“A NOBLE TREASON”
Thank you for the opportunity to introduce John Witherspoon College. In this website, you will read the remarkable story of John Witherspoon and the likewise remarkable story of this new college that bears his name. As you read, I trust that you will begin to see that John Witherspoon College takes more than a name from this “Forgotten Founding Father.”
When John Witherspoon arrived at Princeton (then The College of New Jersey) in 1768, he stepped into a crisis. Enrollment down, donations down, facilities in disrepair. Worst of all, the founding vision of the institution—“to produce ornaments of the State as well as the Church”—lay almost in tatters. The curriculum excelled only in mediocrity, students lacked seriousness, and standards had grown lax, all at a critical moment in history, as a new nation struggled to be born. Witherspoon met the crisis with a simple strategy of high standards and hard work—and the rest, as they say, is history.
But this College does not bear the name of John Witherspoon because he saved Princeton, like a coach who turns a losing team into a champion. We bear his name because he had a vision far beyond his personal reputation, the fortunes of a great college, or even the success of her graduates. A Scot by birth, Witherspoon embraced the American cause single-mindedly. From his prolific pen flowed many of the new nation’s most formative documents, and from his beloved college came many of America’s most influential leaders. It “is safe to say,” writes Jeffrey Morrison, “that no single educator in early America matched Witherspoon’s record of making politicians and patriots.” Looking back a hundred years later, Woodrow Wilson called colonial Princeton a “seminary of statesmen rather than a quiet seat of academic learning.”
From our comfortable distance, we might easily miss the true greatness of Witherspoon’s leadership. Like other patriots, Witherspoon was guilty of treason against the most powerful nation on earth. Witherspoon himself had a price on his head (another minister actually lost his life to a soldier who thought he had Witherspoon!). In his native Scotland and throughout the Empire, Witherspoon was branded a “rebel” and “traitor,” who inflamed the colonists with his preaching and his pen, while he transformed Princeton into what was disparagingly called a “seminary of sedition.” A high-ranking British officer called Witherspoon a “political firebrand” who “poisons the minds of his young students and through them the Continent.” If this be treason, it is a noble treason indeed.
The world needs that kind of “noble treason” again—and such is the vision we take from our namesake. As Witherspoon did 250 years ago, we long to equip a new revolutionary generation and to send them out as salt and light into a culture of darkness and decay. John Witherspoon College aspires to be a new “seminary of statesmen,” prepared to make a difference in the world for Christ and His Kingdom.
Thank you for considering John Witherspoon College. To build a brand new college is risky business—and as a parent or prospective student, you have lots of “safer” options. But I prayerfully hope you will take time to learn more. For here in the incomparable Black Hills of South Dakota, the incomparable vision of John Witherspoon lives again.
C. Richard Wells