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“On the Alleged Unattractiveness of the Christian Pulpit” By Henry W. Bellows

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“On the Alleged Unattractiveness of the Christian Pulpit”

Henry Whitney Bellows 

July, 1869, pp. 28-34

Henry Whitney Bellows

Henry Whitney Bellows

A constant refrain from the beginning of Unitarian doctrine to the present day is the “decline” in the number of good ministers. The article is mainly notable for Bellows description of the problem, but his reasons why the ministry did not attract might seem to many to have validity today.

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At the dedication of the First Unitarian Church in New York, on Saturday, Jan. 20, 1821, the records of the Society do not tell us who officiated in the other services; but on the printed programme we find, in the beautiful handwriting of the first clerk, against the sermon, the then already brilliant, the now illustrious, name of Edward Everett. Although only twenty-seven years old at that time, Mr. Everett had lately returned from a European tour, and become established as Greek Professor at Cambridge, after having been for two years the distinguished pastor of the Brattle-street Church, in Boston, following with not unequal steps in the shining pathway of the lamented Buckminster, — of all American preachers, perhaps, the most fragrantly embalmed in the memory of the lovers of eloquence, scholarship, and piety. At that early age, Mr. Everett had attained the full maturity of a great local reputation as a scholar and a Christian preacher; and, when the best and most attractive talent Now England could furnish was wanted to adorn so important an occasion, he was selected for the honorable duty.

It is not our purpose at this late day to reopen the question of Mr. Everett’s merits and services. But in offering some thoughts on the alleged unattractiveness of the pulpit to the highest abilities in our generation it seems not unnatural to adduce Mr. Everett’s example. Some light, may be thrown upon the general disposition of men of shining ability to avoid, or to forsake the Christian ministry, by simply asking the question why Mr. Everett, so fitted and furnished by nature and grace to the service of the Christian Church and the Christian ministry, quitted so early the pulpit, he adorned, and left the profession ho had so laboriously qualified himself to fill? Such an inquiry would be impertinent, conducted in a merely personal way, or pressed into particulars: and we have no such purpose. [***Page 29 / 000670 starts] Nor would it be instructive if it were to end in discovering merely private and personal reasons for the change; such as broken health, sudden accession of fortune, modification of theological views, conscious disqualification for clerical functions, impatience of ministerial restraints, or ambition of more brilliant pursuits. But Mr. Everett was an example of a considerable class of scholarly, gifted, eloquent, and able men, who have forsaken the pulpit, to enter upon literary, philanthropic, or political vocations. It has become, to a certain extent, a reproach, that men of the first order, straying, under the self-ignorant proclivities of youth, into the liberal pulpit of this country, have soon found themselves out of place there, without adequate scope for their powers, and irresistibly tempted to leap over its narrow barriers into the open arena of public life.

One thing we may fairly say at the very threshold, — that it has rarely happened that any men leaving the Unitarian pulpit, have disgraced their profession while in it, or after quitting it; exhibited any evidence of the declining power of moral or religious principle in their hearts and lives, after dropping their clerical robes; or given the least support to the worldly scandal, that they found their faith, on maturer consideration, a merely professional prejudice, or their purity and piety to be only badges of office. From what other body of men, in proportion to their numbers, has this country drawn so largely its men of letters, its poets, historians, and statesmen, as from the Unitarian denomination, and even the Unitarian pulpit? and in what class are we to look for more practical evidences of a controlling sentiment of moral and religious obligation? Certainly, we have no reason to say, that our ministers, ungowned only of their own choice, have disclosed the nakedness of their own religious characters, when taking again the place of laymen in the secular spheres of life. They have uniformly (in all the, higher instances) retained all, the respect and veneration they had as ministers; and, like Mr. Everett, testifying to the last his continued faith in the religious opinions he had taught in the pulpit, and his fidelity to the high standard of purity and piety be had there upheld, have lived and died, in the communion of that church, [***Page 30 / 000671 starts] of which, having once been ministers, they always continued ornaments and pillars.

