Witherspoon, John

views updated May 17 2018

Witherspoon, John

Born February 5, 1723 (Gifford, Scotland)

Died November 15, 1794 (Princeton, New Jersey)

Protestant theologian, educator

John Witherspoon was an American Founding Father, a noted clergyman, and an educator. He played an influential role in his home country of Scotland and in his adopted country, the United States. Witherspoon was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. From 1776 until 1782, he served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he helped draft the Articles of Confederation, America's first constitution. After the American Revolution (1775–83), Witherspoon was twice elected to the New Jersey legislature.

"A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery must ensue."

Witherspoon served as president of College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) from 1768 until 1794. In his role as educator, he taught many students who became leaders in early American public life. His students included future U.S. senators, governors, U.S. Supreme Court justices, and the future author of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison (1751–1836; see entry in volume 2), who would one day become the fourth U.S. president. Witherspoon played an important role in the organization of a newly independent and national Presbyterian Church. In 1789, he opened its first general assembly with a sermon and presided until the election of the first moderator (assembly leader).

Twenty years in the Church of Scotland

John Witherspoon was born on February 5, 1723, the son of Anne, or Anna, Walker and James Witherspoon, a minister of the Church of Scotland. Witherspoon, one of six children in the family, was born in the village of Gifford in the parish of Yester, Scotland, 18 miles east of Edinburgh Castle. He received his early education at home before attending the preparatory school in Haddington, Scotland. At the age of thirteen, Witherspoon was considered advanced for his age and was admitted to the University of Edinburgh. He studied Latin, Greek, logic, and philosophy. Witherspoon graduated in 1739, at the age of sixteen, with a master of arts degree.

Witherspoon went on to study theology (the research of religious truth and the nature of God) and gained a license to preach on September 6, 1743. He was called as minister of the Church of Scotland parish in Beith, Ayrshire, in 1745, where he was ordained, or formally became a minister. That same year, an invasion by Charles Edward Stuart (1720–1788), known as the Young Pretender, threw Scotland into turmoil. Stuart was trying to recapture the throne of England and Scotland for his family after his grandfather, King James II (1633–1701; reigned 1685–88), had been exiled to Italy for his Roman Catholic beliefs. Witherspoon joined other parish leaders in gathering troops to fight against the rebellion, but he was soon captured by Stuart's forces. He endured a brief but harsh imprisonment in Castle Doune near Stirling. In April 1746, Stuart's forces were defeated by the English army, ending the war. Stuart escaped to Europe where he remained for the rest of his life.

In reestablishing his life after the war, Witherspoon married Elizabeth Montgomery on September 2, 1748. The couple had ten children, five of whom died during childhood.

The Church of Scotland faced new challenges when Witherspoon was a young minister. Leaders in the Moderate, or liberal, Party of the church were challenging the Popular Party, which held a more traditional Christian faith. The Moderates were associated with closer ties to the government and selecting clergy by a central authority. The Popular Party favored continued independence of congregations and selecting their own ministers.

Witherspoon was an aggressive leader of the Popular Party, and in 1753 he published a witty satire (literary ridicule) about the Moderate Party called Ecclesiastical Characteristics. Published anonymously in Glasgow, Scotland, the pamphlet came out in multiple editions over the next few years from printers throughout Europe and North America. When his identity as the author became known, Witherspoon gained celebrity status. He continued his attacks on the Moderates' theology with additional publications. In June 1757, Witherspoon was asked to serve at the Laigh Kirk church in Paisley, near Glasgow. There, he continued his stand against the increasing liberalism (nontraditional views) of the Moderate Party. In 1764, the University of St. Andrews awarded Witherspoon an honorary degree of doctor of divinity in recognition of his theological skills and leadership in the Popular Party.

