John Witherspoon

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John Witherspoon was born in Scotland in 1722. At 21 he graduated from the university of Edinburgh, the core curriculum being moral philosophy, and commenced preaching the gospel in the Presbyterian parish of Beith. At the battle of Falkirk in 1746 he was taken prisoner along with other onlookers, but eventually released. In 1766 the renowned Reverend Witherspoon was invited to take charge of a college in New Jersey. Though a rich unmarried gentleman offered to make him his heir if he would remain in Scotland, Dr. Witherspoon crossed the Atlantic with his family: his wife, three sons, and two daughters.

Reverend Witherspoon had private and family devotions
An early biographer of Reverend Witherspoon noted, "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 suggested."

Dr. John Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. He championed separation of powers insisting on inclusions to check and balance the power of government. He served on over 120 Congressional committees, including: the Board of War, the Committee on Secret Correspondence, Foreign Affairs, and the Committee on Clothing for the Army.

Witherspoon became an American in three months
John Witherspoon wrote that he became an American within three months of his arrival.

Continental Congress declared a National Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer on May 17, 1776 for God's guidance in the war. That same day Reverend John Witherspoon delivered a sermon on Psalm 76 at Princeton University entitled "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men," in which he stated: "While we give praise to God, the Supreme Disposer of all events, for His interposition on our behalf, let us guard against the dangerous error of trusting in, or boasting of, an arm of flesh. ...If your cause is just, if your principles are pure, and if your conduct is prudent, you need not fear the multitude of opposing hosts. What follows from this? That he is the best friend to American liberty, who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion, and who sets himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind. Whoever is an avowed enemy of God, I scruple not to call him an enemy of his country."

Witherspoon's 1776 sermon preached the gospel message
Witherspoon used the example of how the wrath of people against the Son of God crucified Jesus, but led to His resurrection; thus "the wrath of man shall praise thee" (Psalm 76:10a). He spoke of how the fears of war can open the conscience to "the arrows of conviction," saying, "Have you assembled together willingly to hear what shall be said on public affairs, and to join in imploring the blessing of God on the counsels and arms of the United Colonies, and can you be unconcerned what shall become of you for ever..."and reminded them "now is the day of salvation."

Colonists fought for their civil and religious liberties
Witherspoon referred to England's Declaratory Act in his sermon stating, "I call this claim unjust, of making laws to bind us 'in all cases whatsoever'." His 1776 sermon continued: "If your cause is just, you may look with confidence to the Lord, and intreat him to plead it as his own. ...the cause in which america is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature. so far as we have hitherto proceeded, I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in a great measure the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue. ...There is not a single instance in history, in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage."

Pure manners and true religion thwart oppressive attempts
Witherspoon's 1776 sermon further stated, "Nothing is more certain than that a general profligacy and corruption of manners make a people ripe for destruction. A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery must ensue. On the other hand, when the manners of a nation are pure, when true religion and internal principles maintain their vigour, the attempts of the most powerful enemies to oppress them are commonly baffled and disappointed."

As president of Princeton University, 1768-94, Dr. John Witherspoon graduated 469 students who directly shaped America. He actually taught them in small classes. One hundred and fourteen became ministers. Thirteen of the graduates went on to become presidents of universities in eight different states. One of his students, James Madison, served eight years as Secretary of State and eight years as U.S. President. Six men were members of the Continental Congress. Nine of his students were appointed to Cabinet positions, twelve were chosen as Governors of states, and at least 60 became Senators or Representatives in Congress. In addition, two honorary doctorates were given during his tenure, one to Thomas Jefferson and one to Alexander Hamilton. Many of Witherspoon's former students left New Jersey to fill academic positions on the frontier of emerging America.

Witherspoon Influenced Constitutional Convention through his Students
Though Witherspoon did not attend the Constitutional Convention himself, one-sixth of its 55 delegates were graduates of Princeton University: Gunning Bedford Jr. of Delaware; David Brearley of New Jersey; William Richardson Davie of North Carolina; Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey; William Churchill Houston of New Jersey; James Madison of Virginia; Alexander Martin of North Carolina; Luther Martin of Maryland; and William Paterson of New Jersey.

