John Witherspoon’s “Qualities of Most Importance” for the Minister

By Dustin W. Benge

In his first sermon as president of the College of New Jersey (1768–94; now Princeton University), John Witherspoon (1722–1794) affirmed that "true religion in the heart is of far greater importance to the success and efficacy of the ministry than eminence or gifts."[1] He enlarged on it, for example, in his Lectures on Eloquence. He had no hesitation as to what ought to be at the beginning of the list of "the qualities of most importance"[2] for the preaching of the gospel:

1. Piety – To have a firm belief of that gospel he is called to preach, and a lively sense of religion upon his own heart.

2. It gives a man the knowledge that is of most service to a minister. Experimental knowledge is superior to all other, and necessary to the perfection of every other kind. It is indeed the very possession, or daily exercise of that which it is the business of his life, and the duty of his office, to explain and recommend. Experimental knowledge is the best sort in every branch, but it is necessary in divinity, because religion is what cannot be truly understood, unless it is felt.

3. True piety will direct a man in the choice of his studies. The object of human knowledge is so extensive, that nobody can go through the whole, but religion will direct the student to what may be most profitable to him, and will also serve to turn into its proper channel all the knowledge he may otherwise acquire.

4. It will be a powerful motive to diligence in his studies. Nothing so forcible as that in which eternity has a part. The duty to a good man is so pressing, and the object so important, that he will spare no pains to obtain success.

5. True religion will give unspeakable force to what a minister says. There is a piercing and penetrating heat in that which flows from the heart, which distinguishes it both from the coldness of indifference, and the false fire of enthusiasm and vain-glory. We see that a man is truly pious has often esteem, influence, and success, though his parts may be much inferior to others, who are more capable, but less conscientious. If, then, piety makes even the weakest venerable, what must it do when added to the finest natural talents, and the best acquired endowments?

6. It adds to a minister’s instruction, the weight of his example. It is a trite remark, that example teaches better than precept. It is often a more effectual reprimand to vice, and a more inciting argument to the practice of virtue, than the best of reasoning. Example is more intelligible than precept. Precepts are often involved in obscurity, or wrapped by controversy; but a holy life immediately reaches, and takes possession of the heart.

…observe, as the conclusion of the whole, that one devoted to the service of the gospel should be really, visibly, and eminently holy.

                [1] John Witherspoon, The Works of John Witherspoon (Edinburgh, 1815), 5:160.

                [2] John Witherspoon, "Ministerial Character and Duty" in The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon (Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1800), 2:285.


Dustin W. Benge (Ph.D. Candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as Associate Pastor and Pastor for Family Ministries at Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Mobile, AL. Dustin is a junior fellow of the Andrew Fuller Center and lives with his wife, Molli, in Mobile.