Founding Fathers Friday: John Witherspoon

by Derrick G. Jeter

On a national day of Thanksgiving, shortly after winning victory over Great Britain (December 11, 1783), John Witherspoon observed: “The separation of this country from Britain has been of God; for every step the British took to prevent seemed to accelerate it, which has generally been the case when men have undertaken to go in opposition to the course of Providence.”
And he ought to have known. He was a man who spent his life tracing the activities of God in human history and understanding God’s will; and a man who had been instrumental in ensuring that America become a free and independent nation. John Witherspoon was a pastor and a patriot.
Witherspoon wasn’t born in America; he was born in Scotland. As a Scotsman he had a natural animosity toward British rule; as the son of a minister he had a natural bent toward ministry; and as a a descendent of the great reformer John Knox, he had natural inclination toward revolution. During the Scotch Rebellion of 1745–1746, Witherspoon was serving as pastor at Beith. When the battle of Falkirk took place—not the famous battle between William Wallace and Edward “Long Shanks” I of England—between the forces of George II and Prince Charles Stuart, Witherspoon went to witness the battle. Stuart’s rebels won the battle and in the process took him captive, where he was confined for a short time in the castle of Doune.
A brilliant mind with a golden tongue and artisans pen, Witherspoon was educated at the University of Edinburgh and began his preaching career at the age of twenty. It didn’t take long before his name became famous throughout England, even spreading across “the pond” to America. The printed text of his sermon, “Trial of Religious Truth by Its Moral Influence,” was a best seller in the colonies—back in a day when men and women listened to and read lengthy and intricate sermons.
Witherspoon’s fame caught the attention of the trustee of the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton), who sent future signer Richard Stockton to Scotland to ask Witherspoon if he would consider serving as the college’s new president. Witherspoon was warm to the idea, but Elizabeth, his wife, was cool. She feared ocean travel, so he turned down the appointment. That was until the suave Benjamin Rush (another future signer, but then a medical student) arrived on the scene and charmed Elizabeth into making the Atlantic crossing.
History often has a sense of humor. Years later, these three men—Witherspoon, Stockton, and Rush—would sign the Declaration of Independence, and Witherspoon would preside over the marriage of Rush to Stockton’s daughter, Julia.
John and Elizabeth, along with their children, arrived at Princeton in 1768. Witherspoon set immediately to work. He increased the endowment for the college and updated the curriculum. During his reign as president, Princeton became the seedbed of revolutionary thought, training both James Madison and Aaron Burr.
But Witherspoon didn’t reserve his many intellectual talents to ministry and education alone—he also applied them to politics. His sermons and writings led to his election to the provincial legislature. And in 1774, he published an essay titled “Thoughts on American Liberty,” which placed him squarely on the side of independence. “The great object of the approaching Congress,” he wrote, “should be to unite the colonies, and make them as one body, in any measure of self-defence, to assure the people of Great Britain that we will not submit voluntarily, and convince them that it would be either impossible or unprofitable for them to compel us by open violence.”
Those are fighting words! And in 1776, Witherspoon’s words turned into action. He was instrumental in establishing a new constitution for New Jersey and led the coalition to remove the Royal Governor, William Franklin—Benjamin Franklin’s estranged, illegitimate son. This resulted in the replacement of the more timid delegation to the Continental Congress with a more radical delegation—of “five independent souls” as John Adams called them, including Witherspoon. These five independent souls traveled from New Jersey to Philadelphia in late June 1776, arriving just as the debate over independence was reaching a boiling point.
Witherspoon had barely warmed his seat when on July 1, 1776, just a day before the fateful vote, a delegate remarked, “the people are not ripe for a Declaration of Independence.” This is where the pulpit-honed orator rose to his feet and replied, “In my judgment the country is not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of becoming rotten for the want of it!”
After voting on and signing the Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon continued to serve in Congress, until 1782. He served on some of the most important committees through the war, including the board of war and the non-secretively named committee of secret correspondence. He took part in forming the Articles of Confederation and was leading voice for New Jersey ratification of the new federal Constitution in 1787.
During the war, Witherspoon suffered two great loses. The first and greatest was the death of his son, James at the Battle of Germantown. The other was the British ransacking of Princeton and the destruction of the college’s library, including many of his personal books brought from Scotland. At war’s end he worked to restore the library and put the college back in order.
Patriot, college president, educator, theologian legislator, orator, author—yet, Witherspoon never abandoned his primary love and calling: pastor. He served as moderator of the opening session of the national reorganized Presbyterian Church’s general assembly in 1789. He also continued to preach and minister to a local flock in Princeton. Two years before his death he lost his eye-sight, but that didn’t diminish his passion for preaching the gospel. In the words of an early biographer, Witherspoon, guided by the hand of another, “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.”
This same biographer closes with a fitting tribute to this great American pastor-patriot. “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’ [2 Samuel 3:38].”