Archive for the ‘David Nasmith’ Category

It has been some time since I’ve read the classic John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides (1898).  A truly amazing story of God’s work through a humble, Scottish Presbyterian missionary among the cannibals of Australasia.

But I had altogether forgotten the book’s recounting of his preparatory work in the Glasgow City Mission.  He had been an active district visitor in the famous mission work founded by David Nasmith and patterned largely on Thomas Chalmers’ mission principles of locality and aggression.  In the next few installments, we’ll offer some selections from Paton’s chapter on his experience with the Glasgow City Mission.  It should give us some firsthand insight into what 19th century district visitation among the urban poor looked like.  (And, by the by, I personally abstain from his teetotalism.)

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Before undertaking the Maryhill school, I had applied to be taken on as an agent in the Glasgow City Mission ; and the night before I had to leave Maryhill, I received a letter from Rev. Thomas Caie, the superintendent of the said Mission, saying that the directors had kept their eyes on me ever since my application, and requesting, as they understood I was leaving the school, that I would appear before them the next morning, and have my qualifications for becoming a Missionary examined into. Praising God, I went off at once, passed the examination successfully, and was appointed to spend two hours that afternoon and the following Monday in visitation with two of the directors, calling at every house in a low district of the town, and conversing with all the characters encountered there on their eternal welfare. I had also to preach a ” trial” discourse in a Mission meeting, where a deputation of directors would be present, the following evening being Sunday ; and on Wednesday evening, they met again to hear their reports and to accept or reject me. All this had come upon me so unexpectedly, that I almost anticipated failure; but looking up for help I went through with it, and on the fifth day after leaving the school they called me before a meeting of directors, and informed me that I had passed my trials most successfully, and that the reports were so favourable that they had unanimously resolved to receive me at once as one of their City Missionaries. It was further explained that one of their number, Matthew Fairley, Esq., an elder in Dr. Symington’s congregation, had guaranteed the half of my salary for two years, the other half to be met by the resources of the Mission voluntarily contributed,—the whole salary at that time amounting to £40 per annum. The district allocated to me was one especially needful and trying, that had never been occupied, in and around the Green Street of Calton, and I was enjcined to enter upon my duties at once. After receiving many good and kind counsels from these good and kind men, one of them in prayer very solemnly dedicated me and my work to the Lord; and several of them were appointed to introduce me to my district, taking a day each by turns, and to assist me in making arrangements for the on-carrying of the work. Deeply solemnized with the responsibilities of my new office, I left that meeting praising God for all His undeserved mercies, and seeing most clearly His gracious hand in all the way by which He had led me, and the trials by which He had prepared me for the sphere of service, Man proposes—God disposes.

Most of these directors were men of God, adapted and qualified for this special work, and very helpful in counsel as they went with me from day to day, introducing me to my district, and seeing the character and position of the people dwelling there. Looking back upon these Mission experiences, I have ever felt that they were, to me and many others, a good and profitable training of students for the office of the Ministry, preparing us to deal with men of every shade of thought and of character, and try to lead them to the knowledge and service of the Lord Jesus. I found the district a very degraded one. Many families said they had never been visited by any minister; and many were lapsed professors of religion who had attended no church for ten, sixteen, or twenty years, and said they had never been called upon by any minister, nor by any Christian visitor. In it were congregated many avowed infidels, Romanists, and drunkards,—living together, and associated for evil, but apparently without any effective counteracting influence. In many of its closes and courts sin and vice walked about openly—naked and not ashamed.

