THE AGED MINISTER OF CHRIST CONTEMPLATED
A sermon, preached in Victoria Street Chapel, Derby, by John Angell James, on occasion of celebrating the Jubilee of the pastorate of the Rev. James Gawthorn.
The part which I have been requested to take in the interesting services of this day, is in strict and beautiful harmony with the occasion which has brought us together. The venerable Pastor of the Church assembling in this place, having by the good Providence of God, attained to the jubilee of his ministry here, and, by abundant grace from on high, maintained an unspotted reputation, and lived up to this time in the esteem and affection of his flock, they have determined to celebrate the event in a way which shall testify to him and to the public, in the most emphatic manner, their gratitude for his long services, their esteem for his holy character, and their resolution to do all in their power to render the remainder of his days tranquil and happy.
Whatever other services might be judged proper, a sermon is strictly appropriate to the occasion; and, indeed, without this the jubilee of a preacher would seem to lack its most characteristic mark, a lack which no festivities, however joyful and innocent, could altogether supply. To that "labor of love" I have been invited, as being one of Mr. Gawthorn's oldest friends and nearest neighbors, a work which I shall now proceed with great good will to perform.
The subject which I have selected for our meditation and instruction, is the description which the Apostle of the Gentiles gives of himself in his letter to Philemon.
"Being such a one as Paul the aged." Philemon 9
It is impossible to ascertain, with precision, the age of the apostle when he wrote this exquisitely beautiful and touching letter to Philemon. Doddridge supposes he might have been about twenty-three years of age at the time of his conversion. But Chrysostom, who flourished in the fourth century, makes him ten years older at the time of his great change. In the former case, he could not have been much above fifty; and in the latter, which is the more probable of the two, he would be about sixty-three. Even this does not amount to what is usually called "aged;" but Paul was made prematurely old by his labors, cares, and sufferings. The difficulty of settling this point arises from the latitude of meaning which, according to the usage of ancient times, we must give to Luke's expression in the Acts of the Apostles, where Paul is first introduced to us as a "young man" at whose feet the men that stoned Stephen laid down their clothes. This phrase was often extended in its application to those who had arrived nearly at middle life.
In thus describing himself as an aged man, the apostle had a purpose to serve, and in that purpose tacitly refers to a principle, universally admitted by all nations, savage and civilized, ancient and modern—that 'old age' has its claims upon our consideration and respect. We all feel it an additional reason why we should grant the wishes of an petitioner—that he is old. Paul meekly asserted this claim, and felt it to be but reasonable he should suppose that Philemon would be more willing to gratify his request concerning Onesimus, because the petitioner in the case was an aged servant of Christ, who had spent the vigor of his life in the service of their common Master.
We now leave the great apostle, and take up the consideration and contemplation of an aged minister. In doing this I shall not enter into any minute description of the duties of his office; nor state separately the claims which he has on this ground upon the respect and affections of his own flock, or the public at large. Nor shall I call you to review the changes, however numerous or great, which have come over society, his congregation, or himself—in passing from the juvenilities of youth to the infirmities of declining years, changes which, so far as they regard the state of society at large during the period of your minister's labors, have been more momentous than have entered into most other jubilees of the world's existence. All these I pass by, to dwell upon subjects more immediately connected with the occasion of our meeting.
In contemplating an aged minister, you are naturally led to review his past history, to estimate his present claims, and to anticipate his future destiny.
In doing this,
you think of—
I. Review his PAST HISTORY.
1. His CHARACTER—and how during this long period he has conducted himself—what reputation he has spent so many years in building up, and in what estimate he is now held when grey hairs are upon him. If, by God's grace, he has been blameless and harmless, as one without blemish, if he can appropriate to himself the language of the apostle, "You are witnesses, and God also, how holily, and justly, and unblameably, we behaved ourselves among you who believe," it is a matter of ineffable gratitude both for himself and his people. Spotless reputation is a beautiful object to contemplate in all—but most beautiful in him who is appointed to teach by example, as well as by precept. Who can help admiring a character on whom the temptations of fifty years have made no breach, left no stain, and imposed no disfigurement? Many who sailed with the venerable man in youth "have made shipwreck of faith and a good conscience," he has seen them go down by his side—but there he is just about to enter port, with his bark whole, his sails set, his cargo safe. Piety is always valuable, even the bursting buds of youthful excellence, how much more the rich ripe fruits of old age! The youthful recruit hastening to the field with all the ardor of a warrior, is, to those who take pleasure in things pertaining to war, an object of interest. How much more the veteran, returning from long-continued conflicts, sustained with unflinching bravery to the last. Consistent character maintained for half a century, is an object for angels as well as men, yes for God himself, to look upon with delight.
