The Theological Seminary of the Seventies

It was not until late in my senior year, after long and anxious dubitation, that I finally chose my vocation. I decided to enter the ministry. My preference for several years had been the law. The courtroom had then and has still a peculiar charm for me. I am fond of being a witness or a juryman. I sit with pleasure in a courtroom by the hour and follow the trial of a case in which I have no personal concern, or peruse with interest reasoned decisions buried in the leather-covered law books that fill the shelves of lawyers, and more than once I have read since my youth Webster’s great legal arguments before the Supreme Court. But, much as I coveted the lawyer’s life and practice, congenial as it was to every fiber of my mental being, I felt that I ought to deny myself the gratification. The profession was already overcrowded, and I could not be of the best service there. To choose it would be to choose my own gratification at cost of my sense of duty.

Dr. Anderson suggested the teaching profession. I remember his saying to me, “There are few born teachers. You were born to teach. This was flattering coming from him, and my father and mother thought him right. They were reluctant to see me enter the ministry, for they knew too well the demands and the sacrifices of the pulpit and the pastorate. But teaching did not attract me. Its narrow specialties, its fixed hours, its unalterable imperatives, its close limitations in so many directions made it to me a slavish life. I wanted freedom, and I felt that as a professor in college, if I were ever to attain such distinction, I could never enter active life at all. The teacher stands at the gateway of life and ushers others into the promised land but, like Moses, can never enter it himself. He can, indeed, be a student of life, but I wanted to be an actor in life. I was perhaps dimly conscious of executive aptitudes that could never be satisfied with books. I was indebted for executive instincts to my mother’s family, and these had been developed by my varied experiences in earning money.

As I look back on those months and even years of debate with myself as to my future, I do not find that I ever thought of a business career. I was never even tempted to seek a lucrative employment, and wealth never entered my head as the remotest of possibilities. I had made a life of usefulness my religion, and my sole problem was how I could be most useful. For medicine I had no taste, and as for the various forms of engineering, while I knew something of their value, there was nothing in my environment to call special attention to them. I finally decided on the ministry.

I had, in the common traditional sense of the word, no divine “call” to preach. No voice from heaven, no supernatural revelation, no inward, inexplicable overwhelming impression told me that it was God’s will that I preach, and woe is me if I preach not. My decision was wholly my own and was deliberately and consciously reasoned. It was not even the subject of the agonizing prayer that we often read of in the lives of preachers. Starting with the fundamental proposition that I was to give my life to good doing, the sole question to be determined was in what vocation I could be of most service. With such knowledge of myself and of life as was then at my command, I concluded that I could be of more service in the ministry than elsewhere. It seemed to be my duty, therefore, to enter the ministry. If later, with more experience and a wide horizon, I should discover that I could be of more service in some other vocation, the same divine voice, if I may call it such, that now called me into the pulpit would then call me out of it. The voice was my own judgment exercised disinterestedly. This is what I told the council that ordained me when I was examined as to the genuineness of my “call.” Ideally, every man’s vocation, secular or sacred alike, should be chosen in answer to the question, Where can I be most useful? That, and that only, is God’s call to every man.

My first sermons were preached in Kingston, New York, in the pulpit of a former Rochester graduate who was on his summer vacation. They were, of course, more essays on divine themes, echoes for the most part of striking sayings I had heard from Rochester pulpits. To have postponed any preaching until I had something of my own to say would have been wise, for I had not yet entered the Theological Seminary. The young folks liked my sermons, I was told, and the older people were kindly, and considerate of my youth and inexperience.

Of the five or six Baptist theological seminaries, I chose the one located at Rochester as having probably the best faculty and the highest type of students. This choice was suggested by Dr. Anderson. The seminary had excellent dormitories, with all modern conveniences and every comfort, and I took up my abode there in a suite of two rooms and entered on my three years’ theological course in September 1877, three months after my graduation from college.

