Concerning the Pulpit in Scotland

By A.K.H. Boyd.

Nearly forty years since, Dr. Chalmers, one of the parish ministers of Glasgow, preached several times in London. He was then in the zenith of his popularity as a pulpit orator. Canning and Wilberforce went together to hear him upon one occasion; and after sitting spell-bound under his eloquence, Canning said to Wilberforce when the sermon was done, ‘The tartan beats us; we have no preaching like that in England.’

In October 1855, the Rev. John Caird, incumbent of the parish of Errol, in Perthshire, preached before the Queen and Court at the church of Crathie. Her Majesty was so impressed by the discourse that she commanded its publication; and the Prince Consort, no mean authority, expressed his admiration of the ability of the preacher, saying that ‘he had not heard a preacher like him for seven years, and did not expect to enjoy a like pleasure for as long a period to come.’ So, at all events, says a paragraph in The Times of December 12th, 1855.

It is somewhat startling to find men of cultivated taste, who are familiar with the highest class preaching of the English Church, expressing their sense of the superior effect of pulpit oratory of a very different kind. No doubt Caird and Chalmers are the best of their class; and the overwhelming effect which they and a few other Scotch preachers have often produced, is in a great degree owing to the individual genius of the men, and not to the school of preaching they belong to. Yet both are representatives of what may be called the Scotch school of preaching: and with all their genius, they never could have carried away their audience as they have done, had they been trammeled by those canons of taste to which English preachers almost invariably conform. Their manner is just the regular Scotch manner, vivified into tenfold effect by their own peculiar genius. Preaching in Scotland is a totally different thing from what it is in England. In the former country it is generally characterized by an amount of excitement in delivery and matter, which in England is only found among the most fanatical Dissenters, and is practically unknown in the pulpits of the national church.

No doubt English and Scotch preaching differ in substance to a certain ‘extent.’ Scotch sermons are generally longer, averaging from forty minutes to an hour in the delivery. There is a more prominent and constant pressing of what is called evangelical doctrine. The treatment of the subject is more formal. There is an introduction; two or three heads of discourse, formally announced; and a practical conclusion; and generally the entire Calvinistic system is set forth in every sermon. But the main difference lies in the manner in which the discourses of the two schools are delivered. While English sermons are generally read with quiet dignity, in Scotland they are very commonly repeated from memory, and given with great vehemence and oratorical effect, and abundant gesticulation. Nor is it to be supposed that when we say the difference is mainly in manner, we think it a small one. There is only one account given by all who have heard the most striking Scotch preachers, as to the proportion which their manner bears in the effect produced. Lockhart, late of The Quarterly, says of Chalmers, ‘Never did the world possess any orator whose minutest peculiarities of gesture and voice have more power in increasing the effect of what he says; whose delivery, in other words, is the first, and the second, and the third excellence in his oratory, more truly than is that of Dr. Chalmers.’ The same words might be repeated of Caird, who has succeeded to Chalmers’s fame. A hundred little circumstances of voice and manner—even of appearance and dress—combine to give his oratory its overwhelming power. And where manner is everything, difference in manner is a total difference.  Nor does manner affect only the less educated and intelligent class of hearers. It cannot be doubted that the unparalleled impression produced, even on such men as Wilberforce, Canning, Lockhart, Lord Jeffrey, and Prince Albert, was mainly the result of manner.

In point of substance and style, many English preachers are quite superior to the best of the Scotch. In these respects, there are no preachers in Scotland who come near the mark of Melvill, Manning, Arnold, or Bishop Wilberforce. Lockhart says of  Chalmers,

I have heard many men deliver sermons far better arranged in point of argument; and I have heard very many deliver sermons far more uniform in elegance, both of conception and of style; but most unquestionably, I have never heard, either in England or Scotland, or in any other country, a preacher whose eloquence is capable of producing an effect so strong and irresistible as his.

The best proof how much Chalmers owed to his manner, is, that in his latter days, when he was no longer able to give them with his wonted animation and feeling, the very same discourses fell quite flat on his congregation.

