John Witherspoon (1723-1794)
By Kelly Flake
February 13, 2006
John Witherspoon’s memory resides in the pages of American and British history for several classes of accomplishments. Those who refer to Witherspoon’s piety remember him as a Presbyterian minister faithful to Calvinist doctrine and inspired by a vision for the American denomination. Others, who regard Witherspoon in his collegiate context, recall his academic achievements that culminated at the College of New Jersey. Still others, who remember Witherspoon as an important figure in the American political scene, find Witherspoon’s name listed on the Declaration of Independence. In fact, the reverend was the only religious leader to sign the proclamation. Thus, considering the broad scope of Witherspoon’s achievements, “one is driven to wonder,” said biographer Varum Lansing Collins, “what manner of man this many-sided Scotsman was who… could come to a new country and, within the swift compass of a quarter of a century, leave on its history an impress so broad, so deep, so unimagined.” What is sure, Witherspoon’s prodigious breadth of achievements placed him in a preeminent position in the eighteenth century cultural landscape. He became a key ingredient in the rising changes in American thought. In particular, Witherspoon brought simultaneously to the forefront of the fledgling nation both Scottish Enlightenment philosophy and Presbyterian theology.
The precocious John Witherspoon seemed from an early age destined to study theology. Witherspoon, in fact, was born into an ecclesiastical family line—a line that included the famous Presbyterian from Scotland, John Knox. Few, then, were surprised when at age four, Witherspoon could read the Bible. Just after his thirteenth Birthday in February 1736, Witherspoon entered college. From Aberdeen University, Witherspoon earned a Doctorate of Divinity at age sixteen. At twenty years old, he received his licensed to preach. Subsequently, St. Andrews University honored his intellectual distinction by conferring on him an honorary D.D. Shortly after attaining his licensure, Witherspoon accepted a call to a pulpit in Beith, Scotland. As he rose in public distinction, his sermons began to frequent the press. Thus, there came a time when London and Edinburgh read his theological essays and sermons almost as soon as they were written.
When in 1745 rebellion among Highlanders against British rule broke out, Witherspoon formed a small contingency of volunteers to quell the rebellion Pretender forces. Though the company disbanded before entering the fight, Witherspoon’s leadership in the crisis demonstrated early a bent toward civic duty. One biographer noted that this battle response arose in Witherspoon instinctually as part and parcel to his family heritage, a heritage that evinced certain meaning behind his name. “In his veins was racing an atavistic strain of fighting blood,” said he, “the blood of ancestors who bore the wooden ‘spon’ or spear, whence came the family name.” At the battle of Falkirk, too, Witherspoon made an appearance. To this latter scene, Witherspoon came as a spectator. He left, however, as a prisoner of war confined by the rebels in the Castle Doune. Brief though the stay in prison was, Witherspoon never fully recovered physical strength. His pugnacious character, however, suffered no depreciation from the violent event. Witherspoon remained an ardent defendant of the Scottish Popular party against the Moderates. His views fell in line with the old orthodox and conservative positions in piety and politics. Several early publications resulted from Witherspoon’s attack on the Moderates, including “Ecclesiastical Characteristics” (1753), “Essay on Justification” (1756), and “Serious Enquiry into the Stage” (1757). These sermons earned for him the high reputation of a fearless fighter for “personal piety and simple evangelical truth.”
After serving the congregation in Beith for twelve years, Witherspoon transplanted to a small urbanizing town called Paisley, which would be the city of his residence until he departed for America. In 1766, the presidential seat opened at the College of New Jersey (which Jonathan Edwards had occupied until his death in 1758). Witherspoon’s high academic acclaim, his so described “sense of presence,” and his commitment to traditional Calvinism made him the trustee’s natural choice for the position. Reverend Witherspoon at first declined the invitation, especially as his wife Elizabeth, with whom he had ten children, made herself reluctant to go to the new country. With time, however, Benjamin Rush, a student at the College of New Jersey, convinced the couple that the future of the college made their move a matter of urgency. By 1768, then, Witherspoon regarded his acceptance of the offer as a moral duty.