There were perhaps sixty students, twenty in each of the three classes: Junior, Middle, and Senior. All were college graduates, one- fifth perhaps from the University of Rochester, the remainder from various small Baptist colleges scattered throughout the country North and South. Here and there was a man of talent, but the average of intelligence and cultivation was, I have always thought, rather below that of my college class. There were two or three really bad men in character, distinctly fraudulent entries. Such were sifted out before the end of the course. All the rest were sound, diligent, sincere, and devoted men.

The professors were men of unexceptionable character. All were cultivated gentlemen, thoroughly trained in their subjects, hard workers, given to their tasks with self-denying devotion, entirely sincere in their professions of orthodoxy, in their belief in the worthiness of the life they were living, and in the methods of their classrooms. Nothing could be finer than the ideals of character which most of them unconsciously afforded. There was some rivalry among them as to which would get the most work out of us, and as a consequence we were much overworked. I thought I had been a hard worker in college, but in the seminary I worked still harder, and so did all my classmates.

In other respects, my life in the seminary was much the same as in the college. I lived in the same city, boarded at the same table, had similar student friends and associates, attended the same or similar churches, lectures, and entertainments, had similar recreations, few and far between, and was myself essentially the same. I need not burden these pages with repetitious details.

In the Theological Seminary fifty years ago, I was taught to pick out slowly and painfully the meaning of Hebrew sentences and, given hours enough, I could at the end translate a chapter of the Old Testament from the original. Indeed, after leaving the seminary I did translate in this fashion, during the first year of my pastorate, the whole of the book of Genesis—a waste of time, for I needed neither to teach nor to translate Hebrew.

I was also taught New Testament Greek. We studied many brief sample passages microscopically, and with utmost accuracy of linguistic and grammatical criticism. All this could be useful only to the professional specialist. For the preacher it was time wasted, for he must rely wholly on the commentaries of his authorities. We also sought the order of events as best it could be made out in the ministry of Christ, a problem, after fifty years of research, hardly any nearer settlement now than then.

We took long dictations on the early heresies and heroes of the Church, on the growth of the Papacy, on the growing medieval corruptions of the Church, on the Crusades, on the Reformation, and on the origin and growth of the Protestant sects. Instead of this slow dictation select readings assigned and discussed would have given us more and better Church History, and what we needed, anyhow, and not given was a knowledge of current life here and now.

We were taught at great length and with the utmost minuteness of detail what is called Systematic Theology. God and all his ways with man was the theme. God was analyzed, mapped, and discussed with extreme detail. His thoughts, purposes, methods, and unseen activities were all accurately classified, named, and described, and the plan of salvation was reduced to a logical, coherent, and exact system. Of all systematic theologies, and there have been many, none, I think, has achieved a system so detailed and elaborate as that of Dr. Strong, our professor of theology and President. His instruction formed the foundation of our seminary course, and at that time it was almost wholly imaginary. However, I then supposed it to be true and adopted it for the time with docility.

But our most practical instruction was in Homiletics and Pastoral Theology. This means the art of preparing and delivering sermons, and of conducting ourselves with wisdom and propriety as pastors. We were taught how to choose a subject, how to choose a text, how to unfold, elucidate, and exploit the text, how to gather the material of discourse, how and in what order to arrange this material, how to compose in fine the sermon, and finally how to deliver it. We were also given a few simple rules about the management of churches, pastoral calls, prayer meetings, funerals, weddings, Sunday schools. Pastors of distinction gave us lectures annually on all these subjects. Our instructors, with ample funds and solicitous zeal, sought to leave nothing lacking that could contribute to our usefulness and success, except the one thing needful, namely, something interesting and useful to say.

I was graduated from the Theological Seminary in May 1880, at twenty-seven years of age, having dutifully performed all the work required by my teachers in the seminary. I had done more. By virtue of good health, a strong constitution, and intense application, I had preached almost every Sunday, one sermon or even two, during the last two years of my course. Some of these sermons were repeated in different small towns in western New York, where a supply for a Sunday happened to be wanted, but nearly all were fresh productions, the extra work of the week, and delivered at a small Presbyterian Church near Rochester, where for two years I was stated supply.