2. Think of his LABORS.Yes, labors. People have a wrong estimate of a minister's life, who judge of it only by the conduct of those who make it an office which provides a good income—while they disregard all its duties and its obligations. Such doubtless there are, men who said, "Put me into the priest's office for a morsel of bread," or who sought it for the indulgence of a literary taste, or for the gratification of a propensity to idleness, or with the hope of marrying a rich wife and living at ease. It is too true that all sections of the church are cursed with some ministers of this description, who are each looking for his gain from his quarter—"His watchmen are blind, all of them, they know nothing; all of them are dumb dogs, they cannot bark; they dream, lie down, and love to sleep. These dogs have fierce appetites; they never have enough. And they are shepherds who have no discernment; all of them turn to their own way, every last one for his own gain." (Isaiah 56:10-11)
But look at the true, the good, the faithful minister, as described in Scripture. He is a laborer, a watchman, a fisher, a soldier, a builder, a wrestler; all terms that employ toil, vigilance, effort, perseverance, and enduring self-denial. There are men, not a few, whose lives and exertions justify the employment of such figures of speech. They do labor, in the closet by wrestling supplication; in the study by intense application; in the pulpit by earnest preaching; in the church by pastoral oversight; in the houses of their friends by counsel, reproof, and warning; by their pens as well as their tongues; on week-days and on Sundays; at home and abroad. The faithful minister must be classed among those who have no leisure. True, his toils are chiefly mental; but who knows not that, on this account, they are the more exhausting and wearing? You may judge then what estimate to form of his services who has continued all this for fifty years; and who, after bearing the heat and burden of the day, is a workman still, and, instead of devoting the evening to repose, is giving that also to the service of his Master and his flock.
3. Dwell upon his USEFULNESS.It may seem to some a great mercy to pass through life without doing moral harm—to maintain the ground of neutrality between good and evil. And when we consider how many there are who, by the poison of their principles and the corruption of their example, inflict positive mischief upon society, it is a ground for thankfulness not to have cursed society by infidelity or vice. But to aim to do no harm, is a poor, low, creeping ambition—our duty is to do good; and in one sense, not to do good is to do harm. It is every man's solemn obligation to benefit society, and every man has some means and some opportunities for such beneficence. The consistent Christian is a blessing not only to his Church—but to his country, and to humanity.
I can never look upon an aged disciple of Christ, who has maintained a holy, blameless and consistent reputation, and who has added liberality to personal sanctity, without reverent regard. How many have been impressed by his example, enriched by his beneficence, blessed by his prayers, and instructed by his principles. If this be true of the disciple, how much more of the good minister of Jesus Christ.
There is his example also—not that this is more perfect than the other—but it is more public—not that it shines with a brighter luster—but it is lifted higher, and is more seen. He is a city on the hill, while the other is in a valley.
Then there are his prayers. Here, too, he may not seem to be above his fellow Christians, for they also pray. Yes—but it may be supposed his prayers take in a wider scope, are more in the form of intercession, especially for the people of his charge. Then many of them are presented in the hearing of his people. He leads them into the presence of God, and is their intercessor with him, as well as their spokesman. His prayers, if they are what public prayers ought to be, kindle the spark of devotion in their hearts, fan it to a flame, and keep the fire burning. A devout minister does almost as much good in the way of promoting religious affections, by his public prayers, as by his sermons—and this matter is deserving of far more consideration by the ministry than it receives.
Next comes his preaching. By this, what instruction is communicated, what impression is produced, and what results follow. Infidels are convinced, profligates reclaimed, souls converted, believers comforted, sanctified, and preserved. Into how many dark minds has he been the means of introducing "the marvelous light" of the "glorious Gospel" of Christ—into how many families has he conveyed piety, order, love, and peace. How greatly has he promoted the well-being of the community by scattering abroad the principles of liberty and loyalty; by supporting the authority of government and the restraints of law; by reproving vices which no legal enactments can reach—and fostering virtues, which no human power can compel. How has he sustained by his general conduct and pulpit labors both in his own congregation, in his denomination, and the catholic church at large, those institutions which are intended more perfectly to evangelize his own country and to convert the world to Christ.
And in many cases, to all this may be added the publication of written works, which will live when he is dead, and by which he being dead, will yet continue to speak and act. What mind but that which is infinite can grasp the sum total of usefulness sought in this way which has been crowded into a successful ministry of fifty years?
4. Next you will think of his TRIALS.There is no exemption for the most holy servant of God, from the ordinary lot of humanity. He is called to sympathize with the afflicted; and as experience is the foundation of sympathy, he must drink the bitter cup of sorrow himself. Even Christ, "though a Son, learned obedience by the things that he suffered." "Therefore He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested." So it is with us—"If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is experienced in the endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer." (2 Corinthians 1:6).
