A sermon preached on occasion of the Centenary of the Tabernacle, at Bristol, November 25, 1853, by John Angell James
"The memory of the just is blessed."
"The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance."
All nations have held in honor the names and deeds of the illustrious dead. When this is kept within due bounds, and not abused to purposes of idolatry or superstition—as is done by paganism which deifies its heroes, and by popery which canonizes its saints—it is a custom, the observance of which is as useful to survivors as it is respectful to the departed. Be it ever recollected, however, that the best way to commemorate the virtues of the dead, is to hold them up not only for the admiration—but for the imitation of the living.
A hundred years ago, George Whitefield, in the course of his abundant and successful labors, of which Bristol and its vicinity formed one of the principal scenes, erected this place of Christian worship; and it has been deemed desirable, by those who still continue to enjoy this fruit of his ministrations, to observe a day of grateful commemoration of the event. We commend them for so doing. May we be all solicitous that the services of the day may be so conducted, that while we pay all due respect to the memory of that wonderful man, it shall be less a tribute of praise to him, than to the Master whom he served.
In the selection of a text for the occasion, I have been guided by a desire to find one, which, while it shall appropriately describe Whitefield's character and conduct, shall serve no less as a model for ours; and perhaps I could not have found one better suited to accomplish both these purposes than that expression of the apostle Paul—"One thing I do!" Philippians 3:13
Human life is so short, and the faculties of man are so limited, that he who would do some great thing, must do but one; and must do that one with such a concentration of his forces, as, to idle spectators who live only to amuse themselves, looks like enthusiasm, and almost draws upon him the charge of fanaticism. "There is something fearfully exalted and impressive in the spectacle thus presented of the power of one absorbing interest and one mighty object, to take and keep possession of the soul; to model its whole life and character into its own resemblance; to bend its most vigorous purposes and inveterate prepossessions into subserviency and absolute obedience; to avail itself of the strength even of a giant intellect, and to sustain itself on the resources of the most masculine mind and the most generous heart; until, as the ivy enwreathing the forest oak, it outgrows its utmost height, flourishes in all its luxuriance through the extent of its dimensions, and waves in verdure and loveliness, even amidst ruin and decay. It is a lesson of the richest value to see the purpose thus subduing, while it elevates, the man; the soul transformed, yet vanishing amidst the irradiations of its brightness, and its whole structure penetrated, purified, and effulgent with its consuming splendor, and like the polished surface of a mirror, hid in the luster of its own reflections."
But then what care and solicitude should be exercised in the selection of that one supreme, absorbing object. It should be something lawful, for how wicked to lavish a whole life upon what is illicit. It should be something important, for how frivolous, to expend existence for a bauble. It should be something achievable, for how foolish to exhaust the soul upon what is clearly unattainable! With such an object, unity of purpose, wisdom in the choice of means to accomplish it, and resolute determination of will, are the very grandeur and completeness of human character.
I. What was Whitefield's one thing?He himself shall tell you. In a letter written to a friend on the day of his ordination, occurs the following sublime and comprehensive, yet simple expression—"I hope the good of souls will be my only principle of action. I call heaven and earth to witness, that when the bishop laid his hand upon me, I gave myself up like a martyr for Him who hung upon the cross for me." As the oak lies enfolded in the acorn, so did his whole future life lie wrapped up in that one sentence. All his amazing labors; his numerous journeys and voyages; his sermons and his letters; his personal religion and his prayers; his public addresses and his private conferences, were but the expansion of this one sentence, the development of that one principle– 'the good of souls is my only principle of action.' In that he lived, and moved, and had his being. So completely had this absorbed him, that he seemed to have no second object. This, he thoroughly understood, deeply felt, and constantly kept in view, as the end of his calling and his business in life. The Pyramids or the Alps are not more clearly seen, or more steadily kept in view, by the traveler who is journeying to behold those stupendous wonders of nature and are, than was the salvation of souls by this devoted man. His concern for this was so intense, that his soul seemed to be ever oppressed with heaviness for the longing he bore towards it. Foster, in his essay on "Decision of Character," has very properly placed him in juxtaposition with Howard, whom he had just represented as visiting Rome with such an intense severity of conviction that he had one thing to do, as to refuse himself time to survey the magnificence of its ruins. "Unless," says the essayist, "the eternal happiness of mankind be an insignificant concern, and the passion to promote it an inglorious distinction, I may cite George Whitefield as a noble instance of this attribute of the decisive character, this intense necessity of action. The great cause, which was so languid a thing in the hands of many of its advocates, assumed in his administrations an unmitigable urgency."
And what is it that should now be considered, both by preachers and people, the one great end of the ministerial office, and the one thing to be done by those that fill it? Has the matter changed since Whitefield's time? Or was he only, and Wesley his equally illustrious compeer, to whom, also a great part of this sermon applies—were they only, I say, under obligation to make the good of souls the object of their lives? Did not the apostle write it for all times, all countries, and all churches—as a description of the object of the Christian ministry? "They watch for your souls as they that must give account?" Have men ceased to have souls? Or are their souls no longer lost? Or is there now no Savior for them? Has the term of Christianity expired, or the day of salvation forever gone by? If these questions are answered in the negative, as of course they must be, then let it be published as with a seraph's voice, and let its echoes roll through every congregation and over every pulpit throughout our world, that the one thing every minister of Jesus Christ has to do, that which he must understand, keep constantly in mind, desire with intense ardor, make the center of all his closet exercises, study, pursuits, pulpit labors, and fellowship with his friends—is the good of souls!
