And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God.Paul.
The canons of society, growing out of that something we call good taste, have succeeded in banishing from conversation nearly all allusions to personal affairs. The prohibition is based upon two reasons : Unrestrained, we might all become some-what egotistic; and one’s individual concerns can-not possibly be as interesting to others as they are to one’s self. Fully realizing this law of good society, permission is asked to transgress it upon this occasion. That which your judgment would condemn, it is trusted your kindness will condone.
To some of you it is already known that today completes the twentieth year of the present pastoral relation. It was on the first Sunday of December, 1886, that, without any ecclesiastical ceremony, the formal relation was established in the old church at the corner of Shelby street and Lafayette Boulevard. It was a bright morning, and, by actual count, the audience numbered seventy-seven persons : yet expressions of satisfaction were heard concerning the large congregation. The preacher had been employed for a year. Hence he realized that he was on probation. At the next annual meeting he was so far approved as to be employed for another year. At the close of the third year it was decided to make the engagement indefinite, the church re-serving the right to dismiss the preacher after giving him three months notice of its intention. It is a pleasure to recall that the years have come and gone, until the twentieth is ended, and the notice has not yet been served. Ecclesiastically, this church is the same it was in 1886. Personally, it is almost another church.
Twenty years are a small period in the history of an organization; they are a large period in the history of a person. Therefore, while a pastorate running through the fifth of a century is unimportant to the church, it cannot be unimportant to the pastor himself. He cannot reasonably expect to live more than four times twenty years ; and, if his pastorate runs over that one of these four periods which includes his fortieth and sixtieth year, an added significance is given it in his estimation. Of course there are exceptions. A man often does constructive and mature work before he is forty; and after he is sixty, the natural ability he may have had, reinforced by a cumulative experience, may qualify him for further valuable work. But, as a rule, however high or low the average quality of his . ministration may be, he feels that the best of it has been given between the periods mentioned. A survey of the work in itself and in its results does not bring satisfaction. It instantly checks all vanity. Nevertheless the limitations are traceable, not to lack of desire or of effort, but to defective ability.
The only reason the ministrations have not been better, is that the minister did not know how to make them better.
In these days, long pastorates are the exception rather than the rule. This was not so much so in former times. A century ago it was not unusual for a minister to remain over one church during all his professional life. Various. causes have combined to produce a change. Perhaps our hurrying, restless age is, in part, responsible for it. There is a dislike for monotony and a desire to try some-thing new. In addition to this, the ministerial office has gradually declined in authority. It has lost much of its old time sacred character. It has taken its place among other callings. It is merely another illustration of the Division of Labor. The preacher’s work has become a legitimate object of criticism. If his words carry weight with them, it is not because they are the utterances of one who is commissioned by divine power, but because they are reasonable. Their force does not come from his office as a preacher, but from his character as a man. Furthermore, modes of communication have so multiplied that ecclesiastical and professional news are widely disseminated, and ministerial migrations are comparatively easy. Congregations always know of ministers who do not possess the peculiar defects of their minister, and it is only natural for them to wish for a change. Every minister also knows of churches that seem more attractive than the one he is serving, and he would be more than human if he did not feel that, should Providence so order events, he would consider it his duty to accept a call from one of them. When Jesus sent forth the apostles they were instructed that if they suffered persecution in one, they should flee to another city. Just how much persecution they were to endure, before taking active measures to escape it, was not contained in the instructions. But, among modern apostles, sometimes very little persecution furnishes a sufficient reason for flight. When the cost of living increases and the salary remains stationary or is reduced, or when monthly bills come in with great regularity and the salary is very irregular in its coming; when the deacons or the sewing society become unusually active in fault-finding; when the congregations are small and in-different or the prayer-meeting languishes ; when the supply of pews is in excess of demand and they are quoted below par; when the choir and the music committee are not on friendly terms, or the janitor is careless or the sermons are not sufficiently praised, it is surprising how attractive some other church suddenly seems. No minister is all he ought to be. But the same thing is true of every church. Thus, that a church and minister may live peace-ably together for a term of years, much mutual toleration is demanded.
