My First Sermon
By Timothy Shay Arthur
The long looked-for and nervously-anticipated day came. I was to preach my first sermon! It was one of the purest, brightest, calmest of June Sabbaths. Just three days before, a letter had come to me from a young clergyman, settled in a small village twenty miles distant by rail:
"Dear Mr. Arthur, I am sick. A severe cold, taken while officiating at a funeral, has produced hoarseness and a cough. The Doctor says there is considerable inflammation of the throat, and that I must intermit at least one Sabbath service. Your welcome favor of two weeks ago should have been answered earlier but many things prevented. I need not say how much gratified I was to learn that you had received a license to preach. Come down on Saturday and fill my pulpit for me next Sabbath. I will take no denial, understand. One thing I can promise you, and that is, a kind as well as an appreciative audience."
How my heart fluttered! I was inwardly pleased, yet disturbed by the invitation. It gave me just the opportunity I had desired. In literary societies, I had sought honors as a debater, and on two occasions had written and pronounced public addresses. But in the graver matter of preaching a sermon, I was yet to be tried. Several discourses had already been written, and I had only to make my selection from these, and, with manuscript in my pocket, take the coach on Saturday, and stand ready to occupy my friend's place in the pulpit on Sunday.
Promptly sending an affirmative answer, in which were introduced sundry depreciating and doubtful passages touching myself, I entered at once upon the not very easy task of deciding which of my half dozen sermons would best impress the congregation before whom I was to appear, with a due sense of my literary and oratorical powers. I am on the confessional, and must tell the truth. Not that I, consciously, set this end before me. Far from it. I even flattered myself that a sole desire to become the medium of good to others ruled in my soul. But I did not know the human heart then as well as I know it now.
The selection of a sermon was at last made, but not till the whole six had been read over, some for the third time. The few more than usually eloquent passages in the one finally taken, really decided the choice. I would have been indignant then, had anyone hinted such a thing, and felt that my indignation was just. How little we know ourselves! How deeply hidden often are our springs of action!
I was up until after twelve o'clock on Saturday night, talking with my friend and arranging the order of service for the next day. I felt very much excited, exhilarated almost; the higher velocity attained by the machinery of my mind, giving thought a buoyancy and clearness above the ordinary state. Is it to be wondered that I was self-confident? That I felt myself wholly equal to the occasion?
Sleep rested on my eyelids during the morning-watches for only brief seasons, and unable to lie in bed longer, I arose with the sun, and spent the time that intervened until the breakfast hour in going over my sermon again, and studying certain effective passages which I hoped to render in a way which could not fail to move the audience.
Something in my appearance, when I met my friend at the breakfast-table, caused him to look at me with just a shadow of concern on his face.
"I'm afraid we were up too late," he remarked. "Did you sleep soundly after you went to bed?"
"Not very soundly," I replied. "This is a new experience for me, and, of course, I feel a little nervous. Thought gets so busy, sometimes, that it will not yield to sleep. Still, I feel very well, and shall make up for lost sleeping-time tonight."
"There is no occasion whatever for being nervous," answered my friend, smiling. "You have your discourse all written out, your eyesight is good, and you are an effective reader. Trust to these, and keep fast hold of your self. Above all, let your thought rest in the truths to which you give utterance, so that yon can feel their significance. Truly effective speaking, comes from the heart which is all alive with its theme. Forget everything but your subject."
No better advice could have been given; the difficulty lay in making it the rule of action on this occasion. Considering my state of mind, that was a simple impossibility; for I was ambitious to do well, to make a favorable impression, to extort admiration. Poor human nature! shall I expose your weakness still further? Shall I lift the veil a little higher? It may be well, for the day of humiliation is past. Even as I dwelt in imagination on the eloquent manner with which this my first sermon was to be delivered — for, with all my nervousness, I felt great confidence in my ability to impress an audience. A suggestion of the contrast likely to be drawn between me and my pastor friend, unfavorable to him of course — was thrown into my mind. Did I cast it out instantly? Push it aside as an unseemly thing? Not so! It was dwelt upon and referred to, over and over again, even until the thought of being called to fill his place was reached, and I became aware of a pleasant excitement of feeling.
I was rather startled at this discovery, but not deeply shocked at the time. Simply turning myself away from the thought, instead of attempting to exorcise it as an evil, I let my mind again dwell on the manner and address I was to assume in the pulpit.
I was in my room, and in the act of studying a passage in my sermon, with a view to its effective delivery, when the bell rang for church. The first peal made my heart leap. Folding my manuscript hurriedly, I went downstairs, where I found my friend and his wife awaiting me. We had to walk about an eighth of a mile, along the outskirts of the town, and through streets shaded by great elms, which made them seem like rural avenues, and where June had spread her mantle of green, embroidered all over with richest flowers. But the peace of nature did not fall upon my soul. There was no echo to the singing birds in my heart. The blossoms for me sent forth their odors in vain. I was thinking only of myself — looking only at the image of myself as I stood up, in imagination, before the people.
