Text courtesy of Margaret B. Smith, Archives of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut
1335 Asylum Avenue; Hartford, Connecticut 06105
BALTIMORE, May 30, 1844.
Rev'd and Dear Sir:
THE undersigned, members of the Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church, in the Diocess of Maryland, request for publication, the Sermon delivered by you at the opening of the Convention.
J. N. M'JILTON, D. H. BUEL, SAM'L G. CALLAHAN, JOHN B. KERFOOT, THEO. B. LYMAN, RUSSELL TREVETT, RICH'D H. WATERS, H. T. HARRISON, G. F. WORTHINGTON, JOHN W. HOFFMAN, SAM'L I. DONALDSON, E. F. CHAMBERS, SAMUEL BUEL, WM. PINKNEY, NORRIS M. JONES, J. A. BUCK, JOHN CROSDALE.
BALTIMORE, June 5th, 1844.
In compliance with the request in your late letter, I send you a copy of the Sermon I delivered at the opening of the Convention of our Diocess, at its last session. This subject is important, and is becoming every day more and more so. The wild waves of anarchy are breaking around us, and threatening to engulph every thing that we hold dear. If the authority of the ministry be surrendered, another bulwark falls, and the end becomes more certain, and draws nearer. The feeblest effort to uphold so important an institution may not be without its use.
I remain, with great respect,
Your obedient servant,
MESSRS. J. N. M’JILTON, D. H. BUEL, &c.
ST. MATT. VIL 25.
He taught them as one having authority.
THERE must have been, in our Lord's manner of instruction, a dignity and power truly awful; for we find that the authority with which He spoke, impressed itself alike on friend and foe, and was commemorated by different writers, in language nearly identical. It was at the close of the Sermon on the Mount, that St. Matthew observes, "that the people were astonished at his doctrine, for that he taught them as one having authority." At another time, he was discoursing in the synagogue at Capernaum, and so weighty were his words, and so majestic his manner, that St. Mark records the same effect as having been produced, and assigns the same cause for it. And the very officers sent to arrest him while teaching in the temple at Jerusalem, returned to their employers, and said, "never man spake like this man." This authority of the great teacher was, no doubt, in its most eminent sense, peculiar and incommunicable. It was the radiance of his divine glory, shining through the veil of the flesh, and inspiring all who approached him with an indefinable reverence and amazement. Perfect holiness, infinite wisdom, boundless love, gave to his instructions a superhuman grandeur, and constrained even the ignorant, the prejudiced, and the wicked, albeit they [5/6] knew not wherefore, to listen to him with awe and trembling of heart.
Well, indeed, might He teach with authority; Who had been with the Father from everlasting, who by His wisdom had founded the earth, by His understanding had established the heavens. Well might He authoritatively declare the will of God; Who had from the beginning participated in the councils of the Most High, and dwelt, from eternity, in his bosom. We wonder not that the people were astonished at His doctrine, Who could tell them all things that ever they had done or thought. No mere child of the dust, can hope, without blasphemy, without madness, to give to his instructions the commanding authority of his Divine Teacher, the Mighty God, Who had, for a time, taken on Him the form of a servant.
But Jesus had authority, not only by His own inherent power and majesty, but by derivation from his Father. Not only was He God, but likewise was He the appointed Mediator. Not only to Him did all the prophets bear witness, "for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy;" not only was He the source of their inspiration, but He even condescended to become one of them. Jesus was Himself a prophet. He was that very prophet, like unto Moses, but greater than Moses, Whom God raised up to bless us, in turning us from our iniquities. A prophet, Whom every soul that will not hear shall be destroyed from among the people. And this, His prophetic office, was not to cease when He was visibly removed from among men. Never was that office to cease, until the earth itself shall cease. Sent of God, He was Himself to send others, and the golden chain, of which, in His own person, He is the first link, was to continue in the persons of His ministers, was thus to run parallel with the course [6/7] of time, and to transmit, to the most remote generations, the works and councils of God. Therefore He said to the apostles; "as the Father hath sent Me, even so send I you; and whoso heareth you, heareth Me," and "lo! I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." Therefore did one of the apostles, handing down, as it were, this high authority which he had thus received, say, in turn, to his disciple, "The things which thou hast learned of me, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also." Thus is the office of prophet or teacher in the Church of God established and sustained. Christ the fountain of authority; the apostles its first recipients, the ministry instituted by them its perpetual channel. Along this channel, which by no possibility can fail, (because watched over by an eye that never sleeps, and guarded by a hand that is never weary,) the stream of divine truth is to flow on to the most distant ages, and to visit the remotest corners of the earth, the wilderness and the solitary place are to be gladdened by it, and the desert to rejoice and blossom like the rose.