We were expected to spend four hours daily in visiting from house to house, holding small prayer meetings amongst those visited, calling them together also in evening meetings, and trying by all means to do whatever good was possible amongst them. The only place in the whole district available for a Sabbath evening Evangelistic Service was a hay-loft, under which a cow-feeder kept a large number of cows, and which was reached by an outside rickety wooden stair. After nearly a year’s hard work, I had only six or seven non-church-goers, who had been led to attend regularly there, besides about the same number who met on a week evening in the groundfloor of a house kindly granted for the purpose by a poor and industrious but ill-used Irishwoman. She supported her family by keeping a little shop, and selling coals. Her husband was a powerful man —a good worker, but a hard drinker, and, like too many others addicted to intemperance, he abused and beat her, and pawned and drank everything he could get hold of. She, amid many prayers and tears, bore everything patiently, and strove to bring up her only daughter in the fear of God. We exerted, by God’s blessing, a good influence upon him through our meetings. He became a total abstainer, gave up his evil ways, and attended church regularly with his wife. As his interest increased, he tried to bring others also to the meeting, and urged them to become abstainers. His wife became a centre of help and of good influence I all the district, as she kindly invited all and welcomed them to the meeting in her house, and my work grew every day more hopeful.

Seeing, however, that one year’s hard work showed sach small results, the directors proposed to remove me to another district, as in their estimation the nonchurch-goers in Green Street were unassailable by ordinary means. I pleaded for six months’ longer trial, as I had gained the confidence of many of the poor people there, and had an invincible faith that the good seed sown would soon bear blessed fruit.  To this the directors kindly agreed. At our next meeting I informed those present that, if we could not draw out more of the non-church-goers to attend the services, I should be removed to another part of the city. Each one there and then agreed to bring another to our next meeting. Both our meetings at once doubled their attendance. My interest in them and their interest in me now grew apace, and, for fear I might be taken away from them, they made another effort, and again doubled our attendance. Henceforth meeting and class were both too large for any house that was available for us in the whole of our district.  We instituted a Bible Class, a Singing Class, a Communicants’ Class, and a Total Abstinence Society; and, in addition to the usual meetings, we opened two prayer meetings specially for the Calton division of the Glasgow Police—one at a suitable hour for the men on day duty, and another for those on night duty. The men got up a Mutual Improvement Society and Singing Class also amongst themselves, weekly, on another evening. My work now occupied every evening in the week; and I had two meetings every Sabbath. By God’s blessing they all prospered, and gave evidence of such fruits as showed that the Lord was working there for good by our humble instrumentality.

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I’ve recently stumbled across Shedd’s Pastoral Theology . It contains several interesting insights into the theory and practice of Reformed parochialism.  But even more intriguing is the fact that it illustrates the survival and idealization of the old, European ecclesiastical model within the untamed vastness of multi-denominational, disestablished America.  And no, it’s not Roman Catholic or Anglican!

In a couple of installments, I’m going to share some great quotes from this Pastoral Theology and add a few observations.

“We define Pastoral Theology to be, that part of the clerical curriculum which relates to the clergyman’s parochial life. It contemplates him in his more retired capacity, as one who has the care of individual souls. The pastor is a curate, and Pastoral Theology relates to the clergyman’s curacy. These terms, which are not so familiar to the American as to the English ear, if taken in their etymological signification, denote precisely the more private character and duties of the clergyman. They are derived from the Latin curare, to take care of. A curate is one who has the care of souls. The apostle Paul speaks of ‘watching for souls.’ The pastor, or curate, is a watcher for souls” (320-321).

“The Christian minister, by his very vocation, is the sacred man in society. By his very position, he is forbidden to be a secular member of community, and hence he must not be secular, either in his character of his habits. It is true, that the clergy are not a sacred caste, yet they are a sacred profession. Hence, society expects from them a ministerial character and bearing, and respects them just in proportion as they possess and exhibit it. The clergyman is sometimes called the ‘parson.’ Though the word has fallen into disuse, owing to the contemptuous employment of it, by the infidelity of the eighteenth century, its etymology is instructive in this connection. Parson is derived from the Latin persona. The clergyman is the person, by way of emphasis, in his parish. He is the marked and and peculiarly religious man, in the community. His very position and vocation, therefore, make it incumbent upon him to be eminently spiritual. His worldly support is provided by the Church, to whom he ministers, and his acceptance of it is an acknowledgement upon his part, that a secular life is unsuitable for him, and a demand upon their part, that he devote himself entirely to religion, and be an example to the flock” (323-24).

