“The Reverend Dr. John Witherspoon” by artist Joseph A. Bailley – Museum Without Walls™: AUDIO


[Fred Heuser] Believe it or not, during the Revolutionary War, this man—the Rev John Witherspoon— was near the top of the British Army’s hit list. [Jeffrey Morrison] Witherspoon was burned in effigy by the British, and one of the King’s officers commented that Witherspoon, quote, “perhaps had not a less share in the Revolution than Washington.” [Heuser] The British army believed that he was dangerous… [Morrison] After the battle of Trenton, a German soldier under British command, captured a Presbyterian minister and bayoneted him to death in a very public way… because he thought the man was the Rev. John Witherspoon. [Morrison] My name is Jeffry Morrison. I’m author of “John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic”, [Heuser] My name is Fred Heuser, I’m Executive Director of the Presbyterian Historical Society located here in Philadelphia. [Alexander Stoddart] I’m Alexander Stoddart and I’m Sculptor in Ordinary to Queen in Scotland. Witherspoon was born in the east territories territories and Scottish lowlands in a town called Gifford. [Heuser] He was a pastor at a church in Paisley, Scotland in 1766 when a delegation came from Princeton— then known as the College of New Jersey— to ask Witherspoon to be the college’s president. [Stoddart] And a delegation came from Princeton and he refused the first time! But they crossed the Atlantic twice for this man. The 2nd time they came across he was persuaded, and embarked on a long, long a sea voyage of several months. [Morrison] Witherspoon was instrumental in improving the College. His students included James Madison, Aaron Burr… really a remarkable cadre of future leaders in the early Republic. While his record at Princeton is impressive enough, he was also very active in the Continental Congress, and he also used his influence as a pastor to support the American Revolution. [Heuser] The British government and the British army believed that he was dangerous… not that he was physically dangerous, but he could encourage—and did encourage!— others to take up arms. [Morrison] People were more likely, in 1776, to hear a sermon in any given week– in fact probably more than one sermon– than they were to read a newspaper. [Stoddart] Bailly’s statue of Witherspoon is saying that this man is an orator. So there’ll be a manual gesture, and a scroll to say that… not only does he speak, but he writes what he speaks.” [Heuser] Certainly Witherspoon’s most famous sermon is called “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men…” [Morrison] Now this was a political sermon, and it was preached in May of 1776. And that sermon was printed and reprinted. It immediately went through a number of editions, both in the colonies and in Britain… [John Witherspoon] … the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature… [Morrison] And that sermon alone, if he hadn’t done any other writing, would have been a key thing in helping to stir the revolutionary pot. But, he was also there in Independence Hall on July 4, 1776… [Stoddart] And there was some hesitation about signing the Declaration of Independence, because, you know, had the fortunes gone against these men, they would have been signing their own death warrant as traitors.” [Heuser] On the side of this statue are the words he speaks, urging his fellow delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence. He says, “Although these grey hairs must soon descend into sepulcher [Witherspoon] I would infinitely rather that they descend thither by the hand of the executioner than desert at this crisis the sacred cause of my country.” [Heuser] Witherspoon is the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. So as part of the Centennial Celebrations of 1876, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church commissioned this statue. They hired the French-born sculptor, Joseph Alexis Bailly, who also sculpted the statue of George Washington that stands outside of Independence Hall here in Philadelphia. [Stoddart] The posture of the foot coming forward over the edge of the pedestal, is also a sculptural convention. I always like to think it’s emblematic of a man who goes and makes an immense impression upon the world.”

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