Still, it is none the less true that a surprising number of our ablest men have left the pulpit; and that, too, after having succeeded in it brilliantly; and the reason for it continues ungiven. Doubtless, this has been partly due to the fact, that the characteristic training and views of the clergy in this country, especially those of largo, and liberal views, have qualified them, in a marked degree, for posts requiring broad, high, and thorough culture; and thus made them specially open to such demands. You cannot make poets, historians, critics, philanthropists, political economists, statesmen, judicial reformers, out of sectarian, half-educated, bigoted, and narrow men in or out of the pulpit. A young, forming country, pressingly in want of leaders, guides, lights, and ornaments, offers enormous inducements to the few men of thorough culture it possesses to step into its vacant thrones of power, and assume sway over its largest domains of influence. That alone has not only drawn from the pulpit many of its most illustrious men, but it has doubtless kept hundreds more from entering our ministry, who would have adorned it. The abler and weightier minds in America throughout the whole country, and from all religious persuasions, no longer gravitate towards the ministry, but away from it, — not perhaps from feeling its attractions less, but the attractions of other professions and pursuits more. In short, the rewards, the inducements, the calls, which the material interests of this new country present, with the professional, scientific, economical, and commercial vocations under which they are more directly to be developed, now draw away into civil engineering, mining, surveying, exploring, overseeing; into banking, trading, and navigation; into the law, with its new specialties of patent and of commercial law; or into medicine, with its scientific attractions at a period when the physical sciences are so engrossing and fascinating,— far the largest part of our rising young men of ability, and leave the pulpits of all denominations comparatively stripped of men of marked powers and influence. [***Page 31 / 000672 starts]

There has been one excellent consequence of this common misfortune. The general intelligence of the American mind has, during this decline of pulpit predominance, escaped from the oppressive power of the priesthood. Nothing can be clearer than the emancipation of the laity of tin’s country from the old thraldom of ecclesiastical discipline, cither in respect of opinions, or of conventional standards of conduct. The old rules and the old creeds are not abolished, but the feeble hands that administer them are too conscious of relative weakness to seek to enforce them. The nation has thus broadened its being, — intellectually, morally, and practically; and it will henceforth be impossible to keep the new wine, full of fermentation and power, in the dried and contracted skins, — the old bottles that once held it.

But other effects of this degeneracy of the pulpit have been correspondingly mischievous. When the clerical office becomes relatively weaker and lower than the other professions, then, while general intelligence and personal independence may improve, while formal and technical piety may give way to a more natural and practical goodness, while religion, instead of running deeply in the channels of professional or church pietism, may overflow the common level of life, and diffuse itself noiselessly through all the soil of human interests; yet, finally, it comes to pass that the stream of religious faith, and of the practice which is fed by faith, feels the decay of the fountains, or the weakness of those appointed to tend them, and who allow their sources to be clogged. A feeble pulpit, a ministry respected only for its office, has, again and again in history, accompanied or foreshadowed the decline of morals, and of practical righteousness. We firmly believe in the absolute necessity of an able, faithful, and inspiring Christian pulpit, to maintain the faith of society in spiritual realities; to lift up ideal standards of character; to hold fast the tender and inestimable traditions of the Christian faith; to urge upon occupied and passion-led men the serious truths, obscured to their downcast eyes,, but affecting and involving every moment’s real happiness, and their whole future; to present, with thoughtful meditation, the sublime [***Page 32 / 000673 starts] idea, of the presence of a God, hidden to the view of those beating up and walking in the dust of their hurried pathway through present cares and level interests; to, vindicate the right of Jesus Christ to reign in the heart and mind of those who bury him in a dead historical past, and know not that he lives and speaks and moves to-day in the believing hearts of his prayer-taught and spirit-led disciples; to contend against the overweening testimony of the outward senses in favor of the evidence of the inner witnesses of the soul; to plead for what is permanent and eternal in the presence of dazzling temporalities and glittering decays; to humble the proud, with the vision of divine greatness, and to exalt the lowly and abased with the sense of their own spiritual dignity and lineage; to awaken the conscience drugged with the cordials of pleasure, and the opiates of habit; to stimulate the spiritual eye, which disease has covered with a blinding cataract, by the healthful tonic of heavenly light, and arouse the inward man, prostrated and enslaved by the outward man, to assert his patent of nobility, and rise against and subdue his vulgar oppressor; to contend with a larger learning, a deeper insight, and a higher logic against the fallacies of pseudo-science, or the precipitate judgments of so-called practical experience, in favor of the historical truth of the Christian religion; and, in place of apologies for faith, turn upon the infidel, the materialist, and the secularist, the weapons of his own warfare, and compel him to answer for his unbelief and his low and vulgar conceptions of God and life and human destiny!

