Letters on Ministerial Qualifications
TO N. MY OWN SON IN THE FAITH.
GRACE, mercy, and peace be with thee, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our hope. Yours I received, and must confess I have long had a secret thought of God's sending thee forth into his vineyard; yea, I have at times indulged this thought for these three or four years past, but thought it prudent to conceal it from you, lest, by spending my breath, I should puff you up.
However, I watched you narrowly, and the hand of God with you; and I soon discovered a sound judgment, light to see and life to feel the difference between the killing letter, and the quickening word; the bondage of the law, and the liberty of the gospel: may the Lord increase thy life, and knowledge, more and more. I also discovered the severe discipline which our divine tutor used with thee; and I believe he has for some years instructed thee with a strong hand; which I trust you have, and ever will find to be for your soul's good, because it keeps us from saying a confederacy to every rotten preacher who says a confederacy; it likewise empties from vessel to vessel, so that we settle not upon our lees, or drop into fleshly ease in Zion. It keeps us in jeopardy every hour; makes us leave those things which are behind, and mind and walk in what we have obtained, and yet be pressing forward after those things that are before. It keeps our eyes fixed on the prize, and makes us daily seek after every characteristical mark of a high, holy, and heavenly calling; in short, by these trials we live; and in all these things is the life of our spirits: so God is pleased to revive us, and cause us to live by the faith of his dear Son,
And now, my son, what shall I say in answer to your request? You know I am no great judge of ministerial abilities, as to that part of them which pleases the world in general; I have never been at an academy myself; and indeed I should think it would be even tempting God if I were to attempt it. God can, and often doth, make a very unlikely tongue to be like the pen of a ready writer, without sending the quill to be cut at a college. I by no means approve of your going to the academy in Wales; if Jehovah the Spirit, called a cloven tongue of fire, abide on thee, thou hast no call to go so far to have thy tongue cleft. I have very narrowly watched several who have gone thither; and, as far as I could discern, I saw some of them who went there, apparently with some degree of simplicity, humility, tenderness, watchfullness, and self-diffidence, have not returned till they had got rid of the greatest part of what they seemed to have. They have in general come back men of considerable consequence in their own esteem, and have expected more homage by far than ever Paul did. It is true they have appeared with better language, but less power; and you know the kingdom stands not in word but in power. I speak to this of all; no, their are some whose ministry, usefullness, and life, are known and read of all men; but several whom I know, at their return, have appeared in the element of the Christian world, as clouds without water, just to please those who are weather-wise, who can look no father than the face of the sky; but without any sanctuary showers for the parched around, Jude, 12. Yea, I have often observed, while they have been mimicking the scholar, the Spirit hath evidently withheld that assistance from them which he hath bountifully bestowed on the experimental, unaffected, honest illiterate blunderer. I stand not alone in my judgment; many who are blessed with a spiritual palate, will own with me, that much of the wine broached by many of them is too much tainted with the old bottle.
I could earnestly wish my son to tread in the steps of his unpolished father, without wanting to appear what he is not. If God calls a fool to preach, it is to display his own wisdom in that fool. If he sends a very weak instrument, it is that his strength may the more perfectly appear in his weakness. If he sends one, who has long appeared base in the eyes of the world, it is to display his sovereign, renewing, miraculous grace, to the confusion of the honourable. I believe I was made the father of near thirty souls before I could distinctly read any one chapter in the Bible. You are a living witness of this truth; the whole congregation to which you belong are all, two or three excepted, the seals of my ministry; therefore it is evident my want of human learning has been no impediment in the way of usefullness. Natural and acquired abilities have a tendency to lift such as you and me up; and wherever self is concerned in the building of mercy, it is at the expence of Christ's honour.
If we are deficient in the excellency of speech, it is that the cross of Christ may appear the more effectual, and to convince our hearers that their faith is not to stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. An experimental preacher is no more than a golden pipe through which the divine olive tree conveys the golden oil; or an instrument by which men believe, but have no dominion over their faith; because planting and watering are all in vain unless God gives the increase: therefore the Holy Ghost tells us, Paul and Apollos are nothing; then surely we must be double diminutives, less than the least of all saints.
Our journey from D. to H. was a very pleasant one, and our conversation was sweet together until you mentioned your thoughts of a college. I told you my thoughts in a measure; but the next day, as I went from H. to Richmond, I pondered it over in my mind: Alas! said I, how shall I endure to see my son, whom I love in the truth, who is by occupation no more than a poor S. or master C. up in a pulpit, with robes and bands? How shall I with any degree of patience, look on my son, without being disgusted? I can love and revere thy grace, but not thy pride; and if pride should obscure thy grace, how shall I find a feature of Christ to fix my affections on? Gospel love can never fix but on some feature of the Saviour; humbling grace is the image of him, pride the image of the devil.
