A PARSON of a certain township who
Was poor, but rich in holy thought and work.
He also was a learned man, a clerk;
The Christian gospel he would truly preach,
Devoutly his parishioners to teach.
Benign he was, in diligence a wonder,
And patient in adversity, as under
Such he’d proven many times. And loath
He was to get his tithes by threatening oath;
For he would rather give, without a doubt,
To all the poor parishioners about
From his own substance and the offerings.
Sufficiency he found in little things.
His parish wide, with houses wide asunder,
He’d never fail in either rain or thunder,
Though sick or vexed, to make his visitations
With those remote, regardless of their stations.
On foot he traveled, in his hand a stave.
This fine example to his sheep he gave:
He always did good works before he taught them.
His words were from the gospel as he caught them,
And this good saying he would add thereto:
“If gold should rust, then what will iron do?”
For if a priest be foul in whom we trust,
No wonder that the ignorant goes to rust.
And it’s a shame (as every priest should keep
In mind), a dirty shepherd and clean sheep.
For every priest should an example give,
By his own cleanness, how his sheep should live.
He never set his benefice for hire,
To leave his sheep encumbered in the mire
While he ran off to London and Saint Paul’s
To seek a chantry, singing in the stalls,
Or be supported by a guild. Instead
He dwelt at home, and he securely led
His fold, so that the wolf might never harry.
He was a shepherd and no mercenary.
A holy, virtuous man he was, and right
In showing to the sinner no despite.
His speech was never haughty or indignant,
He was a teacher modest and benignant;
To draw folks heavenward to life forever,
By good example, was his great endeavor.
But if some person were too obstinate,
Whether he be of high or low estate,
He would be sharply chided on the spot.
A better priest, I wager, there is not.
He didn’t look for pomp or reverence
Nor feign a too self-righteous moral sense;
What Christ and his apostles had to tell
He taught, and he would follow it as well.
Archive for the ‘Parish Theory & Practice’ Category
A PARSON of a certain township who
The great Scottish pastor, social reformer, educator, author, and scientist Thomas Chalmers was born on March 17, 1780 at Anstruther on the Fife coast. His father was a prosperous businessman in the town and Thomas grew up as the sixth in a large family of fourteen children—he had eight brothers and five sisters.
Showing early signs of prodigy, at the age of three, he went to the local parish school to learn the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric in English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. His parents were people of strong Calvinist conviction and keen that their family should grow up to bear witness to a lively and relevant Christianity. Piety and intellectual rigor marked their daily lives.
Before he was twelve, he had sufficiently mastered language, literary, and philosophical skills that he was recommended to advance his studies at the University of St Andrews. His brother, William, who was just thirteen, accompanied him. At the time, Thomas was the second-youngest student at St Andrews and widely recognized as a student with extraordinary promise. Although a great part of his time in the first two sessions at the university were apparently occupied in boyish amusements, such as golf, soccer, and hand-ball—in which he was remarkably expert, owing to his being left-handed—he had already begun to demonstrate the great intellectual power which was to be one of his chief characteristics throughout adult life. For mathematics he developed special enthusiasm and to its study he gave himself with great energy and dedication. Ethics and politics were also themes of special interest to him as he sought to integrate his life and faith with the evident woes of the world around him.
Posted in Church of Scotland, Experimental Religion & the Cure of Souls, Parish Theory & Practice, Parochial Strategy, Preaching, The Romance of Locality, Theology of Community on May 13, 2016| Leave a Comment »
One of my personal heroes is Scottish Presbyterian minster, Aeneas Sage (1694-1774). I’m not quite sure if everything written about him is totally accurate; I get a whiff of the hagiographic if not the legendary in some of the stories. Yet, something in my gut tells me it is too good and so must be true! (Like a historian friend of mine quipped, ‘If it ain’t true, it should be!’) Whatever the case, Aeneas Sage captivates me, for as a pastor he knew how to captivate an audience – in more ways that one.
I’ve retold the following story countless times, from John Kennedy’s The Days of the Fathers in Ross-Shire. I still remember first hearing it by an idiosyncratic minister having his wispy locks trimmed by his wife in his living room. How his eyes sparkled as he struggled to repress laughter! As I remember it again, it also gives me some tantalizing ideas in drawing a crowd for open air preaching, and of course, to win hearts for King Jesus in an increasingly secular age. I already know one friend whose church has had good success gaining a crowd by basketball. Then they preach a solid, Reformed sermon for 45 minutes – to public schoolers. Maybe they took a chapter out of Aeneas Sage’s playbook.
