An Earnest Ministry—the Need of the Times

John Angell James, 1847


This must by no means be omitted. The pulpit is the chief—but not the only, sphere of pastoral solicitude and action—just as preaching is God's first—but not his exclusive, means of saving souls. Many ministers have fallen into one or other of two opposite mistakes; one class have thought to do everything in the pulpit as preachers, while they have neglected the duties of the pastor; the others have purposed to do everything as pastors—but have neglected the diligent preparation of their sermons. Of the two errors the latter is the more mischievous, inasmuch as no pastoral devotedness, however intense, will long keep together a congregation, much less collect one, when the preaching is indifferent and unattractive. While on the other hand, good preaching will of itself do much even in the absence of pastoral attentions to keep the flock from being scattered.

But why should not both extremes be avoided? Good preaching and good shepherding are quite compatible with each other, and he who is in earnest will combine both. He will be a watchman for souls everywhere, and seek if by any and by all means he can save some. He can never entirely lay aside his concern for the objects of his regard, and is ever ready to manifest it on all suitable occasions. His sermons are composed and delivered for this object, and he is afterwards inquisitive for the effect they have produced, and watches and prays for the result. His anxious eye is searching the congregation, even while preaching, to see, not who is delighted—but who is seriously impressed. He will not, cannot, be content to go on, without ascertaining whether or not his sermons are successful. Like a good physician, who is watchful for the effect of his medicines upon his patients individually, according to their specific varieties of disease, he will endeavor to ascertain the impression which his sermons have produced on particular people. He will aim to attract to him the anxious inquirers after salvation, and for this purpose will have special meetings for them, will invite and encourage their attendance, will cause them to feel that they are most welcome, and by his tender, faithful, and appropriate treatment of their cases, will make them sensible that they are as truly the objects of deep interest to him as lambs are to the good shepherd. And though he will very naturally wish not to be too frequently broken in upon in his private studies by those to whom he has appointed set times for meeting him, yet a poor burdened trembling penitent will never find him engaged too deeply or delightfully in study, to heal his broken heart, and to bind up his wounds.

It is really distressing to know how little time some ministers are willing to give up from their favorite pursuits, even for relieving the solicitudes of an anxious mind. They read much, and perhaps as the result, preach well-composed, though possibly not very awakening, sermons; but as for any skill, or even taste, for dealing with convinced sinners, wounded consciences, and perplexed minds, they are as destitute of them as if they were no part of their duty. They resemble lecturers on medicine, rather than practitioners; or they are like physicians who would assemble all their patients able to attend, in the same room, and then give general directions about health and sickness to all alike—but would not inquire into their several ailments, or visit them at their own abodes, or adapt the treatment to their individual and specific disease. It is admitted that some men have less tact, and a still greater destitution of taste, than others, for this department of pastoral action; but some skill in it, and some attention to it, are the duty of every minister, and may be acquired by all—and no man can be in earnest without it.

He who can only generalize in the pulpit—but has no ability to individualize out of it; who cannot in some measure meet the varieties of religious perplexity, and deal with the various modifications of awakened solicitude; who finds himself disinclined or disabled to guide the troubled conscience through the labyrinths which sometimes meet the sinner in the first stage of his pilgrimage to the skies, may be a popular preacher—but he is little fitted to be the pastor of a Christian church. One half-hour's conversation with a convinced but perplexed person may do more to correct mistakes, to convey instruction, to relieve solicitude, and to settle the wavering in faith and peace than ten sermons. True it requires much love for souls, much devotedness to their salvation, and much concern for the success of our ministry, to devote that half-hour to one solitary inquirer after life eternal; but surely no really earnest minister will think his time ill bestowed in guiding that single inquirer into the way of peace.