It is the very end and purpose of his ministry, that to which on the day of his ordination he professed before heaven, earth, and hell—solemnly to dedicate his whole being; and for which he did then, in effect, make an eternal abjuration of every inferior object, and of all the indolent, lukewarm, and quiescent feelings, even in regard to this. This was the object which engaged the omniscient mind of God in the councils of eternity! This was the object on which the Son of God was fixed when he humbled himself unto death, even the death of the cross! This was the object for which the Spirit of God was poured out from on high! This was the object for which the Scriptures of eternal truth were penned! This was the object for which apostles lived, reformers labored, and martyrs bled! Yes, my brethren, as long as we are keeping this object in view we are in sympathy, yes, in fellowship, with all these and in all this.
In seeking this object we are, as compared with all other laborers and objects—like the angel of the Apocalypse, standing in the sun. What so benevolent, what so noble, so sublime, so God-like, so eternal—as this! The one thing of the poet, of the painter, of the sculptor, and the architect—however great their genius, or lofty their ambition—is of the earth, earthy! And the noblest of their productions will at length serve but to deck the funeral pile of the world—while glory, honor, and immortality shall characterize ours. How pitiable, how groveling, the ambition of him who is intent only upon intellectualism, philosophy, eloquence; whose solicitude is fixed upon writing and preaching what he deems to be well composed sermons; whose aim is to please the people who run after a talented man; and whose reward is the plaudits of his audience. Poor, base-minded creature, to be thus sinking down from the infinite, the divine, the eternal—to the finite, the human, the temporal—to seek men's applause instead of their salvation—to be satisfied with the reward of an actor upon the stage, instead of the approving smile and public testimony of God, the judge of all, and Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, delivered before the innumerable company of angels and the spirits of just men made perfect.
And then the cruelty of that man's heart, as well as the baseness of his mind, who, with immortal souls going down to the pit before his eyes, and the means of their salvation in his hands—can be taken up with any other object whatever than plucking them as brands from the burning. Does Whitefield now repent of "the one thing" he selected as the object of his life? Have the light of eternity and the science of heaven revealed to him that he was mistaken in making the good of souls his only principle of action? You judge! Is there a single individual who, whatever he may now be making the object of his ministry, does not know that if he were, like Paul, caught up into the third heavens, he should come back, like him, impressed with the utter littleness and worthlessness of everything, as an end of the ministry—but the salvation of immortal souls?
I just before spoke of Howard; and I would not detract an atom from the fame of that noble-hearted philanthropist, nor extinguish a single ray of the glory that encircles his brow. He who familiarized himself with misery to alleviate it, and exposed himself to pestilence, and died at last a martyr to philanthropy, is worthy of all the honors which an admiring nation and posterity bestowed upon him; but Whitefield was a man of even sublimer philanthropy than Howard. Howard's was mercy to the body, Whitefield's to the soul. Howard moved through his course amidst the admiration of society, Whitefield amidst its scorn and contempt. Statues were erected for Howard; the pillory would have been erected for Whitefield, if his enemies could have had their wish. Both now have their reward—but can we doubt whose crown is the weightiest and shines the brightest?
II. Let us now consider HOW Whitefield sought his object, and by what MEANS he accomplished it.That he did accomplish it to a wonderful extent, you know, and that he was the instrument of saving myriads. He sought the good of souls. HOW? How should he seek it—but in that only way in which God has determined to effectuate it? Be it recollected, souls are saved by the power and prerogative of God. Man, the greatest of men, Whitefield, Wesley, yes, Peter, Paul and John—are but instruments, and, as instruments, must do the Master's work in the Master's way. It is folly, presumption, wickedness, to attempt to think of supplementing God's means of saving souls by man's. And what, then, is God's instrument for this work? It is written as with a sunbeam on the page of revelation. "The preaching of the cross is unto those who perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God." Or as the Apostle says in another place. "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ—for it is the power of God unto salvation unto everyone who believes; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek."
This is very definite and very explicit, and since there is no limitation, caution, or reserve—it seems intended to apply to all times, places, and people, and to be set forth as God's method to be used by man, for saving souls, down to the end of time. Whitefield believed and acted upon this. He did not preach a new gospel—but revived the old one. He, Wesley, and the whole Methodistic company, did not pretend to any new doctrine. And how did they wield the old one? Mr. Isaac Taylor has analyzed the Methodism of the past, and reduced it to four elements.
1. Its preachers awoke the dormant religious consciousness of man's relation to God, as his Ruler and Judge.
2. They produced a deep conviction and sense of this relationship individually, and thus awoke a sense of personal sin.
3. To this awakened consciousness they presented for relief the remedial system of the gospel.
4. They did all this in a spirit of evangelical philanthropy.
Now this is all true. No man ever more exactly answered to Mr. Hall's inimitable description of a good preacher, than Whitefield. "Without descending to such a minute specification of circumstances as shall make our addresses too personal, they ought unquestionably to be characteristic, that the conscience of the audience may feel the hand of the preacher searching it, and every individual know where to class himself. The preacher who aims at doing good will endeavor above all things to insulate his hearers, to place each of them apart, and render it impossible for him to escape by losing himself in the crowd. At the day of judgment, the attention excited by the surrounding scene, the strange aspect of nature, the dissolution of the elements, the last trumpet, will have no other effect than to cause the reflections of the sinner to return with a more overwhelming tide upon his own character, his sentence, his unchanging destiny; and amid the innumerable millions that surround him, he will mourn alone. It is thus the Christian minister should prepare the tribunal of conscience, and turn the eyes of each one of his hearers upon himself."
