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Letters to Young Ministers – On Devotion to the Work of the Ministry by J.W. Alexander

By April 10, 2011April 12th, 2016Pastoral Ministry

WHEN I look back on the years which I have spent in the ministry, I cannot but think that much benefit would have arisen from such honest and plain advices as most of my elder brethren could have given me. It is this which induces me to offer you the hints which follow. These must be somewhat like personal confessions; since the rules which I have to propose are derived in several cases from my own delinquencies. You know the old similitude. Experience is like the stern-lights of a ship, which cast their rays on the path that has been passed over. It will be some little consolation if others shall be benefited, even by our failures. May God of his infinite mercy, give his blessing to these suggestions!

You have lately entered on the work of the ministry: my solemn advice to you is, that you devote yourself to it wholly. You remember the expression, [En toutois isthi]: 1 Tim. iv. 15. The complaint is becoming common, respecting young men entering the ministry, in every part of the Church, that many of them lack that devotion to their work, which was frequently manifested twenty or thirty years ago. It is vain to attribute the alleged change to any particular mode of education. In this there has been no such alteration as will account for the loss of zeal. The cause must be sought in something more widely operative. The effect, if really existing, is visible beyond the circle of candidates and probationers. Nor need we go further for an explanation, than to the almost universal declension of vital piety in our Churches, which will abide under every form of training, until the Spirit be poured out from on high. The fact, however, remains. Here and there are young ministers, visiting among vacancies, and ready to be employed in any promising place, who are often well educated persons, of good manners, and irreproachable character: but what a want of fire! There can be no remedy for this evil, but a spiritual one; yet it is of high importance that the young man should know what it is he needs. He has perhaps come lately from his studies, in the solitude of a country parish, or from some school in the mountains; or from some sound but frigid preceptor, who, amidst parochial cares, has afforded him few means of stimulation. His thoughts are more about the heads of divinity, the partitions of a discourse, the polish of style, the newest publications, or even the gathering of a library, than about the great, unspeakable, impending work of saving souls. He has no consuming zeal with regard to the conversion of men, as an immediate business. Let us not be too severe in our judgments. It cannot well be otherwise. None but a visionary would expect the enthusiasm of the battle in the soldier who, as yet, has seen nothing but the drill. Yet this enthusiasm there must be, in order to any greatness of ministerial character, and any success; and he is most likely to attain it, who is earliest persuaded that he is nothing without it. It is encouraging to observe, that some of the most useful and energetic preachers are the very men whose youthful zeal was chiefly for learning, but who, under providential guidance, were brought at once into positions where they were called upon to grapple with difficulties, and exert all their strength in the main work. Such were Legh Richmond and Dr Duncan.

In the sequel, you will be fully relieved of any apprehensions that I mean to deter you from study, or even from elegant literature; but this must be subordinated to the principal aim; its place must be secondary. Some who have been most successful in winning souls have been men of learning; Augustine, Calvin, Baxter, Doddridge, Martyn; but they laid all their attainments at the foot of the cross. As Leighton said, to a friend who admired his books, ‘One devout thought outweighs them all!’ This is not peculiar to matters of religion. No man can reach the highest degrees in any calling or profession, who does not admire and love it, and give himself to it – have his mind full of it, day by day. No great painter ever became such, who had it only as a collateral pursuit, or who did not reckon it the greatest of arts, or who did not sacrifice everything else to it. Great commanders have not risen from among dilettante soldiers, who only amused themselves with the art of war. The young minister, who is evidently concentrating his chief thoughts on something other than his ministry, will be a drone, if not a Demas. Look at the books on his table, examine his last ten letters, listen to his conversation, survey his companions: thus you will learn what is uppermost in his heart. And if you find it to be poetry, aesthetics, classics, literary appointments, snug settlement, European travel, proximity to the great; be not surprised if you find him ten years hence philandering at soirees, distilling verse among the weaker vessels of small literature, operating in stocks, or growing silent and wealthy upon a plantation. It is a source of deep regret to many in review of life, that they have scattered themselves over too many fields; let me entreat of you to spend your strength on one. When we call up in memory the men whose ministerial image is most lovely, and whom we would resemble, they are such as have been true to their profession, and who have lived for nothing else. Some there are, indeed, who have had a clear vocation to the work of teaching, which is really a branch of the ministry, and one of its most indispensable branches, and who have served Christ as faithfully in the school-room or the university, as in the pulpit; such were Melancthon, Turrettine, Witsius, Witherspoon, Dwight, Livingston, Rice, and Graham. But our concern is with ordinary ministers, called to no other public station; and of these it is unquestionable, that the most successful are those who have lived in and for their spiritual work. Call to mind the chief Nonconformists; also of later date, Newton, Cecil, Brown, Waugh, Simeon; the Tennants, Rodgers, M’Millan, M’Cheyne, and of our own acquaintance the ‘greatly beloved’ William Nevins. In these men, the prominent purpose was ministerial work. If at any time they wrote and published, it was on matters subservient to the gospel. This accounts for the holy glow which, even amidst human imperfections, was manifest in their daily conversation. They might have been eminent in other pursuits, but they had given themselves to the work of Christ.

