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The Preacher's Trial - The Atlantic

Sitting in my New-England study, as do so many of my tribe, to peruse the "Atlantic," I wonder whether, like its namesake, hospitable to many persons and things, it will for once let me write as well as read, and launch from my own calling a theme on its bosom. Our cloth has been worn so long in the world, I doubt how far it may suit with new fashions in fine company-parlors; but, seeing room is so cordially made for some of my brethren, as the Reverend Mr. Wilbur and "The Country Parson," to keep up the dignity of the profession, I am emboldened to come for a day with what the editorial piety may accept, "rejected article" as it might be elsewhere.

The pulpit has lost something of its old sacredness in the general mind. There is little popular superstition to endure its former dictation. No exclusive incarnate theocracy in any particular persons is left, Leviticus and the Hebrew priesthood are gone. Church, ministry, and Sabbath are the regular targets taken out by our moral riflemen and archers, though so seldom to hit fair in the centre, that we may find ourselves, like spectators at the match, respecting the old targets more than we do the shots. Yet homilies and exporters are thought fair game. I have even heard splendid lecturers whose wit ran so low or who were so pushed for matter as to talk of what divinity-students wear round their necks, which seems a superficial consideration. The anciently venerated desk has two sharp enemies, the radical and the conservative, aiming their artillery from opposite sides, putting it somewhat in the position of the poor fish who is in danger from diverse classes of its fellow-creatures, one in the air and one in the water, and knows not whether to dive or rise to the surface, till it can conclude which is the more pleasant exit from life, to be hawked at or swallowed outright.

While, however, critics and reformers fail to furnish a fit substitute for the sermon, and the finest essays show not only Bacon's "dry light," but a very cold one too, and the wit and humor of the lyceum fall short of any mark in the conscience of mankind, and philanthropy uses stabbing often instead of surgery, a clerical institution, on whose basis direct admonition can be administered by individuals without egotism or impertinence, maintains an indefeasible claim. Indeed, as was fancied of the innocent in the ordeal by fire, or like the children from the furnace, it comes out the other side of all censure, with some odor of sanctity yet on its unsinged robes and new power in higher quarters in its hands. Defective, indeed, it is. If some of its organs could speak a little more in their natural voice, and could, moreover, wash off the deformity of this Indian war-paint of high-wrought rhetoric,—if they could use a little more of the colloquial earnestness of the street and table in their style, instead of those freaks of eloquence which, among all our associations, there ought to be a society to put down,—they would more honor their vocation, and effect its purpose of saving human souls. Let us not be so loudmouthed, or bluster as we do. Our declamation will have to hush its barbarian noise some time. Nothing but conversation will be left in heaven; and it were well, could we have on earth sober and thoughtful assemblies, at blood-warmth instead of fever-heat, rather than those over-crowded halls from which hundreds go away unable to obtain admission.

