Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Witherspoon, John
WITHERSPOON, JOHN (1723–1794), presbyterian divine and statesman, born on 5 Feb. 1722–3 in the parish of Yester in Haddingtonshire, was the eldest son of James Witherspoon (d. 12 Aug. 1759), minister of that parish, by his wife Anne, daughter of David Walker (d. 1787), minister of Temple in Midlothian. His mother's family claimed descent from John Knox and his son-in-law, John Welch. Witherspoon was educated at the grammar school at Haddington, where he was distinguished by his diligence and proficiency in the classics, and proceeded to Edinburgh University, where he was laureated on 8 May 1739. On 6 Sept. 1743 he was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Haddington, and, after assisting his father for a few months, he was presented in 1744 to the parish of Beith by Alexander Montgomerie, tenth earl of Eglinton [q. v.], called on 24 Jan. 1744–5, and ordained on 11 April. On the outbreak of the rebellion in 1745 Witherspoon, influenced by loyalty, placed himself at the head of a small body of volunteers and marched to Glasgow. Being ordered to return, he disobeyed, continued his advance, and was made prisoner by the rebels after the battle of Falkirk, in which, however, he took no part. He was confined in the castle of Doune with other prisoners, until they managed to escape by a rope of knotted blankets.
Witherspoon's fame as a preacher steadily increased, and on 16 June 1753 he attained distinction as an author by his ‘Ecclesiastical Characteristics, or the Arcana of Church Policy, being an Attempt to open up the Mystery of Moderation’ (Glasgow, 8vo), written in a vein of delicate humour against the ‘moderate’ party in the Scottish church. The work was deservedly popular, and reached a fifth edition in 1763 (Edinburgh, 8vo). It at first appeared anonymously, but it was followed in 1763 by a ‘Serious Apology’ for the ‘Characteristics,’ in which Witherspoon acknowledged the authorship (Edinburgh, 8vo). It also earned the praise of Warburton and of Rowland Hill, and was lauded by the bishops of London and Oxford as an exquisite exposure of ‘a party they were no strangers to in the church of England.’ In his warfare with the moderates he had to encounter almost alone writers of the calibre of Hugh Blair [q. v.], Alexander Gerard (1728–1795) [q. v.], and William Robertson the historian.
In 1756 Witherspoon established his reputation by his ‘Essay on the Connection between the Doctrine of Justification by the imputed Righteousness of Christ and Holiness of Life’ (Glasgow, 16mo), one of the ablest expositions of the Calvinistic doctrine in any language. It has been repeatedly republished. He increased his popularity by his ‘Serious Enquiry into the Nature and Effect of the Stage’ (Glasgow, 8vo). John Home [q. v.] had scandalised popular ideas of ministerial propriety by placing ‘Douglas’ on the Edinburgh stage in 1756, and Witherspoon's grave and temperate rebuke came as a solace to outraged sentiment. It was reprinted in 1842 as the first of a series of ‘Reprints of Scarce Tracts connected with the Church of Scotland’ (Edinburgh, 8vo), with an ironical preface by Alexander Colquhoun-Stirling-Murray-Dunlop [q. v.], directed against the ‘moderates’ of his own time. No more of the series appeared. A new edition by William Moffat was published in 1876 (Edinburgh, 8vo). On 9 Dec. 1756 Witherspoon was called to the town church at Paisley, and on 16 June 1757 he was admitted. He continued to publish pamphlets and sermons for some years, until in 1762 a discourse, entitled ‘Sinners sitting in the Seat of the Scornful: Seasonable Advice to Young Persons,’ involved him in unexpected difficulties. In the preface he rebuked by name, and with some severity, some young men who had travestied the Lord's Supper on the night before its celebration at Paisley. In consequence he was prosecuted for libel and defamation, and, after proceedings extending over thirteen years, he was sentenced by the supreme court on 28 Feb. 1776 to pay damages to the extent of 150l. Much sympathy was shown him, and on 28 June 1769 the university of St. Andrews bestowed on him the honorary degree of D.D.