In another letter, the subject may be more appropriately discussed, but I cannot forbear calling your attention to the bearing of this on the tone of preaching. Suppose a man has been all the week with Goethe and de Beranger, or with Sue and Heine, or even with the Mathematicians or Zoologists, not to speak of prices-current, stock quotations, or tables of interest; how can he be expected, by the mere putting on of a black gown or a white neckcloth, and entering the pulpit, to be all on fire with Divine love! No wonder we preach so coldly on the Sabbath, when we are so little moved on week-days, about what we preach. You have perhaps met two or three clergymen lately; what did their conversation turn upon? The coming glory of the Church? the power of the Word? the best means of arousing sinners? even the most desirable method of preparation? or some high point of doctrine? Or were they upon the last election, the last land speculation, the last poem, or the price of cotton and tobacco? According to your answer, will be the conclusion as to the temperature of their preaching. There is indeed a sort of pulpit fire which is rhetorical – proceeds from no warmth within, and diffuses no warmth without; the less of it the better. But genuine ardour must arise from the habitual thought and temper of the life. He with whom the ministry is a secondary thing, may be a correct, a learned, an elegant, even an oratorical, but will never be a powerful preacher.

You must allow me to give prominence to this devotion of heart to your work, here at the threshold, because it is my desire hereafter to enlarge more on your theological studies; and I earnestly charge you to hold all studies as only means to this end, the glory of God in the salvation of souls. The day is near when your whole ministerial life will seem to you very short in retrospect. Let our prayer be that of the sweet psalmist of early Methodism:

‘I would the precious time redeem,
And longer live for this, alone,
To spend, and to be spent for them
Who have not yet my Saviour known;
Fully on these my mission prove,
And only breathe to breathe thy love.
My talents, gifts, and graces, Lord,
Into thy blessed hands receive;
And let me live to preach thy word,
And let me for thy glory live,
My every sacred moment spend,
In publishing the sinner’s Friend.’

