John Witherspoon (1723 – 1794), East Lothian-born minister who signed the American Declaration of Independence.

On 5th of February, 1723 John Witherspoon – Minister in Beith, Founding Father and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence – was born in Gifford, East Lothian. 

His father was the Reverend James Witherspoon a minister in the Parish of Yester and his mother was Anna Walker whose father was the minister of Temple Parish near Edinburgh.  

John attended Haddington Grammar, excelling in Latin, Greek and French as well as English and the Classics. When he was 13 years old he was sent to Edinburgh University to study, eventually obtaining a Master of Arts just after his 16th birthday in 1739. By the time he was 21 he was a Doctor of Theology and a licence to preach.  

In 1745 he became a Church of Scotland minister in Beith where he stayed for the next 13 years, meeting and marrying Elizabeth Montgomery of Craighouse. It was during this time that the 23 year old John along with fellow townsmen travelled to Glasgow to defend King George II against Bonnie Prince Charlie. He was ordered back to Beith but he carried on and was eventually captured by Jacobites at the Battle of Falkirk in 1746. He was then imprisoned in Doune Castle near Stirling for a period of time and this experience left him with a life-long “nervous imbalance.” 

John and Elizabeth were married in Beith in 1748 and went on to have 10 children of which only 5 survived to adulthood. Two are buried in Beith. 

He left Beith and for the next 10 years he was a minister in Paisley. It was here  that he met Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton (also signatories of the Declaration of Independence) who recruited him for the position of President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University which at the time chiefly trained ministers.) John accepted the position and in 1768 along with his wife and 5 children sailed to America.  

He became the 6th president of the college, implementing many changes for the better and teaching some classes himself. He served in Congress and voted in favour of the Resolution for Independence. He oversaw the evacuation of the college during the Revolutionary Wars and was responsible for the re-building of part of the college that was damaged during the conflict. He was consistently politically active throughout the rest of his life and is the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.  

John died in November 1794 on his farm just outside Princeton and is buried in the Princeton Cemetery. There are statues of him in Paisley and Princeton as well as streets named after him in both these places too.