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Thirty-four letters to a son in the ministry online

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an assembly of devout worshippers so near to the
gate of heaven. You cannot study the word of God
too diligently with reference to this particular object.
It was said of an eminently devoted minister of the
Old South Church, in the city of Boston, that he
committed the whole book of Psalms to memory, so
that he might always have at command an inexhausti-
ble store of the most appropriate language for prayer.
I would that ever young minister might be induced
to do the same. The task once entered upon would
be delightful, and might be accomplished in less than


half a year. One of these hundred and fifty sacred
lyrics might upon an average be committed daily
without the least interference with other duties.
This single acquisition would make you infinitely
richer, than thousands of gold and silver.

The leading and essential topics of prayer, are In-
vocation, Adoration, Confession, Petition and Thanks-
giving. All these should be brought in every sab-
bath day, and you will find yourself greatly assisted
by something like the methodical arrangement which
is here indicated. Sometimes you will dwell longer
upon one topic, sometimes upon another, and some-
times you will find it convenient, perhaps, to adopt a
different order. But regard to method you must
always have. If you commence without a plan,
you will be liable to wander, you know not where, to
fall into bewildering, if not " vain repetitions," and to
protract the exercise to a tiresome length.

You will find it very much for your improvement
in the gift of prayer, to make the chapter which you
read in your family devotions, the main subject of
the exercise, in the way of confession, petition, or
thanksgiving, as either of these topics may be most
distinctly suggested. You will also, if my own ex-
perience does not deceive me, derive much advan-
tage to yourself, while you impress scriptural truth
more deeply upon the hearts of your congregation,
by going over the leading topics of your last sermon
in prayer, while they are yet fresh in the minds of
all. For example, if you preach on depravity, or
faith, or repentance, in the forenoon, make that the
burden of your first prayer in the afternoon. It is


well, I think, generally to confine your morning
prayer chiefly to the state and wants of your own
people, and to reserve the other and more public
topics for the evening.

Avoid every thing like ostentation in prayer. Let
your language be simple and child-like. Let your
attitude be reverential, as becomes a worm of the
dust addressing a God of infinite majesty and purity.
Let the tones of your voice be solemn, but natural —
supplicatory, but not affected. Let your enunciation
be deliberate, but not drawling. Be careful not to
weary the congregation by the unrccisonable length
of your prayers. On ordinary occasions a quarter of
an hour before the sermon, and two or tliree minutes
at the close is probably as long as is profitable, though
I would by no means have you always confine your-
self to any definite hmits. Much will depend upon
your own spiritual frame and that of your people.

As helps to improvement in prayer, let me recom-
mend to you both Watts and Henry as invaluable.
I do not see how a young minister can do without them.

One suggestion more, and I have done. When-
ever you are called upon to make the introductory,
or consecrating, or concluding prayer at an ordina-
tion, keep within your own proper limits, both as to
time and topics. For want of a due regard to this
caution, the whole ground is often gone over two or
three times. In almost everything but the name,
the first prayer is the ordaining prayer, and it is
well if he who closes the exercises, does not go back,
and set the candidate over the people for the third
time. I am affectionately, &c.




My Dear E.

You will, I presume, expect me to say something
on the subject of exchanges. Taking it for granted
that you may sometimes exchange pulpits and labors
with your brethren, the question will arise in your
mind, how often it is expedient to avail yourself of
the accommodation. And this question involves two
others. How much indulgence do you need, and how
much will the best interests of your church and con-
gregation allow you to take ? I am afraid, that on
this point you may think me rather too rigid, and
perhaps suspect, that I must have forgotten how I
used to feel, when driven into corners in the first
years of my own ministry. But that is one of the
things which I shall always remember. I know very
well, what it is to be taken up nearly all the week
with visiting the sick, attending funerals,and with other
exhausting pastoral duties, and to be overtaken by
the sabbath without any adequate preparation. Un-
der such circumstances it is a great relief to ex-
change. But looking over the whole ground, my
deliberate judgment is, that it is best for a minister
to preach at home as much as he can. I will briefly
state the reasons on which this opinion is formed, and
leave you to weigh them at your leisure.

