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The Preacher

( Originally Published 1912 )



"He preached the word unto them." —New Testament.

"There are those to whom the question of what shall be believed is the more interesting because they are to proclaim and teach what they believe."—Emerson.

Social custom sets its seal of disapproval upon all personal revelations. It is based upon the reasonable assumption that the public cannot take an absorbing interest in affairs pertaining only to an individual. An enactment, intended to have all the force of a prohibitory law, has been passed against talking of private business in a miscellaneous assembly; but, like all laws enacted against a strong organic tendency, it partly fails in accomplishing its object.

For some years the effort was made in the more cultured circles of London society to banish all remarks about the weather from conversation. It is reported that the attempt partially failed. Two reasons might be assigned for the failure. One is that it is a topic always present. The other is that all minds are equal to the task of conversing upon it. It does not demand any special mental endowment.

For other reasons, but in similar way, personal revelations cannot be wholly banished from conversation. It must be that they serve some purpose else the attempt to banish them would not fail. Perhaps it is nature's method of permitting each one of us to impress all others with the fact that he is an individual and counts for something. It is not a common characteristic of human nature to understate its work and pleasures and pains. This rather excusable egotism varies in quality with the character of those who indulge it. From the invalid, who delights to consider his complaint unique and loves to describe his symptoms, it widens until it reaches artists and poets who think they are in original fields and the philosopher who thinks he has discovered the key to all mysteries and feels a sense of injury in the misunderstanding and lack of appreciation on the part of the inferior multitude. Moreover, all persons have their favorite topic or pursuit. We are all specialists. When we meet, like the wedding guest detained by the Ancient Mariner, one of us is made the victim of the other and "cannot choose but hear."

We desire to bring forward this tendency to break the barriers of personal reserve as reason and apology for speaking at this hour of the preacher and his peculiar work. Having passed one Sunday morning speaking of the religious sentiment, and two successive Sunday mornings, speaking of the historic and actual church as agent of this sentiment, the topic of this hour comes in a half logical order. It comes as a corollary to the main proposition and is of less importance. It is also less interesting to every one, unless it be the preacher himself. The theme is chosen deliberately, notwithstanding its lack of general interest. Everything has some use. Thus, if this topic fails as interest it may succeed as discipline. Furthermore, if it were demanded that the preacher always be interesting, he would cease to exist. It is often charged that ministers are behind the times, but if this demand were enforced they would be much farther in the rear. They would be an extinct species.

No one knows, definitely, when or how this order of beings originated. However, it is certain that it is very ancient. The oldest architectural ruins are those of temples, but the priests must have antedated them. The earliest tablets represent not only kings on their thrones, warriors going to battle, farmers cultivating the fields, and shepherds tending their flocks, but priests ministering at the altars. We do not know when they did not exist. They are perhaps an outgrowth of the principle of the division of labor. In the primitive ages religion, science and poetry were more closely united than at present. Thus the priest, the philosopher and the poet were all combined in one order of beings.

The material of religion, science, and poetry is all in one thing,—in nature. That is, in all of nature. It includes not only all visible and tangible forms of earth and air and sky, but the unseen, impalpable soul with its power to think and will and wonder. How nature appears depends much upon the temperament of him who beholds it. It also changes to meet the many varying moods which in turn sweep through the soul. Asking, what caused the world and why does it exist? man becomes, in part, a philosopher. Overtaken by ecstasy, his spirit rushing out to mingle with all the myriad formed, myriad colored phenomena of nature,—with clouds and stars and seasons and flowers and sunsets and the rose flushed dawn—and making them symbols of his thoughts and emotions, he becomes a poet. If, back of all appearances, he sees an enduring and awful Power and is overborne by his duty to proclaim what he sees he becomes a prophet. One who dwells upon the earthward side of life with its incompleteness, and having some talent for organization and a fondness for ritual, will become a priest. Thus sages, seers, bards, and priests have a common origin. They all arose from the attempt of humanity to solve the meaning of the universe. This is a noble origin. If modern occupants of the pulpit are in the line of natural succession they need not be ashamed of their parentage. Like Paul they are excusable if sometimes they seem to magnify their office.

