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The Religious Affiliation of
John Witherspoon
a Signer of the American Declaration of Independence


John Witherspoon is regarded as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. He was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was a delegate from New Jersey.

John Witherspoon was a Presbyterian clergyman. He was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. (Many other signers were the sons of clergymen, however, and essentially all of the signers were Christians, mostly devout.)

He was identified as a Presbyterian by the Presbyterian Historical Society and the Presbyterian Church, USA. (Source: Ian Dorion, "Table of the Religious Affiliations of American Founders", 1997).

From: B. J. Lossing, Signers of the Declaration of Independence, George F. Cooledge & Brother: New York (1848) [reprinted in Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, WallBuilder Press: Aledo, Texas (1995)], pages 81-84:

John Witherspoon was born in the parish of Yester, near Edinburgh, Scotland, on the fifth of February, 1722. He was a lineal descendant of the great [religious] reformer, John Knox. His father was a minister in the Scottish church, at Yester, and was greatly beloved. He took great pains to have the early education of his son based upon sound moral and religious principles, and early determined to fit him for the gospel ministry. His primary education was received in a school at Haddington, and at the age of fourteen years he was placed in the University of Edinburgh. He was a very diligent student, and, to the delight of his father, his mind was specially directed toward sacred literature. He went through a regular theological course of study, and at the age of twenty-two years he graduated, a licensed preacher. He was requested to remain in Yester, as an assistant to his father, but he accepted a call at Beith, in the west of Scotland, where he labored faithfully for several years.

From Beith he removed toPaisley, where he became widely known for his piety and learning. He was severally invited to take charge of a parish and flock, at Dublin, in Ireland; Dundee, in Scotland; and Rotterdam, in Holland; but he declined them all. In 1766 he was invited, by a unanimous vote of the trustees of New Jersey College, to become its president, but this, too, he declined, partly on account of the unwillingness of his wife to leave the land of her nativity. But being strongly urged by Richard Stockton (afterward his colleague in Congress, and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence), then on a visit to that country, he accepted the appointment, and sailed for America. He arrived at Princeton with his family, in August, 1768, and on the seventeenth of that month he was inaugurated president of the College. His name and his exertions wrought a great change in the affairs of that institution, and from a low condition in its finances and other essential elements of prosperity, it soon rose to a proud eminence among the institutions of learning in America.

When the British army invaded New Jersey, the College at Princeton was broken up, and the extensie knowledge of Dr. Witherspoon was called into play in a vastly different arena. He was called upon early in 1776, to assist in the formation of a new Constitution for New Jersey, and his patriotic sentiments and sound judgment were there so conspicuous, that in June of that year, he was elected a delegate to the General Congress. He had already formed a decided opinion in favor of Independence, and he gave his support to the resolution declaring the States free forever. On the second of August, 1776, he affixed his signature to the Declaration.

Doctor Witherspoon was a member of Congress from the period of his first election until 1782, except a part of the year 1780, and so strict was he in his attendance, that it was a very rare thing to find him absent. He was placed upon the most important committees, and intrusted with delicate commissions. He took a conspicuous part in both military and financial matters, and his colleagues were astonished at the versatility of his knowledge.

After the restoration of peace in 1783, Doctor Witherspoon withdrew from public life, except so far as his duties as a minister of the gospel brought him before his flock. He endeavored to resuscitate the prostrate institution over which he had presided. Although to his son-in-law, Vice President Smith, was intrusted the active duties in the effort, yet it cannot be doubted that the name and influence of Doctor Witherspoon were chiefly instrumental in effecting the result which followed. After urgent solicitation, he consented to go to Great Britain and ask for pecuniary aid for the college. In his movement his own judgment could not concur, for he knew enough of human nature to believe that while political resentment was still so warm there against a people who had just cut asunder the bond of union with them, no enterprise could offer charms sufficient to overcome it. In this he was correct, for he collected barely enough to pay the expense of his voyage.

About two years before his death, he lost his eye-sight, yet his minsterial duties were not relinquished. Aided by the guiding hand of another, he would ascend the pulpit, and with all the fervor of his prime and vigor, break the Bread of Life to the eager listeners to his message.

As a theological writer, Doctor Witherspoon had few superiors, and as a statesman he held the first rank. In him were centred the social elements of an upright citizen, a fond parent, a just tutor, and humble Christian; and when, on the tenth of November 1794, at the age of nearly seventy-three years, his useful life closed, it was widely felt that a "great man had fallen in Israel."

Doctor Witherspoon was married twice. By his first wife, a Scottish lady, he had three sons and two daughters... She was a woman of extraordinary piety, and the memoirs of but few females have been more widly circulated and profitably read, than were hers, written by her husband.

