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John Witherspoon
Early Years and Environment


JOHN WITHERSPOON was born February 5, 1722, in the manse at Yester, East Lothian, Scot-land, the son of a parish minister of the established church. According to one account, the father, naturally a very gifted man, was too lazy to use his endowments of mind. He had been well educated, was fond of reading, especially the sermons of the French Calvinistic preachers of the day. These he translated into excellent English and delivered from his pulpit with great acceptance and even with an eloquence that brought him some repute. In general he was very popular and his family were so highly esteemed that when the son was ready for ordination he might have become his father's successor. To the elder Witherspoon a good dinner with such wine as he liked commended itself more highly than the scholarly pursuits of the study. He was a very large man; "a mountain of flesh," one writer calls him. When

the young candidates for ordination came to Rev. James Witherspoon to be examined they were most hospitably entertained at the Yester manse, and doubtless enjoyed the good cheer of the table. But the examination of a student was too arduous a task for the inert minister. He enjoyed their company and made life very pleasant for them. Severe examinations were not to his mind. Other accounts of the Rev. James Witherspoon omit any references to the sensual qualities of his nature and emphasize his abilities as a clergyman.

John Witherspoon inherited his father's fine mind and the scholarly tastes which were afterwards so conspicuous in his career. Family tradition likewise kept alive in the boy whatever pride and ambition might arise from the knowledge that he was a lineal descendant of John Knox, the greatest man Scotland ever produced, and of John Welch, who had married a daughter of Knox, and whose conspicuously brave and brilliant championship of religious liberty is the pride of every Protestant Scotchman.

Witherspoon's mother was a woman of more than ordinary force of character, well educated and deeply spiritual in her nature. To her training he seems to have owed his love of liberty, his devotion to duty and his lofty conceptions of personal conduct.

How much interest Witherspoon's father took in the education of his son we are not told. The clergy were the best educated men in Scotland, and James Witherspoon was not an exception. A high degree of intellectual culture was required of them. A candidate for holy orders was obliged to pursue a classical course in college, which was followed by three years in the divinity school. Before he could be ordained he must then spend two years as a licensed probationer under the care of Presbytery. This discipline was intended to secure an educated and orthodox ministry, and was generally effective in doing so. Most clergymen read the Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek and were equally familiar with Latin. As in our day theological ideas are largely derived from Europe so in that day the Protestant preachers and teachers of France and Switzerland were the guides of Scotch ministers. That this intellectual culture and orthodox discipline did not always produce an equally high degree of piety and conscientiousness, Witherspoon's father is an evidence.

Whether the son was from the first destined to become a clergyman or not, he was given a liberal education. Early in his boyhood he was sent to Haddington to attend a first rate preparatory school, one of the many that had originally been established by Knox all over the kingdom. Doubtless the high degree of literacy among the people of Scotland is due to these schools.

Leaving Haddington young Witherspoon entered the University of Edinburgh at the age of fourteen. He was a precocious boy, naturally endowed with a good mind, and, unlike his father, a diligent student, quickly taking rank among the best in his class. At that time the faculty of the university was small so that each professor had to teach several subjects, but the students numbered less than a hundred and fifty. While none of the professors ever attained scholarly distinction, one of them at least had the rarest and best gift of a teacher, the power of imparting enthusiasm. The students who came under the influence of Colin McLaurin, professor of mathematics and the physical sciences, quickly caught from him the desire for knowledge. He was continually urging the authorities of the university to increase its equipment and touching his pupils with the never dying fire of the love of learning.

The boys must have needed such an influence to carry them through the classroom of John Stevenson who taught logic, metaphysics and the ancient languages, apparently all at the same time. One of his pupils has told us of Pro-fessor Stevenson's methods. His lectures were delivered in Latin, with which language every boy was supposed to be sufficiently familiar to understand what the good doctor was saying. He referred frequently to Cicero, Quintilian and Horace as familiarly as if these authors were the daily reading of the students. Or perhaps he would devote the morning to a book of Homer's " Iliad " which the students would read in his presence while he commented in Latin on the beauties of it, comparing it with the works of Virgil, Milton and others. The "Iliad" disposed of they read and translated Aristotle's "Politics" or Longinus' "Essay on the Sublime." Out of all this the boys learned not only Latin and Greek but also as much of logic and metaphysics as could properly be drawn from such writings.

