"Take heed how ye hear."—Jesus Christ
The first American, from the London Edition of 1786
Published by Jedidiah Davis & John Bright
Simeon Siegfried, Printer.
TO THE READER.
The publishers deem it unnecessary to say much respecting the Author of the work now brought into the reader’s hand. The best testimony to following generations, of departed worth in the Gospel field, is chiefly to be derived by observing the fruits of their labours, either in raising Churches, building up the saints in their most holy faith, or leaving something on record from their own pens for our instruction and edification.
The following account is extracted from No. XIII of Rippon’s Register, for August, 1796. The account itself was chiefly drawn up by the Rev. Joseph Jenkins, D.D. and communicated by him for insertion in the Register, under the title prefixed to the following pages.
of the late
Rev. SAMUEL STENNETT, D.D.
Dr. Samuel Stennett, the younger son of Dr. Joseph Stennett, a former worthy pastor on the Baptist church in Little Wild-street, Lincoln’s-inn-fields, London, was born at Exeter, in which city his father had been many years pastor of the Baptist church, before in residence in London. (Dr. Stennett had an elder brother, Mr. Joseph Stennett, who was pastor of the Baptist Church at Coate, in Oxfordshire. He died in 1769, and a funeral sermon for him was published by the Rev. Mr. Tarner, of Abingdon.) He was formed by nature, and by grace, for the distinguished figure he afterwards made. To the strength of natural faculties, vigour of imagination, and acuteness of judgment of which he was possessed, he had added, from his earliest years, so close an attention to reflection and study, that there was scarcely a topic in science or literature, in religion, or even politics, but he seemed to have investigated: and so habitual was it to him to arrange his ideas on the different subjects, in a manner peculiar to himself, and yet quite natural, that when a question, which to others was new, unusual, or perplexed, hath been proposed to him, they were surprised to find how familiarly he was acquainted with it. In a few sentences he would develop the difficulty as far as a reasonable man could expect satisfaction, for he enjoyed an happy facility of resolving intricate matters, so that confusion seemed to fly before his comprehensive mind. His preparatory studies for the ministry were passed under the tuition of the Rev. Mr. Hubbard (predecessor of the late Rev. Samuel Brewer in the pastoral office at Stepney), formerly an eminent theological tutor, and under that celebrated linguist Dr. John Walker, once of the Academy at Mile-End, which was afterwards removed to Homerton; whose successful method of instruction furnished so many Dissenting congregations, as well as churches in the Establishment, with critical, learned, and evangelical ministers. Dr. Stennett’s attainments in Latin, Greek, and the Oriental tongues, and his knowledge of sacred literature, are abundantly visible in his valuable controversial writings, and the variety of discourses he hath published. Besides which, his acquaintance with modern authors, with what is commonly styled polite learning, history, the constitution and language of his country—his command of words upon all occasions, and that mellifluous art he had of putting them together—the chastity of his diction—his lovely talent for poetry (which he chiefly applied to religious subjects)—the melting elocution with which he spoke—the cheerfulness and entertainment of his common conversation—the lively sallies of his wit—his consummate prudence and power over his own temper—the unaffected gentility of his address, and the politeness of his manners, were so pleasing, that whenever he was spoken of it was with affection or admiration. Such was his affability of mind, that he could accommodate himself to the meanest, and give advice and comfort to the poor, the vulgar, and the illiterate.—In many a wretched apartment in the city of London, he has wept over the sick and dying, generously relieved their wants, and with his knees on the bare floor, has lifted up his cries to God for them. And yet if called upon, he was so perfectly at ease in the higher circles of life, that respectable personages in honorable stations and of noble rank, have sought his friendship, and thought themselves honoured by it: all the use he made of which was, to embrace the greater opportunity it gave him of doing good; nor was he to be retarded in this pursuit by the attacks of obloquy and slander; a good conscience in the sight of God carried him above the reproaches of censoriousness and calumny. Had ambition, his personal emolument, or preferment of any kind been his objects, his own accomplishments and large connexions opened a ready door to them: and what is more, he might have had preferment unenvied. Persons of eminence in the establishment have expressed their regret that Dr. Stennett was not among them; voluntarily remarking, that there is not a situation in the national church which he was undeserving of. But though he was candid to the opinion of others, a friend to private judgment and a lover of good men of every persuasion; he was a Dissenter—a Dissenter from principle—a Baptist (The family of the Stennetts were not only Dissenters, and Baptists,--but from unquestionable accounts they were, properly speaking, Seventh Day Baptists);--he desired no higher honor upon earth, than to be an useful Baptist Minister (the article "Baptist," in Dr. Rees’ edition of Chambers’ Cyclopedia, was drawn up by Dr. Stennett); and the only preferment he had (if we may so call that which had no emolument whatever) was that in the year 1764, the King’s College and University of Aberdeen, unsolicited by him, conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity. But this honour did not elevate his mind above what he was before. No; he was still the same humble Christian; and to God he had consecrated his days, his talents, his strength, his reputation, his all. He was called by the grace of God in early life, and it is conjectured that the circumstances attending his conversion may fairly be gathered from the following hymn, with which he appeared more pleased than with many others which he composed, and suffered to be published. It is the 437th in Dr. Rippon’s Selection. (There are many hymns in Rippon’s Selection distinguished thus—Dr. S. Stennett,--which, of course, are the ffusions of his pen.)
Praise for Conversion. Psalm lxvi. 16.
1. Come, ye that fear the Lord,
And listen while I tell,
How narrowly my feet escap’d
The snares of Death and Hell!
2. The flatt’ring joys of sense
Assail’d my foolish heart,
While Satan, with malicious skill,
Guided the poisonous dart.
3. I fell beneath the stroke,
But fell to rise again:
My anguish rous’d me into life,
And pleasure sprung from pain.
4. Darkness, and shame, and grief
Oppress’d my gloomy mind;
I look’d around me for relief,
But no relief could find.
5. At length, to God I cry’d:
He heard my plaintive sigh,
He heard, and instantly he sent
Salvation from on high.
6. My drooping head he rais’d,
My bleeding wounds he heal’d,
Pardon’d my sins, and with a smile
The gracious pardon seal’d.
7. O! may I ne’er forget
The mercy of my God;
Nor ever want a tongue to spread
His loudest praise abroad.
Under these impressions he voluntarily presented himself a living sacrifice unto the Lord. Baptized by his own father when very young, he became a member of the Baptist church in Wild-street, of which he was the ornament for more than fifty years, and forty-seven of them he ministered to the Church in Wild-street, first as assistant to his father, and afterwards as his successor in the pastoral office, to which he was ordained in the year 1758.
How naturally he cared for the dissenting interest was visible from his assiduous labours for its prosperity, and the use he made of his intercourse with the great, for obtaining objects of vast importance towards the extension of religious liberty; for deliverance from those shackles that were oppressive, and which might in worse times prove an handle for persecution. His judicious publications upon that occasion will long speak for him, as will the respect he at all times paid to each denomination, and his readiness to serve them in every good work. Difference of religious sentiments made not the least alteration in his behaviour. And though he might think the difference of such magnitude, that he durst not venture his own soul upon the sentiments of others, still he knew that the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God, and that bad temper, bad manners, and illiberal epithets, would not recommend the love of God, or the truth as it is in Jesus. There was not an austere feature to be seen in his countenance, nor a forbidding accent heard to fall from his lips.
The Baptist denomination lay particularly near his heart, and his concern for it ran uniformly through his whole life. In the earlier part of his ministry he proved how well qualified he was for the tuition of the younger brethren intended for the service of the sanctuary; and he was the means of introducing into public life some worthy characters, whose learning and ministerial abilities were a credit to the cause they espoused. (One of his pupils, called into the ministry by his church, was the Rev. W. Clark., A.M. formerly pastor of the Baptist Church in Unicorn-yard, Southwark, but more lately of that in Exeter, who died a few days before him—a man of deep reflection, extensive learning, and of a most excellent spirit. His biography may be seen in the Baptist Register for Sept. 1794, page 276.) But if the diversity of his other engagements prevented his continuance in that capacity, he was happy whenever an opportunity offered of infusing instruction, indeed of saying or doing any thing that might contribute to the good of that profession which he judged to be nearest the plan of the sacred scriptures. It was his delight to promote peace and brotherly love; to make up differences, or explain misunderstandings, that at any time unhappily took place in churches or among ministers. He grudged no pains: and many can recollect repeated instances in which God made him remarkably instrumental in bringing about so desirable an end. If the churches were in harmony, and appeared upon sound principles to prosper, no man took greater pleasure than he did, or had more heart-felt sorrow at the contrary appearances.