Having learned the reason of a minister's trials, look next at their nature. There are his trials as a man. The pulpit is not too lofty for the clouds which are exhaled and roll up from the earth to reach. The companion of his pilgrimage is taken from his side—his comforter and counselor is removed; his children die, or are scattered over the earth; his property, if he has any, is subject to the vicissitudes of all that is seen and temporal. Add to these his trials as a Christian. All that you know and suffer in the great conflict he knows, and perhaps with greater weight and force. But especially dwell on his trials as a minister. Sometimes he is half broken in heart by a lack of success. He has so often cried, "Who has believed our report and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed!" that he is almost ready to say "I will speak no more in his name." Some over whom he rejoiced as his success and reward, as his joy and hope, and whom he expected would be his crown and rejoicing in the day of Christ, turn back and walk the ways of God no more. Others, offended by his fidelity, desert him. Others grieve him by their worldliness and inconsistency. Others whom he counted upon to stand with him to the end of his ministry, infected by the love of novelty, abandon him for some new favorite. Others, though professedly his own children in the faith, sting him with unkindness and neglect. Others thwart him in his plans of usefulness by direct opposition, or standing by without lending a helping hand. But where shall we end? Ah, you know a minister's joys far better than you know his sorrows. You see his sails—but not his ballast. You follow him in his public walks of labor—but not in his Gethsemane retreat, where he goes to pray and agonize alone. He calls you to share his felicities—but he carries his perplexities and his griefs to his closet and his God.
Look then at the hoary man over whom the clouds of fifty years have rolled. How many storms have burst upon that aged tree, tearing off its branches, stripping off its leaves, and dismantling it in some cases, until little else but the mere trunk and a few boughs remain of all that once umbrageous top. Still, however, the venerable trunk does remain, and there is life in it to the last. How much of divine power and faithfulness and grace we associate with that sacred antique.
5. Can you forget his TEMPTATIONS?I now use this word in its popular sense as meaning incentives to sin. Of these what a variety has been comprised in fifty years. A minister may well be supposed to be the chief mark for Satan's arrows. He is. And perhaps the holiest man that ever entered a pulpit would scarcely like that anyone but God, should know what assaults have been made upon him. He would be ashamed that others should know out of what petty things his great enemy could construct a means of attack. And even he does not know all the precipices on the verge of which he has been treading in the dark. The faults of ministers so powerfully affect the cause of Christianity that it is no wonder the power and schemes of hell should be all employed to effect such scandals. And alas! alas with what success have these stratagems of the Wicked One been employed of late; and the wonder is that what he cannot accomplish by his own direct attacks, he does not more frequently achieve by the calumnies of others. There seems to be some truth in the quaint remarks of an old author, that a special Providence watches over the lives of little children—and the characters of good men. Are instances of ministerial delinquency so rare, as to make it matter of no thankfulness when we see a man who through God's grace has come scatheless from the temptations of fifty years? Would to God they were. But how many have we heard of, if not witnessed, in our day? "Some of whom have been forced to enter into secular life. Some have crossed the sea and become a pastor, where his grievous sins were unknown. Some, after a spiritual quarantine, have been admitted again by their former connections as wholesome and safe. Some have established a new schismatical interest, and drawing after them a desperate faction, who pretend to be satisfied with their own avowals of innocency, or repentance, have become more popular than before. In general they have become advocates for a lower standard of holiness, that will not reproach the laxity of their morals; and making up in pride what they lack in purity, profess to see things clearly, and decry all others as blind. Licentiousness is the liberty wherewith Christ has made them free."
Let us then, this day, refresh ourselves, by looking at
one, (and thank God we have seen others of a like kind,) who has stood for
half a century exposed to the fiery darts of the wicked, and by the shield
of faith has quenched them all, and who appears among us as a proof, for the
encouragement of his younger brethren, of what God can do in the way of
carrying his servants through the temptations that are common to man.
II.We now, in contemplating the aged minister, estimate his PRESENT CLAIMS.
1. He is entitled, if a holy and faithful man, and in proportion to his sanctity and fidelity, to RESPECT and veneration. Antiquity seems in most cases to call forth feelings of reverence. An aged tree, an old castle, an antique book, or an article of any kind of ancient date is regarded with emotions of this kind. But this very forcibly applies to an aged man, an aged Christian—but most of all to an aged minister. Not, however, that in application to the latter case, old age, apart from moral excellence, is entitled to respect; quite the contrary, for it then becomes an object of detestation and loathing. To see the sanction of hoary hairs given to iniquity is indeed disgraceful and revolting. A wicked old man is the most shocking spectacle upon earth—with the exception of a wicked old minister! On the other hand, "the hoary head is a crown of glory when found in the way of righteousness."
