A signer of the Constitution licensed to preach?
This was Hugh Williamson, born Dec. 5, 1735. In 1754, he attended the newly formed school, College of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania), and graduated in the school’s first class. His father died five days later.
Hugh Williamson taught Spanish at Philadelphia Academy (founded by Ben Franklin – now the University of Pennsylvania). At age 24, Hugh Williamson decided to go into the ministry as a Presbyterian preacher.
John Neal recorded of Hugh Williamson in the Trinity College Historical Society Papers (NY: AMS Press, 1915): “In 1759 he went to Connecticut, where he pursued his theological studies and was licensed to preach. After returning from Connecticut, he was admitted to membership in the Presbytery of Philadelphia (the oldest in America) … (and there) preached nearly two years.”
Hugh Williamson visited and prayed for the sick, and gave sermons, until a chronic chest weakness convinced him he had to pursue a career that did not involve public speaking. In 1760, Williamson joined the College of Philadelphia faculty as a professor of mathematics. After four years, he traveled to Europe to study medicine and received a degree from the prestigious University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. After graduation, Dr. Hugh Williamson practiced medicine in Philadelphia.
In 1773, Williamson sailed for England to raise funds for Newark Academy, but stopped along the way in Boston, where he witnessed the Boston Tea Party. Upon reaching London, the Privy Council summoned him to testify on the rebellious actions in America. When the Privy Council began to discuss how to punish Boston for the Tea Party, Dr. Hugh Williamson warned them that continuing their high taxes would provoke the colonies into rebellion. He argued further that Americans should be entitled to full rights as Englishmen.
Another American in London who heard of Williamson’s patriotic answers was Ben Franklin. Returning to America in 1777, Dr. Hugh Williamson distinguished himself during the Revolutionary War as a surgeon general caring for wounded North Carolina troops. In 1782, North Carolina elected him as a representative to Congress.
North Carolina’s 1776 Constitution that was in effect at that time Hugh Williamson was elected, stated in Article 32: “That no person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the Divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this state.”
While in Congress, Dr. Williamson helped write the Northwest Territory laws, forbidding slavery and: “… reserving the central section of every township for the maintenance of public schools and the section immediately to the northward for the support of religion.”
In 1787, Dr. Hugh Williamson signed the U.S. Constitution and helped convinced North Carolina to ratify it.
Thomas Jefferson related Dr. Hugh Williamson’s reputation at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia: “He was a useful member, of an acute mind, attentive to business, and of an high degree of erudition.”
Dr. Hugh Williamson later became wealthy through investments and land speculations, and wrote extensively for medical and literary societies, winning international acclaim. He participated with Ben Franklin in conducting electrical experiments.
In 1811, Dr. Hugh Williamson wrote a respected book, “Observations of the Climate in Different Parts of America,” in which he refuted “higher criticism” of Scripture and gave scientific explanation for the credibility of stories in the Bible, such as Noah’s flood and the events of Moses’ exodus.
Dr. Hugh Williamson served as one of the original trustees of the University of North Carolina. Dying May 22, 1819, Dr. Hugh Williamson is buried at Trinity Church, in New York City.
In addition to Hugh Williamson, other pastors served in America’s government:
- Rev. John Witherspoon (1723-1794) was a Scots Presbyterian pastor and president of Princeton who was a delegate to the Continental Congress where he signed the Declaration of Independence.
- Rev. John Peter Muhlenberg (1746-1807) was a Lutheran pastor in Virginia who became a major general during the Revolutionary War, a U.S. Congressman and a U.S. Senator.
- Rev. Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg (1750-1801) was a Lutheran pastor in New York who was elected a U.S. Congressman and was the First Speaker of the House, signing the Bill of Rights.
- Rev. Abiel Foster (1735-1806) served as pastor in Canterbury, New Hampshire, a delegate to the Continental Congress, the New Hampshire Legislature and a U.S. Congressman.
- Rev. Benjamin Contee (1755-1815) was an Episcopal pastor in Maryland who served as an officer in the Revolutionary War, a delegate to the Confederation Congress, and a U.S. Congressman.
- Rev. Abraham Baldwin (1754-1807) served as a minister at Yale, a chaplains in the Revolutionary War, a delegate from Georgia to the Continental Congress, a U.S. Congressman and a U.S. Senator. He is the founding father of the University of Georgia.
- Rev. Paine Wingate (1739-1838) was a pastor in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, who served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, a U.S. Congressman and a U.S. Senator.
- Rev. Joseph Montgomery (1733-1794) was a Presbyterian pastor in New Castle, Delaware, who served as a chaplain in the Revolutionary War and was elected a delegate from Pennsylvania to the Continental Congress, a judge, and a representative in the State Assembly.
- Rev. James Manning (1738-1791) was a Baptist pastor in Rhode Island who was the first president of Brown University where, during the Revolutionary War, he allowed General Rochambeau’s French troops to camp on the campus grounds. He was elected a delegate to Congress.
- Rev. John Zubly (1724-1781) was a Presbyterian pastor in Georgia who was a delegate to the Continental Congress.
President Calvin Coolidge stated at the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia, July 5, 1926: “The principles … which went into the Declaration of Independence … are found in … the sermons … of the early colonial clergy who were earnestly undertaking to instruct their congregations in the great mystery of how to live. They preached equality because they believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They justified freedom by the text that we are all created in the divine image. … Placing every man on a plane where he acknowledged no superiors, where no one possessed any right to rule over him, he must inevitably choose his own rulers through a system of self-government. …”
Coolidge concluded: “In order that they might have freedom to express these thoughts and opportunity to put them into action, whole congregations with their pastors migrated to the Colonies.”
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