Partly internal, partly external and both alike beyond his control, forces, active more than twenty-five years ago, compelled the present pastor of this church to assume an independent position. Severing his connection with that noble company of Christians called Presbyterians, he went out not knowing whither he was going or what the future held in store for him. Whatever training he had received was for the ministry. He clung to the belief that preaching and all that goes with that calling have a necessary place in the social order and in furthering the progress of mankind. Faith in the sovereignty of those moral ideals and spiritual verities, so nobly illustrated in the philosophy and life of Christ, was undisturbed. With this training and with these convictions, but suddenly finding himself without ecclesiastical connection, nothing was left for him but to accept the position forced upon him by circumstances. This was made easier by the noble church to which he had been ministering itself resolving to become independent and generously re-employing him for a term of five years. At first this attitude seemed somewhat strange, but, gradually, the strangeness disappeared. Meanwhile, communications were received from two orthodox sects telling him that, if he might wish to ally himself with them the way would be open for him. But the sense of freedom had so mastered the sense of isolation, the fact that thought need not be shaped into conformity with a theological system was so inviting, and the consciousness of not being answerable to any body of ecclesiastics for utterances concerning the soul in its relation to God was so comfortable, that he was compelled to decline their friendly overtures.
The position of an independent doubtless possesses some disadvantages. Perhaps it renders a man less useful than he would otherwise be. It may be true that the greatest and most lasting good is accomplished through a complex organization. Nevertheless, for those with a certain experience and mental constitution, the advantages of independence are many. But, whether advantages or disadvantages are in greater number, there are those who, from temperament, cannot be strong partisans. It is not optional with them ; it is inevitable. They do not ask others to become independent; they only request permission to be independent themselves. This does not prevent them from loving those within an organization and rejoicing in all the good thus accomplished.
This is not given as a defense, but merely as a partial explanation of the attitude maintained by the pastor of this church for a score of years. But to relieve him of a little blame and make his wrong-doing partly excusable, it may be said that when he was asked to become pastor of the church, he at once saw that difficulties might arise if an independent preacher should become pastor of a sectarian organization. Acting upon this, he requested an interview with some representatives of the church. At this meeting, held in the Russell House, assurance was given that if the call were accepted there would be no objection to the pastor retaining an independent position with reference to the de-nomination with which the church is connected. A letter was also received from the former minister of the church conveying the same assurance, with the additional statement that, under present denominational conditions, if he were independent he would remain so.
It may be recalled that, at that time, there was a rather bitter controversy in the Unitarian sect. It had started at the famous Syracuse Conference in 1865. As a result of this, the Free Religious Association had been inaugurated and some of the leading members of this church were also members of that Association. In 1886 the controversy was between the American Unitarian Association in Boston and the Western Conference in Chicago. On the surface the controversy was concerning the practical administration of church business; but, fundamentally, it was theological. A statement of doctrine had been issued; and there were those in the sect who insisted that it was necessary to accept it in order to be a Unitarian in good and regular standing.
There is a homely proverb : “The burnt child dreads the fire.” To the new preacher it seemed to have been made for that occasion. It is not forgot-ten that there is also a rude couplet which declares :
“No thief e’er felt the halter draw
With good opinion of the law.”
Perhaps some of you may think it would have been more applicable to the case. But, however this may be, the fact is that having had experience in one denomination that made a doctrinal test the measure of a man’s fitness to preach within its bounds, it did not seem to him necessary to repeat the experience in another denomination. Having freed himself from steel manacles, one is inclined to look rather unfavorably upon any kind of bonds, even though he is assured they are only woven of gossamer.
This fragment of history is recited merely to show that whatever harm has been done this church, by the non-sectarianism of its preacher, may, indeed, be his fault, but it is a fault he did not try to hide from those who first employed him. Since then conditions have greatly changed. The theological controversy belongs to the past. There is no reason why you should be obliged to continue an arrangement made by others a score of years ago. Doubtless the time has come when the church would prosper better under a leader holding “positive Unitarian views ;” and, than its prosperity, there is nothing the present pastor more desires. But all he insists upon is that when he came, twenty years ago, it was well known by the church that he did not then hold, and he, at least, well knew and now well knows that, while his reason lasts, he never will hold pronounced sectarian views of any kind. Nevertheless, he must not neglect to tell how his heart goes out in admiration and love toward those who, while disapproving, have been so tolerant and patient with him.