Widely different estimates have been placed upon this order of beings. It has run all the way from zero to infinity. From Lucretius onward to Voltaire and Ingersoll there have been those who thought their influence was baleful. Others have thought that they and the institutions under their care have been the main channel through which good has flowed to the world. Because the data, upon which a definite conclusion could be founded, are absent, the dispute must remain unsettled. We know what society has been and is with their constant presence; but no one could know what it would have been with their continual absence. Probably the real truth is found at neither extreme. Like everything growing out of human powers and relations, their influence has been a commingling of good and evil, sometimes one, sometimes the other being in the ascendant. Judging them, as we judge all things, it is enough to establish their right to existence if, in the long course of things, their good has outweighed their evil influence.

That their influence has, at times, been very great no reader of history can doubt. Kings have been powerful, but sometimes these have been more powerful. In ancient Media kings and nobles approached the priest with tokens of submission. By their battles, warriors have sometimes changed the course of history; but the priest has often commanded the generals. No war was declared without first consulting the oracles. For three days, Hildebrand kept Henry IV standing in the snow outside the walls of Canossa. Louis XIII was as so much wax in the hands of Richelieu. Mary Stuart said she feared John Knox more than she did an army of ten thousand soldiers. Around them temples have grown. They have invented the ornate ritualism of Pagan and Christian times. The litanies have issued from their minds and hearts. The sacred books are their work. In their ranks, from Isaiah to Savonarola, have been many heralds of righteousness. Thousands of them, unknown to fame, have lived their simple lives, faithfully doing the duties assigned them.

As priests they have seemed to bear human lives with their incompleteness, sense of guilt, uprisings and downfallings, to the bar of heaven and ask forgiveness for them. As prophets, trying to discover the will of the Highest, and, in tones of love or terror, reporting it to their fellow mortals, they have appeared in all lands. As humble preachers of Christianity, not known outside of their own neighborhood, hundreds of them have tried to emphasize the nobler side of life. Doubtless some of them have been ignorant; some bigoted; some selfish; some vain; some insincere. All of them have been very human. They have been swayed by the same motives that sway all mankind. But among them were many who, accepting their calling as a sacred trust, have sought to fulfill its highest meaning. Most of all, they themselves have sorrowed when they have fallen far below their intention. Among them have been those who were full of sympathy for the world; those who sought to raise the fallen and cheer the despairing ; those who were enemies of all vice and friends of all virtue. Living unselfish and sustained lives they themselves

" Allured to brighter worlds, and led the way."

From among them, here and there, are seen emerging forms that have risen to wonderful heights,—as the mountains rise above the surrounding hills. There are many, from Paul and Chrysostom onward to Whitfield and Wesley, whose names the world will not soon suffer to fade into oblivion. If as churchmen the denominations should permit them to pass out of sight, humanity would quickly bring them back as men. It is not the church alone, but, to them, all mankind is under obligation.

This order of mankind is not everywhere nor at all times the same. The Hebrew prophets were different from those who preceded them. The Christian apostles were different from the prophets. A change may be seen in the preachers succeeding the first apostles. As the Renaissance period formed a new order of artists and poets, so the Reformation brought a new form of preachers to the surface of time. Bossuet might equal Jeremiah in eloquence and zeal, but there was one fact made them different: One lived in Pales-tine in the fifth century before, the other lived in France in the seventeenth century after Christ. Eliot and Paul may have had the same message to declare, but it was greatly modified by the fact that the one declared it to the North American Indians and the other declared it to Grecian Philosophers. Demosthenes and Patrick Henry were both great orators; but Athens chose the theme for one and Virginia chose it for the other. In each case it was poetry; but the times could not give the sanie themes to Whittier and Tennyson they gave to Virgil and to Homer. It was the age told Angelo what to paint, told Dante what to write, and told monarchs how to rule.

