Archive for June, 2008

Below are some extracts from a delightful volume by the Rev. Norman Macleod, Reminiscences of a Highland Parish (1867), providing some very romantic glimpses of the ‘auld parish way’ in the Highlands of Scotland.  One can find it on GoogleBooks – http://books.google.com/books?id=DCokAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Reminiscences+of+a+Highland+Parish.  Two chapters in particular are of interest, from which these quotes come – ‘The Manse’ and ‘The Minister and His Work.’ 


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“The minister, like most of his brethren, soon took to himself a wife, the daughter of a neighboring ‘gentleman tacksman,’ and the granddaughter of a minister, well born and well bred; and never did man find a help more meet for him.  In that manse they lived for nearly fifty years, and there were born to them sixteen children; yet neither father nor mother could ever lay their hand on a child of theirs and say, ‘We wish this one had not been.’  They were all a source of unmingled joy” (27).


“The manse and glebe [acreage surrounding the manse] of that Highland parish were a colony which ever preached sermons, on week days as well as Sundays, of industry and frugality, of courteous hospitality and bountiful charity, and of the domestic peace, contentment, and cheerfulness of a holy Christian home” (28).


“Within the manse the large family of sons and daughters managed, somehow or other, to find accommodation not only for themselves, but also for a tutor and governess.  And such a thing as turning any one away for want of room was never dreamt of.  When hospitality demanded such a small sacrifice, the boys would all go to the barn, and the girls to the chairs and sofas of parlour and dining-room, with fun and laughter, joke and song, rather not make the friend or stranger welcome.  And seldom was the house without either.  The ‘kitchen-end,’ or lower house, with all its indoor crannies of closets and lofts, and outdoor additions of cottages, barns and stables, was a little world of its own, to which wandering pipers, parish fools, and beggars, with all sorts of odd-and-end characters came, and where the ate, drank, and rested” (30-31).


“The manse was the grand center to which all the inhabitants of the parish gravitated for help and comfort. . . . The poor, as a matter of course, visited the manse, not for an order on public charity, but for aid from private charity, and it was never refused in kind, such as meal, wool, or potatoes.  There being no lawyers in the parish, lawsuits were adjusted in the manse; and so were marriages not a few.  The distressed came there for comfort, and the perplexed for advice; and there was always something material as well as spiritual to share with them all.  No one went away empty in body or soul.  Yet the barrel of meal was never empty, nor the cruise of oil extinguished.  A ‘wise’ neighbor once remarked, ‘That minister with his large family will ruin himself, and if he dies they will be beggars.’  Yet there has never been a beggar among them to the fourth generation.  No saying was more common in the mouth of this servant than the saying of his Master, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’


“A striking characteristic of the manse life was its constant cheerfulness.  One cottager could play the bagpipe, another the fiddle.  The minister was an excellent performer on the violin, and to have his children dancing in the evening was his delight.  If strangers were present, so much the better.  He had not an atom of that proud fanaticism which connects religion with suffering, as suffering, apart from its cause” [And then in a footnote, the author writes, “A minister in a remote island parish once informed me that, ‘on religious grounds,’ he had broken the only fiddle in the island!  His notion of religion, I fear, is not rare among his brethren in the far west and north.  We are informed by Mr Campbell, in his admirable volumes on the ‘Tales of the Highlands,’ that the old songs and tales are also being put under the clerical ban in some districts, as being too secular and profane for the pious inhabitants.  What next?  Are the signing-birds to be shot by the kirk-sessions?”] (33-35).


“The minister was too far removed from the big world of church politics, General Assembly debates, controversial meetings and pamphlets, to be a party man.  It satisfied him to be a part of the great Catholic Church, and of that small section of it in which he had been born.  The business of his Presbytery was chiefly local, and his work was confined mainly to his parish” (111).


“He ministered to 2000 souls, all of whom – with the exception of perhaps a dozen families of Episcopalians and Roman Catholics – acknowledged him as their pastor.  His charge was scattered over 130 square miles, with a sea-board of 100” (112)!


