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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Ministry for Our Age

By Phillips Brooks (1835–1893)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1835. Died there, 1893. Lectures on Preaching. Delivered before the Divinity School of Yale College. 1877.]

WE ministers cannot help noting with interest among the symptoms of our time the way in which the preacher himself is regarded. To remark the changed attitude which the people generally hold towards ministers is the most familiar commonplace; to mourn over it as a sign of decadence in the religious spirit is the habit of some people. But the reasons of it are plain enough and have been often pointed out. The preacher is no longer the manifest superior of other men in wit and wisdom. That deference which was once paid to the minister’s office, upon the reasonable presumption that the man who occupied it was better educated, more large in his ideas, a better reasoner, a more trustworthy guide in all the various affairs of life than other men, if it were paid still would either be the perpetuation of an old habit, or would be paid to the office purely for itself without any presumption at all about the man. This latter could not be long possible; no dignity of office can secure men’s respect for itself continuously unless it can show a worthy character in those who hold it. I am glad that the mere forms of reverence for the preacher’s office have so far passed away. I am not making a virtue of necessity. I rejoice at it. Nothing could be worse for us than for men to keep telling us by deferential forms that we are the wisest of men when their shelves are full of books with far wiser words in them than the best that we can preach; or that we are the most eloquent of men when there are better orators by the score on every side; or that we are the best of men when we know of sainthoods among the most obscure souls before which we stand ashamed. No manly man is satisfied with any ex-officio estimate of his character. Whether it makes him better or worse than he is, he cares nothing for it. And so the nearer that ministers come to being judged like other men just for what they are, the more they ought to rejoice, the more I think they do rejoice. But what then? Is the minister’s sacred office nothing? Does not his truth gain authority and his example urgency from the position where he stands? Indeed they do. It seems to me that the best privilege which can be given to any man is a position which shall stimulate him to his best and which shall make his best most effective. And that is just what is given to the minister. An official position which should substitute some other power for the best powers of the man himself, and should make him seem effective beyond his real force, would be an injury to him and ultimately would be recognized as an empty sham itself. I quarrel with no man for his conscientious belief about the high and separate commission of the Christian ministry. I only quarrel with the man who, resting satisfied with what he holds to be his high commission, is not eager to match it with a high character. The more you think yourself different from other men because you are a minister, the more try to be different from other men by being more fully what all men ought to be. That is a High Churchmanship of which we cannot have too much.

I hold then that the Christian ministry has still in men’s esteem all that is essentially valuable, and all that it is really good for it to have. It has a place of utterance more powerful and sacred than any other in the world. Then comes the question, What has it to utter? The pedestal is still there. Men will not gather about it as they once did perhaps, without regard to the statue that stands upon it. But if a truly good statue stands there the world can see it as it could if it stood nowhere else.

There are two great faults of the ministry which come, one of them from ignoring, the other from rebelling against, this change in the attitude of the minister and the people towards each other. The first is the perpetual assertion of the minister’s authority for the truth which he teaches. To claim that men should believe what we teach them because we teach it to them and not because they see it to be true is to assume a place which God does not give us and men will not acknowledge for us. Many a Christian minister needs to be sent back to him whom we call the heathen Socrates, to read these noble words in the Phædo—which whole dialogue, by the way, is itself no unworthy pattern of the best qualities of preaching. “You, if you take my advice, will think little about Socrates, but a great deal about Truth.”

And the other fault is the constant desire to make people hear us who seem determined to forget us. This is the fault of the sensational preaching. A large part of what is called sensational preaching is simply the effort of a man who has no faith in his office or in the essential power of truth to keep himself before people’s eyes by some kind of intellectual fantasticalness. It is a pursuit of brightness and vivacity of thought for its own sake, which seems to come from a certain almost desperate determination of the sensational minister that he will not be forgotten. I think there is a great deal of nervous uneasiness of mind which shows a shaken confidence in one’s position. It struggles for cleverness. It lives by making points. It is fatal to that justice of thought which alone in the long run commands confidence and carries weight. The man who is always trying to attract attention and be brilliant counts the mere sober effort after absolute truth and justice dull. It is more tempting to be clever and unjust than to be serious and just. Every preacher has constantly to make his choice which he will be. It does not belong to men, like angels, to be “ever bright and fair” together. And the anxious desire for glitter is one of the signs of the dislodgement of the clerical position in our time.

There is a possible life of great nobleness and usefulness for the preacher who, frankly recognizing and cordially accepting the attitude towards his office which he finds on the world’s part, preaches truth and duty on their own intrinsic authority, and wins personal power and influence because he does not seek them, but seeks the prevalence of righteousness and the salvation of men’s souls.