In a similar way each age comes along and tells its preachers what to preach. The same waves of influence which have changed the whole contour of modern life have beaten steadily against the pulpit. The sanie forces that have made a new science and a new literature have made a new theology. This has made necessary a new kind of preacher. Along with the hard and cruel and irrational doctrines of religion have gone those who expounded such doctrines. A certain form of theological product being no longer needed, its agents have gone out of business.

There has been no other period since the Reformation when so few dogmas were preached as at the present time. Those who have reduced the essential doctrines to a minimum are not all found in any one of the many sects. Each denomination possesses preachers who care much less for its distinctive doctrines than they do for humanity at large; who love religion much more than they do their special theology. If English Unitarians are proud of Martineau, English Church-men place Stanley beside him. In America Freeman Clarke was matched by Phillips Brooks. If the Congregationalist insists that his church produced Beecher, the Presbyterian responds that his church produced Swing. The fact that, in the heretical churches, there are some preachers narrow in their thought and shallow in their sympathies and, in the orthodox churches, there are some who are broad in their thought and profound in their sympathies, is fatal to the expectation that the world will be only helped by the former and hindered by the latter churches. The conclusion is that there is no mental and spiritual sunshine falling upon one church alone. The truth seems to be that there is a group of large souled men emerging from all the denominations who are heralds of a noble Christianity instead of a merely sectarian theology. They are not so much the products of their denominations as of the great age in which they live.

That they are not coming in greater numbers is to be regretted. Thinking of the need for them, regret may deepen into anxiety. Perhaps one reason for their appearance in such small numbers may be found in the defective quality of the special schools endowed to produce them. The output of some of the preacher factories is not such as the world needs. Perhaps it is not so now; but it is difficult to conceive of anything more inadequate for his real work than the preparation given to the young preacher in the theological seminaries of twenty-five years ago. Their scholarship was mostly of the middle-age variety. The students were kept for months over Greek and Hebrew texts. The teaching was all hostile to science. The young candidate for the ministry was compelled to write an essay in the Latin of the schoolmen in which he defended some dogma of the denomination. Often this dogma ought not to have been defended. This was for two reasons: One of them is it was not true; the other is, if it were true it was of no importance. As a result of this the young preacher came forth at the end of three years from an artificial, into a real world. The shock was very trying. He knew the dead languages, but he was a stranger to the living men and women and the vital issues of human life. He had a little scholarship, but no inspiration. If he had any insight or originality when he entered the seminary it had been put to death and buried beneath a pile of medieval rubbish. Often the first task of the young preacher, after he had recovered from his pained surprise, at the discrepancy between his instruction and the demands of the actual world, was to go on a search for his lost self. Fortunate was he if he was successful in finding it. Some were not successful. Hence it is that so many artificial and spectral personages are found in the ministry. Not only their dress, but their manners and the tones of their voice are peculiar. It is not difficult to classify them. They are not men. They are not women. They are simply clergymen and have wholly lost the power of ever forgetting the sad fact.