From: Robert G. Ferris (editor), Signers of the Declaration: Historic Places Commemorating the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, published by the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service: Washington, D.C. (revised edition 1975), pages 149-151:
Rev. John Witherspoon, the only active clergyman among the signers, achieved a greater reputation as a religious leader and educator than as a politician. Emigrating from Scotland to America in the midst of the controversy between the Colonies and the Crown, he took part in the Revolution, lost a son during the war, and signed the Articles of Confederation as well as the Declaration. He is better known, however, for his role in the growth of the Presbyterian Church and for his distinguished presidency of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University).

The son of a Calvinist minister, Witherspoon was born in 1723 at the village of Gifford, near Edinburgh. He attended grammar school at the neighboring town of Haddington and won master of arts (1739) and divinity (1743) degrees from the University of Edinburgh. In 1743 the Haddington Presbytery licensed him to preach. He was ordained 2 years later at Beith, where he occupied a pulpit until 1757. He then transferred to Paisley, not far from Glasgow. Meantime, in 1748, he had married; only five of his ten children survived childhood.

Over the years, Witherspoon attained leadership of a group of conservative clergymen who were engaged in a prolonged struggle with a group of their colleagues to maintain the "purity" of orthodox Church doctrine. Witherspoon penned a stream of sermons and tracts attacking the opposition and denouncing moral decay in Scotland. He also defended the traditional prerogative of the people to choose their own ministers, a right ecclesiastical authorities had taken from them.

The College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1764. Rev. John Witherspoon served as its president from 1768 until 1794. The main building, Nassau Hall, is on the left; the President's House, on the right. (Engraving by Henry Dawkins, after W. Tennant, from An Account of the College of New Jersey, 1764, Library of Congress.)

In 1768 Witherspoon channeled his energies in a new direction. He gave up his post at Paisley and accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey, after two representatives of the college had visited him and finally at the end of 2 years of effort overcome the objections of his wife. He sailed to America with his family. The college bloomed under his direction. He increased the endowment, instituted new methods of instruction, and broadened and revitalized the curriculum. Continuing also as a minister and church leader, he patched up a major schism in the Presbyterian Church; stimulated its expansion, especially in the Middle Colonies; and worked closely with the Congregationalists.

The Revolution fanned Witherspoon's hatred of the English, which had originated in Scotland. By 1770 his students were openly demonstrating in favor of the patriot cause. In a commencement oration he advocated resistance to the Crown, which became his favorite theme in sermons and essays. In 1774-76 he represented his county in the New Jersey provincial assemblies, and sat on local committees of correspondence. In the latter year he figured prominently in the agitations that led to the removal from office and imprisonment of the Royal Governor, and then received an appointment to the Continental Congress.

On July 2, 1776, in a congressional speech urging independence, Witherspoon declared that the Colonies were "not only ripe for the measure but in danger of rotting for the want of it." In November, when the British invaded New Jersey, he closed the College of New Jersey. The redcoats occupied its major building, Nassau Hall, burned the library, and committed other acts of destruction. The next year, Witherspoon's son James lost his life at the Battle of Germantown, Pa.

Witherspoon stayed in Congress until 1782. His main committee assignments dealt with military and foreign affairs. He also participated in the debates on the Articles of Confederation, aided in setting up the executive departments, and argued for financial stability. Meantime, in 1779, he had moved from the President's House at Princeton to Tusculum, a country home he had earlier built nearby. He left the Rev. Samuel S. Smith, his son-in-law and the college vice president, in charge of the nearly defunct institution.

Witherspoon devoted most of his effort during the postwar years to rebuilding the college, which never fully recovered its prewar prosperity during his lifetime. In addition, during the years 1783-89 he sat for two terms in the State legislature, attended the New Jersey (1787) convention that ratified the Federal Constitution, participated in the reorganization of the Presbyterian Church, and moderated its first general assembly (1789). In 1791, at the age of 68, Witherspoon took a second wife, a 24-year-old widow, who bore him two daughters. Blind his last 2 years, he died in 1794, aged 71, at Tusculum. His remains rest in the Presidents' Lot at Princeton Cemetery.

From: W. Frank Craven, "Witherspoon, John" article, From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978) (http://etcweb1.princeton.edu/CampusWWW/Companion/witherspoon_john.html; viewed 13 November 2005):
Witherspoon, John (1723-1794), was the sixth president of Princeton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and from 1776 to 1782 a leading member of the Continental Congress. He came from Scotland in 1768 to assume the presidency of the college and held office until his death a quarter of a century later.