But the present design is a plea for justice, not a fresh charge. The pulpit is to teach religion in application to life. But when we reflect what life is, how deep in the soul, how wide in the world, how complicated and delicate in its affairs and ties,—and when, we consider what religion is, the whole truth of heaven respecting all the operations of earth,—a kindly judgment is required for unavoidable short-comings and ministerial mistakes. With different ages, sexes, experiences, states of mind, degrees of intelligence and impressibleness in a congregation, it is a rare felicity for a sermon to reach all its members with equal impressiveness or acceptance. Who ever heard a uniform estimate of any discourse? There seems almost a curse upon the preacher's office from its very greatness, so that it is never finished, and no portion of it can be done perfectly well and secure against all objection. If he try to unfold the deep things of the Spirit, and bring his best thoughts, which he would not throw away, before his audience, though in language clearer than many a chapter of Paul's Epistles, some will call the topic obscure, and complain that their children cannot understand it, quoting, perhaps, the old sentence, that all truth necessary to salvation is so plain that he who runs may read, and the wayfaring man, though a fool, cannot err therein, and commending superficial homilies on other tongues to censure whatever is profound from his. But should the poor occupant of the desk venture to emulate this eulogized sonorous exhortation, exerting himself to come down to the ignorant and the young, there will be some to stigmatize that, too, as a sort of trifling and disrespect to mature minds. He has by a senior now and then been blamed for excessive attention to the lambs of his flock, and annoyed with the menace to stay away, if they were especially to be noticed. If a visitation of special grace or an exaltation of physical strength make the mortal incumbent happy in his exposition, so that he is listened to with edification and delight, it is, by some, not passed over to his credit at the ebb-tide of his power. Half the time the house is not half full, as though the institution which all order to be conducted nobody but he is bound to shoulder. If the preacher labor to express the mysterious relationship between God and Christ, the divine and human nature, he will be considered by some a sectarian, controversialist, or heretic. If he unfold what is above all denominational disputes, he will be fortunate to escape accusations of transcendentalism, pantheism, spiritualism. If, lucky man, he go scot-free of such indictment, a last stunning stroke, in the gantlet he runs, will be sure to fetch him up, in the vague and unanswerable imputation of being very peculiar in his views. If he insist on the miracles as literal facts, he will be laughed at as old-fashioned in one pew; if he slight them, he will be mourned over as unsound in the next. Men grumble at taxes and tolls; alas! nobody is stopped at so many gates and questioned in so many ways as he. If he take in hand the tender matter of consoling stricken hearts, the ecstasy of his visions will not save his topic from being regarded by some as painful, and by others as a mere shining of the moon. He will receive special requests not to harrow up the feelings he only meant to bind up in balm. He may be informed of an aversion, more or less extensive, to naming the grave or coffin and what it contains, though he only puts one foot by pall or bier to plant the other in paradise. If he turn the everlasting verities he is intrusted with to events transpiring on the public stage, though he never sided with any party in his life, and has no more committed himself to men than did his Master, some will be grieved at his preaching politics. His head has throbbed, his heart ached, his eyes were hot and wet once before he uttered himself; but he must suffer and weep worse afterwards, because he went too far for one man and not far enough for another. He is told, one day, that he is too severe on seceders, and the next, ironically, that, with such merciful sentiments towards them, he ought always to wear a cravat completely white. One man is amused at his sermon, and another thinks the same is sad. He will be asked if he cannot give a little less of one thing or more of another, as though he were a dealer in wares or an exhibiter of curious documents for a price, and could take an article from this or that shelf, or a paper from any one of a hundred pigeon-holes, when, if he be a servant of the Lord and organ of the Holy Ghost, he has no choice and is shut up to his errand,—necessity is laid upon him, woe is unto him if he deliver it not, but, like another Jonah, flee to Tarshish when the Lord tells him to go to Nineveh and cry against its wickedness; and he feels through every nerve that truth is not a thing to be carried round as merchandise or peddled out at all to suit particular tastes, to retain old friends or win new ones, hard as it may go, to the anguish of his soul, to lose the good-will of those he loves, and whose distrust is a chronic pang, though they come to love him again all the more for what he has suffered and said. But if, passing by discussions of general interest, and exposing himself to the hint of being behind the times, he grapple with the sins immediately about him, board the false customs of society and trade, and strike with the sword of the Lord at private vices and family faults, he will be blamed as very personal, and be apprised of his insults to those of whom in his delivery he never thought, as he may never preach at anybody, or even to anybody, in his most direct thrusting, more than to himself, reaching others only through his own wounded heart. Meantime, some of his ecclesiastical constituents will suspect him, in his local ethics, of leniency to wide-spread corruption; and professed philanthropists will brand him as a trimmer and coward, recreant, fawning, and dumb,—the term spaniel having been flung at one of the best men and most conscientious ministers that ever lived, simply because he could not vituperate as harshly as some of his neighbors. Some would have him remember only those in bonds; others say they cannot endure from him even the word slavery. Blessed, if, from all these troubles, he can, for solace, and with a sense of its significance, bethink himself of Christ's saying to his disciples, "Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you!" Thrice blessed, if he have an assurance and in that inward certificate possess the peace which passeth understanding!

