At the turn of the nineteenth century, the scarcity of Presbyterian ministers in America was alarming. Elwyn Allen Smith, writing in The Presbyterian Ministry in American Culture: A Study in Changing Concepts, 1700-1900, p. 117, notes that in 1802 the PCUSA had 334 ministers throughout the country. The 1800 US census shows a population of 5,308,000 living in the country at that time; therefore, the number of ministers was quite small proportional to the overall population. Keenly conscious of this pastoral deficit, Samuel Miller wrote to Edward Dorr Griffin, a Congregational minister who served as a delegate to the PCUSA General Assembly of 1805, encouraging him to speak to Ashbel Green about specific subjects, including the need to provide for the education of future ministers. The situation as Miller saw it was dire.
The great scarcity of ministers, and the indispensable necessity of adopting speedy and vigorous measures for increasing their number. I consider our prospect on this score melancholy and alarming.
The same day (May 13, 1805), Miller wrote in a letter to Dr. Green that “I cannot help mentioning again my anxiety about the scarcity of ministers in our connexion.” It was at Miller’s urging that Dr. Green put forth a resolution adopted by the General Assembly to promote the recruitment and training of candidates for the ministry.
Following this action taken by the General Assembly, the Presbytery of New York (of which Samuel Miller was a member), meeting in October 1805, responded to the call by issuing their own address to the churches within their bounds, as well as to “young men” and “pious parents,” to promote the education of candidates for the ministry by prayer, focused evaluation of the gifts of possible candidates and financial and other support for their training.
This 1805 address was the product of a newly-formed standing committee subsisting of five ministers and five ruling elders. Samuel Miller was one of the ministers, and was the co-author, along with delegate Griffin, of this work. Each of the three audiences (churches, youth and parents) was appealed to with a call to consider what they could do to help the church increase its number of faithful ministers.
After explaining to churches the need and seeking prayer and tangible support for the education of minsters; and after asking young men to consider searchingly whether they might indeed be called to serve the kingdom of God by means of the ministry of the Word; “pious parents” are asked
Who among you have any sons to devote to Christ for the service of his sanctuary? Who among you have any young Samuels, the children of prayer, whom you have lent unto the Lord with ardent desires, that as long as they live they may be the Lord’s? Can you better dispose of them than by training them up for the gospel ministry, to bear the vessels of Him to whose service you have solemnly consecrated them in baptism? Would it not fill you with sublime joy to know that you had brought children into the world to be the instruments of large accessions to the assembly of the redeemed, to the everlasting kingdom of Messiah?…If you love your pious sons, give them to the church, and increase their everlasting happiness. If you love your Saviour, whose bowels yearned and bled for you, from your own bowels give him ministers; give to his service those whom he died to redeem, to sooth and comfort your parental hearts.
It is certain, from what we know of Samuel Miller’s parents, the Rev. John and Mrs. Margaret Miller, that he himself was a son of prayer. It is certain too that Samuel Miller had a son who followed him into the ministry, Samuel Miller, Jr. It is also certain that these labors of men like Samuel Miller, Ashbel Green and Edward Griffin helped to plant seeds that led to the founding in 1812 of what became known later as the Princeton Theological Seminary. By 1820, according to Elwyn A. Smith, there were 849 ministers and candidates.
We have here in this extract from church history a model for the building of God’s kingdom. Faithful ministers are an essential component of the extension of the church, and there is always a need for more of such to labor for Christ. It was Miller’s vision that the candidates needed to be “able” and “learned" as well as “pious.” There is both work to be done and prayers to be offered for this aspect of kingdom-building. Remember the words of our Savior:
Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest (Matt. 9:37-38).