If you like the following, you’ll no doubt appreciate this piece about him too. Now, without further audieu …
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Mr. Munro was preceded by the famous Mr. Aenas Sage —”a man of an undaunted spirit, who did not know what the fear of man was. He had, however, the fear of God, and great zeal for the good cause in its highest perfection. He was the determined enemy of vice, and a true friend of the gospel.” Such, according to Mr. Lachlan, was the character of Mr. Sage, the first minister who is known to have preached the Gospel in purity and with success in Lochcarron. At the time of his induction, the state of the parish was very much the same as it was found by the Presbytery to be in 1649, when after visiting it, they reported that “there were no elders in it, by reason of malignancy; swearing, drunkenness, cursing, Sabbath profanation, and uncleanness prevailed.” As to the church, there was found in it “ane formal stool of repentance, but no pulpit nor desks.” The stool, if the only, was truly the suitable seat for all the people of Lochcarron in these days; but the more it was required, the less power there was to make it aught else than “ane formal” thing, as the solitary occupant of the church.
Matters continued in this state till the induction of Mr. Sage, nearly eighty years after. He was just the man for the work of breaking up the fallow ground of a field so wild, and a rich blessing rested on his labours. On the night of his first arrival at Lochcarron an attempt was made to burn the house in which he lodged, and for some time after his induction his life was in constant danger. But the esteem he could not win as a minister, he soon acquired for great physical strength. The first man in Lochcarron in those days was the champion at the athletic games. Conscious of his strength, and knowing that he would make himself respected by all if he could only lay big Rory on his back, who was acknowledged to be the strongest man in the district, the minister joined the people on the earliest opportunity at their games. Challenging the whole field, he competed for the prize in putting the stone, tossing the caber, and wrestling, and won an easy victory. His fame, was established at once. The minister was now the champion of the district, and none was more ready to defer to him than he whom he had deprived of the laurel. Taking Rory aside to a confidential crack, he said to him, “Now, Rory, I am the minister, and you must be my elder, and we both must see to it that all the people attend church, observe the Sabbath, and conduct themselves properly.” Rory fell in with the proposal at once. On Sabbath, when the people would gather at their games in the forenoon, the minister and his elder would join them, and each taking a couple by the hand, they would drag them to the church, lock them in, and then return to catch some more. This was repeated till none were left on the field. Then, stationing the elder with his cudgel at the door, the minister would mount the pulpit and conduct the service. One of his earliest sermons was blessed to the conversion of his assistant, and a truly valuable coadjutor he found in big Rory thereafter. Mr. Lachlan thus describes the result of his ministry: —”Mr. Sage made the people very orthodox.” They “seem to have a strong attachment to religion.” “There is a great appearance of religion in Lochcarron; and as the fire of God’s Word is hereafter to try every man’s work, there is cause to hope that some of it will bear the trial.’
The following is an article that appeared in the ARBCA Quarterly Update, Feburary 2012, by the Rev. David Campbell, on Thomas Chalmers’ famous West Port Experiment of the mid-1840’s. (British punctuation retained! Proper.)
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“The Most Joyful Event of My Life”
So Dr. Thomas Chalmers describes it in a letter to his friend, Mr. Lennox, of New York City. Explaining, he says, “I have been intent for thirty years on the completion of a territorial experiment, and I have now to bless God for the consummation of it. Our church was opened on the 19th of February…I presided myself, on Sabbath last, over its first sacrament. There were 132 communicants, and 100 of them from the West Port.”
Anyone know where the West Port is? When I was a student in Edinburgh in the mid 1980s I occasionally walked through it as I made my way to the Free Church College. I recollect it as decent enough, just a little run-down and nondescript. It was very different in the early 1840s. Back then it was one of the worst districts in the city, notorious as the scene of the Burke & Hare murders, and infested with beggars, thieves, and prostitutes. The following will give you a sense for just how bad it was:
“When Mr. Tasker, the minister of the West Port, made his first visits to some of the filthiest closes, it was no uncommon thing for him to find twenty to thirty men, women, and children, huddled together in one putrid dwelling, lying indiscriminately on the floor…Upon one occasion he entered a tenement with from twelve to twenty apartments, where every human being, man and woman, were so drunk they could not hear their own squalid infants crying in vain to them for food…He went once to a funeral, and found the assembled company all so drunk around the corpse, that he had to go and beg some sober neighbours to come and carry the coffin to the grave.”
It was this poor and depraved district that Dr. Chalmers selected for his “territorial experiment”. As the term is his so also will be the explanation: “The very essence of our scheme lies in the thorough operation of what we have called the territorial principle. We limit our attention to a single district or locality, itself split into sub-districts, having each a Christian agent attached to it; so that not a home or family which might not be frequently and habitually visited by one having the charge of not more, if possible, than twenty households.”
Chalmers believed this to be the only effective way of evangelising the degraded and over-crowded districts of major towns and cities, and for years he had been eager to demonstrate what, with the divine blessing, could be achieved. With its 411 families and 2000 inhabitants, its poverty and depravity, the West Port of Edinburgh was an ideal place for the attempt. It was a work, he admitted, “greatly too much for my declining strength” (he was then almost 65). But he threw himself into it heart and soul – and with wonderful results.