If in youthful piety there be the beauty that charms, in aged godliness there is the venerableness that awes. The old and faithful servant in a family, a farm, or a factory, who has worn out the vigor of fifty years in promoting the interests of his employer is an object, as he moves slowly along, for any one to stop and look at with respect, and to pay to him the tribute which his hoary virtue deserves and demands. What, then, should be the veneration paid to the aged servant of Christ and his church, by those who have had so long a time the benefit of his services, and have seen him grow old in their service. As he moves among his people, not only might the children pluck his gown to share his smile—but their fathers should look up to him as to one who has a claim upon their reverential regard.
2. Has he not claims also upon their AFFECTION? It might seem almost an infraction of the law of modesty for one of the ministry, and one who is himself approaching the rank, if not already in it, of an aged minister, thus to put forth demands for his brethren, which some will consider as demands for himself. Well, if the claims be just and be presented in meekness, there is, perhaps, nothing wrong in this. Hear then what the apostle says, "We beseech you, brethren, to know those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and to esteem them very highly in love for their works' sake." Now as the claim is founded upon labor, if there be no work done, there is no affection due or demanded. It is affecting to consider that the man who wrote this had to say on another occasion and to another church, "The more I love you, the less I am loved." One would hope for the honor of human nature that this is a rare case—and indeed even in Paul's case it applied only to a part of the church.
The love to a minister does not rest simply on personal grounds, though both as a man and a Christian he may by his general and sacred excellences possess and present them—but on official and relative grounds. It is not claimed for what he is in himself—but what he is to his people as their minister and pastor; their friend and counselor; in fact the instrument of their salvation, and the promoter of their progressive sanctification. Surely then it is true, that if offices of such love, tenderness, and value entitle him to their affection, the claims must increase with years. It would be strange indeed if the studies and experience of so many years did not qualify him still more effectually to discharge his duties towards them. He is therefore far more entitled to their affection in old age than in youth.
Yet it is painful and melancholy for some men to contrast, as they have to do, the affection shown them in youth, and that which is exhibited when wrinkles are on their cheek, and grey hairs upon their brow. With what mournful accents has many an one had to say, "Where is then the blessedness you spoke of? For I bear you record, that, if it had been possible you would have plucked out your own eyes and have given them to me." In his early ministry every wish was not only gratified—but anticipated. Every eye sparkled with pleasure, every countenance beamed with a smile, and every tongue was voluble with the language of welcome praise and compliment. All vied with each other who should be most fawning in their attention to his comfort, for the increase of which every door was open and every table was spread. Ah! this was in the gladness of his espousals with the church. But he has grown aged among them, and, poor old man, he has to see all this repeated, not however to himself—but to some young brother lately introduced to another church in the same town, while he has to say with a sigh, "So was it with me once—but I am old."
So have we seen the bridegroom in the days of his nuptials, lavishing on his bride the ardor, the vigilance, the delicacy, and inventions of his love, as if he could not do enough to make her sensible of the sincerity and strength of his affection. Time rolled on, and "first love" at length cooled into decent moderation, then into lukewarmness, then into indifference, then into neglect, and then, in some cases, into alienation. It is a lovely spectacle to see the youthful pair in their unobtrusive, unostentatious fellowship with each other—but how much more so to see the aged couple when thirty or forty or fifty years, with all their trying circumstances, have rolled over their union as sincerely, respectfully, and affectionately attached to each other as when they led each other from the nuptial ceremony to their home. It is a beautiful scene to witness a church gathering with delighted love around a young pastor on his entrance among them—but it is a still more beautiful object to see a church gathering with respect and affection round an aged one.
3. If an aged minister has a claim for affection, he must also have a right to expect GRATITUDE. Every young pastor who might have gone to other churches, had he chosen to do so, has, upon accepting the invitation of a congregation, some demand upon their thankfulness. He has terminated their solicitude, he has supplied a chasm in their church history, he has united them more closely to each other by uniting them to himself. So far he has already benefitted them. But of course his claims go no further. He has made them promises—but he has yet had no time to fulfill them; and has opened prospects before them which he has not yet been able to realize. How different the case of an aged minister. He has perhaps more than fulfilled his promises, and more than realized his prospects. He has been to them as a church collectively, (and for how long a period,) the center of their union, the medium of their communion. He has presided over them in "the meekness of wisdom." He has, by God's blessing, been the promoter of their peace, and the means of their spiritual prosperity. What sweet fellowship and undisturbed communion have they enjoyed during the long term of his pastorate, while other churches have by the removal or imprudence of their pastors been involved in disputes, difficulties, and contentions. As individuals, they are no less indebted to him. To many of them he has been the instrument of their conversion; to others of their sanctification, consolation, and edification, through many, many years. In the sanctuary he has refreshed, quickened, and warned them by his sermons; and in their houses by his visits. Through his wise and faithful counsels and reproofs they may have been preserved from ruin for both worlds. He was first the guide of their youth, then the counselor and help of their manhood, and is now their prop when, like himself, they are old.
