Chapter 6. Supplementary Methods of Instruction, Personal Intercourse, Dealings with Special Cases, Pastoral Visitations, Catechetical Instruction, Visitation of the Sick, the Afflicted, and Dying
WE have dwelt at some length upon the homiletical department of pastoral duty, because it is that through which, when properly discharged, the pastor exercises his most extensive influence over the understandings and hearts of his people. Other methods of instruction, however important as accessories, must still be regarded as of secondary rank in relation to it. Should the regular ministrations of the pulpit be either undervalued, or from any cause feebly performed, it will be impossible to compensate for the defect by other appliances. For, even if we could thus succeed in awakening some degree of spiritual concern, the better tendencies would again be checked, or at least fail to reach their proper consummation, not finding the requisite impulse and supplies of nourishment ministered on the Sabbath. But there is a danger also in the opposite direction, which the faithful and earnest pastor will do well to guard against. Pulpit ministrations may be too exclusively relied on, and may in turn fail to yield the spiritual harvest expected to be reaped from them, being left too much alone. The divine seed, it may be, has been sown on the Lord’s day by a wise and discriminating hand; but being cast into so many different soils, and exposed thereafter to such diverse influences, more fitted in many cases to mar than to cherish and foster its future growth, nothing of solid and permanent growth is produced. And the more gifted the preacher is, he may only be the more apt to neglect the minor solicitudes and agencies which are needed to secure a better result, under the impression that when his discourses appear to be so much appreciated, and to find such attentive and serious audiences, all is done that can well be expected of him, or is actually required for the success of his ministry. Practically, however, such a mode of reckoning will usually be found a great mistake; and whatever may be any one’s qualifications for public discourse, there are certain things by which his efforts in that respect should be followed up, otherwise they may prove comparatively unavailing.
1. Personal Intercourse.—First of all, it is of importance that, as far as possible, a pastor should cultivate personal intercourse with the people of his charge. By this is not meant such intercourse as arises from the exchange of social visits, or giving and receiving friendly entertainments. Things of that description, within certain limits, are both allowable and proper. They indicate a disposition in the pastor to be on neighbourly terms with his flock, and to partake with them in the common bounties of Providence and the innocent refreshments of life. But they need to be very jealously guarded, and restrained within narrow limits, otherwise they are sure to occasion a serious waste of time, and tend also to bring the minister in his feelings and conversation too much down to the level of ordinary society, or to give him too much the air and tone of a man of the world.
Different from this is the kind of personal intercourse which is now under consideration as a department of pastoral duty. In seeking to cultivate it, the pastor must make himself accessible to his people, and be ready to avail himself of such opportunities as occur to draw forth their hearts toward him, and induce an interchange of thoughts. These, no doubt, will very materially differ according to the nature of the sphere he occupies, and the worldly circumstances of his people. A good deal may often be done even in his casual meetings with them through the week, especially if he is himself gifted with somewhat of a natural frankness of manner, and, along with this, has his heart so much in the work of his sacred calling that every one knows what are the themes most congenial to his spirit. But he may also, and should, particularly in rural charges, cultivate acquaintance with the members of his flock, by occasionally entering into their dwellings, though it should be only for a few minutes, and while his more immediate object, perhaps, is to obtain the exercise he needs, or to transact some little piece of business. In certain situations, where the field is extensive and the congregation numerous, it may be a considerable advantage both for himself and his people, on his own part a great saving of time and labour, to appoint occasionally times and places where he will be ready to see them individually, and to enter into converse with them on any matters on which they might desire to open to him their minds, or to have his advice.
Now, when the pastor is able in one or other of such ways to maintain personal intercourse with a considerable portion of his people, various benefits will accrue, some of them directly relating to himself, though on these it will be unnecessary to dwell. But he will thereby gain much in respect to intimacy with their state and feelings, and so become more skilful in dealing with their spiritual interests. His knowledge of them gets individualized; their distinctive tendencies and characters, their relative degrees of intelligence, the greater or less capacity they may have for understanding the import and profiting by the instruction of the discourses he delivers to them, the special sins and temptations which they need to be warned against, the duties which require to be most urgently pressed: these things and others of a cognate description will get familiarized to the mind of the pastor who takes the course indicated, with a distinctness and particularity which will otherwise be found unattainable. Acquiring thus a more thorough acquaintance with their natural and spiritual characteristics, he will be able in his various ministrations to adapt himself more exactly and wisely to their particular cases. And while he may certainly lay his account with having things obtruded upon him which cause uneasiness and disappointment, he will also meet with cheering indications, will even occasionally light upon wells of Christian life and activity, which his own exhibitions of the truth may have helped to open, and which will have the effect of sending him on his way rejoicing.