And indeed, the extent of Witherspoon’s public service in America easily justified his sense of calling to the new country. Many references to Princeton University’s history, for instance, hail Witherspoon for his work in transforming the then-named College of New Jersey into a more formidable place of higher education. Though he became President with no real experience in academic administration, his sense of vision and his indefatigable enthusiasm prompted his energy in improving the institution. Witherspoon began at once to introduce European methods to the school, starting with the Grammar curriculum and continuing to the top. He broadened the emphasis on historical, literary and scientific subjects, and aimed to thus prepare his students for graduate education. James Madison, in fact, entered the college under Witherspoon. The young American leader thought so highly Witherspoon’s reforms that he stayed on after graduation to study under Witherspoon and became the first of the college’s graduate students.
Witherspoon’s educational reforms made a significant impact on the American founding. Princeton more than any other school at the time received students from across the colonies, and many of these, like Madison, eventually contributed to the growing national leadership. Nine of the twenty-five college graduates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention were from Princeton, while four were from Yale and three from Harvard. Moreover, Madison and other Princeton graduates under Witherspoon helped to shape the formation of the Constitution itself. Witherspoon believed that the role of higher academics ought not to be merely to train persons for traditional academic professions, but also to prepare “young Gentlemen for serving their country in public Stations.” “There are now under my care,” he wrote in 1772 to a member of the British Aristocracy,
many who in a very short time will be at the head of affairs in their several provinces, and I have already and shall continue to temper the spirit of liberty, which breathes high in their country, with just sentiments, not only of loyalty to our excellent sovereign, in which they do not seem to be defective, but with a love of order and an aversion to that outrage and sedition into which the spirit of liberty when not reined is sometimes apt to degenerate.
He was not ignorant of the power that his academic chair afforded him in shaping the direction of revolution thought.
Fittingly, then, Witherspoon gave great emphasis to English and oratorical studies at the college. Side-stepping from traditional education that placed classical studies at the forefront of study, Witherspoon increased requirements for competence in reading and speaking English. Moreover, he encouraged the replacement of the regular dissertation recitations in Latin with discursive discussions and debates in English, which often covered subjects as contemporary as the most recent political controversies. During these speeches, the college welcomed public guests to attend and make comments. It ought to be said that Witherspoon made these changes with a mind toward practicalities. He argued that greater attention to the English language would benefit students because students would use English more frequently than any other language both throughout the course of their day-to-day lives and, most importantly, in the public sphere.
In fact, all of Witherspoon’s vigorous institutional changes reflected personal characteristics that he would later demonstrate in his political career: namely a mind given to practicalities and a proclivity for civic duty. Witherspoon noted once that he would learn more about being an American by living in America three months than by reading about it for three years. Sure enough, the financial disparagement of the college at the time of Witherspoon’s inception created a need for him to travel. Thus, he became quickly familiar with the colonial landscape. From thence, Witherspoon began to form strong opinions on colonial politics. Before long, he considered himself unreservedly American. This meant to him that he had gained a citizenship that came with duties to contribute to the formation of the national character. In September 1774, Witherspoon made a start at just that by representing New Jersey at the Convention to elect delegates to the Continental Congress. Then, in 1776, Witherspoon played an important role in removing British rule from the New Jersey colony. He became one of five representatives for the state at the Continental Congress in June of that year. He arrived just in time to hear one delegate say that the colonies were not yet ripe for independence. “It is not only ripe for the measure,” Witherspoon replied, “but in danger of rotting for the want of it!” During the following August, Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence. Through his political career, Witherspoon put his own educational philosophy that aimed to make civil leaders out of learned men into practice.
