William Smith’s chapter “Endowed Territorial Work as Contrasted with Voluntaryism” in his Endowed Territorial Work (1875) is just so full of really profound, meaty material with surprisingly contemporary relevance that I’m just going to cut and paste a large swath here. If you’re confessionally Reformed and zealous for mission that doesn’t pander, read this and read on. You absolutely must cut your teeth on Smith; and if you’re hungry for more, by all means pick up Chalmers!
A few things I love about this passage. First, Smith represents the Reformed parish in all its vigorous masculinity. Unlike the gathered church-model of Voluntaryism (19th century de-establishmentarianism), this construct keeps the church at the center of the community regardless of demographic and socio-economic shifts. The Reformed parish church stands as a steady bulwark; it holds the standard like an intrepid solider on a contested hill. Tragically, churches over the last 100-200 years have retreated from the inner-cities. Not so the Reformed parish church. And I would think that those who are won over to the ideals of ‘the auld Kirk’ would head unbanward to retrieve long-surrendered ground.
Not only is the Reformed parish church steadfast, as Smith points out, but it is consciously God- and not man-pleasing. The tendency of the alternate system yielding to market principles is to fawn and pander. The latter tends to discharge its duty to men in the sight of God. True, the Reformed parish church is designed to serve men. But it serves them as that institution invested with the keys of the Kingdom, assigned to a definite geographic charge, and answerable to its King.
Related to this, Smith makes something clear that I haven’t yet seen in Chalmers. He points out how territorialism tends to retard the downgrade of confessionalism. If this model in principle resists the forces of market demand, then at least there is a kind of barrier raised against the inroads of populist latitudinarianism.
Last – and so much more could be said – I love how Smith shows that the old Reformed parish plan smothers the cult of personality in its infancy. Being Presbyterian, it takes overseer parity seriously both inside and outside the local context. And since it respects without worshipping geographic, ecclesiastical boundaries, it promotes diligent attendance on the means of grace on faithful, not necessarily sensational pastors. Oh, and there is no chapter on sheep-stealing in its playbook.
Alright. Enough of Ives; enter Smith.
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Voluntaryism cannot, on its own footing, maintain itself in [poor] districts. Innumerable instances have occurred in which Voluntary chapels, planted originally in districts occupied by industrious and church-attending families, have been removed from these districts to more affluent and attractive neighbourhoods so soon as, from the extension of the town and the concentration of poverty and crime, there occurred an influx into these districts of a poor or vicious population. Parish churches remain permanently in their first position. Though erected originally for the rich, who occupied as their palatial mansions tenements now converted into stores and warehouses, and now surrounded by drunkenness, pauperism, filth, and crime, they maintain their places unchanged, and continue to ring out their Sabbath-bell warning against the sins that prevail around them. Parish ministers, true to their trust, do not abandon the degraded poor whether they will hear or whether they will forbear.” The fold and the shepherd remain, whatever change the flock may undergo.” But Voluntaries, more fickle in their affections and less restricted in action, change continually the sites of their chapels, and follow on the skirts of a paying population. Edinburgh exhibits examples of this. Glasgow exhibits still more. But perhaps the most notorious scene of such unworthy and recreant migrations is to be found in Liverpool, where more than fifty such deserted sites may be traced on the map of the town, and where thirty-three chapels have occupied a hundred and thirty different sites— the congregations, in their corporate capacity, remaining the same. The principle that operates in this way to the abandonment and neglect of the poorer districts, that the wealthier may be courted and cultivated, is surely not a right or commendable principle. It does not harmonise with the spirit of the Gospel, nor can it fulfil the command or do the work of Him who said, “Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither ” (i.e., to the Gospel feast) “the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind. … Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house be filled.”
Dissenters, as a rule, do not systematically visit the poor. It is not part of their system. Their energies are sufficiently tasked otherwise in recruiting their ranks from the multitude of respectable artisans and small shopkeepers who, in our overgrown town parishes, are driven from the national Church by the lack of sufficient accommodation, or by the system of exclusive and proprietary pews that has sprung up, fungus-like, in some quarters. If any Dissenting congregation does adopt the system of local house-to-house visitation, the manner and the meaning of it will soon be detected. The zeal of many of the visitors will be found to expend itself in plying with fulsome flattery, or cajoling with astute misrepresentation, the more respectable adherents of other Churches, if haply they may be seduced to speak the shibboleth and swell the numbers of their congregation. The degraded classes will be lightly passed by. The clamant poor will be silently left, or actually certificated and commended, to the care of the parish minister. The system that countenances, necessitates, or involves such procedure as this, is a selfish, hollow, and rotten system. It cannot cope with the adverse circumstances of society; it cannot overcome the evil of the world.
