John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was born on February 5, 1722, in the parish of Yester located near Edinburgh, Scotland. He was a direct descendant of John Knox, the great reformer. His father was a greatly loved minister in the Scottish church in their parish and was very concerned about the education of John. He wanted to make sure that John learned sound moral and religious principles in order to be prepared to be part of the gospel ministry.
John studied at a Haddington school until he entered the University of Edinburgh when he was fourteen years old. He was a diligent student and delighted his father with his interest in sacred literature. He took the regular theological course of study and graduated as a licensed preacher at age twenty-two. Although he was requested to be an assistant to his father in Yester, John chose to accept a call to serve at Beith in western Scotland and labored faithfully there.
While John was serving in the ministry in Beith, the commotion known as the Scotch rebellion took place. In the battle of Falkirk in 1745-46, the forces of George the Second fought the forces of Prince Charles Stuart. John, along with other people, went to watch the battle and witnessed the victory of the rebels. John and several others were taken prisoner and imprisoned for some time in the castle of Doune.
John moved from Beith to Paisley and became widely known for his piety and learning. He was invited to take positions in Dublin (Ireland), Dundee (Scotland), and Rotterdam (Holland) but turned down all the offers. He was invited in 1766 by a unanimous vote of the trustees to become the president of New Jersey College but declined that invitation also as a favor to his wife who wanted to remain in Scotland. John Stockton visited him and urged him to take the position at New Jersey College. He accepted appointment and sailed to America, arriving in August 1768. He was inaugurated as president of the College on August 17, 1768, and embarked on changing the financial affairs of the institution and bringing it to a respected place among American institutions of learning.
The College at Princeton was broken up when the British arrived in New Jersey, and Dr. Witherspoon used his extensive knowledge in other ways. In early 1776, John helped to write a new Constitution for New Jersey under the state's provisional government. People were so impressed with his abilities that he was elected to serve as a delegate to the General Congress where he took his seat on June 29, 1776. When a Declaration of Independence was discussed on July 1, one of the delegates remarked that "the people are not ripe for a Declaration of Independence of Independence." Doctor Witherspoon observed, "In my judgment, sir, we are not only ripe, but rotting." He was convinced on the need to become independence; he voted for the acceptance of the Declaration of Independence and signed the Declaration on August 2, 1776.
Witherspoon was a member of the General Congress from 1776 until 1782 (except for part of 1780) and was rarely absent from attending. He served on important committees and given delicate commissions. His colleagues were amazed at the versatility of his knowledge in both military and financial matters.
When peace was restored in 1783, Doctor Witherspoon retired from public life but maintained his ministerial duties. He lent his name and influence in the effort to resuscitate the College. Even though he considered the trip a waste, he consented to go to Great Britain to solicit funds for the college but was able to collect barely enough to pay for the expenses of his voyage.
Doctor Witherspoon was married twice. He married Elizabeth Montgomery in Scotland soon after he graduated from the University of Edinburgh. The couple had ten children, five of whom died in Scotland; three sons and two daughters accompanied their parents to America. Eighteen months after Elizabeth died in 1789, Dr. Witherspoon married the young widow of Dr. Dill of Philadelphia, age twenty-three, with whom he had one daughter.
About two years before his death, Dr. Witherspoon became blind, but he did not relinquish his duties of the ministry. After being helped to the pulpit, he presented his message with his usual vigor.
"As a theological writer, Doctor Witherspoon had few superiors, and as a statesman he held the first rank. In him were centred the social elements of an upright citizen, a fond parent, a just tutor, and humble Christian…." He passed away on November 10, 1794, at age seventy-two, after a very useful life.
Facts and quotes are from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, pp. 81-84.
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