One would imagine that Mr. Hall, when he penned this striking paragraph, had been studying the character of Whitefield's preaching, of whose extraordinary success, as well as of that of Wesley, this was one of the most powerful causes. It is that general and vague, loose and indiscriminate manner of discussing the subjects of divine truth, and applying the promises and threatenings of the gospel, characteristic of so many preachers, which, as a natural consequence, prevents their success. They are like portrait painters who merge all the peculiarities of the individual in the generalities of the race. No wonder they do not convert souls; the wonder would be if they did.
But we may put Mr. Taylor's truly philosophical analysis of Methodistic preaching in a more popular form, a form that will perhaps be better understood by the multitude, if I say that the staple of this great man's preaching was the law for conviction and repentance, and the gospel for faith and consolation. He awakened and alarmed the conscience by the thunders of Sinai; he comforted and supported the convinced sinner by the still small voice of Calvary. He carried the scales of divine justice into the pulpit to which he brought his hearers, and then pronounced the solemn truth, "You are weighed in the balance and found lacking!" And when despair was creeping over the soul of the astonished, convicted, and trembling penitent—he directed him to the source whence the deficiency was to be supplied.
I am not now justifying all the language and modes of representation which Whitefield and his followers employed to set forth the nature, distinctions, purposes, and eternal obligations of the law and the gospel. I deem it one of the infelicities which they inherited from the Puritans of the sixteenth, and the Nonconformists of the seventeenth century, that they sometimes degraded spiritual truths into the forms of commercial transactions, and disfigured theology with an uncouth phraseology, which I by no means wish to be considered the stereotyped model of modern orthodoxy. Still I have not attained to that theological prudishness or fastidiousness, which, out of compliment to the philosophical tendencies of the age, would abjure the glorious, and venerable, and even sacred terminology of Holy Scripture. I know very well that these terms in the vernacular version are translations, and that if others can more accurately convey the original words, they may be not only innocently—but properly introduced. Be it so. But do they more accurately convey these original words? What can we find better adapted to express the mind and meaning of the Holy Spirit than the old but magnificent words, justification, sanctification, regeneration, and adoption? I am afraid that many of the attempts of modern criticism are but concealed attacks upon the old theology. Words are the signs of things, and with the words will go the things. By no magic will the old ideas transmigrate into new forms of speech. What we still need, what we must have, if souls are saved, is to have set forth in as elegant language, as chaste composition, as powerful logic, as graceful rhetoric, as sound exegesis, and as varied illustrations as the improvements of modern criticism can give it—the law in all its purity, strictness, and force; and the gospel in all its fullness, richness, and sweetness.
It is never to be forgotten, amidst all the fluctuations of opinion, all the vicissitudes of earthly affairs, and even the advance of civilization, science, and social improvement—that human nature, in its spiritual condition and its relation to God, remains unchanged. The lapse of ages will never improve our natural corruption, nor will the progress of science and advance of civilization eradicate it. Man as he is born into the world, and grows up in it, will still, as ever, need both the redemption and the regeneration of the gospel of Christ. Amidst the light of the nineteenth century, he as much needs this as he did amidst the darkness of the middle ages; it is as needful to the philosopher of Great Britain, as to the savage of the Pacific ocean—and let science carry on its discoveries, and art multiply its inventions, and literature polish the surface of society, as they may, the redemption and regeneration of the gospel will be as much needed by our posterity, amidst the universal triumphs of civilization, and the light and glory of the millennium as they now are.
Infidels may babble as they please, and it is but babble, after all, though it calls itself philosophy, about society outgrowing the need of old Christianity. They may just as rationally talk about human nature outgrowing the need of the old laws of the material universe; doing without the old sun to enlighten us, the old atmosphere to sustain us, the old water to refresh us, and the old grain to nourish us—as without the old gospel to renew, sanctify, and save mankind. For the relation of these to our material nature is not one whit more fixed and unalterable, than is the gospel as a remedial system to our lapsed and diseased moral nature.
All this babble, however, may be expected from men who, as the bats and owls, hate the light of the gospel altogether; but is it not a wonder, a lamentation, and a woe, to find (as they are found also in other sections of the Christian church,) men coming out from our churches, educated in our colleges, occupying our pulpits, and, professedly at least, holding our creed, and yet, under pretext of adaptation to the age—either slurring over the gospel, or covering it with such a philosophical garb—as to make it another gospel. Not like Paul, boasting of not being ashamed of the gospel—but acting as if they were ashamed of it. Are there no preachers and writers, who answer to Isaac Taylor's description, and say "We find that our Christian argument takes little effect upon the mass of men. Nor ought we much to wonder that it should be so, for this style of reasoning, which had its rise in dark times, stands in no true relationship towards the human mind, in its present advanced condition; it is thoroughly obsolete, nor ought it to be required of the educated men of these enlightened times, to listen to that which is so stale. The gospel has been misunderstood, as everything else came to be misunderstood, during the middle ages. Then the theology that was unadvisedly compacted at the Reformation was a conglomerate of logical, metaphysical, polemical, and political truths and errors, an inextricably tangled mass. The work, therefore, that is now to be done, and which is to be done by us, the rising ministry, is (with all due reverence for Holy Scripture) to re-consider everything, to pass our creeds through the refining fires of the modern philosophy, to render the substance of theology into the intelligible terms of the modern philosophy. In a word, what we have to do is, to put forth the acceptance of these enlightened times on which we have fallen, a philosophy of salvation. Thus, in substance, have some reasoned with themselves, and are attempting to reason with others, and on such grounds have they addressed themselves to the labor, a labor how vain, of engineering a road upon a precipitous slope, up the steeps of Paradise, froze the levels of disbelief, and so that the table-land of heaven may henceforth be laid open to the feet of all men."
