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John Witherspoon. Lithograph after a painting by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1838–1843. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-104656).


Witherspoon, John (05 February 1723–15 November 1794), Presbyterian minister, college president, and American patriot, was born in the village of Gifford in the parish of Yester, Scotland, eighteen miles east of Edinburgh Castle, the son of James Witherspoon, a minister of the Church of Scotland, and Anne (or Anna) Walker. At home Witherspoon was instructed in the New Testament and the hymns of Isaac Watts and early developed a facility for rapid, accurate memorization. He entered the University of Edinburgh when only thirteen and received a master of arts in February 1739. He then studied theology, was licensed to preach on 6 September 1743, and in January 1745 was called as minister of the Church of Scotland parish in Beith, Ayrshire. The next year he helped raise troops to fight against Charles Stuart, the Young Pretender, but rebel forces captured him when he went to observe the battle of Falkirk. He underwent a brief but harsh imprisonment in Castle Doune near Stirling that permanently damaged his nervous system. In 1748 he married Elizabeth Montgomery; they had ten children, five of whom died during childhood....