I recently gave a lecture (sermon?) on the fascinating and inspiring story of Thomas Chalmers’ West Port Experiment in the slums of Industrial Edinburgh, from 1844-1847. You can listen to it here. Ad urbem!
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.’
A. C. Cheyne (1924-2006), a recognized Scottish Church History scholar summarizes the central ideas inherent in Chalmers’ “territorial parish.” It was a “manageably small area housing a community of some two thousand souls who lived, worked and worshipped together, with a church and a school at its center and a minister and a kirk session to attend to both its spiritual and its temporal necessities: here, he argued, was the basic – he would even have said the redemptive – unit of Scottish society. Here was the means of national regeneration.” In my reading of Chalmers, I would suggest that he would say the preaching of the Gospel was the means. Yet, he certainly saw the territorial parish as the most efficient vehicle for getting that Gospel preaching to every man, woman, and child.
“However thoroughly we may he convinced of the benefit that would result from the influence of locality, we feel that it is not in easy task didactically to set forth this influence, by any process of argument or explanation. The conviction is far more readily arrived at by the tact of real and living experience, than by the lessons of any expounder. There is a charm in locality, most powerfully felt by every man who tries it; but which, at the same time, it is most difficult so to seize upon as to embody it in language, or to bring it forth in satisfying demonstration to the public eye. We do not know an individual who has personally attached himself to a manageable portion of the civic territory, and has entered with taste and spirit upon its cultivation-and who does not perceive, with something like the force and the clearness of intuition, that, if this way of it were spread over an assembled million of human beings, it would quickly throw a new moral complexion over the teeming expanse that is on every side of him. But what he feels, it is not easy to make others see. For, however substantial the influence of locality is, there is a certain shadowy fineness about it, in virtue of which it eludes the efforts of an observer to lay hold of it, and to analyze it. It is no bad evidence, however, of the experimental soundness of this operation, that the incredulity about it, is all on the side of those who stand without the field of local management; and the confidence about it, on the side of those who stand within-and that, while the former regard it as a mystic and undefinable fancy, the latter find in it as much of sureness and solidity, as if their eyes saw it, and their hands handled it.”
-Thomas Chalmers, The Christian and Economic Polity of a Nation, p. 43.
The following is a delightful quote in the preface of the 1840 edition of Thomas Chalmers’ Christian and Economic Polity of a Nation:
We confess no small gratification in finding, at the end of twenty years, that our promulgations, held at the time to be altogether Utopian, of the great charm and efficiency which lie in the household ministrations of clergymen, are now repeated in the most popular, and at the same time, the most able and authoritative of our daily journals. The Times newspaper of a few days back recommends with great force and eloquence, and in the following terms, “the still further prosecution of an earnest and indefatigable system of parochial domiciliary visiting throughout all the parishes of the land. This, depend upon it, is the only patent and talismanic key to English hearts, whether of Churchmen, Papists, or Dissenters. Disinterested and persevering kindness, brought habitually to a man’s home under all sorts of discouragement, is what no human being can long or rudely resist. With that elevated determination and singleheartedness, which, in the absence of all impertinent intrusions or officious curiosity, manifestly seeks to engage mankind in a devout concern for their immortal interests, let every family in every city, town, or hamlet, be regularly and affectionately visited, no matter what denomination they may belong to. The established clergy, accredited, commissioned, and upheld by the law of this realm, are the clergy of the whole nation. Every fireside in their parish is a part of their allotted charge. They have an official as well as a moral right, subject, of course, to discreet limitations, to seek admittance into every door, ‘ whether men will hear or whether they will forbear.’ Painful repulses will occasionally, though not often, occur; but these, compensated by a consciousness of dutiful exertion and by cordial welcomes in other cases, will sooner or later be overcome hy meek and patient endurance. Only let all the families of England be regularly invited to the dispensation of a free gospel in a free church ; and eventually the very universality of this hahit of parochial visiting will establish it as a part of our social system; and cause it to work with the uniform beneficence of nature’s general laws.”