John Witherspoon

The charge again by historical revisionists is that our founders were deists or secularists – men who did not believe God was intimately involved with lives or functions of society and the world’s operations. Not so, with Dr. John Witherspoon, the only preacher among the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Dr. Witherspoon was a Protestant minister, seminary president, professor and a great statesman. A Direct descedent of John Knox, and the son of a minister, Dr. Witherspoon received his zeal for Christ spiritually and ancestrally. Witherspoon’s father directed his son’s education carefully toward ministering the gospel, discovering that at the early age of fourteen John had a gift for ancient languages. Dr. Witherspoon graduated as a licensed preacher at 22 years old. Being recognized for his wisdom and knowledge of the word and his teaching abilities, he received calls from three large parishes, but refused them when a unanimous vote called him as President of New Jersey College (Princeton) in 1766.

Dr. Witherspoon trained 9 of the 55 men who participated in the federal convention of 1787. No one individual has had such intimate and direct impact upon as many of our national leaders. He trained “one president, a vice president, 21 senators, 29 representatives, 56 state legislators, and 33 judges (three of them Supreme Court Judges).“

Witherspoon was the spiritual inspiration behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence. His sermon “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men (Psalm 76:10),” preached a month before his election to the Continental Congress, “dispelled any hesitation… cosigners might have had” (Great American Statesmen and Heroes, Catherine Millard, 1995, p70). He said, “There is not a greater evidence either of the reality or the power of religion, than a firm belief of God’s universal presence, and a constant attention to the influence and operation of His providence.” Witherspoon was the second person to call for a national day of prayer, fasting and humiliation (JOCC, Vol. II, p. 93). Intellectually, one cannot discard his godly faith and influence over more than 140 individuals who shaped our young nation. Copious words, speculation and slander are juicy to the unlearned, but facts are more revealing than supposition. Consider that Witherspoon, an outstanding gospel orator and president of the early Princeton (when the foundations of collegiate training were biblical not sectarian), used the words “providence” and “religion” as generic terms reflecting Christianity. All of our founders talked this way because that was the form of expression in their day. These phrases are not purposefully esoteric, but commensurate with the educated, Christian verbiage and communication in the mid to late 18th century.

With independence established and liberty achieved, Dr. Witherspoon hung his political hat permanently on the hook and dedicated the rest of his life to ministering the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although he was blind for the final two years of his life, Witherspoon faithfully ministered from the pulpit.

“As a theological writer, Doctor Witherspoon had few superiors, and as a statesman he held the first rank.” (Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, (reprint of 1848 original)).

Deist? Secularist? Atheist? No. Christian. Most certainly.

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