Is the Religious Want of the Age Met?

“Our age is an age of great devotion to secular affairs, — of men who are great in the conduct of such affairs, — in every department in life. To counterbalance this, our ministry mist be filled with an equally earnest devotion to God and salvation.”

To answer this question intelligently, we must first glance at the characteristics of the age. It is an age of remarkable activity. There have been industrious men in other days; there have been nations of whom it might be truly said, They were an industrious people, they lost no time in idleness: but their rate of speed was low. Such a people could hardly be deemed enterprising. They might continue uncomplainingly in their accustomed round of labors, but would lack impulse to attempt anything new. Circumstances did not compel them to unwonted efforts, and their capabilities lay dormant. The world was wide, the population comparatively sparse, and the means of subsistence not difficult of attainment.

Our age is very unlike to that. People begin to crowd one another. There is competition. The more active and ingenious will have the advantage; they do have the advantage; and this fact is a constant stimulus. It has been operating for thirty years past with ever-increasing power. We seem to be approaching a climax, — a point beyond which flesh and blood cannot go. The enterprise of the more active spirits of our day is astounding; we begin to ask, Will they stop at anything? What will they not undertake? There are a great many unsuccessful attempts; but these are not necessarily observed, they pass quietly into obscurity, while we hasten to observe the successes, which are wonderful, and so numerous as to keep us ever on tiptoe, looking for new wonders. Having seen the railways, the magnetic telegraph, and Hoe’s press, in full operation, and having been brought to accept these as a common measure of time and motion, we find ourselves indisposed for older usages. We find our age an age of daring and of doing. We are ready to discard the word impossible from our vocabulary; we deny that anything is the less probable because of being unprecedented. For doing new things we look about for new means, — being full charged with the belief that for all worthy or desirable ends there must be adequate and available means. In this regard, it is an age of unprecedented faith, of expectation of success; and we all know the natural and necessary influence of such an expectation. Sanguine expectation lights up the fires of genius; invention is quickened for the attainment of the highest speed and the greatest momentum. In no former age has there been anything to compare in rapidity and power of movement with the every-day achievements of this age. The relation of books to men, and the sphere assigned to books, are materially modified by the characteristics of the age. Books, as books, are no longer a charm to conjure with. The few really superior books have a wider and greater influence than ever before; while the great mass of common books have less, and pass more easily into oblivion. Good books may and must help us; but books cannot make us men of the nineteenth century, and a power in it. A thorough knowledge of the world within us, as it stands related to the world without us, is something quite different from mere book-knowledge. This is an element of influence not only not confined to the bookmen, but often possessed in a transcendent degree by those whose devotion to books is altogether subordinate to other avocations. Our common-school education may be said to bring the entire people upon a common plane. We are no longer the esoteric and the exoteric; we understand our rights in the common fund of sense and truth very well. We are not very patient with those who affect to know better than ourselves what we want and what we ought to desire. Most men are exceedingly in earnest, and determined to be heard in their own cause, and well able to make themselves understood. Scribes and Pharisees compassing sea and land to make one proselyte are a good and bad type of our activity in the pursuit of our own ends. Innumerable and infinitely varied are the shifts employed to secure attention, to effect the sale of merchandise, and to increase income. Nor are the learned professions much behind the men of merchandise. The contest of life thickens. Competition for the fruits of labor waxes continually more fierce. Mother Earth is too moderate in her labors; the ranks of the producers suffer from desertion; the plough is forsaken; the patient ox is contemned; silence, seclusion, and meditation are a memory of the past. The world’s axis is changed; there is more heat in the North. The world has advanced, in our age, from a speed of five miles an hour, to twenty or thirty, or more.

Whatever may be thought of the advantages and disadvantages accruing from these movements, there can be no question of the fact, that they have greatly affected the position and the relations of speakers and hearers. The million have been driven to do so much for themselves, that they are in no little danger of jumping to the conclusion, that they no longer need teachers of religion. A conclusion so fraught with mischief to the race will not be arrested by a pertinacious adhesion to modes of preaching which men under the old-time training could be made to endure, but which latter-day contrasts have rendered intolerable.