But while such advantages are not to be overlooked, they are still inferior to those which the pastor, by such a course, may be the means of imparting to others, and the increased moral influence it is fitted to lend to his ministrations. As he comes thereby to a more intimate knowledge of the people of his charge, so in turn he becomes better known to them; and being often touched through the familiarities of personal intercourse with the proofs of his kindliness and fellow-feeling, they will be prepared to mingle with their respect for him as a pastor, affection and confidence toward him as a friend. The distance and reserve which the one relation naturally tends to throw around him, will become lessened and relieved by the free interchange of thought and feeling fostered by the other; and his addresses from the pulpit will assume more the character of a speaking from heart to heart. They now know that they are listening to one who really sympathizes with them and cares for them; one who unfeignedly seeks their wellbeing, and delights to go out and in among them. Besides, by such a course he greatly multiplies his opportunities of promoting their spiritual good. Though he will often, perhaps, find it impossible to get beneath the surface, or to touch on other than ordinary topics, yet he will again be able, if himself thoroughly in earnest, to direct the conversation into higher channels, and to drop words that shall be like good seed cast into congenial soil. Openings, occasionally at least, will present themselves for suggesting inquiries, tendering cautions, administering reproofs, or giving counsels and encouragements much more special and pointed than could well Be addressed from the pulpit. People will get courage to make known their case in times especially of darkness or perplexity, so as to render comparatively easy a suitable application of the healing medicine of the gospel. This is happily noticed by Bengel: (Life, by Burk, p. 127.) ‘Friendly intercourse with our people often effects more than all the reasons, demonstrations, and sermons in the world. The traveller unwraps his mantle, not when the cold wind blows strongly, but when the warming sunshine smiles. It is better here to have a single dove flying towards us of its own accord, than to see ever so many driven into the enclosure. How desirable is it to get our people to feel so easy with us, that they can ask or tell us anything with open-heartedness and simplicity! ‘He adduces, as a more special reason, a consideration which should certainly not be overlooked: ‘Many become seriously impressed and “pricked in their hearts” under sermons, who yet derive no special comfort from the word of grace till it is communicated to them in private conversation. Therefore, visiting those committed to his charge should be considered by the Christian minister to be anything but a light matter, for he can often do much more good by his private visits than by his public testimony. He should therefore let his people see that he is always willing and ready to attend privately upon any and every one of them.’ All this, of course, implies a certain unbending on the part of the minister, a frankness and geniality of manner easily distinguished from a politic or forced condescension. Like other personal characteristics, it may exist in very different degrees even in godly ministers, but is also susceptible of great improvement in those who are anxious to cultivate what they have. It implies, too, that the pastor shall not be content with merely speaking to men in the mass, but shall care for them individually, a matter often too little regarded by men otherwise distinguished for their ministerial gifts. ‘As fishers of men, they are too exclusively bent,’ Mr. James of Birmingham remarks, (Introduction to Spencer’s Sketches, p. xlv.) ‘on casting their net among a shoal, and drawing many at one throw, and are not given enough to patiently angling for the solitary fish. Single souls are thought, if not beneath our notice, yet below our zeal. Have we forgotten our great Pattern, who sat for a whole hour, perhaps, or even more, on the side of a well, and laboured kindly and condescendingly for the salvation of one individual, and that a female of indifferent character? Or may we not receive instruction from the parable of the lost sheep, upon perceiving the solicitude and the toil of the good Shepherd to restore the solitary wanderer to the fold? Or let us learn from the conduct of the blessed angels, who rejoice over one sinner that repenteth. It is this anxiety,’ he adds, ‘for the conversion of single souls by conversation in private more than the ardour of the pulpit that tests the sincerity of our concern and the purity of our motives. Many things apart from the higher objects of pulpit ministration concur to excite our zeal in public; only one, and that of a right kind, can be supposed to operate in private.’ There is, undoubtedly, much truth in this representation; and very few pastors who have been long in the ministry will be able to reflect en it without painful and humbling recollections.
It is not unimportant to notice, however, that the same esteemed and earnest minister, in his anxiety to get more into this individual mode of dealing with his people, and deepening on particular minds the impressions which may have been made upon them by the services of the sanctuary, fell upon a plan in the latter years of his ministry which was attended with considerable success, and which doubtless, at particular seasons, has often in substance been adopted elsewhere. The plan was this: He made very special preparation for his pulpit services on one, or perhaps two Sabbaths, with the view of awakening in the minds of his congregation a deep and solemn concern for salvation, and then gave intimation at the close that, on a particular evening shortly after, he would be at the vestry or schoolroom, for the purpose of meeting any one who might have been affected by what they had heard, or who by any means had been brought into concern regarding the things of their peace. He made them very distinctly to understand that his object was not to interrogate or converse with such persons individually, the apprehension of which, he was sure, would have deterred many from coming, but to speak to them and pray with them collectively. The proposal on the first occasion of its announcement was so largely responded to, that Mr. James felt quite overpowered by the greatness and solemnity of the scene; and from that moment, he says, he felt that a new view of his pastoral office had been opened to him, and a new means of usefulness had been put into his hands. At the evening meeting, in addition to exercises of devotion, he endeavoured to address those present in such a manner as to deepen their feelings of thoughtfulness and spiritual concern, also to impart to them clear views of the way of salvation; for which purpose he would sometimes distribute an appropriate tract, and request them to peruse it at leisure, while the instructions given by himself were still fresh upon their minds. Meetings of this sort were renewed for six or seven times in successive weeks, when it was intimated that for the present they would cease, and that the pastor would be ready to converse with persons individually at certain times and places mentioned. Usually a very considerable number availed themselves of the opportunity, and about a half of the whole were added to the membership of the church. The plan, with little variation, was repeated at internals during the remainder of Mr. James’ ministry, and always with considerable success.
It should, of course, be understood that such a plan is neither adapted to all situations, nor suited to every one’s ministerial gifts; and wherever it is tried, the greatest care should be taken beforehand in feeling one’s way as to the probability at least of the effort meeting with an adequate response. It should also be understood that even where things seem, upon the whole, favourable to the attempt being made, the whole issue, humanly speaking, will depend upon the spirit, the earnestness, the tact of the minister; and while he should never trust to these, or think for a moment that the possession of them in the largest measure would be of itself sufficient, still it must be through them instrumentally that the impression in ordinary cases is to be produced and lasting results reached. In such a line of operations nothing of any moment can be effected unless the chief agent in them is profoundly conscious of a desire for the salvation of men, unless he is ready also for this end to come into close fellowship with them, and be willing to labour both in pains and prayer to have them brought to a state of peace and acceptance in the Saviour. On the other hand, there may be a danger in waiting too long for what are supposed to be the requisite gifts and fitting opportunities; a certain courageous boldness, in the name of the Lord, venturing for His sake on new lines of action, may sometimes be the truest wisdom. If one in such a spirit but conscientiously uses what he has and does what he can, it may not be in vain; and in this, as in other departments of spiritual labour, experience will of itself bring increased skill and fitness for the work.