The ministers of Christ, then, know their calling: it is high, difficult, dangerous; but most honorable. Earthen vessels as they are, to them is committed the precious treasure of the gospel. Each stands in his lot a prophet of God. Each is clothed with an office which Christ himself disdained not to wear. Each must look to his great Master, not only as the subject of his teaching, the source of his power, the judge of his conduct, the dispenser of his rewards, but likewise as the perfect exemplar and model to which, in all things, he is to strive to conform himself. According to his measure, he is to endeavor faithfully to teach as Christ taught. For a minister, then, to speak with authority, is something more and higher than a talent; it is a clear and solemn duty. [7/8] To speak thus, not merely gives dignity and efficiency to the ambassador, it reflects honor on the Master that sent him, it brings instruction and edification to the people addressed by him. Although, then, my dear brethren, I am deeply and unaffectedly aware that I am myself deficient in that method of authoritative teaching which a minister of Christ ought to have; yet my sense of the deficiency may make me appreciate more highly the value of the gift. I have consequently hoped that some thoughts which have occurred to me, concerning a remedy for my own infirmity, may, not altogether without profit, be addressed to you; who, perhaps, in a lesser degree, have experienced a like deficiency. For this purpose, I have availed myself of the present occasion, when I have been requested by him that is set over us in the Lord, to offer you something in the way of exhortation or doctrine, concerning our common duties.
I am fully persuaded that there is no man who is heartily engaged in those duties, who has not, day by day, an ever growing sense of their arduousness, and of his own insufficiency for them. I pity that man who finds the ministry of the gospel easy. Never can it be easy to him that is faithful. He must be a witness against the people among whom he lives, and testify to them, privately and publicly, their sins. Many times he must assure them with all plainness that they are evil and have done exceedingly amiss, and deserve the deep and burning indignation of God. He must call them to forsake all that they naturally love, and to look for happiness to a Being they have never seen, and in a world they have never entered. To speak such words is easy, but to speak them with authority, so that they shall pierce, like a sword, the hearts of those we address, oh! how difficult! how rare! How, then, shall we have this authority? [8/9] If you see any better method than that which I am about to suggest, I pray you communicate it to me, for, on this subject especially, I covet to be instructed. For my own part, I see no certain way, but to look into the sources of that power which the great Prophet of the Church, the exemplar and the model of all who come after him as teachers therein, ever exercised in speaking to men, to see how far these are open to us, and to reduce to practice what we find applicable to our own case.
We cannot fail to observe, then, in the first place, that one ground of that authority with which Christ ever spoke, was His own perfect knowledge that He was commissioned and empowered by God to proclaim His truths to man. It is of Himself that He tells us the words of the prophet Isaiah are to be understood, "The spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the gospel, He hath sent Me to preach deliverance." And at another time, when the people of a certain place wished to detain Him among them, He broke away, as it were, from them, saying, "I must preach, for therefore am I sent." The thought of this, His glorious mission from God to man, ever sustained and strengthened him. See what amazing dignity it gave him in the hall of Pontius Pilate. He knew the weight of human infirmities as we do; He was then weary in body, care-worn and despondent in soul. Deserted by man, surrendered into the hands of His enemies, buffeted and spit upon, torn with the scourge and overwhelmed with contempt and reproach, He stands before the sensual, infidel, remorseless governor, and is tauntingly asked concerning Himself. He remembers His divine mission, and replies, "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth."
And do we not need the same source of strength? In [9/10] our hours of gloom and despondency, when encountering opposition and reproach, do we not need the same heartfelt conviction that we are sent and authorized by God, to bear witness to the truth, to sustain and elevate us? He who is assured that he comes as God's messenger, may well speak with authority, and how can any man declare the word of God with confidence or with power, who is not fully persuaded that he is sent of God for this end?