It is long since Sydney Smith expressed his views as to the chilliness which is the general characteristic of the Anglican pulpit. In the preface to his published sermons, he says:

The English, generally remarkable for doing very good things in a very bad manner, seem to have reserved the maturity and plenitude of their awkwardness for the pulpit. A clergyman clings to his velvet cushion with either hand, keeps his eye riveted on his book, speaks of the ecstasies of joy and fear with a voice and a face which indicates neither; and pinions his body and soul into the same attitude of limb and thought, for fear of being thought theatrical and affected. The most intrepid veteran of us all dares no more than wipe his face with his cambric sudarium; if by mischance his hand slip from its orthodox gripe of the velvet, he draws it back as from liquid brimstone, and atones for the indecorum by fresh inflexibility and more rigorous sameness. Is it wonder, then, that every semi-delirious sectary who pours forth his animated nonsense with the genuine look and voice of passion, should gesticulate away the congregation of the most profound and learned divine of the established church, and in two Sundays preach him bare to the very sexton? Why are we natural everywhere but in the pulpit? No man expresses warm and animated feelings anywhere else, with his mouth only, but with his whole body; he articulates with every limb, and talks from head to foot with a thousand voices.  Why this holoplexia on sacred occasions only? Why call in the aid of paralysis to piety?  Is sin to be taken from men, as Eve was from Adam, by casting them into a deep slumber? Or from what possible perversion of common sense are we all to look like field preachers in Zambia, holy lumps of ice, numbed into quiescence and stagnation and mumbling?

Now in Scotland, for very many years past, the standard style of preaching has been that which the lively yet gentle satirist wished to see more common in England. Whether successfully or not, Scotch preachers aim at what Sydney Smith regarded as the right way of preaching—‘to rouse, to appeal, to inflame, to break through every barrier, up to the very haunts and chambers of the soul.’ Whether this end be a safe one to propose to each one of some hundreds of men of ordinary ability and taste, may be a question. An unsuccessful attempt at it is very likely to land a man in gross offence against common taste and common sense, from which he whose aim is less ambitious is almost certainly safe. The preacher whose purpose is to preach plain sense in such a style and manner as not to offend people of education and refinement, if he fail in doing what he wishes, may indeed be dull, but will not be absurd and offensive.  But however this may be, it is curious that this impassioned and highly oratorical school of preaching should be found among a cautious, cool-headed race like the Scotch. The Scotch are proverbial for long heads, and no great capacity of emotion. Sir Walter Scott, in Rob Roy, in describing the preacher whom the hero heard in the crypt of Glasgow Cathedral, says that his countrymen are much more accessible to logic than rhetoric; and that this fact determines the character of the preaching which is most acceptable to them.  If the case was such in those times, matters are assuredly quite altered now. Logic is indeed not overlooked: but it is brilliancy of illustration, and, above all, great feeling and earnestness, which go down. Mr. Caird, the most popular of modern Scotch preachers, though possessing a very powerful and logical mind, yet owes his popularity with the mass of hearers almost entirely to his tremendous power of feeling and producing emotion.  By way of contrast to Sydney Smith’s picture of the English pulpit manner, let us look at one of Chalmers’s great appearances. Look on that picture, and then on this:

The Doctor’s manner during the whole delivery of that magnificent discourse was strikingly animated: while the enthusiasm and energy he threw into some of his bursts rendered them quite overpowering.  One expression which he used, together with his action, his look, and the tones of his voice, made a most vivid and indelible impression on my memory... While uttering these words, which he did with peculiar emphasis, accompanying them with a flash from his eye and a slump of his foot, he threw his right arm with clenched fist right across the book-board, and brandished it full in the face of the Town Council, sitting in state before him. The words seem to startle, like an electric shock, the whole audience.