A very important feature of the university life outside of the classrooms was furnished by the flourishing literary clubs which were common not only among the students but also with the professional men of Edinburgh. Witherspoon was active in the work of these societies, being especially proficient in debate. Students whose interests have been enlisted in organizations of this sort gladly confess to the invaluable benefits in trained alertness and clearness of mind derived from them. Doubtless the recollection of such an influence in his own university course led Witherspoon to encourage the two famous literary societies of Princeton, one of which, Whig Hall, was re-established on an earlier organization by James Madison shortly after Witherspoon became president of the college. This society, and the other, Clio Hall, are acknowledged by many students as having had for them as great an educational value as the regular curriculum of the classrooms.

Having completed with marked credit the regular four years' classical course in the university, Witherspoon was graduated into the divinity school. It is not my purpose to at-tempt any detailed account of his life there. In 1741 the famous George Whitfield preached in Edinburgh, crowds flocking to hear him. But it does not appear that his preaching made much impression on Witherspoon. Yet the freshness and warmth of his preaching were much needed to transform the homiletic methods of the Scotch preachers. There was little originality or vital force among these. They usually followed a settled routine, lecturing through the Assembly's Catechism or the less formidable Shorter Catechism in the course of the year; employing far-fetched allegory in their treatment of Scripture, giving exhibitions of clever jugglery with theological dogmas, but failing to apply the living truths of the gospel to the moral needs of the times. An exception was found in William Wishart who had become principal of the university in 1731, the year of Witherspoon's matriculation. He was also the pastor of the Tolbooth church. By the freshness and force of his treatment of theological subjects and the originality of his thought he gave a new impetus to the religious life of the city. The people crowded the church when it was known that he would preach. For the students he remained the model minister for many years, and was the most popular pulpit orator in Edinburgh. His preaching was plain and direct, dealing with immediate problems of life, and lighted with pleasing illustrations. Without forsaking the beaten paths of orthodoxy, he made them attractive, adorned them with a charming style, freshened them with colour. Witherspoon's sermons give evidence of an influence of this sort of preaching. They are vigorous, direct and full of life. Of them, however, I shall speak later. It is not my purpose to follow him through his divinity course which he completed in 1743. After the prescribed two years of service as a licensed probationer, during which he preached in various churches, he was finally installed, 1745, minister over the parish church of Beith, the congregation unanimously accepting his appointment by the patron, the Earl of Eglinton.

Just here it may be well for us to have an account of the method of settling a minister over a parish in that year of grace 1745. Among us in America a congregation of Presbyterians calls the minister of its choice and the Presbytery will install him if there are no objections on the score of his moral character or ministerial standing. The responsibility rests with the people of the church more than with the Presbytery. The latter would not refuse to present a minister with the unanimous call of a congregation; much less would there be any attempt to install a pastor against the expressed wishes of the people, nor even of a large minority. Quite otherwise was it with the Presbyteries of Scotland in Witherspoon's day, when a very complicated condition existed. The landed proprietors claimed the right to appoint ministers to the churches on their estates as is now done in England. This right, however, had been abolished in 169o, and the call vested in the congregation. Clergymen were, nevertheless, ministers of the established church and their salaries, or stipends, were fixed by law. Twenty- two years later, in 1712, the call had been vested again in the proprietors or patrons, as they were called, and then began the struggle in which, later, Witherspoon took a prominent part and which continued for more than a hundred years, until in 1843 the present Free Church of Scotland was formed by ministers who voluntarily resigned their pastorates, and organized churches supported wholly by the voluntary subscriptions of the people, and organized Presbyteries, Synods and a General Assembly altogether independent of government control.

When the act restoring patronage first became effective in 1712 a large majority of the General Assembly opposed its operation. Ministers declined to take charge of churches against the wishes of the people. Strong efforts, which, if continued, might have been successful, were made to break down the power or evade the provisions of the law. But gradually the temper of the clergy changed. A majority became willing to accept the nomination of the patron and to install a minister, often against the wishes of the people, frequently in spite of their violent opposition, and sometimes with the aid of soldiers. Some of the majority even went so far as to place upon a committee appointed to install an objectionable minister, one who was known to be conscientiously opposed to the system, which added to the bitterness of it. At one time committees were appointed to act upon pastoral settlements during the intervals between the meetings of the Assembly which were known as "riding committees," travelling on horseback from place to place to do their work.