Witherspoon carried out a distinguished Congressional career. Serving in Congress through 1782 with only a one year break in 1780, Witherspoon contributed to a nearly innumerable array of committees. These included the Committee for Clothing the troops, the Board of War, and the Committee on Secret Correspondence. The then-aged Scot also steered his political activity toward the administration of humane politics. As Collins listed them, for instance, this became evident in, “the investigation of the physical condition of the troops and the treatment of prisoners, in proposals looking toward a humaner conduct of the war, and in the adjustment of controversies like that over the hospital service, or of graver crises like the mutiny of 1781.”
Moreover, Witherspoon believed that faith should overarch political action. More and more Witherspoon infused his sermons with this message during the Revolution period. In 1776, for instance, Witherspoon wrote the famous sermon entitled “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men.” He wrote with rollicking rhetoric and stirring didacticism aiming—and in his aim he succeeded—to prod he hearts of pious men towards matters of political concern. “He is the best friend to American liberty, who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion and who sets himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind,” he argued. The sermon concluded with a striking benediction that emphasized Witherspoon’s hope that religion would be allowed to maintain a directing influence over civil society. He wrote: “God grant that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable, and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may in the issue tend to the support and establishment of both.” And while he spoke thus from the pulpit, he also made corresponding actions from Congress, writing with his own pen many of the Congressional proclamations for thanksgivings, fast-days, and days of prayer.
Witherspoon is perhaps best remembered in American history, however, not just for the roles he filled as parson, president, and politician, but also for the important philosophical and theological schools of thought that he brought with him from Scotland. Mark Noll, for instance, cites Witherspoon as an inheritor of an important school of Enlightenment thought called Scottish “common sense” philosophy. Influenced by the moral philosophy of Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) and the work of Thomas Reid (1710-1796), the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, “shared the general confidence of eighteenth-century Europe that it was now possible to see the truth—moral, physical, social—with greater clarity than in previous generations,” Noll explained. “The key to the Scottish point of view,” Noll continued, “was its appeal to universal (or ‘common’) experience (or ‘sense’).” Witherspoon brought this philosophy to the College of New Jersey. Students under Witherspoon who later took part in forming national leadership worked Scottish Enlightenment philosophy into their politics. Thus, common sense insights greatly influenced many founding works and documents such as the Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence, and The Constitution. The republican founders saw the Scot’s philosophy as a useful means for building a foundation of civic morality without formally instituting a national religion. Though American Enlightenment thought can be traced to several early sources, Witherspoon’s inception at the College of New Jersey marked the greatest transformation from earlier Edwardsian philosophy (which drew largely upon Calvinistic and Augustinain theology) to Scottish common sense in the American public dialogue.
Furthermore, when Witherspoon retired from the College of New Jersey, he applied his energy to his pastoral duties. The first General Assembly of the American Presbyterian church met in May 1789, and they asked Dr. Witherspoon to act as the preacher and moderator. Though at this point in Witherspoon’s life he did not rise to the leadership of this committee with the full vigor of his youth, the marks of his influence on the development of the American denomination’s character was impressive. The Assembly later published a book of government and discipline, for which Witherspoon had written a short preface. After his term, though not without the influence of his thought, the Assembly printed a revision of the Westminster Directory, which, according to one biographer, “gave the American Presbyterian Church its own character.”
Witherspoon reached the close of his life in his Princeton home. Naturally, he spent some of his remaining energy on rebuilding the college. He also served as a member of the New Jersey convention that approved the Constitution in 1787 and thus made New Jersey the third state. In 1789, Witherspoon’s wife Elizabeth died. A year later, the sixty-seven year old Witherspoon courted briefly a handsome woman in her mid-fifties named Annis Stockton. Stockton, however, did not regard the courtship as a serious affair. She playfully enjoyed the attentions of Witherspoon, but believed her aged suitor to be much too withered to entertain genuine thoughts toward marriage. Stockton wrote the following comical verse about Witherspoon, invoking the character of Cupid:
This little God of Love is a roughish elf:
He makes old age look foolish as himself.