And yet with all the zeal of my instructors, all my docile study, all my frequent practice in the pulpit, I was in some respects, and those important and vital, very ill prepared for the pastorate. A Christian church in country or city consists of families, perhaps fifty, often several hundred. These parents and their children are engaged during six days of every week in the ordinary mechanical drudgery of home, or shop, or field, or office. They have their joys, sorrows, trials, afflictions, passions, errors—daily, hourly. The difficult function of pastor is to take these people, young and old, all in hand and to try to make them good, useful, and happy. The thoughtful and observant young pastor will not fail to learn, and that very early in his pastorate, that a knowledge of the Hebrew language, of the intricacies of New Testament Greek, of the history of orthodoxy, and of heresy for the last eighteen hundred years, or of theology however systematic or logical, I say a knowledge of all these things has no more relation to making these people good, useful, or happy than an equal amount of, say, lunar politics. The same is true in less degree of formal instruction in the art of preaching. That has value. It enables a man without anything to say to preach a passable sermon, but a man can no more learn to preach from books, or from oral instruction, than he can learn how to pitch a baseball and fan out the striker by reading books about pitching. The only way to learn to preach is first of all to be a man of good sense and keen observation, with some knowledge of the world, and then to practice preaching under severe and unremitting self-criticism and close study of the occasion and the congregation. Our professors, if asked their aim, would all have correctly replied that they aimed to make each of us, if possible, a popular, successful and useful preacher to men, women, and children. Not more than one of a faculty of ten members had been an acceptable preacher, however, or could have been one. They were bookworms from youth up, knowing little or nothing of society, men, or life. Unconsciously, for really they could do nothing else, their instruction was adapted to reproduce in us precisely themselves and nothing else, namely, to make us bookworms. With my present views and experience, I would never admit to a chair in a theological seminary a man who had not been a powerful and successful preacher. It is unfortunate that few such men will accept professorships.

And so, the practical value of the three years’ course in the Theological Seminary of the seventies was, in my experience and observation, not great. It is my mature conviction that at least four-fifths of my work was wasted, or nearly so. The laborious hours, months, and years spent on Hebrew, Greek, Church History, and Theology were of no value to me as preacher and pastor. What I needed most to acquire was a thorough mastery of the English Bible, and of the life about me. My time was so fully taken up with needless things, that I learned little of value about the Old Testament or the New, and nearly all that was taught me was untrue, as I later found out. The treasures, nay the treasuries, hidden in the books of the Bible, treasuries without controversy priceless and incomparable, which form an absolutely indispensable endowment of the preacher and the pastor, these to the end of my seminary course remained locked up and inaccessible, as if in vaults. And worse, if that were possible, we were likewise left almost totally ignorant of the life about us, and how to help our people in it. I had not been two years on my voyage as pastor before I realized all that I am now saying, and I defiantly threw overboard nearly the whole cargo that I had taken on board at the seminary, and sought to fill up my little boat with the more valuable merchandise I was beginning to find in the inexhaustible riches of the English Bible, in the experiences of my congregation, and in the study of the economic, intellectual, spiritual, and social forces in which I lived.

It is a pleasure to add that in recent years the course of study in the Rochester Theological Seminary, and in many other seminaries north of the Ohio River, has been progressively changed in the right direction. The Bible is the Theological Seminary for the preacher. It is nowhere a technical or scientific book. It is a purely human production. Its theme is the experiences of living men in organized society, and the gradual revelation to them of the ways of promoting human wellbeing. Three years of hard, comprehensive study of the English Bible under intelligent and enthusiastic guidance, and of the conditions and tendencies of current human life, would have given us a far better preparation for the duties of the pastorate than we received.

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My Pastorate in Minneapolis (First Period)