Very likely they did: but we should regret to see a bishop, or even a dean, have recourse to such means of producing an impression. We shall give one other extract descriptive of Chalmers’s manner:

It was a transcendently grand, a glorious burst. The energy of his action corresponded. Intense emotion beamed from his countenance.  I cannot describe the appearance of his face better than by saving it was lighted up almost into a glare. The congregation were intensely excited, leaning forward in the pews like a forest bending under the power of the hurricane,--looking steadfastly at the preacher, and listening in breathless wonderment. So soon as it was concluded, there was (as invariably was the case at the close of the Doctor’s bursts) a deep sigh, or rather gasp for breath, accompanied by a movement throughout the whole audience.

[Footnote: Life of Chalmers, vol. i. pp. 462, 3, and 467, 8. It should be mentioned that Chalmers, notwithstanding this tremendous vehemence, always read his sermons.]

There is indeed in the Scotch Church a considerable class of most respectable preachers who read their sermons, and who, both for matter and manner, might be transplanted without remark into the pulpit of any cathedral in England. There is a school, also, of high standing and no small popularity, whose manner and style are calm and beautiful; but who, through deficiency of that vehemence which is at such a premium in Scotland at present, will never draw crowds such as hang upon the lips of more excited orators. Foremost among such stands Mr. Robertson, minister of Strathmartin, in Forfarshire.  Dr. McCulloch, of Greenock, and Dr. Veitch, of St.  Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh, are among the best specimens of the class.  But that preaching which interests, leads onward, and instructs, has few admirers compared with that which thrills, overwhelms, and sweeps away. And from the impression made on individuals so competent to judge as those already mentioned, it would certainly seem that, whether suited to the dignity of the pulpit or not, the deepest oratorical effect is made by the latter, even on cultivated minds.  Some of the most popular preachers in England have formed themselves on the Scotch model. Melvill and M’Neile are examples: so, in a different walk, is Ryle, so well known by his tracts.  We believe that Melvill in his early days delivered his sermons from memory, and of late years only has taken to reading, to the considerable diminution of the effect he produces. We may here remark, that in some country districts the prejudice of the people against clergymen reading their sermons is excessive. It is indeed to be admitted that it is a more natural thing that a speaker should look at the audience he is addressing, and appear to speak from the feeling of the moment, than that he should read to them what he has to say; but it is hard to impose upon a parish minister, burdened with pastoral duty, the irksome school-boy task of committing to memory a long sermon, and perhaps two, every week. The system of reading is spreading rapidly in the Scotch Church, and seems likely in a few years to become all but universal. Caird reads his sermons closely on ordinary Sundays, but delivers entirely from memory in preaching on any particular occasion.

It may easily be imagined that when every one of fourteen or fifteen hundred preachers understands on entering the church that his manner must be animated if he looks for preferment, very many will have a very bad manner. It is wonderful, indeed, when we look to the average run of respectable Scotch preachers, to find how many take kindly to the emotional style. Often, of course, such a style is thoroughly contrary to the man’s idiosyncrasy. Still, he must seem warm and animated; and the consequence is frequently loud speaking without a vestige of feeling, and much roaring when there is nothing whatever in what is said to demand it. Noise is mistaken for animation. We have been startled on going into a little country kirk, in which any speaking above a whisper would have been audible, to find the minister from the very beginning of the service, roaring as if speaking to people a quarter of a mile off. Yet the rustics were still, and appeared attentive. They regarded their clergyman as ‘a powerfu’ preacher;’ while the most nervous thought, uttered in more civilized tones, would have been esteemed ‘unco weak.’ We are speaking, of course, of very plain congregations; but among such ‘a powerful preacher’ means a preacher with a powerful voice and great physical energy.