I find it very useful to understand the etymological background of these older terms for ordained ministers, curate and parson. What is more, they tap a pastoral-theological well that is full of rich and relevant truth.

The idea of the minister as the parson or persona of a community reveals a federal dimension to parochialism.  He is the head of a community.  He is in a unique position as what the Puritans would call a ‘publick person.’  He is poised to be the blessing or bane of a social unit whom he represents and whom he is called to serve.  Consequently, the minister as parson functions in a kind of priestly capacity.  He stands for the community to God and for God to the community.  He is, in a sense, the embodiment of Christ, the Great High Priest for others.

The idea of pastor as curate highlights the paternal character of parochialism.  We care for souls under us, a definite number with whom we are bound.  This may be a sub-aspect of the federal aspect.

It is true, the Bible never gives ‘ministers’ or ‘pastors’ the designation of curate or parson.  This is extrabiblical terminology – or maybe we might call it biblical-theological (i.e., thematic) terminology.  It does give them something close, however, such as ‘overseers’ and ‘men of God’; and for that reason, I’m not so skittish about them.  (Although ‘curate’ definitely has a high church ring to it.)

But Protestants, minus the Church of England, rightly rejected the terms of ‘fathers’ and ‘priests’ for those in the ministry.  I speculate that these sacerdotal themes inherent in the Scriptural doctrine of the ministry grew beyond the bounds of all modest, biblical proportion in the development of the Church.  Pastors are paternal figures, yet our Lord warns against calling men ‘father.’  And while they have priestly functions, they are never called priests.  To give them this term in an official capacity is not only to transgress biblical language but to tend in the direction of denigrating the finality of Christ’s priesthood and the universal priesthood of all believers.

That being said, we shouldn’t dismiss priestly concepts from our ministerial thought and practice.  It can very much enrich both. Paul did, Peter did.  And obviously so do did Shedd, a staunch Presbyterian.

All of this is relevant for the ministry in relation to the believing congregation.  But Shedd makes takes another step, which reflects more classical ideas of parochialism.  But we’ll leave that to the next installment!

Go to “More on Shedd & Parochialism”

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David Nasmith, founder of the Glasgow City Mission 


Iain J. Shaw, “Thomas Chalmers, David Nasmith, and the Origins of the City Mission Movement”

Shaw, author of the recent work entitled High Calvinists in Action: Calvinism and the City in Manchester and London c. 1810-60 (Oxford University Press, 2003), in this essay turns to a related subject in the field of 19th century British Calvinism. He focuses here upon two other figures to portray Calvinist action, evangelistic and philanthropic, in the cities of the Industrial Age: one more widely known figure, Thomas Chalmers of the Church (and later Free Church) of Scotland, and one that has apparently fallen into greater obscurity, David Nasmith, founder of the British city mission movement.

According to Shaw, the parochial home and foreign mission philosophy that Chalmers advocated and applied in his St. John’s parish, Glasgow, was highly influential on Nasmith. Home visitation had long enjoyed popularity in evangelical Churches, and Chalmers was a firm proponent of the old policy Christianization by visitation. “Nature does not go forth in search of Christianity; but Christianity goes forth to knock at the door of nature and, if possible, awaken her out of her sluggishness. . . . It is the way of it in every missionary enterprise.” Consequently, every minister is duty-bound to keep up “an incessant locomotion among the families” (Chalmers, Christian Economy, I: 108-9, 117, quoted by Shaw, 33). Chalmers modified this old model into a territorial visitation scheme adapted to large, industrialized urban cities. And not content to remain an academic theorizer, Chalmers implemented this program in St. John’s (and later in the West Port, Edinburgh) with profound efficiency, mobilizing, regularly supervising and encouraging great numbers of energetic volunteers. Chalmers’ revised model then involved four indispensable components: (1) defined, localized responsibility, (2) habitual visitation of that locality, (3) lay mobilization, and (4) oversight and encouragement of that mobilized force. While Shaw questions the ultimate effectiveness of Chalmers’ charitable policies – paternalistic and anti-public assistance – in the urban slums of Scotland, yet he concedes that he enjoyed great success in popularizing regular territorial visitation in British evangelical home missions.

