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ART. III. – THE ETHICS OF PULPIT INSTRUCTION.
A Brief Account of his Ministry, given in a Discourse preached to the
Church of the Messiah, in Syracuse, N.Y., September 15th, 1867. By SAMUEL J. May. Syracuse, N.Y.: Masters & Lee, 1867.
Pamphlet octavo, pp. 52. Of the countless sermons that pour yearly from the press, few are so well worthy of being read and pondered, especially by ministers, as this short autobiography of Mr. May. It is the story of a moral hero, told in simplest phrase, and free from the least taint of egotism. Possibly those who infer the egotism of President Johnson, not so much from his reckless ambition and obstinate selfishness, as from the frequency with which he uses the pronoun of the first person, might object to its frequent occurrence in this pamphlet; but, although Mr. May is by no means afraid to say “T," certainly no one ever said it more modestly than he. In all these fifty pages, devoted as they are to the history of his own life, he never offends, in the least, by a sentence designed rather to entrap admiration, than to state with simplicity a fact or a thought. The single-mindedness of the man is mirrored in the directness of the style. Not forgetful of the clamors raised against him in former times by the angry crowd, he is at no pains to hide the approval of his own conscience, as he now calmly scans his seventy years. What generous heart is not touched with sympathy, when, referring to the rescue of a fugitive slave from the United States officials, in October, 1851, Mr. May says, not without honest pride, “Let me only add now, that I have not lived long enough yet, to be ashamed of any thing I said or did for the rescue of Jerry'"? The same spirit of conscious yet unassuming rectitude pervades the whole of this unvarnished record of actual facts. During a ministry of fortyseven years, every reform that promised to help lift mankind out of spiritual or social evils, has found in Mr. May a friend equally ready to give and take hard blows in its defence.
Peace, temperance, education, antislavery, woman's rights, the succor and elevation of Indians and canal-boys, – whatever humanitarian movement came to his notice, at once enlisted his sympathies and hearty efforts. Indeed, he now expresses some regret, that his work as a reformer has at times unduly withdrawn his attention from the more special duties of the ministry; but the fault, if it be one, it is quite easy to forgive, on the score of its exceeding rarity.
“ Thus to relieve the wretched was his pride,
And e'en his failings leaned to virtue's side.”
Nothing could be more touching than Mr. May's treatment of an aged parishioner in Brooklyn, Conn., who believed that the baptism by sprinkling, which he had received in infancy, was insufficient, and consequently felt himself debarred from partaking of the “ Communion.” Against the advice of some aged ministers, to whom he had applied for counsel, Mr. May baptized his simple-hearted friend, by immersion in Blackwell's Brook; taking care, however, to caution the moved spectators against subordinating the spirit of the ceremony to its mere form. “One drop of water,” I said, “would be sufficient for one who sincerely intended to become a disciple of Jesus: an ocean of water would not be enough to baptize truly a pretender.” If any thing could reconcile the modern consciousness to symbolical acts in religion, it would surely be a baptism such as this.
Equally honorable to Mr. May was his treatment of Theodore Parker. What he regarded as opposite extremes, honest superstition and honest heresy, -won from him equal tenderness and respect. Would that such a spirit were as common as it is beautiful! In the very height of the young iconoclast's unpopularity, Mr. May wrote to him for an exchange; avowedly to show that his own esteem was quite independent of repute for orthodoxy, or the applauses of a sect. The course adopted by the Boston Association of Ministers" disconcerted” him. " It seemed to me that they had lost confidence in the fundamental principle of Liberal Christianity. Mr. Parker's doctrines were then, more than they are now, offensive to me; as much so, probably, as they were to any of the Boston ministers. . . . If, then, we believed it possible for a Calvinist to be a good Christian, I saw not why we should doubt that a rationalist might be.” The italics are ours. What a genuine and most rare liberality is this, going out as freely to those who believe less, as to those who believe more! To men such as Mr. May, the unity and prosperity of a denomination can never become a chief object of concern; nor can the “ denominational spirit,” which is only party spirit in religion, seem ever in any wise helpful to humanity. Love of the truth for its own pure sake, and as superior to all sectarian interests, has been the inspiration of this noble ministry, and shines out from every page of the little pamphlet which records it. A grand life grandly told, full of lion-heartedness, sincerity, moral valor, and self-dedication to all noble ends! The world is better for this man's living in it; and now that the hue-and-cry of prejudice dies away, and in his venerated age he hears a growing murmur of applause which cannot wholly stifle itself, even out of deference to his modesty, let him rejoice in the approval, not of his own conscience alone, but of the universal conscience of his times.