Witherspoon moves to America

Witherspoon was gaining fame abroad and enjoying popularity at home as the lively theological debate went on in the Church of Scotland. American Presbyterians knew of Witherspoon through his writings, which established him as a man of orthodoxy (belief in long-standing church traditions and established doctrine) and a first-rate scholar. He also had a reputation for possessing a good sense of humor to accompany his commonsense philosophy. Witherspoon's name came up when the trustees of the College of New Jersey (see box) found themselves in need of a new president. In 1766, the New York and Philadelphia Presbyterians recruited Witherspoon to come to America to head the college and lead the Presbyterian Church. He was interested in the position, but his wife, Elizabeth, had no interest in leaving Scotland or her family and friends. She had a great fear of crossing the ocean to begin life in a new land, so Witherspoon regretfully declined the offer.

Though Witherspoon had already turned down the offer, negotiations were kept alive by the continued efforts of Benjamin Rush (1745–1813; see box), a young American and graduate of the College of New Jersey who was studying medicine in Edinburgh at the time. Rush spent several days with the Witherspoons, calming Elizabeth's fears and talking away her objections. He succeeded in persuading her to move to America, and final arrangements were made. Witherspoon packed up the family's belongings along with three hundred books to add to the college library. The Witherspoons and their five surviving children arrived in Princeton, New Jersey, on August 12, 1768. The students and faculty had arranged a warm reception to make the family feel welcome in their new country. The Witherspoons were greeted a mile out of town and escorted the rest of the way. When they got to the college, the family saw a candle illuminating each window of the institution in celebration of their arrival.

Witherspoon was forty-five years old when he became the sixth president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton. He immediately went to work revising the college curriculum by adding the study of philosophy, history, and public speaking. Witherspoon insisted that his students master the English language so that they would be well equipped to take part in the political and social debates of the day. He introduced French as an elective for students who wanted to study a modern language, and he taught the classes himself. In addition to managing the college's affairs, Witherspoon taught a full load of courses and preached twice each Sunday.

Princeton University

Education in colonial America began with various religious denominations. They provided instructors and raised the funds to support schools and colleges, not only to ensure scholarly clergymen but also to develop enlightened citizens. The Congregationalists established Harvard and Yale, the Anglicans founded William and Mary, the Baptists established Brown, and the Presbyterians started Princeton.

A religious revival swept through the American colonies in the early eighteenth century. There was an urgent need for ministers to fill the vacancies in existing churches and in the new colonies. Because the Mid-Atlantic colonies showed the greatest need for higher education, several leaders of the Presbyterian Church met to plan the creation of a new institution in New Jersey. Of the original group who met, six were graduates of Yale and one was from Harvard. Their task was to create a new institution, erect buildings, secure financial support, and employ a competent faculty. The organizers solicited financial aid, and on October 22, 1746, New Jersey governor John Hamilton granted them a charter for their college. Trustees were chosen, and Jonathan Dickinson (1688–1747) was elected president of the new College of New Jersey. The college opened its doors in the spring of 1747 in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

When Dickinson died several months later, the infant college moved 6 miles down the road to Newark, where the new president, Aaron Burr Sr. (1715–1757), resided. Finances remained a concern during the early years of the school. In 1753, two delegates were sent to Britain and Ulster, Ireland, in hopes of securing funds for buildings and other financial need. They were successful in their mission, and plans went forward to build a new campus in the little village of Princeton. The quiet country town, once known as "Prince Town," was situated along the road halfway between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. Near the center of the village, the trustees built a massive stone building called Nassau Hall. Its name was given in memory of King William III (1650–1702; reigned 1689–1702), who was of the house of Nassau. The distinguished building itself was modeled carefully after King's College in Cambridge, England, but with less ornamentation.

Aaron Burr Sr. died in September 1757; three more school presidents died in office between then and the summer of 1766. At that time, the college sought out John Witherspoon from Scotland to serve as its sixth president. Witherspoon would serve from 1768 until his death in 1794.

The College of New Jersey officially became known as Princeton University in October 1896. Throughout its early history, Princeton carried out its purpose of training clergymen for the ministry and for public service. The institution played a major role in the creation and development of an independent America by training many notable graduates.