Let not English readers imagine, when we speak of the vehemence of the Scotch pulpit, that we mean only a gentlemanly degree of warmth and energy. It often amounts to the most violent melo-dramatic acting. Sheil’s Irish speeches would have been immensely popular Scotch sermons, so far as their style and delivery are concerned.  The physical energy is tremendous. It is said that when Chalmers preached in St. George’s, Edinburgh, the massive chandeliers, many feet off, were all vibrating. He had often to stop, exhausted, in the midst of his sermon, and have a psalm sung till he recovered breath. Caird begins quietly, but frequently works himself up to a frantic excitement, in which his gestulation is of the wildest, and his voice an absolute howl. One feels afraid that he may burst a blood vessel. Were his hearers cool enough to criticize him, the impression would be at an end; but he has wound them up to such a pitch that criticism is impossible. They must sit absolutely passive, with nerves tingling and blood pausing: frequently many of the congregation have started to their feet. It may be imagined how heavily the physical energies of the preacher are drawn upon by this mode of speaking. Dr. Bennie, one of the ministers of Edinburgh, and one of the most eloquent and effective of Scotch pulpit orators, is said to have died at an age much short of fifty, worn out by the enthusiastic animation of his style. There are some little accessories of the Scotch pulpit, which in England are unknown: such as thrashing the large Bible which lies before the minister—long pauses to recover breath—much wiping of the face—soporific results to an unpleasant degree, necessitating an entire change of apparel after preaching.

The secret of the superior power over a mixed congregation of the best Scotch, as compared with most English preachers, is that the former are not deterred by any considerations of the dignity of the pulpit, from any oratorical art which is likely to produce an effect. Some times indeed, where better things might be expected, the most reprehensible clap-trap is resorted to. An English preacher is fettered and trammeled by fear of being thought fanatical and methodistical,--and still worse, ungentlemanlike. He knows, too, that a reputation as a ‘popular preacher’ is not the thing which will conduce much to his preferment in his profession. The Scotch preacher, on the other hand, throws himself heart and soul into his subject. Chalmers overcame the notion that vehemence in the pulpit was indicative of either fanaticism or weakness of intellect: he made ultra-animation respectable: and earnestness, even in an excessive degree, is all in favor of a young preacher’s popularity; while a man’s chance of the most valuable preferments (in the way of parochial livings) of the Scotch church, is in exact proportion to his popularity as a preacher. The spell of the greatest preachers is in their capacity of intense feeling. This is reflected on the congregation. A congregation will in most cases feel but a very inferior degree of the emotion which the preacher feels. But intense feeling is contagious. There is much in common between the tragic actor and the popular preacher; but while the actor’s power is generally the result of a studied elocution, the preacher’s is almost always native. A teacher of elocution would probably say that the manner of Chalmers, Guthrie, or Caird was a very bad one; but it suits the man, and no other would produce a like impression.  In reading the most effective discourses of the greatest preachers, we are invariably disappointed. We can see nothing very particular in those quotations from Chalmers which are recorded as having so overwhelmingly impressed those who heard them. It was manner that did it all. In short, an accessory which in England is almost entirely neglected, is the secret of Scotch effect. Nor is it any derogation from an orator’s genius to say that his power lies much less in what he says than in how he says it. It is but saying that his weapon can be wielded by no other hand than his own. Manner makes the entire difference between Macready and the poorest stroller that murders Shakespeare. The matter is the Baine in the case of each. Each has the same thing to say; the enormous difference lies in the manner in which each says it. The greatest effects recorded to have been produced by human language, have been produced by things which, in merely reading them, would not have appeared so very remarkable. Hazlitt tells us that nothing so lingered on his ear as a line from Home’s Douglas, as spoken by young Betty:--

And happy, in my mind, was he that died.

We have heard it said that Macready never produced a greater effect than by the very simple words ‘Who said that?’ It is perhaps a burlesque of an acknowledged fact, to record that Whitfield could thrill an audience by saying ‘Mesopotamia!’ Hugh Miller tells us that he heard Chalmers read a piece which he (Miller) had himself written. It produced the effect of the most telling acting; and its author never knew how fine it was till then. We remember well the feeling which ran through us when we heard Caird say, ‘As we bend over the grave, where the dying are burying the dead.’ All this is the result of that gift of genius; to feel with the whole soul and utter with the whole soul. The case of Gavazzi shows that tremendous energy can carry an audience away, without its understanding a syllable of what is said. Inferior men think by loud roaring and frantic gesticulation to produce that impression which genius alone can produce. But the counterfeit is wretched; and with all intelligent people the result is derision and disgust.

