Witherspoon, John

Witherspoon, John,

1723–94, Scottish-American Presbyterian clergyman, political leader in the American Revolution, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, b. Haddingtonshire (now East Lothian), Scotland. He was educated at the Univ. of Edinburgh. From 1745 to 1768 he occupied pastorates in Scotland. A conservative in religion, he wrote Ecclesiastical Characteristics (1753) as an attack on those ministers who preached humanism instead of dogmatic truth, and in his Serious Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Stage (1757) he maintained that drama was not an innocent recreation but an arouser of immoral passion. In 1768, Witherspoon was appointed president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), where he broadened the curriculum and considerably improved the quality of education. He promoted the growth of the Presbyterian Church in America and healed schisms. Despite his original feeling that the clergy should avoid politics, he accepted a position as delegate from New Jersey to the Continental Congress and served almost continuously from 1776 to 1782. His last years were spent in restoring the college at Princeton and in participating in New Jersey politics. His collected works appeared in nine volumes in 1815.


See biography by V. L. Collins (1925, repr. 1969).

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Witherspoon, John

(1723–94) Protestant clergyman, Continental Congressman, educator; born in Gifford, Scotland. Educated at the University of Edinburgh, he served two Scottish parishes before emigrating to America in 1768 to become president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). During his long tenure (until 1794) he greatly strengthened both the college and the American Presbyterian Church. A firm supporter of the colonies in the dispute with Britain, he was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. He served in the Continental Congress (1776–82) and, after the American Revolution, in the New Jersey legislature. Not widely known as a "founding father," he played an influential role in establishing several major American institutions.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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