The system of endowed territorial work, on the contrary, is in strict keeping with Christ’s commission to go and make disciples of all nations. It accords with the plan on which the apostles and first promulgators of the Gospel founded Churches in different places. It conserves the general principles laid down in the New Testament for the guidance of the Church to the end of the world. It approves itself to sound reason as best adapted alike for diffusing generally, and for maintaining permanently, the power of the Gospel in any land. It secures for the pastor a proper sphere, and invests him with the requisite influence, authority, and independence. It places the office-bearers and members of his congregation in a right relationship to him, one to another, and towards such as are without. It marks out for them all a field, the faithful cultivation of which at once exercises the graces and gifts, enhances the joys and rewards, of those that cultivate it, and adds to the trophies of the great Husbandman into whose garners its crops are gathered. On all these grounds, and on many more which time would fail fully to specify, endowed territorial work approves itself as the system which, most consistent with Christian principle, is in practice found to be most effective and successful.
On the minister it devolves the burden of territorial responsibility, by assigning to each, at his ordination and induction to a parish, a certain amount of well – defined and overtakable, work. This is its grand underlying principle. Practically, the principle has been departed from in many instances, and especially in our large towns, in consequence partly of the increase of population without a corresponding increase of parishes and parish churches, partly of the rivalry of Dissenters resulting therefrom. But wherever and from whatsoever cause the principle has not been fairly and fully wrought out by the national Church, it has been to the ultimate loss of that Church, and to the detriment of true religion. “Where the principle is strictly acted on—and it ought to be so in every case, both in town and in country parishes—the minister naturally and of necessity feels an interest in his work of a totally different kind from that which is possible in the case of him who acts on the Voluntary principle. The Voluntary minister is bound to the people who are attracted to his ministry by his eloquence and ability in the pulpit. The distance from which these are drawn is limited only by the range of the influence of that attraction. The greater his ability, or popular gifts rather, the wider is the scope of his attractive influence, and consequently the larger the area from which his congregation is drawn, and the vaster and more promiscuous the mass of population among which they are scattered here and there. His relations to his flock are personal only, and change continually with its shifting and fluctuating units. The greater his success and the larger his congregation, the less intimate and the less influential will these relations necessarily become. Whereas, in the case of the minister bound to a territory of manageable extent, his relations not only to the members of his congregation, but to all the inhabitants of that territory, are of a totally different character. They are more solid, intimate, and permanent. He belongs to them. He is officially and solemnly bound to serve them. The consciousness that he is so, and the consequent concentration of his attention and efforts on the scene of their daily avocations, impart to him a feeling of property in them. They belong to him. They are his people. There is thus insensibly created between him and them a link of friendly and familiar correspondence, which leads to the most beneficial effects. Thoroughly acquainted with the dimensions of his field of duty, and aware of the extent of his responsibility, the minister enters upon his labours with alacrity and good hope, and is stimulated and encouraged to steady perseverance in them by the comfortable and enlivening sense of being able to overtake them. Visiting his parish from house to house, he not only ministers on the best footing to those parishioners who by attendance in his church have expressed a desire for his ministrations, but, without any appearance of intrusiveness, without the possibility of offence, and without prejudice to the message he bears, he obtains easy access to home after home, where one circumstanced and accredited as he is can alone preach the Gospel with effect to those so utterly lapsed and careless that no amount of mere pulpit attraction will ever draw them to Christianity. Besides, what wide and effectual doors are opened for his usefulness by the feeling which pervades the sphere of his activities that in the time of need the poor may apply to him, assured of sympathy and friendly aid—that in the season of sickness he is ready at hand to visit the most abandoned and depraved on their bed of languishing or pain, and to counsel and direct them when conscience at last finds her voice, when their fear cometh as desolation, and when distress and anguish come upon them! The people know that they can in such cases confidently count upon his succour. Their mutual intercourse and acquaintanceship strengthen this feeling from day to day, till at last, by the cementing force of sympathy, the minister is throned, as Chalmers says, “in a moral ascendancy over his district;” and from his very position there goes forth a commanding influence for the highest ends, that reaches every home and heart within it.
For it is not the good of the poor only which the system of endowed territorial work is calculated to promote. That system is as much required and as well adapted for behoof of the careless and godless among the wealthier classes, who, but for it, would in the great majority of cases be left entirely to themselves, without instruction, counsel, or reproof, in the matter of their spiritual concerns. They are quite as liable as their poorer brethren to fall away altogether from religion. God has formed their hearts alike. By nature they are equally corrupt and depraved. The temptations of wealth and luxury and refinement are not less powerful in seducing men from the paths of piety than the temptations peculiar to a low, crushed, animal condition. The rich, therefore, need the visits and the ministrations of a faithful minister whom they respect, as much as the poor do. But in nine cases out of ten the visit of a minister acting on the Voluntary system would only give offence to the wealthy, create in them additional prejudice against religion, and so issue in doing far more harm than good. Whereas, on the other hand, the minister acting on the territorial system has, in the very nature of his work, a passport to every house in his parish. The reason of his visit being simply the discharge of incumbent duty, will be readily recognised and regarded with respect by the highest in common with the lowest; and, in point of fact, the relations which, on this ground, have been established between the landed aristocracy and gentry on the one hand, and the ministers of the Church of Scotland on the other, have been fruitful in manifold benefits, not only to the rich themselves, but to all classes. They have helped in some measure to neutralise the tendencies of these later revolutionary days towards the disintegration of society, and to keep class united to class by the bonds of mutual sympathy and respect.