It is just here, if anywhere, that a special backwardness on the part of the clergy to meet the religious wants of the age may, without injustice or unkindness, be alleged. It comes about very naturally; the training of the clergy is not in harmony with the exigencies of the position they are intended to occupy. The endeavors of the preparatory schools are not to be depreciated. It is scarcely possible to say too much of the fundamental importance of thoroughness and of minute accuracy in the rudiments of learning. But that extreme zeal in this behalf has produced an unnatural divorce of the practical from the critical, it is vain to deny. The devotion to the latter, which is inaugurated in the preparatory school, is by the college inflamed to the utmost, and the young man reaches his climax when he receives the appointment of valedictorian; that is his end; he reaches it, and we may say it is the death of him. He may, indeed, enter the theological seminary, industriously resolved on more of the same supremacy; but, in most instances, the great practical ends of a Christ-like life of doing good have been already lost from his view, and the ways and means by which alone such ends can be reached have become offensive to him. The student, as he delights in calling himself has become greatly more interested in knowledge than in the people for whom he is to use his knowledge. A certain unknown God, an idol, in short, quite unsuspected, whose name is Critical Dignity, is installed in his heart, in the place of the Son of God. And the man endures the trials of his ministerial life under the mistaken impression that he is a martyr for Christ. He compels himself to be satisfied with a measure of attention to his utterances, which would content no sane and sensible man in any other department of teaching. He will tell you that it is one of the inevitable infelicities of his vocation, that to nothing are men such unwilling listeners as to religious truth; than which nothing can be more untrue; for to nothing are men so prepared to listen as to religious truth, properly presented.

In order to a more generally happy and successful prosecution of the duties of a minister of Christ, a preliminary fact requires to be considered. That a man is found or finds himself in any calling is no evidence whatever that he is fitted for that calling. This is just as true of the ministry as of any other vocation. Every man-of-business knows this. The clergy seem to us behind the age in being astonishingly blind to it. Men-of-business know that only a very small fraction of their number can ever attain eminent success. They know, that, in a term of twenty years, ninety-seven men in a hundred fail. Here and there one develops a remarkable talent for the specific business in which he is engaged. The ninety-and-nine discover that they have a weary contest to maintain with manifold contingencies and combinations which no foresight can preclude.

The application of this general truth to their profession the clergy are backward to perceive. The consequences of this backwardness are very hurtful to their interests. Because of this, we have an indefinite amount of puerile and undignified complaint from disappointed men, of disingenuous misrepresentation from incompetent men, who have entered upon labors they were never fitted to accomplish. Such men undertake their labors in ways that want and must want the Divine sanction; and they are tempted to ward off a just verdict of unsuitableness and of incompetency by bringing many and grievous charges against their flocks. “A mania for church-extending”; “a hankering for architectural splendor”; “or for discursive and satirical preaching”; “or for something florid or profound”: these and the like imputations have been put forward, as a screen, by many an unsuccessful preacher, who failed, — simply failed, — not in selling horns or hides, shirtings or sugars, — but failed to recommend Christ and his gospel, — failed for want of head, or heart, or industry, or all three.

The man who embarks his all in hardware, drugs, or law, runs the risk of failure. If his neighbor can rise earlier, walk faster, talk faster, work harder, and hold on longer, he will get the avails that might suffice for both. This unalterable fact every business-man accepts.

Do you inquire, To what good purpose do you thrust the possibility of failure upon the attention of the candidate for the ministry? Would you utterly discourage those who are already more alive to the perils of their undertaking than we could wish them?

We answer, It is no kindness to encourage men to enter a ministry whose inexorable requirements and whose incidental possibilities they may not look in the face. It is no kindness to represent to them that the qualities which they possess ought to engage attention; and that their talents will command respect, or else it will be the fault of the people.