In regard to the bearing generally of what may be called individual cases of spiritual awakening brought under the cognizance of the pastor on his whole work in any particular place, it is necessary to judge cautiously; for, though important evidences of a spiritual movement, they are not by any means the only, or in themselves infallible, tests of its reality and power. Various circumstances may operate in particular localities to modify the number of such cases, and make them relatively more or fewer than the actual work of grace which is proceeding at the time might of itself seem to warrant. The manners of society must here be taken into account, which have their characteristic differences in persons of higher and lower degree; in the one more quiet and self-possessed, in the other more free and demonstrative; whence, in times of excitement, of religious excitement as well as excitement of any other kind, while the feelings of persons in the humbler ranks of life will burst forth like new wine, those of a more refined and cultivated class, though perhaps equally strong, and even more deep and lasting, are held under self-control, and flow on like a silent but powerful current in the underground of their souls. In a congregation derived mainly from this higher class there will be nothing like the same exhibition of emotional feeling as in one of a different description, though the regenerating influence experienced may not be less general and pervading in the one case than in the other. The pastor therefore must, to a considerable extent, judge by other and less palpable manifestations. Another element also, the comparative amount of religious knowledge, the measure that is possessed of an intelligent acquaintance with the word of God, must not be overlooked; for this of itself, when possessed in any competent degree, renders the way of peace perfectly plain to such as have become really in earnest to find it. Their understandings are already full of light; they have but to realize what they know, to practise what they believe, and in many cases may find no occasion or need to go to the pastor for special direction or comfort. It will naturally, however, be otherwise where people have grown up in ignorance and neglect, estranged in great measure from the ordinances of religion, and hence requiring to be taught what are the first principles of the oracles of God. Deep conviction of sin with such persons will need to be followed up with special efforts to impart a sufficient knowledge of the truth as it is in Christ; and in their case the expressed desire to obtain what in this respect is needed, and the progress made in acquiring it, may commonly be taken as the evidence and measure of a truly awakened condition. It is still further to be borne in mind, that there are constitutional, one may even say national, idiosyncrasies, which cannot fail to discover themselves in such matters; and among these may certainly be reckoned a kind of natural shyness or reserve in the Scottish mind. Taken as a class, devout and serious Christians in Scotland are less communicative in regard to the frames and movements of their inner life than in most other countries. I believe it would often be better both for themselves and others if they revealed more of the currents of thought and feeling, the anxieties, joys, and sorrows of which they are conscious, as they might thus know more of the blessed communion of saints, and in their darker moments might more readily obtain the comfort and consolation of which they stand in need. Yet, if there is to be excess on the one side or the other, that which cleaves to us as a people is at least the safer: rather grave, quiet, earnest thought about spiritual things struggling with itself in the chambers of imagery, than much communicativeness with a deficiency of depth and solidity of thought. And then, for the most part, hearts will one time or another open circumstances will arise which in a manner compel the reserve to give way, and lead to spiritual communings, especially on the part of genuine believers, with their pastor. And it may, perhaps, help to reconcile him to a little delay in the matter, and dispose him to avoid anything like undue haste or urgency, when it is considered how often it happens that the readiest to disclose their spiritual feelings, the most talkative about their soul-experiences, are the most apt to yield under the pressure of outward difficulties, and commonly the least satisfactory in respect to consistency of character and steadiness of growth in the divine life (The following statement, made several years ago by a minister of the Free Church, formerly of the Scottish Establishment, lends confirmation in one or two points to what has just been stated: ‘We must not expect from our people that they shall tell us at what time and in what way they were brought to serious thought. There is on the part of many a dread lest their goodness should be as the morning cloud; and if one is to be happy only when he hears his people telling him that such and such a sermon or address brought them to Christ, he will assuredly be disappointed. Let me tell of the manner in which three cases of, I hope, something better than mere improvement were brought about. The first was a farm-servant, who had been reared in a very careless family, and whose marriage was not carried through so as to approve itself to me. Visiting him one day, I was struck with his remark, “You said there was not a more pleasant sight than to see the labouring man sitting down on the Sabbath evening and teaching his children the word of God; I find it very pleasant.” This was the first intimation of a change. From that day the man took a new position in the parish. He had much family affliction, which he bore with a most submissive spirit, and his worldly circumstances have so improved that I found him lately in possession of a small farm, and highly respected. The second case was one of our most “well-to-do” farmers. Often had this man been approached, but he invariably shied all close dealings; an “Ay” or a “No” was the sum of what could be got out of him. At length, one day he asked me if I could lend him, or would buy for him, a book of prayers, as such a thing ‘‘was a help to the like of him.” From that day he presented a new character to the parish, and spoke and acted as one interested in the truth. In another case, an individual in the upper ranks of life, after having kept a thorough silence as to the means of her change from a system of self-righteousness to one of simple dependence on the grace of God in Christ, when expecting death, felt it would not be right to conceal the instrumentality by which she had been brought to entertain serious views. This often occurs. The Lord graciously keeps from His servant the knowledge of what He is doing through him; it may be, lest he should be unduly exalted.’ These cases are contrasted by the writer with two others, the subjects of which were persons in the better classes of society; one that of a lady, who was often seen to be much impressed by public addresses, affected even to tears; but when laid on a sick-bed was brought to confess that she had till then never prayed. The other was that of a young man, who became apparently a decided convert, and exposed himself to considerable mockery on account of the truth from friends and relatives, but began to decline in his fidelity and zeal, and ultimately sunk into the lowest depths of profligacy and shame.—Free Church Magazine, vol. viii. p. 347.).
II. Dealings with Special Catses.—The preceding remarks will be misunderstood, if they are conceived to indicate a disposition to set little by the occurrence of particular cases, as subjects for more exact inquiry and specific treatment, either to discourage the desire for them, or to account their occasional occurrence of little moment. On the contrary, I am persuaded it would argue ill for the character of any Christian pastorate if such were not both expected and found; only some discrimination should be exercised in the matter, if men would save themselves from needless disappointments; and a rule of judgment suitable enough for one sphere of action should not be applied without qualification to another materially different. In almost every field of ministerial labour, though in some greatly more than in others, there will be found exemplifications of the truth so beautifully set forth in the parable: ‘So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how;’ (Mar_4:26-27) a silent, gradual, progressive unfolding, rendering itself distinctly manifest only in the result.
