The Preaching of the Word.
SECOND TRIENNIAL CHARGE
The Diocese of Rhode Island
THOMAS M. CLARK,
BISHOP OF THE DIOCESE.
PRINTED BY ORDER OF THE CONVENTION.
SECOND TRIENNIAL CHARGE.
BRETHREN OF THE CLERGY:
God hath committed unto you the word of reconciliation. You have been commissioned to make known the mystery of the gospel. It is an awful trust to be put into the hands of such frail creatures as we are. If our sufficiency were not of God; if He who gives us the charge, did not also inspire us with strength to perform it, we should resign it back to Him and ask to be employed in some less responsible work.
The subject of which I shall now speak to you is the preaching of the word. You need not to be reminded how important this spiritual agency was considered in the primitive church, and how the decline of preaching marked her gradual apostacy; until at last it came to be [3/4] regarded as derogatory to the dignity of the higher officers in the church, to engage at all in that work, which St. Paul declared to be his special and most important function.
The prevailing tone of the pulpit always indicates the religious character of the age. When Plato furnished the text, and Aristotle the method, when Seneca superseded the Evangelists, and the people slumbered through a droning essay on one of the prudential virtues; when a tedious metaphysical analysis spun its intricate web over the heads of dying sinners; when instead of the strong breathings of life, skeletons of chalky doctrine rattled in the pulpit, no wonder that the gates of Zion were desolate. Those were times, when nothing but the driest chaff flew from the clerical winnowing;
“The hungry sheep looked up and were not fed.”
And there have been periods when the voice of the Christian preacher went forth as a living power, until the strongholds of error and corruption trembled and fell. God's spirit went with His word, and changed the face of the earth. It was the preaching of the cross,—of Christ and Him crucified, that startled the nations; and it proved the power of God unto salvation, because God blessed it. In those days of national conversion and national reformation, there were preachers more eminent and whose names will be remembered longer than any who now adorn the Church; but there is probably a wider distribution of ability in the pulpit and a more general dissemination of gospel truth at the present day than has been known in any preceding age. There never was [4/5] greater need of able, earnest and faithful preachers. We have to deal with a very different class of people from those who once gathered around the Christian pastor; we must address multitudes who study, think and reason for themselves, and whose opinions are in a great degree controlled by other agencies than the pulpit, even in matters of religion. In former days, the great majority of the people read nothing but their Bibles and the half-dozen well-worn volumes bequeathed with the household furniture; now the land is flooded with periodicals, pamphlets, popular treatises on every conceivable subject and advocating every imaginable theory.
Once, the people rarely came together in any public assembly, except when the Sabbath bell summoned them to worship, and the preacher was their oracle as well in other matters as in religion; now, the political caucus, the lyceum lecture, the reform convention, open perpetual sluices of speech, and infuse new elements into public sentiment and practice. Agencies of influence have come into being during our time, whose power is only beginning to be felt; it will not do to ignore them, it will not do to despise them, for they will prove potent for good or for evil. This general wakefulness of the popular mind is not to be deprecated by the Christian teacher; neither, if he have faith in his work, will he be disheartened by the array of antagonisms with which he must contend; but he must feel the necessity of being wakeful himself, and putting himself in condition to meet the peculiar demand of his own time.
The preacher of Religion has some special advantages over all other public speakers. One day in every week [5/6] the whirl and uproar of secular life is hushed, the banks, and offices, and counting rooms, and work-shops, are closed, the sound of the hammer is not heard in our streets, the wheels in the factory hang motionless, the farmer leaves his crops to the husbandry of nature, there are no stocks sold, no bargains made, no dividends collected; the great city where the waves of business have dashed so noisily all through the week, lies tranquil now like a sea at rest, and even the country, always still, seems on this hallowed day to brood with a kind of heavenly silence, as though the calm of God were there. The great multitude, "free from care, from labor free," gather in the house of prayer and reverently wait for the message which the preacher brings them; they listen silently and patiently, with much of traditional respect for the sacred office which we bear, acknowledging our divine commission, and knowing that it is our business to speak of matters which are of infinite, eternal concern to their souls. Woe to us, if we waste this choice opportunity in efforts to win for ourselves a golden reputation; woe to us, if through indolence, we neglect that careful preparation of mind and heart, without which we cannot hope to edify the congregation; woe to us, if we come before them with vain speculations, crude conceits and foolish fancies, or substitute anything in place of the authoritative and solemn message of God.