Thou knowest at this time that I am as good, if not a better scholar, than any of my flock at G. and if my pride has at any time prompted me to express a great swelling word, hast thou not seen how they have looked up at me? As much as to say, What doth our barbarian pastor mean by that? But my son's humour may object, and say, suppose I should be called to preach in London, as you are? Well, suppose you should; thou needest not become a collegian on that account; because the Lord's army, in London, is marshalled in three ranks. There are some professing nobility and gentry; these being learned, God sends gentlemen, of eminent learning to preach to them. The second rank consists chiefly of mechanics, of good education; and God sends such mechanics to preach to them. The third battalion consists of servants, journeymen, a great number of old char-women, together with some scavengers, lamp-lighters, and hod-men. Now you and I must be standard-bearers to this battalion of light infantry; and we are protected by the same laws, fight under the same banner, and no less beloved of the King than the others. You will say, that our temporal pay is less; true, but our spiritual pay is more. Thou wilt say, country people are not so bitter against a gowns-man. Neither shun the cross, nor court it. But carnal wisdom may plead the usefullness of the gown to draw people; to which I answer, all nets manufactured by human wisdom are too weak to hold a sinner. Cast the Lord's net with the hand of faith, and pray for the wind to blow, and doubtless you will have a draught. Strive not to please a few light, bigoted Pharisees, with a gown and band; their applause will puff thee up, and pride may blind thine eyes, until thou mayest appear in thine own sight almost a master of arts; but every discerning Christian will see thee in another light. Go on as thou art; bring no carnal props to support the ark of God; an unpolished preacher is less capable of deceiving. Many appear in gowns and bands, with refined language, which are no more than mere instruments, without spiritual life, deceiving the people with an empty sound; and, although they are called gospel ministers, yet it is to be feared they neither know Christ, nor themselves: better judges than I say the same.
Not long ago I went to hear one of these gentlemen, in his robes, who had no more right to them than I have; he preached a very sound-worded discourse. I admired his speech, ingenuity, and fluency; in short, there was nothing wanting but unction. Soon after this, a gentleman lent me a book, which I had never seen before, called Benjamin Keach's Metaphors. I had not read in it long, before I saw, word for word, all the ingenious discourse which I had lately heard; and how that divine appeared in my eyes afterwards I shall leave you to guess. I told a friend who went with me, that if these gentlemen were kept from hearing gospel ministers, and without money to buy commentators, they would be forced to act the part of a journeyman shoemaker when he has spent all his cash on St. Monday; I mean, stand still for the want of stuff.
I know some learned gospel ministers in London, who have come down in their style of speech to the weakest capacity; while others, some of whom were as low and mean as myself, are climbing up in pride to that pinnacle from which the others descended. Do not mistake me, I am not against any servant of Christ consulting the judgment of a sound author, or quoting from him; but I say, all who run unsent of God, let them get their matter and manner from Benjamin Keach, or elsewhere, God has quartered them at the sign of the den of thieves; and, sooner or later, they will turn back in the day of battle; for God is against them that steal his word, every one of his neighbour, Jer. xxiii. 30-32.
It is better, my son, to feel and enjoy what we cannot find language to express, than to express what we never felt or enjoyed: therefore aim more at life than language. If we must be grammarians, let us get it by the dint of hard study and observation; and let us preach as much scripture as possible, for the Bible is excellent language. Learned ministers, if under the influence of grace, will not despise us in our proper sphere; a nobleman's butler does not despise an under-groom in his stable; but, if he will be meddling with the sideboard, he cannot be said to abide in the place wherein he was called: you know how to apply it.
However, if you are determined to appear in the character of a dignified clergyman, I hope you will go to some place where thou art not known; and be sure never to drop a hint that thou wast once a professor of the craft of St. Crispin. Take what I have written in good part, as it is intended for thy good. You shall have my opinion of ministerial abilities in the next. Remember I have long styled thee my own son in the faith, and hope thou wilt be likeminded with me. Neglect not the gift that is in thee; let not every wind of error, nor the north wind of the law, deter thee: "He that observeth the winds shall not sow;" and those zealously affected by false clouds shall not reap much, Eccl. xi. 4.
Ever thine in gospel love,