May 17, 1776, was observed as a special day of fasting and prayer throughout the United Colonies, at the behest of the Continental Congress. From the Presbyterian pulpit in Princeton, New Jersey, came a message that turned the searchlight of God’s Word upon the accelerating crisis. The sermon, dedicated “to the Honorable John Hancock, Esq., President of the Congress of the United States of America” and read and discussed throughout the colonies and Great Britain, was entitled “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men.” The preacher was the president of the College of New Jersey, the Reverend John Witherspoon (1722–94), who was later to add his signature to the Declaration of Independence.

The course of events, Witherspoon proclaimed, must be understood in terms of the sovereign providence of God, which causes all things, even the wrath of man, to praise him. The activity of God in providence, he said, is to lead sinners to repentance, to correct and purify Christians, to restrain and bring to confusion the schemes of the wicked, and to defend and vindicate the righteous.

“In the present important conflict,” said Witherspoon, there is good reason “to put your trust in God, and hope for his assistance.” His argument is based upon the justice of the American cause: “If your cause is just … you need not fear the multitude of the opposing hosts.… You may look with confidence to the Lord and intreat him to plead it as his own.” “So far as we have hitherto proceeded,” he continued, “I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies, has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general ...

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