WITHERSPOON, JOHN, D. D., LL.
D., an eminent divine and theological writer, was born, February 5, 1722, in
the parish of Yester. His father, who was minister of that parish, was a man
of singular worth, and of much more than ordinary abilities. Young
Witherspoon received the earlier part of his education at the public school
of Haddington, where he distinguished himself by his diligence, and by the
rapid proficiency he made in classical attainments. He was, also, even at
this early period of his life, remarkable for that soundness of judgment,
and readiness of conception, which aided so much in procuring him the favour
he afterwards enjoyed. On completing the usual initiatory learning observed
at the school of Haddington, he was removed to the university of Edinburgh,
where he continued to attend the various classes necessary to qualify him
for the sacred profession for which he was intended, until he had attained
his twenty-first year, when he was licensed to preach the gospel. He was
soon after this invited to become assistant and successor to his father; but
held this appointment for a very short time only, having received a
presentation, in 1744, from the earl of Eglinton, to the parish of Beith, of
which he was ordained minister, with the unanimous consent of the people, in
the following year.
An incident in the life of Mr
Witherspoon, too curious to be passed over, occurred soon after this. On
learning that a battle was likely to take place at Falkirk, between the
Highlanders and royal troops, during the rebellion of 1745-6, the minister
of Beith hastened to the anticipated scene of conflict, to witness the
combat. This he saw; but in a general sweep which the victorious rebels made
around the skirts of the field after the battle, Mr Witherspoon, with
several others, whom a similar curiosity had brought to the neighbourhood of
the field, was made a prisoner, and thrown into the castle of Doune, where
he was confined, until he effected his escape, which he did with
considerable difficulty, and not without great peril.
Mr Witherspoon first assumed
the character of an author in 1753, by bringing out an anonymous
publication, entitled "Ecclesiastical Characteristics, or the Arcana of
Church Policy." This work, which discovers a rich vein of delicate satire,
was directed against certain flaws in the principles and practice of some of
the ministers of the church of Scotland of the period. It excited a great
sensation, and became so popular as to reach a fifth edition, in less than
ten years after its publication. This successful debut was followed soon
after by another able performance, entitled a "Serious Apology" for the
Characteristics, in which Dr Witherspoon acknowledged the authorship of the
latter. Three years afterwards, in 1756, he published, at Glasgow, his
admirable essay on the "Connexion between the Doctrine of Justification by
the imputed righteousness of Christ, and holiness of life."
The diligence, industry, and
regular habits of Dr Witherspoon, enabled him to reconcile the character of
a prolific author, with that of an attentive and faithful pastor; and while
discharging the duties of the latter with an exemplary fidelity, he
continued to instruct and enlighten the public mind by his literary labours.
His industry enabled him to give to the world, in the year following that in
which his essay on the Connexion, appeared, his still more celebrated work,
entitled "A serious Inquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Stage." On
this subject, there is much difference of opinion; but there can be none
regarding the ability which Dr Witherspoon’s work evinces. The reputation
which he had now acquired as a zealous minister and profound theologian,
procured him one of those spontaneous calls, which so strikingly mark the
public sense of a clergyman’s usefulness and merits. In the year 1757, he
was solicited by the people of Paisley to accept the pastoral charge of the
Low Church of that town. Here, as at Beith, he diligently prosecuted his
literary labours, and still continued to associate them with a faithful
discharge of his pastoral duties. During a portion of the time of his
ministry in Paisley, he employed himself in preparing sermons for the press;
several of which were published in 1758 and 1759, and were received with
marked approbation. His next publication, unfortunately, though written with
the best intentions, and well calculated to attain the ends proposed by its
author, involved him in difficulties, which pressed hard upon him for
several years afterwards. The publication alluded to was a discourse,
entitled a "Seasonable Advice to Young Persons," published in 1762. The
subject of this discourse was suggested, at the particular moment it
appeared, by an account which had reached Dr Witherspoon, of a riotous and
extremely disorderly meeting which had taken place in Paisley, on the night
before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. To this discourse, the author
had prefixed a prefatory address, in which he incautiously set forth, at
full length, the names of the persons said to have been concerned in the
indecorous meeting alluded to; and the consequence of this unguarded
proceeding, on the part of Dr Witherspoon, was an action of damages, in
which, being unable to adduce sufficient proof of the accuracy of his
information, he was defeated, and involved in serious expenses.
