American Character: John Witherspoon

He was the man who shaped the men who shaped America, yet few know anything about him.

John Witherspoon arrived in America in 1768, enticed to leave his Scottish homeland by the offer of the presidency of a fairly new college called the College of New Jersey. Later, its name would change to Princeton.

Witherspoon was a clergyman before he was an educator, but the two were always intertwined in his life. He took the fledging college, which started shortly after the First Great Awakening, and made it into a stable institution. He also taught his students that God, not government, was the one who gave men rights. One father in Virginia, wanting that perspective taught to his son, sent him to study under Witherspoon rather than to the College of William and Mary, where all Virginia gentlemen were expected to go. That son’s name was James Madison, who later became known as the Father of the Constitution.

When problems developed between the colonies and Great Britain’s government, Witherspoon sided with the colonial cause. He was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Throughout the long revolutionary war, he continued as a delegate to the Continental Congress, serving on over 100 committees. He lost a son in the Battle of Germantown. His devotion to the cause was total.

After the war ended, he gave a sermon entitled The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men, in which he argued that the American Revolution was the hand of God in the affairs of men, and that God aided the American cause because He wanted to raise up this nation as His own.

Witherspoon commented,

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.

In other words, there is no viable separation between the Christian faith and civil liberty; the two go hand in hand. If you destroy either one, the other will be destroyed as well in the process.

During his tenure at Princeton, Witherspoon’s students not only filled pulpits, but they got involved in government also. A list of those who served is impressive: 13 governors; 3 United States Supreme Court justices; 20 senators; 33 congressmen; 1 vice president; and 1 president [James Madison].

John Witherspoon: the man who shaped the men who shaped America.