John Witherspoon was a Presbyterian minister who lived during the time of the American Revolutionary War. Witherspoon was born in Scotland, where he got involved in Church controversies between factions of the Church on whether to maintain tradition or change them. Witherspoon was in favor of keeping things the same. He was a man who stood very solidly by his principles, a trait which served him well when he moved to the American colonies. He fell in love with them, and took an active role in the Revolutionary War against England.
Let’s get into some facts!
John Witherspoon Facts
1. John Witherspoon was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence
Witherspoon’s father was a minister at the Church of Scotland, and John set out to follow in his father’s footsteps. He became the head of the newly formed Presbyterian Church in America. In Witherspoon’s mind, religion and politics were intertwined, so it was natural for him to get involved in politics as well. Witherspoon stood for a limited government, because he believed that righteous people did not need to be directly governed. In his eyes, the role of the government was to protect the rights of the people, and nothing more.
2. Witherspoon did a lot to expand the college of New Jersey.
Yes, John Witherspoon took part in the War for Independence and served as a minister, but he spent most of his time and energy improving and later rebuilding the College of New Jersey. The college would later be known as Princeton, an interesting fact about John Witherspoon.
The whole reason Witherspoon traveled to America in the first place was because he was invited to be the head of the Presbyterian church and the President of the College of New Jersey. As soon as he settled in, Witherspoon got to work, expanding the curriculum of the college to include philosophy, history, and public speaking. He made sure his students were masters of the English language, and offered them the opportunity to take French, as well. He wanted to make sure his students were ready to be a part of the debates and politics of the country at that time. Witherspoon’s students ended up very prepared, and some of his graduates included supreme court judges, governors, senators, and James Madison, a future President.
Witherspoon was a very hands-on President, and a bit of a multitasker. He traveled throughout the colonies, recruiting possible students and raising money for the college to provide better equipment. Witherspoon also did the administrative work, taught classes, and preached twice on Sundays.
The Revolutionary War was rough on the College, so, after Witherspoon was certain the Americans would win the war, he returned to the College of New Jersey to help restore it to its former glory. He would spend the rest of his life in this pursuit.
3. Witherspoon took an active political role in the war of Independence
As discussed before, Witherspoon backed America in the Revolutionary war from the beginning. From 1775 to 1776, Witherspoon presided over the Somerset Committee of Correspondence. He was also a member of two different provincial congresses and a representative on the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1779, and again from 1780 to 1782. An interesting fact about John Witherspoon is that he helped draft the Articles of Confederation, which acted as the first American Constitution. He even opened one of his College’s halls to house the Continental Congress for four months while the official halls were being repaired.
4. He was a political and religious writer
Back when John Witherspoon was in Scotland, he was able to defend his party, which wanted to maintain the Church traditions, by writing a scathing satire on the other party. His pamphlet was called Ecclesiatical Characteristics. It was published in 1753. At first, the pamphlet was published anonymously, but when the public learned Witherspoon wrote the pamphlet, he gained a sort of celebrity.
Witherspoon left many other works on the topics of politics and religion, including pamphlets, essays, and sermons.
5. John Witherspoon went to College at the age of 13
Witherspoon was very bright and considered quite advanced for his age. At 13, he was accepted into the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, an interesting John Witherspoon fact. While there, he studied Philosophy, Latin, Greek, and Logic. Not only did he get into college early, he graduated in only three years. At the age of 16, Witherspoon graduated with a Master of Arts degree. He then studied theology at the University of Edinburgh and got a license to preach in 1743.
6. He was imprisoned defending his homeland
Back in Scotland, Witherspoon defended the Popular party, which supported congregations picking their own ministers rather than letting the government pick ministers. However, in the middle of that conflict, Charles Edward Stuart invaded Scotland in order put both Scotland and England once more under a single rule, as it had been with his grandfather, King James II. Witherspoon joined other religious leaders in gathering troops to resist this invasion, but he was captured. For defending his land, John Witherspoon was imprisoned in Castle Doune and treated harshly.
7. He got an honorary doctorate
As if Witherspoon didn’t have enough educational credits, he received an honorary doctorate in 1764 from the University of St. Andrews. Witherspoon’s honorary degree was in divinity, and it was given to him because the University recognized his exceptional skills as a minister, a leader, and a theological scholar.
8. At first, the Witherspoons weren’t going to go to America.
Considering all of the contributions John Witherspoon made to the budding nation of the United States, it is hard to imagine that he almost never made the trip across the Atlantic. An interesting fact about John Witherspoon is that his wife was afraid to cross the ocean, to leave everything they had ever known, and to start a brand new life on another continent. However, a student from the College of New Jersey who was studying in Edinburgh came over to Witherspoon’s house to try and convince the couple to change their minds. The student stayed with the Witherspoons for a few days and talked Mrs. Witherspoon out of her fears.
At the age of 45, John Witherspoon crossed the Atlantic Ocean, bringing 300 books with him, to become the sixth President of the College of New Jersey.
John Witherspoon did a lot of good work for the College of New Jersey, the Church, and the United States of America. He also had the reputation of having a good sense of humor, maintaining strong principles, and being a good leader. As Witherspoon’s health deteriorated, his son helped him run the College of New Jersey, and eventually, the son was elected as Witherspoon’s replacement. Witherspoon died in his home, on his farm near the college he held so dear.
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