In 1764, he received a degree
from one of the Scottish universities, and in the same year went to London,
to superintend the publication of his "Essays on Important Subjects," in
three volumes. This work, with the exception of his admirable treatise on
Regeneration, which was included in these volumes, was merely a reprint, in
a collected form, of the detached essays which he had, from time to time,
published in Scotland. Their republication, however, had the effect of
greatly extending Dr Witherspoon’s fame as an able theologian, and useful
minister: and its appearance was soon after followed by three different
calls to as many different new charges. The first of these was from a large
congregation in Dublin; the second, to the Scottish church at Rotterdam; and
the third, from the town of Dundee. Dr Witherspoon’s attachments in Paisley,
however, were too numerous, and too strong, to permit of his accepting of
either of these invitations. But one of a more remarkable description, soon
after prevailed with him to leave not only Paisley, but his country. This
was an invitation from the trustees of the college of Princeton, New Jersey,
in America, to become president of that institution. He, at first, declined
this appointment, but, on a second application being made to him, thought
fit to comply. A sufficient proof that this compliance did not proceed from
interested motives, is found in the circumstance of his having been
promised, by a gentleman; a relation of his own, who possessed considerable
property, that he should be made his heir, if he would remain at home. This
promise weighed nothing, however, with Dr Witherspoon, when put in
opposition to the sense of duty which called him to an extensive, and
peculiarly interesting field for ministerial exertion. Having come to the
resolution of crossing the Atlantic, he preached a farewell sermon to his
affectionate people in Paisley, on the 16th of April, 1768. This sermon was
immediately after published, under the title of "Ministerial Fidelity, in
declaring the whole Counsel of God." Before leaving his native shores, he
also published, at Glasgow, "Discourses on Practical Subjects;"
and, at Edinburgh, "Practical Discourses on the Leading Truths of the
Dr Witherspoon now prepared
for his departure for America, and at length sailed for that country in the
month of July, 1768, and arrived there in safety with his family, in the
following month. Immediately after his arrival, he entered upon his new
appointment, and began to discharge the important duties with which it was
associated. The reputation of Dr Witherspoon had gone before him; and the
result to the college, over which he presided, was a great and rapid
increase of its prosperity. Previously to his arrival, the institution,
which was chiefly supported by private liberality, was in a very indifferent
situation with regard to finances; these, however, were quickly placed in a
flourishing condition by the spirit of liberality, which the new
president’s abilities and zeal excited. Nor were either these, or the value
of his services, overrated. The latter were singularly important and
beneficial, not only to the college over which he presided, but to the
general interests of education throughout America. At Princeton, he effected
a total revolution in the system of instruction practised there previously
to his arrival. He greatly extended the study of mathematical science, and
introduced important improvements into the course of instruction in natural
philosophy. In a few years afterwards, his career of usefulness was not only
interrupted, but, for a time, altogether terminated, by the occurrence of
the American war of independence. In this struggle, he took a decided part
in favour of the insurgents; and on the 17th May, 1776, preached a sermon at
Princeton, on the occasion of a general fast, appointed by the Congress, in
which he expressed his sentiments fully on the subject of the great
political questions, then agitated between the mother country and the
revolted colonies. This discourse was afterwards published, under the title
of "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men." Dr Witherspoon’s
conduct, on this occasion, greatly displeased his friends at home; and an
edition of the sermon above alluded to, was published at Glasgow, with
severe and abusive notes and remarks, by its editor, in some of which the
author was stigmatized as a rebel, and a traitor to his country. In America,
however, it produced a very different feeling towards Dr Witherspoon; and
the nature of this feeling is sufficiently evinced, by the circumstance of
his having been, soon after, elected by the citizens of New Jersey as their
delegate to the convention, in which the republican constitution was formed,
in this capacity he acquired, by the versatility of his talents, and the
soundness of his judgment, a political reputation, not inferior to that
which he enjoyed as a man of letters. In the early part of this year, 1776,
he was sent, as a representative of the people of New Jersey, to the
Congress of the United States, and continued for seven years an active and
zealous member of that body. He was consulted on all momentous occasions;
and it is known that he was the writer of many of the most important state
papers of the period.