It is not all classes of truth, not all that man desires to know, not all which it is desirable he should know, that we are bound to preach; we are not called to edify the people with scientific knowledge, or dogmatize upon controverted questions of political and social reform; but [6/7] we have certain written instructions put into our hands by Him who has commissioned us, which define and limit our work; we are the servants of One whose word and will we are bound to obey; and our office is, not to express opinions, but to proclaim fixed, immutable, divinely authenticated truths. Necessity is laid upon us, yea, woe is unto us if we preach not the gospel.
We are charged, in the first place, to tell mankind what is their actual moral condition; to show what sin is, in what it consists, where is its seat in man, and the degree of his subjection to its power. The disease must be understood before it can be cured. They that be whole need not a physician; and they that imagine they are whole, whether they are sick or not, will not care for a physician. They must, in a measure, be made to understand themselves before they can understand the gospel of redemption. The primary difficulty that we encounter lies here,—those whom we address do not apprehend their need of the gospel. They will allow, in general, that they are not altogether what they should be, but they have no adequate conception of the deep seated virulence of sin and its terrible consequences. They do not take into account, their relation to God and His perfect law; they do not consider whereunto their sin, if it be let alone, will certainly grow, and that every step that is not taken towards Heaven leads away from Heaven. They say they are as good as their neighbors, and the world brings no charge against them. They expect to be as well off in another state of existence as they are in this; and whatever reform is needed, they believe themselves entirely competent to effect; by such [7/8] modes and at such times as they may deem most expedient. Consequently they regard the work of Christ as superfluous, and His church as unnecessary, except for its salutary, social influences. Therefore we must begin with exposing the profound deceit of the natural heart, laying bare its inherent corruption, revealing its falsity and its feebleness, so that man may be driven to seek help from One who is able to save.
The next great truth that we must preach is the fact of redemption. We are to show who it is by whom this redemption has been effected, His eternal relation to the Godhead, His assumption of our humanity, the various offices involved in His incarnation, prophetical, priestly, regal, judicial and mediatorial. We are to tell the people how He has redeemed them, by what sacrifices, toils and agonies. We must often take them to Calvary and sit down together under the shadow of the cross to meditate upon what Jesus hath done for us, to consider what it was that laid the awful necessity of death upon His innocent head, and what we are doing to show our thankfulness for His atoning love. Our feet must often lead us to the garden where the body of Jesus was lain, that we may there remind the people, how they must be buried with Christ if they would hope to rise with Him.
Into the philosophy of the atonement, it is not necessary for us to enter; it is enough for us to teach that "God hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin," that "He hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all, that by His stripes we might be healed." We bow with reverence before the awful mystery of redemption, with [8/9] no desire to be wise above what is written. We are assured that "without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin," that "there is no other name under Heaven whereby we can be saved" but the name of Jesus, and therefore we look to Him as our light and our life.
"Christ and His cross are all our theme."
We are next to show how this redemption becomes available to the sinner. He is not to work out for himself a title to Heaven, he has neither the will nor the power to do it. His own arm can never bring salvation, his own righteousness cannot sustain him. He must be baptized for the remission of sins; he must repent and believe in order that this remission may become available to his salvation. By a living faith, he must be united to Christ, and Christ dwelling in him and he in Christ, he enters into life. It will therefore be an important element in our teaching to illustrate the nature of saving faith, its vital relation to our justification, and the practical evidence of its existence.
