ON THE OCCASION OF
THE ANNUAL COMMENCEMENT
GENERAL THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
PROTESTANT EPISCOPAL CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES;
ST. JOHN'S CHAPEL, JUNE 26, 1835,
RT. REV. BENJAMIN B. SMITH, D.D.
Published by request of the Board of Trustees
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2013
THE character of a good minister of JESUS CHRIST is an unearthly character. It is not natural to him in whom it has been created by the power of the HOLY GHOST. It is neither impressed by the influence of education, nor the power of example; nor is it in the slightest degree congenial with the state of human society. On the contrary, it is a character, to the formation of which every ordinary influence within and from without the man, is entirely unfriendly. With almost as much truth might it be said that the character of the Lord JESUS CHRIST himself was the natural production of the age in which he lived, as to say that society, in any of the forms in which it has hitherto been developed, has a natural tendency to produce great and good ministers of the word of GOD. The elements of earth may join together in forming a bad man; but many divine influences must conspire to make a good minister. His character is entirely of a heavenly mould.
And yet, with much truth it may be stated that this character, cast in a mould essentially unearthly, is liable to many modifications from the influence of surrounding circumstances. As a whole, it is formed by the HOLY GHOST; but in its parts, its proportions, and its coloring, it is exposed to being marred and soiled by many social influences, and generally speaking, it is then most perfect when casual influences are least unfavorable, or, if they ever can be, are most propitious.
Who can doubt that ministers whose characters were formed of GOD, have presided over the churches of Asia and of Greece since the sad hour of the conquest of the Turk? But was it even in that heaven-born character, not to be debased by the rod of the oppressor? And doubtless many holy men of GOD [3/4] have here and there rendered some of the links in the chain of apostolic succession, very illustrious in the Syrian and Abyssinian Churches. And yet they must have been more than human, had they been as learned, as exemplary, and as useful as were the fathers of the English Church. And even that fairest, if not first-born, of the daughters of the Reformation, has been placed under such strange varieties of situation, that the self-same heaven-born character in the best of her bishops and other clergy, has undergone modifications equally great and strange. Of one age, we are accustomed to say that it was remarkably unfavorable to the formation of the best ministerial character; and of another, as the LORD graciously permits us to speak of the past and of the present, that never did an age demand higher attainments in the clergy, and few, since the Apostles' times, have there been more wonderfully calculated to form the character which the age requires.
It is difficult for us to speak with perfect impartiality of some influences which we conceive still to exist in our mother Church of England somewhat unfavorable to the formation of the best ministerial character. In adverting to them for a moment, we can only admire that abounding grace of our Lord JESUS CHRIST, which, notwithstanding these unfavorable circumstances, is raising that character both in England and Ireland higher and higher, and to an elevation which is already the wonder and the joy of all those who are acquainted with it, and have hearts to appreciate it.
But for the purpose of pointing out our own duty, and of stimulating us to great exertion, it may not be unprofitable, young Gentlemen, nor unsuitable to the present occasion, to advert to those more exalted traits of the character of a good minister, in which it is the will of our Lord JESUS CHRIST that we should excel; and then to show that the circumstances of our country alike demand, and are calculated to impress, the very same traits in the highest possible degree.
It is the will of our Lord JESUS CHRIST that his ministers should go forth to their work well furnished in all the learning and attainments of the age in which they live, and [4/5] thoroughly well prepared with every attainable human qualification for the labors in which they are to be engaged. Else, why did he inspire his Apostles with the gift of tongues, and select for the work of evangelizing the Gentiles a man so highly accomplished in all the learning of his times as St. Paul? And why have the best, the wisest and the most useful of his ministers, in every age, and in every country, excelled in their devotion to the cause of sacred literature? Surely, from these facts, there is no presumption in drawing the inference, that it is the will of our Lord JESUS CHRIST, that each of his ministers should aim at the highest human qualifications for his work which GOD has placed within his reach.
The Church does well in requiring what her Divine Head requires; and I am only to show that the circumstances of our country make the same demand, and also furnish the best facilities for complying with it, in order to encourage and to enforce the highest measures of application on the part of our candidates for Holy Orders.
