Dr. John Witherspoon Scott

Ox Coll 022

Rev. John Witherspoon Scott D.D.
First President of Oxford College
(courtesy of Miami University)



Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon Scott (1800- 1892) lived in Mt. Pleasant (Mt. Healthy) from 1845-1849, while he taught at Farmers’ College in Pleasant Hill (College Hill.) Local legend holds that refugees from slavery were given shelter in Scott’s Mt. Healthy home, which still stands at 7603 Hamilton Avenue.  (see the Dr. John Witherspoon Scott House in Places.) The house bears a plaque on its south wall indicating that this was a station on the Underground Railroad.

Dr. Scott moved to Oxford, Ohio in 1825 after receiving his Doctor of Divinity degree at Yale, and taught science there at Miami University for two decades. Scott was known for his anti-slavery views. As an ordained Presbyterian minister he aligned with the reform movement in the church known as the New School Presbyterian movement, which included a strong abolitionist position.

Western Peace-Maker 1839

Western Peace-Maker 1839 (Click for larger image)

In 1839 in The Western Peace-maker, and Monthly Religious Journal, a New School publication that he, Robert Bishop and Calvin Stowe produced, Scott wrote:

We close by merely remarking that the indications of Providence appear to point forward to such an inevitable final result, whether we will or not. The work has been already begun in certain quarters ;. and once begun, it is not likely to stop where it is. The stone once set to rolling, it is likely to roll on. The foundations once unsettled , they are not likely to be again settled but by a complete and new for mation. The only question then for us to decide, seems to be, shall the plan be effected in an orderly and constitutional manner, as pro posed in the memorial, or irregularly and by. direct revolution ? – J. w, s..

It is tempting to interpret this statement as a reference to abolitionist goals in the growing southern Ohio anti-slavery movement. Or it may refer to the seismic shifts within the Presbyterian church – or both. Other evidence suggests that Scott meant by this “the all absorbing and agitating subject of slavery.” In 1845, Scott wrote to the chairman of a Presbyterian anti-slavery convention in Cincinnati  “my hearty willingness to cooperate, according to the measure of my feeble abilities…to remove the giant evil and reproach of slavery from our beloved church..& to hasten its removal from our whole country & the world.”   Scott letter on slavery

In part because of their anti-slavery stance, and because they encouraged open debate among students on the topic, both Scott and school president Dr. Robert Bishop were forced to resign from their Miami posts in 1845. Former student Freeman Cary invited the two to teach at Farmers’ College in College Hill (then Pleasant Hill). Scott taught there until his return in 1849 to Oxford to become the first president of the Oxford Female Institute. During the period of teaching at Farmer’s College, Scott and his family lived in Mt. Healthy, in a brick structure that still stands on the northwest corner of the intersection of Hamilton Avenue and Compton Road (see a photograph in Places on this website.)

Scott also had the distinction of being the father-in-law of an American president. Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President of the United States (1889-1893), was a student of Scott’s while at Miami University. Harrison married his professor’s daughter, Caroline, in 1853 in a ceremony officiated by Dr. Scott. Scott moved to the White House to live with his daughter and son-in-law. He died in 1892.

For more information about anti-slavery, the New School movement and the politics of Miami University, see “Miami University, Calvinism, and the Anti-Slavery Movement” by James Rodabaugh, 1938, Volume 48 of Ohio History: The Scholarly Journal of the Ohio Historical Society

Karen Arnett, February 2014 (updated March 2015)

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