Cases will still arise, however, calling for special treatment; and a good deal of a minister’s usefulness and adaptation to his particular sphere may often depend upon his qualifications for making the treatment such as it ought to be. They naturally fall into two classes: first, those which have simply to be met with, the cases of persons roused somehow to spiritual concern, or involved in doubt and perplexity about the interests of their souls, and coming to the pastor for comfort and direction; and second, those whom the pastor should endeavour to seek out, for the purpose of reclaiming them from indifference, or bringing them to a right sense of their state and duty.
1. In regard to the former class, no great difficulty is likely to be occasioned by them, on the supposition that the pastor is a man of sound Scriptural knowledge, spiritual discernment, and hearty zeal in his work. The vast majority of cases that present themselves will be such as require at his hands the exercise only of a sympathizing spirit, prompting him to listen with attention and interest to the details of each; skill in the application of the word of truth, according to the varieties of spiritual want and danger that come before him; and faith, living faith, to lay hold of and press upon the awakened and troubled conscience the promises more especially adapted to conduct it to rest. Prayer, I need scarcely say, should accompany all, prayer for direction how to speak, and for a blessing on what is spoken; prayer also at times during the conference, as well as before or after it. Usually, the main difficulty experienced is in respect to the persons most deeply pierced with convictions of sin, how to get them brought into such clear views of the scheme of grace, and such a realizing sense of the offered forgiveness of the gospel, as will enable them to lay aside their fears, and with a trustful confidence commit themselves to the covenant faithfulness of God. The transition seems so great from the one state to the other, that they are not easy to be convinced of its immediate practicability. And in the case of some, there are constitutional difficulties which serve to aggravate the difficulty, nervous debility, melancholic temperaments, dyspeptic or other bodily derangements, in which material elements become strangely intermingled with spiritual; and something like physical hindrances for a time bar the way to a comfortable assurance. For such cases it is impossible to lay down definite prescriptions, or give instructions that can be of much practical avail. Experience must be the chief guide; and they who cannot find their way thus to the proper mode of treatment, will derive little help either from the lecture-room or the written page.
There are cases, however, occasionally occurring in times of religious awakening, and assuming the aspect of a hopeful concern about salvation, in dealing with which the pastor will have need of other qualities than those which may suffice for guiding ordinary inquirers into the way of peace and safety. It is quite possible that persons may become disquieted in conscience, and exhibit considerable marks of a penitent and changed condition, who still have never become properly alive to their condition as sinners, who are not prepared either to confess or to forsake all that is evil in their temper and conduct, and who, therefore, if they should be plied merely with the consolations of the gospel, might readily solace themselves with a peace which is not of God. Such persons need to be dealt with first in a spirit of faithful severity; they must be made to know themselves better before they can apprehend Christ aright as their Saviour, and enter into the participation of His risen life. We meet with cases of this description in the New Testament; for example, in the scribes and Pharisees as a class; in Nicodemus most especially; in the rich young ruler; and in the method of treatment adopted toward them by John the Baptist and our Lord, searching, wise, faithful, we have the line marked out which, in similar circumstances, we ought to follow. It may not be quite easy to detect the lurking evil, or descry amid the signs of apparent life and hopefulness the indications of a want of thorough earnestness and sincerity; but possibly something in the manner, if carefully watched, may discover it, or it may come out as the result of personal inquiries or incidental means of information. When once ascertained, there should be no dallying with the spiritual sore in their condition; no false delicacy in bringing the truth of God to bear upon it; faithfulness, applying the axe to the root of the tree, is the real kindness. Take as a good illustrative example the following case which occurred in connection with the ministry of an evangelical minister of the Church of England in last century, Mr. Walker of Truro:—‘One of his visitors for private instruction was a young man, who stated that he called to thank him for the benefit he had received from his ministry, and to beg his advice. Mr. Walker immediately questioned him as to the knowledge he possessed of his own heart, when the youth expressed in general terms a conviction that he was an unworthy sinner. Perceiving by his manner that he had never duly experienced that conviction, Mr. Walker at once entered into an explanation of the sinner’s character, with a personal reference to the individual before him. He dwelt upon his ingratitude to God, the evil nature of the motives which had influenced all his actions, the fruitlessness of his life, the defilement even of his best deeds, and then added, “I fear you are secretly displeased with me, because I have not commended your good intentions and nattered your vanity.” “No indeed, sir,” said the young man, “I feel extremely thankful for this striking proof of your kindness and regard.”’ Yet even this was feigned; for the young man himself next day confessed that he felt inwardly chagrined at the small account Mr. Walker seemed to make of his professions, and had even secretly determined to encounter no more the searching questions which had exposed his shallowness and wounded his pride. But he could not carry out his purpose of forsaking his instructor; the arrow of divine truth had entered his heart, he submitted himself to the righteousness of God in Christ, and ever afterwards led an exemplary Christian life. But under a less discerning and faithful minister, who can tell what might have been the result? Most probably a fresh increase to his self-complacency, followed by future backslidings, ever-recurring inconsistencies, and much that betokened the form rather than the life of godliness. (See also some other illustrative cases remarkably well conducted in Spencer’s Sketches, particularly the one entitled ‘Delay; or, The Accepted Time.’)