This individualising labor is more easily carried on and is indeed more important to pastoral success in some situations than in others. In small congregations, for instance, especially when they are found in our lesser towns or villages, the objects of such special attention come more under the notice of a pastor, are more accessible, and can have more time given to them, than in large congregations in more considerable towns. To these smaller churches, individuals, though not of more importance or value in themselves, since the soul and its salvation are of equal worth everywhere, are of more consequence to the comfort of the minister, and the prosperity of the cause, than they are where a crowd is gathered. Pastors of large churches are much more occupied, both with the concerns of their own flock, and with public business, than their brethren in more retired situations, and are often so much engaged and hurried as to have too little leisure for the individual attentions now recommended; and they are perhaps apt, through having to do with large congregations, to think too little of the individual people. Still some excuse may be made for them, of which others cannot avail themselves. The accession even occasionally of only a single member to our smaller churches is felt to be of more importance, and produces a more reviving and cheering effect, than the addition of several to the larger ones. We have all something to learn even from the Scribes and Pharisees of ancient times, who compassed sea and land to make one proselyte; and also from the Papists of modern times, who pursue a like course—or to change the example, we need more of the benevolent disposition of angels, who rejoice over one sinner who repents.

No efforts would be more likely to be successful, none would more amply reward those who would make them, than selection of the most hopeful individuals in the congregation, and following them up with all the assiduities of special, affectionate, and judicious attention. Such a course of pastoral labor, though it would not altogether be a substitute for pulpit attractiveness, and should never be allowed to supersede the most diligent pulpit preparation, would enable many a minister, not gifted with large abilities, to retain a strong hold upon his flock. This is a line in which almost any one may carry on a career of earnestness.

Another object of pastoral obligation may be mentioned, attention to the young—and they may be divided into two classes, those belonging to the congregation, and those belonging to the Sunday-schools. With regard to the former, it is a matter of congratulation, that the modern plan of Bible-classes is not infrequent nor unsuccessful—but even at this time, it is rather the exception than the rule. It may be feared that there are some who from the beginning to the end of the year, yes, and of their ministry also, take no interest in the youth of their congregations; they have no catechetical classes, no Bible-classes, and even rarely preach to the young. Who can wonder that such men have to complain that their young people go off to other denominations, or what is far worse, to the world? What have they ever done to attach them to themselves, or to their place of worship? Let no man be surprised that his congregation, diminished by death and removals, continually declines, if he neglects to call around him the youth of his flock. Whence does the shepherd look for his future flock—but from the lambs? And who are to constitute our future congregations and churches—but our young people!

I am an advocate also for the catechetical instruction of the younger children, and am sorry that this admirable method of imparting religious truth has fallen into such general disuse. Even the Bible class, however accommodated to the capacity of the junior members of our congregation, is not altogether a substitute for the practice of catechizing—but should be regarded only as an addition to it. There is still a great desire for our denomination, and their thanks would be pre-eminently due to the man who should supply it; I mean a set of well-composed catechisms, which might be introduced into all our families and institute a uniform system of religious instruction throughout the body. I say which might be introduced into all our families; for it is by no means my wish or my intention to obtrude the pastor between the parent and child, and take the religious instruction from natural guardians and teachers, to devolve it upon the pastor. It is to parents that the injunction is delivered, "you shall teach these words to your children diligently, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house," and, "bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." No pastoral attention should be intended, nor can be adapted, to supersede or interfere with this solemn parental obligation. But the pastor should labor to the uttermost to urge and keep the parents of his flock up to the right discharge of their duty.

There are few of us who are not sorrowfully convinced that little is to be expected from our sermons in the pulpit, or our instructions in the class-room, while all our endeavors are so miserably counteracted by the neglect of domestic instruction, and the lack of parental solicitude. It is not intended to justify pastoral neglect by advancing the obligations of parental duty, for perhaps we all have been, and are, guilty of a criminal defect of duty, in not giving more of our time and attention to the children of our congregations; but even the time and attention we do give, is likely to be lost, through the low state of godliness in the homes of some of our people. We might very naturally expect that our churches would be chiefly built up from the families of our members; whereas the greater number of accessions are from those who were once the people of the world. There is a great mistake on this subject, into which both parents and ministers have fallen; and that is, that the conversion of the children of the professor is to be looked for more from the sermons of the minister, than from the instructions of the parent; whereas the contrary is the true order of things; and if domestic piety and teaching were what they ought to be, it is the order which would be found to exist.