That which we all need is to magnify our office, to recognize the sublimity of our work. There would be more Brainerds, and more Whitefields, if such views were more common; and there would be more instances of great men struggling on for years in narrow, remote situations, but with mighty effects. The observation of good Mr. Adam is striking and true: ‘A poor country parson, fighting against the devil in his parish, has nobler ideas than Alexander had.’ My dear young friend, if there is anything you would rather be than a preacher of the gospel; if you regard it as a ladder to something else; if you do not consider all your powers as too little for the work; be assured you have no right to hope for any usefulness or even eminence. To declare God’s truth so as to save souls, is a business which angels might covet: acquire the habit of regarding your work in this light. Such views will be a source of legitimate excitement; they will lighten the severest burdens, and dignify the humblest labour, in the narrowest valley among the mountains. They will confer that mysterious strength on your plainest sermons, which has sometimes made men of small genius and no eloquence to be the instrument of converting hundreds. Think more of the treasure you carry, the message you proclaim, and the heaven to which you invite, than of your locality, your supporters, or your popularity. It is recorded of the excellent John Brown, of Haddington – and I regret that I have forgotten his very words – that to a former pupil who was complaining of the smallness of his congregation, he said: ‘Young man, when you appear at Christ’s bar, it will be the least of your anxieties that you have so few souls to give account of.’ And the same good man said: ‘Now, after forty years’ preaching of Christ, and his great and sweet salvation, I think I would rather beg my bread all the labouring days of the week, for the opportunity of publishing the gospel on the Sabbath, to an assembly of sinful men, than, without such a privilege, enjoy the richest possessions on earth. By the gospel do men live, and in it is the life of my soul.’1

On this subject the opinion of such a man as John Livingston will have weight with you; for you know be was honoured of God to awaken five hundred by one sermon at the Kirk of Shotts. His life and remains, as published by the Wodrow Society, show that the secret of his strength lay in his devotion to the work. ‘Earnest faith and prayer,’ says he, ‘a single aim at the glory of God, and good of people, a sanctified heart and carriage, shall avail much for right preaching. There is sometimes somewhat in preaching that cannot be ascribed either to the matter or expression, and cannot be described what it is, or from whence it cometh, but with a sweet violence, it pierceth into the heart and affections, and comes immediately from the Lord. But if there be any way to attain to any such thing, it is by a heavenly disposition of the speaker.’2 And again : ‘I never preached ane sermon which I would be earnest to see again in wryte but two; the one was on ane Munday after the communion at Shotts, and the other on ane Munday after the communion at Holywood; and both these times I had spent the whole night before in conference and prayer with some Christians, without any more than ordinary preparation; otherwayes, my gift was rather suited to simple common people, than to learned and judicious auditors.’3

Here you have indicated the true source of pulpit strength. It is closely connected with the subject of this letter; for the more you are swallowed up in the vastness of your work, the more will you be cultivating spiritual-mindedness. You will agree at once, that it is a sign we are taking the right view of our vocation, when the means which we employ for our personal growth in grace are the same which most conduce to the power of our ministry. Such an estimate of our work, as is here recommended, can be maintained only by a constant contemplation of the great end of all our preaching and pastoral labour – namely, the glory of Christ, the building up of his kingdom, and the salvation of souls. This should be always in your mind. When you go to bed, and when you are awake, it should be as a minister of Christ; not, surely, in the way of professional assumption, but with a profound sense of your dedication to a momentous work, for which one lifetime seems too short. There are legitimate occasions, on which a minister may deliberately and thoroughly relax himself, by entertaining books, music, company, travel, or even athletic sports, to an extent far more than is common among sedentary men: and I hope you will despise the canting and sanctimonious prescriptions of those who would debar clergymen from any summer repose, or resorts to the springs or sea-side. Nevertheless, in the ordinary ministerial day, there should be no hour not devoted to something helpful towards the great work. This should give direction to all your reading, writing, and conversation. The volume which you have in your hand should be there for some good reason, connected with your ministry. It will appear hereafter, that the territory from which ministerial auxiliaries are to be levied, is exceedingly wide, and embraces all that can strengthen, clear, beautify, and relax the mind; but the animus of all this must be a single eye towards the finishing your course with joy, and the ministry which you have received of the Lord Jesus. Acts xx. 24. Holding it to be a disgrace to a young clergyman not to be familiar with the Greek Testament, I add, [thn diakonian sou plhroforhson]. Each instant of present labour is to be graciously repaid with a million ages of glory.


1 See Waugh’s Life, p.53.
2 Sel. Biogr. Wodr. Coll., p. 287, &c.
3 Sel, Biogr. Wodr. Coll., p.194, &c.

Originally Published in Thoughts on Preaching: Being contributions to homiletics, 1864