Let any one estimate, if he can, the amount of instruction, consolation, and pious benefit of every kind, which must have flowed into a Christian church of any magnitude during a ministry of forty or fifty years. What multitudes during that period have received the richest blessings which man can accept or God impart. Here before you is the man who has exhausted the vigor of his youth, the strength of his manhood, and now is adding to it all that remains of life, for his church—and let that church estimate, if it can, the amount of its obligation to its pastor in his seventy-fifth year, who of those years has given fifty to them, and now pledges to them all that remain, whether the remainder is to be spent in suffering or in service.
4. I next mention TOLERANCE and FORBEARANCE as virtues which an aged minister is entitled to expect; and of which, in some cases, by the gathering infirmities of declining years, he will stand in need. There is, there must be, as regards capacity for labor, a manifest difference between senility and youthful vigor. Should the powers of the mind show no signs of decay—but remain to threescore years and ten not perceptibly impaired, (and yet how rarely is this the case,) still the frail tenement of the indwelling spirit must sink into irreparable dilapidation. The exquisitely beautiful allegory of Solomon must be realized, "So remember your Creator while you are still young, before those dismal days and years come when you will say, "I don't enjoy life." That is when the light of the sun, the moon, and the stars will grow dim for you, and the rain clouds will never pass away. Then your arms, that have protected you, will tremble, and your legs, now strong, will grow weak. Your teeth will be too few to chew your food, and your eyes too dim to see clearly. Your ears will be deaf to the noise of the street. You will barely be able to hear the mill as it grinds or music as it plays, but even the song of a bird will wake you from sleep. You will be afraid of high places, and walking will be dangerous. Your hair will turn white; you will hardly be able to drag yourself along, and all desire will be gone. We are going to our final resting place, and then there will be mourning in the streets. (Ecclesiastes 12:1-5)
Yes, all this must be realized in the minister as well as in others. Exertion cannot be so long continued in age, fatigue cannot be so easily endured, difficulties cannot be so resolutely met and mastered as once they were. To expect the same bodily effort in an aged pastor as in younger years he with facility rendered to his church, is unreasonable. Demands upon his labor, time, and attention must be lowered, and expectations must be lessened in a ratio proportioned to the increase of his years. And then, in many cases, the mind partakes of the decay of the body. The quickness of the memory is diminished, and like other men he forgets first names and then faces—the richness of his imagination is lowered, and the former power of his intellect is weakened. He is not what he was—he knows it, feels it, laments it. Often, could you break in upon his solitude, you would find him in tears to feel that he cannot go forth as aforetime—doubting whether it is not his duty to resign his pulpit and his charge into other, younger and abler hands. To criticize such a man's labors with a remorseless severity; to compare him cruelly with some younger men, or with his former self; to expect from seventy years what is, and what was, rendered by thirty; and then to be petulant, impatient, harsh rebuking if all be not rendered which is thus unjustly demanded—who shall characterize such conduct, and in what terms of reproof, not to say of indignation, shall it be condemned? This aged man would be all he ever was if he could—but he cannot. Is it too much to look for patience, tolerance, and forbearance under such circumstances? Shall it be one of the bitterest blasts to his soul in the cold evening of his life's winter, to find that he has not only outlived his former self—but the patience of his friends? On the contrary, his flock should make him feel that his very ruins that remain are precious in their eyes—and that they accept as a compensation for the vivacity of youth, the experience of age.
5. And has he not a claim upon your ATTENDANCE upon his ministry? To desert him when he is old, is a poor reward for the more effective services of younger and stronger days. For such a man to find himself forsaken, and forsaken too by his own friends and spiritual offspring, for some new and young preacher, lately come to town; or for his own associate with him in the pastorate, is at once unfeeling and ungrateful. I knew a venerable and most excellent minister who had a young and popular assistant, and whose feelings were often wounded and his peace disturbed by seeing the members of the congregation looking through a window in the porch, which he commanded from the pulpit, to see who was to be the preacher, and then turn upon their heel and depart, upon ascertaining that it was he who was to officiate. Old men have their feelings—their sensibilities are not so blunted by nature, or extraordinarily sanctified by grace, as to have no susceptibility to the influence of such treatment—they can, they do, feel neglect, and feel it keenly too.