Cases of this description render it manifest that all is by no means accomplished when personal concern is awakened, or when the sinner assumes the position of an inquirer, and that a pastor has often much more to do with those who seek advice from him regarding their soul’s interests than quote a few passages of Scripture and point their way to the Saviour. Nor does the difficulty always arise from some latent insincerity or deep-rooted contrariety in some respect to the humbling tenets of the gospel. It may come in great part from the relations of social or domestic life, from embarrassments created by the rival claims of affections and interests, which in themselves are good, and in respect to which it is no easy matter to decide when they compete for the precedency. That which, if one of these claims stood alone, might commend itself to approval, may appear, when relatively considered, to be attended with so many risks and hazards to interests naturally esteemed precious, that a man may be tempted to pause before making the venture, and to ask whether, meanwhile at least, something less might not be held reasonable and proper. Perplexing cases of this sort will sometimes present themselves, for which, either to choose oneself the right path, or to counsel others in regard to it, there is needed a spirit of discretion as well as of godly simplicity, and still more perhaps even than that, a strong, reliant faith in God’s word, the faith which can remove mountains, and which can fearlessly take the course of lofty principle in the calm assurance that God will stand by the right, and, in spite of all that seems adverse or perilous, will cause it to become the best for present peace and blessing as well as for ultimate good. The history of Providence is ever furnishing exemplifications of this, and with such the prudent and conscientious pastor will do well to keep himself acquainted, in order that, from the experience of others as well as from his own observation and knowledge of the way of life, he may be able to guide his people through the more trying emergencies of their lot. (Some excellent specimens of what is referred to may be found in Spencer’s Sketches, especially ‘The Persecuted Wife;’ also one or two in Warton’s Deathbed Scenes and Past Conversations.)
2. The earnest and devoted pastor, however, must not be satisfied with simply meeting such cases as come of their own accord to him for counsel and direction; he must himself assume the part of an inquirer in regard to some, whether formally connected with his congregation or lying on its outskirts, endeavouring by one method or another to get into personal contact with them, and bring them to a sense of what seems unrighteous in their course and perilous in their condition. I have already noticed the temptations there are with many ministers of the gospel for neglecting this part of pastoral duty, and of the difficulties attending its discharge. Indeed, these are altogether so peculiar and so various, that I should only, I fear, spend time to little purpose by going at any length into the subject. It is not so properly a science to be studied as an art to be learned; and, like all other arts, to be learned to purpose, it must be pursued amid the objects of real life. The felt responsibility of being put in charge with immortal souls, among whom there appear to be some perishing for lack of knowledge, and incapable of being effectually reached by public ministrations—this, to awaken the desire for putting forth special efforts in their behalf, and such works as those already referred to suggest practical hints for the most likely methods of accomplishing the end in view, will do more than the most elaborate prelections on the general nature and objects of the duty. I indicate only a few essential points.
First, all reasonable care should be taken beforehand to know the real state and character of the parties intended to be dealt with. There should always be more to go upon than vague impressions or general rumours. Knowledge here, of a circumstantial and definite nature, may truly be designated a key to at least a certain measure of success; for it lays open to us the realities of the case we have to deal with, and so both prevents us from stumbling upon imaginary evils, the bare suspicion of which might lead us astray, and brings us acquainted with the precise evils which have, if possible, to be mastered.
Secondly, we should prepare for the dealing, by considering well the forms of evil or aspects of character to which we mean to address ourselves in the way of reform, the thoughts and considerations which it might be best to urge on the notice of the persons concerned, the very passages of Scripture also we would lodge in their memory; and prepare, moreover, by invoking the guidance and blessing of Him in whose name alone everything should be done that touches the interests of salvation.
Thirdly, this which I have just mentioned, salvation, is the end that should be kept steadily in view, in our private dealings with individual souls, as well as in our public ministrations. Nothing less; for short of this nothing will avail to their real wellbeing, or fulfil the design of a gospel ministry. Slighter reforms, however proper to be mentioned, and made perhaps the starting-point of our remarks, should still only be regarded as the preliminary stages to be gained, the soul’s surrender to Christ and appropriation of His purchased redemption being ever kept in view as the proper landing-place we desire to reach. It is this high aim, also, which best nerves the mind to such close and often delicate intermeddling with other men’s states and modes of life; for, when such mighty interests are seen to be at stake, what practical difficulties should not the servant of Christ be ready to encounter!
Finally, while a spirit of profound earnestness and fidelity to the cause of truth should constitute the ground of the whole proceeding, sincere and fervent love should animate and characterize the mode of conducting it, love that may be felt; for this will soften every stroke, and lend weight to every argument and appeal we make. ‘I cannot think,’ said one to a truly evangelical pastor, ‘how your people bear such plain speaking;’ to which the reply was, ‘It is because they know I love them.’ And of the love itself, which bears such blessed fruit, it has been justly said, that ‘it is not the addressing people with epithets of endearment and words of tenderness which proves its existence and secures its objects; it must be a deep, inward love of souls, learned beneath the cross of Christ; it should manifest itself rather in the actions of a loving life than in ready and apparent demonstrations; and when it is real, it will lead to the self-denying abandonment of ease, favourite pursuits, and of pleasant company, that in the morning, and at noonday, and at evening-tide, whenever we can best reach them, we may be with the sick and with the whole, teaching the young, and comforting the mourners, and recalling the wanderers, and building up the weak. Such love as this will impart to the true pastor a character which all can understand, and which, in the long run, few can resist.’ (Bishop of Oxford’s (Wilberforce) Addresses, p. 93.)
III. Pastoral Visitations.—A considerable part of the delicacy connected with a portion of the cases which call for special dealing is in great measure avoided by the practice known among us by the name of pastoral visitations; that is, stated official visits, once a year in congregations or parishes of moderate size, to the various households more or less connected with the particular pastorate. No one who is really bent on winning souls will ever think of limiting his intercourse with the families of his flock to such visitations, unless, indeed, the magnitude of his charge or infirm health in a manner oblige him to do so. Yet, even if he should be able to do not a little in that casual and incidental way to keep up a certain intercourse with them, the practice of regular household visitations is in itself a good one, and for various reasons ought to be maintained. It tends, first of all, in a very natural and appropriate manner to keep alive in the minds of the people the feeling that they are under pastoral oversight. For, by such visitations, the fact is ever and anon brought prominently before them, that it is a recognised part of ministerial duty to take cognizance of the families and individuals belonging to a pastorate, and from house to house as well as in the sanctuary speak to them of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. The practice, besides, furnishes the pastor with an excellent opportunity, perpetually recurring, of breaking the bread of life to the families of the flock in a more homely manner than can be done from the pulpit, and of engaging in acts of devotion with them as one of themselves. But in addition to all this, it carries with it the great advantage of providing him with an occasion for noticing anything that may have appeared to him amiss in particular families or individuals without seeming to go out of his way for the purpose. If he has observed symptoms of ungodliness to be growing upon them, if attendance upon ordinances has begun to be less regular and serious than it formerly was, if questionable courses are known to have been entered on, improper companionships formed, scandalous outbreaks of temper exhibited, whatever it may be that has given occasion for anxiety concerning them, the practice of regular pastoral visitations enables the pastor, in a quiet and unobtrusive manner, to bring his Christian influence and counsel to bear on the incipient evil, and perhaps prevent it from going further. There may possibly be only a few things of the kind referred to calling for notice in each round of pastoral visitation; but it may, notwithstanding, be found of considerable moment, in a practical point of view, to have such a method of dealing with them.