We have most unpalatable truths to utter, we have mysterious and superhuman revelations to communicate; who shall authorize us to declare these but God? And how shall we know that he has authorized us? Must we depend on the testimony of our own hearts? To have a full authority, we ought to have this testimony; we must trust that we are inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost to desire this honor; but is this alone sufficient? Is every man who supposes himself to be called of God to preach the gospel, necessarily so called? Is he, because of this persuasion, not only actually called, but likewise empowered and commissioned. Is that which passes in the heart of man necessarily the same with that which takes place in the council chamber of God? Must the one ever be a transcript of the other? Are there no means of discriminating between enthusiasts, fanatics and pretenders on the one hand, and God's true ministers and rightful ambassadors on the other? If so, then, it would seem that the promises of God are not well ordered and sure, that the church of God is not a city at unity within itself, that the Christian ministry is a mere form without any substance, a name without any corresponding reality. What is the testimony of scripture on this subject? That "no man taketh this honor unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron," that is called openly and visibly by an external, manifest, verifiable [10/11] appointment of God. Are we encouraged by inspired men to act on important subjects merely on our own impulse; to trust entirely to the testimony of our own hearts? "He that trusteth in his own heart," says the word of God, "is a fool;" "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?"
A right, then, to minister in the concerns of the soul, that rests merely on this evidence, must ever, to say the least, be uncertain. Where, then, shall we seek for a better and a surer right? Can man give it to us? Can man originate and transmit a power to act as the messenger and ambassador of God? He cannot confer such an authority on behalf of his fellow man, can he on the part of God? The question answers itself. I see not, then, how any thoughtful and conscientious person can venture on the work of God's ministers, unless he be assured that God has appointed him thereto. And it is difficult to conceive how he can be thus assured by any other than one of two methods: either God has authenticated His commission by a direct interposition of His own, a miracle, or a sign which sets His seal to the credentials of His minister; or the minister derives his powers from those who have been thus authorized, and who have been commanded and enabled to transmit their authority to others.
And if we do not know that we have this right to speak in God's name, how can we speak as if we had it? Yet surely it is most necessary, on many occasions, that a minister of the gospel shall be able to fall back upon such an authority, and be consciously upheld and sustained by it. Our view of this whole matter will depend very much on our idea of the ministry. If to be a minister of Christ, nothing more is required than to be a civil, intelligent and well-behaved person, capable of composing [11/12] and delivering two or three excellent discourses each week, and accustomed to conduct himself at all times with irreproachable propriety, it requires no divine mission to fit one for this: but ah! if our office be that weighty charge which scripture represents it; which the apostles so regarded as even to tremble at its magnitude; which the saints and martyrs of the primitive ages so considered as to shrink and even flee from it; and which our own ordinal in most solemn language declares it. If to be a minister is to be an ambassador of God, in a world that is at enmity with him, is consequently to be in perpetual opposition to the principles and the practices of the world in which we live; if each true minister of Christ have occasion to say with the prophet of old, "woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me a man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth," then does it require a special mission and a divine authority to qualify one for that office.
How can we, conscious as we are of our own weakness and imperfections, reprove, rebuke, exhort with power and efficacy, unless we can boldly say to our people, we come to you in the name of the Most High? Our authority springs not from our own wisdom and goodness, but is delegated by Him. Look not then on us, but look to Him who sent us, and who bids us say to you that, "except you repent you shall perish," and that "without holiness ye shall never see Him." They, then, do greatly err, who suppose that the doctrines of apostolic succession and ministerial authority, (which are, indeed, when analysed, the same,) are nothing more than the dreams of spiritual pride, or the badges of party strife, or the abstractions of visionary speculation. They are far different from all this; not only are they scriptural, but, like all other scriptural truths, profitable, nay, necessary, [12/13] tending not to self-exaltation, but to self-humiliation, merging, indeed, the individual in the office, and thus lying at the very foundation of ministerial faithfulness and efficiency. And, if useful any where, my brethren, peculiarly needful in this country, in the vast and rich field in which our lot has been cast as laborers. There may be countries, there may have been times when there was danger of priestly domination; our danger is of clerical subserviency. Neither the spirit of the age, nor the temper of our people inclines to a superstitious reverence for authority of any sort, or to a too punctilious observance of law and order. Furthermore, our ministers are dependent on their congregations, not merely for reputation and influence, but for daily bread. Let one of them but offend his people, and he and those he loves may at once be cast out, destitute and friendless, on the cold charities of the world. Can any man, then, be so stupid, so ignorant of human nature, as not to see how violent the temptation under which ministers labor to avoid every thing that can offend those who can so influence their condition. He, who, at the present day, will make a clamor about the powers of the priesthood, would have cried out fire in the midst of Noah's flood. Our danger, is not that of lording it over God's heritage, but of becoming a mercenary, truckling, timeserving body of men, inquiring what is popular, listening in every quarter for the first breath of public opinion, flattering the people whom we ought to admonish; courting the suffrages of the laity instead of boldly rebuking their vices; steadfastly declaring the testimony of God, and setting our faces as a flint against all error, unbelief and heresy.