We hear much in our days about this "adaptation of the gospel to the age". There is no word I more hate or love; dread or desire; according to the sense in, or the purpose for which, it is used, than this word 'adaptation' as applied to preaching. Now, if by adaptation be meant more philosophy and less Christianity; more of cold abstract intellectualism and less of popular, simple, earnest, statement of gospel truth; more profound discussion and artificial elaboration addressed to the learned few, and less of warm-hearted appeal to the multitude—may God preserve us from such adaptation, for it is high treason against truth and the salvation of souls! But if by "adaptation" be meant a stronger intelligence, a chaster composition, a sterner logic, a more powerful rhetoric, a more correct criticism, and a more varied illustration—but all employed to set forth the Gospel as comprehending those two great words redemption and regeneration, let us have it, we need it, and come in ever such abundance, it will be a blessing.
Adaptation! The gospel is adaptation from beginning to end, to every age of time, and to all conditions of humanity. It is God's own adaptation. It is he who knows every ward of the lock of man's nature, who has constructed this admirable key; and all the miserable tinkering of a vain and deceitful philosophy can make no better key, nor can all the attempts of a philosophising theology, make this key better fit the wards of the lock.
Adaptation! Was not the gospel in all its purity and simplicity adapted to human nature as it existed in commercial, philosophical, Corinth? And did not Paul think so when he determined to know nothing there but Christ and him crucified? Was it not by this very gospel, which many are beginning to imagine is not suited to an intellectual and philosophic age, that Christianity fought its first battles, and achieved its victories over the armies of darkness? Against the axe, the stake, the sword of the gladiator, and the lions of the amphitheater; against the ridicule of wits, the reasoning of sages, the interests, influence, and craft of the priesthood; against the prowess of armies, and the brute passions of the mob—Christianity, strong in its weakness, sublime in its simplicity, potent in its isolation, asking and receiving no protection from the scepter of the monarch or the sword of the warrior, went forth to do battle with the wisdom of Greece and the mythology of Rome. Everywhere it prevailed, and gathered its laurels from the snows of Scythia, the sands of Africa, the plains of India, and the green fields of Europe. With the Gospel alone she overturned the 'altars of impiety' in her march. Power felt his arm wither at her glance. She silenced the lying oracles by the majesty of her voice, and extinguished the deceptive light of philosophy in the schools—until at length she ascended upon the ruins of the temples, the idols, and the altars she had demolished, to the throne of the Caesars, and with the diadem on her brow, and the purple on her shoulders, gave laws to the world from that very tribunal where she had on her first appearance been condemned as a malefactor.
Adaptation! Is not justification by faith the very substance of the Gospel, and was it not by this doctrine, that Luther effected the enfranchisement of the human intellect, from the chains of slavery which had been forged in the Vatican; achieved the liberation of half Europe from the yoke of Rome; and gave an impulse to human thought and vital Christianity which has not yet spent itself, and never will, until it issues in the jubilee of the nations and the glories of the millennium?
Adaptation! Did not Whitefield move this kingdom almost to its center; and equally so our then great American colony to its extremities, fascinating alike the colliers of Kingswood and the citizens of the metropolis; and by this mighty theme enable myriads to burst the chains of sin and Satan, and to walk abroad, disenthralled by the mighty power of redeeming grace?
Adaptation! Is not this gospel now proving in heathen countries its power to raise the savage into the civilized man—the civilized man into the saint—and in this ascending scale of progression the saint into the seraph? And yet with these proofs of the power of the Gospel to adapt itself to every age of the world, and to every condition of humanity—there are those who want something else to effect the regeneration of mankind. "And I if I be lifted up, will draw all men to me." So said the Savior of men. The cross is for all ages and all countries the great moral magnet to draw men from barbarism to civilization, from sin to holiness, from misery to happiness, and from earth to heaven! And it were as rational to say the magnet had lost its original property of polar attraction, and that the mariner's compass is an old, stale invention, and must now be replaced with some new device better adapted to the modern light of science—as to suppose that the doctrine of the cross had become effete, and must give way to some new phase of theological truth.
III. I now consider the MANNER in which Whitefield carried out his one purpose into action.One thing I do—and how did he accomplish it?
Never was the joyful sound sent over the world by a more magnificentVOICE. All his biographers labor, as do the historians of Greece, in describing the power of Demosthenes, to make us understand his wondrous oratory. Perhaps, after all, that which gives us the most vivid idea of it is, not the crowds it attracted, moved, and melted—but that it warmed the cold and calculating Franklin, and fascinated the philosophical and skeptical Hume. Heaven rarely ever gave, or gives to man, the faculty of speech in such perfection. But what is particularly worthy of notice is, that he trusted not to its native power—but increased that power by assiduous cultivation. His matchless elocution was not only an endowment—but an acquirement. If he preached a sermon twenty times, he went on to the last, improving his method of delivering it, both as to tones and action—not for theatrical display, (no man was ever more free from that,) but to carry out his "one thing," the salvation of souls. He knew, and deeply and philosophically entered into, the meaning of that text, "Faith comes by hearing;" and he also knew that attentive hearing comes by the power of speaking.