What he was in his pastoral office will long, and affectionately be remembered. His Christian friends will never forget what he was to the very short interval between his labours and his decease—With what unwearied zeal he appeared in the house of God—With what fervor and humility he went before them in supplications to the throne of grace!—With what clearness and warmth he opened the scriptures, declared the tidings of salvation to them, and as a father doth his children, exhorted, comforted, warned, directed them!—With what solemnity he administered the ordinance of baptism!—With what sacred ardour he petitioned God, when in prayer he laid hands upon the baptized at the time of their admission into the Church—With what melting pathos he statedly administered the memorials of the body and blood of the Lord!—With what emphasis, even to tears, he would frequently repeat those lines of Dr. Young,
"A pardon bought with blood! With blood divine!
"With blood divine, of him I made my foe!"—
In what a pleasing and familiar manner he expounded the word of God in the private meetings of the Church!—With what prudence he presided in their assemblies for deliberation, and how anxious he was that unanimity might prevail among them!—Nor must it be omitted how ardently he recommended to them the annual charity, commonly called THE FUND for the relief of indigent ministers. What pride (if we may so speak) he took, if they excelled in that duty; and how much was his heart drawn out to the dear children who attended worship with his people, and whom he addressed publicly, and more privately, as those that he hoped would be the future seed of the church, and ripen to the glory of God, when the present generation hath left the world!—With what tenderness did he, as long and as often as he was able, visit his charge, and impart sympathy and help in their afflictions; and how frank, open and accessible was he at all seasons, when his advice or assistance was sought!—With what faithfulness, yet meekness, did he even rebuke where necessary, and how glad was he to restore the unsettled, or reclaim the wandering!—His friends know, and God also, after what manner he was with them, and how he kept back nothing that was profitable, but shewed them and taught them, publicly and from house to house, testifying repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.
As an husband, a father, and a master of the family, he was alike upright and exemplary. United in marriage with one of the best of women, they lived together in the closest and most uninterrupted affection, for more than forty years. She was a picture of unaffected piety and good-nature, and he walked with her as an heir of the grace of life, till about five months ago, she stepped out of this world a little before him, that she might, as it were, meet him, and welcome him to glory. The acknowledgement of God in their family met with ample reward. The tender love and Christian solicitude they bore towards their children was returned with reciprocal affection, and they had the happiness of seeing them walk in the ways of God, and their son a preacher of the gospel. The concern they shewed for the domestics of their family, for their spiritual good especially, was such as it is hoped will not be forgotten by them. Pleasing instances are recollected in which God blessed the master of the family for the conversion of his servants, particularly of one servant who, at an affecting church-meeting in Wild-street, told the church how a check was given to the thoughtlessness of his youth, and his resolution for sin, at Dr. Stennett’s family worship; and how, born again in his master’s house, he was brought into the road to Zion. Those who were present heard in silence and in tears, and their hearts praised God. (This was a very remarkable story of a profane and vicious youth, tutored on a bowling green, whom the Doctor, at the earnest request of an aged member, the boy’s aunt took into his family, and who afterwards proved a very godly man. The Church will recollect with respect the name of John Hancock.) Nor were his endeavours confined to his own family, the whole neighbourhood shared in them, and good effects have been heard of the very last sermon he preached at Muswell-Hill where he resided the latter years of his life.
But that which diffused vigour and animation through all the rest was his character as a man—a Christian. He set the Lord before him—had habitual recourse to prayer, private and mental—and walked with God. When he related the inward workings of his mind, it appeared how deeply he had entered into the spirit of experimental religion; and on this head, where he was intimate he would astonish. Much of it was seen also in his preaching and his behaviour;--in that disinterestedness, which made him think that he was the debtor of all if he could do them good;--that patient submission to the divine will in a variety of trying afflictions, and none more trying than the dissolution of a long and a most affectionate connexion, by the death of his wife;--that forgiveness of injuries, and disposition to put the best construction upon the actions of other people; that abhorrence of evil speaking, which, as it was commonly remarked of Mrs. Stennett, that "no one heard her speak evil of any one however bad:" so if the Doctor heard any one spoken evil of, he would reply, "Well, see now if you can’t tell something good of that person."
Mrs. Stennett’s dissolution was a very great affliction to the Doctor and his family. Though she had been for some time rather declining in her health, yet her being at last so quickly removed was what they little expected. She was confined to her bed only about a week. His disorder was of the nervous kind, and greatly affected her spirits. A delirium attended her illness, but yet she was enabled at intervals so to express herself as afforded those round about her no small pleasure. Being happy that those whom she so tenderly loved were with her in her affliction, she said at different times, "I dwell among my own people,"—and then, "Jesus is the only Saviour,"—"My Christ! Glory! Glory!" Her son asked her if she did not love Christ, she replied, "Yes." Dr. Stennett said to her, "All is well, my dear," she answered, "Yes." She had walked humbly with God, was remarkably fond of the duties of retirement, and took great delight in reading books of experience. Her end was peaceful and serene—her death bed was a most pleasing one, and she might well be said to fall asleep in Jesus. She died March 16, 1795, and was buried in the family vault in Bunhill Fields. Mr. Booth delivered the address at her interment, and Mr. Josiah Thompson, of Clapham, preached her funeral discourse the following Lord’s day, at Wild-street.
The death of Mrs. Stennett was an event that presaged his own removal. He was submissive to the supreme disposal, but did not appear to have any further regard for living in this world, or to think of his long continuance in it. All his talk seemed to be repetition of these words, "The time of my departure is at hand." The duties of his ministry indeed he went to with redoubled diligence, as if aware that the night was coming when he could no longer work; and hew as hardly withheld from those super-abundant exercises, that must have been immediately detrimental to his health His retirements were chiefly spent in meditations on the Bible; in which also he indulged his taste for poetry, as some admirable specimens he has left behind him demonstrate. His conversation and prayers were particularly spiritual, and his people will long retain the savour of the two last discourses he preached to them. The first, on Christ as an High-Priest "touched with the feeling of our infirmities," was the result of his meditations during a sleepless night the preceding week; but a night so comfortable as, he confessed, he had never before enjoyed in his life. The perfect knowledge the Lord Jesus had of his wants—the tender care he exercises, and the sufferings he so freely underwent, were his astonishment. None who knew Dr. Stennett could suspect him to be deficient in exalted sentiments of the Redeemer, yet all he had before conceived and preached of him, appeared small to what he then experienced; and hence he exhorted his people to "come boldly to the throne of grace, that they might obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. iv. 15, 16). Though illness and approaching death prevented his preaching, it had not lessened his love to his flocks. He desired a friend to tell them, "that he loved them all in the Lord, and that the truths he had preached, were his alone consolation in the hour of death." The temper and comfort of his mind in his illness, were discovered by several little incidents which cannot but be pleasing to those who had such a value for him. Before he was confined to his bed, he prayed one evening in his family in a manner which deeply impressed all present, "that God might give an easy passage out of life;" and God granted him that which he requested. Some vinegar and other ingredients being given him as a gargle for his throat, he said, with great emotion, which shewed his thoughts to be directed towards Jesus, "And in his thirst they gave him vinegar to drink. O! when I reflect upon the sufferings of Christ, I am ready to say, what have I been thinking of all my life? They are now my only support;" and he added, respecting those tenets that would degrade Christ’s person and atonement, "What should I do now if I had only such opinions to support me?" [Mentioning Dr. Priestly by name; and I think (says Dr. Jenkins), it argues very highly in favour of the doctrines of our Lord’s Deity and atonement, and of his free and efficacious grace that Dr. Stennett, a man of strong natural parts, a cool and dispassionate reasoner, and whom none that knew would charge with ignorance or enthusiasm, believed in, and avowed those doctrines in his life, and gave so explicit a testimony to their usefulness and importance, when he viewed himself as going to appear before God the Judge of all. If Dr. Priestly should ever see this note, I wish it may be duly weighed, as he also must die.] Taking his daughter by the hand, he said, "Wherefore he is able to save them to the uttermost, that come unto God by him.—He is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day." To the kind enquiries of a friend he answered, "Here I am, cast down but not destroyed;" And upon another occasions, repeated a verse of the charming hymn he had formerly composed, and which was printed (Hymn cclxx of Mr. Rippon’s Selection):
Father at thy call I come:
In thy bosom there is room
For a guilty soul to hide
Press’d with grief on ev’ry side
To his son, who (at that time very ill also) came to see him, he said, "My son, God hath done great things for us, He is very gracious to us. I can leave myself and my family with him." In short, every little speech he uttered indicated the invariable frame of his mind, that he was happy in God, and that the ground of his happiness was the love of God in laying down his life for us. "Other foundations," as he expressed it with energy, "can no man lay, than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. His name is as ointment poured forth. O! He is the chief among ten thousand, and altogether lovely." The powers of expression were taken from him, a few hours before his departure; but he went off in a tranquil and easy manner. He quietly fell asleep in Jesus, August the 24th, 1795, in the 68th year of his age. His remains were deposited in his family vault in Bunhill-fields, where Mrs. Stennett his beloved wife had been interred a few months before him. The pall was supported by the following ministers: Dr. Kippis and Dr. Rees of the Presbyterian; Mr. Brewer and Mr. Towle of the Independent; Mr. Martin and Dr. Jenkins of the Baptist persuasion. The last of these gentlemen, who was a member of Dr. Stennett’s church, and by that people sent into the work of the ministry, preached his funeral sermon, Sept. 6, 1795, on I John iii. 16. The discourse was immediately printed, with Mr. Booth’s Address at the grave; and the providence was felt, not only by all the Baptist churches throughout the three kingdoms, but by great numbers of the most respectable persons in the other denominations of Protestant Dissenters, not to mention pious and evangelical ministers and people of the establishment—and John’s Eulogy concerning one of the best men in apostolic times, was pronounced in every circle of the godly, "Demetrius hath good report of all men, and of the truth itself; yea, and we also bear record, and ye know that our record is true."