As we neared the church, and I saw group after group approaching the vestibule and entering, a weight began to settle down upon my bosom which I vainly tried to throw off by deep-drawn inspirations. As my friend nodded and spoke to one parishioner after another, I noted the curious glances that were cast upon me. Of course, it was known that a stranger would preach on that morning, and, of course, I was recognized as that stranger. What impression did I make? Yes, that was the thought I permitted to come in through some unguarded door.
We entered the vestry room, my friend and I, and from thence passed up to the pulpit. The organ commenced playing as we took our seats side by side on the sofa just behind the reading-desk. Every eye in the assembly was upon me. I strove to repress the unquiet beating of my heart, to still the low tremor which shook along my nerves, to forget everything but the duty I was there to perform.
A few minutes, and then the rich swells and tender harmonies of the organ died away, and there followed a deep silence. My time had come! Rising, I advanced, with that slow and solemn manner which I thought befitting the place and occasion, to the desk. Opening the Bible, I read a brief psalm. At first I scarcely knew the sound of my own voice; but I soon had it under control, and executed the portion of Holy Writ quite to my satisfaction.
A hymn-reading came next. Few clergymen read poetry well. I don't know why it is, unless they are generally deficient in imagination. Being a little vain of my skill in this line, I laid myself out on the hymn. The words were so familiar that I had no occasion to look down upon the book; nevertheless I, affecting to catch the lines by quick glances at the page before me, and then lifting my eyes, sometimes upward and sometimes to the range of my audience, would recite them with all the elocutionary skill at my command.
In the midst of this performance, I noticed an intelligent-looking man, whom I had already felt a desire to impress, glance sideways at a lady with a half-amused expression on his face. It was a dash of ice-water on my enthusiasm. Against ridicule I have no armor. On that side, I have always been weak. Was I making myself ridiculous! The thought stung me like an adder. I was only half through the hymn. How the balance was read, I cannot remember. Not with much effect, I am sure. The congregation, if not amused at the contrast of styles, must have been struck with the sudden change in my way of reading.
The prayer came next. It was to be extempore. I had laid myself out for this important part of the services, carefully committing to memory devotional passages previously written down, which might be uttered with the most pious fervency. Nothing finer, I was sure, had ever been addressed to that congregation. But, alas for my eloquent prayer! That single meaning glance had taken all the conceit out of me. I had no more heart for display. The stage terror, of which actors speak, had seized upon me. Instead of an appreciating and admiring audience — I felt that I was in the presence of unmerciful critics. All my eloquent sentences were forgotten, and I stumbled, almost helplessly, through a series of disconnected petitions, with scarcely an idea of the God I was addressing in all my thoughts.
How weak, and broken in spirit, and humbled I was, when I arose from my knees, and in a subdued voice, read a psalm for the singers to chant. It was a relief to get back again on the sofa beside my friend, even for the short interval between the choir-singing and the sermon.
I know that my face must have been pale when I stood up again, and opened the manuscript sermon I was to read. My hand shook as I turned the first page. My mouth was dry and clammy; and there was a great obstruction in my throat constantly rising and threatening to choke me. All self-confidence was gone; and in my weakness, and almost despair, I looked upward and prayed for sustaining power. My voice, which in the opening chapter and hymn had been pitched to a somewhat elevated key, dropped now to so low a range as I commenced reading my discourse, that I noticed some in the distant pews leaning forward to listen, while an almost unnatural stillness pervaded the whole assembly.
It was impossible to recover myself, and just as impossible to get my thoughts into any appreciable comprehension of my subject. I read, and read, in a dull, unsympathetic way, conscious of no outflow from the people, yet hurrying on in order to get through the unprofitable task as quickly as possible, and away from the hurting gaze of a thousand arrowy eyes.
The last page was finished at last. I sat down, weak — in a tremor — overcome with sense of humiliation — and remained motionless, with my eyes on the floor, until my friend gave out the closing hymn, and pronounced the benediction. Then I shrank away from the pulpit, and descended to the session room, into which a few of the leading members of the church came, and to whom I was introduced. No one seemed very cordial — that was my impression — certainly no one complimented me on my performance, or even referred to it. On our way back to the parsonage, both my friend and his wife were silent as to the sermon. He tried to talk cheerfully on a theme outside of theology, but I could only respond in monosyllables.