Perhaps they are not always prepared to admit their own decay. "Strangers have devoured their strength; grey hairs are here and there upon them—yet they know it not." Nor are they always so considerate as they should be of the fickleness and love of novelty that is inherent in human nature. There are some hearers whom no degree of talent would reconcile to hear the same man for any length of time. They have a morbid appetite which is ever craving after novelty, and which, not satisfied with plain, nutritious food, must have all sorts of confectionery and spicy dishes, and then querulously complain if their palate be not thus consulted and gratified. Such people endeavor to justify themselves by blaming the preacher. They are not capricious—but he is so old, so dull, so prosing, that they cannot any longer profit by his ministry—he brings them nothing new, nothing intellectual, philosophical or eloquent, and they really can no longer endure it. Thus they wander about from place to place after every newcomer, and at last acquire a fastidiousness which nothing can satisfy—and a vagrancy which nothing can fix.
There are others not so far gone in this Athenian passion of loving to hear some new thing, who still are strongly disposed to change what is old for what is new, and to forsake an aged for a younger minister. They have grown weary of the voice they have heard for so many years, and tired of seeing the same form rising so long in the same pulpit. Well if old age is a fault, and it is the only one they profess to find in him, it is one for which he has no cause to blame himself, and which must of necessity still grow upon him, and which he cannot hope to mend—but by his spirit's throwing off her mortal coil to "flourish in the regions of immortal youth." This will be too late to be of service to his people; but O, to himself, what a transformation.*
* This section of the sermon is peculiarly affecting to the Editor, as, though it does not, through God's mercy, describe his father's case, it is a transcript of the apprehensions which sometimes haunted him. As is always the case with an old minister, young people will follow younger preachers, and the usual secessions of the usual characters to the Establishment must take place. These matters the Author felt the more the older he grew until he had a colleague, and then he was relieved from all such anxieties. That such was the case with him may perhaps afford a little comfort to some of his brethren.
Still I am aware, and will acknowledge, that there are limits to the forbearance of our churches, even if there are none to the unreasonable expectations and demands of some of their pastors. A church ought not to be allowed to sink under the infirmities, the incapacity, and the obstinacy of an aged minister. It is in some cases very obvious that decay has destroyed the sensibility which would otherwise have perceived and prevented the mischief; and that the aged preacher is scarcely conscious of his own infirmities, and is at a loss to account for the gradual declension of his congregation. In such a case, the congregation are in a painful dilemma; they have either to see the church suffer, or to inflict a wound upon the peace of an aged and deserving pastor. The difficulty is less where the congregation is strong enough to support two ministers, there an assistant, if not co-pastor, can be obtained, and ought to be obtained—and the subject can, and should be suggested to the aged minister, who if he is a wise man will readily consent to the wishes of the people, and be glad to have his own deficiencies thus supplied.
But what is to be done where the minister is entirely dependent upon his stipend for support, and the people are too few, and too poor, to sustain an assistant?* I hardly know what to say, and yet ought I to hesitate, however unkind it may seem, to say, that rather than the church should be destroyed, the pastor, who can no longer keep it up, should certainly resign, and cast himself upon God for support—and if he has been a holy and a faithful man, I do not believe God will forsake him. Through God's bountiful Providence, I am not in a situation to make my own views, feelings and determination a standard for others, less blessed in this respect than myself—but my church need be under no apprehension that their pastor will stay to their injury, when he through the infirmities of age shall be no longer able so effectually to discharge his duties as to keep up the congregation. His danger will be, if he does not mistake himself, in an opposite direction, and he will be too quick instead of being too slow, to discern signs of declension, and portents which say to him "arise and depart." His friends will be spared the self denying task of even intimating, in the most distant manner, that it is time for him and them to think of a change. They will have no difficulty in getting rid of him, when it is their wish to do so. Under the Jewish law a priest was dismissed from his ministry functions at the age of fifty. This provided for their being vigorously discharged. This however is not law for us.
