Dr. John Witherspoon (February 5, 1723 – November 15, 1794) became the 6th President of Princeton and was a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence as a representative of New Jersey. He was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration- causing King George III to call it “The Presbyterian Parson’s War”. Horace Walpole is quoted as saying “ Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson”.
Recruited for two years, the reluctant Witherspoon stepped ashore on Aug 7, 1768.-He was a heavyset man of 46, with wife and 5 children and 300 books.
Princeton’s condition was poor. It was potentially bankrupt and struggling with all of the tragedies it had endured in the first years. Under Witherspoon finances, faculty, and student body increased.
He introduced lecture as a teaching method and he purchased a mechanical model of solar system. He also introduced the philosophy of Common Sense Rationalism from Scotland.
“It is always safer to trace true facts upward, than to reason downward from metaphysical principle” Witherspoon
Witherspoon’s vision was to produce consecrated Christian students with an integrated and thoroughly Biblical world view. “Our faith is the grand concern to us all- whatever our calling or profession”
He also held onto the philosophy that learning without piety is ruinous to us and pernicious to others.
In the late 1700's, the Princeton campus was ripe with revolution.
Witherspoon had a helpful sense of humor. He suffered from insomnia, and his tendency to drowse, particularly after dinner, led him, during one of the two terms he served in the New Jersey legislature, to move that the daily sessions be concluded before dinner. When his motion lost, he informed his colleagues that ``there are two kinds of speaking that are very interesting . . . perfect sense and perfect nonsense. When there is speaking in either of these ways I shall engage to be all attention. But when there is speaking, as there often is, halfway between sense and nonsense, you must bear with me if I fall asleep.'
Princeton produced 114 clergy during his administration of 26 years.
Other grads founded ten colleges- 13 became college presidents- 1 president of US (James Madison)- 1 VP- 9 cabinet officers- 21 US senators- 3 supreme court justices- 12 state governors- 39 judges
Example of student Asbel Green- faith was shaken by Deism- under teaching of Witherspoon- “ These advocates (of false ideas and heresy) show us what are the dictates and legitimate conclusions of human reason, but when we become satisfied that we find God Himself impressing His signet on His own word, there is an end to all doubt and distrust”
He later said that he owed “whatever of influence or success” to Witherspoon- He also said in his valedictory address- … on roads to fame or wealth. If you wish to do good, and prefer approving conscience, I have no hesitation in saying that you ought to preach the gospel”
Witherspoon's later years were filled with difficulty. The college had suffered extensive damage to its building and instructional equipment, and its finances were in disarray due to damage from the battle of Princeton in Rev. war. Two years before his death he became totally blind- though he continued to preach. His wife died in 1789, and a second marriage in 1791 to a young widow of twenty-four occasioned more than a little comment. Through these later years his son-in-law, Samuel Stanhope Smith, increasingly carried the responsibility for conduct of the College's affairs.
Thank God for great men like John Witherspoon!