“[Arduous] land journeys were frequently undertaken, (with adventures more or less trying,) not merely to visit the sick, but for every kind of parochial duty – sometimes to baptize, and sometimes to marry.  These services were occasionally performed in most primitive fashion at one of those green spots among the hills.  Corrie Borrodale, among the old ‘shielings,’ ‘was a sort of half-way house between the opposite sides of the parish.  There, beside a clear well, children have been baptized; and there, among ‘the bonnie blooming heather,’ the Highland shepherd has been married to his bonnie blooming bride.  There were also in different districts preaching and ‘catechising,’ as it was called.  The catechizing consisted in examining on the Catechism and Scriptures every parishioner who was disposed to attend the meeting , and all did with few exceptions.  It constituted an important part of the minister’s regular work.  Every farm and hamlet was thus visited in rotation; notes were generally kept of the progress made by each individual in religious knowledge, and he who was sluggish and careless was put to shame before his neighbors.  Many presbyteries, at the time we speak of, took yearly account of the diligence of each member in the discharge of this branch of his pastoral office: a reckoning and a superintendence which, we humbly think, might, with mutual benefit to people and pastor, be revived in the present day.  This ‘exercise’ was generally followed by preaching, both of course in the open air, when weather permitted.  And no sight could be more beautiful than that of the venerable minister, seated on the side of a green and sheltered knoll, surrounded by the inhabitants of the neighboring hamlets, each, as his turn came, answering, or attempting to answer, the questions propounded with gravity and simplicity.  A simple discourse followed from the same rural pulpit, to the simple but thoughtful and intelligent congregation.  Most touching was it then to hear the Psalms rise from among the moorlands, disturbing ‘the sleep that is among the lonely hills;’ the pauses filled by the piping of the plover or some mountain bird, and by the echoes of the streams and water-falls from the rocky precipices.  It was a peasant’s choir, rude and uncultivated by art, but heard, I doubt not, with sympathy by the mighty angels who sung their own noblest song in the hearing of shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem.


“An essential, an important, and a very laborious part of the parish minister’s work was the providing for the wants of the poor and the needy.  He and his session were intrusted, under powers defined by law, with the administration of the very considerable funds contributed by charity at the church door every Sabbath.  The half-yearly, or quarterly apportionment of this fund, however, formed a small portion of the labours implied in providing for the poor.  They were carefully visited by minister and elders: their circumstances accurately ascertained; and in cases of sickness, or of any special trial, where the session allowance was insufficient, there was an ample supply provided by an appeal to the kindness of the more prosperous in the neighborhood; and whether food, or clothing, or cordials were needed, they were readily granted to an appeal thus made.


“Our minister’s work was thus devoted and unwearied for half a century.  And there is something peculiarly pleasing and cheering to think of him and of others of the same calling and character in every church, who from year to year pursue their quiet course of holy, self-denying labour, educating the ignorant; bringing life and blessing into the homes of disease and poverty; sharing the burden of sorrow with the afflicted, the widow, and the fatherless; reproving and admonishing, by life and word, the selfish and ungodly; and with a heart every open to all the fair humanities of nature; – a true ‘divine,’ yet every inch a man!  Such men, in one sense, have never been alone; for each could say with his Master, ‘I am not alone, for the Father is with me.’  Yet what knew or cared the great, bustling, religious world about them?  Where were their public meetings, with reports, speeches, addresses, ‘resolutions,’ or motions about their work?  Where their committees and associations of ardent philanthropists, rich supporters, and zealous followers?  Where their ‘religious’ papers, so called, to parade them before the world, and to crown them with the laurels of puffs and leading articles?  Alone, he, and thousands like him, laboured the very salt of the earth, the noblest of their race” (118-122).

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Urquhart Castle Prior to its Destruction

It does seem that parish ministry and itinerancy as models of Christianization are quite distinct from each other. The first emphasizes a ‘settled’ ministry with a pastor or pastors within a fixed geographic locale, drawing the unconverted within that charge to the sound of the Gospel call – and so into the regular worship services of the church – by a regular, habitual, and personal (often life-long) labor. Evangelization was by preaching, yes, but preaching that worked hand-in-hand with the methodical visitation of the unconverted in a defined territory, in coordination with other parochial ministers in their settled charges. This, as far as I understand it, was the norm in Reformation and Post-Reformation Scotland, for example. The second presumes an ‘unsettled’ ministry in a geographic area with a great spiritual need and sends men in circuits throughout that region to preach until such a time as regular, settled ministries can be established.

The two models have not always lived in peaceful coexistence. The First and Second Great Awakenings, as I’ve heard, introduced tensions on this subject. The itinerancy of great preachers such as Whitfield was warmly embraced by some, such as Jonathan Edwards, and even by many of the Scots Presbyterians (for a time). But there were many questions lingering as to whether the sensationalism of the comet-preachers with their big, spellbound crowds detracted from the value of the regular, settled ‘parish’ ministers. Did it all tend to remove the ancient boundary marks? Did it in any way contribute to a more market-oriented, consumerist Christianity, which figures such as Thomas Chalmers deplored? A brand of Christianity that focuses upon attracting those already religiously predisposed and fails to go after – habitually and methodically – the indifferent and careless? Perhaps.

