not bite is good for nothing.” Not a bad rule of thumb. Satire should not be the first weapon chosen in defense of the gospel, but it does have its place in the battle.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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