With such a theme as the Gospel; with such an object as salvation; with such an aim as eternity, and such a master to serve as Christ, he would not give utterance to such subjects, and for such purposes, in careless and slovenly speech. He studied to be the orator—that he might thus pluck souls as brands from the burning. In this let us imitate him. Of all our faculties, that of speech is, perhaps, least cultivated, yet is most susceptible of cultivation, and pays best the pains bestowed upon it. My brethren, speech is the great instrument of our ministerial labor. Our assault upon the rebel town of man's soul is to be carried on, and our entrance to be effected, to use the language of Bunyan, at ear-gate. The tongue, rather than the pen, is the weapon of most of us. For the love of souls, let us endeavor to be good speakers. With the loftiest themes in the universe for our subjects—let us endeavor to speak of them in some measure worthily. It is an instructive and astounding, and to us humiliating and disgraceful fact, that the stage-player, whether he plays in comedy or in tragedy, takes ten times more pains to give effective utterance to his words of folly or vice, for the amusement of his audience, than we to eternal and momentous truths for the salvation of ours. The stage seems the only arena where the power of oratory is much studied. Should this be?
A few characteristics of Whitefield's manner deserve emphatic mention, and particular attention, as connected with the execution of his one great purpose. The first I notice isSOLEMNITY. He never, as did some of his followers, degraded the pulpit by low humor and low wit; abounding in anecdote, and even in action, he was uniformly solemn. His deep devotional spirit contributed largely to this, for his piety was the inward fire which supplied the ardor of his manner. He was eminently a man of prayer; and had he been less prayerful, he would also have been less powerful. He came into the pulpit from the closet where he had been communing with God, and could no more be trifling, merry, or humorous at such a time, than could Moses when he came down from the mount to the people; or the high priest when he came out from the blazing symbols of the Divine presence between the cherubim in the holy of holies; or Isaiah when he saw the Lord Almighty, high and lifted up, with his train filling the temple. Happily the age and taste for pulpit buffoonery is gone, I hope never to return. "It is pitiful to court a grin when you should woo a soul."
It was the stamp and impress of eternity upon his preaching that gave Whitfield such power. He spoke like a man who stood upon the borders of the unseen world, alternately enrapt in ecstacy as he gazed upon the felicities of heaven, and convulsed with terror as he heard the howlings of the damned, and saw the smoke of their torment ascending from the pit forever and ever. His maxim was to preach, as Apelles painted, for eternity. He said if ministers preached for eternity they would act the part of true Christian orators. And tell me, my brethren, what are all the prettinesses, the beauties, or even sublimities of human eloquence; what are all the similes, metaphors, and other garniture of rhetoric, what are all the philosophy and intellectualities which many in this day are aiming at, to move, and bow, and conquer the human soul—compared with "the powers of the world to come?"
But there was another characteristic of Whitefield's manner, and that was itsTENDERNESS. Our Lord, as to his humanity, was a man of sorrows, and, therefore, of tears; so was Paul, so was Whitfield. Perhaps the last somewhat too much so, at any rate far too much so for any preaching but his own; and with him the fountain of his tears was somewhat too full and flowing. But oh, what an apology for this, and what a stroke of pathetic eloquence was that appeal, when on one occasion he said, "You blame me for weeping—but how can I help it, when you will not weep for yourselves, although your immortal souls are on the verge of destruction, and for anything I know you are hearing your last sermon, and may never more have an opportunity to have Christ offered to you."
Man is an emotional as well as an intellectual creature, and sympathy is one of the powers of our physical and mental economy. The passions are of an infectious nature, and men feel more in a crowd than in solitude. The maxim of the ancient poet is still true, "If you wish me to weep, weep yourself." Whitefield's tears drew forth those of his audience, and his pathos softened their hearts for the impressions of the truth. It is forgotten by many preachers that they may do much by the heart—as well as by the head. We are not the teachers of logic, mathematics, metaphysics, or natural philosophy, which have nothing to do with the heart. We are teachers of true religion, the very seat of which is there in the heart; and we address ourselves not only to the logical—but to the aesthetical part of man's complex nature. I know we must convince by argument—but we must not stop in the judgment—but go on to reach the heart, and we ourselves must feel as well as reason. Clear—but cold, is too descriptive of much modern preaching. It is the frosty moonlight of a winter's night, not the warm sunshine of a summer's day. A cold preacher is likely to have cold hearers. Cold! What when the love of God, the death of Christ, the salvation of souls, the felicities of heaven, and the torments of hell are the theme? Enthusiasm here is venial compared with lukewarmness.
Need I say thatEARNESTNESS was characteristic of Whitefield's preaching? Yes, that one word, perhaps, more than any other in our language, is its epitome. An intense earnestness marked his whole career, and was carried to such a pitch as to incur, as did that of Paul, the imputation of madness. The salvation of souls was so entirely the one thing that engrossed his soul, his time, his labors, that not a step deviated from it. Every moment, every day, was an approximation to it. His devotions, his recreations, (if he had any,) his journeys, his voyages, his sermons, his correspondence, all referred to this one end. His exertion never relaxed for a moment, and he, with his great compeer, Wesley, made the trial so seldom made, what is the utmost effect which, in the way of saving souls, may be granted to any one preacher of the gospel in any age or country.