In intimate and indissoluble connection with this we are to exhibit the character of that great, moral change, which makes the sinner fit for the inheritance of the saints. We are to teach that this is not a mere change of relation, a passage from the world into the Church; not a mere change of habit and outward demeanor; not a mere change of opinion, but an actual transformation of character, a revolution in the ruling principles of life, a renewal of the heart wrought by the power of God. And instead of waiting until mature age before expecting to see the fruits of such a renewal, we would endeavor to bring up the children of our charge in the nurture [9/10] and admonition of the Lord, so that the first movements of their young hearts may be towards God, and their baptismal vow direct their feelings and their conduct. We would save them, if possible, from the experience of sin; open to them the gate of life as soon as they enter upon their pilgrimage, and so lead them quietly along the green pastures and the still waters up to heaven. While we should never forget that the blood of Christ is able to save the most abandoned sinner, and can wash the soul crimsoned with corruption, white as snow, still our best hopes will centre in those little ones whom the Saviour once took in His arms and said, "of such is the kingdom of heaven."
The topics of pulpit discourse are in one sense fixed and limited; in another sense they open to us an infinite variety. With only seven primary colors, what endless combinations are made; from an octave of sounds, what complicated harmonies are evolved. That preacher poorly understands the breadth of the gospel, who finds himself restricted to a little round of thread-bare subjects; grinding out his dozen tunes, and then re-adjusting the instrument to grind them over again, as though that exhausted the music of redemption. The preacher should be all the time charged with subjects, instead of hunting painfully for them week by week, as new sermons are demanded. They should come to him spontaneously, as he reads the bible, as he kneels in prayer, as he goes about among the people; they should be suggested by what he sees and hears in his daily walks: only let him keep his mind always open for them to enter and they will come without being urged.
 The topics which thus lodge themselves in the mind will be specific, and adapted to the condition of those whom we address. Without this adaptation, the most profound and eloquent discourse is wasted. We may preach about sin in the abstract, whether it be original, imputed, or actual, with as much severity as the nature of language will allow, nobody will be roused, nobody offended; but touch the particular sins of which the congregation know themselves to be guilty, and it begins to look as though we were in earnest, as though our words meant something.
And here I would remark that every discourse should have some distinct subject, and one is generally enough. It is fatal to that unity of impression, which it is so desirable to secure, when several heads are crowded into a sermon, each of which contains a distinct and separate train of thought; and it is very painful to the hearer, after he has followed the preacher, perhaps not without considerable effort, for some eight or ten minutes, trusting that he will come out into daylight somewhere, to find him suddenly striking off in another direction, where the darkness is thicker than it was before. One trunk is enough for a tree, and one subject for a sermon, it may throw out as many branches as it can safely sustain and effloresce into as many flowers as the sap can nourish, but when other props become needful, it is better to use the pruning knife and cut in the wood.
Once at least, in the course of our ministry, it is well to give the people a systematic course of sermons, embodying the leading doctrines of the gospel, the principles and usages of our Church, and the fundamental ethics of [11/12] Christianity. In respect of all these points there is a singular vagueness, if not absolute ignorance in the public mind. The technical phraseology of the pulpit conveys to many of our auditors no accurate and intelligent meaning. There are some persons accustomed to measure the soundness of a preacher by the frequency with which he uses certain conventional terms, who would be sadly puzzled if they were called to explain those terms. Our congregations everywhere need more careful and minute instruction; exhortations, appeals to the sensibilities, these are needful, but they are not all that is needful. The galvanic shock may quicken the torpid body into life, but galvanism will not sustain life, there is no nourishment in it.
When the sinner has resolved to serve God, it is our duty to tell him what it is to serve God. We should show him how his religion is meant to affect his daily life, his domestic and civil relations, his physical habits, his amusements, his secular business. We must enter into homely details, deal in a larger range of particulars, if we would have stable, symmetrical, practical Christians. "The divine," says Bishop Horne, "who spends all his time in study and contemplation on objects ever so sublime and glorious, while his people are uninstructed, acts the same part the eagle would do that should sit all day, staring at the sun while her young ones were starving in the nest."
The conscience of our people needs enlightening, for it would really seem as though certain Christians thought they could be honest towards God, and somewhat dishonest towards men. They use their religion as an [12/13] offset to their ordinary life, instead of making it the substance of that life. They may be very solemn, and yet not very trustworthy. You do not discern their faith in the quality of their secular work, in their bargainings, their punctual adherence to their promises, their magnanimous unselfishness, their sympathy with the depressed, their holy charity. O, if such a prophet as Jeremiah were to arise again, what a trumpet blast we should hear through the length and breadth of the land. I wonder how many pulpits he would be allowed to enter a second time. I wonder how many congregations would bear to be threshed with his flail. Brethren:—Read over again the words of the prophecy of Malachi, the last of the ancient prophets, read carefully, and see what is the style of preaching that we need.