The Doctor has left behind him two affectionate children, the Rev. Mr. Joseph Stennett, and Miss Elizabeth Stennett, in both of whom he had "inexpressible satisfaction."
The Bird of Paradise
(The Rev. Mr. Joseph Stennett, who communicated the Bird of Paradise for the Register, wishes it to be said, that this is the first correct copy of it which has been given to the public.)
By the late Rev. Dr. Samuel Stennett
1. AH me! I’ve lost my liberty;
And in this cage
My active mind
Is close confin’d:
Nor can I hope again
My birth-right to obtain,
Till this my gilded tenement shall be
Destroy’d by some disaster or by age.
2. But—How came I here?
Who was it that depriv’d my heav’n born soul,
Of the freedom she enjoy’d,
In the paradise of God;
Where no base passion could my peace controul
Or in the breast create a fear?
‘Twas Satan, aye, ‘twas he
That robb’d me of my liberty:
His artful snares th’insidious fowler laid,
And to this captive state my innocence betray’d.
3. Cruel enemy to try,
When I fear’d no danger nigh,
Thus to deceive and ruin me,
With basest arts of treachery!
But boast not, Satan, thou thy point hast gain’d.
Heav’n permits it so to be,
That all the world may one day see
Justice triumphant over perfidy;
For know that Christ the conquest has obtain’d.
Yes, and he’ll quickly come,
And publicly pronounce thy doom.
So shall the horror of this cruel deed,
By which thy malice had design’d,
To draw down vengeance on mankind,
With double fury light on thy devoted hea.
4. In the mean while I sit,
And here in groans,
And silent moans,
Lament my ‘prison’d state:
Ah me! I once was us’d to mount and fly,
Up thro’ the trackless regions of the sky;
And as I passed along,
In sweetly pleasing strains,
To trill my warbling song,
All o’er th’etherial plains.
But now condemn’d within this cage to lie,
I droop the wing,
Refuse to sing,
And sighing wish to die.
5. But why despair?
Come try thy voice, and stretch thy wing;
A bird within a cage may chirp and sing,
And taste what freedom is e’en while she’s here.
Strike up some cheerful-note;
With fond desire
Peep thro’ the wire:
Thy keeper’ll quickly come and let thee out.
6. This, O this, is happy news!
Now to sing I can’t refuse:
These shall be the notes I chuse:
"Satan the cruel fowler put me in,
"And fast enclos’d me round with sense and sin;
"But Satan cannot keep me here;
"For not to him the cage belongs,
"’Tis Christ’s, and he shall have my songs,
"Since he’s my kind deliverer."
7. Thus awhile,
I will beguile
The passing hours away:
Assur’d my master’ll not forget
To make my bed and find me meat,
So long as ‘tis decreed that here I stay.
Wherefore free from all cares,
From all dangers and snares,
While Jesus my Saviour is by;
O how happy I dwell,
Tho’ immur’d in a cell,
Not anxious to live, nor yet fearful to die!
8. But soon alas! secure of future bliss,
Senseless I grow,
And scarcely know
What real freedom is.
The little circuit of my cage
Doth all my thoughts and time engage:
With heedless feet from perch to perch I hop;
And passing round
Pleas’d with the sound
Of tinkling bell
Hung o’er my cell,
My nobler notes I drop.
Ah! How deprav’d this wretched heart of mine,
So soon to lose its taste for joys divine!
9. Busied thus with motes and straws,
Idle nonsense, empty joys,
Without a hope, without a fear
Of pleasures or of dangers near,
Asleep I fall:
But hark! I hear my keeper call.
Aye, ‘tis his voice: now I awake,
Fancy I feel my prison shake,
And dire destruction’s nigh.
Affrighted round my cage I cast my eye,
And flutt’ring to and fro,
Not knowing where to go,
Attempt to make my escape but cannot fly.
10. Ah! Silly heart,
(I fetch a sigh,
And sighing cry,)
Thus foolishly to part
With noble hopes, substantial joys
For airy phantoms, gilded toys,
Trifles, the fond pursuit of which unmans my soul;
And leaves me to the sport of ev’ry fancied fear,
That would my peace controul.
What miseries befall a heav’n-born mind,
By being thus within a cage confin’d!
Pity, Saviour, pity me,
And quickly come and set me free!
11. My Saviour hears, and strait replies,
With soft compassion in his eyes,
"Thy silent moans,
"And piteous groans
"Have mov’d my heart;
"Ere long I’ll come,
"And fetch thee hom,e
"Where reason and the passions ne’er shall part."
12. ‘Tis Jesus that speaks! How charming his name!
At the sound of his voice,
O how I rejoice,
And kindle all into a flame!
I leap and I fly,
And in ecstasy cry,
Vain world, I bid thee adieu:
I’ll wait not for age,
To pull down my cage,
But fearless of danger, will force my way thro’.
13. Check thy passions, foolish man;
The longest life is but a span.
Be contented here to stay,
Another hour, another day;
To feel a joy, to bear a pain,
To do some good, some good t’ obtain.
Think not the moments long, Heav’n hath decreed;
Impatience cannot lash them into speed.
With meek submission wait the approaching hour;
The wheel of time will quickly whirl about,
And then they keeper’ll come, and ope the door,
Put in his hand, and gently take thee out.
14. The day arrives.
Now thro’ the wire,
With strong desire,
I cast my wishful eyes.
I see him come: yes, yes, ‘tis he!
Hither he hastes to set me free,
O the music that I hear,
Sweetly warbling in my ear!
"Little songster, come away,
"In this vile cell no longer stay;
"But take thy flight to realms above the skies."
15. I hear and instantly obey;
Out of my cage I spring;
And as I pass the wicker’d way,
Thus to myself I sing:
"How safe, how easy ‘tis to die,
"With Christ my guardian-angel by!
"He’s my defence from pain and sin,
"From foes without and fears within.
"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, thy victory?"
16. Now I’m happy, now I’m free:
My active spirit, heav’n-born mind,
From all the dregs of sense refin’d,
Feels and enjoys her godlike dignity.