If it is asked, after what manner should the visitation be conducted? or, at what times? nothing very explicit can be indicated in the way of answer, nor should anything like unbending uniformity be attempted; the diversified circumstances of congregations and families call for a corresponding variety. Indeed, amid the artificial arrangements of modern society, the great difficulty often is to find any time suitable for such visitations, families being so variously occupied with the employments of active life, and so seldom for any length of time gathered together in their respective homes. In such cases almost the only practicable method is for the pastor to make a brief visit to the nearly empty households at some convenient season during the day, and appointing a particular dwelling in which to meet them together in the evening; a method that may occasionally be adopted as a variation, even where not absolutely necessary; but which always carries the relative disadvantage of losing, to some extent, the more private and special in the general. Usually, where it can be done, the most effective method is to take each family apart, and either draw them into conversation on spiritual matters, such as we have reason to think likely to prove instructive and edifying to the family; or give a short exposition of some passage of Scripture, with such directness and point in the application as may be fitted to tell beneficially on the hearts of those we seek to impress; or, still again, where there are several young persons in the family, put a few questions to them from the Catechism, with subordinate questions and illustrations calculated to bring out the meaning, and then turn the points of doctrine or duty thus elucidated to practical account for the older as well as the younger members of the family. Prayer should always conclude the exercise, and prayer so constructed as to bear specific reference to the several classes composing the membership of the household and the duties respectively devolving on them. Whichever method be adopted, nothing should be done in a rapid and perfunctory manner, as if the object were merely to perform a certain amount of work in a definite portion of time. Work so done is not likely to yield much return of spiritual good. We must throw our souls into it; and if we do so, we shall find that a comparatively small number of families is as much as can be satisfactorily overtaken in a day, as it necessarily involves a considerable degree of mental labour and spiritual anxiety. And here, as in other things, he who would win the blessing must not grudge the cost.
It is impossible, as I have said, to prescribe for work of this description any uniform rule; nor can the example of any single individual, however eminent in ministerial gifts, or honoured in the work itself, be fitly set up as a kind of universal pattern. Yet it may not be without benefit to set before one’s mind occasionally a higher specimen of skill and devotedness in this department of pastoral labour, if not for the purpose of copying it, which may now be impracticable, yet as an elevated ideal, which may serve to stimulate one’s exertions, and lead to greater things being aimed at than might otherwise be thought of. Such an ideal we undoubtedly have in the account given by Richard Baxter of the practice of the well-known Joseph Alleine, when assistant parish minister of Taunton. ‘He would,’ says Baxter, ‘give families notice of his coming, the day before, desiring that he might have admittance to their houses, to converse with them about their soul-concerns, and that they would have the whole family together against he came. When he came, and the family were called together, he would be instructing the younger sort in the principles of religion by asking several questions out of the Catechism, the answers to which he would be opening and explaining to them. Also, he would be inquiring of them about their spiritual state and condition, labouring to make them sensible of the evil and danger of sin, the corruption and wickedness of our natures, the misery of an unconverted state; stirring them to look after the true remedy proposed in the gospel, to turn from all their sins unto God, to close with Christ upon His own terms; to follow after holiness, to watch over their hearts and lives, to mortify their lusts, to redeem their time, to prepare for eternity. These things, as he would be explaining them to their understandings, so he would be pressing the practice of them on their consciences with the most cogent arguments and considerations. Besides, he would leave with them several counsels and directions to be carefully remembered and practised for the good of their souls. Those that were serious and religious he would labour to help forward in holiness by answering their doubts, resolving their cases, encouraging them under their difficulties. And before he did go from any family he would deal with the heads of that family, and such others as were grown to the years of discretion, singly and apart; that so he might, as much as possibly he could, come to know the condition of each particular person in his flock, and address himself in his discourses as might be suitable to every one of them. If he perceived they did live in the neglect of family duties, he would exhort and press them to set up the worship of God in their families, and directing them how to set about it, and to take time for secret duties too. Such as were masters of families he would earnestly persuade and desire, as they did tender the honour of Christ and the welfare of their children and servants’ souls, to let them have some time every day for such private duties, and to encourage them in the performance of them; nor would he leave them till he had a promise of them so to do. Sometimes, also, he would himself go to prayer before his departure. This was his method,’ Baxter adds, ‘in the general, although with such necessary variation in his particular visits as the various state and condition of the several families did require. If the family where he came were ignorant, he would insist the longer in instructing and catechizing; if loose, in reproving and convincing; if godly, in encouraging and directing. He did use to spend five afternoons every week in such exercise, from one or two o’clock till seven in the evening. In which space of time he would visit sometimes three or four families, and sometimes more, according as they were greater or less. This course he would take throughout the town; and when he had gone through, he would presently begin again, that he might visit every family as often as he could. He often did bless God for the great success he had in these exercises, saying that God had made him as instrumental of good to souls this way as by his public preaching, if not more.’
Pastoral visitations conducted after this fashion might justly be termed a doing business with people about the salvation of their souls; it displayed such laborious painstaking for their spiritual good, such earnest travailing in birth for its accomplishment, as bespoke a man of apostolic zeal to whom ‘to live was Christ;’ and it was but a specimen, though doubtless one of the more distinguished specimens of what about the same period was pursued by the Puritan ministers in many an English parish, and very generally in Scotland. In Scotland it was both more generally followed and longer continued; and it undoubtedly contributed much to that wide diffusion of religious knowledge and observance which, in the better periods of their history, has been the characteristic of the Scottish people. The instructions issued by the General Assembly on ministerial visitations in 1798, (Act of Assembly 1708 respecting Ministerial Visitations.