This, I say, is our danger; not that we have come to this condition: God forbid that we ever should. But to [13/14] avoid the danger, we must be aware of it, confess it, and guard against it. Are there no evidences that it is a practical danger? are not the highest and most vital moral questions decided among us on mere local and geographical grounds, not only by the people, but by the clergy? May you not oftentimes know a minister's sentiments on subjects of the deepest interest, by inquiring where he lives? The voice of the people, already so potential over the halls of legislation, and over the courts of justice, appears frequently to find an exponent even in the pulpit, whence, surely, nothing ought ever to be heard but the echo of the voice of God. How then is this to be resisted? By ministers being deeply impressed with the conviction, that they receive their authority not from the people, but from God; that they are His prophets, His messengers, His ambassadors.
And if we look closely at the subject, we shall see that it is equally needful for the people themselves that their clergy receive and act under this conviction. For a ministry which never dares to contradict the popular voice, is a mere nuisance to society, sanctioning its worst errors, diffusing corruption and hastening its dissolution. Viewed in its most harmless aspect, it is an useless excrescence on the body politic, absorbing nourishment from it, and returning back no salutary influence, healing none of its diseases, binding up none of its wounds.
Let us then, dear brethren, have it ever printed in our remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to our care, that we are, indeed, ministers of Christ and ambassadors of God. Let us ever aim to speak with that authority which becomes those who represent among men, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
As another means of attaining this, let me point out a didactic as contrasted with a controversial manner [14/15] of conveying instruction. We are sent among men as teachers, not as disputants. We have positive truth to declare, and whether they will receive, or whether they will reject it, our business is still the same; to set forth in its purity and fulness the comfortable gospel of Jesus Christ. Plausible objections may be urged to it, frightful consequences drawn from it; but we must have faith in our message, and not be careful to answer these.
Not that the gospel is never to be vindicated; still less that it is inconsistent with reason. The gospel is indeed reason itself in its highest, purest, most perfectly developed form, being as the apostle declares, the very wisdom of God. We always can, then, and we sometimes profitably may, give a reason for our faith, and the hope that is in us. But I mean that this is our incidental, our secondary, our least edifying work. Our main business is to teach, not to argue, and, indeed, if we teach aright, there is not much necessity for disputation, for there is a correspondence between that evangelical truth which God inspired, and the soul of man which He created. That truth has its evidence in itself, and the proof of its divine origin in its adaptation to our nature and our needs. "In it," as an illustrious philosopher has said, "is light for every man, and life for as many as give heed to it. In it we find words for our inmost thoughts, songs for our joy, utterances for our hidden griefs, and pleadings for our shame and our feebleness." Our office is to bear witness to this truth, to teach it plainly, and positively. Do you not perceive how this characterizes our Lord's discourse and imparts a peculiar authority to it? He came not as a sophist, to argue, but as an herald to announce; as a teacher, to instruct. Read, in confirmation of this, His Sermon on the Mount, or that which He spake [15/16] to His disciples in "the night in which He was betrayed:" not only all truth, but almost every affirmation a positive truth, a new ray of light shining in on a world that lay in darkness. And for this, among other high purposes, was his Church constituted, to wit, as a teacher, "the pillar and ground of the truth," upholding it, maintaining it, declaring it. And ecclesiastical history testifies that the Church has, as might be expected, answered the purpose for which she was designed; that it has been her characteristic in all ages, to preserve the whole truth in harmonious union; while it is a note of the sects who fall off from her to reject a part of the truth, and to take some other part as a substitute for the whole. Just as in the judgment of Solomon, the false mother is willing to divide the body which she claims, while the true mother yearns over it, and will not consent that it shall be otherwise than entire. Trace religious error to its sources and you will almost always find it to flow from mere unbelief, to be a simple negation of something which God has positively declared. [* This has been happily shewn by Bishop Whittingham, with regard to the Romish corruptions, in his Sermon before the late Convention of his diocess.] The most scriptural, then, the most