Men go into business in the face of a possibility of failure through uncontrollable circumstances; not in defiance of an ascertainable, insufferable incompetency. They toil on, accepting adversity with such equanimity as God gives them, so long as they are permitted to believe that their misfortunes are not chargeable upon their incapacity or self-indulgence. But when it is made apparent that they are not in their proper sphere, they think it no shame to say so, to withdraw, and to apply their energies to something suited to their tastes and capabilities. And so it should be with the ministry; but as things now are, with the conceptions of the ministry now entertained, pride interposes to forbid the rectification of the most serious mistakes. It is a question of dignity and of scholarship; whereas it should be a question of love to God and man, and of real ability and conscious power to bring them together, — to reconcile man to God.

Our age is an age of great devotion to secular affairs, — of men who are great in the conduct of such affairs, — in every department in life. To counterbalance this, our ministry mist be filled with an equally earnest devotion to God and salvation. In real ability our ministers ought to be not a whit behind. But ability is not necessarily scholarship; though it may, and as far as possible should, include that, and a great deal more. Let it be fully understood, once for all, that we have no disparaging remark to make of scholarship; a man must be foolish beyond expression, who pretends to argue that the highest scholarship is less than a most important and almost indispensable auxiliary to the minister of Christ. All our concern in the matter, just here, is, that it shall be fully understood that piety and real ability make the minister of Christ, and not scholarship; in the words of, “the heart makes the minister”; — but we may safely assume that he meant the heart of a really able man; otherwise we can accord but a qualified respect to this remark.

The prevailing impression among the ministry appears to be, that the man who cannot write “an able doctrinal discourse” is but an inferior man, fit only to preach in an inferior place; and that it would be a great gain to the Church, if scholarship were only so general that the standard of the universities could be applied, and only Phi-Beta-Kappa men allowed to enter the ministry. No doubt, those who incline to this view are quite honest, and not unkindly in it. But those who think this grievously misunderstand the necessities of the age in which we live. Reading men know where to find better reading than can possibly be furnished by any man who is bound to write two sermons weekly, or even one sermon a week; and to train any corps of young men in the expectation that any considerable fraction of them will be able to win and to maintain a commanding influence in their parishes mainly by the weekly production of learned discourses is to do them the greatest injury, by cherishing expectations which never can be realized. Why do our educated men of other professions so seldom and so reluctantly contribute to the addresses in our religious assemblies? Precisely because they understand the difficulty of meeting the popular expectation which is created by the prevailing theory; a theory which demands that sermons, and not only that sermons, but also that all religious addresses, should be chiefly characterized as learned, acute, scholastic even. An Irish preacher is reported in an Edinburgh paper as saying lately, that “he had been led to think of his own preaching and of that of his brethren. He saw very few sermons in the New Testament shaped after the forms and fashion in which they had been accustomed to shape theirs. He was not aware of a sermon there, in which they had a little motto selected, upon which a disquisition upon a particular subject was hung. The sort of sermons which the people in his locality were desirous to hear were sermons delivered on a large portion of the Word of God, carrying through the ideas as the Spirit of God had done.” And it is, in part at least, because of the prevailing disregard of this most reasonable desire, that parishes so soon weary of their ministers.

It need not discourage ministers to accept the fact that there will be failures in the ministry, — and a great many failures among those who rely for their success mainly upon the weekly production of learned disquisitions. Discouragement is not in accepting a fact that accords with all just theories of truth, but in adopting a theory which is sure to be invalidated by the almost universal experience of men in, as well as out of, the ministry. A right-minded minister may have many falls in struggling up his Hill of Difficulty; but the Lord will lift him up, and will save him from adding to the temperate grief proper to any measure of short-coming the intolerable poignancy that comes of cheating by false pretences, — of assuming to do what he knows or should know that he cannot do, namely, produce any considerable number of great sermops.