In trying to find something to say on each recur-ring Sunday morning for twenty years, more than forty thousand pages have been written. The number of this present manuscript is 1103. The mechanical work involved in this is not small. In addition to writing them, several hundred sermons have been printed. Writing with the care necessary when the printed page is in view, and the correction of proof, consumes time and adds to the greatness of the task. But this is only a small part of sermon making. The mind of the average preacher is not usually overcrowded with ideas. It is not so burdened with them that he is compelled to dash off a dozen sermons to relieve the strain. Preachers are not exceptional mortals. They are made out of folks. Hence, when they attempt to prepare a sermon, they must do as all persons do when they undertake a difficult task. They must work. Only those who have had long experience in the task know how much toil, how much anxiety, how much fear and questioning, how many sleep-less night-hours go into the making of sermons.
Of course, like other human beings, occasionally the preacher is given a luminous day. New and rich fields are suddenly opened to his vision. Every-thing seems transparent and glows with a light not its own. That which, on other days, is concealed, is now revealed. All that was ever read or heard is remembered. Thought comes in torrents. Every natural object, from a grass blade to the Pleiades, seems invested with a sacred meaning, and, meekly obedient, yields itself to illustrate the spiritual life and its august laws. Then it is a joy to be alive; and, lifted far above drudgery, his work suddenly seems to be an act of worship.
But these glad periods are very rare. The preacher cannot wait for them to appear. Next Sunday is never more than six days away and is constantly drawing nearer while he is waiting for an inspirational day that may not arrive in time. A poet need only write when the spirit moves him. A novelist may lay his work aside when his creative mood forsakes him. It is not so with the preacher. Perhaps it would be a gain for his congregation if it were so. When Sunday morning comes, he often feels that he should like to ask his audience to excuse him from speaking for the simple reason that he has nothing of importance to say. He well knows the sermon was made from necessity, not from choice ; it was worked out by main strength and did not come by inspiration. He has no hope that those who patiently listen will be awakened or elevated or receive any spiritual benefit from that part of the service. Under present conditions, how-ever, he can only speak what he has prepared to say, regardless of how it was prepared, and trust that the next Sunday may find him with a message more befitting the high occasion.
Being only an average mortal it follows that the preacher will have the limitations incident to average humanity. He is likely to have a special fondness for certain ideas and will neglect others of equal importance. Whatever the text or theme may be, he is almost certain to reach his favorite conclusion. But, among his hearers, there are also those who have subjects and theories that are dear to them. On the day he is exploiting his choice theme some are disappointed because he is neglecting theirs. They wonder why a man will spend time talking about the spiritual life or ethical ideals when he might talk about Temperance or Theosophy or Foreign Missions or Angels or Municipal Ownership or the Trinity or Single Tax or Heaven or Labor Unions. We can easily picture the kind of minister we should like. He must be profound, but not dull; scholarly, but not pedantic; exact, but not tiresome; rhetorical, but not flighty; spiritually minded, but a good manager; who can speak often and always speak well ; who is sympathetic, but able to control his emotions ; who hates his own sins, but pities ours. Perhaps there is such a preacher on earth, but up to this time we have not been so fortunate as to form his acquaintance. Thus all any church can do is to select some man whose faults are not too many or too glaring and then get along with him as well as possible. Being made of the sanie kind of material, a congregation need expect no more of their minister than they expect of themselves. It is only upon such terms a pastorate can unobtrusively slip along from one to ten and from ten to twenty years. At best, twenty years is a Iong time for a church to stand a minister; and it is an equally long time for a minister to stand a church.
