Among The Baptist
ON EXTEMPORE PREACHING. — THE SUPPORT AND THE NEGLECT OF MINISTERS. —
COMMENTS ON THEIR VARIOUS HABITS AND CONDITIONS.
FIFTY YEARS AGO it was as unconstitutional and unusual
for ministers of our order to preach by note as it was for the old Scotch
Seceders and many others; but extempore speaking was the almost universal
practice. There was no established rule on the subject, but so decided and
strong were the prejudices of the people against written discourses, that
very few of our ministers ever presumed to use them. If at any time they saw
fit to prepare written sermons, to relieve themselves and the people from
embarrassment, they would announce the fact beforehand, as the following
account will show: In 1807, one hundred years from the forming of the
Philadelphia Association, the late Dr. Samuel Jones, by appointment,
preached a century sermon before that body. This performance, the venerable
preacher introduced by saying, "I have had it on my mind that it would be
proper for me before I proceed, to confess openly, that I am not going to
preach, but to read. * * * I must, however, observe that I think reading is
admissible on particular occasions, especially such as the present, when the
chief of what is to be said, is to be historical. * * * After saying this
much, I need not be at any pains to conceal my notes. I had some thoughts of
committing the whole to memory, but I did not like it very well, * * * by
pretending to do what I did not. * * * I will now enter on the subject
before us — 'Enlarge the place of thy tent,' etc."
Dr. Jones, in his remarks thus quoted, probably had more
respect to popular prejudices than his own feelings; but from these remarks,
especially those which have respect to concealing his notes, we may see the
embarrassments under which ministers then labored, in this region, who
wished to make use of any written preparations in their pulpit services.
Many amusing accounts in the concealing operation might be given.
The notions of our people in Boston and vicinity were not
so rigid in this business; still but few of our preachers, in all this part
of our country, made any display of papers in the pulpit. If they employed
any it was done with such care and dexterity as not to be generally
Dr. Stillman had the reputation of preaching by note, but
of doing it with such facility as to appear to speak in an extempore manner.
A number of the pulpit preparations of this eminent divine are before me,
which are rather ample skeletons than full discourses of common length.
With very few exceptions, in my early day, our most
distinguished preachers pursued the extempore mode. After hearing Dr. Furman
of Charleston, South Carolina, in his own pulpit, I find it entered in my
journal, "he is a very correct extempore speaker."
A large majority of Baptist preachers in early times had
no inclination to offend the people with written sermons, had they been
capable of producing them, but as a new generation came up, with more
education, a change gradually took place, not always for the better,
however, in the vicar of many of the old members, in whose minds a broad
distinction was still kept up between reading and preaching.
The Scotch system of writing and committing to memory, as
Dr. Jones was inclined to do, was never practiced to any great extent among
our ministers. When the new race, with permission, or without it, had
surmounted the old extemporaneous barriers which had stood in the way of
their predecessors, they found it more convenient to trust to their eyes
than their memories, and as Baptists are more tolerant in this business than
the Covenanters, the reading of sermons has become about as common with
Baptists as Pedobaptists in many parts of the country. And what is a little
singular, while many of our ministers are going into the practice with
increasing expedition, many in old dynasties are going out of it as fast as
On the Habits of our Ministers — Their Support
— Circumstances — Trials — Faithfulness.
Fifty years ago, the
ministers of our order were generally a hardy and active set of men. Then we
never heard of a very prevalent disease of modern times, nor was it common
to go on distant voyages for the restoration of health. Instead of this,
they often sallied out on horseback into remote and destitute regions, as
evangelical pioneers. This was done in many cases by ministers under
pastoral engagements, who, after spending a few weeks or months in such
services, would return to their pastoral stations.
How it happened that the ministers of that age, who were
exposed to so many hardships and privations, who so often preached in log
cabins and in other pent-up places, or in the open air, should have so much
better organs of speaking, stronger lungs and firmer constitutions, than
their successors, whose labors are so much less severe, and who are so much
better cared for, I could never fully understand.
In my early experience among the Baptists, the spirit of
preaching was very prevalent; and licensed or local preachers, who did not
look forward to any pastoral charge, were so numerous in some of our old
associations, that they out-numbered the ordained class.
It was very common with our old-fashioned preachers to
open a door, as they called it, for others to speak; and the local
preachers, and even the lay brotherhood, were included in invitations of
this kind. This practice is still continued in many places.
At the period now alluded to, it was a very uncommon
thing for any of our ministers to give up preaching or relinquish pastoral
stations for the want of support. Instead of that, they would devise some
way to support themselves and keep on their work; and what may seem a little
singular, I have always found our ministers of property among the
self-supporting class, rather than with those who have been well cared for
by their people.