The clergy in all ages have greatly blessed the world by taking the lead in all the advances of human learning. But the exciting notes which they almost alone at first sounded, have now been taken up by thousands, and the multitude is all alive with eagerness to know more and more. How pitiable it would be to see those who have heretofore been foremost in the ranks of human learning, constrained to fall back, and to take the lowest place. And yet the clergy cannot hold rank amongst learned men, and continue to shed a sanctifying influence over leading minds, unless they make mighty efforts to excel in all the wisdom suitable to their holy calling.
It has been said, "that education takes hold of the four corners of the frame-work of human society, and raises it higher and higher." If it be the office of the Christian ministry to repress whatever is evil in the workings of the social system, and to infuse into it the only principle which is capable of pervading it, like leaven, until the whole is leavened; why, then, the ministry must be elevated as the community [5/6] becomes elevated, and retain that ascendancy for good over less-cultivated minds, which learning hath hitherto given it. And great, indeed, must be the attainments of that body of clergy which, without presumption, may claim rank with the best talent and the first scholars of our rapidly improving country.
There are many indications that here, in America, old controversies are to be fiercely renewed, and, stripped of all adventitious circumstances, are to be reduced to first principles, throwing us back more and more upon the writings of the first times, and compelling us to the mastery of the sound learning of every period. And, therefore, the minister who would be well fitted for the contest upon which he may be called forth, must needs be furnished with the best learning of the best times in the Church.
Is it not remarkable, that the same Providence which is evidently calling us to higher theological attainments, is also furnishing us with the means thereto? Never was more learning required, and never could it more readily be obtained. Our theological seminaries have given a new impulse to the cause of sacred literature. The field is becoming better understood, the apparatus for study more perfect, the aptness of teachers more ready, our libraries more complete, and the way to large attainments much more open, if not more easy. And what is well worthy of notice, we Americans occupy a sort of neutral ground, midway between those European nations who are contending for the palm of eminence in theological literature. We owe a profound, but are misled by no blind respect for the theology of our mother Church in England. We have access to the stores of theological learning accumulated by the patient diligence of German biblists. Indeed it would almost seem as if the incredible labors of these grammarians, lexicographers, compilers, and book makers, had been undertaken, not for themselves, but for the scholars of a later age, who, using the exquisite tools which their ingenious patience hath constructed, are able with vastly less labor to arrive at far more important results. The learning of other ages, and of the whole world, is for our use, and that [6/7] without those prejudices and prepossessions which have hitherto prevented its thorough application to the highest purposes. It is hard to conceive for what many of these German scholars submitted to their Herculean tasks, unless it were to fill up life with a drudgery which had become essential to their existence.
But we see the design of Providence delightfully vindicated, when we perceive the same elementary works in the hands of men of more inductive minds, employed in the development of truth under more convincing forms, and in laying deep and broad the foundations of a system of interpretation, which perhaps is to quiet most controversies, and to harmonize Christian minds and hearts as they have not been for centuries. We yield the palm to the German mind for details and for minute analysis; we honor the English mind for the development of principles, and for just and accurate reasonings; but is it presumption in us to hope that a higher honor is reserved for the American mind—the honor of arriving upon inductive principles, to large, and true and practical results?
The analyses of the documents of Christianity by the German writers are almost perfect. There is now scarcely wanted either grammar, lexicon, concordance, or index, which may not be found ready made for our use, and that in a form of almost perfect accuracy. And few of the collateral helps on geography, antiquities, manners and customs, habits and opinions, but what are ready furnished to our hands. And yet the German mind appears singularly deficient in the powers of just generalization. They do generalize indeed upon a most magnificent scale, but it is not upon the facts, but upon sublime and transcendental principles, strangely aside from the facts. Does it not remain for our countrymen to apply these ready-made helps to the accurate induction of facts, in the establishment of general principles, not ideal and illusory, but true and practical as the facts upon which they are founded?
No class of mind is more honest and truthful, than that of the English theological student. And yet there is something rather doctrinal, documentary, and so to speak, professional [7/8] and hereditary, in most of their works, that we fail of realizing the full benefit of their inductive powers, not because they are not possessed, but because they are not thoroughly drawn forth.