When a preacher succeeds in setting forth some important principle ; when he kindles a sacred ardor in the soul of youth, or, for a time, makes the real eclipse the seeming and causes the temporary to disappear in the enduring meaning of existence, those who are in sympathy with his aims give him hearty approval. On those days when he fails to do this, if they do not praise, they at least pardon him. They credit him with good intentions. “To err is human ; to forgive is divine.” Thus if there is a sympathetic, as well as an official relation between pastor and congregation, the defects of the one create more of the divine quality of forgiveness in the other. His partial failures become a means of grace. The things he omits to say, because of ignorance, or says badly, because of lack of tact or discernment, may become a persuasive eloquence in those hearts which love him. Without this intimate personal relation and a boundless friendship, a pastorate running through many years would be impossible. Some poetic lines say:
“The scorn of the nations is bitter,
But the touch of a hand is warm.”
Thus it often occurs that the weakness or the rashness of the sermon is forgotten in the friendly hand-clasp which follows it.
That there should be much sameness of thought and repetition of illustration in the pulpit work of a long pastorate is unavoidable. The first ministers of Christianity were itinerants. They were often called heralds and their work corresponded to their title. Having declared their message in one, they hurried to another city. The settled pastorate came in later times. Under the original method, sameness of themes and thoughts would be allowable. When the audiences were changed, the sermon was always new. In the last century Wendell Phillips went all over the land repeating his lecture on “The Lost Arts ;” and there was scarcely a city in which Beecher did not speak on “The Ministry of Wealth.” Every audience was delighted, because, in addition to the inherent value of the sentiments themselves and the wonderful language in which they were draped, there was always a sense of novelty and surprise. But, marvelous as they were in sentiment and expression, no audience would have cared to hear those lectures a hundred times. Of course those orators were exceptional men. But it is barely possible, if he were to devote a number of years to the task, that an ordinary preacher might prepare one sermon which would bear repetition, provided there was a new audience at every delivery of it. But this is not permitted. From Sunday to Sunday a congregation is largely composed of the same persons. The ancient heralds of Christianity had many audiences and one sermon, while its modern preachers have many sermons and one audience. Because of this sameness, large drafts are made on the forbearance of a congregation. If these drafts are not drawn, or if they are not honored, one of two things results: Either the church will soon be looking for a new minister, or the minister will soon be looking for a new church.
But something may be said by way of excuse for this sameness in pulpit ministrations. There is monotony in every pursuit. The things we did yesterday, or last year, we shall largely do tomorrow and next year. Only there is a difference between the doing of the past and present years. That something we call experience makes the change. It is often said of the work of an author : “The style is the man.” It may also be said of the writing and speaking of sermons. If a preacher is not a copyist ; if he is not a student of attitudes ; if he has not borrowed his manner of speech from some orator; if he is not striving after superficial effects, then his reading, his prayer, and his sermon are himself. The reading may not be elegant in enunciation ; the prayer may not be exalted in emotion and its utterance may be broken and halting; the sermon may not be either profound or lofty in thought, and the manner of its delivery may be very awkward. But it is an expression of his own soul, and, as such, is original. It is his character speaking; but it is a character in process of transformation. Time is gradually giving him power to make a wider survey of life and its meanings; it has destroyed some of his youthful prejudices and modified his inherited opinions ; it has brought a deeper human sympathy; it has produced a more sensitive and more discerning appreciation of the beautiful in art and nature; it has awakened a more profound awe in presence of the world’s great mysteries. It therefore follows that, although a theme may have been used twenty years ago and the principle involved be identical, yet a sermon written on it today would be very different. There will be a widely different sense of proportion; there will be new shadings and a changed interpretation of historical and present events ; the militant note will be less prominent ; a more philosophical temper and a more tender spirit will pervade it. A farmer plows and sows and reaps; then plows and sows and reaps again. But, while his work remains the same, he, himself, is changed. So a preacher thinks and writes and speaks ; then thinks and writes and speaks again. But into it all comes his own enlarging experience. From each recurring and monotonous plowing and planting and reaping of a farmer comes new food to sustain life. So from continued meditation over the great facts of existence come new sermons giving new motives, new courage, new aspirations to the soul. This must be cited as an additional reason why it is occasion-ally possible for a minister to remain with one church for the fifth of a century.