The first step was the opening of a school. Almost three-quarters of West Port children were growing up without any education at all. So successful, however, were the district visitors in persuading parents to take advantage of the provision (even though it wasn’t free), that when the school opened on 11th November 1844 there were 64 day students and 57 evening students. In the course of the first year the numbers grew to 250. Most of them were from the West Port.
The school was located in an old tanning-loft. In the same place, on Sunday morning the 22nd of December 1844, public worship was held for the first time. It was a far from attractive location: “The interior was bare and dilapidated; the walls coarse and unplastered, pierced her and there with little, dingy, unsightly windows; the roof low and scantily slated, scarcely affording decent shelter; the floor decayed, uneven, and shaking at every tread.”
Dr Chalmers’ son-in-law and future biographer, William Hanna, was present at the evening service. “When we looked round and saw that the whole fruit of the advices, and requests, and entreaties which for many previous weeks had been brought to bear upon all the families by the visitors, was the presence of about a dozen adults, and those mostly old women, we confess to strong misgivings as to the result.” In April 1845, however, Chalmers secured the help of William Tasker, later the West Port minister, and attendance grew under his ministry.
Dr. Chalmers himself, as health permitted, met with the district visitors once a week for discussion, encouragement, counsel, and prayer. He also habitually attended the Sunday services, sometimes as a preacher, often as a hearer. An eyewitness records that “when he was a hearer only, one would see him near the pulpit, in a crowd of deaf old women, who were meanly clothed, but who followed the services with unflagging attention and interest. His eye was upon every one of them, to anticipate their wishes and difficulties. He would help one old woman to find out the text; he would take hold of the Psalm-book of another, hand to hand, and join her in the song of praise. Any one looking at him could see that he was in a state of supreme enjoyment; he could not be happier out of heaven.”
The West Port was deeply upon his heart. In prayers that only came to light after his death we hear requests like this: “Moving fearlessly onward, may I at length obtain such possession of the West Port, as that the gospel of Jesus Christ shall have the moral ascendancy over a goodly number of its families”. “O that I were enabled to pull down the strongholds of sin and of Satan which are there”. “Do thou plentifully endow him [Mr. Tasker] with the graces and gifts of the Apostle Paul. May he have many souls for his hire”. “O may he not only be himself saved, but may he be the instrument of salvation to many.”
On Friday 19th February 1847, the West Port Church was formally opened by Dr. Chalmers. On the 25th of April, as we noted in the opening paragraph, Chalmers presided at the Lord’s Supper. On the following Monday he wrote to William Tasker: “I have got now the desire of my heart – the church is finished, the schools are flourishing, our ecclesiastical machinery is about complete, and all in good working order. God has indeed heard my prayer, and I could now lay down my head in peace and die.” And thirty-five days later that is exactly what he did.
It was feared that that the work would founder with him gone. It did not. Three hundred seats had been let when the church opened and attendance continued to grow steadily. By 1879 the membership was in excess of eleven hundred. By 1896 the number of communicants was upwards of 1300. Also, and almost from the beginning, through the educating of the children, through the efforts of the visitors, and through the public preaching of God’s word, the district itself began to visibly change for the better. It was all a magnificent monument not just to Chalmers’ labours and prayers, but to his faith. He loved the maxim of John Eliot, missionary to native Americans, that “prayer and pains can do anything”. He used to quote it often. And be believed it.
Recently, I’ve been curious about the historic place of “preaching stations” and their relevance for modern missions. It could just be me, but there seems to be little discussion or usage of the construct in “church planting” efforts. Not sure of the reason for this. Maybe it’s because of the subdued place of preaching as the prime vehicle for conversion – at least within broader evangelicalism. I fear that within Reformed circles, it may reflect church planting that engages more in picking up Calvinist proselytes (at best) or bald sheep-stealing (at worst). That is, church growth that aims not so much at the lost community as an ever-recycling Christian one. Within my own more conservative orbit, I think it’s employed as a downgrade for a weakening or dying congregation.
Whatever the case may be, historically and in the contemporary situation, I’m liking what I read from Chalmers on the topic:
“I should not hold it wise to rush precipitately on the formation of a parish church, till a preaching station, upheld by household assiduities, had been tried and found to be successful. Such a preaching station is the germ of the future church, as the missionary is of the future clergyman; but not till the germ had so far germinated, would we venture on a full parochial apparatus for any locality whatever.”
First, preaching stations are forward-moving Gospel efforts, in the direction of full-fledged congregations. They are missionary endeavors. Second, they operate in the right order with respect to sacraments. Word first; then assuming reception, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Throw the Gospel net far and wide, but keep the sacraments out of the equation until there are “fruits worthy of repentance.” Third, aggressive, territorial household visitation as an indispensable adjunct to the preaching station.
Here is a great contemporary summary of Thomas Chalmers’ (1780-1843) ‘district visitation’ or parish model for evangelism and holistic, biblical philanthropy. It was originally published in 2000, in Foundations, the theological journal of the British Evangelical Council (now Affinity).