The College of New Jersey had been founded for the express purpose of training young men in ministry to care for the growing Presbyterian Church in America. A split in 1741 left the church divided into Old Side and New Light factions. The Old Side Presbyterians favored traditional means of worship at established churches with trained ministers. The New Light Presbyterians were influenced by the revival movement, which included ministers traveling across the country, often giving sermons in town markets or wherever crowds gathered. Witherspoon experienced great success in reuniting the quarreling sects. His moderate style and earnest desire to produce a well-educated clergy won him support from both sides.

Witherspoon became involved in trying to resolve some financial problems the college was having. He traveled extensively throughout the colonies, raising funds and recruiting

Dr. Benjamin Rush

The young nation was led by a number of bright professionals in the late eighteenth century. Dr. Benjamin Rush was the recognized leader in the medical field.

Rush was born in January 1746 near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, John Rush, was a farmer and gunsmith. After graduating from the College of New Jersey, later Princeton, in 1760, Rush served in a medical apprenticeship for six years before sailing to Scotland, where he received a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh. Rush returned to Philadelphia in 1769 and began his medical practice. He also taught medicine and chemistry at the College of Philadelphia, later the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. In 1770, Rush published the first American textbook on chemistry.

Rush also became a prominent Patriot during the American Revolution. He served in the Continental Congress in 1776, where he became one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He then served for a year as surgeon general for the Continental Army before resuming his practice and teaching. In 1787, Pennsylvania sent Rush as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention held in his hometown of Philadelphia. Rush supported the new constitution that was drafted at the convention and signed his approval alongside the names of the nation's Founding Fathers. In 1797, President John Adams appointed Rush treasurer of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, a position he held for the rest of his life.

Rush was also a social activist supporting many causes, including education for women. He was also an outspoken critic of slavery and helped establish the abolitionist society (a group opposed to slavery) in Philadelphia. In his medical practice, Rush favored bloodletting, a controversial treatment that supposedly purged disease from a person's body by profuse bleeding. He conducted major bloodletting during the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s, perhaps causing many deaths simply from the loss of blood. Rush also became a leading expert on mental health and authored the first American book on psychiatry in 1812.

students. He cultivated a great deal of goodwill even as he doubled the college's endowment (money donations) within the first year.

American Founding Father

By 1776, Princeton was attracting nearly as many students as highly popular Yale and enjoyed a record number of graduates. However, the American Revolution put Princeton in a difficult position: The town became a battleground, and at various times the main college building, Nassau Hall, was used as quarters by British and Continental Army troops. The military occupation destroyed much of the college campus and its most important piece of scientific equipment, the Rittenhouse Orrery. The orrery was an apparatus used to show the relative positions and motions of celestial bodies in the solar system. It was a prized possession. The library that Witherspoon had helped expand was also destroyed. Witherspoon worked hard at keeping college in session during the war years.

Witherspoon was a firm supporter of the American colonies in their war against Britain. On June 22, 1776, he was selected by New Jersey as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Within days, Witherspoon voted for and affixed his signature to the Declaration of Independence. He was the only clergyman to do so. He served in the Continental Congress until November 1782 while he helped draft the Articles of Confederation. Witherspoon won the respect of his colleagues and was appointed to more than one hundred committees; many of the committees dealt with matters of considerable importance, such as negotiations with foreign powers. War also brought personal tragedy when Witherspoon's son James, a 1770 graduate of the College of New Jersey, was killed at the Battle of Germantown in Philadelphia in October 1777.