What may not be done, and is not done, by earnestness? It gives some success to any error, however absurd or enormous, and to any scheme of wickedness, however flagrant and atrocious. What is it that has given such success to popery, to infidelity, to Mormonism? Earnestness! And shall the apostles and advocates of error be more in earnest than the friends of truth? Whitfield often quoted Betterton the actor, who affirmed that the stage would soon be deserted if the actors spoke like the preachers. And what would empty the playhouse, that is, dullness and coldness, does often empty the meeting-house. "Mr. Betterton's answer to a worthy prelate," says Whitfield, "is worthy of lasting regard. When asked how it is that the clergy, who speak of things real, affected the people so little, and the actors, who speak only of things imaginary, affected them so much, replied, 'My Lord, I can assign but one reason—we players speak of things imaginary as though they were real, and too many of the clergy speak of things real as though they were imaginary."
It is not always so. Many a preacher, even in our own day, by the unaffected earnestness of his manner, carries away his audience upon the tide of his own feeling. They hear what he says, they see what he feels, his eye helps his tongue, the workings of his countenance disclose the secrets of his heart; his manner is a lucid comment upon his matter, breaks down the limits which words impose upon the communication of ideas, and gives them not only an apprehension of their meaning—but a sense of the importance of his subject, which unimpassioned language and manner never could have done.
I mention but one thing more characteristic of this great man, and which it would be well for us to imitate, and that is, his dauntlessCOURAGE. See him not only facing mobs, defying threats, and even setting up his pulpit amidst the wild uproar of a London fair, (the boldest achievement that a speaker ever accomplished,) but holding on his noble career unterrified, and working amidst the storm of defamation that came upon him from so many quarters.
What but guilty cowardice is it, false and pusillanimous shame, that keeps us in these days from some novel and bolder method of aggression upon the domain of darkness? Are we not lacking here in that moral courage which would make us, when conscious we are doing right, indifferent to the stare of the ignorant, and the wonder of the timid; to the shaft of ridicule and the malignant censure of the cynic? How sadly we are fettered by custom and trammelled by conventionality. How little are we disposed to go out of the usual track even in saving souls. Very few are disposed to imitate the boldness, ingenuity, and novel thought of that noble hearted brother, who hired a theater in the city where he dwelt, and for four months preached there, to listening and well behaved crowds, the gospel of salvation; and for his reward had very many given to him, who are his joy now and will be his crown of rejoicing in the presence of Christ at his coming.
Who can see Paul on Mars' Hill, addressing himself to the sages and their followers of all sects, and preaching to them a doctrine so repugnant to the mythology of the temple and the philosophy of the schools—as Christ, the last judgment, and the resurrection of the body, without being impressed with the moral courage of such an act? It is this spiritual heroism which is needed in our modern preaching, and, indeed, which was no less needful when the Methodists commenced their preaching. Nor is it only in this unwillingness to go off from our own ground for saving souls that our guilty cowardice is seen—but in the disposition to shirk the more solemn and searching truths of revelation. Are we not too much giving way to the fastidiousness of modern taste and refinement, which is craving after smooth things; which desires the sentimental, the picturesque, the imaginative; but turns with disgust from the solemn, the alarming, the awakening? Are we not too gentle and courteous to mention such a word as "Hell" to modern polite ears? Are we not too fearful to break in with the thunders of a violated law upon those who are at ease in Zion? I do not ask for a gross revolting method of describing the punishment of the wicked, as if the preacher delighted in harrowing up the feelings of his audience. This is as disgusting as if, in order to keep men from crime, our judges and magistrates were ever and always giving a minute detail of the process of an execution, and the convulsive pangs of an expiring wretch suspended to the beam of the gibbet. We ask not for a harsh, scolding, and denunciating style of preaching; but we do want more of the unflinching boldness, and the dauntless courage, which are necessary to fidelity, and absolutely essential to him who would win souls to Christ. It is too generally forgotten, that our Lord Jesus, who was incarnate love, was the most solemn and courageous of all preachers. He whose gentle spirit so often breathed out itself in invitation, and whose compassion melted into tears, at other times robed himself in terror, and uttered the most alarming peals of divine indignation. What we need for our ministry is this mixture of tenderness and solemnity, which entered so deeply into the ministry of Christ, and was so characteristic of his servant, whose labors we this day commemorate and commend.
IV.And now, did time permit and necessity require, I would show what, in seeking "this one thing," Whitfield ACCOMPLISHED.
I might speak of the awakening of the spirit of piety so long slumbering beneath the towers of the established church, and the humbler fabrics of nonconformity; of the conversions to God of myriads of souls both in America and these kingdoms; of the erection of chapels large and commodious, both in this city and neighborhood, and in the metropolis; of the revival of evangelical religion within the pale of the church of England; of all that mighty moral machinery constructed for the world's conversion, which so remarkably distinguishes this age; Bible, missionary, and tract societies, which have all in some sense risen out of the Methodistic spirit of this prince of preachers, Whitfield, and of that still more extraordinary and more extensively and permanently useful man, John Wesley. But I pass over all this which will be brought before you this evening, and just mention one particular and isolated instance of his usefulness, the fruits of which remain with us to this day, and will remain in a printed form with the church of Christ when we are gone to our rest.
One venerable, venerated form still lingers among us, though now retired into the shades of dignified seclusion, and waiting amidst much infirmity and suffering for his dismission to his rest; one in whom the poetic words of Scripture have been so accurately and so beautifully fulfilled, "The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon; he shall bring forth fruit unto old age." You will anticipate, perhaps, the name of Mr. Jay, for years the patriarch, and I may add, the glory of our ministry. In a letter I lately received from that hoary servant of our Lord, after referring with deep interest to these services, he says, in his own playful manner, "By the way I am a kind of grandson of Whitfield, he begat Winter, and Winter begat me." And were Whitfield still alive, or could have visited our world in times past to hear Mr. Jay as we have heard him, or to read those ten precious volumes so full of the same great truths which he himself preached; volumes which will be read wherever the English language is known, and evangelical piety is loved—how would he have rejoiced over this his noble descendant, whose pen has made us more intimately acquainted with the subject of this discourse by his memoirs of Winter than we even were before; and who has told us just enough of his spiritual grandsire's weaknesses to prevent our admiration from being exaggerated into unseemly adulation. Peace to you, aged servant of the Lord, may He whom you have so long and so well served be with you in your retirement and render the late evening of your life as calm as your present sufferings will allow! May the clouds that have gathered round your setting sun only serve magnificently to reflect the luster of your graces!