It was this modified urban parish outreach model that Nasmith basically took over in the Glasgow City Mission. Nasmith, his heart large for the spiritually and socio-economically degraded city of Glasgow, formed an interdenominational organization that sent agents out into the impoverished areas of the city on regular visitations for the spiritual and practical aid of the people. According to Shaw, “Nasmith set domestic visitation at the heart of the work of the agent. As Chalmers had urged, an acquaintance with every family in the district was to be made” (38). And just as Chalmers personally supervised his lay workers, Nasmith ensured that his agents were accountable in their territorial efforts. One is struck with the thoroughness of the program:

Although in Glasgow the post was formally part time, missionaries were to serve the society for up to five hours a day, with hours selected sometime between 11 am and 9 pm. Saturday was reserved for study. . . [The visiting agents] were required to produce a monthly journal of their visitation work which was inspected by the directors, and a report duly delivered to the committee. Directors of the mission accompanied the agents annually to assess their visitation work. Agents were often reprimanded for inefficient or inadequate performance of their duties: in such cases verdicts such as ‘very lifeless’, or ‘neglectful conduct’ were issued (38).

Now, it should be kept in mind that (many of?) these individuals were according to Shaw ‘on the payroll;’ but the accountability of spiritual workers, nonetheless, is here quite striking.

Further, just as with Chalmers’ program in St. John’s, so it was with the Glasgow City Mission – the lay workers visiting were personally able and obliged to deal with instances of poverty and to arrange assistance accordingly. Their duty was first spiritual, but physical concerns were not far behind.

Chalmers very naturally endorsed the Glasgow City Mission. He himself very well could have said what Nasmith himself urged, “Nothing can be of more importance than to Christianise the inhabitants of our large cities” (Letter of David Nasmith to Thomas Chalmers, 16 September 1827, Chalmers MSS, New College Library, Edinburgh, CHA 4. 82.5, quoted by Shaw, 37).

This essay introduces some questions for me in terms of the theory and practice of domestic mission. Chalmers and Nasmith seem to have made a great push towards the democratization of the Christian ministry. The professional ‘ministers’ were not to do it all; they should be leaders and equippers. The end of the ministry was, after all, “not to perform good works, but to multiply the workers” (T. Chalmers, Works, Vol. 18, 380; quoted by Shaw, 39). Chalmers, though an establishment churchman, clearly had a strong appreciation for voluntary ‘lay’ activity. If he was anything, he was an administrator, a delegator, a mobilizer, and a motivator. He both endorsed and formed many ‘societies’ aimed at spiritual and philanthropic improvement of his fellow man, and Nasmith was in some respects a carbon copy. The following extract well illustrates this paradigm: if laymen could exercise “all that competency which belongs to them of superintending and carrying through the whole work of our religious and other charities . . . how mighty an enlargement the field of Christian beneficence would instantly spread itself” (Hanna, Memoirs, Vol II: 505, quoted by Shaw, 40).

How much of this was (and is) good, and how much not so good? Was this a positive move away from that unhealthy, spiritually aristocratic view of the ministry that assigns all spiritual gifts to the ordained ministry and downplays the role of the gifts of the non-ordained? Or was this the opening of the floodgates of the modern day every-believer-has-a-ministry kind of mentality that denigrates the Ephesians 4 offices, gracious endowment of the ascended Christ? Does the centrality of preaching lose its proper place with the added emphasis on private, interpersonal visitation? Is the minister to be less preacher and more administrator and manager? I think the ideal lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes; and whether Chalmers hit the golden mean is open to debate, I suppose.