On the final settlement of
the question of American independence, in the early part of the year 1783,
Dr Witherspoon resumed his college duties; and two years afterwards, paid a
short visit to his native country. The object of this visit was to obtain
benefactions for the college over which he presided, and which had nearly
been exterminated by the war; but party feeling still ran too high in the
mother country, to allow of such a mission being very successful and
although the doctor made every exertion in London, and in several other
parts of the kingdom, to excite an interest in, and sympathy with his views,
the result, on the whole, was by no means favourable. After a short stay in
Paisley, during which he preached repeatedly in the Low and Middle churches,
he took a final farewell of his friends, and returned to America, where he
continued for several years more to maintain, and even increase, the
reputation he had already acquired. The infirmities of age, however, began
at length to steal upon him. Two years previous to his death, he was totally
deprived of sight; yet such was the activity of his mind, and the greatness
of his anxiety to be useful, that, even under this grievous affliction, he
did not desist either from the exercise of his ministry, or from his duties
in the college, although he had on all occasions to be led to the
pulpit and rostrum. This affecting condition was but of short duration. He
was released from it, and from all other afflictions, on the 15th , of
November, 1794, in the seventy-third year of his age.
Dr Witherspoon’s merits as an
author, preacher, and philosopher, have been the theme of much and frequent
eulogium by men, themselves eminent for the attainments they so much admired
in him; and we cannot conclude this brief memoir better, than by quoting the
language of one of those eulogists alluded to. "Of Dr Witherspoon’s
character as an author," says Dr Rogers, senior minister of the United
Presbyterian churches in the city of New York, "it is not necessary to say
much. His writings are before the public; and to every serious and
intelligent reader, they discover an uncommon knowledge of human nature, and
a deep and intimate acquaintance with the holy scriptures. They generally
strike us, as being at once elegant and convincing, grave and attractive,
profound and plain, energetic and simple. They evidently show that the
author’s learning was very extensive; that God had given him a great and
understanding mind, a quick apprehension, and a solid judgment. And, as a
preacher, he was, in many respects, one of the best models on which a young
orator could form himself."
Dr. John Witherspoon, an eminent Scottish clergyman, was
president of the College in the latter part of the 18th century, and during his
administration the College (Princeton) achieved a national reputation. A noted scholar,
theologian, and patriot (the only college president to sign the Declaration of
Independence), he left his mark on both clerical and civil affairs. The record of
Princeton men who studied under him is outstanding, including President James Madison,
Vice-President Aaron Burr, nine cabinet officers, 21 United States senators, 39 members of
the House of Representatives, three justices of the Supreme Court, and 12 governors.
John Witherspoon, a man alike distinguished as a minister of the gospel, and
a patriot of the revolution, was born in the parish of Yester, a few miles from Edinburgh,
on the 5th of February, 1722. He was lineally descended from John Knox, the Scottish
reformer, of whom Mary, queen of Scots, said, "she was more afraid of his prayers,
than of an army of ten thousand men."
The father of Mr. Witherspoon was the minister of the parish
of Yester. He was a man, eminent for his piety and literature, and for a habit of great
accuracy in his writings and discourses. The example of the father contributed, in no
small degree, to form in his son that love of taste and simplicity, for which he was
He was sent, at an early age, to the public school at
Haddington, where be soon acquired a high reputation for the native soundness of his
judgment, his close application to study, and the quick and clear conceptions of his mind.
Many, who at that time were the companions of his literary toils, afterwards filled some
of the highest stations in the literary and political world.
At the age of fourteen, be was removed to the university of
Edinburgh. Here he was distinguished, as he had been at the school of Haddington, for his
great diligence and rapid literary attainments. In the theological hall, particularly, he
exhibited an uncommon taste in sacred criticism, and an unusual precision of thought, and
perspicuity of expression. At the age of twenty-one, he finished his collegiate studies,
and commenced preaching.