It is not unusual for mortals to have hours in which that buoyancy, which once carried them along over all the difficulties of their work, seems to have forsaken them. This is not a phenomenon peculiar to any one pursuit. It belongs to all of them. In such an hour these minor chords must have been sounding in a heart:
“The spring has less of brightness
The snow a ghastlier whiteness
Nor do summer flowers quicken,
Nor the autumn fruitage thicken
“To the past go more dead faces
As the loved make vacant places,
Everywhere the sad eyes meet us,
In the evening’s dusk they greet us,
And to come to them entreat us
But it is well to recall that it was not the summers and autumns and the world’s friendships that were changing and passing away. It was the poet’s own heart that was changing and declining. Since the verses were written many a spring and summer and autumn have come with their beauty and splendor unchanged. Thus we must not mistake our own loss of buoyancy in our life task for some defect in the task itself.
Having spoken for many years upon one theme, it is not strange if a preacher should come upon some days when it seems to him that he has uttered his final word and henceforth silence would be more becoming. There are times when he is tempted to think that, whatever may have been the need of preaching in former ages, the necessity is no longer present. Doubtless this is an error. He makes the mistake of judging the world by his own feelings. When he becomes more just in his measurements he knows he was only thinking of his own preaching, and his despondency is over its lack of value. While his heart is despondent over the use-fulness of sermons, many a young preacher is pre-paring them, undisturbed by any doubt of their value, and is animated and carried forward by a great fervor. He knows that while those who are now preaching sermons will, in turn, languish and pass away, the sermon, itself, will go forward as one of the agents chosen by the Divine Providence for the inspiration and salvation of mankind.
Bearing a name that seems to relate it to heretical ways of thinking about God and man, yet, with-out hesitation, this church claims the right of belonging to the great spiritual brotherhood of religion which, in all ages, has been present in the world. The trust is that, in the twenty years now ended, something has been done to make this claim more just. Among the churches of the city there seems to be a growing tendency to grant its right to make the claim. To those who deny this right, a harmless liberty of opinion may be conceded. The age is compelling all churches toward a unity of spirit; and the hope is that this church will be so noble of purpose, so abounding in love, so enthralled by spiritual ideals that, before another score of years is passed, it will not only be tolerated, but welcomed by all who believe in God and a kingdom of righteousness on earth.
It is pleasant to recall that since we entered upon the relation of church and pastor no dissension has ever appeared. Whatever differences there have been were of the head and never of the heart. Perfect mental liberty and freedom of utterance have been granted. You have not always agreed with what has been thought and said concerning denominational. and social and national affairs, but you have always permitted the man in the pulpit to express his opinions while you have maintained yours. Each has respected the other, and neither has sacrificed self-respect by attempting explanation or apology. Living thus in an atmosphere in which justice is always tempered by friendship, it is not strange that for one heart the years have passed so rapidly.
There are some things on this day which all hearts may feel, but no lips can utter. So sacred, so tender are some of the memories rushing into our being from those past years, that, if we should attempt to express them, the voice would soon sink to a whisper and then be smothered in a sob. We dare not even pronounce the names of those, some of them great, some humble, some old, some young, but all now idealized and glorified by death, who were with us twenty years ago. There is a German fancy that, when, in the midst of a feast, a temporary silence falls upon the company, it is because an angel is passing over the house. Unable to speak of them, while we are silent, we trust that a blessed company is hovering over us.
From us all, the future is hidden. Let us there-fore not attempt to penetrate its secret. We can only know the present with its insistent duties, its great opportunities, its sacred friendships. But we may resolve that, while the existing relation re-mains unbroken, and then, in the nature of things, in the not remote future, with another pastor, we will be loyal to our duties, live up to our opportunities and maintain our friendship undisturbed. In our church life let us place the emphasis where we think it rightly belongs. May we strive to find only those principles and practices which, in our judgment, will most hasten the coming of a kingdom of God. Making a spiritual philosophy the reason of our church’s being, we need never defend it, never apologize for it, nor ever be uneasy concerning its future. It will amply justify its existence; it will be an aid to all who come within its influence; and it will be here when we are far away.