(Feb 5, 1723 – Nov 15, 1794) a Scottish-American Presbyterian minister and a Founding Father of the United States. Witherspoon embraced the concepts of liberty and patriotism, and while president of the College of New Jersey (1768–1794; now Princeton University), became an influential figure in the development of the United States’ national character. Politically active, Witherspoon was a delegate from New Jersey to the Second Continental Congress and a signatory to the July 4, 1776, Declaration of Independence. He was the only active clergyman and the only college president to sign the Declaration. Later, he signed the Articles of Confederation and supported ratification of the Constitution. In 1789 he was convening moderator of the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA.
He lost two sons in the Revolution and was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration. As a delegate to New Jersey, he declared: “Gentlemen, New Jersey is ready to vote for independence… The country is not only ripe for independence, but we are in danger of becoming rotten for the want of it!” He served on 120 Congressional Committees and was a primary proponent of the separation of powers, insisting checks be placed on the power of government.
Born in Scotland, he was a descendant of the Reformer John Knox. John Witherspoon was President of Princeton where he taught 9 of the 55 writers of the U.S. Constitution, including James Madison. His other Princeton students included a U.S. Vice-President, 3 Supreme Court Justices, 10 Cabinet Members, 13 Governors, 21 Senators and 39 Congressmen and 114 ministers. After his wife died in 1789, he headed up a committee in the New Jersey legislature to abolish slavery.
John Adams described John Witherspoon as “A true son of liberty…but first, he was a son of the Cross.”
The same day Congress declared a Day of Fasting, May 17, 1776, Rev. Witherspoon told his Princeton students:
If your cause is just, if your principles are pure, and if your conduct is prudent, you need not fear the multitude of opposing hosts. He is the best friend to American liberty, who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion, and who sets himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind. Whoever is an avowed enemy of God, I scruple not to call him an enemy of his country…”
John Witherspoon concluded:
“It is in the man of piety and inward principle, that we may expect to find the uncorrupted patriot, the useful citizen, and the invincible soldier… God grant that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may in the issue tend to the support and establishment of both.”
When peace was made with Britain, John Witherspoon exhorted all in his “Thanksgiving Sermon” to live for:
“…the Glory of God, the public interest of religion and the good of others, as civil liberty cannot be long preserved without virtue. A Republic must either preserve its virtue or lose its liberty.”
John Witherspoon resisted “tyranny of conscience,” citing:
There is not a single instance in history, in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire…. If therefore we yield up our…property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage… Governments are to defend and secure rights of conscience.”
In his “Pastoral Letter,” Rev. Witherspoon explained:
“Universal profligacy makes a nation ripe for divine judgments and is the natural means of bringing them to ruin; reformation of manners is of the utmost necessity in our present distress.”
In regards to man’s need for redemption, Rev. Witherspoon explained:
“The corruption of our nature…is the foundation-stone of the doctrine of redemption. Nothing can be more absolutely necessary to true religion, than a clear conviction of the sinfulness of our nature and state…”
“Men of lax and corrupt principles take great delight in speaking to the praise of human nature, and extolling its dignity, without distinguishing what it was at its first creation from what it is in its present fallen state… The evil of sin appears from every page of…the history of the world… Nothing is more plain from scripture…than that man by nature is in fact incapable of recovery without the power of God specially interposed.”
In his Lectures on Divinity, Rev. John Witherspoon stated:
“Religion is the grand concern of us all…the salvation of our souls in the one thing needful.”
The Moral Liberal Contributing Editor, William J. Federer, is the bestselling author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion,” and numerous other books. A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet. Check out all of Bill’s books here.
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