Still to see a man clinging with tenacity to office when incompetent to discharge its duties and when others think he should resign it, seems to savor somewhat of pride as if no one could be found to supply his place. Some men have so strange a notion of ministerial obligations, and so equally strange a notion about resigning the pastoral office, that they seem to imagine it a kind of desertion to give up their ministry when all but absolutely incapable of discharging its duties. I think I have seen some instances in which men have retired too soon, "while their eye was not dim, nor their natural force abated." Whenever such a step is taken, and a minister retires from public life, he should take especial care that it should be with dignity. His exit should be graceful, and his farewell tender, so that he may be followed into his retreat with the respect and affection of those whom he left on the field of action.**
* Nothing is more needed among the Congregational Churches than a fund for the support of aged and infirm ministers. I know there are several Institutions to help them to eke out a salary while they continue in their duties, and which distribute a portion of their funds to them after they have ceased to preach—but this does not meet the case. What we need is a fund which should furnish an annuity of not less than forty or fifty pounds a year to such as have attained a certain age and are incapable of labor. I know there are several local institutions that yield this also in part, and I believe that their managers are inviting the ministry thus to take care of themselves in old age. But still something more general, comprehending the whole body, should be provided, if not by a new institution by a consolidation of such as already exist, and every minister should be pressed to join it. Perhaps there are few men less provident against the time of sickness and old age than ministers. True their stipends are usually so small that they can scarcely take care of the present, and must therefore leave the future to take care of itself. What a bounty would some rich man bestow upon us, if he would bequeath his fortune to found a general society for the support of aged ministers. [The Author himself eventually accomplished the foundation of such an institution. By giving, as a nucleus around which a fund might be gathered, the sum placed at his disposal at his Jubilee, and by appeals to the public in periodicals, he prepared the way for the Congregational Union taking up the project. And they have so matured the plan, and gained for it such extensive support, that, while this sheet is going through the press, the Editor is engaged in the preparation of a deed to found and organise the Institution. The Author's object was to benefit the churches rather than the ministers, by relieving them from pastors who had, by age or illness, become inefficient; and he saw that to confine the aid of the Institution to right cases would tax all the principle and firmness of its managers. But if a sufficient fund is raised, and the income of it wisely applied, it will be the greatest blessing ever conferred upon the denomination].
** The Author did not fail to practise what he here lays
down. During his last years he had a peculiar dread of surviving his
efficiency without being himself conscious of his decay; and for this, among
other reasons, he, at a time, which some thought almost premature, let it be
understood that the responsibility of the pastorate had devolved upon his
III.Let us now anticipate the FUTURE DESTINY of the aged minister. There needs no gift of prophecy to foretell that the young must grow old, if they are permitted to live long enough, and the old, older; that the strong must become weak, and the weak dissolve and die. "Seventy years is all we have—eighty years, if we are strong; yet all they bring us is trouble and sorrow; life is soon over, and we are gone." (Psalm 90:10). The sun that rises in such splendor and waxes brighter and brighter unto the perfect day, must decline and set. Growth, decline, and death are the law of all life on earth, from which there is no exemption on behalf of the minister of the gospel. He preaches on the high theme of immortality—but it is with the breath in his nostrils, ready to depart. It has been known that a hearer has furtively put back the hands of the clock, that by a kind of pious fraud the pastor might be entrapped into a longer sermon—but no device can put back the hand upon the dial of his life, to protract his existence. We listen to a juvenile and to an aged minister, with all the difference of feeling with which we watch the evolution of the verdant leaf in the spring, and notice its sere and yellow state in autumn.
In some cases God is pleased to grant such a degree of physical strength and to protract it so long, that if it were not for the wrinkles on the face, and the grey hairs upon the brow, the hearers of the preacher would scarcely believe that he who speaks with a voice so strong, and with a mind so clear, can be verging on old age; and they are surprised to hear him call himself an aged man. But even in that case, the principle of decay is secretly at work, and the worm, though it has not eaten through the shell, is preying upon the kernel. In due time comes disease, which in some cases is very gradual, and all but imperceptible, so as to awaken no alarm, to excite no anxiety, and seemingly to require no precaution. But that which thus at first so insidiously approached at length develops itself and exhibits unmistakeable symptoms of advancing and irresistible incurable disease. Ah, this is now the time to try the patience of the minister and the kind forbearance of the congregation. His labors are feeble and intermittent. Much trouble, perplexity, and expense are incurred, in keeping the pulpit well supplied. The looser and lighter hearers drop off. The congregation is diminished. The good man, on his occasional return to the pulpit perceives it, and is grieved. He is at a loss what to do; unwilling to resign while there is a hope of recovery, and yet very uncertain whether he shall recover, he experiences much mental conflict, which aggravates his disease, and gives him sleepless nights and anxious days. Oh you deacons, now is the time for you to be at your post, to be active for the church, and to sympathize with the aged and afflicted pastor. Oh you church members, now is the time for you to be constantly in your place, that you might comfort his heart by the assurance that the church will not suffer by his absence. For it is the church, the welfare of his beloved church, which, in this solemn painful season, presses upon his heart. His pains would be lighter could he be assured of the welfare of that. Disease advances, and through a lengthened period of decline, the now disabled pastor has an opportunity to exhibit the passive virtues of that religion which he inculcated through his lengthened ministry. His bed is now his pulpit, from which he preaches; on faith, by exercising it; on patience, by exemplifying it; on submission, by practicing it. To the doctrines which formed the high theme of his ministry he sets the seal of his dying testimony. He looks back with the profoundest humiliation upon his imperfections, and gives utterance to his penitence in the hearing of his friends; but still he catches the spirit, and echoes the language, of the great apostle, "I know whom I have believed and am persuaded He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him until that day. I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day, and not to me only but to all them also that love his appearing." Thus the clouds of affliction which gather round his setting sun themselves receive its luster, and reflect it in various hues of splendor and beauty.