In 1765 Witherspoon published a delightful satire, ‘The History of a Corporation of Servants discovered a Few Years Ago in the Interior Parts of South America’ (Glasgow, 4to), in which, after tracing the growth of ecclesiasticism before and after the Reformation under the guise of the history of a guild of servants, he proceeded to hold up to ridicule the abuses prevalent in the Scottish church. In the meantime his fame was growing daily. He declined invitations to become minister of a congregation in Dublin and of the Scottish church at Rotterdam. On 9 May 1768, however, having received two invitations to become principal of Princeton College, New Jersey, he resigned his charge, and in July sailed for America. He was received in New England with great enthusiasm, and his journey from Philadelphia to Princeton was a triumphal procession. His reputation was great enough to ensure Princeton a marked increase in prosperity after his arrival. He and his friends presented a large number of books to the college library, and he exerted himself to obtain pecuniary aid for the college from the North American colonies. He effected a revolution in the system of instruction by introducing the Scottish system of lectures, greatly extending the study of mathematical science, improving the course of instruction in natural philosophy, and in 1772 introducing Hebrew and French to the curriculum. He himself lectured on eloquence, history, philosophy, and divinity. Under his auspices were educated many ministers and early patriots and legislators of the United States, among them James Madison. On the outbreak of the American revolution Witherspoon's varied talents as a preacher, debater, politician, and man of affairs at last found full room for action in the turmoil of the war of independence. He strongly supported the cause of the colonies, and in the spring of 1776 he took his seat in the convention for framing the first constitution for New Jersey. His conduct in this assembly established his capacity for affairs. After serving there during the deposition of William Franklin, the royalist governor, on 21 June 1776, he was elected by the citizens of New Jersey as their representative in the general congress by which the constitution of the United States was framed. All his influence was exerted in favour of the declaration of independence. When a member of congress expressed a fear that they ‘were not yet ripe’ for such a declaration, Witherspoon replied, ‘In my judgment, sir, we are not only ripe but rotting.’ At his instance the Scottish soldiers were omitted from the list of mercenaries whom, according to the declaration of independence, England had employed against the colonists. He was among those who signed the declaration on 4 July, and, with the exception of a brief interval, he remained in congress until the virtual close of the revolution. His erudition gave him weight in an assembly in love with theory, and his training in Scottish ecclesiastical politics prepared him for the secular politics of America. On 7 Oct. he was appointed a member of the secret executive committee. He was a member of the board of war, and on 27 Aug. 1778 was made a member of the committee of the finances. In 1781 he was one of the commissioners who brought about an accommodation between congress and the mutineers from Washington's army at Trenton (Ann. Reg. 1781, i. 7). During the whole of the struggle he continually influenced public opinion by sermons, pamphlets, and addresses, in which, while strenuous for independence, he showed the dangers of excessive decentralisation and urged the necessity of leaving sufficient strength to the executive. He also strongly deprecated an undue resort to a paper currency, and urged the propriety of making loans and establishing funds for the payment of interest.
On the settlement of the question of American independence early in 1783, Witherspoon resumed his academic duties, and two years later he visited Great Britain to obtain subscriptions for the college, which had suffered severely during the war. He found, however, that the feeling against the colonists was too strong to afford him much chance of success, and, after a brief visit, he finally returned to the United States. In 1785 he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from Yale College. Two years before his death he became blind, but, in spite of this infirmity, he continued to preach and to lecture until the end of his life. He died on 15 Nov. 1794, and was buried at Princeton. He was twice married: first, in 1748, to Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Montgomery of Craighouse; and secondly, in 1791, to Anne, widow of Dr. Dill of York County, New York. By the former he had three sons and two daughters. The eldest son, James, became a major in the American army, and was killed at Germantown. Of his daughters, Anne married Samuel Stanhope Smith, who succeeded him as president of Princeton College; and Frances married David Ramsay, the historian. John Cabell Breckinridge, the confederate leader, was a descendant of Witherspoon (Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. xi. 25). Witherspoon's portrait was engraved from life by Trotter in 1785, and a colossal statue was erected to him on 20 Oct. 1876 in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. He was brilliant in conversation, and was said to have a more imposing presence than any American leader, except Washington.
