John Witherspoon

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At last, He Had Arrived

You would have thought that he was a king making a royal entrance into his kingdom, so great was the rejoicing among God’s people to his arrival on the shores of the American colonies.  And indeed, John Witherspoon was certainly the man whom God has chosen to lead the infant College of New Jersey in its next steps of Christian education.

The College had some dark providences associated with its leadership.  In the twenty years of its existence, the five leaders who served as its president, had served a few years and then died.  In fact, it was this mortality rate which cause Mrs. Elizabeth Witherspoon, John’s wife  in Scotland, to want nothing to do with the College.  And so there had been four appeals to come over and help them, but all four of them failed to move the Scotchman, but more particularly the Scotch woman to wish to cross over the Atlantic.  Finally, with the aid of Benjamin Rush, who at that time was studying for a medical degree in Edinburgh, Mrs. Witherspoon was convinced that they should go. Despite the three-month crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a sailing ship named the Peggy, with five children, and three hundred books for the College library might make anyone rethink the invitation, they did not. On August 7, 1768, the family arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Dr. David Calhoun, in his book “Princeton Seminary: Faith and Learning, 1812 – 1868,” describes John Witherspoon who stepped off the ship as being “a heavy-set man of forty-six, with brown hair, a strong face with large nose and ears, and blue eyes which looked out beneath bushy brows.”

Resting for five days in the city of Philadelphia, and who can blame them for that after such an ocean voyage, they traveled on to the town of Princeton, New Jersey in a horse and carriage.  About a mile from the town, the entire student body of one hundred and twenty students, with the staff,  met them and ushered them into the town and onto the campus.  His family had use of a house, a garden, land for pasture, and firewood.  There was an annual salary equal to 206 pounds sterling.  That night, in every window of Nassau Hall, there was a candle which illuminated the building.  The future Princeton University and Seminary were rejoicing over his safe arrival.

John Witherspoon was installed as the sixth president of the College of New Jersey on August 17, 1768.  And, he was stand the test of time for decade, as well as through some of the most difficult days in the history of America.  John Witherspoon would make his mark for God’s glory during all this time.

Also this day:
The Advisory Convention was held August 7-9, 1973, to set down final preparations for the First General Assembly of what was to become the Presbyterian Church in America, when that Assembly met December 4-7, 1973.

Words to live by:  The Scots-Irish Presbyterians of the colonies knew what they had to have when they invited John Witherspoon.  A strong advocate of the doctrines of the Westminster Standards, he had stood for the faith once delivered unto the saints in Scotland.  He was an accomplished preacher,  church leader, and an author.  When a church leader has been bestowed  Spirit-given abilities for service, or spiritual gifts, then much good for the saints is expected.  When God’s glory is aimed at by that same leader, then much good for the kingdom of God is attained.  Pray that God will sovereignly bestow His gifts upon the church at large, and your church in particular.

Witherspoon’s works have been largely overlooked and forgotten for some time now, or so it seems. Thankfully, however, his works have been reprinted in recent years. See the end of this post for a small taste of Dr. Witherspoon’s writing.

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Ashbel Green [1762-1848]The Danger of Education without Christian Orthodoxy & Piety

Chosen to serve as the eighth president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), Dr. Ashbel Green left the Philadelphia church which he had served for twenty-five years and moved in October of 1812 into the president’s house on Nassau Street in Princeton. His inaugural address in November dealt with “The Union of Piety and Science.”

Green had become firmly convinced that education, in itself, could be dangerous if it were not securely rooted in Christian orthodoxy and piety. Like Samuel S. Smith, his immediate predecessor in the office of president, Ashbel Green was loyal to John Witherspoon’s legacy; but, unlike Smith, he believed that the heart of Witherspoon’s commitment was his doctrinal views and his concern for revivals and Christian conduct. Green gathered the three faculty members for a day of prayer on November 16 and wrote down a list of goals for himself. The first three of his resolutions were:

1st … to endeavour to be a father to the institution. . . .

2d. To pray for the institution as I do for my family . . . and especially that [God] may pour out his Spirit upon it, and make it what its pious founders intended it to be.

3d. To watch against the declension of religion in my own soul . . . to which the pursuits of science themselves may prove a temptation.