On the Ways in which Ministers Sustained
Themselves and Families
A considerable number of our preachers in this age were
physicians, some kept school, others followed trades, or were engaged in
mercantile pursuits of different kinds; but by far the greatest part of
them, throughout the whole range of our country, were literally farmer
preachers; and in my extensive travels among them, I was somewhat
disappointed in finding such a large portion of these laborious men, in
their spiritual vocations, in such comfortable circumstances as to their
worldly concerns. And not a few of them were wealthy compared with the
citizens around them. Lands were cheap and were easily obtained, in a new
and uncultivated state, and were paid for by degrees; and when a minister
had commenced a settlement, his brethren and friends would join in
log-rolling, and soon a farm would be secured for the family, by whom, for
the most part, it was cultivated and cared for, while the head of it was
engaged in evangelical labors in a wide circuit in his new location.
The early settlers in the western country went
principally from the southern Atlantic States, in search of a more
productive soil, and the advantages which new countries afford to the
primitive occupants. Many Baptist ministers were found, among the swarm of
emigrants who thus sallied over the mountains in pursuit of western homes,
who had no certain places in view. In some eases, churches were formed by
emigrating parties before they set out on their western tour, and ministers
and people would travel and locate together. Such a body on the road, might
be styled the church in the wilderness.
To illustrate the vagueness of pastoral relations in the
new settlements, I will mention that I found instances of ministers locating
in desirable places, without any respect to a church, although they intended
to continue their ministerial labors. As preachers then and there made no
dependence on the people for support, their first object was to provide a
home for their families, like other men; and when this was accomplished,
their next business was to collect together the scattered sheep in the
wilderness, organize them into churches, get up log meeting houses, and set
in motion religious operations with as much regularity as a new country life
would afford. Although the western regions, which were settled principally
by emigrants from Virginia and the Carolinas, are here referred to, yet it
is a well-known fact that half a century since most of our ministers,
everywhere, were under the necessity of laboring and planning for their own
support, and that the Baptists generally were more parsimonious in their
doings in this line, than almost any other party in the country.
"The Lord keep thee humble, and we’ll keep thee poor,"
was then the doctrine of the South, according to Dr. Furman. "They loved the
gospel, and they loved its ministers, but the sound of money drove all the
good feelings from their heart," according to J. Leland.
But still these same people were generous at their homes,
so far as hospitality was concerned. In this business there was no stint nor
The great mass of our ministers then had no settled
income for their services, and where moderate sums were pledged, in too many
cases they were slowly paid, if paid at all. Under these circumstances, the
zeal and assiduity of so many laborious men is the wonder of the present
age. Their perseverance in their ministerial work, in the midst of so much
ingratitude and neglect on the part of the numerous churches which they
planted, and the poverty and privations which they endured through the whole
of their ministry, are matters of high commendation and grateful
In that early age we seldom heard of any one retiring
from a pastorship into ministerial inactivity, on account of the parsimony
of the people; and very few non-preaching elders were then to be found.
In all the new countries in which our churches were
planted, before the rise of any societies of sufficient means to support
stationary ministers, the scarcity of ministers was so great that it was
necessary for each one to divide his time among a number of churches. The
support of the men was not the main thing, as in this business but little
was attempted by the people, or expected by the hardy, self-denying gospel
pioneers. The grand difficulty was, the men were not to be found, and out of
this state of things arose the monthly system, so called, which began
from necessity, but which has been thus far continued from choice, from
neglect, or from some other cause, in most of our churches in the South and
West. The attendance of a pastor once a month is all that is expected, and
for a minister to have four churches under his care is a sure indication of
his popularity. His name appears in the minutes of the association against
the churches which claim him as their pastor. Where this system prevails,
one of my churches, instead of my church, is the common language
Thirty-day Baptists is a
term which some have applied to those who thus manage their pastoral
In the cities and larger towns, through all the regions
where the monthly system is still kept up, our churches generally have
pastors in the usual manner, who have but one pulpit, and one congregation
to care for; but in all the country parts of these regions, it was, and
probably now is a thing of rare occurrence to find a minister every Sabbath
in the same pulpit. If there has been a change from the monthly to the
weekly system, it must have been made since I ceased traveling in the South
and West. When I was last in Kentucky I found the late Dr. Noel the only
Baptist minister in the whole State, where the denomination was very
numerous, as it has been for half a century past, who had a support from the
people he served, and this came from two churches, one in the city of
Frankfort, the capital, the other at the Great Crossings, a few miles
distant. To these two bodies he preached every alternate Sabbath.
