He was a father figure to America’s Founders. A renowned theologian from Scotland, John Witherspoon educated many young men who became prominent leaders of the Founding generation. He went on to embrace the revolutionary cause. He signed the Declaration of Independence, participated in the Continental Congress, and served in positions of influence in the New Jersey state government. Yet Witherspoon’s greatest legacy was as an educator and president of the College of New Jersey. Dozens of his students went on to leadership positions in the emerging United States.
The founders of the College wanted to educate men who would be “ornaments of the State as well as the Church.” Witherspoon himself taught one president (James Madison) and one vice president (Aaron Burr). He also instructed 9 cabinet officers, 21 senators, 39 congressmen, 3 justices of the Supreme Court, and 12 state governors. Five of the 55 members of the Constitutional Convention were his former students. Witherspoon’s impact on the ministry of the Presbyterian Church was also significant. Of the 177 ministers in America in 1777, 52 of them had been Witherspoon’s students. Witherspoon established a strong position and was firmly committed to preserving religious liberty in America.
“Nothing is more certain than that a general profligacy and corruption of manners make a people ripe for destruction. A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery must ensue.” – 1776
“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.” -1776
John Witherspoon (1723-1794)
In this lesson, students will study the life of John Witherspoon and his influence on religious freedom in America. They will learn about the significance of Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution, the concept of a "religious test" for public office, and much more.