James Madison, 1775, 1787

Following is a Sermon entitled Christian Magnanimity, preached by Rev. Witherspoon (Preacher of the Gospel and Tutor to James Madison) in September, 1775, to Princeton’s graduating Senior Class:

Christian Magnanimity
Preached at Princeton, September, 1775 – the Sabbath preceding the
Annual Commencement;
And again with additions, September 23, 1787.
To which is added
to the
Who were to receive the Degree of
President of the College of New-Jersey.

I Thessalonians, chapter 2, verse 12.
“That you would walk worthy of God, who hath called you into
his kingdom and glory.”

The present state was intended to be, and I think must, by every person of reflection, be admitted to be a continual trial of the faith and constancy of a Christian. It is therefore a duty we owe to others in general, but in a special manner, the elder to the younger, to give them faithful warning of the temptations and dangers, to which they must, of necessity, be exposed, if they mean to walk in the paths of piety and virtue. It hath often occurred to me, in meditating on this subject, that as false money is most dangerous, when it is likest to the true, so those principles and that character, which approach the nearest to true religion, if notwithstanding they are essentially different from it, will be most ready to impose on an uncautious and unsuspecting mind. Therefore, if there is such a thing as a worldly virtue, a system of principles and duty, dictated by the spirit of the world, and the standard of approbation or blame with the men of the world, and if this is at bottom, essentially different from and sometimes directly opposed to the spirit of the Gospel, it must be of all others, the most dangerous temptation to persons of a liberal education and an ingenious turn of mind.

This, if I am not mistaken, is really the case. There are some branches of true religion which are universally approved, and which, impiety itself, cannot speak against; such as truth and integrity in speech, honesty in dealing, humanity and compassion to persons in distress. But there are other particulars, in which the worldly virtue and the Christian virtue seem to be different things. Of these, I shall select one, as an example, viz. spirit, dignity, or greatness of mind. This seems to be entirely of the worldly cast: It holds a very high place in the esteem of all worldly men: The boldest pretensions are often made of it, by those who treat religion with neglect, and religious persons with disdain or defiance.

It is also a virtue of a very dazzling appearance; ready to captivate the mind, and particularly, to make a deep impression on young persons, when they first enter into life. At the same time, the Gospel seems to stand directly opposed to it. The humility of the creature, the abasement and contrition of the sinner, the dependence and self-denial of the believer, and above all, the shame and reproach of the Cross itself, seem to conspire in obliging us to renounce it.

What shall we say, then, my brethren? Shall we say that magnanimity is no virtue at all, and that no such excellence belongs to human nature? Or shall we admit that there is beauty and excellence in it – confessing at the same time, that it does not belong to religion, and only say, that though we want this, we have many other and better qualities in its place? To this I can never agree; for every real excellence is consistent with every other; nay, every real excellence is adorned and illustrated by every other. Vices may be inconsistent with each other, but virtues never can. And, therefore, as magnanimity is an amiable and noble quality – one of the greatest ornaments of our nature, so I affirm, that it belongs only to true and undefiled religion, and that every appearance of the one, without the other, is not only defective, but false.

The Holy Scriptures, it is true, do chiefly insist upon what is proper to humble our pride, and to bring us to a just apprehension of our character and state. This was wise and just, because of that corruption and misery into which we are fallen, the contrary would have been unjust. It is evidently more necessary, in the present state of our human nature, to restrain pride, than to kindle ambition. But as the Scripture points out our original dignity, and the true glory of our nature, so every true penitent is there taught to aspire after the noblest character, and to entertain the most exalted hopes. In the passage which I have chosen as the subject of my discourse, you see the Apostle exhorts the Thessalonians to walk suitably to the dignity of their character, and the importance of their privileges, which is a short but just description of true and genuine greatness of mind.

My single purpose, from those words, at this time, is to explain and recommend magnanimity as a Christian virtue; and I wish to do it in such a manner, as neither to weaken its lustre, nor admit any degree of that corrupt mixture, by which it is often counterfeited and greatly debased. Some infidels have in terms affirmed, that Christianity has banished magnanimity, and by its precepts of meekness, humility, and passive submission to injury, has destroyed that nobleness of sentiment, which rendered the ancients so illustrious, and gives so much majesty and dignity to the histories of Greece and Rome. In opposition to this, I hope to be able to show that real greatness is inseparable from sincere piety, and that any defect in the one, must necessarily be a discernible blemish in the other. With this view, I will (first) give you the principles of magnanimity in general, a natural quality; (secondly) I will show what is necessary to give it real value, as a moral virtue, and (thirdly) show that it shines with the most perfect brightness as a Christian grace; after, I will improve the subject, by a practical application of what may be said for your instruction and direction.