There is a decided and happy change in this respect, the first impulse to which was perhaps received unconsciously from the continent. But the results are seen in some of the most lucid, thorough and philosophic analyses of the early documents of our religion, which the press has ever produced. Our Church will be strangely wanting in her duty, if her young men do not aspire to distinction in the same paths of investigation. Inductive works on the doctrines of Christianity, upon the history of those doctrines, and upon all the great questions of ecclesiastical polity and history, are still wanted. The apparatus for the work is ready, but the mind and the hand to apply it wisely and successfully are still lacking. But under the training to which our young men are now subjected, can it be supposed that they will be lacking long?
It is the will of our Lord JESUS CHRIST, that all who preach his Gospel should be distinguished for their pious zeal, and for their disinterested missionary spirit.
Without this spirit how strange and how unhappy in this country is the position of a minister of CHRIST. He is inactive, where every consideration which can move the heart of man should prompt him to mighty exertions. He is selfish and worldly-minded, where the food of his base and sinful passion is greatly wanting. He has chosen a profession which, most happily, is almost invariably connected with privations and sacrifices, merely to secure personal ends, which he finds to be utterly unattainable.
On the other hand, those who enter the ministry from right motives, and are impelled only by disinterested feelings, amid the duties of their ministry find themselves entirely surrounded by congenial influences. They cannot be idle if they would; circumstances absolutely force them to exertion. And, as to proposing to themselves any selfish or worldly aims, the hopelessness and the absurdity of the thought would surely check them as its baseness. A man, at this time of [8/9] day, and in this country, to take upon him "the priest's-office for a morsel of bread!" it were wiser for him, had he no higher aim, to addict himself to the lowest and meanest secular employment.
This state of things, it is to be feared, is not understood beforehand by all the young men who are looking forward to the ministry; or perhaps, if their selfish hearts are not so gross as to calculate upon emolument where none is to be had, there is no slight ground for apprehension, that some, at least, are misled by a more refined selfishness, and are very unduly influenced in their wish to enter the ministry, by the hope of literary ease, or the excitement of popular applause, or by the respect and attentions paid to the holy office, or by some motive equally unworthy and equally offensive to GOD.
As a general thing, however, it is most happy for the Church that her outward circumstances repel from her altars the unholy and the profane, the selfish and the worldly-minded; and that those who find themselves involved in the responsibilities of this sacred work, are impelled, not only by principle, and by the influence of the HOLY SPIRIT, but by the unavoidable necessities of their position, to renounce self, to cast away sloth, to trample all worldly considerations under foot, to embrace the cross, and to look forward for their reward to the possession not of a temporal, but of an eternal crown. It is getting to be well understood that those who are not willing to give up all for CHRIST, and who are not actuated by the strongest and noblest missionary spirit, have utterly mistaken their calling, if they think of becoming the servants of the Church. The will of our Lord JESUS CHRIST in this respect, is loudly, is practically enforced by the state of the country, and the circumstances of the times. In this state of things, is it too much to hope that traits of ministerial character will be developed, and examples of missionary disinterestedness exhibited, more exalted and more constraining, than the world has witnessed since the times of the Apostles?
The peculiar wants of America demand the highest measures of disinterested missionary zeal. Here, at home, the sighs and moans of the poor, the ignorant and the depraved echo [9/10] through all the alleys, and issue from all the wretched cellars and garrets of our crowded cities. At the South, masters and statesmen are looking abroad for enlightened and judicious missionaries, to impart to the colored population that religious instruction which is likely to render them holy and happy in both worlds. And along our remoter northern and western boundaries, the few remaining scattered native population of this continent, are waiting to be pointed to heaven, before the race shall become utterly extinct. Few countries embrace so many foreign nations and so many heathen within its own borders as America; and few others permit, what may not improperly be called foreign missions at home, and home missions amongst the heathen, to the same extent with America. And deep will be the dishonor, and frightful the responsibility which will cleave to our Church, if, under such circumstances, the constraining love of CHRIST does not exalt her to the highest rank amongst her sister missionary branches of the Church.