There is unquestionable truth in the proverb, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." Were the nature and design of the domestic constitution thoroughly understood, and its religious duties early, judiciously, affectionately, and perseveringly discharged—the greater number of our young people would be converted to God at home. Were all religious professors who are parents, real and eminent Christians; were they, from the time they became parents, to set their hearts upon being the instruments of their children's conversion; were they to do all that prayer, instruction, discipline, and example could do, for the formation of the godly character of their offspring; and were they carefully to abstain from everything which would obstruct that end—it might be confidently expected that it would be within the hallowed precincts of such homes, and not in the sanctuary, that the children of the godly would usually become godly themselves.

It should then be, and will be, an object with every truly earnest pastor, to bring up the parents in his church to a right sense and faithful discharge of their functions. He will labor to impress upon them the solemn obligations under which they live—to train up their children for God. It will be a matter of prayer and solicitude with him to excite them to their duty, and to keep them in it. For this purpose he will not only bring his pulpit ministrations to bear much upon parental obligations—but he will make a point of visiting the families connected with his church, to pray with them, and to hold up the hands of the parents in this godly duty.

Deeply is it to be regretted that this part of pastoral occupation, as well as catechizing, has disappeared amid the bustle and engrossing power of trade, and the public business of modern religious institutions. How little do the families know of us in the character and hallowed familiarity of the pastor! When are we seen amid the domestic circle as the respected and beloved minister of that lovely and interesting group, laboring, by our affectionate, serious, and solemn discourse, and by prayer as serious, solemn, and affectionate—to entwine ourselves round the young hearts which there look up to us with reverent regard? Why, why do we neglect such important scenes of labor, such hopeful efforts for usefulness? What power would this give to our sermons, and what efficacy to our ministrations! These young ones would grow up to love us, and it would not be a light or little thing which would break them off from our ministry when we had produced in them such a personal attachment to ourselves. But then we must take especial care that our conduct in the houses of our people should be such as to give weight and influence to their religious instruction of the family, and to ours in the sanctuary. We must be known there as the servants of God, the ministers of Christ, the watchmen for souls; and not merely as the table-guests, the parlour jesters, the gossiping story-tellers, the debating politicians, the stormy polemics, the bitter sectarians; much less as the lovers of wine.

(When will the ministers and members of our churches begin generally to inquire, whether it is not expedient for them, if not for their own sakes, yet for the sake of the community, to discontinue altogether the use of intoxicating liquors! When it is considered that one-half of the insanity, two-thirds of the abject poverty, and three-fourths of the crime, of our country, are to be traced up to drunkenness; that more than £60,000,000 are annually expended in destructive beverages; that myriads annually die the drunkard's death and descend still lower than the drunkard's grave; that thousands of church members are every year cut off from Christian fellowship for inebriety; that every minister of the gospel has to complain of the hindrance to his usefulness from this cause; and that more ministers are disgraced by this than by any other habit; that, in short, more misery and more crime flow over society from this source than from any other, war and slavery not excepted; and that by the highest medical authorities these intoxicating drinks are altogether banned—it surely does behoove every professor of godliness to ask whether it is not incumbent upon him, both for his own safety and for the good of his fellow creatures, to abstain from this pernicious indulgence. Professors of godliness, ponder this—and will you not by abstaining from a luxury lend the aid of your example to discountenance this monster crime and monster misery? It is in the power, and therefore is it not the duty, of the Christian church to do thus much to stop this evil, which sends more people to the mad-house, the jail, the prisons, and the gallows, more bodies to the grave, and more souls to the bottomless pit—than any other that can be mentioned? Can the church be in earnest until it is prepared to make this sacrifice?)