Immediately on leaving the university, he was invited to
become the minister of Yester, as colleague with his father, with the right of succeeding
to the charge. He chose, rather, however, to accept an invitation from the parish of
Beith, in the west of Scotland, and here he was ordained and settled, by the unanimous
consent of his congregation.
Soon after his settlement at Beith, a circumstance occurred
of too interesting a nature to be omitted. On the 17th of January, 1746, was fought the
battle of Falkirk. Of this battle, Dr. Witherspoon and several others were spectators.
Unfortunately, they were taken prisoners by the rebels, and shut up in close confinement
in the castle of Doune. In the same room in which he was confined, were two cells, in one
of which were five members of a military company from Edinburgh, who had also been taken
prisoners, and two citizens of Aberdeen, who had been threatened to be hanged as spies. In
the other cell were several others who had been made prisoners, under circumstances
similar to those of Dr. Witherspoon.
During the night which followed their imprisonment, the
thoughts of the prisoners, who were able to communicate with one another, were turned on
the best means of making their escape. The room where they were confined was the highest
part of the castle, not far from the battlements. which were seventy feet high. It was
proposed to form a rope of some blankets which they had purchased, and by means of this to
descend from the battlements to the ground.
A rope was accordingly made, in the best manner they were
able, and about one o'clock in the morning they commenced descending upon it. Four reached
the ground in safety. Just as the fifth touched the ground the rope broke, about twenty
feet above. This unfortunate occurrence was communicated to those who remained on the
battlements, and warning was given to them not to attempt the hazardous descent. In
disregard, however, of the advice, the next one whose turn it was to descend, immediately
went down the rope. On reaching the end of it, his companions below perceiving him
determined to let go his hold, put themselves in a posture to break his fall. They
succeeded, however, only in part. The poor fellow was seriously injured, having one of his
ankles dislocated, and several ribs broken. His companions, however, succeeded in
conveying him to a village on the borders of the sea, whence he was taken, by means of a
boat, to a sloop of war lying in the harbor.
The other volunteer, and Dr. Witherspoon, were left behind.
The volunteer now drew the rope up, and to the end of it attached several blankets. Having
made it sufficiently long, be again let it down and began his descent. He reached the
place where the rope was originally broken, in safety ; but the blankets, which he had
attached to it, being too large for him to span, like his predecessor, he fell, and was so
much wounded, that be afterwards died. The fate of these unhappy men induced Dr.
Witherspoon to relinquish the hope of escape in this way, and to wait for a safer mode of
From Beith, Dr. Witherspoon was translated, in the course of
a few years, to the flourishing town of Paisley, where be was happy in the affections of a
large congregation, among whom be was eminently useful, until the period of his emigrating
to America, to take charge, as president, of the college of New-Jersey.
The election of Dr. Witherspoon to the presidency of the
above college, occurred in the year 1766. This appointment, however, he was induced to
decline, in the first instance, from the reluctance of the female members of his family,
and especially of Mrs. Witherspoon, to leave the scene of their happiness and honor, for a
land of strangers, and that lend so distant from her father's sepulchers.
At a subsequent period, however, Dr. Witherspoon again took
the subject into consideration; and at length, through the influence and representations
of Mr. Stockton, of whom we have spoken in the preceding memoir, acceded to the wishes of
the trustees, in accepting the presidency of the college. It reflects no small honor upon
Dr. Witherspoon, that he should consent to cross the ocean, and take charge of a college
in a new country, leaving behind him a sphere of great respectability, comfort, and
usefulness. Having previously declined, it is understood, an urgent invitation to an
honorable station in Dublin, in Rotterdam, and in the town of Dundee, in his own country.
It deserves also to be mentioned, that a little previous to his embarking for America, and
while still in a state of suspense, respecting his duty, an unmarried gentleman of
considerable fortune, and a relation of the family, offered to make him his heir, provided
he would remain in Scotland.
