John Witherspoon was born a few miles from Edinburgh in 1722. He descended from John Knox, the Scottish reformer. His father was the minister of the parish of Yester. He was eminent for his piety and habit of great accuracy in his writings and discourses.
At an early age, Witherspoon attended the public school at Haddington, where he excelled. At the age of fourteen, he moved to the University of Edinburgh. He distinguished himself as a rapid learner with great discipline. In theology, he displayed an understanding of sacred criticism, precision of thought, and clarity. At the age of twenty-one, he finished his collegiate studies and started preaching.
Witherspoon was offered a position in his father’s parish, but he accepted Beith’s parish in the west of Scotland. The parish of Beith ordained him by unanimous consent. Soon afterward, the battle of Falkirk occurred. The rebels arrested and incarcerated Witherspoon and several other spectators in the castle of Doune. Eventually, the rebels released Witherspoon.
Witherspoon moved to a large parish in Paisley.
In 1766, the College of New Jersey elected Witherspoon as their next president. Unfortunately, his family disapproved of moving to America, so he declined the position. The college asked Richard Stockton, who was in Scotland at the time, to speak to Witherspoon. Stockton was able to persuade Witherspoon to accept the presidency of the college.
Witherspoon arrived in America in August 1768. His reputation caused enrollment and the finances of the college to increase dramatically. He made significant changes in every department of the college. Witherspoon reformed the courses of history and composition.
The outbreak of the Revolutionary War broke up the college. Teachers and students joined the war effort. During this time, Witherspoon became such a proponent of the American cause that New Jersey appointed him to the Continental Congress.
During the debate on making a declaration of independence, one delegate said that the country was not ripe for a declaration of independence. Witherspoon retorted: “Sir, in my judgment, the country is not only ripe but rotting.”
Witherspoon represented New Jersey in the Congress throughout the war. He served on many committees, where his judgment and experience were of great importance. He seldom took part in public measures discussions until he settled his ideas on the subject. He would then express his position with such clarity that even his opponents hesitated.
Witherspoon retired from Congress and the college in 1779. But his retirement was short-lived. New Jersey elected him as a representative to Congress in 1781. In 1783, the College of New Jersey convinced him to represent the college in England to prospective students and donors.
He was an affectionate husband and a tender parent. He was married twice. He married his first wife in Scotland. At the time of his emigration to America, he had three sons and two daughters. James, his eldest son, was killed in the battle of Germantown. John became a physician, and David, an attorney. Of the daughters, one married Samuel Smith, the successor of Dr. Witherspoon in the presidency of’ the college. The other married a celebrated historian, Dr. Ramsay. Witherspoon’s second marriage occurred when he was seventy years old; the lady he married was only twenty-three.
Personally, Witherspoon was a faithful Christian. Besides his daily devotions, he observed a day of fasting and prayer on the last day of every year.
Two years before his death, Witherspoon suffered the loss of sight. This began a series of other physical infirmities. He bore these infirmities with cheerfulness. His mind, however, remained sharp and active. Even though he was blind and had to be led to the pulpit, he preached every chance he afforded him. Finally, on November 15, 1794, Witherspoon died at the age of seventy-three.