At length comes the end, when he finishes his course with joy, and lays down the ministry which he received of the Lord. The weary, worn-out laborer goes to his rest, and to his reward; goes to be associated with those who were his hope and joy on earth, and now are to be his crown of rejoicing in the presence of Christ; goes to meet his Maker, and hear him say, "Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord." Such words! From such lips! On such an occasion! Are they not a reward ample and abundant, for the labors, the sufferings, of seventy years or eighty years, and if called to it for martyrdom itself.
So must terminate, however protracted, the connection between the pastor and his flock. "Death works in us—but life in you." The very labor we carry on consumes us. This event must be anticipated in all—but especially in the aged minister. The young may die—the old must die. True it is, that sometimes we see a young and flaming seraph, like Samuel Pearce, Spencer, Henry Martin, and M'Cheyne called away from this world to that other one, to which they seemed more to belong than to ours. But these are the exceptions; the order usually observed is for the aged to go, and for the young to remain.
Such a consideration of the future history and approaching destiny of the aged minister ought to have some practical bearing upon the feelings and conduct of his people. It should not end in a cold admission of its truth, or in musing upon its solemnity or sadness with mere sentimental pensiveness. Should there not be devout and fervent gratitude for the long possession of the blessing? Does a jubilee of holy example, of ministerial labor, of pastoral oversight, make no demand, or only a small one, upon your thankfulness, both to God and man? Ought there not to be a deep sense of responsibility? For having enjoyed for so long a period such advantages, what an account you will have to give! Think of all the sermons you have heard, and the counsels you have received; do you not tremble at the idea of hearing him say, amidst the solemnities of judgment, "I take you to record this day, I am pure from the blood of all men, for I have not shunned to declare unto you the whole counsel of God." How is it with you? What has his ministry been to you? An occasion of life unto life, or of death unto death? Pause, ponder, and examine. And ought there to be no serious reflection? Should there be no such thoughts as these on your mind? "Our minister is no longer even middle aged—but has arrived at the period of life, when, whatever vigor of constitution he may possess, we cannot hope to retain him long. He has himself warned us of this, and we ought therefore to be anxious to improve by his labors while we enjoy them. And in order that we may retain him longer, we should do all we can to promote his comfort, and keep his mind easy. We should not grieve his spirit by neglecting his ministrations, nor lead him to suppose we have grown weary of the voice we have heard for so many years. We must endeavor to make his last days his best; best for himself and best for us; and to seek that the evening of his day may be calm and bright, and that his sun may go down without any cloud raised from our conduct towards him."
And now my beloved, respected, and venerable friend, the center at this moment of our attentions and our sensibilities, accept my congratulations on the arrival of this day, and upon all the auspicious circumstances with which it comes attended. Everything calls forth our gratitude and yours. That you have been preserved in holiness and honor to this advanced period of your life; (for what is lengthened life, without these—but a protracted disgrace and curse?) that you have lived in love, harmony, and peace, for so long a period with this church, and retained your place in their hearts until now; that you have secured and held fast the esteem of your fellow-townsmen, the regard of your ministerial brethren, and the confidence of our whole denomination; all of whom gather around you, at least by representation, today, to do you honor; all this I say, far more even than the munificent donation which is this evening to embody and express all these sentiments, are matter of sincere and hearty congratulation. But this is not all—to you it must be a matter of thankfulness and satisfaction to look back upon the thirteen years which you have spent in the joint pastorate with that most estimable man whom God so wisely and so kindly sent to labor with you in the ministry; to consider that he is still working with you the work of the Lord, loved by the church as much as he is loved by you, and reciprocating in full measure this love to both; and also to anticipate the moment when it will soften the pillow of death to reflect that in giving up the ministry you are resigning it into the hands of one so competent faithfully to discharge its duties, and to feed the flock. Happy, happy man to be thus blessed. How would it brighten the evening of my own days and relieve my heart of an oppressive load of anxiety if I were blessed in this respect as you are.*
* The Author had not the happiness of having the co-pastor with whom Providence after blessed him. Ed.
And now may God preserve you yet longer to us, rich in years, and in experience, until at length full of days and of honors, having fully served your generation according to the will of God—you shall fall asleep in Jesus!