Witherspoon Fellowship

By Pat Centner, AFA Journal staff writer

September 2003 – Just weeks before putting pen to paper and becoming the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Rev. John Witherspoon challenged a Princeton, New Jersey, congregation in the Spring of 1776: 

"I beseech you to make wise improvement of the present threatening aspect of public affairs, and to remember that your duty to God, to your country, and to your families, and to yourselves, is the same."

A prominent minister who later served in public office, Witherspoon is best remembered as president of what is today Princeton University. Touted by historians as "the man who shaped the men who shaped America," students of Witherspoon included a total of 172 public servants, including judges, legislators, a vice-president and a president.

One contemporary of Witherspoon observed that he was devoted to advancing the "cause of Christian liberty by forming the minds of youth." It stands to reason, then, that a professional fraternity established for the same purpose years later would be named after this unusually gifted man.

Today,  Witherspoon Fellowship is a civic and cultural leadership development program of the Family Research Council (FRC), a nonprofit public policy, research, and education organization committed to upholding family, faith, and freedom in America's social and political arenas. Under the FRC umbrella, the Fellowship prepares Christian college students for leadership and service in public station by providing a semester of intense academic and spiritual training at FRC's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Chartered in 1997, Witherspoon Fellowship is the brainchild of Alan R. Crippen II, Fellowship rector, and FRC vice-president for policy and academic affairs. What began as a request by the FRC for Crippen to provide and direct an internship program resulted in a three-tiered plan to develop Christian leaders for public service.

According to Douglas C. Minson, associate rector, the Fellowship's program consists of three essential parts: academic, practicum and spiritual life.

"In the academic component, students participate in three seminars," explains Minson. 

"The first explores the family and plural social order ... and our goal is to provide students with a framework for understanding the rich multiformity of society and the family's role within it.  We're very concerned about what Richard Neuhaus identifies as the 'naked public square' – an attempt to sustain the democratic experiment without religious insights, without religious sensibilities. We think preserving Witherspoon's (and all the Founders') vision for the American experiment requires conserving these insights. 

"The second and third seminars examine the role of Christianity in shaping Western political theory, and the role that natural law plays in shaping public discourse and policy.

"In the practicum," Minson adds, "the fellows work three days a week with an FRC supervisor, where they experience what it's like to be involved in the public square, working on behalf of the family in public policy. I'm delighted to say that they contribute substantially to the work of FRC– they're not here to photocopy.

"The third part of the program includes the community and spiritual life dimension. ... In order to prepare students for public station in the future, we believe they must be both intellectually and morally formed. So we have them living, studying, and worshiping together. Itís in this phase that we see coming to fruition the exciting work that God is doing in their lives." 

The Fellowship's program is funded solely by donations. Each semester 14 students are chosen from stringent qualifications. Those accepted receive free housing and a generous stipend to offset living expenses. 

Three grateful alumni attest to the programís impact upon their lives.

Doug Branch, financial advisor to Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, says it was through his experience with the Witherspoon Fellowship that his interest in politics began to grow.  For his internship, he worked in the government relations department at FRC.  "I actually got to write Congressional testimony to a House committee for one FRC policy expert," he remarks. 

"The great thing about the Fellowship is its emphasis on realizing the continuity between faith and reason, between sacred and secular," adds Branch. "The seminar classes are enriching; they help you look at concepts in new ways. ... It's really a very comprehensive program."

Another young man says he was fortunate to be "in the right place at the right time" when FRC hired him after his semester with the Witherspoon Fellowship. Dan Sullivan is a research assistant in FRC's Center for Human Life and Bioethics, where he works on issues such as cloning and abortion. 

Of his Witherspoon experience, Sullivan says: "It was great to be around role models like Alan Crippen and Douglas Minson. They really inspired me to be a committed Christian in public life and to live out God's calling every day in my personal life. ... The whole program provides the intellectual ammunition to go into the public square and have a positive effect on the world." 

Victoria Cobb says her semester with Witherspoon was vital in helping her prepare for her role as director of legislative affairs at the Family Foundation of Virginia in Richmond.

"I entered the Fellowship seeing it as good preparation for the field of work I was going into, which was the family policy movement," Cobb explains. "The Fellowship challenged me academically and spiritually to embrace the Judeo-Christian worldview in a more comprehensive way. ... I would readily recommend the program, because it not only provides the opportunity to experience academic rigor and employment in the pro-family movement, but it also provides fellowship with other young people seeking to walk out of that program and radically alter the world they live in." 

When asked how AFA Journal readers can help the Fellowship, Douglas Minson replied: "We hope they'll send us applicants. We also welcome their prayers. Pray that the fellows will comprehend the unbounded Lordship of Christ, ... and respond with an understanding of a Christian civic mandate, pressing on in the face of adversity with a hope thatís not born of them, but rather a confidence in the incarnate, ascended Lord of Creation."

For more information, call 202-393-2100 or on the Internet visit www.witherspoonfellowship.org.