No more oppress’d with the gross atmosphere
Of error, prejudice and sin,
Freely I breathe my native air,
And drink ambrosial fragrance in.
O who can think, O who can tell,
The strange sensations now I feel!
17. Awhile my wings unused to flight, I try,
And round and round in sportive bliss I fly:
Then through the opening skies,
In rapt’rous ecstasy I rise,
Up to the flow’ry fields of Paradise,
And as I dart along,
On full expanded wing,
Amid th’angelic throng,
Celestial anthems sing:
"Glory to him that left his throne above,
"And downward bent his way on wings of love;
"That wept, and bled, and died upon the tree,
"To conquer death and set the captives free."
The utility of a compendious view of a Parable, in order to a clear understanding of its general import, and a right improvement of its several parts, must strike every thoughtful person. This was the Author’s reason for prefixing so large a table of contents to the following plain discourses. The reader will, therefore, greatly oblige him by attentively looking over the contents, before he peruses the sermons.
Of parables in general; and the leading ideas of this in particular.
Matt. xiii. 3.
And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold a sower went forth to sow.
Of Parables in General
Occasion of the parable—meaning easy to be understood—how this reconcilable with our Lord’s reason for addressing these people in parables—why he so frequently adopted this mode of instruction—rules to assist in interpreting parables—temperate use of allegory highly proper—how abused by some public speakers—other abuses of preaching—causes of these evils—common apologies for them futile—pernicious tendency of injudicious treatment of allegory—as also of mere declamatory preaching—address to ministers.
The Leading Ideas of the Parable.
Our Saviour’s grand object to draw the characters of four kinds of hearers—the INATTENTIVE—ENTHUSIASTIC—WORLDLY-MINDED—SINCERE,--the leading ideas to be first of all explained—these are the sower—seed—ground—effect.
I. By the sower is meant ministers—their qualifications, duty , and various success described.
II. By the seed is meant the word of the kingdom, or gospel—kingdom to be understood of personal religion, Christian dispensation, heavenly state; the word considered in reference to each of theses.
III. By the ground is meant the soul of man—this, like the earth, in a different state now from what it was in the beginning—the natural and moral powers of the soul weakened and depraved—this confirmed by the different account our Lord gives of the several kinds of ground in which the seed was sown.
IV. The general process of the business expressed or implied in the parable—how religion rises into existence and becomes fruitful, through the concurrence of a divine influence, with the word dispensed by ministers, and the reasonings of the mind about it—reflections on the subject.
The character of inattentive hearers considered.
Matt. xiii. 4.
And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way-side and the fowls of the air came and devoured them up.
First, the inattentive.
The figure explained—our Saviour’s exposition of it—in which the following things observable—they hear the word—are only occasional hearers of it—not prepared for hearing it—hear it carelessly—understand it not—or have only a speculative knowledge of it—it makes no abiding impression—how the impression effaced, the wicked one cometh, and catcheth away that which was sown in their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. Three things to be considered—who the wicked one is, and why so called—what meant by his catching away the seed, and how this done—what the malevolent end proposed.
I. Who the wicked one is—Satan or the Devil—the scripture account of him—from his character and works properly denominated the wicked one.
II. What meant by his catching away the seed, and how this done—he hath access to the mind—this proved—but cannot force men to sin against their consent—righteous in God to permit him to catch away the seed from these hearers—this done,
1. By diverting men’s attention from the word.
2. By exciting prejudices against it.
3. By preventing their recollecting it afterwards.
III. What the malevolent end Satan proposes by catching away the word—lest they should believe and be saved—Here, in order to rouse men’s attention, and to guard them against the artifices of Satan, it is necessary to enquire what faith is—to describe the salvation promised to them who believe—and to shew the connection between the one and the other.
First, What faith is—the term defined, the qualities accompanying it described—the characters of the real and nominal believer contrasted.
Second, What the salvation promised to them who believe—the most glorious—a deliverance from moral, natural, penal evil, with the enjoyment of the opposite good in its highest perfection.
Third, What the connection between faith and salvation—its indispensable necessity arises—from divine appointment—and the reason and nature of the thing.
Faith comes by hearing—hence the artifices of Satan to divert men’s attention from the word and to prevent its salutary effect upon their hearts—the awful consequences of impenitence and unbelief—reflections on the subject.
The character of enthusiastic hearers considered.
Matt. xiii. 5, 6.
Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprang up, because they had no deepness of earth. And when the sun was up, they were scorched, and because they had not root, they withered away.
Second, the enthusiastic.
On these hearers the word, to appearance, hath an instantaneous and mighty effect, but they reap no real advantage from it—our Lord’s exposition of this part of the parable—four things here to be considered—the character of these hearers previous to their hearing the word—the effect it instantly produces on their minds—their failure afterwards—the cause of their apostacy.
I. Their character previous to their hearing the word—their hearts compared to stony or rocky ground, on account of their depravity—their passions to the fine mould cast over it, on account of their warmth and liveliness—the ill effect of an heated imagination, under the conduct of a depraved heart, shewn—the character of the enthusiast more particularly described.
II. The effect the word instantly produces on their minds, as described by our Saviour—they receive it—receive it immediately—receive it with joy—this passion defined—the joy of the enthusiast distinguishable from that of the real Christian,
1. By what precedes it,
2. By what excites it,
3. By what effects of it.
Having thus received the word, he with great zeal professes it—but after a while apostatizes—address to persons of this character—a caution against supposing the passions have little or no concern in religion—the real but timorous Christian encouraged.
III. The apostacy of these hearers considered—the seed having sprung up, in a little time withers away; so these hearers having endured for a while fall away.
1. The term of their profession short—the real Christian advances by degrees towards perfection—these quickly arrive at the zenith of their glory.
2. The manner in which their profession is renounced—some silently quit it—others publicly renounce it.
IV. The cause of their apostacy.
1. Something wanted within—the seed had no deepness of earth—no root—lacked moisture—so these professors have no principle of religion in their hearts.
2. A concurrence of circumstances without unfavourable to their profession—the scorching sun burns up the grass—so persecution or tribulation arising because of the word, they are offended—the state of religion, as to external things, in early and present times—various occasions of offence.
Examples of such apostates—the five thousand our Saviour fed with loaves and fishes—the men of Nazareth; the Jews who led him triumphantly into Jerusalem, and a day or two after crucified him; the Laodiceans—digression on enthusiasm—not the offspring of religion, but of a particular cast of mind or temperature of animal spirits—common to men of all professions—reflections on the subject.
The character of worldly-minded hearers considered.
Matt. xiii. 7.
And some fell among thorns: and the thorns sprung up and choked them.
Third, the worldly-minded
The figure explained—our Lord’s exposition of it, in which are observable, 1. The treatment the word meets with—they hear it, receive it, but bring no fruit to perfection. 2. How its salutary operation is obstructed—they go forth—the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches and the lust of other things, enter in—they become unfruitful. 3. The event—the thorns choke both the word and them.
I. The obstructions themselves considered—cares, riches, pleasures.
First, Cares of the world—how far sinful or otherwise,--this shown by considering men’s temporal interest in reference to—subsistence, competence, affluence.
Second, Riches—their deceitfulness—men reason mistakenly about—wealth itself—mode of acquiring it—term of enjoying it.
Third, Pleasures—pleasure abstractedly considered a real good—when criminal—worldly pleasures various and fascinating.
Address to the careful—covetous—voluptuous.
II. How cares, riches and pleasures operate to prevent the salutary effect of God’s word…no profiting by the word without considering it…three things necessary to consideration…leisure…composure…inclination.
First, Leisure…ground choked with thorns affords not room for the seed to expand and grow…so secular affairs deprive men of time for religious mediation…time an inestimable gift…a proper portion of it ought to be employed about religion.
Second, Composure…the necessity of this to consideration…how an undue attention to worldly things unfits the mind for the practice of this duty…this shewn in regard of anxious cares…eager desire of riches…vehement thirst after pleasures.
Third, Inclination…total aversion to a religious consideration in bad men…too often a backwardness to it in good men…the former confirmed, and the latter promoted, by an undue attachment to the world.
III. The sad event of such criminal commerce with the world…these hearers understand not the word…do not believe it…are not obedient to it…and so, like the seed choked by thorns, are in the end lost…exhortations to professors of religion.
