1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Witherspoon, John
|←Witherite||1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 28
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WITHERSPOON, JOHN (1723-1794), Scottish-American divine and educationalist, was born at Gifford, Yester parish, East Lothian, Scotland, on the 5th of February 1722/1723, the son of a minister of the Scotch Established Church, James Witherspoon (d. 1759), and a descendant on the distaff side from John Welch and John Knox. He studied at Haddington, and graduated in 1739 at the university of Edinburgh, where he completed a divinity course in 1743. He was licensed to preach by the Haddington presbytery in 1743, and after two years as a probationer was ordained (1745) minister of the parish of Beith. His Ecclesiastical Characteristics (1753), Serious Apology (1764), and History of a Corporation of Servants discovered a few years ago in the Interior Parts of South America (1765), attacked various abuses in the church and satirized the “moderate” party. In 1757 he had become pastor at Paisley; and in 1769 he received the degree of D.D. from Aberdeen. He was sued for libel for printing a rebuke to some of his parishioners who had travestied the sacrament of the Lord's Supper; and after several years in the courts he was ordered to pay damages of £150, which was raised by his parishioners. He refused calls to churches in Dublin and Rotterdam, and in 1766 declined an invitation brought him by Richard Stockton to go to America as president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University); but he accepted a second invitation and left Paisley in May 1768. His close relation with the Scotch Church secured important material assistance for the college of which he now became president, and he toured New England to collect contributions. He secured an excellent set of scientific apparatus and improved the instruction in the natural sciences; he introduced courses in Hebrew and French about 1772; and he did a large part of the actual teaching, having courses in languages, divinity, moral philosophy and eloquence. In the American Presbyterian church he was a prominent figure; he worked for union with the Congregationalists and with the Dutch Reformed body; and at the synod of 1786 he was one of the committee which reported in favour of the formation of a General Assembly and which drafted “a system of general rules for . . . government.” In politics he did much to influence Irish and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians to support the Whig party. He was a member of the provincial congress which met at New Brunswick in July 1774; presided over the Somerset county committee of correspondence in 1774-1775; was a member of the New Jersey constitutional convention in the spring of 1776; and from June 1776 to the autumn of 1779 and in 1780-1783 he was a member of the Continental Congress, where he urged the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, being the only clergyman to sign it. He became a member of the secret committee of correspondence in October 1776, of the Board of War in October 1777, and of the committee on finance in 1778. He opposed the issue of paper money, supported Robert Morris's plan for a national bank, and was prominently connected with all Congressional action in regard to the peace with Great Britain. He had lost the sight of one eye in 1784, and in 1791 became quite blind. He died on his farm, Tusculum, near Princeton, on the 15th of November 1794.
There is a statue of Witherspoon in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, and another on the University Library at Princeton. His Essay on the Connexion between the Doctrine of Justification by the Imputed Righteousness of Christ and Holiness of Life (1756) was his principal theological work. He also published several sermons, and Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament (1774), sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin. His collected works, with a memoir by his son-in-law, Samuel Stanhope Smith (who succeeded him as president of the college), were edited by Dr Ashbel Green (New York, 1801-1802). See also David Walker Woods, John Witherspoon (New York, 1906); and M. C. Tyler, Literary History of the American Revolution, vol. ii. (1897).