Witherspoon, both from his attainments and his position, exercised a considerable influence on theological development in the United States, and he has been credited with moulding presbyterian thought in New England (cf. Bibliotheca Sacra, July 1863; Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, October 1863). Besides the works already mentioned, he was the author of: 1. ‘Seven Single Sermons,’ Edinburgh, 1758, 8vo; Philadelphia, 1778, 8vo. 2. ‘A Practical Treatise on Regeneration,’ London, 1764, 12mo; 5th ed. London, 1815, 12mo. 3. ‘Essays on Important Subjects,’ London, 1764, 2 vols. 12mo. This collection included No. 2 as well as ‘Ecclesiastical Characteristics.’ 4. ‘Discourses on Practical Subjects,’ Glasgow, 1768, 12mo; Edinburgh, 1804, 12mo. 5. ‘Practical Discourses on Leading Truths of the Gospel,’ Edinburgh, 1768, 12mo; 1804, 12mo. 6. ‘Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament,’ Philadelphia, 1774, 8vo; erroneously attributed to Benjamin Franklin. 7. ‘The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men,’ a sermon, Philadelphia, 1776, 8vo; this discourse, a defence of revolutionary theories, was republished in Glasgow in 1777, with severe annotations, in which he was styled a rebel and a traitor. To the American edition he added an ‘Address to the Natives of Scotland,’ which appeared separately in 1778. 8. ‘Sermons on various Subjects, not already published … with the History of a Corporation of Servants, and other Tracts,’ Edinburgh, 1798, 12mo. He also published numerous single sermons, lectures, and essays. A collective edition of his works, with a memoir by his son-in-law, Samuel Stanhope Smith, was published in New York in four volumes in 1800 and 1801, and a second edition in Philadelphia in 1802. New editions were published at New York in 1802 in four volumes, and at Edinburgh in 1804–5, and in 1815 in nine volumes. His ‘Miscellaneous Works’ appeared at Philadelphia in 1803, his ‘Select Works’ at London in 1804 (2 vols. 8vo), and his ‘Essays, Lectures, and Sermons’ at Edinburgh in 1822 (6 vols. 12mo). Several of his sermons are included in David Austin's ‘American Preacher,’ Elizabeth Town, 1793–4, 4 vols. 8vo. Witherspoon edited the ‘Sermons’ of James Muir of Alexandria, United States of America, in 1787. To him is also doubtfully ascribed ‘A Letter from a Blacksmith to the Ministers and Elders of the Church of Scotland, in which the Manner of Public Worship there is pointed out, the Inconveniences and Defects considered, and Methods for removing them humbly proposed,’ London, 1759, 8vo; 5th ed. Edinburgh, 1826, 8vo; and with still less probability ‘A Series of Letters on Education by a Blacksmith, edited by Isaac James,’ Bristol, 1798, 8vo; Southampton, 1808, 12mo. Witherspoon was severely satirised by Jonathan Odell, the loyalist poet (see Loyalist Poetry of the Revolution, pp. 17–18).
[Sanderson's Biogr. of Signers of the Declaration of Independence, 1865, pp. 296–314; Tyler's Literary History of the American Revolution, New York, 1897, ii. 319–30; Sprague's Annals, iii. 288–300; Chambers's Biogr. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen, 1855; Scott's Fasti Eccles. Scoticanæ, I. i. 364, II. i. 160, 203–5; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. xi. 25, 5th ser. viii. 16; Ann. Reg. 1780, i. 366; The Faithful Servant Rewarded, funeral sermon by John Rodgers, 1795; Halkett and Laing's Dict. of Anon. and Pseudon. Lit. 1885; Life of Witherspoon, prefixed to his Works, Edinburgh, 1804; New Statistical Account, II. ii. 159–60; Bromley's Cat. of Engr. Portraits, p. 372; Collections of Hist. Soc. of New Jersey, ii. 182, iii. 193–6, 198; The Princeton Book, 1879, pp. 45–47; Headley's Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution, 1864; Cochrane Corresp. (Maitland Club), p. 119.]