‘1. After the minister has got an account of the persons dwelling in the family, he may speak to them all in general of the necessity of regeneration, and the advantages of serious religion and godliness, of piety towards God, and justice and charity towards man.
‘2. And next more particularly to the servants; of their duty to fear and serve God, and to be dutiful, faithful, and obedient servants, and of the promises made to such; commending to them the reading of the Scriptures as they can, and prayer in secret, and love and concord among themselves, and, in particular, a holy care of sanctifying the Lord’s day.
‘3. The minister may apply his discourse to the children, as they are capable, with affectionate seriousness, showing them the advantage of knowing, loving, seeking, and serving God, and remembering their Creator and Redeemer in the days of their youth, and honouring their parents, and to mind them how they were dedicated to God in baptism; and when of age and fit, and after due instruction of the nature of the covenant of grace and the seals thereof, to excite them to engage themselves personally to the Lord, and to desire, and prepare for, and take the first opportunity they can of partaking of the Lord’s Supper; to be especially careful how they communicate at first, much depending thereon (and such of the servants as are young are to be exhorted hereto in like manner); exciting them also to daily reading of the Scriptures, and to secret prayer, and sanctifying the Lord’s day.
‘4. After the minister has spoken to servants and children, he should speak privately to the master and mistress of the family about their personal duty toward God, and the care of their own soul’s salvation, and their obligation to promote religion and the worship of God in their family, and to restrain and punish vice and encourage piety, and to be careful that they and their house serve the Lord and sanctify the Lord’s day. And after this it may be fit to exhort masters to take care that God be worshipped daily in the family by prayer, and praise, and the reading of the Scriptures. 2d. Concerning the behaviour and conversation of the servants, and their duty towards God and man, and how they attend the worship of God in the family, how they attend the public worship on the Lord’s day, and how they behave after sermons; if any of them be piously inclined; if they make conscience of secret prayer and reading the Scriptures. %d. If there be catechizing and instructing the ignorant and weak; if due care be taken in educating the children; and particularly, if they be put timeously to school, and how they profit thereat, and how the Lord’s day is spent after sermons in the family and in secret: in all which the minister may mix in suitable directions, encouragements, and admonitions as he shall see cause, and most for edification.
‘5. (Directs inquiry as to the supply of Bibles.)
‘6. (To exhort communicants to remember and pay their vows.)
‘7. Seeing there is need for all this of much prudence, zeal for God, and love to souls, and affectionate seriousness, all this should be carried on with dependence on God and fervent prayer to Him, both before a minister sets forth for such work, and with the visited, as there shall be access to and opportunity for it. ‘[Sensible and good in the main, but somewhat too formal, dwelling proportionally too much on externals, and carrying the appearance of a degree of inquisitoriousness; the great object better gained by going more into the spirit and life of religion.]) if properly carried out, must have required a substantial repetition of the method practised by Alleine. As a rule, it can be but occasionally and partially followed now; there has come, along with other changes in the course of time, such a divided state of things in parishes and families, such an impatience of authority and whatever in matters of religion wears an inquisitorial aspect, such a want of repose also for the quiet and thoughtful handling of spiritual concerns, as renders the spirit only, not the precise form, of the good old practice for the most part applicable in our generation. Ministers of the gospel, therefore, must here endeavour to adapt themselves to circumstances, and follow the example of her who is commended for having done simply what she could.
IV. Catechetical Instruction.—One part of the object intended to be gained by pastoral visitations has been often sought by means of meetings for catechetical instruction; diets for catechizing, as they used to be called among us. No method, certainly, is so well calculated as that of communication by means of question and answer, for enabling the pastor to get at the real state of knowledge in those who are committed to him for instruction in divine things; none also better adapted for bringing such as are imperfectly enlightened in the truth to clear and definite views of it, and exercising their faculties to a proper discrimination between the doctrines of God and the errors and corruptions with which they have been overlaid by men; and when regularly carried out by special meetings for the purpose, held from year to year and from place to place, as was once the common practice in Scotland, it must have had a considerable effect in sharpening the intellects of the people in connection with religious subjects, and raising them to a relatively high place as to the possession of doctrinal knowledge.
That, however, was probably about the whole of the result that came out of the yearly catechizings as they were wont, to be conducted, an increase of head knowledge; so far, indeed, good if kept in its proper place, and used chiefly as the means to a higher end, but a very inferior good if rested in as an end of its own, or held merely as the buttress and ornament of a lifeless orthodoxy. There is some reason to fear that this, latterly at least, was the turn things in great measure took, especially when persons in full communion with the Church, as well as those in training for it, were subjected to the process (a thing scarcely capable of justification in an ecclesiastical respect); and the growing conviction of the general inefficiency of the practice with reference to the higher interests of religion, coupled with the somewhat awkward exhibitions not unfrequently made at them by the more bashful and retiring portions of the flock, tended to bring on a disrelish for such catechizings, and ultimately, in most parts of the country, led to their discontinuance.
The tendencies in this direction were considerably strengthened by the passing away of the old simplicity of manners, the gradual introduction of a more artificial state of society, accompanied by a greater diversity of rank and position among the people. The minister could not well be catechizing before others ladies and gentlemen, or persons who would not be quite pleased if they were not reckoned such; and then, if they were exempted as belonging to a higher grade, others not very far beneath them in circumstances, possibly in religious knowledge and character superior, could scarcely deem themselves treated with due regard if they should seem to be kept in a sort of leading-strings. Were it only, therefore, to avoid the appearance of partiality, it became in a manner necessary to grant to others the exemption which had already been conceded to some. And another thing which might be said to consummate the change, and to do so without any real loss, was the general establishment of Sabbath schools and of Bible classes for the young. These being usually placed under the superintendence of the pastor, and bringing him more or less into intelligent contact with the minds of the young when ripening to manhood and womanhood, very much superseded the necessity of stated examinations for the congregation as such. At the proper period for acquiring the elements of religious knowledge the pastor has taken cognizance of at least the greater number of those who ultimately form the congregation; so that, in ordinary circumstances, the work of the pastorate in this particular line might be fairly regarded as done.