When you was ordained and took the pastoral
oversight of the second church in L , you was


solemnly charged to feed that particular flock, and
under this charge you voluntarily assumed all the re-
sponsibility which it was intended to impose. It is
to be presumed, at least so the partiality of a father
construes it, that, before they gave you a call, the
hearts of the people were drawn out towards you,
and that they wished you to settle with them, be-
cause they were pleased and edified with your preach-
ing. They elected you not to supply the desk by
proxy, but that they might secure the stated exercises
of a spiritual guide and teacher, to whom they were
personally attached, and who dwelling among them,
and acquainted with their wants, might know how to
"give to every one his portion in due season." This, to
my mind, is a weighty argument against your ex-
changing very often. Your church and congrega-
tion have claims upon you, which no other people
can have ; and if they had rather hear you preach
from sabbath to sabbath, than any of those worthy
brethren with whom you might exchange, you are
bound to gratify them as far as your health will per-

Another reason why a minister should generally
occupy his own pulpit is, that he understands the
state of his flock better than any other preacher can ;
and of course better knows how to adapt his dis-
courses to their spiritual need. The brother, with
whom he might exchange, is perhaps a much abler
man than himself ; but he is a stranger, I mean com-
paratively so, although he may be a near neighbor.
He feels it, when he selects his discourses, and some-
times labors under the painful uncertainty all the


way through, whether he is edifying his audience or
^' beating the air." If the pastor's ordinary sernions
are not near so well written, or so full of thoughts,
they may do more good by their timely and skillful
adaptation. An ounce ball, when it does execution,
is better than a grape shot that whizzes by ; and the
slightest blow, that hits the nail on the head, will
drive it further than a hundred strokes of a trip-ham-
mer striking within an inch of it.

A third important reason why a pastor should gen-
erally occupy his own pulpit is, that it gives him the
advantage of systematic instruction, and of following
up the good impressions of his discourses, which fre-
quent exchanges are liable to obliterate. This rea-
son may not strike you so forcibly now, as it will
some years hence ; although one of the first lessons
of experience in your preaching will be, that topics
which are connected, and which you have chosen and
arranged, with your eye upon the state of your flock,
are far more interesting than those taken up at ran-
dom, however ably discussed. When a minister, whose
heart is set upon the salvation of his people has
presented one great truth clearly to their minds, and
some interest is excited, he is very apt to feel, that he
has just been preparing the way for another, not only
in the order of sequence, but of time ; and it often
happens, that he hardly knows how to wait till the
next sabbath, before he brings it out. He sees as
clearly as the light, that so long as God works by
means, a vast deal depends upon their proximity, as
well as their connection and skillful adaptation. And
in this view of the subject, though he may wish for


relief, and may have the utmost confidence in his
brethren, to whom exchanges would be equally con-
venient, he will often feel it to be his duty to go on
at home as long as he can. He will not rest easy,
till he has consecutively presented the series of topics
which he has in his mind, so as to secure the full
advantage of making them support and strengthen
each other. And besides all this, he will often
lay great stress upon the advantages of watching the
state of feeling in his congregation from sabbath to
sabbath, that he may turn it to the best account in
his weekly preparations. For myself, I do not see
how a pastor can carry out any connected system of
pulpit instruction, but by following it up as fast as
the weeks revolve and his strength permits. If I may
refer to my own ministry, I am satisfied that those
portions of it, in which I was most regularly in my
own pulpit, v/ere the most useful ; though I never ex-
changed so much as many of my brethren.