Let it, then, be frankly owned, that men, very good men, very capable men, have failed in the ministry. A. failed, because he did not study; B., because he did not visit his people; C., because he could not talk; D., because he was too grave; E., because he was too frivolous F. could not, or would not, control his temper; G. alienated by exacting more than he received; and all of them because of not having what Scougal calls “the life of God in the soul of man.”

It is not worth while for any man to go into the ministry who cannot relish the Apostle’s invitation, running thus: — “I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” If that seem not reasonable, ay, and exceedingly inviting too, better let it alone. All men cannot do all things. Better raise extraordinary potatoes than hammer out insignificant ideas. You do not see the connection? you were a Phi-Beta-Kappa man in college, and know that you can write better than many a man in a metropolitan pulpit? Very likely; but we of the few go to church to be made better men, and not by fine writing, but by significant ideas, which may come in a homely garb, so they be only pervaded with affectionate piety, but which can come to us only from one who has laid all ambitious self-seeking on the altar of God. There is a power of persuasion in every minister who follows God as a dear child, and who walks in love, as Christ loved us, which the hardest heart cannot long resist, — which will win the congregation, however an individual here and there may be able to harden himself against it. You think that the great power of the pulpit is in high doctrine, presented with metaphysical precision and acuteness. We have no disparagement to offer of your doctrinal knowledge, nor of your ability to state it with metaphysical precision and hair-splitting acuteness. But we know, from much experience, that there is a divine truth, and a fervor and power in imparting it, with which God inspires the man who is wholly devoted to Him, in comparison with which the higher achievements of the man who lacks these are trumpery and rubbish. Many, many men have failed in the ministry, are failing in the ministry every day, because their principal reliance has been upon what they deem their thorough mastery of the soundest theories of doctrine and of duty. They were confident they could administer to minds and hearts diseased the certain specific laid down in the book, admeasured to the twentieth part of a scruple. Confident in their theoretical acquisitions, they could not comprehend the indispensable necessity of a large experience in actual cases of mental malady. And for the want of such experience, it was absolutely impossible that they should be en rapport with the souls they honestly desired to benefit. Can you heal a heart-ache with a syllogism? There is no dispensing with the precept and prescription, — “Weep with those that weep!” “Be of the same mind one toward another!”

Theories of doctrine and of practice are not without their value; but the minister who is merely or chiefly a theorist, whether in doctrines or in measures, is an adventurer; and the chances against him are as many as the chances against the precise similarity of any two cases presented to his attention, — as many as the chances against the education of any two men of fifty years being precisely alike, in every particular and in all their results. The soul’s problems are not to be solved by theories. Such was not the practice of the Great Physician; “surely, He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” Theories shirk that. “In all their affliction, He was afflicted; in His love and in His pity, He redeemed them.” And precisely in this way his ministers are now to follow up his practice. Our age is growing less and less tolerant of formality, — less and less willing to accept metaphysical disquisition in place of a warm-hearted, loving, fervent expansion of the Word of God, recommended to the understanding and to the sensibility by lively illustrations of spiritual truth, derived from all the experience of life, from all observation, from all analogies in the natural world, — in short, from every manner of illumination, from the heavens above, from the earth beneath, and from the waters which are under the earth. God is surely everywhere, and hath made all things, and all to testify of Him; and the innumerable voices all agree together.

And when this is both understood and felt, what rules shall be given to guide and control the construction and the delivery of discourses? Shall we say, The people must be brought back to the old-time endurance—ay, endurance, that is the word—of long-drawn, laborious ratiocinations, wherein the truth is diligently pursued for its own sake. with an ultimate reference, indeed, to the needs and uses of the hearer, but so remote as rarely to be noticed, except by that very small fraction of any customary congregation who may chance to have an interest in such doings, — some of whom watch the clergyman as they would the entomologist, running down a truth that he may impale it, and add one more specimen to his well-ordered collection of common and of uncommon bugs? Our neighbors in the South do better than this; for they hunt with the lasso, and never throw the noose except to capture something which can be harnessed to the wheels of common life.