Many of our readers, we daresay, have never witnessed the service of the Scotch Church. Its order is the simplest possible. A psalm is sung, the congregation sitting. A prayer of about a quarter of an hour in length is offered, the congregation standing. A chapter of the Bible is read; another psalm sung; then comes the sermon. A short prayer and a psalm follow; and the service is terminated by the benediction. The entire service lasts about an hour and a half.  It is almost invariably conducted by a single clergyman. In towns, the churches now approximate pretty much to the English, as regards architecture. It is only in country places that one finds the true bareness of Presbytery. The main difference is that there is no altar; the communion table being placed in the body of the church.  The pulpit occupies the altar end, and forms the most prominent object; symbolizing very accurately the relative estimation of the sermon in the Scotch service. Whenever a new church is built, the recurrence to a true ecclesiastical style is marked; and vaulted roofs, stained glass, and dark oak, have, in large towns, in a great degree, supplanted the flat-roofed meetinghouses which were the Presbyterian ideal. The preacher generally wears the English preaching gown. The old Geneva gown covered with frogs is hardly ever seen; but the surplice would still stir up a revolution. The service is performed with much propriety of demeanor; the singing is often so well done by a good choir, that the absence of the organ is hardly felt.

Educated Scotchmen have come to lament the intolerant zeal which led the first Reformers in their country to such extremes. But in the country we still see the true genius of the Presbytery. The rustics walk into church with their hats on; and replace them and hurry out the instant the service is over. The decorous prayer before and after worship is unknown. The minister, in many churches wears no gown. The stupid bigotry of the people in some of the most covenanting districts is almost incredible.  There are parishes in which the people boast that they have never suffered so Romish a thing as a gown to appear in their pulpit; and the country people of Scotland generally regard Episcopacy as not a whit better than Popery. It has sometimes struck us as curious, that the Scotch have always made such endeavors to have a voice in the selection of their clergy. Almost all the dissenters from the Church of Scotland hold precisely the same views both of doctrine and church government as the Church, and have seceded on points connected with the existence of lay patronage. In England much discontent may sometimes be excited by an arbitrary appointment to a living; but it would be vain to endeavor to excite a movement throughout the whole country to prevent the recurrence of such appointments. Yet upon precisely this point did some three or four hundred ministers secede from the Scotch Church in 1843; and to maintain the abstract right of congregations to a share in the appointment of their minister, has the ‘Free Church’ drawn from the humbler classes of a poor country many hundred thousand pounds. No doubt all this results in some measure from the self-sufficiency of the Scotch character; but besides this, it should be remembered that to a Scotchman it is a matter of much graver importance who shall be his clergyman than it is to an Englishman.

In England, if the clergyman can but read decently, the congregation may find edification in listening to and joining in the beautiful prayers provided by the Church, even though the sermon should be poor enough. But in Scotland everything depends on the minister. If he be a fool, he can make the entire service as foolish as himself.  For prayers, sermon, choice of passages of Scripture which are read, everything, the congregation is dependent on the preacher.  The question, whether the worship to which the people of a parish are invited weekly shall be interesting and improving, or shall be absurd and revolting, is decided by the piety, good sense, and ability of the parish priest. Coleridge said he never knew the value of the Liturgy till he had heard the prayers which were offered in some remote country churches in Scotland.

We have not space to inquire into the circumstances which have given Scotch preaching its peculiar character. We may remark, however, that the sermon is the great feature of the Scotch service; it is the only attraction; and pains must be taken with it. The prayers are held in very secondary estimation. The preacher who aims at interesting his congregation, racks his brain to find what will startle and strike; and then the warmth of his delivery adds to his chance of keeping up attention. Then the Scotch are not a theatre-going people; they have not, thus, those stage-associations with a dramatic manner which would suggest themselves to many minds.  Many likewise expect that excitement in the church, which is more suited to the atmosphere of the play-house. Patrons of late years not infrequently allow a congregation to choose its own minister; the Crown almost invariably consults the people; the decided taste of almost all congregations is for great warmth of manner; and the supply is made to suit the demand.