Let those great functions of the Christian pulpit fall into feeble and timid hands, fall into any hands weaker than those that steer the ship of state, handle the law, or the sacred mysteries of the human frame, or manage the immediate interests of human industry, and of social and economic life; and while, for a time, society may continue to live and thrive upon the accumulated capital of a faith and a piety which many generations of reverence and religious fidelity have stored up, it will sooner or later come to the end of its resources; and, like a country in the second or third year of its [***Page 33 / 000674 starts] drought, when not only its shrubs and its grasses fail, but its very forests begin to die, and its wells of water dry up, a moral desert will drift its sands, and blow its stifling simoons through the palaces and the altars where men once ruled and prayed.

But we have not yet reached the bottom of the inquiry, why the larger minds of this country have passed by the pulpit, grand and glorious as its functions are, to enter other departments of life. It is due, essentially, to the fact, that the so-called secular interests of the world have been for our generation, moving forward on a scale of vastness, employing and developing an ability, leading on, and disclosing, as their path was followed, truths of a majesty and importance which have left the established religious creeds and usages of .all churches in an incongruous and somewhat narrow and unattractive condition. Acquaintance with man’s nature and capacities, with man’s terrestrial residence, with the laws of society, the laws of trade, the laws of the human body, and the human mind; study of politics, of science, of medicine, of jurisprudence; of mechanics, of chemistry, of the conservation and correlation of forces, of the philosophy of history, of the religions of the past, of geology and astronomy in their bearings on the Mosaic cosmogony, of literary criticism in its relations with the authenticity and genuineness of the scripture text, — all these studies, partly theoretical and partly practical, have so far stretched the area of human thought, enlarged the field of experience and opened the horizon of speculation, that the theology which descended from the Reformation and the Puritans has, while still ending the formal respect of the majority of Christians, lost its hold upon their practical understanding, its place in the line of their other interests, or its agreement and congruity with their general mental attainments and convictions. What has our popular theology to do with the statesmanship, the philanthropy, the science, the law-making, the customs and ways of our national, domestic, and social life? How much hail a theological alarm for the slave’s soul in another state of being to do with the anti-slavery convictions which have almost emancipated from bondage the [***Page 34 / 000675 starts] negro race in this country? What sort of consonance is there between the alleged and popularly assumed dogma of human depravity — total and absolute — and the practical respect paid in our day to human nature, its instincts, rights, claims to education, and proclivities to justice and truth? How does the dogma of imputed sin or imputed righteousness agree with the ethical and practical judgments upon which our criminal law and our medical jurisprudence proceed? What influence does a claim to a technical conversion possess over men’s judgments respecting the integrity and trustworthiness of a man’s character? How much does the assumption that Jesus Christ is God in any true and proper sense — although he is literally alleged to have made the worlds — affect the opinions of men of science, in exploring the works of the Creator, or in unfolding his laws? Now, until theology is brought up to the experience and actual state of men’s convictions, attained through other and independent sources, it cannot hope to regain its old place at the head of the sciences where it belongs. Nor can its teachers (whether in the schools of divinity or the pulpit) be expected to represent the higher order of men and minds. Largeness and elevation of power are incompatible with intellectual insincerity, with mental equivocation, with verbal evasion, with the professional necessity of “paltering in a double sense.” Religion and theology, to be taught with power and by powerful minds and hearts, must regain the genuine, honest, uncompromised faith and confidence of men; must move untrammelled, and with the same freedom that literature, science, law, and medicine claim and use; must lose all spectral, superstitious, and merely conventional character, and be clothed in the garments of modern conviction and positive immediate reality.