The benefits of endowed territorial work have indeed for some generations been obscured by the partial extent to which the system has been maintained in this country. Even at the period of the Reformation, the statesmanlike idea of Knox in regard to it was never fully realised. Through lack of sufficiently qualified ministers, and more particularly in consequence of the ruthless spoliation of the Church’s patrimony already referred to, the parochial economy of the Church was never, up to the measure of his policy and wish, made sufficiently large and comprehensive for the population of the country. Instead of one thousand only, as he desired, more than three thousand were assigned, on the average, to each parochial charge. In the years that followed, matters grew gradually worse and worse in this respect. In the course of time the population was trebled, and yet no appreciable addition was made to the territorial machinery of the Church. In the towns, where the principal increase of population took place, and where Church extension was chiefly required, the evil arising from neglecting this extension was in particular greatly aggravated by the all but total relinquishment there of all regard to territorial limits in the management of such churches as existed, and in the membership and discipline of their several congregations. These congregations, drawn indiscriminately from all quarters of the town, and from whatsoever parishes formed or environed the town, speedily lapsed into a state of semi-independency. In most instances, their numbers and demands were such as tasked all the energies and took up the whole time and attention of their respective ministers. In consequence of this, the territories assigned to their pastoral care remained untended and unvisited. For all practical intents and purposes, their boundary lines might have been erased from the map. The great mass of their population fell out of all ecclesiastical oversight. And thus the territorial system, sinking into something very like desuetude in many of the most important and conspicuous parts of the country, has not had fair play, and by many is supposed to have proved a failure, simply because it has never been tried.
Another thing which has operated strongly to the damage and disparagement of the territorial system is the overlapping competition of Voluntaryism. By virtue of the tolerant spirit of the times, and because of the liberal character of our civil constitution, Dissenters participate largely in the civil privileges flowing to all that profess religion out of the existence of an endowed territorial Church, although formally they refuse to be parties to any compact between Church and State, such as makes such a Church most easily possible. They derive no trivial advantage from the publicly recognised standard of truth and duty necessarily maintained by the national Church, and to some extent they share also in the benefits arising generally out of its parochial economy and organisation. In point of fact, as I have already indicated, Dissent flourishes only when and where the national Church is strong. Were that Church annihilated to-morrow, and were Voluntaryism thenceforward to become the universal order of the day, the first effect of the change would be a sapping of the chief strength there is in Voluntaryism, which is traceable mainly to the efforts of rivalry. Gradually, every standard raised by it now, would be lowered further and further. Salaries now forced up by jealous comparison with stipends would become beautifully less. Systems of doctrine, kept pure and unrelaxed because of the continued existence in authority of the Westminster Confession, would, from time to time, be altered in one point after another, to suit the shifting sentiment of the hour. Work now stimulated into general activity by the arbitrary routine of official labours would degenerate into selfish and time-serving efforts.
And yet Dissent, owing her existence and much of her activity to the territorial system, does her very utmost to degrade the character and destroy the benefits of endowed territorial work—like the ivyplant, which, as it climbs, tends to choke the stalwart tree that supports it. Erecting here and there places of worship, maintaining in them ordinances which in most cases are nowise distinguishable from those dispensed by the national Church, and drawing to her, for various reasons, many nurtured in different parishes, she poaches at her capricious pleasure, now in this parish, now in that, and prosecutes, where the work will pay, enterprises that overlap and jar with proper territorial agencies, so as to prevent these from producing the benefit which, left alone to themselves, they would certainly do. What experience is more common at the present day than that of the earnest parish minister who, carefully mapping out his territory into convenient districts, and assigning to each such a staff of labourers as, under the presidency and direction of pious elders and deacons, could sufficiently attend to all the wants, both temporal and spiritual, of the whole population, finds that no sooner is the work thus planned and provided for begun, than it is imitated in its method and machinery by the emissaries of some neighbouring Voluntary congregation, who, previously satisfied with work of a congregational kind, select as a locality for their systematic cultivation not one altogether neglected, which would be good and praiseworthy on their part, but preferentially one which he already is sufficiently caring for? It may seem invidious thus to speak of such labours, by whomsoever and in whatsoever field they may be prosecuted. Those who are only superficially acquainted with such territorial work may imagine that the spiritual wants of any district can never be entirely overtaken, and that therefore no amount of work bestowed on it can ever be superfluous, or any number of workers in excess of its actual requirements. Such persons may consequently be inclined to attribute the remarks now made to jealous or spiteful feeling towards Dissenters. But, in point of fact, all earnest workers in such fields must know well that there arises no greater hindrance to success in endeavouring to reclaim the outcast and elevate the fallen, than that which is caused by the clashing interference of two or three sets of similar agencies overlapping each other in one locality; and when, as too often happens, Dissenting agencies expend their principal care and strength on fields previously occupied by others, and in attempts to proselytise the children and dependants of those already more or less closely connected with other communions, the ultimate result of their efforts in this way can be only detrimental to the cause of religion in the locality, and tend to damage, not to promote, the success of thorough territorial work.