V. And now, inCONCLUSION, beloved brethren, what further use shall we make of this day's services? What shall be our reflections, our purposes, and our doings? Shall it be all empty, ineffectual admiration and praise of Whitfield, or shall it issue in a revival of his spirit, in our churches and their pastors? Think not that by such an inquiry, I am suggesting that our times are like those, when he by the sovereignty of God was given with Wesley, to our country and the world; given as a seraph from heaven, to commence a new era in the history of the church. Christendom was then like the Dead Sea in which nothing lived—and his ministry was like the waters that issued from the temple and flowed through the desert into the sea, until everything lived where the river came. There were no Sunday schools, no Bible, Missionary, or Tract Societies. The world was dead, the church asleep. What has not been done in the century which has elapsed since he left the scene? Could he come again upon earth, and drop down into our metropolis in the month of May, would he believe it was the same world? Say not, therefore, "Don't ask, 'Why were things better in the old days than they are now?' It isn't wisdom that leads you to ask this!" Still, I confess I am sometimes ready to ask—May not much of this be as the grass and flowers that bloom in the church-yard, verdure and beauty above, with decay and death beneath? Is the work of conversion going on with vigor under our ministry? Does the mighty wind which, at the sound of the prophet's voice, swept over the valley of dry bones, and caused first the shaking, then the vivification, and then the exceeding great army of living men—attend our ministry? My honored brethren, is it so? Does the quickening spirit enter dead souls with us, as might be expected if we were faithful and in earnest?
I know we may not expect all that was granted to Whitfield; nor may it be looked for that we should use all the means he used. There was no doubt much of sovereignty and peculiarity in his whole history. His wondrous oratory, the peculiarity of his times, the novelty of his measures, the daring courage of his lionhearted zeal, the exclusiveness of the pulpit as the means of popular instruction and conversion, gave him advantages which we do not possess. But have we not advantages which he did not possess? And is not God's mercy the same, Christ's death the same, the gospel the same—as they ever were? Have we not the same means of conversion to use, the same power of conversion to rely upon? Let us not lay the flattering unction to our souls and say, it is all to be resolved into divine sovereignty that we are not in some measure and according to our circumstances, as useful as he was. I admit that were he again upon earth, he would not altogether be as useful as he was when he was here, nor could he adopt all the measures he did. The times are changed, and measures and results change with them. But how intensely to be desired is it to have that seraphic, burning ardor, flaming at our great convocations, and kindling in our cold hearts a fire like that which glowed in his.
I tell you, brethren, it is the spirit of this devoted man accommodating itself to the circumstances of the age, that is needed, I mean the passion for saving souls. O could we this day, each and all of us, adopt the text as our motto; could we go home determined to take up this unity of purpose, this concentration of energy and effort, and resolve that the labors of the study and the pulpit, of the lecture and the Bible class, of our home and foreign service, shall all, all be poured into this one thing, the salvation of souls; could we, instead of attempting to preach great sermons, fine ones, eloquent ones, endeavor to preach good ones, and account those only good ones which tend to the good of souls—or could we strive to be great, eloquent, and even grand, as we might and should—but all to save souls; and were this to pervade our whole denomination—would we then have to complain of a lack of conversions? What are we really doing for this?
I ask for no wild enthusiasm; no startling extravagance; no pulpit trickery; no spiritual eccentricities; nothing but what the soberest reason and the most intelligent religion will justify. But I do want a more intense earnestness, a more inventive mind, a more eager desire. I want something more than effete formality and dull routine. I want all the concern, diligence, seriousness, awe, and trembling, which would be produced by a due sense of the value of souls, the danger of their being lost, and our responsibility for doing all we can to save them. My brethren, my brethren, souls are perishing all around us; "hell has enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure, and multitudes are descending into it." And here are we near this scene of destruction, to turn back the giddy throng, and prevent their rushing to destruction; and if in such a situation, and called to such an occupation, we can think of anything else but having compassion on their souls; saving them with fear, pulling them out of the fire; do we not deserve to perish ourselves, and is not this guilty indifference itself an evidence that we are on the road to perdition?
And what shall I now say to those who are not called to preach the word of life? Learn what kind of ministers the world needs for its regeneration, and which the church should ask of God. I admit, as I have already done, that the circumstances of the world and the church are in some measure altered, and that therefore we need pastors, somewhat different from this illustrious man—but still men imbued with his spirit, his piety, his dependence upon the Spirit of God, his love for souls, his devotedness, and his earnestness. Do not, I entreat you, corrupt the pulpit, and let not the pulpit corrupt you. You are right in demanding intelligence, learning, eloquence, elocution; but let not this be all you wish, and let it be your desire that all these may be baptized with the Spirit of God, consecrated at the cross, and employed in the salvation of souls. Be intent upon your own salvation. Be this your "one thing," and seek men who shall help you to accomplish it. Fix your eye, your heart, your hope, on eternal life, and consider that the chief design of the pulpit is to assist you to gain that.
