Samuel Miller on seeking "young Samuels"

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).

The Pastorate is a Formidable Calling (Joseph Buck Stratton)

The following description of the work of the ministry by Joseph Buck Stratton, Sr. (found in his book Memorial of a Quarter-Century’s Pastorate), is known intimately by every faithful pastor, and should be read by every man preparing to become a pastor. For the ministry is no place for a man who desires to be lazy, as we see even in the example of the apostle Paul: “I worked harder than any of them” (I Corinthians 15:10). The rest of that verse reminds us, however, that the minister must be absolutely dependent upon God’s strength, and so ministry done in one’s own strength, or for one’s own glory, is in vain: “…though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Stratton’s words depict plainly the nature of the minister’s labors, and make us cry out, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (II Corinthians 2:16). May the Lord give us strength day by day to do His will for the good of His people.

The claims of the pulpit must ever present themselves to the young minister as most formidable in their dimensions. And they ought to do so. For an ambassador of Christ to treat his message with levity is sadly out of harmony with his demand that his hearers should hear it as though "God did beseech" them by him. These claims necessarily involve an application of mind, in the way of research and reflection, of the severest kind. And then they are incessant and inexorable in their exactions. As soon as one effort is concluded, another must be prepared for. "The inevitable hour" when the congregation must have its lecture or discourse, and must have it whether the preacher be in frame or out of frame, is always impending over him. Entertaining the views which I held of obligation on this subject, and haunted always, perhaps criminally, certainly painfully, with a feeling of self-distrust, the work of preparing for the pulpit, with me, has been an arduous one. I have been accustomed, as you are aware, in my Sabbath preaching, to make a large use of the pen. Sometimes in my earlier ministry I felt constrained to depend upon this altogether. The draft upon a clergyman's time, created by this practice, I am coming more and more to think, should be avoided by such training as may qualify him to preach without the labor of literal composition. Pursuing the plan which I have adopted, and which it is not easy now to depart from, I have written out completely at least six hundred discourses of different kinds during the twenty-five years of my pastorate in this place.

A minister, again, at a central point like this, will find his duties as a presbyter extending beyond the circle of his own charge. And as one result of this he will have a large amount of correspondence thrown upon his hands. I have found that one day in each week, and often two, were required for this species of work.

Then the maintaining of an intercourse with the individuals and families of his flock, is a part of his duty which allows a pastor no rest. Although he may know that his rule here, as in all things, is " to study to show himself approved unto God," he knows, too, that his people expect him to show himself approved unto them. He may know, as is the case in a charge as extensive as this, that it is impossible to satisfy the wishes of his people without sacrificing every other department of his work; but the reflection that he is not satisfying them will be in his mind like a goad, driving him forward, and yet always tormenting him with the consciousness of falling behind the required measure of performance.

Then the casual services which are demanded of him in connection with the wants, the troubles, and the afflictions of the community in which he ministers — services which are indefinitely various, which may spring upon him at the most inopportune moment, and which are sometimes inconsiderately imposed — constitute a tax upon time, upon thought, and often upon feeling, of the most exhaustive nature.

Then the teacher who is constantly teaching, must seek to be constantly taught. He must keep himself informed, that he may inform others. He needs the opportunity and the freedom of mind required for study; not merely such as shall furnish him for an exercise, but such as shall make him generally intelligent.

And then, lastly, he has the same infirmities, the same inaptitudes and indispositions, clogging his movements, which other men feel, and under which they usually indulge themselves with a cessation from labor; and he has the same kind and the same measure of household responsibilities claiming his attention and burdening his mind, which other men, encompassed with domestic ties, have.

The Scripture Doctrine of a Call to the Work of the Gospel Ministry, by William Swan Plumer

In 1831, at the age of 28, William Swan Plumer was the pastor of Tabb Street Presbyterian Church in Petersburg, Virginia. As a member of his Presbytery he was engaged in working with those preparing for the gospel ministry. He would frequently receive requests for information on what the Bible teaches about a call to the ministry, but he could find no essay that met the need. So eventually he wrote one himself, and delivered it to the students of Union Theological Seminary in April 1831. His text was the same that Thomas Boston had used in his book The Art of Man Fishing (Matthew 4:18-22), though interestingly Plumer did not know of Boston’s book when he wrote his essay, “The Scripture Doctrine of a Call to the Work of the Gospel Ministry.”

In his Preface, Plumer helpfully lays out the spirit in which such an important topic ought to be studied. First, we must approach it seriously, solemnly, and reverentially. We ought not to trifle with the thought of being an ambassador of Christ, an official servant of the Lord. Second, we must patiently wait upon the Lord in caution and deliberation. Purposes hastily formed are often foolishly or hastily abandoned, thus God calls on us to move slowly. Third, humility is indispensable. Plumer reminds the reader that he must never be ignorant of “Pope Self,” for one who denies either his faults and deficiencies, or his attainments and abilities, will not make a wise judgment. Finally, those seeking the Lord’s guidance in this question must be docile - that is, teachable. We are to shun mere human wisdom, seek the Lord heartily, desire to know our duty, and a willingness to act upon what we learn.

Available here, Plumer’s essay is only 34 brief pages, so take time to read it today and recommend it to those preparing for the ministry.