No, the people are not going back to the endurance of any such misery. They have found out that still-born rhetoric is by no means the one thing needful, and care far less for the art of speech than for the nature of a holy heart. They want a man to speak less of what he believes and more of what he feels. The expectation of bringing the people again to endure prolonged metaphysical discriminations, spun out of commonplace minds, cobwebs to cloak their own nakedness and universal inaptitude, if indulged, is absurdly indulged. The whole Church is sick of such trifling. She knows well that it has made her most unsavory to those who might have found their way into the temples of God, or kept their places there, but for the memory of an immense amount of wearisome readings from the pulpit, — too often a vocabulary of words seldom or never found out of sermons, — a manner of speech which, when tried by the sure test of natural, animated conversation, must be pronounced absurd and abominable. It is a wonder of wonders, that, in spite of such drawbacks, an individual here and there has been reclaimed from worldliness to the love and service of God.

The student-habits of the clergy most naturally lead them to prefer the formal statement, the studied elaboration of ideas, which their own training cannot but render facile and dear to them. And there is here and there a man who, in virtue of extraordinary genius, can infuse new life into worn-out phrases, — a man or two who can for a moment or for an hour, by the very weight and excellence of their thoughts, and because they truly and deeply feel them, arrest the age, and challenge and secure attention, in spite of all the infelicities of an antiquated style and an unearthly delivery. But in this age, more than ever before, we are summoned to surrender our scholastic preferences and esoteric honors to the exigencies of the million. And the men of this generation have, without much conference, come with great unanimity to the determination that they will not long endure, either in or out of the pulpit, speakers who are dull and unaffecting, whether from want of words, ideas, or method and wisdom in the arrangement. of them, or lack of sympathies, — and especially that they will not endure dull declamation from the pulpit.

If any man really wish to know how he is preaching, let him imagine him self conversing earnestly with an intelligent and highly gifted, but uneducated man or woman, in his own parlor, or with his younger children. Would any but an idiot keep on talking, when, with half an eye, he might discern TEDIOUS, wrought by himself, upon the uncalloused sensibilities of his hearers?

How long ought a sermon to be? As long as you can read in the eye of seven-eighths of your audience, Pray, go on. If you cannot read that, you have mistaken your vocation; you were never called to the ministry. The secret of the persuasive power of our favorite orators is in their constant recognition of the ebb and flow of the sensibilities they are acting upon. Their speech is, in effect, an actual conversation, in which they are speaking for as well as to the audience and the interlocutors are made almost as palpably such as at the “Breakfast-Table” of our dramatic “Autocrat.” In contrast with this, the dull preacher, falling below the dignity and the privilege of his office, addresses himself, not to living men, but to an imaginary sensibility to abstract truth. The effect of this is obvious and inevitable; it converts hearers into doubters as to whether in fact there be any such thing as a religion worth recommending or possessing, and preachers into complainers of the people as indifferent and insensible to the truth, — a libel which ought to render them liable to fine and punishment. God’s truth, fairly presented, is never a matter of indifference or of insensibility to an intelligent, nor even to an unintelligent audience. However an individual here and there may contrive to withdraw himself from the sphere of its influence, truth can no more lose her power than the sun can lose his heat.

The people, under the quickening influences characteristic of our age, are awaking to the consciousness, that, on the day which should be the best of all the week, they have been defrauded of their right, in having solemn dulness palmed upon them, in place of living, earnest, animated truth. Let not ministers, unwisely overlooking this undeniable fact, defame the people, by alleging a growing facility in dissolving the pastoral relation, — a disregard of solemn contracts, — a willingness to dismiss excellent, godly, and devoted men, without other reason than the indisposition to retain them. Be it known to all such, that capable men in every department of life were never in such request as at this very hour; and never, since the world began, was there an audience so large and so attentive to truth, well wrought and fitted to its purpose, as now.