John Witherspoon [1723-1794]

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This Day in Presbyterian History:    

A Force for God and Country is born

On July 4, 1776, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence was John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian pastor and educator who was at that time serving as the president of the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton University).  We will in this year’s historical devotions focus on this man in five separate days because he was  such an effective influence for God and country.

Born February 5, 1723, John Witherspoon would grow up in a church manse in the tiny town of Gifford, Scotland, which was fourteen miles from Edinburgh, Scotland.  We have a scarcity of information about his parents.

His father, the Rev. James Witherspoon, was a Church of Scotland minister who served the parish of Yester from 1720 until his death in 1759. We do know that he attended the denomination’s General Assembly as a delegate, and even preached before that Assembly on one occasion, and was appointed a royal chaplain in 1744.  We have no doubt that like many faithful Scottish pastors, he was eminent for his holiness, learning, and faithfulness.

John’s mother, Ann Walker,  was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.  She was to bear six children from this union with James, all in the space of ten years.  John Witherspoon later gave credit to his mother for his early religious education in the Bible, reading it through for the first time when he was only four years of age, and later hiding a lot of it in his heart by way of memory. Some historians have concluded that she was a descendant of the Reformer John Knox, while others are unconvinced. Whatever may be said, the training of John Witherspoon began early in the home and continued at the Haddington Grammar School, which had also trained John Knox. Along with secular subjects, the Westminster Shorter Catechism was part of the training at that school. When he left at age thirteen for the University of Edinburgh in 1736, he had a good command of Latin, Greek, and French.  He also had a solid foundation in biblical Christianity.  All of this was to bear him well as he continued preparing for the divine calling which was his in both Scotland, his native country, and in the colonies and United States of America.

Continuing his education in divinity at the University of Edinburgh, Witherspoon was licensed in 1743 and ordained and installed as the minister of the parish of Beith in the Church of Scotland, on April 11, 1745.  He was twenty-two years old.  Two years later,  he married Elizabeth Montgomery.  They would both learn the sorrow connected with  a family when of the ten children which came from this union, only five would survive to adulthood.

This young Church of Scotland minister soon gained a reputation beyond his own parish.  The national body was divided into two splinters composed of the Popular party and the Moderates.  The first was akin to our orthodox party and the latter was akin to the liberals.  The former emphasized the important of the Westminster Standards as a summary of the Scriptures, while the latter group generally ignored the proper place of the Westminster Standards in the church.  Witherspoon was a solid member of the Popular party, and attacked the Moderates in the pulpit and by the pen.  Even in his second pastorate at Laigh Parish, his reputation as an orthodox minister began to expand in Scotland, and extended across the Atlantic to the colonies of America.

[more on Rev. Witherspoon’s story at a later date.]

Words to Live By: God prepares His own people for present and future work.  As Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” (ESV)  Remember this as you rear your children in the ways of the Lord.  Commend them into the hands of the Lord at an early age, indeed when they are born is best.  Then everything you do, do so in the Lord’s strength and for His glory.

Through the Scriptures: Exodus 28 – 31

Through the Standards: Divine providence in the Confession

WCF 5:1
“God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”