Would to God that those of my brethren who have acquired the habit of smoking, if they will not leave it off, would abstain from the practice in the houses of their friends, and confine it to their own—and not permit the inquisitive eyes of the junior members of the families which they visit, to see the pipe brought out as their necessary adjunct. Did they know the regrets of their best friends, and consider the power of their example, they would, at any rate, so far abstain as to wait until they had reached their own habitation, before they indulged themselves in their accustomed gratification. Still, it is freely conceded, without justifying this habit, there are some who are addicted to it, so grave, serious, and dignified in other respects, as to furnish by their general demeanor an antidote against their example in this particular.

But what antidote can be found to neutralize the mischief inflicted by the levity and frivolity of the parlour-buffoon, whose highest object in going to the houses of his friends, seems to be to tell a merry story, and to excite a hearty laugh? In his hands and lips the pages of "Punch" are far more in place, as they are, perhaps, far more frequently seen, than those of David, Isaiah, or Paul. Happily we have very few that go to this extreme of lightness and frivolity—but we have far too many, (as is the case with all denominations, and with ours not more than others,) whose hilarity is destructive at once of their dignity, their seriousness, and their usefulness, as ministers of Christ. Not that I contend for pretended demureness, and solemn grimace, or even perpetual sermonizing conversation; as if a pastor could not talk, without violating official decorum, upon any topic but godliness, and were letting down his dignity, or desecrating his sanctity, if he joined in ordinary conversation, and partook of, or even helped, the cheerfulness of the circle. By no means—he is not to appear like a spectre that has escaped from the cloister, to haunt the parlour, striking every face with paleness, and every tongue with silence. He is a man, a citizen, and a friend, as well as a minister; and has a stake and an interest in the great questions which occupy human minds, and engage their conversation—and provided he does not forget what is due to his pastoral character, he need not throw off what belongs to him in common with others. No, his very cheerfulness may be made a part of his earnestness, by being taken up and employed as a means to conciliate the affections of all around him.

The man who is seriously cheerful, who engages in general conversation, and accommodates himself to the innocent habits of those with whom he associates, and does this in order really to do them spiritual good, and aid him in the great work of saving their souls, will find in the sublimity and sanctity of his end, a sufficient protection from abusing the means. This is widely different from the unchecked levity and unrestrained frivolity in which some indulge, and which make it difficult to imagine how they can feel the value of souls, or the obligation of attempting their salvation. Howard at a masquerade, or Clarkson at a fancy ball, would not have been more out of place—a physician who has just come from the ravages of the plague, and was immediately going back to them, would not be more out of character, if he was seen wasting his time and amusing himself with the tricks of a clown, than is a messenger of God's mercy, and a preacher of Christ's gospel, in the circles of folly and vanity—and he himself the mockery of the party.

But I now advert for a few moments to the pastor's earnestness to the children of the Sunday-school. By a most fatal error, too many of our ministers deem those institutions as either beyond their duties, or below their notice. A pastor is, or ought to be, the head and chief of each department of religious instruction established in the congregation under his care. He is the teacher, the superintendent, and the party responsible for the religious knowledge, of all the flock, and the Sunday-school is a part of it. A wrong state of things has grown up among some of us Dissenters, for two, three or four hundred rational minds and immortal souls are brought every week to our Sunday-schools, and to our places of worship, for the very purpose of receiving religious instruction; and yet all is carried on without its being once thought by the pastor that he has any obligation to attend to it; or by the congregation or the teachers, that he has by virtue of his office a right and a reason to interfere in it. In most cases the pastor has given the matter out of his hand, and has thus raised up, or been accessory to there being raised up, a body of young instructors in matters of religion, who act independently of him, and who, in some instances, are confederated against him. This is not as it should be.

The teachers are, or ought to be, a pastor's special care; to qualify them for their office, and to assist them in its duties, should be thought by him no inconsiderable part of his functions. Nor should even the children themselves be viewed as people with whom he has nothing to do. There are always among them some whose minds have been brought to serious reflection, who are inquiring with solicitude after salvation, and whom he should take under his own special teaching and care, and aim to guide into the way of faith, peace, and holiness—and he should not neglect to give frequent, affectionate, and solemn addresses to the rest. In a Sunday-school of two or three hundred children there are as many immortal souls, exposed by their situation in life to peculiar dangers, yet all capable of eternal blessedness, and all brought weekly under the eye of the pastor—and yet by how many of our pastors are these hopeful objects of religious zeal and benevolence shut out of the sphere of their pastoral solicitude, and handed over to the Sunday-school teachers, as if there were no hope of a minister's saving the soul of a poor boy, nor any reward for his saving the soul of a poor girl!