In certain quarters there is great complaint of the dullness of the pulpit; the people say, "it is difficult to listen, we have heard the same things a hundred times before; we want something that will rouse our attention, stimulate our hearts and quicken our intellect; we are troubled with serious difficulties pertaining to doctrine, and we wish to have them solved; we are assailed on every side by plausible adversaries, we wish to know how we are to meet them; we are annoyed by perplexities and trials in our daily life, we look to our spiritual teacher for relief and guidance and strength; let him show in his preaching that he comprehends our perplexities, knows what are our peculiar temptations, and sympathizes in our infirmities; let us hear what have been his own inward experiences, let him speak to us out of his own consciousness and we cannot help listening; we do not [13/14] ask for coruscations of eloquence, we do not care to see how high the wings of his fancy can lift him into the air, and how gracefully he can alight again upon the solid earth; let him speak to us as a man in earnest speaks to his fellow man, and save us from the deadly corruption of our own souls."
Such a cry as this must not go unheeded, but let me say to you, my Brethren of the Laity, that the fault is not altogether on one side. If you would have your real wants more faithfully met, you must be more ready to let your pastor know what they are. You must be more free and candid with him, if you would have him more faithful with you. If you are plagued with doubts, you must not pretend to believe when you do not. If you are conscious of easily besetting sins, do not try to cover them over with a show of sanctity. If your feet stand in slippery places, do not pretend that you are planted on the eternal rock. If you are strangers to Christ, whether in the church or outside of it, acknowledge the fact, and ask to be guided to the cross. And do not require of your minister such a multiplicity of duties that he will be obliged to bring unbeaten oil into the sanctuary of the Lord. We are expected to preach too many sermons, and the quantity is secured at the expense of the quality. No young man, just starting in the ministry, can turn out two or three new discourses every week without soon exhausting his material. If our congregations would be content with one written, carefully digested sermon on Sunday, and be satisfied with plain, ex-tempore, catechetical instructions, or some familiar exposition of Scripture, or oven with hearing a well [14/15] selected discourse read by the minister, at the other services; in the end they would be better informed and edified than they now are. The whole duty of the Clergy does not consist in preaching; neither does the whole religious duty of the Laity consist in hearing. And remember, that it is not the words which enter the ear and then die away in the chambers of the brain, that do you good; but the truth which you mark, learn and inwardly digest.
One of the temptations incidental to the pressure under which the Clergy labor in their frequent preparations for the pulpit, is that of habitually constructing their sermons upon the frame-work of skeletons, furnished by another. We have volume upon volume of these dried preparations,—a hortus siccus of theology,—and it may be a great saving of time to fill in the interstices of these outlines with our own observations, instead of making the whole structure for ourselves; but it is an economy of labor that must be purchased at the sacrifice of the freshness, reality and life of our discourses.
The first rough sketch of the artist' shows his genius more than the warm tints that flow from the finished work, it is the general design rather than the details which embody his thoughts, and no true painter would be content just to fill in the shading and coloring of an outline drawn by another's hand. The conventional, artificial moulding of our sermons after any fixed pattern must be broken up if we would secure the attention of the hearers. If all classes of subjects are treated after one unvarying method, run in one mould, so that as soon as the text is named the congregation can tell just how [15/16] many divisions may be expected, and very nearly what they will be, even the most devout will be likely to hear the final and concluding head announced with something more than resignation.