I intend not, by my simple story, which has in it no fiction, to add to the lamentations of the old prophet, nor will allow Jeremiah to represent all my mood. It is perfectly fit the laity should criticize the clergy. The minister,—who is he but one of the people, set apart to particular functions, open to a judgment on the manner of their discharge, from which no sacred mission or supposed apostolic succession can exempt, the Apostles having been subject to it themselves? Under their robes and ordinances, in high-raised desks, priest and bishop are but men, after all. Ministers should be grateful for all the folk's frankness. Only let the criticism be considerate and fair; and in order to its becoming so, let us ascertain the perfect model of their calling. Did not their Master give it, when he said, "The field is the world"? If so, then to everything in the world must the pulpit apply the moral law. What department of it shall be excused? Politics,—because it embraces rival schools in the same worshipping body, and no disinterested justice in alluding to its principles can be expected from a preacher, or because whoever disagrees with his opinions must be silent, there being on Sunday and in the sanctuary no decency allowed of debate or reply, and therefore whatever concerns the civil welfare and salvation of the community is out of the watchman's beat now, though God so expressly bade him warn the city of old? Commerce,—because a minister understands nothing of the elements and necessities of business, and must blunder in pointing to banks and shops or any transactions of the street, though an old preacher, called Solomon, in his Proverbs refers so sharply to the buyer and the seller? Pleasure,—because the servant of the Lord cannot be supposed to sympathize with, but only to denounce, amusement which poor tired humanity employs for its recreation, though Miriam's smiting of her timbrel, which still rings from the borders of the raging Red Sea, and David's dancing in a linen ephod with all his might before the Lord, when the ark on a new cart came into the city, were a sort of refreshment of triumphant sport? The social circle,—because of course he cannot go to parties or comprehend the play of feeling in which the natural affections run to and fro, and should rather be at home reading his Bible, turning over his Concordance, and writing his sermon, letting senate and dance, market and exchange, opera and theatre, fights and negotiations go to the winds, so he only comes duly with his exegesis Sunday morning to his place? In short, is the minister's concern and call of God only, with certain imposing formalities and prearranged dogmas, to greet in their Sunday-clothes his friends who have laid aside their pursuits and delights with the gay garments or working-dress of the week, never reminding them of what, during the six days, they have heard or where they have been? "No!" let him say; "if this is to be a minister, no minister can I be!" For what is left of the field the Lord sends the minister into? It is cut up and fenced off into countless divisions, to every one of which some earthly-agent or interest brings a title-deed. The minister finds the land of the world, like some vast tract of uncivilized territory, seized by wild squatters, owned and settled by other parties, and, as a famous political-economist said in another connection, there is no cover at Nature's table for him. As with the soldier in the play, whose wars were over, his "occupation's gone."

What is the minister, then? A ghost, or a figure like some in the shop-window, all made up of dead cloth and color into an appearance of life? Verily, he comes almost to that. But no such shape, no spectre from extinct animation of thousands of years ago, like the geologist's skeletons reconstructed from lifeless strata of the earth, can answer the vital purposes of the revelation from God. Of no pompous or abstract ritual administration did the Son of God set an example. He had a parable for the steward living when He did; He called King Herod, then reigning, a fox, and the Scribes and Pharisees hypocrites; He declared the prerogatives of His Father beyond Cæsar's; He maintained a responsibility of human beings coextensive with the stage and inseparable from the smallest trifle of their existence. He did not limit His marvellous tongue to antiquities and traditions. He used the mustard-seed in the field and the leaven in the lump for His everlasting designs. His finger was stretched out to the cruel stones of self-righteousness flying through the air, and phylacteries of dissimulation worn on the walk. He was so political, He would have saved Jerusalem and Judea from Roman ruin, and wept because He could not, with almost the only tears mentioned of His. Those who teach in His name should copy after His pattern.

"Confine yourselves to the old first Gospel, preach Christianity, early Christianity," we ministers are often told. But what is Christianity, early or late, and what does the Gospel mean, but a rule of holy living in every circumstance now? Grief and offence may come, as Jesus says they must; misapplications and complaints, which are almost always misapprehensions, may be made; but are not these better than indifference and death? No doubt there is a prudence, and still more an impartial candor and equity, in treating every matter, but no beauty in timid flight from any matter there is to treat. The clergyman, like every man, speaks at his peril, and is as accountable as any one for what he says. He ought justly and tenderly to remember the diverse tenets represented among his auditors, to side with no sect as such, to give no individual by his indorsement a mean advantage over any other, nor any one a handle of private persecution by his open anathema. Moreover, he should abstain from that particularity in secular themes which so easily wanders from all sight of spiritual law amid regions of uncertainty and speculative conjecture. He should shun explorations less fit for prophets than for experts. He should lay his finger on no details in which questions of right and wrong are not plainly involved. He must be public-spirited; he cannot be more concerned for his country and his race, that righteousness and liberty and love may prevail, than divine seers have ever been, as their books of record show; but, if he becomes a mere diplomatist, financier, secretary-of-state, or military general, in his counsels or his tone, he evacuates his own position, flees as a craven from his post, and assumes that of other men. Yet it is an extreme still worse for him to resort to lifeless generalities of doctrine and duty, producing as little effect as comes from electric batteries or telegraphic wires when no magnetic current is established and no object reached. What section, of the world should evade or defy the law of God?