It is not, therefore, by any means an absolute loss that has here to be thought of, but rather the dropping of one mode of action for another, which is even in some respects better, because when rightly managed more thorough and complete. Regularly conducted and well-organized Sabbath schools, followed up, wherever practicable, by Bible classes for the more advanced, may be made most effective instruments for the godly instruction and upbringing of the young; and they have this advantage, that while they afford ample opportunities for pastoral inspection and oversight, they also serve to call into play the available Christian agencies belonging to the congregation; others, with capacities of service differing according to the gift of Christ, become fellow-workers with the pastor in sowing the gospel seed. But the pastor must keep his hand at the plough also here; especially in rural situations, where the supply of teachers is usually most imperfect, and the presence of the pastor is needed to give life and direction to the whole. And he may find it useful—useful to the older as well as to the younger portions of the congregation—to have occasional, quarterly perhaps, or half-yearly, examinations of the Sabbath school in the church; taking care, through the examinations, to bring clearly out to all present the great facts and principles of the gospel of Christ, and to enforce the lessons taught by such illustrative examples and appeals as may prove interesting and instructive to all classes. Methods of this nature wisely planned, and diligently carried out, will in most situations be sufficient to compensate for what has been lost. (It is scarcely necessary to add, that the personal catechizings which it was the more immediate object of Baxter in his Reformed Pastor to recommend, are no longer suitable or practicable; they never were so except in part, or in some particular situations; but the work itself is in other respects of great practical value, and well deserves perusal.)
V. Visitation of the Sick and Afflicted.—The only point that remains to be noticed under this general division has respect to the case of those who are in circumstances of distress—the diseased, the dying, or the bereaved. The ministration of counsel and comfort to these is undoubtedly a most important branch of pastoral duty. It is such, indeed, that the neglect or slovenly discharge of it will go far to neutralize the effect of all other services. For the pastor who makes himself strange in the households of his flock, while they are involved in sorrow or stricken with disease and death, will invariably be regarded as devoid of the tenderness and consideration which are the most appropriate characteristics of his calling; also, as letting most precious opportunities slip for prosecuting his high commission. He will be regarded as one more intent on his own ease or gratification than on the business of his spiritual vocation, and even as doing what he may otherwise perform in the fulfilment of its duties, rather out of respect to worldly motives and inducements, than from zeal to the glory of God, and love to the souls of men. So strong is the general feeling among Christian people on this point, that they will hardly allow cases of fever, or other diseases supposed to be infectious, to form a just ground of absence at such times. Unless in very extreme cases, the shrinking of the minister from the region of danger is viewed as a dereliction of duty, since there appears in it an unwillingness to adventure for the sake of men’s souls where others readily go for the sake of their bodies. He should therefore consider well how much the course of procedure he follows here may tell upon his general standing and usefulness. If he might be disposed, from a nervous dread of infection, or from what may seem a becoming regard to the welfare of his family, to stand aloof, he should reflect that disease—possibly the very form of disease he seeks most anxiously to avert—may reach him by ways he cannot anticipate or prevent; and that it were unspeakably better the visitation should find him while faithfully pursuing the path of duty than when timidly deserting it. It is a happy thing, in such times, when one can attain to the conviction, that in all ordinary cases the path of duty is more than any other the path of safety; because, when followed with due precautions, and in a spirit of unshrinking fidelity, it is that in which one can most confidently look for the divine protection and blessing. Not that, even when he has attained to the conviction and is prepared to act on it, the pastor should feel himself obliged to visit the infected chamber, when it is clear he can minister no spiritual benefit, or when he is himself in a state of bodily exhaustion; but merely that inferior considerations should be kept in their proper place, and no one should have just reason to say that for certain by-ends of his own he allowed the solemn calls of duty to fall into abeyance.
It is possible, however, at such times to show much sympathy and attention, and still fail miserably in the discharge of duty; never, indeed, rise to any due conception of it. There is a natural feeling in the minds even of the careless and ungodly, which prompts them to desire the visit of a minister when trouble and sickness lie heavy upon them; they are for the time checked in their worldly course; ordinary comforts and supports fail them; their minds are involuntarily thrown into a sombre mood; and they are hence prepared to welcome into their habitation one who comes as the peculiar representative of religion. His very presence is by some thought to carry a blessing with it; and to hear from his lips a few words of consolation, or obtain the benefit of his prayers, is too often deemed sufficient to atone for many a past neglect. Now, a minister may fall in with this state of feeling, and by so doing greatly endear himself to his people; while still nothing after all may be done which the occasion properly demands, and the parties concerned may presently again move on, as before, in their course of worldliness or indifference. Personally, the pastor may have grown in their affection and esteem; but they are not the less settled on their lees.
It is in another spirit, and for other ends, that the true servant of Christ will endeavour to discharge the duty devolving on him in the season of trouble. His behaviour will certainly be marked by such kindness and sympathy as will give him a firmer hold of the affection and confidence of his people; but his great concern will be to deal faithfully with their souls, and turn the time of their special visitation into a season of grace and blessing. Personal illness or family trouble is a favourable opportunity for getting nearer to them in a spiritual respect than can usually be done at other times, and pressing home upon them the words of soberness and truth. It is with such words especially they should then be plied; and it were better one should abstain from attempting to act the part of a comforter, than leave them mistaken or in doubt as to the way in which it is to be found. Should the general tenor of their life have been manifestly wrong, and one has reason to fear that they are still in alienation from the life of God, it were kindness altogether misplaced, cruelty, indeed, rather than kindness, to refrain from touching the great sore in their condition, and bringing it into contact with the true, healing balsam of the gospel. The task may often be alike delicate and difficult; it may even exceed all the skill and conside