The character of sincere hearers considered.
Matt. xiii. 8
But other seeds fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundred fold, some sixty fold, some thirty fold.
FOURTH, THE SINCERE.
The figure explained…our Saviour’s exposition of it…these hearers have honest and good hearts…hear the word after a different manner from the others…understand it…keep it…bring forth fruit…with patience…but in different degrees…here proposed, to shew the necessity of the heart’s being made honest and good, in order to profiting…describe the fruit which such bear…consider the variety in regard of degree and reasons if it…represent the blessedness of such persons.
I. The necessity of the heart’s being made honest and good…will and affections have a considerable influence on the understanding and judgment…gospel humiliating to pride and disgusting to passion for worldly pleasure—hence opposition to it—a new turn being given to the mind, it will be received in the love of it—the importance of regeneration.
II. The kind of fruit such bring forth described—fruit the ground bears of the same nature with the seed and the soil—nature and tendency of the gospel considered—what kind of man the Christian is, in regard of—piety—social—personal duties—no absolute perfection—yet a real difference between a good man and a man of the world—Reflections.
III. The variety there is among Christians in regard of degrees of fruitfulness and the reasons of it.
First, The fact stated—fruitfulness considered in regard of inward affections and external actions—various characters among good men described—various appearances of religion at different periods of life—scripture characters compared.
Second, The reasons of this disparity in respect of the fruits of holiness—worldly circumstances—opportunity—mental abilities—different means of religion—comparative different state of it in one Christian and another—greater or less effusion of divine influences.
IV. Blessedness of the fruitful Christian—the pleasure that accompanies ingenuous obedience—fruitfulness affords a noble proof of uprightness—such held in great esteem by the wise and good-glorious will be their reward in another world.
The duty of consideration explained and enforced.
Matt. xiii. 9
Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
The duty explained.
By this mode of expression our Lord meant to convey the following ideas—that the discourse he had been delivering was parabolical—that the truth veiled under the parable was most important—that their considering it was necessary to their profiting by it—and that if they were not benefited, the fault would be in their will, not their understanding—consider the duty men owe to the word—enforce it.
I. Consider the duty our Lord inculcates—to give energy to what they say, ministers should remind themselves of their duty—if they would be heard, they should well understand their subject—be careful about their manner—look well to their aims and views—and depend upon the Holy Spirit for success. What the duty of the people:
First, Some kind of preparation previous to hearing the word—especially on the day devoted to public worship—composure—soliloquy—prayer.
Second, How to behave in the house of God—early attendance—decency—attention to the preacher—guard against prejudice.
Third, Duty afterwards—recollection—to assist herein three expedients recommended.
1. Avoid as much as possible what may tend to dissipate the mind, and render it incapable of recollection.
2. Be not fond of hearing more than you can retain and digest.
3. Make a point of retiring for the purpose of recollection and prayer.
The duty enforced.
II. Enforce the duty with suitable motives.
First, Decency—good manners require our paying attention to those who speak to us—especially in a set discourse—it is an affront therefore to good sense and decorum not to listen to those on whose instruction we profess to attend.
Second, Personal obligation—the anxiety of a friend for our good a strong reason why we should regard him—ministers our friends—neither credulous nor self-interested men—their anxieties and labours an argument to engage attention.
Third, Preaching a divine institution—artful men have taken advantage of this idea to impose upon mankind—preaching proved to be of divine appointment—how we may know who are called to preach—argument thence to persuade to consideration.
Fourth, Subject most worthy of attention—Truth and importance always give energy to a discourse—religion shewn to be most important—and true—the admitting the possibility of these two positions a reason for consideration—the apostles’ reasoning on this matter.
Fifth, No profiting without considering—a discourse not understood, believed, or felt, can do us no good—it must be heard and considered to these ends—doctrine of divine influence an incitement to consideration.
Sixth, Many obstructions in the way of consideration—this our Lord shews in the parable—satan—a depraved heart—the world—this formidable confederacy an argument to excite diligence on our part.
Seventh, Command of God—so great a Being ought to be obeyed—the voice of reason, scripture and ministers, all uniting to persuade us to consideration, the voice of God—willful opposition to him the greatest sin and deserving of greatest punishment.
Eighth, Benefits resulting from consideration—objections answered—"Consideration, if not impracticable, yet painful, laborious business"—"I may be convinced of what I don’t care to believe"—"if converted must give up many enjoyments"—advantages attending religion—in this life—the future—sum of the argument—address to hearers.
Of Parables in general; and the leading ideas of this in particular.
Matt. xiii. 3-9
And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold a sower went forth to sow. And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way-side, and the fowls came and devoured them up. Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth. And when the sun was up, they were scorched, and because they had not root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up and choked them. But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundred fold, some sixty fold, some thirty fold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Our divine Master, the Lord Jesus Christ, possessed the qualifications of a prophet in their highest perfection. No one ever taught like him: he spake with authority, not as the scribes. Sensible, however, that his instructions could have no salutary effect unless duly received, he earnestly exhorted the multitude who attended his ministry to take heed how they heard. And to assist them in this great duty, he lays open, in the parables before us, the principles, motives and conduct of the various sorts of persons who heart the gospel.
Our Saviour was constant and unwearied in the discharge of the duties of his prophetic character. On the morning of the day this parable was delivered, he had reproved the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, warning them of the tremendous consequences it would draw after it. And having retired for a while to a house for some refreshment, he went down to the see of Galilee; and there entering into a ship sat on the side of it, and from thence discoursed to a great multitude gathered together on the shore to hear him. They were plain country-people, and so it is probable well acquainted with husbandry. He therefore talks to them in their own language, presenting them with divine truth in a form easy to be understood, and adapted to please.
But here a difficulty occurs which will require a little consideration. The disciples, when our Lord had finished his discourse, ask him why he spake to the people in parables. He replies (v. 13), quoting a passage from Isaiah (Chap. vi. 9), Because seeing, they see not; and hearing, they hear not, neither do they understand. From whence it should seem that our Lord himself considered the form of speech he had used as obscure, and that he adopted it in displeasure at their unreasonable stupidity and unbelief. And how is this to be reconciled with our idea of the parable, as easy to be understood and adapted to please? I answer. This mode of instruction is certainly natural and proper. We often introduce similes into our discourse, to explain and illustrate what could not otherwise be so clearly comprehended. But then if a parabolical relation be given, without any intimation of the matter to which it is to be applied, it must be uninteresting, and the intention of the speaker remain obscure. Now it is admitted, our Lord did not in so many words declare what was the point he had in view. Yet, had his hearers been attentive and made a proper use of their reason, they could not have been at a loss to apprehend in general his meaning. It was not probable that one who claimed the character of a prophet, and had wrought so many miracles before their eyes, should have nothing further in view than to amuse them with a tale of what often happens to husbandmen in sowing their ground. On the contrary, it was reasonable for them to conclude from his discourse previous to this, from the woes he had denounced upon their leaders for their inattention and unbelief, and from what he added at the close of the parables, Who hath ears to hear, let him hear; I say it was most reasonable for them to conclude form hence, that he meant to hold up to their view moral and divine truth. Which being the case, how natural for them to suppose, that by the sowers sowing seed was meant our Saviour’s instructing men in the great concerns of religion, and by the effect of the seeds being sown the various influence of his instructions upon their minds! It is also further to be observed, that our Lord’s putting the question to his disciples, Know ye not this parable? plainly intimates that whatever obscurity there was in the parable, it was possible for them to understand the general meaning of it: and therefore, if it had not been for the depravity of these people’s hearts, it would have been possible for them also to understand it. But although a further explanation of it was necessary, his forbearing to give it was but a just expression of his displeasure at their treatment of the plain truths he had delivered to them on the morning of that day: and so they were naturally led to read their crime in their punishment. Upon the whole, therefore, it must be acknowledged, the general intent of the parable being apprehended, that the method our Saviour took to lay open the characters of his hearers was most fit, natural, and easy.
Here it will be proper to enquire more particularly into the grounds and reasons of this mode of instruction, that we may be enabled to account for our Saviour’s frequent use of parables, that we may be assisted in the interpreting of them, and that we may be guarded against the wanton abuse of allegory, too common among some people in discourses on religious subjects.