Dr. Witherspoon arrived in America in August, 1768, and in
the same month was inaugurated president of the college. The fame of his literary
character caused an immediate accession to the number of students, and an increase of the
funds of the college. At that time it had not been patronized by the state. It had been
founded and supported by private liberality. At the period of Dr. Witherspoon's arrival,
the finances of the college were in a low and declining condition. His reputation,
however, in connection with his personal exertions, excited the generosity of all parts of
the country, from Massachusetts to Virginia; in consequence of which, the finances of the
institution were soon raised to a flourishing state. During the war of the revolution, the
college was broken up, and its resources nearly annihilated. Yet it can scarcely be
estimated how much the institution owed, at that time, to the enterprise and talents of
"But the principal advantages it derived," says Dr.
Rogers, in a discourse occasioned by his death, "were from his literature, his
superintendency, his example as a happy model of good writing, and from the tone and taste
which he gave to the literary pursuits of the college."
He made great alterations in every department of instruction.
"He endeavored," says the same writer, " to establish the system of
education in this institution, upon the most extensive and respectable basis, that its
situation and its finances would admit. Formerly, the course of instruction had been too
superficial: and its metaphysics and philosophy were too much tinctured with the dry and
uninstructive forms of the schools. This, however, was by no means to be imputed as a
defect to those great and excellent men who had presided over the institution before him,
but rather to the recent origin of the country, the imperfection of its state of society,
and to the state of literature in it. Since his presidency, mathematical science has
received an extension that was not known before in the American seminaries. He introduced
into philosophy all the most liberal and modern improvements of Europe. He extended the
philosophical course to embrace the general principles of policy and public law; he
incorporate with it sound and rational metaphysics, equally remote from the doctrines of
fatality and contingency, from the barrenness and dogmatism of the schools, and from the
excessive refinements of those contradictory, but equally impious sects of skepticism, who
wholly deny the existence of matter, or maintain that nothing but matter exists in the
"He laid the foundation of a course of history in the
college, and the principles of taste, and the rules of good writing, were both happily
explained by him, and exemplified in his manner." He possessed an admirable faculty
for governing, and was very successful in exciting a good degree of emulation among the
pupils committed to his care. Under his auspices, many were graduated, who became
distinguished for their learning, and for the eminent services which they rendered their
countrymen as divines, as legislators, and patriots.
On the occurrence of the American war, the college was broken
up, as has already been noticed, and the officers and students were dispersed. Dr.
Witherspoon now appeared in a new attitude before the American public. Although a
foreigner, he had laid aside his prejudices on becoming a citizen of the country, and now
warmly espoused the cause of the Americans against the English ministry. His distinguished
abilities pointed him out to the citizens of New-Jersey, as one of the most proper
delegates to that convention which formed their republican constitution. In this
respectable assembly he appeared, to the astonishment of all the professors of the law, as
profound a civilian as he had before been known to be a philosopher and divine.
Early in the year 1776, be was elected a representative to
the general congress, by the people of New-Jersey. He took his seat a few days previously
to the fourth of July, and assisted in the deliberations on the momentous question of a
declaration of independence. Of this measure he was an advocate. It was a happy reply
which be made to a gentleman who, in opposing the measure, declared that the country was
not yet ripe for a declaration of independence. "Sir," said he, " in my
judgment the country is not only ripe, but rotting."
For the space of seven years, Dr. Witherspoon continued to
represent the people of New-Jersey in the general congress. He was seldom absent from his
seat, and never allowed personal considerations to prevent his attention to official
duties. Few men acted with more energy and promptitude; few appeared to be enriched with
greater political wisdom; few enjoyed a greater share of public confidence; few
accomplished more for the country, than he did, in the sphere in which he was called to
act. In the most gloomy and formidable aspect of public affairs, he was always firm,
discovering the greatest reach and presence of mind, in the most embarrassing situations.
It is impossible here to particularize all, or even a small
part of the important services which he rendered his country, during his continuance in
the grand legislative council. He served on numerous committees, where his judgment and
experience were of eminent importance. He seldom took part in the discussions of public
measures, until, by reason and reflection, he had settled his ideas on the subject. He
would then come forward with great clearness and power, and seldom did he fail to impart
light to a subject, and cause even his opponents to hesitate. His speeches were usually
composed in closet, and committed to memory. His memory was unusually tenacious. He could
repeat verbatim a sermon, or a speech, composed by himself, by reading it three times.
