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The Scottish Nation

WITHERSPOON, JOHN, D.D., and LL.D., an eminent divine and theological writer, was born, February 5, 1722, in the parish of Yester, Haddingtonshire, of which parish his father was minister. He is said to have been a lineal descendant of John Knox. After receiving the first part of his education at the public school of Haddington, he was, at the age of fourteen, sent to the university of Edinburgh, and having, with great credit to himself, passed through the usual course of study there, he was, in his twenty-first year, licensed to preach the gospel. He acted for a short time as assistant to his father, whose successor he was appointed, but in 1744 he was presented, by the earl of Eglinton, to the parish of Beith, of which he was ordained minister in the following year. In 1753 he published, anonymously, his ‘Ecclesiastical Characteristics, or the Arcana of Church Policy,’ a biting satire, levelled at the Moderate section of the church. No publication of the period was read with more avidity, or hit more severely the party against whom it was aimed. Dr. Warburton, the celebrated bishop of Gloucester, has mentioned the ‘characteristics’ with particular approbation, and expressed his wish that the Church of England had such a corrector. Soon after he published a ‘Serious Apology’ for the ‘Characteristics,’ in which he acknowledged himself to be the author. This work, and his active conduct in the church courts, procured for him so much influence among the popular of evangelical clergy, that he soon came to be recognized as their leader; and to him his party were, at first, principally indebted for that concentration of views and union of design, and system of operation, which ultimately enabled them to defeat their adversaries. One day, after carrying in the General Assembly some important questions against Dr. Robertson, the head of the Moderates, the latter said to him in his quiet manner, “I think you have your men better disciplined than formerly.” “Yes,” replied Witherspoon, “by urging your politics too far, you have compelled us to beat you with your own weapons.”

In 1756 he published, at Glasgow, his admirable essay on the ‘Connection between the Doctrine of Justification by the imputed Righteousness of Christ, and Holiness of Life;’ and in 1757 appeared his ‘Serious Inquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Stage.’ In the latter year he accepted an invitation from Paisley, and accordingly became minister of the Low Church of that town. During his residence there he obtained a high character for his learning, his eloquence, and success as a preacher, and for the excellence of his writings; and received invitations from congregations in Dublin, Dundee, and Rotterdam, all of which he rejected. In 1764 he obtained the degree of D.D., and the same year published at London, in 3 vols., his ‘Essays on Important Subjects, intended to establish the Doctrine of Salvation by Grace, and to point out its influence on Holiness of Life,’ with the ‘Ecclesiastical Characteristics’ appended.

His reputation having reached America, he was offered, by the trustees of the college of Princetown, New Jersey, the situation of president of that institution; which he at first declined, but, on a second application, accepted the appointment. His farewell sermon to his congregation at Paisley was preached, April 16, 1768, and immediately afterwards published, under the title of ‘Ministerial Fidelity, in declaring the whole Counsel of God.’ The same year he also published at Glasgow, ‘Discourses on Practical Subjects,’ and at Edinburgh, ‘Practical Discourses on the Leading Truths of the Gospel.’ He arrived at Princetown in the following August, and immediately entered on his new duties. Under his administration the college of New Jersey rapidly increased in reputation and prosperity; the general interests of education, throughout America, also derived great benefit from his exertions, as he was careful to introduce, into the system of instruction, every important improvement which was known in Europe. His portrait is subjoined.

[portrait of John Witherspoon]

During the revolutionary war, he took a decided part in favour of the insurgents; and a political sermon which he preached on May 17, 1776, on the occasion of a general Fast ordered by Congress, was afterwards published under the title of ‘The Dominion of Providence over the passions of Men.’ Soon after he was elected, by the citizens of New Jersey, their representative in the Congress of the United States, of which he was seven years a member. In the early part of 1783, after America had obtained her independence, he returned to the college of Princetown, and resumed his duties as president. In 1785 he paid a short visit to his native country, with the view of procuring subscriptions for the institution over which he presided, but was not very successful in his object. On his return to Princetown he continued to preach and lecture in the college till his death, which happened November 15, 1794, in the seventy-third year of his age, having been, for the last two years of his life, afflicted with blindness. His funeral sermon was preached by the Rev. D. Rodgers, senior minister of the United Presbyterian churches in the city of New York.

His works are:

Ecclesiastical Characteristics, or the Arcana of Church Policy. 1753.
Serious Apology for the Characteristics.
Essay on the Connection between the Doctrine of Justification, by the imputed Righteousness of Christ, and Holiness of Life; with some Reflections upon the Reception which that Doctrine hath generally met with in the world; To which is prefixed, A Letter to the Rev. Mr. James Hervey, Author of Theron and Aspasia. Edin. 1756, 12mo.
Serious Inquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Stage. 1757.
Sermon on Matth. Vii. 20. 1759, 12mo.
Essays on Important Subjects; intended to establish the Doctrine of Salvation by grace, and to point out its influence on Holiness of Life; with the Ecclesiastical Characteristics appended. Lond. 1764, 3 vols. 12mo.
Ministerial Fidelity, in declaring the whole Counsel of God; a Sermon. 1768.
Discourses on Practical Subjects. Glasg. 1768.
Practical Discourses on the Leading Truths of the Gospel, Edin. 1768, 12mo.
The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men; a Fast Sermon; on Psal. lxxvi. 10. 1775, 8vo.
Fast Sermon; on Isa. ii. 9. 1778, 8vo.
An Address to the Natives of Scotland residing in America, being on Appendix to a Sermon preached at Princetown, &c. 1778, 8vo.
Sermons on Regeneration. 12mo.

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