When American victory seemed certain and peace was at hand, Witherspoon resigned from Congress and returned to Princeton full-time in the fall of 1782. The campus buildings and the school's finances were in disarray. Student life in the early years of the republic was bleak because of the damaged facilities and the limited availability of food. Witherspoon set about rebuilding the college, a project to which he would devote the rest of his days. By July 1783, parts of Nassau Hall had been sufficiently repaired to serve a second purpose: For four months that year, the building housed the Continental Congress, bringing such statesmen as George Washington (1732–1799; see entry in volume 2), John Adams (1735–1826; see entry in volume 1), and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; see entry in volume 1) to Princeton.

Life after the Revolution

Witherspoon continued the work of restoration at Princeton even as he returned to public service in the New Jersey legislature in 1783. In 1787, Witherspoon was a member of the New Jersey convention that approved the U.S. Constitution. (New Jersey was the third state in the union to approve it.) Five members of the 1787 Constitutional Convention were former students of Witherspoon's. To Witherspoon, religion and politics were intertwined. Religious faith was essential to him if true liberty was to be achieved. Faith and liberty were so connected in his teaching that a generation of Americans was deeply affected. Witherspoon believed that a righteous people needed only limited governing; he therefore taught that a government's main purpose was simply to protect and defend its citizens.

Elizabeth Witherspoon, never fully content in her new country, died in 1789. Two years later, John Witherspoon married a twenty-four-year-old widow from York County, Pennsylvania, named Ann Dill. They had two daughters, but only one survived to adulthood. Health problems soon took their toll on Witherspoon. In 1784, he had had a shipboard accident that blinded him in one eye. A fall from his horse injured the other eye, causing it to steadily deteriorate. By 1792, Witherspoon was totally blind. When surgery failed to improve his situation, Witherspoon resigned himself to his fate and continued with his presidential duties with the help of an assistant. During Witherspoon's final years, his son-in-law, Samuel Stanhope Smith, increasingly carried more responsibility for college affairs and was himself elected president of the college in May 1795.

On November 15, 1794, the seventy-one-year-old Witherspoon died at home on his farm, known as "Tusculum," just outside of Princeton. On November 18, his body was brought to Nassau Hall, where it lay in state while grieving friends, colleagues, and students paid their last respects. Witherspoon was laid to rest in the president's lot at Princeton. He had dedicated his life to service, and he left both college and country in a better state than he had found them.

For More Information


Brodsky, Alyn. Benjamin Rush: Patriot and Physician. New York: Truman Talley Books, 2004.

Collins, Varnum Lansing. President Witherspoon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1925. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Hawke, David Freeman. Benjamin Rush: Revolutionary Gadfly. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.

Sloan, Douglas. The Scottish Enlightenment and the American College Ideal. New York: Columbia University Teachers College Press, 1971.

Wertenbaker, Thomas Jefferson. Princeton 1746–1896. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946. Reprint, 1996.

Web Sites

"John Witherspoon (1723–1794)." Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.http://www.acton.org/publicat/randl/liberal.php?id=249 (accessed on August 17, 2005).

"John Witherspoon 1723–1794: Representing New Jersey at the Continental Congress." Independence Hall Association.http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/signers/witherspoon.htm (accessed on August 17, 2005).

John Witherspoon

views updated May 29 2018

John Witherspoon

John Witherspoon (1723-1794) was a Scottish-born American Presbyterian divine and educator. He transformed the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) from a poor theological seminary into a vigorous academic community.

John Witherspoon was born into a ministerial family near Edinburgh on Feb. 5, 1723. He matriculated at the University of Edinburgh at 13 and took his master of arts degree in 1739 and his divinity degree 4 years later. In 1745 he accepted the call to the pulpit of Beith in Ayrshire. There he married Elizabeth Montgomery, who bore him ten children, only five of whom survived.

In 1757 the town of Paisley offered him its church and he served there for the next eleven years. An eloquent spokesman for the Popular (conservative) church party, he deplored the spiritual vacuity of the "paganized Christian divines" of his day and attracted the attention of intellectuals at home and abroad for his courage and leadership. As moderator of the synod of Glasgow and Ayr, he delivered a powerful sermon, "The Trail of Religious Truth by Its Moral Influence" (1759), in which he decried the flabby "theory of virtue" that was replacing "the great and operative views of the Gospel."