But are parish ministry and itinerancy in and of themselves mutually exclusive models? Must we choose one over the other? Are Thomas Boston and Robert Murray M’Cheyne automatically good because they were arduous, settled parish ministers, given to systematic household visitation of all within their charge? Were Whitfield and the American frontier circuit riders automatically bad because they refused to settle down to the parson’s life? While I reject the idea that we should reimplement all the methods of the apostles in those formative days of the Gospel in the 1st century Mediterranean world, including ‘episcopal’ itinerancy and the deployment of apostolic deputies, yet isn’t there something to be said for the lawfulness of a kind of itinerancy during times of unusual need? When elders weren’t raised up in established congregations, Paul and his deputies visited – and appointed ‘settled’ elders. He left to Timothy a model for the continuation of the regular ministry, foreseeing a day when unsettled itinerants would no longer be necessary. Much like scaffolding to a finished building, the itinerant ministry was there for a time until the finished product could stand. Or, like parents to a child until he becomes mature enough to make it on his own.

The 16th century Church of Scotland in the First Book of Discipline made use of ‘superintendants’ to preach, establish new congregations, and ordain ministers throughout large geographical areas, during an extraordinary time when there was a shortage of ministers and the work of evangelizing the nation was a pressing need. And while the Lowlands had been effectively Christianized by the 17th century, yet the Highlands were still under the sway of Rome. The settled parish system of the south could not be easily managed in the north, where the vast, mountainous ‘parishes’ of the Highlands were too difficult to reduce to the order of a settled charge. Consequently the Established Church utilized itinerant ‘catechists’ in the Highlands through agencies such as the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK – incidentally, which also helped fund David Brainerd’s efforts to the Delaware Indians of North America).

Perhaps we may view itinerancy and parish ministry as complementary strategies, given different stages of an offensive. The first is a strategy for quick, broad dissemination of the Gospel of the Kingdom. It is the ‘first strike’ against the Kingdom of Darkness. It establishes the beachhead. Outposts are established in enemy territory. Then the second strategy is phased in. Theses outposts serve as bases to advance the frontline in their respective zones, and all in cooperation with each other. They do not interfere in the zone of another outpost, but fully expect the other to take possession of theirs, as they themselves are busy doing the same from their position. After all, they are fighting a common enemy.

One might think that in itinerancy geography factors less prominently than in parochialism. Itinerancy does not methodically focus on fixed households in a given district; parochialism does. Itinerancy relies mostly upon indiscriminate preaching sporadically in an area, sowing seed broadly; parochialism does not, since it concentrates regularly in one particular area.

But it is not as though geography is less of a concern in itinerancy. The Apostle Paul was an itinerant, it is true. “From Jerusalem, and round about unto [kuklo mechri, lit., ‘in a circuit’] Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 15:19). But note his great concern with localities, areas, regions, and even political territories – nations, along his routes. “As the truth of Christ is in me, no man shall stop me of this boasting in the regions [en tois klimasin] of Achaia” (2 Cor. 11:10). He was claiming lands for the Redeemer, and even had his eyes set on the frontiers – Spain (Rom. 15:24). Territories were divided up, and Corinth belonged to Paul. “But we will not boast of things without our measure, but according to the measure of the rule [to metron tou kanonos – ‘the boundary lines?’] which God hath distributed [emerisen] to us, a measure to reach even unto you. . . having hope, when your faith is increased, that we shall be enlarged by you according to our rule [ta kanona hemon] abundantly, to preach the gospel in the regions beyond you [ta hyperekeina]” (2 Cor. 10:13-16). Corinth then, to use much later Presbyterian jargon, was ‘within his bounds.’ (I cannot help but envision Paul with his deputies poring over a map of the Mediterranean as a general would with his officers!) So it is clear that itinerancy is not necessarily un-geographic in orientation.