It is chiefly as a preacher, of rare fearlessness and faith in the benign power of truth, that we behold in Mr. May the living text of a lesson in practical ethics. He has never held his
peace . from fear of consequences, whether to himself or to society. In season and out of season, he has spoken out like a man, with words of great power, because backed by great character. Few men have so shone in the pulpit with those virtues, seldom blended, - bravery of speech and sweetness of spirit. Measured by the only true standard, healthy moral influence, whose preaching has been more fruitful of good ? Others may have adorned their “ profession” with more brilliant reputations for eloquence; others may have bequeathed to posterity richer legacies of thought or scholarship; others may have built up larger and wealthier societies; others, with the tuneful witchery of the “ Pied Piper of Hamelin," may have fluted more dollars out of the pockets of their congregations. But who has done more to make the pulpit respected by a keen-eyed world? Who has done more to prove to this American people, so quick to spy out shams, that religion is the best and truest friend of suffering humanity ? In all ages, a vast deal of shoddy has gone to “the cloth ;" and he does yeoman's service to the cause of pure religion who shows in the pulpit character that wears like homespun. It is men like this — faithful to the high duty of the prophet, speaking the truth of God to unwilling ears, proving that to put on the preacher is not to put off the man — who in this nineteenth century redeem the pulpit from contempt. If, indeed, the world's welfare at all depends upon " Sunday services,” it is to men like this that the world most owes the perpetuity of the institution. Because he has been so radical in his public speech, our generation has produced no more powerful conservator of the pulpit than Samuel J. May.
It is quite true that Mr. May has never been, and is not now, what is commonly considered “radical” in theology. But he has always preached his theology as unreservedly as his religion, and that, too, in places where it was the ultima Thule of radicalism. It seems but fair to infer, that, had his theology been quite different from what it is, he would have preached it no less frankly. Boundless faith in the wholesomeness of the truth, whether practical or doctrinal, is the open secret of his pulpit course. If his life teaches any thing, it teaches the equal nobleness and wisdom of bold utterance of all deep convictions. Hence it appears just to point to his preaching as a most apt illustration of that course in the pulpit which we here advocate. If we are wrong in this, we make haste to drop the illustration, but nothing more.
In discussing the “ethics of pulpit instruction," we cannot wholly waive inquiry into the previous question, whether instruction is properly a function of the pulpit at all. We are not sure that all would admit this. Liberal Christianity was, at first, mainly an intellectual re-action against Christian superstition. The force of this re-action is now in great measure spent; and there is in some quarters an evident tendency to disparage the intellect, to treat it as an interloper in the Church, and to magnify at its expense the practical and emotional side of human nature. The tremendous power of ideas, their influence both on worship and on work, is forgotten. The views taken of the purpose of the pulpit could not possibly remain unmodified by this tendency. Hence edification — the building up of moral character, and the culture of religious sensibility; the practical application of old, familiar truth to heart and life, and not at all the promulgation of new truth ---seems to many persons to be the preacher's only legitimate aim. To all such, therefore, the pulpit appears false to its duty, when it undertakes the task of real instruction; instruction, that is, which is more than the simple illustration and enforcement of duties and truths already well known.
With this view of the matter, however, it is hard to see how any liberal minister can agree. It is quite in keeping with the “evangelical” theory of religion : it is quite out of keeping with his. The mere suggestion that the pulpit may have new truth to promulgate, must be to the “evangelical" denominations a direct attack on the sufficiency of the Scriptures, an impious insinuation that the last word of the Holy Ghost is not the Amen at the end of the Apocalypse. But that there is to-day new truth in religion of which men stand in need, is implied in the belief, that revelation is a gradual and never-ending process, rather than an ancient and completed fact. The thoughts of God come to man, one by one, in a deeper and deeper reading of existence. They are born in solitary souls before they grow a part of the life of all. Every great idea has its date, and adds itself to human knowledge as a new truth. In religion, as in all else, bu. manity climbs, step by step, to higher levels of experience and thought; and the landscape widens as it climbs. To doubt, therefore, that the law of development covers religion as well as art and science, politics and trade; that the nineteenth century also has its new truths of weighty import in spiritual life,- is to lose faith utterly in religious liberalism.
Yet, if new truth in religion is indeed dawning upon our