Presbyterians of the Past

John Witherspoon, 1723-1794

In a historical tour of Princeton, New Jersey, Nassau Hall on the university campus is on the must-see list.  It is a grand but simple building, surrounded by trees, and its lovely presence reminds visitors of the generations of students that have passed through its doors.  After viewing the façade of Nassau Hall, the curious visitor might want to follow the sidewalk running along the left side of the building for about fifty yards until arriving at East Pyne Hall, the Gothic building on the left.  After walking through the porte cochère of East Pyne, across its courtyard, and exiting the building, to the right will be seen the back of the John Witherspoon statue which faces the chapel.

John Witherspoon Statue, Princeton University Campus, 6-2005, 8-31-13The Witherspoon statue is made of bronze.  One surface of the four-sided base provides his name and vital dates, 1723-1794, while the other three have plaques commemorating his service as a preacher, a patriot, and as the president of Princeton.  The statue at Princeton is a duplicate of one in the University of the West of Scotland, Paisley.  Witherspoon was born in Scotland, received the M.A. from the University of Edinburgh, and was the minister of a church in Paisley for about eleven years.  When the statue was dedicated in Scotland in June 2001, Princeton provided a press release stating that the university was represented at the dedication by its former president, Harold T. Shapiro, and others at the event included Princess Anne, officials of the American consulate, officials of the University of the West of Scotland, and the Scot who made the two bronzes, Alexander Stoddart.  It was not until November 2001, that the twin was displayed and dedicated in Princeton.  However, it was only a temporary showing because renovations on East Pyne Hall necessitated covering the bronze with plywood for protection during the construction.

During Witherspoon’s presidency of Princeton, 1768-1794, several Presbyterians graduated including—Samuel Stanhope Smith, class of 1769, who would first serve as the professor of moral philosophy at Princeton beginning in 1779, and would then go on to be Witherspoon’s successor as the college president, 1795-1812; William Graham, 1773, became the founder of Liberty Hall Academy in Virginia and went on to serve as the president of Washington & Lee College, 1782-1796; Hugh Hodge, 1773, became a prominent physician in Philadelphia, but his contributions to medicine have been eclipsed among Presbyterians by the Princeton Seminary career of a son of his named Charles; John McKnight, 1773, moderated the General Assembly of the P.C.U.S.A. in 1795, and then served as the president of Dickinson College, 1815-1816; John Blair Smith, 1773, taught at Hampden-Sydney and then served as its president, 1779-1789; James Hall, 1774, served in churches in North Carolina for several years, operated an academy, moderated the P.C.U.S.A General Assembly in 1803, and was a director of Princeton Seminary, 1815-1820; Samuel Doak, 1775, was a tutor at Hampden-Sydney while studying under John Blair Smith, and was the founder and president of Washington College, Tennessee, 1785-1818; Ashbel Green, 1783, who would succeed Samuel S. Smith as president of Princeton, 1812-1822, and then was a trustee and director of Princeton Seminary, 1822-1848; Samuel Bayard, 1784, was a Presbyterian elder and the vice president of the board of trustees of Princeton Seminary, 1824-1831, and then its president, 1831-1840; Robert Finley, 1787, was the son of a friend of John Witherspoon who went on to work at Princeton in several capacities and then was a director at Princeton Seminary, 1812-1817; Joseph Caldwell, 1791, was a professor at the University of North Carolina, 1796-1817, and its president 1796-1797, 1804-1812 and 1816-1835, he was also a director at Princeton Seminary, 1819-1829; and finally, Henry Kollock, 1794, was the professor of systematic theology at Princeton, 1803-1806, while serving as the pastor of the Presbyterian Church until he left in 1806 to become the minister of Independent Presbyterian Church, Savannah, Georgia, where he served until December 1819.  This list of names, facts, and dates is hopefully not literary Sominex, but instead illustrates some of the extensive influence exercised on American Presbyterianism and education by Dr. Witherspoon.

John Witherspoon, Title Page vol. 1 of 3 vols, 1800, 8-10-2015As has been shown by others (see sources below), John Witherspoon brought with him from Scotland not only his Presbyterian heritage but also the common sense philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment.  His influence on the thinking of the medical, political, judicial, educational, and ecclesiastical leaders of the early American nation was extensive.  If a map was drawn of the land extending west and south from Princeton showing the distribution of all the graduates of the college during the Witherspoon, Smith, and Green years in their areas of settlement and labor, the communities untouched by Princeton would be few.  Not only would the Witherspoon influence come forth via the Scottish philosophy and his views on politics and government, but it also was spread via his primary calling as a Presbyterian minister committed to the Westminster Standards and the ministry of his church.

Included in volume one of Witherspoon’s works is a copy of the sermon delivered before the Board of Trustees of the College of New Jersey by Rev. John Rodgers, D.D., LL.D, on May 6, 1795 in memory of John Witherspoon.  John Rodgers was the senior minister of the United Presbyterian Churches in the city of New York.  Rodgers had been serving as a College of New Jersey trustee since 1765 and would continue as a trustee until 1807.  Rodgers and Witherspoon had become friends not long after Witherspoon’s arrival from Scotland to become the president of the college.  Rodgers moderated the very first meeting of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America General Assembly in 1789.  As Rodgers closed his sermon remembering his friend and colleague, he said the following:

At length, however, …[Dr. Witherspoon]… sunk under the accumulated pressure of his infirmities; and on the 15th day of November, 1794, in the seventy third year of his age, he retired to his eternal rest, full of honor and full of days—there to receive the plaudit of his Lord, “well done thou good and faithful servant, thou has been faithful over a few things, be thou ruler over many things; enter thou into the joy of the Lord” (Matthew 25:21).

Barry Waugh

Sources—Witherspoon opened the first meeting of the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1789, but then passed the gavel to John Rodgers upon his election; it is believed Witherspoon’s declining health prohibited him from leading the entire meeting. For the influences of Scottish philosophy and republican politics, see Mark A. Noll, Princeton and the Republic, 1768-1822, Princeton, 1989, which is invaluable for the subject, and another perspective is provided by E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America:  Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War, New Haven, 2003; Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, Princeton, 1978 (a helpful book for information on the university’s history, people, and events, though it could have more about the Christian background of the school); Harrison, Looney, Woodward, Craven, and McLachlan, Princetonians: 1748-1768, Princeton: U. P., vol. 1, 1976, vol. 2, 1980, vol. 3, 1981, vol. 4, 1991, and vol. 5 1991.  The names of graduates mentioned in the article were found in General Catalogue of Princeton University, 1746-1906. The photograph of the Witherspoon statue was taken by the author.

Notes—This biography was updated and revised, August 31, 2015. At the time of Witherspoon, the school was the College of New Jersey but other names used include Nassau Hall and Princeton College.  Currently it is known as Princeton University.  The comment about Rodgers being the pastor of the “United Presbyterian Churches in the city of New York” is clarified by a comment in Sprague’s Annals, vol. 1, in his article about Rodgers.  It seems that there were two churches but only one congregation.  Rodgers was the senior and he alternated between the buildings with his colleagues.  The word “United” is used with reference to the two church buildings housing one large congregation.

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