In like manner, the position of America calls for the same expansion of missionary zeal and effort. One other nation only upon earth touches so many coasts, and embraces so many islands with its commerce as America. These channels of universal commerce solicit and demand to be freighted with missionaries, with presses, with Bibles, with tracts, with teachers, with the implements of national and domestic comfort and wealth, and with all the means of intellectual and moral improvement. And if they bring back wealth upon us, without carrying forth the Gospel from us, they will inundate the land with corruption and a curse. We must either become a missionary people, or GOD will render us an accursed people. And our Church must stand high in the rank of those who have been foremost to bear the Gospel to the Heathen, or her station will become fearful, as a monument of desolation and wrath which GOD himself hath smitten.
It is the will of our Lord JESUS CHRIST, that all those upon whom he has conferred the highest of all honors, the commission to preach the Gospel, should excel in humility.
Pride, in all its forms, is a most unnatural and odious passion. [10/11] We cannot witness it in a man of the world without pain, much less in a follower of the meek and lowly JESUS. And the least manifestation of it in a minister of the sanctuary—in one whom the Saviour hath invited to stand so near to himself—in one whose office is invested with such awful responsibilities—in one who has to do with so great a work, and to render such a solemn account—and one from whom so much is expected, and by whom so much is to be done, at the same time that he is nothing but darkness, weakness and helplessness in himself—in such a one, the slightest manifestation of pride is absolutely shocking!
It grieves me to feel constrained to express the fear that the spirit of the ministry is more defective amongst us, in this respect, than in almost any other. Most of us seem to find it easier to catch the bustling, boastful, positive, and self-confident manners of the age in which we live, than to submit our whole hearts and souls to the influence of that humbling religion which we profess.
And yet, rightly considered, the circumstances by which our ministers are surrounded, admirably concur with the Divine influences to make our most active and laborious, our most humble ministers. They have so much to do and so little to do it with—they meet with so many difficulties and discouragements—they perceive so wide a field even now ripe unto the harvest, and so few willing to enter into it—they are so impressed with the growing greatness of our country, and of the need of corresponding efforts to meet the spiritual wants of the rising millions—they feel the Church so worthy of honor and acceptance, and yet see her so generally slighted or opposed—and they so feel, or should feel, the worth of the souls of the millions of our race who are still living and dying unblessed with the light of the Gospel—that one would think that all lightness, frivolity and vanity, would be utterly eradicated from their hearts and characters. A trifling minister indulging his levity amidst the millions who are perishing for want of his sympathies, his labors, and his prayers—a vain and boastful minister betraying his pride and self-conceit amid the monuments of his own culpable [11/12] neglect and unfaithfulness—what sight can be more shocking!
It is further the will of GOD in CHRIST JESUS, that his ministers should, in a very eminent sense, be men of prayer.
It must be granted that some of the circumstances of our country are unfriendly to the growth of this spirit in our ministers. They are called upon for so much active exertion, so much visiting is expected of them, so much forwardness and zeal in all our benevolent institutions, and so much labor in the Sunday school, the Bible class and the evening religious meetings, that there is sad danger of the intrusion of an anxious, busy, feverish spirit, exceedingly hostile to the spirit of prayer. On the other hand, however, this very action, these very meetings, this very zeal, lead to an experience which will most powerfully enforce the necessity and the sole efficacy of prayer. At any time, and under any circumstances, to think of blessing the Church with our labors, unless they are thoroughly sanctified by the word of GOD and prayer, would not only be absurd, but absolutely profane; but where there is so much to be done, as there is for the Church in this country, where the field is so vast and the laborers so few—where the elements afloat are so mighty, and yet so inaccessible to any one man, or to any body of men, to guide and control them only to salutary results—to labor without prayer, is literally to labor without reason and without hope. Other things being equal, that minister's measures and success will be best, who prays most. The natural influence of much prayer over himself and his people, in furthering his benevolent and holy objects, is the very best collateral influence which can be invoked. And then, when we remember that GOD hath said that for all these things he will be inquired of, and that he will not fail to give us all those things which we ask for, in patient, humble faith, we are constrained to feel that prayer is better than learning, better than talent, better than zeal, better than all other gifts without it, as without it all other gifts would be valueless; and that it heightens and enhances the value of all other gifts a thousand fold. Wherefore, in all your plans and doings, young Gentlemen, remember that [12/13] the spirit of prayer, and a life of prayer, are first of all, and above every thing else, to be cultivated and followed.
