Witherspoon, John, Dd, Lld
Witherspoon, John, D.D., LL.D.
a distinguished Presbyterian divine, and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was born in. the parish of Yester, near Edinburgh, Scotland, Feb. 5, 1722. His father was a clergyman of the Church of Scotland, much respected for his piety and learning; on his mother's side, he traced an unbroken line of ministerial ancestry, through a period of more than two hundred years, to the great Reformer, John Knox. He experienced religion at a very early period; pursued his preparatory studies in the public school at Haddington, where he soon evinced remarkable powers; graduated at the University of Edinburgh, where he stood "unrivalled for perspicuity of style, logical accuracy of thought, taste in sacred criticism, and all those intellectual qualities and accomplishments which, in afterlife, conspired to render him one of the great men of the age and of the world;" was licensed to preach in 1743; ordained as minister of the popular parish of Beith, in the west of Scotland, in 1745; and of the Low Church in Paisley, Jan. 16,1757; here he continued till the year 1768, when he was elected president of the College of New Jersey, and inaugurated at a meeting of the trustees, called specially for the purpose, Aug. 17, 1768. The fame of his talents and learning had preceded him, and consequently he brought to the collage a large accession of students, and was the means of greatly increasing its funds, and placing it on a foundation of permanent usefulness. Indeed, few men could combine more important qualifications for the presidency of a literary institution — "talents, extensive attainments, commanding personal appearance, and an admirable faculty for governing young men, and exciting in them a noble emulation to excel in their studies." He introduced many important improvements in the system of education particularly the method of teaching by lecture, which seems previously to have been unknown to American colleges; and he actually delivered lectures on four different subjects viz., Eloquence and Composition, Taste and Criticism; Moral
Philosophy; Chronology and History; and Divinity. He likewise rendered most important service to the college by increasing its library and philosophical apparatus, and introducing the study of the Hebrew and French languages; he was also chiefly instrumental in obtaining the first orrery constructed by the celebrated Rittenhouse. In connection with his duties as president, he was pastor of the Church in Princeton during the whole period of his presidency. But he was soon to enter upon a new sphere of duty. He was selected by the citizens of New Jersey, in1776, as a delegate to the Congress that promulgated the Declaration of Independence. He continued to represent the State of New Jersey in the General Congress from 1776 to 1782, and in practical business talent and devotion to public affairs he was second to none in that body. Many of the most important state-papers of the day were from his pen. During the whole period in which he was occupied in civil life he never laid aside his ministerial character, but wished it understood that he was "a minister of God," in a sacred as well as in a civil sense. When he retired from the national councils, he went to his country-place near Princeton, N. J., having two years before partially given up his duties as president of the college to the vice-president, his son-in-law, Dr. Samuel Stanhope Smith. He died Nov. 15,1794. Dr. Witherspoon was undoubtedly one of the ablest, as well as one of the most voluminous, writers of his time. He published, Ecclesiastical Characteristics; or, The Arcana of Church Policy (Glasgow, 1753, 8vo; 3d ed. 1754, 8vo; at least five edits.). This work was aimed at certain principles and practices which then prevailed extensively in the Church of Scotland, and by its acknowledged ability, and particularly by the keenness of its satire, it produced, a great sensation and acquired immense popularity: — A Serious Apology for the Characteristics, in which he avows himself the author of the preceding work: — Essay on the Connection between the Doctrine of Justification by the Imputed Righteousness of Christ and Holiness of Life, etc. (Edinb. 1756, 12mo; often republished). "This work has always been regarded as one of the ablest Calvinistic expositions of that doctrine in any language. I hope you approve Mr. Witherspoon's books. I think his Treatise on Regeneration is the best I have seen upon this important subject" (Rev. John Newton to Mr. Cunningham, in Bull's Life of Newton [1868, p. 150]): — Serious Inquiry into the Nature and Egests of the Stage (Glasgow, 1757; with Sermon by Samuel Miller, D.D., N Y. 1812, 12mo). This work had its origin in the fact that Mr. John Home, a clergyman of the Church of Scotland, had published his well-known tragedy of Douglas,
which was acted repeatedly in the Edinburgh Theatre, where a number of the author's clerical friends attended. The Rev. John Newton, speaking of this work,-says he "wishes every person who makes the least pretence to fear God had an opportunity of perusing" it: — Essays on Important Subjects, with Ecclesiastical Characteristics (Lond. 1764, 8 vols. 12mo; 1765, 3 vols. 12mo). These volumes were composed of pieces, which had previously been published in Scotland, with the exception of his celebrated Treatise on Regeneration, which appeared now for the first time. This Treatise was also published separately in 1764, 12mo: — Sermons (9) on Practical Subjects (Glasgow, 1768, 12mo; Edinb. 1804, 12mo): — Practical Discourses (14) on Leading Truths of the Gospel (1768, 12mo; Lond. 1792, 8vo;' 1804, 12mo). The discourses in this volume are so arranged as to form a concise system of practical divinity: — Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament (Phila. 1774, 8vo; Lond. 1775, 8vo). He also published a number of Sermons: — Lectures on moral philosophy, on eloquence, on divinity, and on education: Letters on Marriage: — an excellent Essay on Money: philological papers (see The Druid): — various Speeches in Congress, etc. After his death appeared, in one volume, Sermons on Various Subjects, a Supplementary Volume, with the Hist. of a Corporation of Servants, and other Tracts (Edinb. 1798, 12mo; 1799, 12mo). A collective edition of his works, with an account of the author's life, with Sermon by John Rodgers, D.D. (also published separately [N. Y. 1795, 8vo], and in Prot. Dissent. Magazine, vol. 2), was published in New York (1800-1, 4 vols. 8vo; 2d ed. 1802, 4 vols. 8vo), Samuel Stanhope Smith, D.D., supplying the Memoir. Another edition, with his Life, appeared at Edinburgh in 1804 (9 vols. 12mo); again in 1815, (9 vols. 12mo). His Miscellaneous Works were published at Philadelphia (1803, 8vo); his Select Works, with Life, in London (1804, 2 vols. 8vo); his Lectures on Moral Philosophy in Philadelphia (3d: ed. 1810, 12mo); his Essays, Lectures, etc. in Edinburgh (1822, 4 vols. 12mo); and Sermons on Public Occasions (2 vols. 12mo). "The name of Dr. Witherspoon stands high on both continents. No man thinks of Witherspoon as a Briton, but as an American of the Americans: as the counselor of Morris, the correspondent of Washington, the rival of Franklin in his sagacity, and of Reed in his resolution; one of the boldest in that Declaration of Independence, and one of the most revered in the debates of the Congress"(Alexander [Rev. J. W.], Princeton Address). See Chambers and Thomson, Biog. Dict. of Eminent Scots (ed. 1855), 4:487; Sprague,
Annals of the Amer. Pulpit, 3, 288-300; Rich, Bibl. Amer. Nova, 1, 226, 270; Bartlett, Americanisms (ed. 1859),29, 31; Amer. Quar. Reg. 9:105; Edinburgh Christian Instructor, Oct. 1829; Blackwood's Mag. 2, 433; Dr. Alex. Carlyle's Autobiog. (1861.); Headley, Chaplains and Clergy of' the Revolution (N. Y. 1864, 12mo); Cleveland, Compendium of Amer. Lit. p. 45; Thomas, Pronouncing Biog. Dict. s.v.; Lond. Month. Rev. 1754, 2, 288; Bickersteth, Christian Student (4th ed.), p.309; Bull, Life of John Newton (1868), p. 150, 226. (J. L. S.)