President of the College of New Jersey

Witherspoon was just the man for the presidency of the College of New Jersey, which was torn between new-and old-side factionalism, and the job was offered him in 1766. But his wife thought that to leave home "would be as a sentence of death to her." The persuasiveness of Benjamin Rush, an alumnus of the college, and now a medical student at Edinburgh, finally allayed her fears. Witherspoon and his family arrived in America in August 1768, loaded with valuable books for the college library.

The call to the college in Princeton, N.J., was more than an educational mission. The Presbyterian Church was divided in counsel and looked to the new president to heal its wounds. As Rush explained to Witherspoon, the college president "was from his office as it were the bishop of all our American churches and ruled in all our church judicatories," and his voice "has hitherto been a law in our synods." Under Witherspoon the schism was healed, the organization strengthened, and the church grew rapidly toward its union with Congregationalism in 1801.

As a college administrator, Witherspoon had equal success. His personal energy and magnetism filled the mismanaged and inadequate coffers. He pressured his trustees into purchasing substantial additions to the library and the finest scientific additions to the library and the finest scientific equipment, of which David Rittenhouse's orrery was the most coveted item. For the traditional recitations he substituted lectures on the largely neglected fields of history and rhetoric, and he encouraged his professors to promote more science and mathematics, while he himself taught French to those who wanted it. As the Colonies drew closer to revolution, he promoted public speaking and literary exercises on current events in an effort to fashion the civil leaders of the next generation. But his most abiding intellectual achievement was to introduce to America the Scottish commonsense philosophy, which quickly made short shrift of his tutors' infatuation with the idealism of George Berkeley.

Political Activities

The American Revolution put a damper on this progress. The students dispersed, Nassau Hall was mutilated in turn by British and colonial troops, and Witherspoon was drafted into a frantic round of political duties. From an early involvement in New Jersey committees of correspondence, he went on to sign the Declaration of Independence and to serve on a hundred congressional committees, including two important standing committees—the Board of War and the Committee on Secret Correspondence, or Foreign Affairs. He took an active part in the debates over the Articles of Confederation and helped organize the executive branch and draw up the instructions of the American peace commissioners.

Though Witherspoon was often absent from the college, leaving his son-in-law Samuel Stanhope Smith in charge, the institution was never far from his thoughts. While in Congress, he criticized the galloping depreciation of currency that was pinching endowed institutions, extracted a grant of £7,250 from Congress for damages to Nassau Hall, and fought for military deferments for students and teachers. When he returned to full-time teaching in 1782, the college was in relatively sound condition, though it never fully recovered from the war during his lifetime.

The remainder of Witherspoon's busy years were spent in rebuilding the college. He lost an eye on a fruitless fundraising trip to Great Britain in 1784, and his total sight in 1792. When his wife died, the 68-year-old president delighted the college community by marrying a young widow of 24, by whom he had two daughters. On Nov. 15, 1794, "our old Scotch Sachem" (as Benjamin Rush affectionately called him) died at his farm near Princeton.

Further Reading

The definitive, scholarly biography of Witherspoon is Varnum L.Collins, President Witherspoon (2 vols., 1925). Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker places the man in his academic setting in Princeton, 1746-1896 (1946).

Additional Sources

Stohlman, Martha Lou Lemmon, John Witherspoon: parson, politician, patriot, Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989, 1976. □

