This, and the preceding two posts are from an essay written by R.L. Dabney for the periodical The Southern Presbyterian Review, for the April 1883 edition. It was written in response to an October 1882 & January 1883 article, entitled "An Inquiry into the Aggressiveness of Presbyterianism."
We have been told that by this way we should get a cheaper ministry for our new fields. Men thus trained, not having spent so much in their training, would work on smaller salaries. Now, the only experience we have does not support this hope. Most of the Methodist evangelists were trained thus; but they really receive better salaries than the Presbyterian. When the various allowances are added up, theirs is found a better paid ministry than ours.
The urgent comparisons made between our method and that of Methodists and Baptists cannot but suggest another thought:—that we, if we make the proposed change, shall be in danger of “putting on their old shoes just when they are throwing them away.” If these denominations are good exemplars for us, then it is to be presumed that they understand their own interests; their fine results indicate wise management. Now, it is significant that both these denominations are now expending great effort in making certain changes in their methods of rearing ministers, and that these changes are in the direction of the way we are now advised to forsake. They have tried, and are trying, two different ways. They are in a transition state. Before we make their way our guide, it will be well to wait and see which of their two ways they are going to approve finally for themselves. If we are correctly informed by those who are in closest intelligence with their influential men, these are yearly less and less satisfied with their old species of training, and more and more desirous to have all their ministry improve the advantages of the excellent seminaries of theology which they have founded. Hear, for instance, the testimony of Mr Price in the Southern Presbyterian:—“And, in proof of this view, it is a remarkable fact, that those very causes to which this writer ascribes their more rapid growth, are becoming more unpopular every day with those denominations.” While he and others in our church are advocating a lower standard of ministerial qualification, that we may keep pace with the Baptists and Methodists, these denominations are directing the most intelligent energies of their respective churches to raising their grade of scholarship; their uneducated men are losing caste and influence; the ministers coming forth from their theological schools are establishing a public sentiment and a more rigid rule of systematic theology, and of clear and accurate statement in doctrine, before which the loose and extravagant discourses of a class of preachers that once exercised. a powerful influence fall under sharp censure, and are even occasionally exposed to ridicule.
“There are unlearned men in these churches, and such may be licensed and ordained in ours, under our provisions for extraordinary cases, whom the most intelligent are bound to respect as called of God, and whose usefulness none can deny; but when our Baptist and Methodist brethren are casting off certain methods, which they have weighed in the balance and found wanting, it becomes us to consider well before we take up that which they throw away, especially when they are free to confess that our example, and the evident fruits of our more thorough training, have powerfully impelled them towards change.
“The writer in the Review has heard of the Cumberland Presbyterians. If he has been correctly informed, he will find that no branch of the Presbyterian Church has, in proportion to its numbers and resources, more colleges, universities, and theological schools. If he attends their General Assembly, he will be impressed by the distinct and painful line of demarcation between their learned and their unlearned men. And when he sees and hears some of the latter, though he may find much to admire in the vigour of their speech and the vigour of their labours, he will not wonder that, as a people, our Cumberland brethren are making, perhaps, more vigorous effort”, than any other Presbyterian body to educate their ministry, and thus obliterate one of the distinctive features upon which they went out from us. When the Revelation Dr Lyon brought into our General Assembly, some years ago, a report against certain proposals of union with the Cumberland Presbyterians, he did not hesitate to present, as one of the arguments of the committee that he represented, that, by such a union, our church will be brought under the control of an overwhelming majority of uneducated men. If some of the theories now in vogue among us are put into practice, we may reach this alternative without uniting with the Cumberlands; and they, in turn, by raising their standard, as they now seem determined to do, may be in a position, by and by, to raise the same objection to a union with us.
“We are reminded that our system now requires a longer and more expensive preparation than the other liberal professions. And why should it not, when our professional tasks are infinitely more responsible? But facts here argue on our side again, in that society is steadily demanding a raised standard of preparation from lawyers and physicians. Is this the time to lower ours? The well-furnished young physician, for instance, gets, in his youth, a pretty fair classical education; then he reads medicine a year with some doctor; then, if he graduates in one year (most have to spend two) in a good school of theoretic medicine, like that in the University of Virginia, he does remarkably well; then he goes into a New York or Baltimore hospital one or two years, to get the clinic instruction. And even the plainer country neighbourhoods are now requiring so much of training of their doctors! The other professions are advancing largely; it is no time for ours to go back.”