An account of one of these disputed settlements will serve to illustrate the working of the system. The patronage of the parish of Lanark was claimed by Lockhart of Lee, by Lockhart of Carnwath, by the magistrate of the borough and by the crown. Lockhart of Lee presented a Mr. Dick; the borough and the crown concurred in presenting a Mr. Gray. The Presbytery found from their records that Lockhart of Lee had become infeft in the patronage in 1647 and had drawn the stipend during a vacancy. The case seemed to be clear and the Presbytery proceeded to install Mr. Dick. But the people took a hand in the matter. They disliked the Lockharts and had an intense hatred of the system of patronage. The magistrates who had been set aside were angered and refused to suppress the mob which assembled when the Presbytery attempted to carry out their decision. The people held the church and assured the ministers that any attempt to enter would be resisted even to bloodshed. The case was finally taken into the civil courts, which decided against Mr. Dick who was compelled to withdraw, receiving no pay for the four years of his service while the case was in process.

Such occurrences were not unusual. More than fifty similar cases were brought before the General Assembly between 1740 and 1750. Many churches were without ministers for years, the congregation divided all the while into hostile factions. In the decisions of the Assembly no uniform rule was followed. Sometimes the patron was supported and the minister installed against the wishes of the people who not infrequently left him to preach to empty pews. Or perhaps the patron was persuaded to withdraw the minister of his choice. Litigants before the church courts appealed to varying precedents and confusion increased.

Many attempts were made to simplify the matter. Nobody thought of disestablishment. The patrons and such ministers as enjoyed their favour formed one party; the people and the pastors who sympathized with them composed the other, with here and there a nobleman on the popular side, exercising his rights in a conciliatory spirit. In 1731 an attempt was made to straighten the tangle which seemed promising. An overture was brought before the Assembly providing that when a charge became vacant and the patron failed or refused to present a minister, the landholders and elders in the country parishes, the town council and elders in the towns, should make out the call to a minister. If the congregation approved he should be installed; if not, the Presbytery was empowered to determine the matter and set him aside or install him as seemed best. As was required by law this overture was sent down to the Presbyteries for their action. The next year, although a majority of the Presbyteries had failed to act upon it, the Assembly passed it into a standing law. Such a stretch of authority was itself a violation of a law known as the Barrier Act, designed to protect the Presbyteries from coercive measures by the Assembly. The latter justified its course on the specious plea that the eighteen Presbyteries which had failed to report should be counted in favour of it. This decision was not allowed to pass unchallenged. Ebenezer Erskine, who had once before resisted an arbitrary ruling of the Assembly, not only protested against this stretch of authority, but, on retiring from the moderator's chair of his Synod, denounced the proceeding so bitterly that the Synod censured him. From this censure he and three of his friends appealed to the Assembly. But the temper of that body had been aroused, the censure was affirmed, and Erskine was summoned to appear for rebuke. He went, nothing daunted; but the rebuke having been publicly administered, he at once proceeded to enter his protest against this last act, a right clearly belonging to him in a church which he himself had declared to be "the freest society in the world." Yet for thus exercising his undoubted right under the law, a right growing out of the inmost spirit of Protestantism, he was deposed from the ministry. The deposition was a blunder soon repented, but too late to repair the damage done by it. Erskine and his three friends, who seceded from the established church, formed what has since been known as the Seceder church, which has produced some of the finest men, both in Scotland and America, among those who accept the doctrines of Calvinism. Nine years later these men were joined by another, John Gillespie, who was deposed for refusing to assist in settling over a parish a minister to whom a large majority of the people were violently opposed.

The recital of these instances has seemed to me to be necessary in order to afford the reader some idea of the background and atmosphere of Witherspoon's life. It is evident that the issues thus drawn were not doctrinal but ecclesiastical. The question was not one of orthodoxy versus heresy but of authority versus liberty; of tyranny acting under cover of the law, too often arbitrarily enacted, interpreted and enforced on the one side; and of popular rights, as yet accepting the established church, making no attempt to abolish it but claiming justice and freedom within it, on the other side. This was the condition of affairs in the church of Scotland in the first half of the eighteenth century.

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