Between 1715 and 1776 about 250,000 Scottish immigrants arrived in the colonies. Most were Presbyterians who fled religious persecution. By 1776 almost a sixth of Americans were Scots or of immediate Scottish descent. John Witherspoon beseeched Scotsmen to insist on their "ancient rights" against Britain and circulated a letter urging ministers to support independence.

Lex Rex (law is king) by Samuel Rutherford 1644
Scottish minister Samuel Rutherford set out to answer 44 questions about the relationship between God and civil government. He published his answers in his book "Lex Rex" (law is king) in 1644. Rutherford concluded that church and state were to be two separate governments under God, and that the only King of the Church is King Jesus. The book so demolished the doctrine of the divine right of kings that it was against the law to own a copy of it.

Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations"
Adam Smith studied at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Smith published his first book "Theory of Moral Sentiments" in 1759, in which he states, "The happiness of mankind, as well as of all other rational creatures, seems to have been the original purpose of the Author of Nature." But it is Smith's second book "The Wealth of Nations" published in 1776 from which Americans gained his Scottish notions of money management and a free market economy. Smith argued that freeing of producers and consumers from any regulation by government would almost automatically produce wealth. "The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition, when suffered to exert itself with freedom and security, is so powerful a principle, that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often encumbers its operations..."

Witherspoon taught philosophy must be subordinate to Scripture
The Scottish immigrants brought Scottish Common Sense Realism with them. It promoted practical and moral ideas. Though Witherspoon did use this philosophy to combat the radical Enlightenment, he warned against mixing philosophy and the gospel, as he explained in one sermon: "Hence the unnatural mixture often seen of modern philosophy with ancient Christianity. Hence the fundamental doctrines of the gospel are softened, concealed, or denied; as, the lost and guilty state of man by nature, his liableness to everlasting misery, and the ransom which was paid by our Redeemer when he died on the cross." In another sermon, Witherspoon stated, "[Let not human understanding be put in the balance with divine wisdom]." Reason must remain subordinate to the Word of God.

Witherspoon published his "Essay on Money" in 1786. In it he remarks on the advantages of gold and the disadvantages of paper money, free exchange and free enterprise, and insight into economic problems.

Witherspoon wanted gold as America's monetary standard
Rev. Witherspoon had an appreciation for gold as a monetary standard and was able to defend it. He lived through the devaluation of the Continentals (paper money) in America. In his essay he wrote, "These persons have not attended to the nature of commercial value, which is a compound ratio of its use and scarceness. If iron were as rare as gold, it would probably be as valuable, perhaps more so. ...The evil is this: All paper introduced into circulation, and obtaining credit as gold and silver, adds to the quantity of the medium, and thereby ... increases the price of industry and its fruits." Thus paper money eventually causes inflation. Witherspoon's influence on the Constitution in this regard can be seen in Article I, Section 8: "Clause 5: to coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures." According to our Constitution, American money was to be made of metal.

Free and Mutual Contracts
Rev. Witherspoon was against government fixing or controlling prices, and our Constitution (contract) does not give the federal government such power. In his essay he wrote, "Well! is it agreed that all commerce is founded on a complete contract? ... One of the essential conditions of a lawful contract, and indeed the first of them, is, that it be free and mutual. Without this it may be something else, and have some other binding force, but it is not a contract. To make laws therefore, regulating the prices of commodities, or giving nominal value to that which had no value before the law was made, is altering the nature of the transaction altogether."


Term Definition
commodities anything that is useful, but particularly in commerce, including every thing movable that is bought and sold; goods, wares, merchandise, and produce of land and manufactures
dominion sovereign or supreme authority
Enlightenment a faith in science, in human rights arising from natural law, and in human reason and progress developed in the eighteenth century
fasting abstaining from food
humiliation the act of abasing pride; or the state of being reduced to lowliness of mind, meekness, penitence and submission
immigrant a person that removes into a country for the purpose of permanent residence
interposition intervention
philosophy literally, the love of wisdom, but in modern acceptation, it is a general term denoting an explanation of the reasons of things
profligacy very vicious course of life; a state of being abandoned in moral principle and in vice
Providence reference to God and His ability to foresee needs and make provision to supply them