The Presidents of Princeton University, 1747-1902

Colonial Era:

Jonathan Dickinson, 1747
Aaron Burr, Sr., 1748–57
Jonathan Edwards, 1758
Samuel Davies, 1759–61
Samuel Finley, 1761–66

Revolutionary War Years:

John Witherspoon, 1768–94

Nineteenth Century:

Samuel S. Smith, 1795–1812
Ashbel Green, 1812–22
James Carnahan, 1823–54
John Maclean, Jr., 1854–68
James McCosh, 1868–88
Francis L. Patton, 1888–1902

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A Colossal Monument for a Spiritual Giant

Standing twenty feet tall and weighing thousands of pounds, and located in the nation’s second-largest city park (Fairmount Park, in Philadelphia, comprises 4,618 acres), the colossal monument to the Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon is a monument to Presbyterianism. Erected on the centennial of our nation onOctober 20, 1876, it is a beautiful work of art, as the New York Times article described it.

On the North side of the monument is a quotation from John Witherspoon.  It states, “For my own part, of prospectus I have some, of reputation more; that reputation is staked, that property is pledged on the issue of this contest.  And although these gray hairs must soon descend into the sepulchre, I would infinitely rather that should descend thither by the hand of the executioner than desert at this crisis the sacred cause of my country.”

The south side of the monument is the quotation from Leviticus 20:10 which is found on the Liberty Bell at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It says “proclaim liberty  throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

The east side reads: “John Witherspoon, D.D., LL.D; a lineal descendant of John Knox; born in Scotland; February 5, 1722; ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church 1745; President of the College of New Jersey, 1768–94; the only clergyman in the Continental Congress; a signer of the Declaration of Independence; died at Princeton, NJ November 15, 1794″

The west side states that “this statue erected under the authority of a committee appointed by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, July 4, 1876.”

On the bottom is the brief statement that “this pedestal is the gift of the Presbyterians in Philadelphia and vicinity.”

Its unveiling was done by D.W. Woods, Esq., a grandson of John Witherspoon, plus various ministers, the governor of New Jersey, and a representative of Princeton Theological Seminary.

Words to live by:  We remember the first act of Joshua upon crossing the Jordan River was to take twelve rocks from that water barrier and set them up on the bank.  He wanted a glorious report to the second generation about the Lord’s person and power in accomplishing the entrance into the promised land.  This was similar to the monument to John Witherspoon.  It placed the focus upon the God of providence in bringing this spiritual giant to America for such a time as then, to train ministers for the nation and a nation for the people.  God continues to work His wonders today in church and state.  Recognize them, and praise God for them.

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John Witherspoon Brings Politics into the Pulpit

In our last historical devotional, we saw how the Confession of Faith cautioned synods and council from making pronouncements on political matters. In this devotional, we see a Presbyterian minister enter the pulpit of a Presbyterian congregation in Princeton, New Jersey on May 17, 1776 to bring politics into the pulpit. That Presbyterian minister was John Witherspoon, the president of the College of New Jersey.

The timing is interesting.  Battles up north around Boston have already been fought.   In about three weeks, John Witherspoon will affix his signature to the Declaration of Independence.  As he enters the pulpit of the Presbyterian Church, he is going to speak on “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men. A SERMON preached at Princeton, on the 17th of May, 1776 BEING the General Fast appointed by the CONGRESS through the UNITED COLONIES. To which is added, An Address to the Natives of Scotland residing in America.”  And you thought your pastor had long sermon titles!

Witherspoon in taking politics in the pulpit in essence is going to preach on God’s providence, how that God guides and governs and directs and controls all things, from the greatest to the least. He further uses the appointment of a fast from Congress to proclaim this message at this time. Let me quote one paragraph from it.

     “You are all witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit.  At this season, however, it is not only lawful, but necessary; and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that 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.”

With words like this, no wonder that a speaker in England’s Parliament declared that “Cousin American has run away with a Presbyterian parson.”  And that Presbyterian parson was none other than John Witherspoon. He closed his sermon with the following words, “God grant, that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable, and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may, in the issue, tend to the support and establishment of both.”

Words to Live By:  We as American citizens have no right to pray for any kind of temporal prosperity without the necessity as Christian Americans to pray for spiritual revival in our blessed land.   The two ends must go together.

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The First General Assembly Held in America

To Presbyterians, the American Revolution had been a holy war.  And now with its winning, Christian Presbyterians could get back to growing the church.  And that growth took place in a period of spiritual progress.  From New York all the way south to the Carolinas, new settlements were begun, with Presbyterian missionaries and ministers being sent throughout the whole length of the land.