It has been often and justly remarked that it requires more mature training and ability to teach unenlightened minds accurately than cultivated ones. It was considered by discerning persons the crowning manifestation of Dr John H, Rice's trained capacity, that he could not only preach to the edification of General Assemblies in Philadelphia, but could go then to the Bethel Seamen's chapel and preach with equal effect to the rough sailors. If we are to bring poor and rude communities into our denomination, then they will need the best trained, not the inferior, minds, to inculcate on them our logical and profound system. And as regards the frontier communities, there is no greater mistake than that of concluding that, because their exteriors are rough, the ill-furnished minister will suffice to instruct them. The testimony of Dr N. L. Rice, for instance, in the Assembly of 1857, was wholly the opposite; and he spoke of his own knowledge. Said he:—“The garb of the frontiersmen may be rough; their dwellings may be cabins; but they include the most independent, active, inquiring minds anywhere to be found in America. It is the fact that their minds and temperaments are such which has made them emigrants; the plodding, the slow, the minds that like to lean on precedent and prescription, and are content to be led—these stay in the old neighbourhoods. It is the adventurous minds who seek new fortunes. A very large portion of them are men of thorough education. The educated emigrant is most often a 'free-thinker,' so-called; for one main impulse which pushes the man of culture to brave the roughnessess of the frontier is, that he has broken all intellectual trammels, if not all sound restraints of orthodox thinking. Hence we find these frontier societies seething with most eager speculation, questioning all old foundations. To suppose that the good man of slim intellectual resources can control these minds is the most fatal mistake. The man who is to command them needs to have the most mature resources of learning at the readiest possible command. He needs to be a walking library, of the most advanced learning, not only in divinity, but in all connected studies.” This witness is also true of our Southern frontiers. You shall see the “cow-boy” of Western Texas, sometimes reclining on his greasy blanket to read a pocket edition of Horace or Moliere. In their “shanties,” alongside of the whiskey-jug, will be found the writings of Huxley, Bradlaugh, and Büchner, with the Westminster Review, and the works of Renan. Our evangelists confirm Dr Rice's testimony, and tell us to send none but thoroughly furnished men to the frontiers.
It has been supposed that great gain-would result from the alternative of an “English course” in our seminaries for such candidates for the ministry as could not find time or means for mastering the original languages of Scripture. A manual of church history might be taught, it is supposed, without involving Latin or Greek; and the exegetical and doctrinal studies would be founded on the English version alone. Were the teachers in these seminaries entitled to any consideration in this discussion, their friends might perhaps raise an embarrassing question on their behalf. Their time seems to be already fully occupied in the teaching of the fuller course to their classical students and the exposition of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures, which alone are the ipsissima verba of God. Shall they cease to give this course, in order to do justice to the other class of their students? Or shall they give the latter class a light, perfunctory. Sabbath-school course, such as they will have time for? Would such a little sketch be a worthy training for a Presbyterian minister?
It will behove the advocates of this system to consider three consequences which are very distinctly involved in it.
One is, that it will admit the imperfect education of a great many more men than should be entitled, according to the new plan itself, to enter the ministry upon it. Men's over-haste, or indolence, or ill-considered seal, or self-confidence, will prompt many of the candidates to plead that they also are poor enough, or old enough, or gifted enough, or married enough, to claim to enter through the English door, of whom the judgment of our innovators themselves “would be, that they had no grounds for claiming that easier way.” The pressure of churches and Presbyteries for more labourers to be speedily gotten will assuredly second their pleas. The result will be the general breaking down of our standard. The majority of our ministry will be the uneducated, the minority the educated, as it was in the other denominations in those old ways from which they are striving so hard to escape.
The second will be, that the students of the English course will be much at the mercy of the professor for their doctrinal and exegetical opinions. When the teacher gives his construction of the text, if the English pupils attempt to say that the English version, or the commentaries thereon, seem to sustain another meaning, he has only to reply:—“I assure you, young gentlemen, that the original supports only my construction; and if you understood that language, you would see it to be so.” That is, to those students, an end of debate. Or else they must learn to hold their teacher in suspicion and disesteem, as a man capable of imposing on their ignorance. There will be one caste of minds which will resent this mental domination, the self-sufficient and crotchety. The consequence will be, that to this class their teacher will be no guide; but this is the class to whom influential guidance will be most necessary. Now, we surmise that this sweeping power in the professors of our seminaries will not be very agreeable to that large class of our presbyters who cherish along with us a well-grounded jealousy of seminary dictation, and all other forms of centralisation. It may be said, our present professors may all be trusted. But they cannot remain always. Unhappily, such things have been known in seminaries as heretical professors, and yet oftener as crotchety professors, fond of riding exegetical hobbies. Shall we arm these with this dangerous power of leading off the English students after their error?