A Brief Account of a Monthly Pastor
On my first visit to Georgia, I found the late Jesse
Mercer the pastor of four substantial Baptist churches, each of which were
able to give him a comfortable support. At this time, and during a
subsequent visit to this efficient coadjutor in my historical pursuits, I
went the rounds of his quadruple engagements in the pastoral line. As the
churches had the communion monthly, the pastor, of course, administered the
service weekly, and consequently was, himself, a weekly communicant.
Saturday, with all monthly meeting churches, is the day
for church meetings for all kinds of business, secular and devotional; and
Mr. Mercer delivered discourses at the houses of the members who were remote
from the central point, while going to and returning from it; and as these
four churches were for the most part contiguous to each other, a portion of
the members would be found at the second station on the succeeding Sabbath,
and so on for the whole of the circuit.
One small item in this fourfold pastorship yet remains to
be named: as there are fifty-two Sabbaths in the year, and Mr. Mercer's four
churches claimed but forty-eight, the four days' over plus, once in three
months, he gave to a feeble body, outside of the circle of his usual labors.
And after all the close figuring of this combination of
able churches, for the pastoral care of a very worthy and laborious man, so
limited were their contributions for his support, that he found it needful
to have the care of a farm and other secular concerns at home.
The above account affords a sample of the manner in which
monthly pastorships were conducted at the time here referred to. In many
cases, however, able ministers had a less number of churches under their
The reader may infer from the foregoing account that the
churches in the regions of this monthly system are without ministers or
meetings three fourths of the time. But this is not always, and, perhaps we
may say, not generally the case. Other ministers of less notoriety on the
ground, or those of the itinerating class from other parts, often preach in
the places left vacant by the stationed pastors.
Voting supplies for the
churches which were destitute of all pastoral aid, was an important item in
the doings of our old associations. This method was pursued, before any
arose, for the promotion of missionary labors of the most limited and
temporary kind. This practice prevailed mostly in the northern States.
Fifty years ago there were
but little more than thirty Baptist ministers in all the country who had
been through a course of collegiate training, and but eight on whom the
title of D. D. had been conferred. Manning, Foster and Smith had died before
On the Permanency of Pastoral Relations
In all times our ministers of a certain class have often
changed their locations, or, as the phrase is, have been on wheels; but, on
the whole, there has unquestionably been a great increase in the frequency
of ministerial removals, during the last half century.
In the cities and principal towns, in my early day, the
pastors of our churches, generally, were retained in office till old age;
and in many other locations, in all the States, there was a large class of
pastors who lived and died in the places of their early settlement. If they
were not eminent, or attractive as preachers, and if a portion, or even a
majority of their congregations, would have preferred other men, a change
could not then be so easily effected as now. Many of these men lived on
their own foundations; they had always supported themselves, and on the
score of living were wholly independent of their people, who, from their
neglectful and parsimonious habits, would have found it very difficult to
raise a support for a new man.
This difficulty often occurred when the old incumbent
ceased from his labors, or voluntarily resigned his charge.
The causes of ministerial removals and changes, a half a
century since, were not so numerous or pressing as they have been for many
years past. Then the vehement spirit of numerical gain in the churches, and
the restless desire for available ministers for the augmentation of
congregations, had hardly begun to show itself. The old staid churches had
more respect to the sound and certain teachings of their ministers than to
any thing merely captivating in their discourses. Again, the numerous
excitements of modern times, about matters foreign to the work of ministers
of the gospel, in which not a few of our more modern pastors have been
involved, and by means of which many have been run off the track, were
unknown in my early intercourse with the Baptists. Once more: the influence
of restless deacons to effect pastoral changes was then but feeble compared
with later years. It was, indeed, felt more or less in some few churches,
but it was afterwards greatly increased, and many an embarrassed pastor has
been obliged to succumb to its controlling sway. Finally, a scanty income
was not always a sufficient reason for a ministerial change, in the public
mind, or in that of the minister himself, but often he would hold on, year
after year, under the most embarrassing circumstances, rather than leave his
flock in a pastorless condition.
In those days, while church members were generally quite
poor, and as many of them, had come from the Pedobaptists of different
parties, they were exposed to opposition and reproach of a painful nature;
and on these accounts there was a very strong sympathy and affection on the
part of the pastor towards these poor and despised people, and a reluctance
to leave them without an under shepherd, was stronger than is now felt by
many ministers in their sudden changes.