The word Parables, as appears from its derivation, signifies a similitude or comparison. It is sometimes applied to an apologue or fable, that is, a story contrived to teach some moral truth: and sometimes it is put for a proverb, which is a parabolical representation comprised in a short sentence. This mode of instruction is familiar and pleasant. Sensible objects may very properly be considered as images of spiritual and invisible things; and by this use of them we are assisted in our conceptions and reasonsing about matters, of which we should otherwise have scarce any idea at all. By substituting one person in the room of another, or by relating a story apposite to our purpose, we are enabled to place certain characters and actions in a striking point of light, and to treat them with a freedom which in a plain direct address would scarcely be reconcilable with prudence and delicacy. The advantages accruing from this mode of instruction, wisely managed, are so considerable that it has obtained by universal consent in all ages. It was used by the ancient prophets, the eastern sages, and the Jewish doctors. And it is obvious that our Saviour had various inducements to this practice. Beside the consideration that it added beauty and vigour to his discourses, and rendered them more agreeable to a people accustomed to this manner of speaking, it enabled him to thorw a veil over some things which it was not fit to declare in express forms. Many events were to take place which, in the ordinary course of things, would have been obstructed had our Lord openly and plainly foretold them; such as his being put to death by the Jews, the destruction of their polity and worship, and the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles. And then as to the peculiar doctrines of Christianity, the full explanation of them being reserved for wise purposes to the preaching of the apostles, this parabolical mode of instruction was the fittest to convey that degree of light concerning them, which was judged most proper during the term of our Saviour’s own personal ministry. Hence he tells his disciples a little before his last suffering, These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs (or parables): the time cometh when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall shew you plainly of the Father (John xvi. 25). From what has been said then we clearly see why our Saviour so generally taught the people in parablers.
Now as the parables were intended for our instruction, as well as theirs, to whom they were first delivered, it is of importance that we as well as they rightly understand them. To this end give me leave to lay down two or three rules to assist us in the interpretation of them.
1. The first and principal one I shall mention is, the carefully attending to the occasion of them.
No one, for instance, can be at a loss to explain the parable of the prodigal son, who considers that our Lord had been discoursing with publicans and sinners, and that the proud and self-righteous Pharisees had taken offence at his conduct. With this key we are let into the true secret of this beautiful parable, and cannot mistake in our comment upon it. With inimitable softness and compassion our Saviour encourages the hopes of the penitent sinner, by describing the tender pity of a venerable parent towards an undutiful child. And with admirable address he reproves the invidious temper of pharisaical professors, by representing the jealousy and disgust of the elder brother at the kind reception the younger met with.—Understanding thus from the occasion of the parable what is the grand truth or duty meant to be inculcated,
2. Our attention should be steadily fixed to that object.
If we suffer ourselves to be diverted from it by dwelling too minutely upon the circumstances of the parable, the end proposed by him who spake it will be defeated, and the whole involved in obscurity. For it is much the same here as in considering a fine painting: a comprehensive view of the whole will have a happy and striking effect, but that effect will not be felt, if the eye is held to detached parts of the picture without regarding the relation they bear to the rest. Were a man to spend a whole hour on the circumstances of the ring and robe in the parable just referred to, or on the two mites in that of the good Samaritan, it is highly probable both he and his hearers, by the time they got to the close of the discourse, would lose all idea of our Saviour’s more immediate intent in both those instructive parables. And it should be further observed, that the dwelling thus tediously upon the mere circumstances of a parable, sometimes provesa temptation to obtrude on the hearer such fanciful interpretations of them, as have no warrant for them either in reason or scripture. Which leads me to add,
3. That great caution should be observed in our reasoning from the parables to the peculiar doctrines of Christianity.
The principle or leading idea of a parable is, I admit, a sufficient ground on which to establish a doctrine: but this is not always the case with a detached part of it. In discourses of this nature circumstances must be introduced to make up the story, and to give consistency and harmony to it: but there is no reason in supposing that a mystery is couched under each of these circumstances. The parable of Dives and Lazarus clearly proves, in my opinion, the existence of a separate state, since if this be not admitted I am at a loss how to give a consistent meaning to it, and under the necessity of supposing that our Lord countenanced a popular notion which had no foundation in truth. But, on the contrary, where I upon the mere circumstance of Dives’s expressing a concern that his brethren come not into that place of torment, to establish such a position as this, that there is benevolence among damned spirits, I should reason very improperly. I mean not however by this to say, that no attention is to be paid to what may be called the tints or colouring of a parable. Lights and shades have their effect, and our Lord might intend by relating little incidents, yea even by the very turn of an expression, to convey some useful lesson to the mind. But then, as we should be on our guard that we are not diverted from the grand object by these matters, so we should take heed how we raise upon them a superstructure which they are not able to support. Such imprudent treatment of the parables by inconsiderate people has contributed not a little to skepticism, and created doubts in some minds, whether doctrines thus unskillfully defended have any other foundation than in mere imagination.
And now from what has been said we see, in general, the importance of carefully guarding against an intemperate use of figure and allegory, in discourses on moral and religious subjects. But this is a matter that requires a little further consideration.
We have already admitted that a figurative mode of speech is allowable, and sometimes absolutely necessary. Our ideas most of them originate from sensation. By comparing the various orders of material beings with one another we come to understand their distinguishing properties: and by comparing the objects of faith with those of sense, if the analogy is properly observed, we are assisted in our reasoning about them. And every one is sensible how much a discourse is embellished and enlivened by figurative language. We mean not therefore to condemn the use of metaphors and similitudes, but only to correct the abuse of them. And what occasion there is for an attempt of this kind none can be ignorant, who consider the manner in which public preaching is conducted in many popular assemblies.
It is lamentable to think what multitudes of weak people are imposed upon in this way. Their imagination is amused, and their passions excited: at the expense of their understanding and judgment, which are miserably trifled with, and too often grossly perverted. Figures we shall hear applied to what they bear no resemblance to, or at most but a very obscure and imperfect one. Metaphors of the lowest kind, if not indecent, we shall hear poured out in great abundance; a whole discourse filled with them, and sometimes a favorite one twisted and turned to any or every purpose without sense or reason. The doctrine of types shall be treated with the greatest freedom, as if no bounds were to be affixed to a wild imagination, and the preacher were at liberty to impose his own conceits on all the circumstances of the Jewish ritual. That shall be made a type which is none, and where there is one it shall be stretched beyond its true meaning. The very outlines of a shadow shall become the foundation of some important doctrine. Scripture histories shall be converted into allegories, the common actions and intercourses of the patriarchs and others assume the air of mystery, and even the geography of the old testament have a spiritual meaning given it. And thus the bible shall be made to say, in an infinite variety of forms, what no man of common sense can believe it every meant to say.
And now we are upon the subject of public preaching, it may not be amiss to add, that this mystical treatment of scripture is not the only evil we have to complain of. The pulpit is too often disgraced with a kind of language, action, and manner of address, better suited to the familiarity of the market or fire side, yea in some instances to the drollery of the stage, than the gravity of a Christian assembly. Sermons shall become vehicles not only of trifling puerilities, quaint conceits, and fantastic allusions, but of idle stories some true and some false. At every step the preacher advances you shall have some image held up to view, taken from common life, dressed in an antic form, and adapted as it should seem rather to disturb than to excite devotion. Or if this be not his aim, but on the contrary his object is to make some truth or duty familiar to his hearers, yet the means defeat the end: for the substance is lost amidst the people’s attention to the shadow, and so much time is taken up about the images of things that little is left to investigate the real nature of the things themselves.
Now one cannot help wondering what should induce men who have any pretensions to sense or seriousness to adopt a mode of preaching so trifling, indecent, and pernicious. Charity forbids our supposing that they mean to burlesque religion: if however they did, they could not take more effectual measures to that end. But we will rather impute the evil to less offensive causes, such as indolence, a fondness for popularity, or a wild conceit that by these means they shall be likely to allure people to the consideration of divine things.