There are periodical inquiries raised as to whether preaching is not on the decline and will not finally cease. In the present condition of things an affirmative answer to the inquiry is unwarranted . The pulpit may not be powerful in its influence upon society, but what influence it may possess cannot be spared. It does not suffer very much when compared with other mental and moral agencies. There are not many great preachers; but the other professions are not crowded with greatness. If there are not many notable preachers neither are there many notable lawyers or doctors or editors or teachers or actors or statesmen. Sometimes it is suggested that the multitude of books and periodicals will finally supplant the work of the pulpit. This is not likely to occur. The newspaper cannot take the place of the orator in political campaigns. The orator can give something that the editorial cannot give, namely, heat;—a personal conviction in immediate action upon assembled minds and hearts. As a teacher, the pulpit is no longer needed. Books and newspapers have made it unnecessary. But as an inspirer and awakener of the soul it is still needed. Our times abound with great social and spiritual problems. Perhaps no other era ever presented a greater field for human thought and emotion. If the preacher becomes silent, it will not be because the world is empty of themes upon which to speak. It will rather be because the themes are so many and so impressive that the mind sinks beneath them. The task of the preacher is not to instruct, but to illustrate and emphasize what his hearers already know. Using the common facts and common knowledge as material of a sermon, the preacher's business is to show their relation to life and make them glow with spiritual meaning. He may know science but he will not preach it as a science. He may know literature, but he will not preach it merely as literature. He may know political economy, theory of government, art, and philosophy, but he will not merely lecture upon them. He will use them as illustration and symbol of that which produces them,—namely, the Soul, and how they stand related to the absolute truth and goodness and beauty. Meditating in soltitude upon these things a sacred fire will glow in his heart, and, at the appointed time, compelled to speak, his sole aim will be to kindle a similar flame in the breast of all who listen. His art consists in first bringing himself and then all who hear him into right relations with the world and with God and in opening to all the mysterious grandeur and beauty of the material and spiritual universe in which we live. With this aim in view, the preacher need not apologize for his presence on earth.

Of course he often falls far below this ideal. He, himself, is fully aware of this. Persons often find fault with their preacher. This is their undoubted right. But if they could sometime hear him find fault with himself !

After he is through criticising his own sermons all other criticism gives him no pain. It is not possible for one to speak as often as a preacher must and not make many mistakes. He makes them, not because he is preacher, but because he is a man. In a cultivated and critical audience a sermon has a hard time. Those who are acquainted with science will notice any short-coming in that field. The philosophers will find any weakness it may have in their realm. Rhetoricians will notice a bad figure of speech. Grammarians will find false syntax. The historians will find a wrong date. Some one thinks a couplet of poetry is misquoted or credited to the wrong author. Another hears a word mispronounced. The delivery is poor. Some sins are rebuked too much; others not enough Like those taken prisoner by the Indians the sermon has to run the gauntlet; and it receives so many blows that, at the end, the poor thing is nearly dead.

All of which is unavoidable and perfectly allow-able. But this is not what disturbs the preacher. This is not what so often sends him alone into a half despair and banishes sleep from his eyes or, Macbeth-like, at times seems to have murdered it. No; the real trouble comes from a consciousness that the whole thing is inadequate. The defect is fatal. There was an opportunity and it was lost Meaning to make the hour memorable and sacred, he has lowered and profaned it. Intending to be a prophet of the Highest, to stand for spiritual realities and stir every soul to noble endeavors, he has failed. He fears that he has hindered not helped; that his utterances have been colored by expediency; and that he is on the way to become a mere pensioner and mouth-piece of those who pay his salary. When a preacher is through with himself all other fault-finding seems harmless.

In thinking of the function of the true preacher, it is well to recall that human speech has always played a great part in the world. Every reform has been borne along on a, torrent of impassioned words. They are not only the argument; they are the motive and inspiration of the great case. Thus, the true sermon is a life motive. It is the speech of an earnest man upon the greatest of all themes. Its work is to turn philosophy and all common knowledge into benevolence and trust and goodness. It is morality with a fire kindled within. It is truth suffused with sacred emotion. The work of the true preacher is like that of the mysterious, but beloved traveler to Emmaus:—to make burn within them the hearts of all those who are journeying through these great days towards a greater beyond.

It is to be hoped that out of our amazing surroundings will emerge many true heralds of the religious sentiment. They will be advocates of all that is exalted and holy and enduring in the world. In an age immersed in material things, they will boldly declare the supremacy of the spiritual. When war rages, they will plead for peace nor ever lose faith in the power of love to save mankind. They will de-demand in the state, justice; in business, honesty; in society, purity. Preaching a gospel of good-will for all in this life, they will preach a gospel of eternal hope for all who pass beyond it. May God forbid that such preachers should ever fail from our beloved earth!

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