John Witherspoon: Pastor, Professor, and Patriot

Author Melinda Penner Published on 07/03/2014

John Witherspoon was born in Scotland in 1723 and emigrated to the colony of New Jersey when he was called as president of Princeton University in 1768. Those who heard his sermons said he was a gifted, though not flowery, speaker. He strengthened the curriculum taught at Princeton and emphasized the importance of a well-educated clergy, which was one of the primary purposes of the university at that time. He signed the Declaration of Independence and was a member of the Continental Congress. He had a significant influence on the founding principles of the United States because he trained a number of our early statesmen.

The founders [of Princeton University] had hoped too that the College might produce men who would be “ornaments of the State as well as the Church,” and Witherspoon realized this hope in full measure. His students included, in addition to a president and vice-president of the United States, nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three justices of the Supreme Court, and twelve state governors. Five of the nine Princeton graduates among the fifty-five members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were students of Witherspoon.

Witherspoon was influenced by some of the best ideas of the Enlightenment. He thought faith and reason were compatible and converged to identify the truth. He believed in the ideas of liberty, natural rights, just government, and representative democracy. These were ideas he taught his students, including John Madison.

Under Witherspoon’s direction, Madison also came to hold a view of human nature that emphasized both human dignity and human depravity; this understanding would later inform The Federalist. Witherspoon warned him of the evils of a tyrannical society ruled by demagogues and introduced him to the idea of a government of checks and balances. Madison also learned the lesson of prudence and the importance of admitting mistakes. Most fundamentally, nonetheless, Madison came to think that the state—when governed not merely by the will of the majority but by the higher authorities of natural and divine law—may support the life of virtue.

Witherspoon helped to organize and unite the Presbyterian Church in the United States.

One of his students, a later president of the College, recalled that Witherspoon had more presence than any other man he had known, except for General Washington.”