Do not allow yourselves to be fascinated by the intellectualism to which the genius and eloquence of some few noted preachers and popular writers of modern times have given currency. And do not consent to be disciplined under such guidance, in the art and practice of listening to sermons as mere amateurs of elegant composition, and profound or picturesque thought. Do not, by your plaudits on such performances, draw your preachers, especially the younger ones, more and more into this style of preaching, the method of which is "to pass Christianity through the refining fire of each successive system of sentimental philosophy that attracts ephemeral attention." Believe me, there is some danger in this age of having both preachers and hearers drawn off from what is primary and fundamental, to what is merely secondary and circumstantial.
We are in many things improved, and I rejoice in the improvement; but the occasion of my joy is at the same time the occasion of my fear and my jealousy also. Our ecclesiastical architecture is just now a special object of our attention. Whitfield, it may be confessed, paid too little attention to this; we, perhaps, are paying too much. His only solicitude was to save souls, careless altogether of the tastefulness of the building within which his work, which had no relation to style of architecture, was carried on. His only calculation in the construction of a building was, how many immortal beings could be crowded within four square walls, and under a roof, to hear "the joyful sound." Hence the somewhat uncouth buildings which he erected. Ah—but when I consider that every stone in those unsightly walls has echoed to the sound of salvation and the hymns of redeemed spirits; and that almost every spot on the floor of those untasteful houses has been moistened by the tears of penitence, then, in a feeling of sanctity I seem to lose the sense of deformity, and there comes over me an awe and a solemnity which no Gothic structure, with its lofty arches and painted windows, can inspire.
But still, as religion is not only the most holy—but the most beautiful thing in God's universe, there is no reason why taste and devotion should not be united. It is the ministry of the word, however, upon which the church must be chiefly intent. The church has never been, since the apostles' days, nor was it even then, called to such a work as that which is now committed to it. God is evidently preparing his instruments and means for some mighty change in the world's condition. He is about to do a great work—but a work which he will not do without his people. He has in some measure awakened the church to a sense of her responsibilities. The Lord Jesus must have a church which will obey him, and he will have, as the latter day glory draws near, a church that will live for him, labor for him, and, if necessary, die for him. And if we will not make up our hearts to this tone of Christian enterprise, we had better die, and commit the interests of Christ to others, who will occupy for the Lord until he comes.
If, then, such must be the church, what must be its ministers? Look, I say again and again, at Whitfield, and see what kind of ministers you should pray for, when you beseech the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into his field. Of course I do not mean to say that we are to expect a race of such men as he, so gifted and extraordinary—this would be all but miraculous. But I do mean a race of men imbued with his spirit. Let it not be thought incredible, much less impossible, that such a ministry should be seen upon earth. We may have them, and we must have them. The world is to be converted, and to be converted principally by preaching, and by preaching adapted to the mighty result; but the ears of men will never hear such preaching until the primitive love of Christ and of souls, the primitive self-denial, simplicity, boldness, gentleness, and zeal return to the ministry. How slow is the course of the gospel, for lack of preachers so replenished with grace by the unction of the Holy Spirit. Truly if ever there was a period when the whole Christian world should be upon their faces before the throne of mercy, imploring with all the importunity and boldness and perseverance of faith a race of ministers, each full of the Holy Spirit as were Barnabas and Paul, that period is the one now passing over us. Not from one place or another—but from all quarters of the earth, testimony multiplies daily, that, amidst the greatest possible facilities for converting the world, a ministry greatly increased in number and more devoted is indispensable.
This testimony comes to us, not indeed as the Macedonian cry came to the apostle, in a supernatural vision—but in a manner not less affecting or decisive as to import. It is a real sound, which flies round the land, and rings in our ears all day long. Send us earnest, devoted preachers, is the universal, ceaseless demand. The churches are beginning to feel, and blessed be God for it! that nothing short of intense earnestness will do. Send us preachers and pastors, not merely scholars and masters of arts, is the demand of the churches upon our colleges. It comes from hundreds of our churches; it comes from our cities, towns, and villages; it comes to us from distant islands and continents; it is brought to us by every ship that leaves our colonies, and in the letters that come from our emigrants; and what deserves especial remark, it is echoed and urged with chief earnestness by our evangelizing associations for the world's conversion.
Shall we, dear brethren, solemnly pledge ourselves this day to renewed, importunate, and believing prayer for another such sovereign visitation to the church and the world as was granted when he, whose name has been so often repeated in this discourse, commenced his glorious career? O where is the Lord God of Elijah—where the God of Whitefield?
Illustrious man! Where have you dropped your mantle—or have you carried it with you to glory? I seem to see your sacred form hovering over the assembly, as if interested in these services. The eye so often suffused with the tears of pity it wept over lost souls, beams upon us with affection. If those lips, once so mighty and so tender with the accents of redeeming mercy, were permitted once more to address us, and to deliver a message from God, we can suppose what you would say to us, and in imagination we will listen to it as a voice from the eternal world. "Sinners, repent, believe, and live. Christians, be holy, useful, and devoted. Ministers of the gospel, watch, pray, labor, live, for souls—as those who must give account. Occupants of this place of worship, honor my memory by cherishing the spirit that reared it." Farewell, dear saint! Return to your rest, while we depart to fulfill those solemn injunctions, by which, though dead, though have spoken to us.
And O eternal God, who sent forth your seraph with a live coal from the altar to touch the lips of your servant, perform the same gracious act for us, and kindle a flame of sacred love in these cold hearts of ours—and make your ministers a flame of fire!