My reading over the Christmas Holiday included two books on Presbyterians and the founding of the College of New Jersey.
I reread the first several chapters of Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker’ Princeton, 1746-1896 (1946). This is a very useful mid-twentieth-century institutional history, but it was made even better by John Murrin‘s 1996 introduction to the paperback edition. Murrin’s essay reminded me that I need to reread the diary of Esther Edwards Burr (Ned Landsman had me read it in graduate school), look at a few essays from the 1970s on Princeton and the American Revolution (including one by Murrin himself), and review the first two volumes of Princetonians:A Biographical Dictionary.
I also reread the letters in L.H. Butterfield’s John Witherspoon Comes to America. This thin volume contains correspondence between Witherspoon, Benjamin Rush, Richard Stockton and others during the period of negotiation that eventually led to Witherspoon accepting the presidency of the College of New Jersey. In the process I realized that Witherspoon’s wife almost kept him from coming to Princeton. She did not want to leave Paisley, Scotland for New Jersey and feared that her husband would die in America, leaving her all alone in a “foreign land.” Eventually, thanks to the gentle touch of Benjamin Rush, who was studying medicine in Edinburgh at the time, Elizabeth consented and the Witherspoons made the journey to Princeton.
I was quite taken by the role that Witherspoon’s friends in Scotland played in this decision. Many of these esteemed Presbyterian ministers not only urged Witherspoon to take the job in Princeton, but accused him of allowing his wife to stand in the way of God’s call on his life. Their letters on this front are pretty harsh on Elizabeth.
I think this story, if told well, might make for some good reading.