And if it is a bad habit to rely upon the laborious ingenuity of others for the plans of our discourses, it is still worse to become servile imitators of style. As we must speak in our natural tone in order to speak effectively, so every man has a mode of expression peculiar to himself, the natural drapery of his own thoughts, which it is always best to use. And it is well for us to remember that ordinary thoughts cannot be made to seem great, merely by being clothed in magniloquent periods. Without intending to imitate any particular individual, we may conform so rigidly to a sort of general cast-iron, pulpit model, as seriously to impair the vigor of our preaching. The weary circumlocutions by which some speakers avoid calling things by their plain names; the elaborate, stilted sentences in which every idea is rigidly encased; the long sweep with which they always turn the corners of their discourse; their chronic dread of abruptness, or directness, or any thing like colloquial, familiar speech; the constant sacrifices which they make to dignity and calm sobriety; uttering stale platitudes with stately and solemn pomp; this was not their way, whose preaching converted the world. The Reformers did not revolutionize Christendom by preaching in this fashion; the early confessors and martyrs did not shake the marble temples of paganism by the thunder of high-sounding periods, neither did the [16/17] Apostles shatter the strongholds of sin and corruption by elaborate rhetoric. What could be more simple, colloquial and direct than the words of Him who spake as never man spake? Every sentence he uttered went straight as an arrow to its mark; the homely experiences of the people whom he addressed suggested almost all His illustrations; the parables are a gallery of pictures; every thing is distinct, definite, simple; no wonder the common people heard Him gladly, and they would hear us gladly, if we imitated Him.
One of the greatest defects in both the English and American pulpit is the want of an agreeable, natural and effective delivery. Many an excellent discourse falls short of the people, never reaches them, from a defect in the propelling, physical force of him who utters it.—Young preachers are sent forth from our seminaries of learning, well furnished with theologic lore, fitted out with excellent tools; but the trouble is, they do not know how to use them. Their hearts may be deeply enlisted in their work, they may be very anxious to win souls to Christ, but no one would suppose this to be the case from their manner in the pulpit. Thoughts which perhaps stirred them to tears when the truth flashed upon them while in the study, tinkle and fall like broken icicles from their lips. The tones of the voice are constrained, unearthly, unnatural—you can hardly believe it is the same person that you just before heard in private conversation. When he talked right on in the social circle and followed his impulses without thinking that he talked at all, he was never unintelligible, never monotonous, never emphasized the wrong word; but now that he has [17/18] mounted the pulpit, he emphasizes nothing, or which is perhaps rather worse, emphasizes everything; his intonations are untrue; he declaims, instead of talking, and his vociferousness is duller than his tameness.
It seems to be taken for granted that the gifts and graces of a good elocution must come if at all, by nature, and that patient training, unless there be a natural talent for speaking, will be useless. There is unquestionably a great difference in the quality of different voices, in the volume of sound, in the ease of articulation, and in the power of cadence; but careful assiduous culture may do much to remedy the greatest, natural defects, and there are few who, if they would be at the pains to do it, might not improve the quality and power of their delivery. The perfection of oratory lies in the strictest adherence to nature; but it would be no more absurd to say that he is the best painter who throws his colors upon the canvass at random, than it is to affirm that he will speak best, who takes the least pains. The truth is, we come back to nature, through long and laborious processes of art. Awkwardness is not simplicity.—And when we consider how much the multitude are moved by manner, what power there is in a true tone, and on the other hand, how the best discourse may prove to be only a somnolent, if it be droningly delivered, it is certainly worth while to give more prominence to this branch of ministerial training. But, after all, no system of rules, no mere study of the art of composition or of delivery, no amount of theological knowledge, no scientific skill in the use of that knowledge, can make a good preacher, unless his heart is in the work. He must [18/19] know whereof he affirms, if he would convince others. He must speak out of the depths of his own spiritual experience, or his words will never penetrate those whom he addresses. They may admire his logic, be enraptured by his eloquence, but they will not feel that there is a living power in his words, unless he utters what has worked as a living power in his own soul. It will not be the preaching which converts and sanctifies and builds up the believer in his most holy faith. A discourse may be perfectly symmetrical, full of thought, radiant with beauty, but if it be not penetrated with the life of the Spirit,—if Christ be not its informing, attracting, stimulating life, it is only a dead statue; the work of an artist. We must speak what the Holy Ghost teacheth, or God will not open the door of men's hearts to us. We must forget ourselves, in our message, and remember that it is God's message which we are commissioned to convey. We must remember that we are engaged in the most solemn and responsible work ever confided to man. Every time we preach, we should consider the awful fact that we must meet our hearers again at the judgment. If they perish through our unfaithfulness, their blood will be required at our hands.