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Rev. John Witherspoon (1723-92)

John Witherspoon plaque at Yester Church, GiffordBorn in Gifford on 5 February 1723, son of James Witherspoon the minister of Yester and his wife Anne Walker. He was educated at Haddington Grammar School and then Edinburgh University. He was licensed to preach in 1743 and became minister at Beith in Ayrshire.

Witherspoon joined a troop of volunteers to fight the Highland army of 1745. Imprisoned in Doune Castle, he escaped by making a rope of blankets. He moved to Paisley, where his fortunes were mixed, but in 1768 he received an invitation to become Principal of Princeton College, New Jersey, so he moved to America.

When the American Revolution began he became one of its leaders. He signed the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and campaigned in favour of it so successfully that Horace Walpole blamed him entirely for the revolt. In Britain he was regarded as a traitor, however later he was recognised with an honorary degree from St Andrews University.

In 1789 he became the first Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in America. He became blind and died in the United States on 6 November 1794. A statue of him was erected in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. There is a commemorative plaque in the wall opposite Yester Church in Gifford to this day.

Further reading:

Dick, David, A Millennium of Fame in East Lothian, c. 2000

Forbes Gray, W., East Lothian Biographies, East Lothian Antiquarian and Field Naturalists’ Society, 1941

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