A Scottish Minister and American Patriot
Of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, only one was a minister. John
Witherspoon was an outstanding 18th-century preacher and patriot who
made an indelible mark on the infant American Republic. How he came to
do so is a fascinating story.
Born in 1723 in the Scottish
village of Gifford, near Edinburgh, John Witherspoon was the son of
pious parents. His father was a minister and his mother was the daughter
of a minister. At age 13, Witherspoon enrolled at the University of
Edinburgh. In 1739, having just reached the age of 16, Witherspoon
defended his thesis and received his diploma. But he stayed at the
university four more years, focusing his studies on theology.
1745 Witherspoon was ordained and installed as a minister of Beith
parish in the west of Scotland. He was just 22 years old. Two years
later he married Elizabeth Montgomery, and they eventually had 10
children, only five of whom survived childhood.
flourished as a parish parson. He practiced what was called the plain
style of preaching; he stressed that preachers should be forceful, yet
restrained in the pulpit. They should avoid any unnatural rants or
Witherspoons stature as a theologian and
writer grew rapidly. He was named moderator of the presbytery, spoke
before the Synod of Glasgow and was elected to the General Assembly. By
the 1760s, Witherspoon was the most popular preacher in Britain, and
many of Scotlands largest churches tried to recruit him. He declined
all such invitations except one from abroad.
In 1766 the
trustees of the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton, invited
Witherspoon to become the president of their young institution. In 1768
the Witherspoons and their five children crossed the Atlantic and
landed at Philadelphia. At Princeton, then a small village of about 50
houses, the students all 90 of them gave Witherspoon a rousing
In his first commencement address, President Witherspoon
insisted that religion without learning produces fanaticism, while
learning without religion breeds skepticism. His hope was to enable
learning to inform faith and vice versa.
Witherspoons arrival in
Princeton coincided with rising tensions between Britain and the
Colonies. The parson president wholeheartedly supported the American
cause. In 1776, he was elected to the Continental Congress.
for his thick Scottish accent, Witherspoon impressed the members of the
Congress with the depth of his knowledge of political theory, his
command of the language, his passion and his eloquence.
Frenchman who observed the speeches in the Continental Congress stated
that Witherspoon had a certain air that distinguished its possessor,
compels the deference of others, and places him higher above his fellow
than girth, honors, or even merit. When the Congress
debated the issue of declaring independence, Witherspoon urged his
colleagues to declare that we are firmly determined never to submit to
(the claims of Great Britain), and we deliberately prefer war with all
its horrors, and even extermination itself, to slavery riveted on us and
Five months after the Declaration was signed,
British troops captured Princeton and ransacked the college. They burned
Witherspoon's library and ignited his rage. His anger at the British
increased when James, his eldest son, was killed in the battle of
Germantown in 1777.
During the Revolution, Witherspoon spent most
of his time in Philadelphia serving in Congress. He served on more than
100 governmental committees during the Revolution, and he wrote many of
Gen. George Washingtons addresses and proclamations.
war ended, Witherspoon remained politically active. He was a delegate to
the New Jersey convention that ratified the new federal constitution in
1787. He also served in the state legislature, and he helped organize
the national Presbyterian Church in 1789. In that year, there were 177
Presbyterian ministers in the new nation, and 97 of them were Princeton
graduates, 52 of them Witherspoons own students.
first wife died in 1789. Two years later he married Ann Dill, a
24-year-old widow, when he was almost 70. Witherspoon and his new wife
had two daughters, one of whom died in infancy.
Not long after
his second marriage, Witherspoons health began to fail. In 1792 a fall
from his horse left him blind. Still, every third Sunday, he entered the
Princeton pulpit and preached one of his old sermons from memory.
Nov. 15, after a brief illness, he died at his country home, Tusculum,
not far from Princeton. He was 73. Always a person of restless energy,
resolute action and keen interest in current affairs, Witherspoon, even
at the end, refused to give up. His last request was to have the latest
newspaper read to him.
John Witherspoon led a full and fulfilling
life. His piety and patriotism served the nation well, and his
dedication to liberal learning, his church and his country provides a
model for all of us.