One might also conclude that preaching is given a greater place in itinerancy and less in parochialism. It is always through the foolishness of preaching that God saves, whether in more or less settled phases of the Kingdom of God in a certain territory. But even itinerant ministry is not just about getting on a soapbox and preaching to anyone and everyone who might walk by. It also involves interpersonal, private interaction. The Apostle Paul both “taught publicly” in his Gospel labors in Ephesus as well as “from house to house” (Acts 20:20). Paul dealt intimately with the Philippian jailor and his household (Acts 16:32). And our Lord Himself, though an itinerant preacher, dealt privately with Nicodemus (John 3:1-13) and the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-30). Nor is parochial ministry all private visitation. Paul, writing to his deputy Timothy, was to focus on regular public ministry in Ephesus. “Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:13). “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2). And in addition to preaching, he was to train men who could settle into Timothy’s place, continuing the same, regular, public ministry of the Word (2 Tim. 2:2). The main difference here between the two models, it would seem, lies in the fact that the itinerant ministry is not settled, dealing regularly with the same number of people in a locality for a long period of time whereas the other is. And I also suppose that there is a certain fluidity between the itinerant and settled parochial ministry, especially since Paul stayed ministering in Ephesus for two years (Acts 19:9) and while under house arrest in Rome used his rented house to preach regularly there (Acts 28:30, 31).

But while there are differences and distinctions to be made between the two models or strategies, in one thing they are identical. Both are evangelistically oriented. There is no retreat into the insulated comfort of the congregation of the faithful, but both manifest an impetus beyond.

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Shaw, Iain. High Calvinists in Action: Calvinism and the City, Manchester and London, c. 1810-1860. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.


            Do the theological rigor, precision, and dogmatism of Calvinism inhibit evangelistic and benevolent efforts?  Perhaps individual cases here and there may be pointed out in defense of this caricature.  But in High Calvinists in Action, Shaw goes a long way to debunking the notion historically by turning to a period of great spiritual and social need, the Industrial Age in Britain, to two of her prominent cities, London and Manchester, and then to several ministers within them representing not only Calvinism but even ‘High Calvinism’ (a brand of Calvinism that one might distinguish as strongly emphasizing divine sovereignty in salvation, dismissing any idea of a free offer of the Gospel, advocating eternal justification, and a tendency to oppose progressive sanctification).  When examining a cross-section of Calvinist and High Calvinist preachers in the industrial centers of England, does one find a cold, clinical indifference to the spiritual and temporal well being of their neighbors?  And, consequently, are these chosen ‘frozen’ in inactivity, beyond the conventional routines of congregational life?  The data, indicates Shaw, leads to quite a different conclusion. 

            I will refrain from going into greater analysis; to read the book is to have the basic point reinforced repeatedly with many illustrations and concrete data.  If Shaw’s sampling is at all fair, which it seems that it is, then 19th century British Calvinists and even their more extreme representatives were decidedly not cultural retreatists.  Instead of analysis then, I’d like to turn to some interesting issues and questions that the book raised for me.

            First, I was ignorant of the fact that it was the general consensus of the times – and not just paternalistic figures like Thomas Chalmers – that poverty was to be seen perhaps more often as the fruit of vice and that the antidote was holding individuals accountable, stressing self-reliance and self-improvement, and giving aid only when absolutely necessary.  According to Shaw, “the self-help, anti-mendacity dogma was not only prevalent across sect and party, but that it also functioned as a cohesive force in much of the religious community” (102).  Consequently, the High Calvinist William Nunn of Manchester, when signing on to the newly created city Provident Society, was not unique in pursuing philanthropy by a strictly controlled process of personal visitation to avoid dispensing aid to the unworthy.  And James Wells, High Calvinist serving in South London, in a sermon he preached entitled ‘A Rod for the Lazy and the Crumb for the Hungry,’ pointed to his own history of self-help, raising himself up from poverty to self-sufficiency as an example for the poor to follow.  “And here I am now,” says Wells, “above fifty years old, and a better man than some of you that are hardly thirty; because you have been afraid of work and I have not” (quoted by Shaw, 267).

            Our own philanthropy in 21st century America – including that of the evangelical element in our society – could use a heavy helping of this kind of reasoning.  Is it not a biblical truism that “if a man will not work, neither let him eat?”  And is it truly merciful to rescue a man from the rod of God, brought upon his back for his own folly?  Will not God’s rod teach him better than our social programs?  If this is not true social concern by 21st century standards, then forward to the 19th century!

            But if this was a 19th century British consensus, and the High Calvinists of Shaw’s study were not particularly unique, what is to account for that consensus?  Was it an outgrowth of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ that generally characterized English culture at the time?  Or was it less of a religious and more of a cultural or political predisposition?  Or a mixture of both?