O preachers, beware of your sentimental descant on the worth of goodness, the goodness of being good, and the sinfulness of sin, without specifying either! It is a blank cartridge, or one of treacherous sand instead of powder, or a spiked gun, only whose priming explodes without noise or execution. Let nobody dodge the sure direction of that better than lead or iron shot with which from you the conscience is pierced and iniquity slain. Suffer not the statesman to withdraw his policy, nor the broker his funds, nor the captain the cause he fights for, from the sentence of divine truth on the good or evil in all the acts of men.

The preacher, however, as he pronounces or reports that sentence, must never forget the bond he is under in his own temper to the spirit of impartial love. Whatever is vindictive vitiates his announcement all the more that he cannot be rebuked for it, as he ought to be, on the spot. Only let not the hearers mistake earnestness for vindictiveness. If kindly and with intense serenity he communicates what he has struggled long and hard to attain, then for their own sake, if not for his, they should beware of visiting him either with silent distrust or open reproach. He, just like them, must stand or fall according to his fidelity to the oracles of God. Only, once more, let him and let the Church comprehend that those oracles are not summed up in any laborious expounding of verbal texts. "The letter killeth," unless itself enlivened through the immediate Providence.

To be true to God, the preacher must be true to his time, as the Prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles were to theirs. The pulpit dies of its dignity, when it creeps into the exhausted receiver of foregone conclusions, and has nothing to say but of Adam and Pharaoh, Jew and Gentile, Palestine and Tyre so far away. Its decorum of being inoffensive to others is suicidal for itself. It is the sleep of death for all. As the inductive philosopher took all knowledge for his province, it must take all life. We have, indeed, a glorious and venerable charter of inestimable worth in our map of the religious history of mankind through centuries that are gone. We must study the true meaning of the Bible, the book and chief collection of the records of faith, precious above all for the immortal image and photograph, in so many a shifting light and various expression, of the transcendent form of divinity through manhood in Him to be ever reverently and lovingly named, Jesus Christ. But there is a spirit in man. "The word of God," says an Apostle, "is not bound"; nor can it be wholly bound up. The Holy Spirit of God that first descended never died, and never ceased to act on the human soul. The day of miracles is not past,—or, if none precisely like those of Jesus are still wrought, miracles of grace, the principal workings of the supernatural, of which external prodigies are the lowest species, are performed abundantly in the living breast. Jesus Himself, after all the sufficient and summary grandeur of His instructions, assures His followers of the Spirit that would come to lead them, beyond whatsoever He had said, into all truth. In that dispensation of the Spirit we live. Its sphere endures through all change, impregnable. It is "builded far from accident." No progress of earthly science can threat or hurt its eternal proportions. It is the supreme knowledge, and to whoever enters it a whisper comes whose only response is the confession of our noble hymn,—

"True science is to read Thy name."

Much is said of a contradictory relation of science to faith. But the statement is a misnomer. True faith is the lushest science, even the knowledge of God. Putting fishes or birds, shells or flowers, stones or stars, in a circle or a row is a lower science than the sublime intercommunication of the soul by prayer and love with its Father. Mere physical, without spiritual science, has no bottom to hold anything, and no foundation of peace. The king of science is not the naturalist as such, but the saint conversing with Divinity,—not so much Humboldt or La Place as Fénelon or Luther. So far as the progress of outward science saps accredited writings, they must give way, or rather any false conceptions of Nature they imply must yield, leaving whatever spirituality there is in them untouched. But this is from no essential contradiction between science and religious faith. What faith or religion is there in believing the world was made in six days? Less than in calculating, with Agassiz, by the coral reefs of Florida, that to make one bit of it took more than sixty thousand years. Religious faith, what is it? It is the trembling transport with which the soul hearkens and gives itself up to God, in sympathy with all likewise entranced souls. But from such consecrated listening to the voice of Deity, fresh in our bosom or echoed from without by those He has inspired, we verify the rule already affirmed, and fetch advice and command for all the affairs of life. It is emphatically the minister's duty thus to join the vision to the fact, that they may strike through and through one another. Certainly, so the true minister's speech should run. Let him stand up and boldly say, or always imply, "I so construe it; and if the Church interpret it otherwise, the Church is no place for me. If the world will accept no such method, the world is no place for me. I see not why I was born, or what with Church or world I have to do. From Church and world I should beg leave to retire, trusting that God's Universe, somewhere beyond this dingy spot, is true to the persuasion of His mind. I must apply religion universally to life, or not at all. If, when my country is in peril, I cannot bring her to the altar and ask that she may be lifted up in the arms of a common supplication,—if, in the terrible game of honesty with political corruption, when 'Check' is said to the adverse power, I cannot wish and pray that 'Checkmate' may follow,—when some huge evil, sorely wounded, in its fierce throes spreads destruction about, as the dying monster in Northern seas casts up boat-loads of dying men who fall bruised and bleeding among the fragments into the waves with the threshing of its angry tail, if then I cannot hope that the struggle may be short, and the ship of the Republic gather back her crew from prevailing in the conflict to sail prosperous with all her rich cargo of truth and freedom on the voyage over the sea of Time,—if no sound of the news-boy's cry must mix with the echoes of solemn courts, and no reflection of wasting fires in which life and treasure melt can flash through their windows, and no deeds of manly heroism or womanly patriotism are to have applause before God and Christ in the temple,—if nothing but some preexisting scheme of salvation, distinct from all living activity, must absorb the mind,—then I totally misunderstand and am quite out of my place. Then let me go. It is high time I were away. I have stayed too long already." Such should be the speech of the minister, knowing he is not tempted to be a partisan, and is possessed with but an over-kind sensibility to dread any ruffling of others' feelings or discord with those that are dear.