The third consideration is, that if the new plan of training is to be carried on to any successful extent, we must reconcile our minds to become a “broad church.” We must lose our doctrinal unity. Again, we advance the experimental evidence as the most solid. All the denominations which practice the methods of training ministers proposed become broad churches. The Immersionists are a broad church; we have ourselves heard Calvinism and Arminianism preached in it from the same pulpit. The Cumberland Presbyterian is a broad church. The Methodist is a broad church. As we remarked, the Wesleyan theology receives from Methodist ministers various interpretations, from moderate Calvinism down to Pelagianism. There are ministers and presiding elders who hold the perseverance of the saints, just as we do. The church of Alexander Campbell is a broad church; he himself declared that in it “all sorts of doctrine were preached by all sorts of men.” In this we are not reproaching these denominations. We use the phrase “broad church” in no sense offensive to them, but as a ready and familiar phrase to describe a condition of things among them on which they congratulate themselves, namely, a tolerance in the ministry of the same body of different schools of theological opinion, “within the scope of the fundamental doctrines of salvation.” But we only point to the fact that it has been the conscientious fixed policy of us Presbyterians not to have these doctrinal diversities and contrarieties among our official teachers. We receive all shades of opinion, compatible with true repentance, to our communion; but we require the voice of our official body to give one sound as to revealed theology.
Now, the experience cited above proves that if we are willing to lose this doctrinal harmony and unity, the chief glory of a church of Christ, we have only to imitate these other denominations in their method of training ministers. The explanation of the result is easy. Human minds are imperfect instruments of thought, and their opinions naturally tend to variety and diversity. Again, the religious world teems with competing clashing doctrines, each striving for recognition and pressing itself on others with its utmost ingenuity of argument. The proposed method of training, by reason of its comparative brevity and imperfection, must leave its pupils more pervious to the injurious religious errors which obtrusively meet them. These different “grades” of preachers will not have the unifying bond with each other of a complete esprit de corps. The result will be doctrinal divergence; and our church must either submit to become a “broad” one, or be again rent by schism. We are aware that there is no patent infallible process, in fallible men's hands, for transmitting a doctrinal homogeneity from age to age. But the means which comes nearest, the only means of any tolerable efficiency is, under the grace and light of God's Spirit, the thorough education of ministers in an orthodox theology, and that by similar methods for all. Thus not only is the competent knowledge of the divine science acquired by all, and the practical skill in moral reasoning and exposition, which detect error and sophism in false doctrines, but all imbibe, so to speak, the Presbyterian and orthodox idiosyncrasy of mind The doctrinal affinity in the correct creed is propagated through the whole body. Now, he who really doubts whether the Presbyterian theology is right, may also doubt whether it is proper to employ these influences for unifying and stereotyping men's belief in it. But those who, with us, are sure that our theology is right, will also feel that it is not only allowable, but our duty to wield those influences for making our theology permanent in our ministers' minds. It is the only human way to avoid the tendencies to “broad Churchism.”
In conclusion, we most emphatically affirm all the regrets expressed at our lack of a holy aggressiveness, and every ardent aspiration for a remedy. But this remedy is not to be found by innovation upon our system, but in the reformation of the persons who work the system. What we need is not a class of imperfectly educated ministers, but repentance, holy yearning for souls, prayer, and more abounding labour by educated ministers; more family religion and true Christian training in households, which is, after all, the Presbyterian's main lever; more self-consecration in our laymen; and especially our employment of the “dead capital” now lying unused in our eldership. The elder need not be a “local preacher,” after the pattern of the Methodist “local,” but the intelligent elder ought to be something much better; active in spheres of work which the church needs much more than sermonising or formal “preachments,” vis., catechetical instruction, teaching the gospel from house to house, oversight, social meetings, exhortations. Sabbath-schools. Do we feel a “crying need” in our out-lying destitutions for such work as this, and for labourers to do it more cheaply than the educated evangelist? This is precisely the work which intelligent ruling elders ought to do. All the elders in Scripture, ruling and teaching, were required to be “apt to teach.” Our conception of the New Testament organisation of the congregation would not pull down a part of the ministers to an uneducated level, but lift up all the elders, including the ruling elders, to the level of official teachers. Each congregation was governed and taught, not by a one-man power, a sort of local prelate, but by a board, a plurality of elders, all of whom were teachers, though not all of equal teaching authority, learning, or gifts. But, to ensure full intelligence and permanent orthodoxy, we should require the presiding elder in this board to have the full equipment of well attested theological learning. One such man, thoroughly furnished, presiding over the board, and regulating and harmonising their joint instructions, would give a sufficient guarantee of soundness in the faith. The others under him, in their less authoritative teaching sphere, would safely fill in the details of the work. The ruling elder would not act as catechist as though he were an independent integer, but as a member of the board, under its direction, and especially under the direction of the president, who is fully trained and tried; even as he, in his public work as authoritative herald of salvation, does not act independently, but under the control of his Presbyterial Board, the Presbytery. Thus the didactic work of each congregation would assume a largeness, occupying several men's hands; while the thorough theological furniture of the one man at the head would guarantee doctrinal safety in the whole. Such was evidently the apostle's conception in the pastoral epistles.