Witherspoon, John

views updated Jun 08 2018

Witherspoon, John

WITHERSPOON, JOHN. (1723–1794). Signer, clergyman, college president, member of Congress. Scotland-New Jersey. Born in Gifford, Scotland, on 5 February 1723, Witherspoon was the son of a minister and followed his father's calling. At the early age of sixteen he earned a master of arts degree from the University of Edinburgh, getting his divinity degree in 1743. Ordained on 11 April 1745, he became minister to Beith in Ayrshire. That same year he raised troops to oppose Charles Stuart, was taken prisoner at the Battle of Falkirk, and suffered a brief but harsh imprisonment in Castle Doune before Stuart was defeated. Witherspoon became well-known as a leader of the Popular Party in the Church of Scotland, which argued for the right of congregations to pick their own ministers and against the secular ways of the Moderates. In 1757 he became pastor in Paisley, and his fame spread to America. Richard Stockton was sent from New Jersey in 1766 to offer Witherspoon the presidency of the College of New Jersey (later called Princeton). But Witherspoon's wife, Elizabeth Montgomery, did not want to leave Scotland. Two years later Benjamin Rush, who was studying medicine in Edinburgh, made a personal appeal to the Witherspoons, winning them both over. They arrived in Princeton on 12 August 1768.

As president of the College of New Jersey, Witherspoon infused new life into the institution, building up its endowment, its faculty, and its student body until the military events of 1776 interfered. Before the war broke out he had introduced the study of philosophy, French, history, and oratory. Not a profound scholar himself but with the ability of a real educator, he deplored book learning for its own sake, discouraged pure scholarship, and worked on the theory that an education should make a man useful in public life.

Although he disapproved of ministers taking part in politics, he quickly gravitated to the Patriot camp, awarding honorary degrees to John Dickinson, Joseph Galloway, and John Hancock for their defense of liberty. In 1774 he became a member of the Somerset County Committee of Correspondence, attended provincial conventions, and took a prominent part in the imprisonment of the Loyalist governor William Franklin. On 22 June 1776 he was chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress, arriving in time to vote for independence and to sign the Declaration. He remained a delegate until November 1782, serving on more than one hundred committees, including the committee on secret correspondence for foreign affairs, and on the Board of War. He also worked to silence the Loyalist publishers Benjamin Towne of Philadelphia and James Rivington of New York, as well as writing pamphlets in opposition to the issue of paper money.

After leaving Congress, Witherspoon was elected to the New Jersey legislature in 1783 and 1789 and was a federalist member of the New Jersey ratifying convention in 1787. He devoted most of his energies until his death on 15 November 1794 to rebuilding the College of New Jersey.

Witherspoon also left his mark on American religion. He had reached America at a time when the Presbyterian Church was badly divided between the New and Old Side elements engendered by the Great Awakening of the 1740s. He played a key role in unifying America's Presbyterians and was closely identified its growth in the mid-Atlantic states and on the frontier. By 1776, with the help of a large influx of Scots—Irish, the church was firmly entrenched in the new country. From 1785 to 1789 Witherspoon helped organize the church nationwide, assisting in the crafting of its catechisms, confessions of faith, and government.

SEE ALSO Stockton, Richard.


Collins, Varnum L. President Witherspoon: A Biography. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1925.

Green, Ashbel, ed. Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon. 4 vols. Philadelphia: Woodward, 1802.

                              revised by Michael Bellesiles

Witherspoon, John

views updated May 21 2018


Presbyterian minister, president of Princeton University, N.J.; b. Yester, Scotland, Feb. 5, 1723; d. Princeton, Nov. 15, 1794. He was the son of a Presbyterian clergyman. Educated at Haddington Grammar School and the University of Edinburgh, he was ordained in 1754. Witherspoon resisted every effort to modify the doctrine and polity of his church, publishing Ecclesiastical Characteristics (1755) and Essay on the Doctrine of Justice (1756) to combat innovators. He accepted a call to be president of Princeton and came to the U.S. in 1768. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and served in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1782. After the American Revolution, he succeeded in organizing the Presbyterian Church on a national basis and was the first moderator of its General Assembly.

Bibliography: Works, 4 v. (2d ed. rev. Philadelphia 1802). v. l. collins, President Witherspoon, 2 v. (Princeton 1925), with bibliog. l. h. butterfield, John Witherspoon Comes to America (Princeton 1953).

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