I had failed miserably, and there was no glossing it over. I had failed through self-conceit, and the effort to act instead of preach. On arriving at the parsonage, I went immediately to my room, where I sat down and gave way to unmanly tears. That was, I think, the bitterest hour I have known in my whole life. I resolved to give up my license, and abandon all thought of preaching. To eschew forever a profession in which, at my first attempt, I had won, as I believed, only contempt.
I would gladly have excused myself, when the bell rang for dinner, on the plea of a headache, which had set in, and lack of appetite; but this would be attracting more attention to myself than was desirable. So I joined my friend and his wife at the table. In spite of their kind and hospitable natures, they could not rise out of a certain embarrassment which in no way helped my unhappy state. No reference whatever was made to the morning services. How could they speak of these? Truth kept them from compliments or approval — and tenderness for my feelings, kept them from suggestive criticism.
That evening, as I sat alone with my friend in his study, I broke through the ice of reserve which had hardened between us since morning, and said, with a bitterness of tone which I did not try to veil,
"I shall give up my preaching license!"
"Why so, Mr. Arthur?" he asked, in manifest surprise, yet with the old kind interest in his voice.
"Simply," I answered, "because I have mistaken my calling."
He dropped his eyes in reflection for some moments.
"I am not so sure of that," was his gravely spoken reply, as he looked up again into my face.
"You have eyes and ears. My performance is before you, and you are as well aware as I am, that it was a wretched failure, alike discreditable to me and the profession I disgraced," said I, with considerable excitement of manner.
"You did not do as well as I expected, Mr. Arthur," was frankly returned, "and simply because you tried to do too well, failed, became conscious of failure, and broke down. You started at too high a speed. A preacher, Mr. Arthur, to be successful, must forget himself in his high calling — must preach truth with the end of saving souls — and not to display his talents."
"As I, this morning, endeavored to do," I answered, with much bitterness.
"There are few young preachers, Mr. Arthur," my friend said, kindly, "who do not, in the beginning, fall into the same error."
"But not into the same degree of error. Oh, have I not been sharply punished! How could I have been so blind to my real state! How was it that I dared go into the pulpit, as an actor goes upon the stage, with no higher end than to play a character!"
"If you had no higher end," was replied, with a seriousness of tone that almost expressed rebuke, "then it is well that failure instead of success crowned your effort. But in your present state of mind, it is natural to accept an exaggerated view of the case."
"Be that as it may," I returned, "my future course is settled. I have preached my first sermon, and my last one also."
My friend looked at me calmly for some time; then he said:
"The motive from which a man acts, gives the quality of his action."
I did not reply, and he went on:
"Instead of turning back in the way you have entered, Mr. Arthur, let me suggest, as the first thing to be done, an examination into the motives which prompted you to set your feet in this way. Was it from a desire to serve your fellow-man in the highest possible degree; or to secure a position for yourself and to win honorable distinction? Don't let this examination be any half-way performance. Go down into the very depths of your soul. Find out just what you are, as to main-springs of action. And if, through the painful experiences of today, you are led into a fuller knowledge of yourself, the hand of a kind Providence may be traced in the confusion which befell you this morning. Reflect for a moment. There was no lack of personal ability, nor of preparation. Your sermon was quite above the average of sermons, and would have been listened to with interest and instruction, if it had been even passably delivered. You have a good voice, and can read effectively. It was your thought of yourself which ruined everything. Your overweening desire to do well — not for the sake of good to others, but praise to yourself.
"Now, as a brother, I would admonish you in all love and duty. Put away hindrances which stand in the way; but as you value your soul, do not turn aside from the way. The present is an hour of sore temptation, in which the quality of your life is, as it were, on trial. The Tempter has flowed in with your natural love of doing well and appearing well, and drawn you into slippery places — that he may cast you down. The best, Mr. Arthur, fall into temptation. All have inherited forms of evil — you of one kind, I of another; and unless we are tempted by evil, we cannot know of its existence, nor put it away. But when the hour of temptation comes, let us beware that we do not fall in the struggle; for if we do, then will our last state be worse than the first. Don't, then, give your adversary the advantage he is seeking. Don't, at his suggestion, turn back from the work to which you were about consecrating your life; but sweeping aside, in the strength of a divinely-inspired purpose, all weaknesses of the flesh — all hindrances that unregenerate human nature throws in the way — press toward the mark for the prize of your high calling."
"You have saved me!" I exclaimed, overcome by the emotions which now swept over me; for I saw myself as I had never seen myself before, and trembled as I looked into the abyss on which my feet were standing.
On the next morning I returned home a little wiser and a great deal sadder than when I went forth — thinking only of myself and the impression I would make — to preach my first sermon. It was the last I ever gave in my friend's pulpit, though not the last of my preaching — as witness some thirty years of, I trust, not wholly unfruitful labor in the vineyard of God. He did not venture upon a second invitation, for which I could not find it in my heart to blame him.