Dr. Witherspoon, it must be admitted, was a sagacious
politician. He indeed adopted views which, in some respects, differed from those of his
brethren in congress; yet his principles have been justified by the result. A few examples
may be mentioned. He constantly opposed the expensive mode of supplying the army by
commission. For several years this was the mode adopted. A certain commission percent on
the money that the commissioners expended, was allowed them, as a compensation. A strong
temptation was thus presented to purchase at extravagant prices, since the commissioners
correspondingly increased their compensation.
In consequence of this mode of supplying the army, the
expenses of the country became alarmingly great. Much dissatisfaction, from time to time,
existed in reference to the management of the commissary general's department, and a
reform was loudly demanded by many judicious men in the country. Among those who loudly
complained on this subject, and who deemed a change essential to the salvation of the
country Dr. Witherspoon was one. This change, so useful and economical, was at length
agreed to, July l0th, 1781. The superintendent of finance was authorized to procure all
necessary supplies for the army and navy of the United States by contract, i.e. by
allowing a certain sum to the purchaser for every ration furnished.
Another point on which Dr. Witherspoon differed from many of
his brethren in congress, was the emission of a paper currency. After the first or second
emission, he strongly opposed the system, predicting the wound which would be ultimately
given to public credit, and the private distress which must necessarily follow. Instead of
emissions of an unfunded paper beyond a certain quantum, Dr. Witherspoon urged the
propriety of making loans and establishing funds for the payment of the interest. Happy
had it been for the country, had this better policy been adopted. At a subsequent date, at
the instance of some of the very gentlemen who opposed him in congress, he published his
ideas on the nature, value, and uses of money, in one of the most clear and judicious
essays that perhaps was ever written on the subject.
At the close of the year 1779, Dr. Witherspoon voluntarily
retired from congress, desirous of spending the remainder of his life, as he said, in
"otio cum dignitate." Accordingly, he resigned his house in the vicinity of the
college to his son-in-law, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Smith, to whom was committed the care and
instruction of the students, who now began to return from their dispersion. Dr.
Witherspoon retired to a country seat, at the distance of about one mile from Princeton.
His name, however, continued to add celebrity to the institution, which not long after
recovered its former reputation.
But he was not long allowed the repose which he so much
desired. In 1781, be was again elected a representative to congress. But at the close of
the following year, be retired from political life. In the year 1783, he was induced,
through his attachment to the institution over which he had so long presided, to cross the
ocean to promote its benefit. He was now in his sixtieth year, and strong must have been
his regard for the interests of learning, to induce him, at this advanced age, to brave
the dangers of the ocean. Much success could scarcely be expected in an undertaking of
this kind, considering the hostility which still subsisted between England and America.
The pecuniary assistance which he obtained exceeded only, by a little, his necessary
expenses, although he was not wanting in enterprise and zeal in relation to the object of
After his return to this country, in 1784, finding nothing to
obstruct his entering on that retirement which was now becoming dear to him, he withdrew,
in a great measure', except on some important occasions, from the exercise of those public
functions that were not immediately connected with the duties of his office, as president
of the college, or his character as a minister of the gospel.
Although Dr. Witherspoon was peculiarly fitted for political
life, he appeared with still more advantage as a minister of the gospel, and particularly
as a minister in the pulpit. "He was, in many respects," says Dr. Rogers,
"one of the best models on which a young preacher could form himself. It was a
singular felicity to the whole college, but especially to those who had the profession of
the ministry in contemplation, to have such an example constantly in view. Religion, by
the manner in which it was treated by him, always commanded the respect of those who heard
him, even when it was not able to engage their hearts. An admirable textuary; a profound
theologian, perspicuous and simple in his manner; an universal scholar, acquainted with
human nature; a grave, dignified, solemn speaker; -he brought all the advantages derived
from these sources, to the illustration and enforcement of divine truth."