A fourth reason why a minister should generally
preach at home is, that the great body of his con-
gregation, having become accustomed to his style and
manner and trains of thought, will understand him
better than they can a stranger or one whom they
seldom hear. Every preacher has his own way of
investigating subjects and presenting truth, and uses a
great many words and phrases, which, if not peculiar
to himself, may be said to characterize his style.
At first, perhaps, these words and phrases are not
well understood, but by sitting steadily under his
ministry, and hearing them familiarly used in various
connections, his congregation soon compreheixi


their force and meaning, and listen to their pastor
with increasing satisfaction. It often happens, that
a preacher is much better liked at home, than abroad ;
and better too, than those with whom he exchanges,
simply because he is better understood ; and he is
better understood for the reason which I have just
given. He may not be half so good a writer or rca-
soner as the minister of the next parish, and yet im-
part more available instruction at home on any given
sabbath, than his more gifted brother could, by an
exchange of pulpits. It is delightful to find a pastor
more popular among his own people than any other.
It proves that he has won their hearts, and that they
have learned to appreciate his merits.

I have still another argument to offer in favor of
ministers statedly occupying their own pulpits. It
secures the undivided attention of their congregations
to the great truths which they are commissioned to
preach. By seeing the form and countenance, and
hearing the voice, from sabbath to sabbath, of one
who teaches " good doctrine," we soon forget the
extraneous circumstances of style and manner, and
find our attention fixed upon the subject matter of
his discourses. If we know him well, and have con-
fidence in him as a humble and devoted servant of
his Divine Master ; if we believe he preaches the
truth ; if his sermons are characterized by deep
seriousness and good sense, and there is notliing
decidedly repulsive in his manner, we think little or
nothing of the man. Our thouglits are upon his
message. lie seems to us not as an orator ; not as a
master of rhetoric or of logic, but as an " ambassador


for Christ," and we have heard him so long, that we
hardly know or care whether he is an accomplished
or an ordinary speaker.

But how is it, when we hear half as many new
preachers as there are sabbaths in the year ? When
we see a stranger in the pulpit, our curiosity is exci-
ted. Our attention is diverted, at least in some de-
gree, from the message to the man. Before we are
aware of it, perhaps, we find ourselves either admir-
ing or criticising his style and manner of delivery,
when our thoughts ought to be absorbed in the sub-
ject. The orator or the homely speaker stands be-
tween us and the truth. We go away to applaud or
condemn, and thus lose about as much in one case as
the other. If a minister were to exchange often
with the same brother, or with but two or three of
his nearest neighbors, the evil would not be so great,
because the novelty would soon wear off. But where
a pastor exchanges a great deal, and takes pains to
gratify those of his congregation who have " itching
ears," by giving them as great a variety as he can, he
is sure in the long run, (and not very long either,)
to make them dissatisfied with more than half the
men they hear, and with himself among the rest.
The prevailing habit will be, not to hear the word of
the Lord and carry it home from sabbath to sabbath,
to be made the subject of conversation, meditation
and prayer, but to institute comparisons, to treasure
up and quote brilliant passages, and to point out de-
fects in style, arrangement, delivery, &c. &c.

It is hardly necessary to add, that all the objections,
which he against frequent exchanges, might be urged


with equal force against depending on casual assis-
tance. I have known ministers, who, instead of
going into the study and preparing for the sabbath,
would be anxiously looking out all the week for some-
body to come along, and thus bring themselves into
great straits by Saturday niglit, especially if they had
heard that Dr. or Mr. such a one was expected.
They depended upon it, and what could they do,
when thrown back, as they would often be, upon
their own resources, or rather upon their own empti-
ness. But I will suppose a pastor to be so situated,
that he can rely with confidence upon having a great
deal of casual help, without putting himself at all
out of the way to seek it. Is it best, either for him
or his people, that he should step aside one half or
one third of the time, and let strangers occupy his
pulpit ? I answer, no ; and for the reasons which
have been already given. Let him generally preach
himself, whoever may happen to be in town. Per-
haps I shall be told, that this will not do ; and I know
very well, that there are exceptions to this as well as
every other general rule. Cases will occur, in which
you cannot help inviting brethren from abroad to ad-
dress your people, and in which you ought to be ex-
tremely thankful for their assistance. AVliat I mean
to insist upon is, that the best interests of your
church and congregation require you to be the stated
preacher. Others may be in town and able to preach ;
and what is more, be very able preachers ; but what
if they are ? It often happens, that having worn
themselves down with hard work at home, they are
taking short excursions to recruit, and ought not to


