When Evangelist George Whitefield began preaching the Great Awakening Revival in Philadelphia in 1739, he inspired the idea that the city should have a school for blacks and poor orphans.
A short-lived Charity School was formed, but it struggled for lack of funds. It was purchased by Ben Franklin in 1749 who expanded it into a secondary school for boys called the Academy of Philadelphia, opening in 1751. In 1754, it expanded again with the College of Philadelphia, later being renamed the University of Pennsylvania.
Twenty-one members of the Continental Congress graduated from there. Nine of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were either trustees or alumni from there. A statue of Evangelist George Whitefield is located in University of Pennsylvania’s Dormitory Quadrangle.
Hugh Williamson, born Dec. 5, 1735, was a student at the College of Philadelphia. He was in the college’s first class to graduate, May 17, 1757. Five days later, his father died. While Williamson had been a student, he instructed younger students at the Academy of Philadelphia in English and Latin.
Another person who taught at the Academy of Philadelphia was Charles Thomson, who became the Secretary of Congress, signed the Declaration, designed the Great Seal of the United States, and signed Congress’ authorization for Robert Aitken to print the Bible. Upon retiring from Congress, Charles Thomson spent 19 years compiling the “Thomson Bible” (printed in 1808), which contained the first American translation of the Greek Septuagint.
Hugh Williamson, at age 24, 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. He was also disaffected by the theological debates that grew out of the Great Awakening Revival – between the “Old Lights” and the “New Lights”, between the church leaders who were rigid and orthodox in their teachings, and the younger “New Lights” who were zealous and evangelical.
In 1760, Williamson joined the faculty at his alma mater, the College of Philadelphia, where he was professor of mathematics. After four years, Williamson traveled to Europe to study medicine. He 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.
An American statesman in London who heard Williamson’s patriotic answers to the Privy Council was Ben Franklin – founder of the school Williamson graduated from and taught at. 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 1780, Dr. Williamson was attached to the command of Brigadier General Isaac Gregory. General Isaac Gregory adopted the tactics of South Carolina’s Francis Marion, nicknamed “Swamp Fox” – who would launch surprise attacks on British forces then retreat into inhospitable lands. General Gregory stationed his troops in the the Great Dismal Swamp – over 100,000 acres of dangerous wetlands between southeast Virginia and North Carolina. Dr. Williamson’s insistence on sanitation, diet and preventive medicine kept the troops virtually disease free during their six months there.
After the war, in 1782, North Carolina elected Dr. Williamson as a representative to Congress.
North Carolina’s 1776 Constitution that was in effect at the time 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.” (“Protestant” was changed to “Christian” in 1835, then changed in 1868 to belief in “Almighty God.”)
While in Congress, Dr. Williamson helped write the Northwest Territory laws. He was part of the committee that proposed a clause, though it was later struck, for: “… 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.”
The final version of the Northwest Ordinance, July 13, 1787, included:
Sec. 13. And, for extending the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty, which form the basis whereon these republics, their laws and constitutions are erected. …
Art. 1. No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments, in the said territory. …
Art. 3. Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent. …
Art. 6. There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory.
From May 25 to Sept. 17, 1787, Dr. Hugh Williamson was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia where he helped write the U.S. Constitution, lodging at the same residence as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Williamson signed the Constitution, then helped convinced North Carolina to ratify it.
Thomas Jefferson related of Dr. Williamson’s reputation at the Constitutional Convention: “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 Scottish 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 chaplain 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 president 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. Married to a sister of Dr. Benjamin Rush, he served as a chaplain in the Revolutionary War with Colonel Smallwood’s Maryland Regiment. He 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.
- John Joachim 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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