Witherspoon, John

Witherspoon, John, 1723–94, Scottish-American Presbyterian clergyman, political leader in the American Revolution, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, b. Haddingtonshire (now East Lothian), Scotland. He was educated at the Univ. of Edinburgh. From 1745 to 1768 he occupied pastorates in Scotland. A conservative in religion, he wrote Ecclesiastical Characteristics (1753) as an attack on those ministers who preached humanism instead of dogmatic truth, and in his Serious Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Stage (1757) he maintained that drama was not an innocent recreation but an arouser of immoral passion. In 1768, Witherspoon was appointed president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), where he broadened the curriculum and considerably improved the quality of education. He promoted the growth of the Presbyterian Church in America and healed schisms. Despite his original feeling that the clergy should avoid politics, he accepted a position as delegate from New Jersey to the Continental Congress and served almost continuously from 1776 to 1782. His last years were spent in restoring the college at Princeton and in participating in New Jersey politics. His collected works appeared in nine volumes in 1815.

See biography by V. L. Collins (1925, repr. 1969).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: U.S. History: Biographies