But as the churches and  the presbyters  became more and more distant from one another, there was a concern about attendance.  In all the synods put together, over one hundred ministers were absent in any given year with only six of the churches presented by elders.  In one synod, a new moderator was elected, and then excused when it became known that he had not been present for the previous eleven years.  Clearly something had to be done.

The sixteen Presbyteries were organized into four separate synods in 1785.  They were: Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey, Virginia, and the Carolinas.  Numerically, this meant that there were four synods, sixteen presbyteries, 177 ministers, 111 licentiates, and 419 churches.

It was on May 21, 1789, that the first General Assembly was held in the original city of Presbyterianism, Philadelphia.  John Witherspoon was chosen to preach the first sermon of that assembly.  The delegates chose the Rev. John Rodgers to be the first moderator.  He had been trained back in the Faggs Manor Presbyterian Church under New Side Minister Samuel Blair.

Some housekeeping had to be done in light of the separation from England.  No longer could the civil magistrate be considered to be the head of the church.  So chapters in the Westminster Standards which put him as the head of the church were re-written in the light of the American victory in the American Revolution.  No one denomination would any longer be considered a state church, whether it was Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Presbyterian.  There was a separation of church from state.

Words to Live By:
Names are important.  At this first Assembly, they called themselves “The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.”  Whatever your church is called and known in your locality, if it is an evangelical and Reformed church, live according to its biblical

testimony in the light of the Word of God.  Only then can you win to Christ the many who reside outside of the Savior.

The meeting of this first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. opened with a sermon by the Rev. John Witherspoon, on the text of 1 Corinthians 3:7, “So, then, neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth, but God giveth the increase.”

The Church today needs to revisit Witherspoon’s writings, for those works even now address many “modern” problems. Thankfully, Witherspoon’s Works have been reprinted in recent years by Sprinkle Publications [and are also available in digital form at], and volume 4 of that set contains what is probably a later revision of the sermon that he preached before that first General Assembly. While there is not room here today to reproduce the entire sermon, perhaps a small portion will encourage you to take up and read it in full:—

“The Success of the Gospel Entirely of God.”

“The success of the gospel depends wholly upon God, and to Him alone must the glory of it be ascribed, as it is He, who not only sends and employs, but who furnishes and qualifies all, whom He employs for promoting His service. He not only gives the commission to undertake, but He imparts the ability to discharge the trust. This truth is manifestly included in the apostle’s words, “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man.” He considers himself and others, only as ministers, that is, as servants subject to the direction and authority of Christ their Lord and master, unto whom they are to be instrumental in carrying on the conversion of sinners, and the edification and comfort of believers….

In the second place, the success of the gospel depends entirely on God, as it is He who gives efficacy to the instructions, even of the most eminent and best qualified ministers, by the immediate supernatural operation of His spirit and grace. Let us suppose a minister endued with the finest natural parts, and these improved and cultivated, by all the advantages of human learning. Let him have the most acute and penetrating genius, the most lively imagination, the most solid judgment, the most charming and persuasive eloquence; in fine let him have what alone is of more value than all these, an eminently pious and devout heart. With so many advantages he shall not be able to make one sincere convert, unless almighty God be pleased to open the way by His divine grace into the hearts and consciences of the sinner. It is not then merely by furnishing the proper means and by the disposition of His providence, giving them an opportunity of exerting their influence, that God promotes the success of the gospel, but by an immediate and powerful agency, distinct from, and superior to every second cause….

The third and last observation I am to make for the illustration of this truth is, that success in the gospel depends wholly upon God, as He exercises much of His own sovereignty in the manner of bestowing it. He takes care if I may speak so, to shew that it is from Himself by the measure in which He proportions the success to the nature and sufficiency of the means He sees proper to employ. All is from God, as you have already heard because the disposing and commissioning his ministers is originally His own work—again, because however well qualified they may be, His own almighty agency is necessary to give them success. But when there is a regular proportion always observed, between the means and the end, men are ready to overlook, or forget the great and first cause of all. For this reason He sees it often meet to manifest His sovereignty, in order to command our attention, by working without means, or by the weakest means, or even contrary to means, and blasting the effect of those that were most excellent and promising in human judgment….”

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