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
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.
Ministerial Fidelity, in declaring the whole Counsel of God; a Sermon.
Discourses on Practical Subjects. Glasg. 1768.
Practical Discourses on the Leading Truths of the Gospel, Edin. 1768,
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.