That this is an easy mode of preaching and requires no great labour or ingenuity, is not to be doubted. A man of slender capacity, with a little natural elocution and a good deal of courage, may easily enough descant for a whole upon this or that trite metaphor, making its several qualities stand for something he has no clear idea of, and knows not how to express in plain language; especially if he has the talent of digressing when occasion requires, and of mingling with his discourse a variety of tales some ludicrous and others serious. And thus possessed of the art of preaching, pray why should he throw away his time in laborious researches into nature, the word of God, and his own heart? Why should he spend his days and nights in close thought, diligent reading, severe inquiry, and a constant succession of painful exertions? Truly if this mode of preaching were agreeable either to common sense or scripture, he would be justified in forbearing such labour. But as this is not the case, it would surely be more for his own and the people’s advantage, if he were less solicitous about his ease, and applied himself with greater anxiety to his duty. It is the plain language of the bible, Give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine (1 Tim. iv. 13). Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Tim. ii. 15). Labour to get at the grounds and reasons of things; to explore their nature, uses, and effects; to state clearly the difference between good and evil; and thus to lead men step by step to the knowledge of God, Christ, themselves, their interest, duty, and final state.
But it will be said, "An allegorical declamatory kind of preaching is most pleasing to the common people: and what harm is there in a man’s wishing to be popular?" It is indeed to be feared too many hearers are more pleased with sounds than sense, with the shadow than the substance, the false glare of a bold image than the striking energy of truth. They are more disposed to take things for granted, on the bold assertion of the preacher, than to enquire into the grounds upon which they stand. They feel no weariness in hearing a loose unconnected unmeaning harangue, but their spirits are quickly jaded by an attention to close reasoning. In short, so their fancy is pleased and their passions moved, they care not what becomes of their understanding and judgment. This, I say, is the character of too many hearers. But must we accommodate ourselves to such a depraved taste, in order to draw the multitude after us? Is this manly? Is this honest? Is this treating either them or ourselves as we ought? Should we not rather take pains to correct their taste, and to convince them that religions is not a matter of amusement, but of the most serious consideration?
But you wills ay, "We mean to do them good, and what some consider as mere arts of persuasion, may yet, if well timed, have a good effect. The taking men in their own way, adopting their familiar language, surprising them now and then with a bold figure, a sudden turn of thought, a sally of wit a pleasant tale, or a group of frightful images; all this may succeed and catch their attention, excite their passions, and so gain their good will." True, they may. But having got your point, what good have you done them? If the business is to stop here, no time being left for the sober discussion of some important truth, and a serious address to the conscience, how is the great end of preacher answered? Your audience is neither wiser nor better. And the great mischief is, too many mistake the pleasurable or painful feelings, which are the mere mechanical effect of your thus practicing on their ears and their imagination, for religious impressions. They have been amused and delighted, or surprised and set a wondering, and so instantly conclude they are converted. I am not objecting against an easy pleasant delivery, occasional sallies of imagination, or a temperate use of metaphors; nor am I pleading for a dull, scholastic, systemical treatment of divine truth. But the former extreme is, I think, far more dangerous than the latter, as we shall presently shew.
"Well but," say you, "Is not an allegorical mode of preaching scriptural? Did not the prophets, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself, deal much in parables?" True, they did. Nor are we forbid the use of similitudes: they are on many occasions highly proper and useful. And if you manage them to advantage and in the manner the inspired writers did, you will find this mode of preaching to be of all others the most difficult. A sensible, judicious, profitable treatment of a parables or figure will cost you a great deal of previous thought and study. Nor do I know a better expedient to deter a wild allegorist from the extravagance we have been exclaiming against, than to oblige him to spend a few hours in adjusting, if he can, all the circumstances of a parable so as that it shall agree with itself, and carry clear conviction on the minds of plain hearers. The parables which occur in sacred writ, and particularly those of our Saviour, are most clear, beautiful, and striking. Their excellence lies in the happy union you here see between wisdom and simplicity. Preach after this manner, and all wise and good men will wish you God-speed. But I should here again remind you of what was observed in the beginning of this discourse, that our Lord had particular reasons for speaking so frequently in parables, and that after his ascension, when the veil was taken off the peculiar doctrines of Christianity, another mode of instruction took place. The apostles, wherever they came, held up the truth in its most plain and simple form, represented things as they were, entering into their nature, qualities, connections, and evidence, with no other assistance from figure and allegory than was absolutely necessary. If this fact were duly weighed, I think it would check the luxuriance of some good men’s imagination in this way, and bring them back to the standard of preaching in the new testament.
With respect to those other liberties in preaching we have complained of, you will be apt to say, "Did not the prophets cry aloud and not spare, and lift up their voice like a trumpet (Isaiah lviii. 1)? Did they not smite with their hands and stamp with their feet (Ezek. vi. 11)? And use many gestures and words adapted to express the violent emotion of their own minds, and to excite similar feelings in their hearers? Did not our Saviour in the last and great day of the feast stand and cry (John vii. 37)? And was there not a remarkable vehemence in the apostle Paul’s manner of preaching?" All this is true. But it does by no means warrant what is indecent and unnatural, or indeed the expressing any earnestness at all when nothing worth hearing is spoken. But admitting that there was something allegorical in the tone, gesture, and actions of the ancient prophets, as well as in their discourses themselves, and which might be justified by the peculiarity of the occasion and the extraordinary impulse they were under, it does not follow that their manner is to be imitated by us. And I am sure that there is not a single instance to be produced, from the new testament, of any thing like those extravagancies we protest against. Our Lord stood and cried, If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink (Matt. xii. 19, compared with Isaiah xiii. 2). There was nothing in his language and manner but was natural, and well agreed with the importance of his subject. And he was so far from being loud and vociferous that it was prophesied of him, He shall not strive, nor cry, neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. And as to the apostle Paul, let his history be soberly read, and you will be convinced that his zeal, which was very warm, never got the better of his reason, so as to transport him into any of those gross indecencies we complain of.
And now there remains only one thing more to be noticed, which we hear sometimes urged by weak people as an excuse for the indiscreet liberties we wish to correct; and that is, that "this eccentric mode of preaching has been owned for the awakening and converting of sinners." But before this argument can have any force, the fact itself should be fully established. Many have been supposed to be converted, whose after conduct has furnished sad proof to the contrary. Convictions have been mistaken for conversion, and a fit of warm enthusiastic zeal, attended with a temporary external reformation, has been deemed sufficient evidence of a renovation of heart. And thus a supposed fact, or what is rather wished than proved to be a fact, is instantly considered as an incontestable proof of the divine approbation of such preaching. But even admitting the fact, the inference by no means follows. Very unworthy characters have been instruments of great good, and the unjustifiable extravagancies of weak and inconsiderate men have been overruled by divine Providence, in some instances to the very salutary purposes. There were those in the apostle’s time who preached the gospel of strife and envy, and to add affliciton to his bonds. And so disinterested was that great and good man that he tells us, he nevertheless rejoiced and would rejoice; thereby clearly intimating, that bad as these men’s motives were, and improper as their manner might be of preaching the gospel, good might yet arise out of it. But surely the apostle did not mean to commend either their principles or mode of proceeding (Philip. i. 15-18). The truth is, having made up our mind upon the question what is right, or in other words what is agreeable to sound sense and the word of God, it is our duty with all decency and steadiness to oppose the contrary, be the possible consequences thereof what they may. It is not the saying that foolish and extravagant preaching has been the occasion of real good to this or that man, that will justify such preaching. A few possible instances of this sort may indeed console our minds under the evil we are lamenting, but they will not if we are wise, and good men reconcile us to it.
Having thus seen how it is men fall into this very improper and unnatural mode of discoursing of the great things of God, it is time to proceed to the main business, which is to point out the pernicious tendency of it. Here let me first speak of allegorical, and then of declamatory preaching.
As to the former, permit me again to observe that I do not mean to lay figures, comparisons, and similitudes under an interdict: they have their use if managed with discretion and moderation. But a failure here is an occasion of many great evils.—An intemperate use of figures tends to sensualize the mind and deprave the taste—the misapplication of them gives a false idea of the objects they are meant to represent—and the reasoning injudiciously from the begets a kind of faith that is precarious and ineffectual.