Those artificial and far from religious elements of society which in other ages and in distant lands have exerted an unfavorable influence upon the character of the ministers of the Church, have still served in some measure to create for them, when their characters were gone, an unnatural support and a constrained reverence which have prevented them from sinking to the true level of their own intrinsic worthlessness and baseness. The influence of an establishment, the arm of civil power, respect for the clerical profession, connection with learned and time-honored institutions, and exalted worldly connections, have been known to sustain men for a time whose worthless characters would soon have reduced them to the lowest level.
In this country, on the other hand, if a minister has not character, what has he? If his own learning, disinterestedness, humility, and exalted Christian worth, do not, by the blessing of GOD, sustain him, what can? It is one of the healthy workings of our institutions, both in the Church and in our civil affairs, that, sooner or later, every man finds his level. He can gather around him few casual accessories or aids which can raise him for any length of time above his just standing. In a word, it pleases GOD, in our Church, at the present day, to throw back our ministers exclusively upon the elements of their own characters. If they are the children of GOD—if they are lofty, zealous, laborious men—by GOD's blessing they cannot fail to rise. If they remain indolent or unlettered—if they indulge literary caprice or vanity—if they betray pride or selfishness, they must expect the pity of the good, the contempt of the scorner, and the malediction of GOD.
Judge then, young Gentlemen, into what depths of degradation the race of young ministers to which you are to belong must sink, if you not only remain deaf to the voice of conscience, to the admonitions of history, and to the strivings of GOD'S Spirit, but also to the voice of your age and of your country, which is calling you to high and noble things in your ministry. To go forth from this most highly-honored [13/14] seat of sacred learning in our Church, with low attainment and without studious habits—to enter upon your ministry in this energetic and driving age, without zeal and perseverance—and to place yourselves upon the great missionary field which our Church presents from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, without being animated by the missionary spirit—how certain the fall, how deep the dishonor, how terrible the curse, to which you must inevitably be reduced!
The fathers, the clergy, the friends of the Church, look with increased anxiety and greater hope to each successive class graduating from our theological seminaries. They have a right to expect better scholarship, as the ability of teachers, the number of books, and the aids to study are daily increasing. And surely, as the wants of the Church are better known, and the extent of the missionary field, both at home and abroad, is better understood, they have a right to anticipate a great increase of missionary zeal. A young clergyman, some twenty years ago, might have made many a reasonable excuse for his lack of that holy, self-sacrificing zeal, a want of which would now be utterly inexcusable. What! shall young men just commissioned to the holy office, be deaf to the calls of their country, of the Church, and of her Divine Head, to make full proof of their ministry, and sink down into criminal listlessness, or addict themselves to unworthy worldly pursuits? What! when the cry of souls ready to perish is borne on every wind, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, shall they take counsel of their love of ease, their taste for human literature, or of their worldly-minded friends, and refuse to go to any part of the missionary field to which GOD shall call them?
Remember, young Gentlemen, that the great Head of the Church has placed you under influences more favorable for the formation of a high ministerial character, than with others has been the case perhaps for ages. You may, if you will, unite in yourselves more learning, more pious active zeal, more of a spirit of humility and prayer, than any of your predecessors, it may be, since the Apostles' own times. What you may become, the Church, the world, the Saviour of man-kind, [14/15] all expect that you will become. And yet this kind goeth not forth but by prayer and fasting. You cannot even succeed well in your studies without prayer. Much less can you grow in humility, and in a spirit of benevolence and self-sacrifice without much and fervent prayer.
It is refreshing to look up for every thing to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. He who hath called us to the ministry is able to fit us for it, and bless us in it. And He who hath placed us under circumstances requiring the utmost measure of learning and humility—of missionary energy and patient prayer—blessed be his name, he is able to make all grace to abound in us, that all men may take knowledge of us that we have been with JESUS, and have learned of him.