becoming, and the most effectual way of combating error, is not directly to assail it, but in faith and patience, with purity and with fulness, to preach the truth. And I have ever observed that not those preachers produced the deepest impression, who exhibited the richest imagination, or the most subtle logic, but those who declared the gospel simply, clearly, positively, after the manner of witnesses speaking that which they knew, and testifying that which they had seen. Of course this manner is utterly inconsistent with anything like affectation or a desire of display. He who speaks to please his hearers or to advance his own reputation, can [16/17] never speak with authority, he comes in the manner of a petitioner, not of an instructor; ultimately, he is sure to defeat his own selfish and unworthy objects. There is such a sense of fitness in the human mind, that that class of compositions, which may be characterized as pretty sermons, intended to fall sweetly and softly on ears polite, which are utterly an abomination before God, are also exceedingly offensive to the taste and feelings of men. All consider that if truth, reality, simplicity, fervor, were to be banished from every other spot on earth, they ought at least to find a refuge and dwelling place in the pulpit.
But I must hasten to consider, very briefly, another, and that the most important element of authoritative ministerial teaching, to wit, holiness of life. Without this, all other advantages for giving a preacher weight and impressiveness, avail nothing. There is something repugnant and irritating to the pride of human nature in submitting to be schooled by any one. To receive instruction as from one wiser than ourselves, warning and reproof as from one better, wounds our self-love. We are tempted to avenge ourselves for this humiliation; though brief and voluntary, by carping, if possible, at the doctrine and the teacher. How, then, can he escape, who presents so fair a mark for censure, as does that guide of the blind, who himself walks on in darkness, that instructor of the foolish whose own folly is manifest to all. To such a one, all who hear him are tempted to say: "Thou which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself; thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law, dishonorest thou God." An unholy preacher, must ever be an object of the profoundest contempt as well as the deepest reprobation. However unquestionable [17/18] his authority to minister, however extensive his learning, however vivid, and however varied his talents; he can be nothing better than a sounding brass, or tinkling cymbal. Of all that concurred to give weight to our Master's doctrine, there was no cause more effectual than this; that he could turn to his most embittered hearers and say, "which of you convinceth me of sin." His arrows were sharp in the hearts of his enemies, and his right hand taught them terrible things; because he was himself clad in impenetrable armor, and they could find no flaw or breach by which to assail him. When his ministers are of like character and spirit, then will the people fall under them likewise. Ah! my brethren, a saintly preacher is an awful being, a messenger of God speaking the truth of God, the truth which he himself feels in his inmost heart, and gives his life to obey; such a man exerts an influence over his fellow men that no other can wield. At the voice of such a one, the conqueror has been known to stay his step, the monarch to hide his pallid face, the judge to tremble on his seat. At his word, the proudest heart bows before the majesty of a message from the Most High, and reverences, in the lowly and feeble servant, the greatness of his august and mighty Master. If, then, we have not authority when we teach, it is our sin; it is because we have not faith and holiness, it is because we do not realize the dignity of our office, do not feel that we are, verily and indeed, ambassadors of the Most High God. And, oh, my brethren, how awful the condition of that minister whose message is despised by means of the sin and unbelief of him who bears it. To other men it is permitted to exert but little influence and yet to be innocent; but not to the ambassador of Christ. He must properly represent his Master, or he will not go [18/19] unpunished. He must speak as one having authority. If it be otherwise, then, the gospel, which ought to be a savor of life unto life, is vain and ineffectual for good; then, sinners are not brought to repentance; then, believers are not guided, comforted and sustained; then, at the last day, the souls for whom Christ died, will be found, though redeemed at so great a price, yet to have perished for ever through the default of that guilty, miserable man. Let us, dear brethren, covet to be any thing rather than partakers of his sin and sharers in his woe. Let us well understand our calling and mission as messengers of Christ and ambassadors from God; let us openly, plainly, and fully set forth His Word, and let us, above all other things, exemplify in our lives, what we declare in our doctrine. And now to God, &c.