This obligation of attending to the souls of Sunday-scholars, while it is incumbent upon all ministers, is especially so upon those who are laboring amid much discouragement in small congregations. Many of these men are continually uttering complaints as to the fewness of their hearers, and the inefficiency of their labors; and yet perhaps have never thought of turning their attention to the two or three hundred youthful minds which are every Sabbath-day before their eyes, and under the sound of their voice. No one who ever threw his mind and heart into his Sunday-schools had to complain that he labored in vain, and spent his strength for nothing. No part of pastoral labor yields a quicker or a larger reward. By some it is made the main pivot on which their whole system of religious instruction turns, and flourishing congregations have risen up under its potency. I have myself been the astonished and delighted witness of this, especially in one well-known instance, and am so deeply impressed with its importance, that I implore my brethren not to neglect this means of usefulness, or to throw away the golden opportunity which the circumstances of our country still hold out.

Nor is it Sunday-school instruction alone which claims our attention—but DAILY education. In this we must be in earnest also. It is one of the great subjects of the day—and belongs to us, as much as to any one. We must not allow the minds of the poor to be wholly withdrawn from our influence—but must exert ourselves according to our ability and opportunity to train them up for God. Others know and feel the importance of this—if we do not. The Roman Catholic priests are aware of it, so are the clergy of the Established Church, and so are the Methodist ministers—and shall Dissenting ministers be behind the most zealous and devoted friends of education? I trust not.

But there are other departments of the pastorate in which earnestness will manifest itself—there is visiting the sick, especially those whose disease is chronic, and leaves their minds open to conversation.

There is also the difficult but incumbent duty of rebuke, warning, and ecclesiastical discipline. A devoted servant of Christ will never neglect the state of his church—but will be solicitous to maintain such order there, as shall be pleasing to him to whom the church belongs. Like a good shepherd he will look after his flock, and will endeavor to avoid the denunciations of God delivered by the prophet Ezekiel—"Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that feed only themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? The diseased have you not strengthened; neither have you healed that which was sick; neither have you bound up that which was broken; neither have you brought again that which was driven away; neither have you sought that which was lost." Impressive description of our duty! May we be found so discharging it as to avoid this fearful woe!

I may appropriately introduce here the words of the Bishop of Calcutta, in his admirable and heart-searching introduction to the edition of "Baxter's Reformed Pastor."

"What have we been doing as ministers? Lamentably as we have failed in a general estimate of the vast importance of our office, we have failed as lamentably in all those parts of it which relate to personal inspection and vigilance over our flocks. We have confined ourselves to preaching, to ecclesiastical duties, to occasional visits to the sick, to the administration of the sacraments, to the external and secular relation in which we stand to our parishes; but what have we done in personal care and direction, in affectionate catechetical conferences, in going from house to house, in visiting every family and individual in our districts, in becoming acquainted with the characters, the needs, the state of the heart, the habits, the attendance upon public worship, the observance of the Sabbath, the instruction of children and servants, the family devotions, of each house? Have we looked after each individual sheep with an eager solicitude? Have we denied ourselves our own ease, and pleasure, and indulgence, in order to go after Christ's sheep, scattered in this wicked world, that they may be saved forever? What do the streets and lanes of our cities testify concerning us? What do the highways and hedges of our country parishes say as to our fidelity and love to souls? What do the houses and cottages and sick chambers of our congregations and neighborhoods speak? Where have we been? What have we been doing? Has Christ our Master seen us follow his footsteps, and going about doing good? Brethren, we are greatly faulty concerning this. We have been content with public discourses, and have not urged each soul to the concerns of salvation. Blessed Jesus! you know the guilt of your ministers in this respect, above all others! We have been divines, we have been scholars, we have been disputants, we have been students; we have been everything but the holy, self-denying, laborious, consistent, ministers of your gospel!"