I did find the discussion of the workforce of the Glasgow City Mission particularly interesting. Nasmith in the work of the Mission took over Chalmers’ strong emphasis on “lay agency in domestic visitation” (41). Those who were recruited for the work had to be men of blameless Christian character and capable to meet the spiritual and physical needs of those in the field of labor. What is of special note is that this role of the lay agent in the Glasgow City Mission frequently became a stepping stone for the Christian ministry. “Thomas Chalmers,” writes Shaw, “had enlisted ranks of elders, deacons, Sunday School and day school teachers as non-commissioned officers spearheading his assault on the urban parish. The Glasgow City Mission recruited a similar workforce, but they were NCO’s working towards a commission” (42). Whichever approach one takes, whether employing for the effort elders and deacons or lay persons training for the Christian ministry, it is clear both men viewed the parish as the field of labor for more than just the minister. For Chalmers, it was for the lay-officers; for Nasmith, the officers-in-preparation.

I am quite sympathetic with both variants of the model. In terms of Nasmith’s variant, an ecclesiastical office that is both congregational and parochial requires first a testing and an approving of men who are fit for this two-fold ministry. “And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless” (1 Tim. 3:10). One who aspires to the office should demonstrate his capabilities, including his aptitude for teaching (1 Tim. 3:2) those within and those without. To that end, it is the Church’s responsibility to train thoroughly her future leaders. And so Nasmith pleads, “The Church must think of, nurse, and TRAIN her young men before she can answer the ends for which she exists” (quoted by Shaw, 42). Let the ‘probationers’ be busy not only in preaching, but also visiting the Lord’s people and those in the district that the church has adopted for its territorial, evangelistic expansion.

In terms of Chalmers’ variant, those who hold the office of elder and deacon should not be excluded from parochial ministry any more than from congregational ministry. So let them be deployed throughout ‘elder districts’ (which is historical point of interest for another time).

But I’m not sure I agree with the notion that the use of elders, as with Chalmers, is the utilization of the ‘laity.’ Doesn’t this suppose a view of the ministry that presumes teaching elders represent presbytery and ruling elders the congregation? That ‘elders’ are members not of presbytery, but of the congregation. If so, I am not in agreement. That the ‘laity’ should be used in evangelistic efforts I don’t deny. But the notion that mobilizing elders is mobilizing the laity strikes me as a manifestation of functional episcopacy. Since the age of the apostles has passed, I am leery of the deputation of elders from a presumed superior command.

And I wonder at the same time whether I can be perfectly at ease with Nasmith’s variant. The workforce of the Glasgow City Mission was strictly confined to the laity (43). It is as though the laity was viewed as consummate tool for territorial witness and not the ordained ministry. The ecclesiastical ministry never intersected with this model except, as Shaw notes, inasmuch as probationers and divinity students used it as a stepping-stone to clerical careers. What of the Church, though? What of the ordained gifts of the ascended Lord? Are not preachers ordained and sent especially for the work of conversion (Rom. 10:14, 15; Acts 13:1-5)? Are not “pastors and teachers” given “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12)? So why not graduate the efficient lay workers, who have first been trained, tested, and approved, to the ordained office? Why hold them in the sphere of followers if they have competently demonstrated themselves to be leaders? Or, why bid them adieu to the Church from the ‘society’ when they have shown themselves so faithful? Perhaps the fault lies in the ‘societal’ or para-ecclesiastical paradigm of Nasmith. The Mission worked in tandem with the Church, but was not itself a church. As sympathetic as I am with Nasmith’s large-hearted ecumenicity and evangelistic priority (again, following Chalmers), I think there was a better way, one that appreciates and involves the laity and yet does not at the same time seem to depreciate the Church and her ordained ministry.

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