First, then, let me state the principles of magnanimity, in general, as a natural quality. I think it must be admitted, that as there is a real difference between bodies as to size and bulk, as well as other sensible qualities, so there is a real character of greatness, or meanness, applicable to the mind, distinct from its other qualities or powers. It is, however, I apprehend, a simple impression, which cannot be explained or further analyzed, but may easily be felt, and is best illustrated by its effects. These may be summed up in the following particulars: To magnanimity it belongs to attempt, 1. great and difficult things; 2. To aspire after great and valuable possessions; 3. To encounter dangers with resolution; 4. To struggle against difficulties with perseverance; and 5. To bear sufferings with fortitude and patience.

1. It belongs to magnanimity to attempt great and difficult things. Those, who, from a love of sloth and ease, neglect the exercise or improvement of their powers, and those who apply them with ever so great assiduity and attention, to things mean or of small consequence, are plainly destitute of this quality. We perceive a meanness and want of spirit in this respect, when particular persons fall below their rank in life, or when, as is too frequently the case in any rank, they fall below human nature itself. When a prince, or other person of the first order and importance in human life, busies himself in nothing but the most trifling amusements, or arts of little value, we call it mean; and when any man, endowed with rational powers, loses them through neglect, or destroys them by the most groveling sensuality, we say he is acting below himself. The contrary of this, therefore, or the vigorous exertion of all our powers, and particularly, the application of them to things of moment and difficulty, is real magnanimity.

2. It belongs to magnanimity, to aspire after great and valuable possessions. It is more difficult properly to illustrate this as a branch of magnanimity, because of its frequent perversion, which will be afterwards explained. It seems, however, to be necessarily included in the general character. A great mind has great capacities of enjoyment as well as action. And as there is a difference between the blessings in our view, both in point of dignity and extent, such a man will not be easily satisfied, or put up with what is either mean or scanty, while he can acquire and possess a better and more extensive portion. The large and increasing desires of the human mind, have often been made an argument for the dignity of our nature, and our having been made for something that is great and excellent.

3. It belongs to magnanimity to encounter dangers with resolution. This is inseparable from, and constitutes a leading part of the character. Even the most excellent and valuable services to mankind, if they are attended with no difficulty at all, or meet with no opposition, though they retain the character of utility, yet for want of this circumstance, they lose that of greatness. Courage is always considered a great quality; it has had the admiration, or rather, adoration, of mankind in every age. Many, when they speak of magnanimity, mean nothing else but courage, and when they speak of meanness, have little other idea but that of timidity. Neither is there, I think, any human weakness, that is more the object of contempt and disdain than cowardice, which, when applied to life in general, is commonly called pusillanimity.

4. It belongs to greatness, to struggle against difficulties with steadiness and perseverance. Perseverance is nothing else but continued and inflexible courage. We see persons, who show the greatest activity and boldness for a season, but time and opposition weakens their force, and seems, if I may speak so, to exhaust their courage, as if they wasted the power by the exertion. Perseverance, therefore, is necessary to greatness. Few things are more contrary to this character, than fickleness and unsteadiness. We commonly join together, the characters of weak and unchangeable…

5. In the last place, it belongs to greatness to bear sufferings with fortitude and patience. This is a kindred quality to the former, and is necessary to complete the character of magnanimity. Such is the state of human things, that suffering is in one way or another, wholly unavoidable. It often happens, that difficulties cannot be removed, or enemies cannot be conquered; and then it is the last effort of greatness of mind, to bear the weight of the one or the cruelty of the other, with firmness and patience. This virtue has always been of the greatest reputation …1

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Witherspoon, John, D.D., L.L.D., President of the College of New-Jersey. Christian Magnanimity: A Sermon, Preached at Princeton, September, 1775 – the Sabbath preceding the Annual Commencement; And again with additions, September 23rd, 1787. To which is added An Address to the Senior Class, who were to receive the Degree of Bachelor of Arts. Princeton: Printed by James Tod, l787. Library of Congress, Rare Book Collection.

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