It has long appeared probable to me, that we, as Dissenting ministers, have something to learn in reference to this part of our duty from the clergy of the Church of England, and even from the priests of the Church of Rome. We do not perhaps sufficiently enter into the meaning and functions implied in that very expressive phrase, "the cure of souls," a phrase which comprehends far more than the preaching of sermons, and the duties of the Sabbath and the sanctuary, however well performed. There is a definiteness, an explicitness, in this beautiful expression, into which we have need more deeply to enter. It is true we have our word "pastor," which in the impressive Saxon term "shepherd," implies a great deal; but it is neither so specific nor so solemn as the description conveyed by "the cure of souls." Nor do I think we have all the functions which this phrase implies, so much within the range of our habitual contemplation as those by whom it is employed. In leaving college, and entering upon the sphere of our pastoral labor, our attention is perhaps often chiefly fixed upon the pulpit, without taking sufficiently into consideration the various private duties of which this is but the center—while the clergy of the Church of England, though not altogether neglecting the work of preaching, enter upon their parishes with a wider range of view, as regards the duties of their office. The visitation of the sick, the catechizing of children, and an attention to private exposition of the Scriptures and individual cases, enter more into their plans of clerical activity than into ours. There seems to be with them more sense and admission of the claims which their flocks as individuals have upon their time and attention, than with us. Our sphere is felt to be the pulpit, and our relation to be to the congregation as a whole. It is likely we take more pains in the preparation of our sermons; for as our discourses are usually much longer than those of the clergy of the Establishment, we must of course spend more time in composing them.

It will also be said that the parochial system of the Church of England gives to its ministers, by its restriction to localities, advantages which we, whose flocks are scattered all over the expanse of a large town, do not possess. There is something in this—but not so much as appears at first sight, inasmuch as attachment to favorite preachers is as strongly felt in the Establishment as it is with us, and overleaps all distinctions of streets. It is also affirmed that it is more a part of the system of the Church of England to inculcate on their parishioners this looking up to their clergy in all spiritual matters, outside of the pulpit, as well as to his sermons in it. If it be so, it must be confessed that it is an excellence; and if we have it not, the sooner we obtain it the better. There seems to be in our system as much room for it, as in that from which we have separated, perhaps more; since the voluntary choice of their pastor by the people themselves is a more solemn surrender into his hands of the oversight of their spiritual affairs, than the compulsory acceptance of the minister who has been appointed by a patron, without asking the consent or approbation of the congregation.

But the fact is, we have too much contented ourselves with the functions of the preacher, to the neglect of those of the pastor, and have thus taught our people to regard us too exclusively in the light of the former. What we need, therefore, is more earnestness in the pastorate, as well as in the pulpit, for it is in this we are brought into most powerful competition with the clergy of the Church of England at this day. Let us then take up the phrase, as descriptive of the duties of our office, and consider ourselves as called by the Holy Spirit, chosen by the people, and ordained by the laying on of the hands of the elders, to "the cure of souls"—a cure which we are to carry out by all the beseeching entreating of the pulpit, and all the endless and ceaseless assiduities of the pastorate.

Such, then, is a view, and but an imperfect one too, of an earnest ministry.

I would have made it more comprehensive and impressive if I could—for the reality can never be overdrawn nor exaggerated. Let anyone consider what that object must be which occupied the mind of Deity from eternity; which is the end of all the divine dispensations of creation, providence, and grace, in our world; which is the purpose for which the Son of God expired upon the cross; which forms the substance of revealed truth, and employed the lives and pens of apostles; to which martyrs set the seal of their blood. In short, let him recollect that the end of the Christian ministry is the salvation of immortal souls, through the mediation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and then say if anything less than an earnest ministry, is befitting such an object, or if earnestness can comprehend less than has been set forth in these chapters.