A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, who received an honorary doctorate from St. Andrews in 1764, Witherspoon had become widely known as a leader of the evangelical or "Popular Party" in the established Church of Scotland, of which he was an ordained minister. The trustees of the College first elected him president in 1766, after Samuel Finley's death; but Mrs. Witherspoon was reluctant to leave Scotland, and he declined. Thanks very largely to the efforts of Benjamin Rush 1760, then a medical student at Edinburgh, she was persuaded to reconsider. Informed that Witherspoon would now accept the call if renewed, the trustees again elected him to the presidency in December of 1767.

With their five surviving children (five others had died in early childhood), and 300 books for the college library, the Witherspoons reached Philadelphia early in August 1768. When a few days later they moved on to Princeton, they were greeted a mile out of town by tutors and students, who escorted them to Morven, home of Richard Stockton. That evening the students celebrated the occasion by "illuminating' Nassau Hall with a lighted tallow dip in each window.

Witherspoon had arrived in time to provide the highlight for commencement, which in those days was held in September. Early in October, he wrote Rush that on the preceding 28th he had delivered "an inaugural Oration in Latin" before "a vast Concourse of People." He was obviously heartened by the warmth of his reception, but he also reported a number of disturbing conditions in the state of the college. He found far too many of the students inadequately prepared for college work, a complaint frequently heard since, and one that explains the close attention he subsequently gave to the grammar school conducted by the college. Most worrisome of all was the low state of the college's finances.

With characteristic vigor, Witherspoon moved immediately to find the remedy. Taking advantage of the vacation between commencement and the beginning of a new term in November, he went first to New York and then on to Boston for consultation with friends of the College. During the next fall's vacation, he visited Williamsburg, where, the Virginia Gazette reported, he "preached to a crowded audience in the Capital yard (there being no house in town capable of holding such a multitude) and gave universal satisfaction." The concrete measure of that satisfaction was a collection taken at the end of the sermon amounting "to upwards of fifty-six pounds." The following February found him again in Virginia, and this was not the last of his southern tours.

By no means the least of the advantages that accrued to the College from his itinerant preaching was an increased enrollment of students, whose tuition continued to be the major source of revenue. Enrollment had reached a peak under President Finley, with graduating classes of 31 each in 1765 and 1766, but had fallen off thereafter. There were 11 graduates at the commencement of 1768, but 29 in 1773, and 27 in 1776. Simultaneously, a change occurred in the constituencies from which the students were drawn. Now, as before, most of them came from the middle provinces, but the representation from New England, which had been substantial, declined markedly, and a significant enrollment from the southern colonies began to develop.

Not all of Witherspoon's preaching was done on the road. Indeed, when in Princeton he normally preached twice each Sunday to a mixed congregation of townspeople and students, which only recently had acquired a place of worship apart from the Prayer Room of Nassau Hall. Their church had been constructed at the front of the present campus, where stands today a Presbyterian church of much later construction. According to Benjamin Rush, Witherspoon's manner in the pulpit was "solemn and graceful," his voice melodious, and his sermons "loaded with good sense and adorned" with "elegance and beauty" of expression. But Rush was impressed above all by the fact that Witherspoon carried no notes into the pulpit, in sharp contrast with the "too common practice of reading sermons in America." Other contemporary descriptions indicate that he depended upon no oratorical flourishes or gestures. The story is told of a visitor who, observing that Witherspoon's enthusiasm for gardening was confined to growing vegetables, remarked, "Doctor, I see no flowers in your garden," to which came the reply, "No, nor in my discourses either."

To the day of his death, his speech revealed his Scottish birth. A man of medium height, tending toward stoutness, with bushy eybrows, a prominent nose, and large ears, he had a quality contemporaries were inclined to describe as "presence." One of his students, a later president of the College, recalled that Witherspoon had more presence than any other man he had known, except for General Washington. Witherspoon lived at first in the President's House (now called the John Maclean House), but after several years he moved about a mile north of the village to "Tusculum," a handsome residence he built that still stands on Cherry Hill Road. His route to and from the College is well enough indicated by the street that bears his name.

President Witherspoon was obviously a very busy man, for in addition to managing the College's affairs and preaching twice on Sundays, he bore the heaviest responsibility for instruction of the students. His "faculty" normally included two or three tutors (recent graduates who may have been pursuing, in such free time as they could find, advanced studies in divinity before moving on to some vacant pulpit) and one, later two, professors. Considering himself less than an accomplished scholar in mathematics and astronomy, he secured the appointment of a Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in 1771. This left to the president the main responsibility for the instruction in moral philosophy, divinity, rhetoric, history, and chronology, and also in French, for such students as might elect to study the language.

Witherspoon's administration marks an important turning point in the life of the college, but the changes he made were mainly of method and emphasis within the broad objectives which had been originally set. Thus, he brought to Princeton a fresh emphasis upon the need of the church for a well-educated clergy, a purpose to which the college had been dedicated at the time of its founding, but by men who at the height of a stirring religious revival may well have given first place to the church's need for a "converted" ministry. There is no indication that Witherspoon discounted the importance of a conversion experience, but on balance he tended to place the primary emphasis on education. His influence in helping to bring about a final reunion of all Presbyterians, who earlier had been sharply divided, in support of the College was one of his major accomplishments.

