John Witherspoon (1723-1794) is to be remembered not only for signing the Declaration of Independence and contributing to the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1782: he also fought for the Populist Party of the Church of Scotland, helped to unify the early Presbyterian church in America, and moderated its first General Assembly. Furthermore, he served as president of what later became Princeton University (then the College of New Jersey), transforming the curriculum by broadening its scope and introducing the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment. These were the very ideas that, through Witherspoon, inspired James Madison, Aaron Burr, and numerous other American Revolutionaries.
Minister in the Church of Scotland
Witherspoon’s Scottish family formed him as an orthodox Calvinist, and his deep religious convictions would ultimately given rise to his vocation as a minister. His father, James Witherspoon, a man having no fewer talents than his son, acted as one of King George II’s chaplains in the parish of Yester, near Edinburgh, Scotland. The relation of his mother, Anne Walker, to John Knox also linked him to the Reformed tradition. After earning a degree at the University of Edinburgh, which was fermenting with Calvinist and British liberal ideas, Witherspoon became a Church of Scotland minister at the age of twenty-one. He then married Elizabeth Montgomery, with whom he would have ten children.
His ministry would be one of his driving concerns for his entire life, and the raging debates that then divided the Church of Scotland lent urgency to his convictions. Some thought that the Church should focus on the abstract rights of the personal conscience, while others fought for a communal focus on the enduring reality of universal laws. Witherspoon fought for the latter notion and became a leading spokesman for the evangelical Populist Party. His satire Ecclesiastical Characteristics and other religious writings garnered for him an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Andrews. Yet his popularity did not arise from his writings alone. Although so unyielding a Calvinist as to win the monikers “Scotch Granite” and “John Knox redivivus,” Witherspoon was a solemn and graceful preacher so gifted with memory that he did not take notes into the pulpit.
Even after traveling to America to accept his post as president of the College of New Jersey, Witherspoon advanced the cause of the Gospel, for he wanted to cause the knowledge of God to cover the earth as the waters cover the seas. He strengthened the College’s programs in English and rhetoric so that it might be better at educating clergy. He helped to unite the different Church of Scotland groups into the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A., whose first General Assembly he moderated in 1785. It was this assembly that provided the church with a confession, a catechism, and laws of governance.
President of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University)
Despite his numerous accomplishments in ministry, Witherspoon was no mere preacher. He served as the College’s sixth president, heavily revising its curriculum and building up its resources. Upon his arrival in 1768, he found many of the students ill-prepared for university studies. Witherspoon’s consultations with friends of the College followed, as well as a visit to the College of William and Mary, where his itinerant preaching would reap a contingent of southern students for the College. With only two or three tutors to help, Witherspoon himself undertook the teaching in moral philosophy, divinity, rhetoric, history, and French, believing that the Christian liberal arts could guide a student to virtue. The College benefited from three hundred more books, the lecture format for classes, and the appointment of a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy. Not least, with Witherspoon arrived the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, including John Locke’s conceptions of the liberty and natural rights of man and the notion of representative democracy.
Educator of Revolutionaries
Witherspoon sought to form students for ministry, farming, and public affairs alike. He introduced them to Locke and Berkeley, along with classical philosophers and other Enlightenment thinkers, but some of the most inspiring ideas he taught were those he himself held. He did not conceive of truth as abstract and ethereal but argued that it inheres in the concrete reality of the natural world. For him, faith and reason never clashed but converged and, joined to a common sense philosophy, helped to guide a life of virtue.
These ideas, along with Witherspoon’s conception of a just government, inspired many men. Under his tutelage would be formed twelve future Continental Congress members, forty-nine U.S. representatives, twenty-eight senators, three Supreme Court justices, and a secretary of state. Foremost among them was James Madison, who learned of the English dissenting tradition while he attended the College. Under Witherspoon’s direction, Madison also came to hold a view of human nature that emphasized both human dignity and human depravity; this understanding would later inform The Federalist. Witherspoon warned him of the evils of a tyrannical society ruled by demagogues and introduced him to the idea of a government of checks and balances. Madison also learned the lesson of prudence and the importance of admitting mistakes. Most fundamentally, nonetheless, Madison came to think that the state–when governed not merely by the will of the majority but by the higher authorities of natural and divine law–may support the life of virtue.
In addition to educating revolutionaries, Witherspoon himself was one. He signed the Declaration of Independence and participated in the Continental Congress. He saw that British policy conflicted with British liberty as expressed by the constitutional limitations of the Magna Carta, and he fought for that liberty, winning the respect of his colleagues through his own exercise of prudence.
Witherspoon’s many callings made his seventy-one years very rich ones. While he served his people as a statesman, professor, and minister, he also devoted himself to his wife, children, and farming. In his later years, he continued to organize and unite the Presbyterian church and served as a member of the convention that ratified the Constitution. As he proclaimed to a congregation in New Jersey in 1776, “I beseech you to make a wise improvement of the present threatening aspect of public affairs and to remember that your duty to God, to your country, to your families, and to yourselves, is the same.” Witherspoon embodied his words by fulfilling the many duties of his different callings while striving for a unified and ordered life.