1. An intemperate use of figures tends to sensualize the mind and deprave the taste.
We complain and very justly that sensible objects engross the attention of mankind, and have an undue influence on their appetites and passions. They walk by sight and not by faith. They look to the things which are seen and are temporal, and not to those which are unseen and eternal. To the latter therefore we wish to direct their attention. And how is that to be done? Why not, according to those preachers, by laying open their true nature, and representing to them in plain language as they really are; but by arraying them in the fantastic dress, and borrowed colouring, of those very objects with which we complain men are too conversant. Instead of developing mysteries, we multiply them. Instead of commending ourselves to every man’s conscience by manifestation of the truth, we cast a tawdry veil over it. And instead of turning their eyes away from vanity we direct them to it. A whole sermon, for example, shall be taken up in describing a palace, a garden, or a city, with an intimation now and then that heaven is more beautiful and glorious than either of them. Or the whole time shall be employed in relating the incidents of a journey, or a voyage, with a hint here and there that the character and condition of the Christian in his way to heaven are shadowed forth by these emblems. And thus the attention of the people being held, the greater part of the discourse, to objects of sense, they are more amused than instructed, and diverted than improved. Surely then the dealing thus largely in metaphors tends rather to impoverish than enrich the mind, to sensualize the heart rather than elevate it to heaven. And I ask, Is not this a great evil?—The next evil we mentioned is,
2. The misapplication of figures, whereby false ideas are given the hearer of the things they are made to stand for.
It is easy to conceive how men’s notions of the other world, invisible spirits, and the blessed God himself, may in this way be perverted. A licentious imagination has given rise to tenets the most absurd and impious. To this the idolatry of the pagan world may be traced up as its proper source. "Not knowing God and glorifying him as God, but becoming vain in their imaginations, they changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and so were given up to vile affections and a reprobate mind" (Rom i. 21, 23, 26, 28). And if men will take unwarrantable liberties in discoursing of the nature and essence of God, if they will call in metaphors to their aid in order to explain the manner of the divine subsistence, and will talk of that great Being with the same familiarity they do of their fellow-creatures; are they not chargeable with growing vain in their imaginations, and taking us a step back again towards the absurd notions and idolatrous practices of the pagans? Though they may not violate the second commandment, in the grossest sense, by making graven images of the Deity, they are yet guilty of a degree of impiety and profaneness. To the same source, I mean that of a luxuriant fancy, may be referred the gross notions of Mahometans respecting a future state. Their prophet, by the aid of a bold eastern imagination, has accommodated his doctrine to the sensual taste of his votaries, an d so done infinite mischief in the world. And do not they act as if they meant to convert men to the religion of the false prophet, who can discourse of nothing in the Christian scheme but under the veil of mystery, though the gospel has taken away that veil, and taught us with open face to behold as in a glass the glory of the Lord. Nor is it to be wondered at that men conceive erroneously of the operations of the Spirit, communion with God, the temptations of Satan, the joys of heaven, and the pains of hell; if these things are never discoursed of as they really are, but under images alike gross and sensual with those we meet with in the Koran.—Once more,
3. The reasoning injudiciously from types and figures begets a kind of faith that is precarious and ineffectual.
We have clear and positive proofs of the facts the gospel relates, and the important doctrines that are founded thereon. But if, instead of examining these proofs to the bottom and reasoning with men upon them, we content ourselves with mere analogical evidence, and rest the issue of the question in debate upon fanciful and imaginary ground; our faith will be continually wavering, and produce no substantial and abiding fruits. And enthusiast. Struck with appearances, instantly yields his assent to a proposition without considering at all the evidence. But as soon as his passions cool and the false glare upon his imagination subsides, his faith dies away, and the fruit expected from it proves utterly abortive. To treat therefore divine truths after this manner, as if the direct and proper evidence were insufficient, is to do those truths great injustice, to affront the understanding of our hearers, and to injure them in their most important interests. The apostles wherever they came soberly reasoned both with Jews and Gentiles concerning the Messiah and his kingdom: with the latter from those principles of nature which they acknowledged to be divine. And in such manner should we discourse of the great truths of religion, first laying down those which are admitted on all hands, then reasoning from them to others by necessary consequence; and having established the divine authority of the scriptures, proceed to prove by clear, direct, and positive evidence the doctrine therein contained. A faith thus generated in the minds of men will not fail, with the concurring energy of the Holy Spirit, to produce the fruits of love and obedience.
Thus have we pointed out some of the evils which unthinking people are in danger of suffering from allegorical preaching. But this is not all. Men of more refined understandings, and a skeptical turn of the mind, are induced hereby to reject religion and treat it with contempt. Suppose a man of this cast to go into a Christian assembly, and hear the plain histories of the old testament allegorized: as for instance, the falling of the borrowed axe into Jordan made to signify the apostasy of our first parents, and Elisha’s causing it to swim interpreted of our miraculous recover by Christ; suppose him, I say, to hear a whole discourse thus managed, what would be the effect? He would perhaps conclude that this fanciful account of the doctrines meant to be inculcated, was the best proof the preacher could bring in support of them, and so would be confirmed in his infidelity: while sensible people, who do believe them, would be hurt to the last degree by the officious zeal of this inconsiderate expounder of scripture.
So injurious to the cause of truth is this fanciful mode of interpreting scripture, that a late virulent opposer of Christianity (Mr. Woolston, in his "Moderator between an Infidel and an Apostate;" and his "Six Discourses on the Miracles of Christ") insidiously adopted it, in order to bring the gospels of the four evangelists into contempt. Under pretence of zeal for his bible, he tells us with a grave countenance, that the accounts of our Saviour’s miracles are to be taken not literally but mystically: so meaning to deprive us of one main evidence of the truth of Christianity, by bringing the reality of the miracles into question; and at the same time to raise a laugh upon Christians, as a company of credulous fools, ready to receive any interpretation of scripture as genuine which either ignorance or fancy may impose upon it. Sure I am, the real friends of Jesus would not like to rank with men of this cast; they, however, who treat scripture in this manner we have been protesting against, must not be angry with us if we tell them, that they are gratifying, though undesignedly, the wishes of these men, and in effect helping forward the cause of infidelity.
A word or two now shall suffice for the evils attending declamatory preaching, by which I mean all discourses, whether allegorical or not, that are destitute of sober reasoning and addressed merely to the passions; loose essays, or harangues on popular subjects, filled with trite observations, and set off with witty conceits and trifling stories, delivered in a manner more suitable to the stage than the pulpit. We have already observed, that such kind of preaching is by no means adapted to instruct and edify. But what I have here to add is, that its tendency is extremely pernicious. It begets contempt in those who are ill-affected to religion. It excites levity in those who are indifferent about it. It disgusts sensible and serious Christians. And if any may be supposed to be awakened by it, such persons are in danger of mistaking impressions that are the effect of a mere mechanical influence upon their passions, for the work of God upon their hearts. And should not these evils be seriously considered by all who have unhappily fallen into this extravagant manner of preaching? These are not trifling matters. The glory of God, the honour of religion, the welfare of immortal souls, and your own reputation, sirs, both as men and as ministers are concerned. But alas! little is to be expected from these expostulations with weak and conceited people, and less with those who are governed in the exercise of their ministry by base and unworthy motives. It is however to be hoped, that good men who may have been hastily precipitated by a lively imagination and a warm heart into this mode of treating divine things, will on sober reflection acknowledge that they may possibly be in an error, and that it is their duty to speak the word, as with all plainness, so with sobriety, wisdom, and reverence.
Upon the whole, let us, my brethren, by persuaded to consider well the infinite importance of the message with which we are entrusted to mankind, and how much the credit of religion and our real usefulness depend upon our delivering it in a proper manner. Let us form our preaching, not to the depraved taste of any set of people whatever, but after the model our divine Master and his apostles have set us. Let us first endeavour to inform men’s understandings, and then to get at their consciences; always remembering that if these objects are not gained, the more we practice upon their passions the greater real injury we do them. Let us, in the progress of our ministry, look well to our aims and views; ever making it our grand end to glorify God, and save the souls of men. And while in matters of indifference we become all things to all men, let us not forget what our bible tells us, that if we seek to please men, we are not the servants of Christ (Gal. i. 10). And thus pursuing the line of duty which God has laid down in his word, and depending on the gracious influence of the Holy Spirit for success, let us assure ourselves our labour shall not be in vain in the Lord.