The founders had hoped too that the College might produce men who would be "ornaments of the State as well as the Church," and Witherspoon realized this hope in full measure. His students included, in addition to a president and vice-president of the United States, nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three justices of the Supreme Court, and twelve state governors. Five of the nine Princeton graduates among the fifty-five members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were students of Witherspoon.

Witherspoon broadened and enriched the curriculum of the College. He was the first to introduce the new rhetoric of the eighteenth century, accomplishing his purpose by extending and intensifying instruction in English grammar and composition. He added substantially to the instructional equipment of the College, especially books for the library and "philosophical apparatus" for instruction by demonstration in the sciences, including the famous Rittenhouse Orrery acquired in 1771.

He was not an original thinker, but he was a product of Scotland's leading university in an age when the Scottish universities had a vitality possessed by no others in Great Britain. Although certain leniencies encouraged by the Scottish Enlightenment had offended his orthodox Presbyterianism, Witherspoon introduced to Princeton, and through it to other institutions, some of the more advanced ideas of that movement. He subscribed to John Locke's view of the role of sensory perception in the development of the mind, but vigorously rejected all esoteric interpretations of that view. He saw no conflict between faith and reason; instead, he encouraged his students to test their faith by the rule of experience. He was much inclined to apply the test of common sense to any proposition, and to reduce it to its simplest terms. In lecturing on rhetoric he advised his students of the multiple components into which a discourse traditionally had been divided, and then suggested that it was enough to say that every discourse or composition "must have a beginning, a middle, and an end." His name is rightly identified with certain attitudes and assumptions, considered to be of importance in the development of our national life, that are associated with what is known as the Common Sense Philosophy.

Though a man of strong convictions, he showed no inclination to protect his students from exposure to ideas with which he disagreed. The many books he added to the library gave the undergraduate access to a wide range of contemporary literature, including authors with whom he had publicly disputed. In his famous lectures on moral philosophy, not published until after his death and then probably contrary to his wish, his method was to lay out contending points of view and to rely upon persuasive reasoning to guide the student toward a proper conclusion of his own.

Witherspoon had a helpful sense of humor. He suffered from insomnia, and his tendency to drowse, particularly after dinner, led him, during one of the two terms he served in the New Jersey legislature, to move that the daily sessions be concluded before dinner. When his motion lost, he informed his colleagues that "there are two kinds of speaking that are very interesting . . . perfect sense and perfect nonsense. When there is speaking in either of these ways I shall engage to be all attention. But when there is speaking, as there often is, halfway between sense and nonsense, you must bear with me if I fall asleep."

In his support of the American cause there is no occasion for surprise. He subscribed to John Locke's political philosophy as wholeheartedly as to his psychology, and brought from Scotland a strong sense of "British liberty," which he came to see as greatly endangered by the course of British policy. When John Adams stopped over in Princeton on his way to the first meeting of the Continental Congress in 1774, he met Witherspoon and pronounced him "as high a Son of Liberty, as any Man in America."

Through the years he served in Congress, Witherspoon's patriotism and judgment won the respect of his colleagues, as evidenced by his assignment to many committees, some of them among the most important. He struggled through these years -- not always successfully -- to keep the College in session, and he became a frequent commuter between Princeton and Philadelphia. He resigned from Congress in November 1782, when a war that had cost him the life of his son James (who graduated from the College in 1770 and was killed in Germantown) was ended, and peace, with American independence, seemed assured.

Witherspoon's later years were filled with difficulty. The college had suffered extensive damage to its building and instructional equipment, and its finances were in disarray. Two years before his death he became totally blind. His wife died in 1789, and a second marriage in 1791 to a young widow of twenty-four occasioned more than a little comment. Through these later years his son-in-law, Samuel Stanhope Smith, increasingly carried the responsibility for conduct of the College's affairs.

But through these later years, too, Witherspoon remained remarkably active and influential. He was a member of the ratifying convention that brought to New Jersey the honor of being the third state to ratify the Constitution of the United States. He contributed greatly to the organization of a newly independent and national Presbyterian Church and in 1789 opened its first General Assembly with a sermon and presided until the election of the first moderator. Above all, the name he had won as a divine, an educator, and a patriot brought returning strength to the College. He is rightly remembered as one of the great presidents of Princeton.

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Portrait: from Robert G. Ferris (editor), Signers of the Declaration: Historic Places Commemorating the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, published by the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service: Washington, D.C. (revised edition 1975).

Webpage created 13 November 2005. Last modified 21 November 2005.

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