Oh, luckless lot—
His bow he drew
And true he shot
Twang—went the string
Whiz—flew the dart
On a gray goose quill
To an old man’s heart.
Despite Witherspoon’s put-down from Stockton, he won the hand of an even younger bride just one year later. The widow of a former student, Ann Marshall Dill, who was at the time only twenty-four, accepted the feeble doctor’s proposal for matrimony in 1791. In their short time together, the couple had two daughters. Unfortunately, however, blindness overcame John within a couple years, and the minister spent his last days in the dim foreclosure of the light around him.
Witherspoon’s secretary recalled that his “descent to the grave was gradual and comparatively easy, free from any severe pain, and contemplated by himself with the calmness of a philosopher and the cheering hope of a Christian.” Witherspoon is not mentioned for his great works or treatises, though those who have read his sermons find in them certain intellectual distinction. To be sure, he lived a life too wrapped up in practical service to devote much time to continued scholarship. No study of American colonial life, however, is complete without mention of him. A Scottish-born American, Witherspoon became a devoted pastor, an innovative president, and an ardent defender of American independence. And, most importantly, Witherspoon’s immigration marked a major shift in American intellectual and religious movements. To him is attributable the transfusion from Britain to America much of the philosophy that wove together the original fabric of American intellectual thought. And thus, one finds it fitting to answer the question, “what manner of man was this Scotsman?”, with the very words that are etched upon his grave stone. The memorial reads: “Affable, charming and agreeable in private conversation, and a man of extraordinary skill in the public affairs of the church…. He shone for a long time among the brightest lights both of education and of the Church.”
Bell, Whitfield J., Jr., “Scottish Emigration to America: A Letter of Dr. Charles Nisbet to Dr. John Witherspoon, 1784,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 11, No. 2, Scotland and America (Apr. 1954), 276-289.
Fradin, Dennis Brindell, The Signers, Walker Company, New York: 2002.
Collins, Varum Lansing, Introduction to, Lectures on Moral Philosophy, by John Witherspoon, Princeton University Press, Princeton: 1912.
Hindle, Brooke, “Witherspoon, Rittenhouse, and Sir Isaac Newton,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 15, No. 3 (Jul., 1958), 365-372.
Miller, Thomas, editor, The Selected Writings of John Witherspoon, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale: 1990.
Morrison, Jeffry H., John Witherspoon and the founding of the American republic, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.
Noll, Mark A., A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, (William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI: 1992), 157.
__________., “The Irony of the Enlightenment for Presbyterians in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 5, No. 2, Religion in the Early Republic (Summer, 1985), 149-175.
Stohlman, Martha Lou Lemmon, John Witherspoon Parson, Politician, Patriot, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville: 1976.
Witherspoon, John, “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men (1776)” in The Selected Writings of John Witherspoon, edited with introduction by Thomas Miller, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale: 1990.
 Varum Lansing Collins, Introduction to, Lectures on Moral Philosophy, by John Witherspoon, (Princeton University Press, Princeton: 1912), iv.
 Ibid., viii.
 Ibid., x.
 Ibid., ix.
 Dennis Brindell Fradin, The Signers, (Walker Company, New York: 2002), 62.
 Collins, xii.
 Thomas Miller, editor, The Selected Writings of John Witherspoon, (Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale: 1990), 20.
 Ibid., 21.
 Collins, 141.
 Fradin, 62.
 Collins, x.
 Witherspoon, “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men (1776)” in The Selected Writings of John Witherspoon, edited with introduction by Thomas Miller, (Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale: 1990), 127.
 Ibid., 128.
 Collins, xvi).
 Mark Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, (William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI: 1992), 157.
 Martha Lou Lemmon Stohlman, John Witherspoon Parson, Politician, Patriot, (Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville: 1976), 158.
 Ibid., 163.
 Ibid., 167.