The social qualities of Dr. Witherspoon rendered him one of
the most companionable of men. He possessed a rich fund of anecdote, both amusing and
instructive. His moments of relaxation were as entertaining as his serious ones were
fraught with improvement. The following anecdote presents a specimen of his pleasantry. On
the surrender of the British army to General Gates, at Saratoga, that officer dispatched
one of his aids to convey the news to congress. The interesting character of the
intelligence would have prompted most men to have made as expeditions a journey as
possible; but the aid proceeded so leisurely, that the intelligence reached Philadelphia
three days before his arrival. It was usual for Congress, on such occasions, to bestow
some mark of their esteem upon the person who was the bearer of intelligence so grateful;
and it was proposed, in this case, to best upon the messenger an elegant sword. During the
conversation on this subject in the hall, Dr. Witherspoon rose, and begged leave to amend
the motion, by substituting for an elegant sword, a pair of golden spurs.
Another interesting trait in his character, was his attention
to young persons. He never suffered an opportunity to escape him of imparting the most
useful advice to them, according to their circumstances, when they happened to be in his
company. And this was always done with so much kindness and suavity, that they could
neither be inattentive to it or easily forget it.
In domestic life, he was an affectionate husband, a tender
parent, a kind master, and a sincere friend. He was twice married. The first time in
Scotland, at an early age, to a lady by the name of Montgomery. She was a woman
distinguished for her piety and benevolence. At the time of his emigration to America, he
had three sons and two daughters. James, his eldest son, was killed in the battle of
Germantown. John was bred a physician, and David applied himself to the study of the law.
Both were respectable men. Of the daughters, one was married to the Rev. Samuel S. Smith,
the successor of Dr. Witherspoon in the presidency of' the college. The other became
connected with Dr. Ramsay, the celebrated historian. The second marriage of Dr.
Witherspoon occurred when he was seventy years old; the lady whom he married was only
In his person, Dr. Witherspoon was remarkably dignified. He
was six feet in height, and of fine proportion. He was distinguished for a fervent piety,
and for great punctuality and exactness in his devotional exercises. "Besides his
daily devotions of the closet, and the family, it was his stated practice to observe the
last day of every year, with his family, as a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer: and
it was also his practice to set apart days for secret fasting and prayer, as occasion
"Bodily infirmities began at length to come upon him.
For more than two years before his death, he was afflicted with the loss of sight, which
contributed to hasten the progress of his other disorders. These he bore with a patience,
and even with a cheerfulness, rarely to be met with in the most eminent for wisdom and
piety. Nor would his active mind, and his desire of usefulness to the end, permit him,
even in this situation, to desist from the exercise of his ministry, and his duties in the
college, as far as his strength and health would admit. He was frequently led into the
pulpit, both at home and abroad, during, his blindness; and always acquitted himself with
his usual accuracy, and frequently with more than his usual solemnity and animation."
At length, however, he sank under the
accumulated pressure of his infirmities; and on the 15th day of November, 1794, in the
seventy-third year of his age he retired to his final rest. The following epitaph is
inscribed on the marble which covers his remains:
Beneath this marble lie interred
the mortal remains of
JOHN WITHERSPOON, D. D. LL. D.
a venerable and beloved President of the College of New-Jersey.
He was born in the parish of Yester, in Scotland,
on the 5th of February, 1722 0. S.
And was liberally educated in the University of Edinburgh;
invested with holy orders in the year 1743,
he faithfully performed the duties of his pastoral charge,
during five and twenty years,
first at Beith, and then at Paisley.
Elected president of Nassau Halt
he assumed the duties of that office on the 13th of August, 1768,
with the elevated expectations of the public.
Excelling in every mental gift
he was a man of pre-eminent piety and virtue
and deeply versed in the various branches
of literature and the liberal arts.
A grave and solemn preacher,
his sermons abounded in the most excellent doctrines and precepts,
and in lucid expositions of the Holy Scriptures.
Affable, pleasant, and courteous in familiar conversation,
he was eminently distinguished
in concerns and deliberations of the church,
and endowed with the greatest prudence
in the management and instruction of youth.
He exalted the reputation of the college amongst foreigners,
and greatly promoted the advancement
of its literary character and taste.
He was, for a long time, conspicuous
Among the most brilliant luminaries of learning and of the Church.
At length, universally venerates beloved, and lamented,
he departed this life on the fifteenth of November, MDCCXCIV.
aged LXXIII years.
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