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 on John Witherspoon

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 Biography Sources

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