            It is also interesting to note in this connection that many Calvinists and High Calvinists recognized that not all poverty was to be chalked up to personal vice.  (“Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents?”)  Much poverty was the consequence of broader structural changes in economics and politics, and some men were more realistic and consequently more open-handed, according to Shaw.  William Gadsby, a High Calvinist Baptist in Manchester, responded to the “appalling poverty” of 19th century English cities in a different manner from those “evangelicals [who were] steeped in the tenets of political economy, who shunned indiscriminate personal acts of charity as lending only to pauperism and indigence” (147).  And therefore, “the poor in the district of his ministerial labours were ‘daily the objects of his commiseration and aid, and their temporal relief as well as their spiritual instruction was never lost sight of in his visits to their dwellings’” (quoted by Shaw, 147).  And even more discriminating philanthropists among the High Calvinists probed the claims of the poor only to ensure that funds were given to those who “suffered from the common accidents of life, evils which no human foresight can elude” (quoted by Shaw, 101).

            Which leads me to a further observation.  The ingredient of systematic visitation and examination of the poor by lay-agents, as in the case of the Manchester and Salford District Provident Society (100) founded in 1833, appears to have been a practice that predated Thomas Chalmers.  The description of their operations (101) struck me as remarkably close to what Chalmers presided over in his St. John’s parish in Glasgow, 1819-1823.  I had thought his was a novel idea.  But perhaps he was simply a popularizer of a practice already in place; or he was an efficient administrator… or both.  And in confirmation of this suspicion, it is intriguing to note that Shaw traces the philanthropic work of that Provident Society back to Charles Simeon, “who was involved in schemes in 1788 to sell bread to the poor cheaply and visitation schemes to administer relief to the poor of Cambridge” (99, emphasis mine).  Incidentally, I was just reading this morning in the Dictionary of Scottish Church History & Theology concerning Charles Simeon’s visits to Scotland and his warm reception among the Scots Presbyterians.  Is there a line of influence there?

            Another issue that this book raised for me – and didn’t necessarily resolve – is the matter of the church’s benevolent obligations to the surrounding society in which it is placed.  Some of the High Calvinists whom Shaw treats had an inclination to focus on the ‘Lord’s poor.’  That does make perfect biblical sense.  “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).  We must “especially” do good to the “household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).  But on the other hand, we are to love all men, not only in word, but in deed.  Though there is to be special focus on the household of faith, Paul in his imperative does not exclude our doing good to those outside.  “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men.  And though there was attention to the ‘Lord’s poor,’ Shaw demonstrates how that even the sternest of High Calvinists were men of true compassion and were moved by the scenes of wretchedness and squalor in the slums of the Industrial Age.  How could they simply say, “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled” (Jas. 2:16)? 

            So, provided that the emphasis remains on the household of faith, shouldn’t benevolent concern also extend to outsiders?  Obviously in the contemporary North American context, it cannot be done indiscriminately – of course, it never really can.  This is where I think the principles of visitation, inquiry, and accountability, embodied in these 19th century benevolent societies, come into play.  Money without strings is not necessarily true charity.  If 50 cents to every dollar you give goes to the local liquor store in the end, you are not helping anyone. 

Furthermore, this is where, again, I think having actual defined parishes can really come in handy.  The church phone, listed in the yellow pages, will always get a regular stream of calls for handouts.  But there is no face-to-face, regular interaction.  Consequently, accountability is nearly impossible.  But adopt a fixed geographic district for spiritual and benevolent care, and the efficiency of the benevolence is improved by face-to-face visitation and accountability.  And the phone solicitations can be answered with the official policy: congregation first, parish second. 

Obviously, however, many middle-class churches meet in the suburbs.  To adopt a parish in the suburbs is not a bad thing – but it will rarely bring us into contact with the poor, whether they are poor by their own vice or otherwise.  Perhaps the answer here is to adopt a district, maybe 3 or 4 square blocks, in the inner city, and start a visitation (‘door-to-door’) schedule. 

            Finally, the book also helped illustrate the very practical and experimental nature of 19th century British evangelicalism in its evangelistic and benevolent efforts.  I had thought that Chalmers was unique in the development, experimentation, promotion, and supervision of various ‘schemes’ and ‘societies.’  But he was apparently only representative; or again, a great popularizer and an efficient administrator.  I know that there is a fine line between principle and pragmatism.  It is not particularly easy to discern with confidence how well these men walked it.  But one with zeal for the promotion of the Redeemer’s cause and the well being of his fellow man can’t help but read such ventures and ask whether or not we could really learn from them.  And especially in conservative Reformed circles – because these doers, these activists, were anything but milk toast Arminians. 

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