be asked, much less urged to do anything : and that
preacher must be exceedingly anxious to " show his
gifts," who does not prefer now and then to hear
others, rather than officiate himself. The men, whom
you are most likely to offend by not asking them, are
the weaker brethren ; and though you ought to be
tender of their feelings, you may not sacrifice the
spiritual interests of your flock to attest the sincerity
of your ministerial fellowship.

While on this topic, let me throw out a caution
against taking every man for a regular minister, and
as worthy of being introduced into your pulpit, who
puts on the clerical garb, and claims to be received
and listened to as a christian teacher. There are
empirics and impostors in the sacred profession, as
well as in others. Men thrust themselves into the
ministry, who are entirely destitute of the most
essential qualifications, and some of them are so ex-
tremely plausible in their pretensions, that " if it were
possible they would deceive the very elect." When
a stranger calls to spend the sabbath, however well
he may appear, before you invite him to preach, ask
him for his testimonials. If he is what he claims to
be, a minister in good standing, he will most cheer-
fully produce them, or rather he will anticipate you
by presenting them at once, before you have time to
ask for them. If his papers are not explicit and
satisfactory, or if they emanate from a questionable
source, he is not the man to be introduced into your
pulpit. It would perliaps be a great relief to have
help. The state of your health may earnestly plead
for it, and some of your friends may urge you to


accept it for once, though every tiling is not so regu-
lar as your could wish. But it will not do. You are
answerable to God for a strait forward course. He
expects you to guard the door of your pulpit against
all intruders. If you are unable to occupy it and no
good brother can help you, shut it up. If you are
but poorly prepared, do as well as you can ; but give
no countenance to any one who would " climb up
some other way."

Without taking back any thing which I have said
in regard to ministerial exchanges, I am now pre-
pared, my dear E., to relieve your mind by expres-
sing my approbation of every reasonable and neces-
sary indulgence. I would not shut you up from the
beginning of the year to the end of it, if you could
sustain the labor just as well as not. It is right and
proper, that you should occasionally preach to other
congregations, and that your brethren should come
and preach to yours. It promotes good feeling, and
strengthens the bonds of christian fellowship. Kept
within due bounds, exchanges are no doubt profitable
both to ministers and people. And then young
pastors must have occasional relief, in one way or
another, from their studies. They cannot prepare two
good sermons every week, year in and year out.
Here and there a highly gifted preacher might do it
perhaps ; but the majority would break down under
the labor. When they find themselves exhausted,
they must relax and help one another. This they
can do by exchanges, and so far as it is necessary, their
people ought to be satisfied, and even to encourage
it. How frequently you may need the indulgence


now in the commencement of your ministry, it is im-
possible for me to say, and no universal rule can be
given. I should hope not more than once or twice in
a month and less frequently, as you become more
accustomed to writing sermons. Something will de-
pend upon the demands of your congregation. If
they set up a very high standard, and are not willing
to hear some plain and ordinary discourses, and you
think it a duty to yield to their wishes, you must ex-
change the oftener. But if they leave the matter
with you to do the best you can, as I presume they
will so long as they see that you are active and labori-
ous in your sacred calling, you will in the course of
three or four years find it about as easy to preach at
home as to go abroad upon exchanges.