In the first year of a young minister's service, Dr. Channing besought him to let no possible independence of parochial support relax his industry: a needless caution to one not constituted to feel seductions of sloth, in whom active energy is no merit, and who can have no motive but the people's good. What else is there for him to seek? There is no by-end open, and no virtue in a devotedness there is no lure to forego. There is no position he can covet, as politicians are said to bid for the Presidency. But one thing is indispensable: he must tell what he thinks; he is strong only in his convictions; the sacrifice of them he cannot make; it were but his debility, if he did; and the treasury of all the fortunes of the richest parish were no more than a cipher to purchase it from any one who, quick as he may be to human kindness, may have a more tremulous rapture for the approbation of God.

After all, to his profession and parish the preacher is in debt. Exquisite rewards his work yields. If controversy arise on some point with his friends, there may, after a while, be no remnant of hard feeling,—as there are heavy cannonades, and no bit of wadding picked up. Those who have striven with or defamed may come to cherish him all the more for their alienation. Those who could not hear him, or, when they heard, thought him too long, or what they heard did not like, may own with him, out of their discontent, closer and sweeter bonds. His business is expansive in its nature. The seasons of human life in broad representation are always before him. How many moral springs and summers, autumns and winters he sees, till he can hardly tell whether his musing on this curious existence be memory or hope, retrospect of earth or prospect of heaven! and he begins to think the spiritual world abolishes distinctions of spheres and times, as parents, that were his lambs, bring their babes to his arms, and, even in the flesh, his mortal passing into eternal vision, he beholds, as in vivid dreaming, other parents leading their children on other shores, unseen, though hard by. Where, after a score or two of years, is his church? He has several congregations,—one within the dedicated walls, one of emigrants whom his fancy instead of the bell assembles, and a third of elders and little ones gone back through the shadow of mystery whence they came. In what abides of the flock nothing remains as it was. Wondrous transformations snow maturity or decline in the very forms that, to his also changing eye and hand, once wore soft cheeks and silken locks. In his experience, miracle is less than creation and lower than truth. He cannot credit Memory's ever losing her seat, he has such things to remember. The best thereof can never be written down, published, uttered by orators, or blown from the trumpet of Fame, whose "brave instrument" must put up with a meaner message and inferior breath. Out of his affections are born his beliefs; earth is the cradle of his expectancy and persuasion of heaven; and not otherwise than through the glass of his experience could he have sight of a sphere of ineffable glory for better growth than Nature here affords in all her gardens and fields.

So let the preacher stand by his order. But let him be just, also, to the constituency from which it springs. Hearty and cheerful, though obscure worker, let him be. Let him fling his weaver's shuttle still, daily while he lives, through the crossing party-colored threads of human life, till, in his factory too, beauty flows from confusion, contradiction ends in harmony, and the blows with which each one has been stricken form the perfect pattern from all. There is a unity which all faithful labor, through whatever jars, consults and creates. Of all criticisms the resultant is truth; be the conflicts what they may, the issue shall be peace; and one music of affection is yet angelically to flow from the many divided notes of human life. Who is the minister, then? No ordained functionary alone, but every man or woman that has lived and served, loved and lamented, and now, for such ends, suffers and hopes.