But when, after long experience and habit, should
God be pleased to spare your life, you find yourself
quite at ease, and rather averse to going from home, do
not forget your younger brethren. They will need
the same assistance and indulgences which you do
now. Deem it no hardship to put yourself to con-
siderable inconvenience, if need be, for their accom-
modation. It is brotherly. It is required by the
golden rule. It will be remembered with gratitude,
when you are in your grave. I am sure, I shall al-
ways remember the kindness of a venerable father
in the neighborhood of my first parish. It was no
accommodation to him to exchange, but tire contrary.
He loved his home and his own pulpit better than
any other place. But when I got into trouble, as I
sometimes did, and felt that I had nothing to say to
my own people which was worth their hearing, I


always knew where to go for help. I was sure of
being- received as a son *•' in the gospel," and that he
would make the desired exchange, whatever person-
al inconvenience it might cost him.

Before closing this letter, I have a word to say-
about exchanging with men, whose avowed senti-
ments you regard as fundamentally erroneous, or who
studiously conceal their real sentiments from motives
of policy. Exchanging pulpits is an act of minis-
terial fellowship. Whenever you invite a preacher to
occupy your place, you virtually say to your church
and congregation, that you have confidence in him as
a man of correct theological opinions, and a true ser-
vant of the Lord Jesus Christ. For the time being,
you confide their immortal interests to his keeping.
You, as it were, endorse for him. You bid him "God
speed." If he teaches error, you are answerable for
it. And if his discourses amount to nothing one
way or the other, you are answerable. Life is too
short, every soul commended to your pastoral care is
too precious, to lose a single sabbath. That identical
sabbath may be the last, that some anxious or care-
less sinner has to spend on earth.

It would alter the case very little, were the known
errorist, who solicits an exchange, to stipulate, that
he would not touch at all upon points, in which you
disagree, nor say anything against which you could
object. Suppose he should not ; suppose he should
deliver as excellent moral discourses, as any one
could wish to hear. Still you know him to hold sen-
timents which you look upon as fatal. Your church
knows it; your congregation knows it, and will


they not infer, that there cannot after all be any es-
sential difference between your opinions and his.
" Surely," they will say, "surely 'our pastor who is
so watchful over our religious interests, would never
have made the exchange, had he believed this man
to be a heretic."

Nor, finally, would it mend the matter to say, that
the man, with whom you exchange, has never come
out and declared himself. Strange as it may seem to
you, this plea has been used by ministers of high
standing in professedly evangelical churches. I do
not know that it is used now. I hope the day is
past. They were not sure, they said, that the preach-
ers, with whom they sometimes exchanged, had em-
braced what they considered fundamental errors, be-
cause they had no proof of an explicit avowal. But
they did know, that these preachers were generally
understood to have repudiated some of the essential
doctrines of the gospel, and yet they continued to
extend to them the right hand of fellowship. If you
have any reason to suspect that your neighbor, who
solicits an exchange of ministerial labors, is not sound
in the faith, pause and let that doubt be removed be-
fore you give an affirmative answer.

I am very affectionately, &c.



My Dear E.

I have a few more things to say on the subject
of exchanges, which I could not find room for in my
last letter. Whenever you go into a brother's pul-
pit, let it be your great aim to do all the good
you can. Ministers are apt to be tempted, when they
exchange, to select and preach their ablest and most
popular sermons. Were it right for the servants of
Christ to have a supreme regard to their own reputa-
tion as scholars, or theologians, they might be com-
mended for their good judgment in these selections.
But if it ought to be their grand object to " win souls "
by their preaching, abroad as well as at home, then
this governing motive should determine them in the
choice of subjects. Every preacher knows, or ought
to know, that the discourses, which have cost him the
most study, and show the most logical acumen or
literary taste, are not always best adapted to the ap-
prehension and spiritual wants of a common audi-
ence. By preparing a few sermons witli great care
for exchanges, you might perhaps raise yourself, in
the estimation of cultivated minds abroad, somewhat
higher than by plain exhibitions of the truth, and di-
rect appeals to the conscience. But if you intend
not to preach yourself, but " Jesus Christ and him
crucified ;" if your " heart's desire" is, '' to save them
that hear you," as well in another's congregation as


your own, you will take those discourses along with

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Online LibraryHeman HumphreyThirty-four letters to a son in the ministry → online text (page 11 of 22)