As for the solemn question, how far Scotch preaching answers the great end of all right preaching, it is hard to speak. No doubt it is a great thing to arouse the somewhat comatose attention of any audience to a discourse upon religion, and any means short of clap-trap and indecorum are justified if they succeed in doing so.  No man will be informed or improved by a sermon which sets him asleep. Yet it is to be feared that, in the prevailing rage for what is striking and new, some eminent preachers sacrifice usefulness to glitter. We have heard discourses concerning which, had we been asked when they were over, What is the tendency and result of all this?--what is the conclusion it all leads to?--we should have been obliged to reply, Only that Mr. Such-a-one is an uncommonly clever man. The intellectual treat, likewise, of listening to first-class pulpit oratory, tends to draw many to church merely to enjoy it.  Many go, not to be the better for the truth set forth, but to be delighted by the preacher’s eloquence. And it is certain that many persons whose daily life exhibits no trace of religion, have been most regular and attentive hearers of the most striking preachers.  We may mention an instance in point. When Mr. Caird was one of the ministers of Edinburgh, he preached in a church, one gallery of which is allotted to students of the University. A friend of ours was one Sunday afternoon in that gallery, when he observed in the pew before him two very rough-looking fellows, with huge walking-sticks projecting from their great-coat pockets, and all the unmistakable marks of medical students. It was evident they were little accustomed to attend any place of worship. The church, as usual, was crammed to suffocation, and Mr. Caird preached a most stirring sermon.  As he wound up one paragraph to an overwhelming climax, the whole congregation bent forward in eager and breathless silence. The medical students were under the general spell. Half rising from their seats they gazed at the preacher with open mouths.  At length the burst was over, and a long sigh relieved the wrought-up multitude.  The two students sank upon their seat, and looked at one another fixedly: and the first expressed his appreciation of the eloquence of what he had heard by exclaiming half aloud to his companion, ‘Damn it, that’s it.’

The doctrine preached in Scotch pulpits is now almost invariably what is termed evangelical. For a long time, now long gone by, many of the clergy preached morality, with very inadequate views of Christian doctrine. We cannot but notice a misrepresentation of Dr.  Hanna, in his Life of Chalmers. Without saying so, he leaves an impression that all the clergy of the Moderate or Conservative party in the Church held those semi-infidel views which Chalmers entertained in his early days. The case is by no means so. Very many ministers, not belonging to the movement party, held truly orthodox opinions, and did their pastoral work as faithfully as ever Chalmers did after his great change of sentiment. It is curious to know that while party feeling ran high in the Scotch Church, it was a shibboleth of the Moderate party to use the Lord’s Prayer in the Church service. The other party rejected that beautiful compendium of all supplication, on the ground that, it was not a Christian prayer, no mention being made in it of the doctrine of the atonement.  It is recorded that on one occasion a minister of what was termed the ‘High-fiying’ party was to preach for Dr. Gilchrist, of the Canongate Church in Edinburgh. That venerable clergyman told his friend before service that it was usual in the Canongate Church to make use of the Lord’s Prayer at every celebration of worship.  The friend looked somewhat disconcerted, and said, ‘Is it absolutely necessary that I should give the Lord’s Prayer?’ ‘Not at all,’ was Dr. Gilchrist’s reply, ‘not at all, if you can give us anything better!’

Mr. Caird’s sermon preached at Crathie has been published by royal command. It is no secret that the Queen arid Prince, after hearing it, read it in manuscript, and expressed themselves no less impressed in reading it by the soundness of its views, than they had been in listening to it by its extraordinary eloquence. Our perusal of it has strongly confirmed us in the views we have expressed as to the share which Mr. Caird’s manner has in producing the effect with which his discourses tell upon any audience. The sermon is indeed an admirable one; accurate, and sometimes original in thought: illustrated with rare profusion of imagery, all in exquisite taste, and expressed in words scarcely one of which could be altered or displaced but for the worse. But Mr. Caird could not publish his voice and manner, and in warning these, the sermon wants the first, second, and third things which conduced to its effect when delivered. In May, 1854, Mr. Caird preached this discourse in the High Church, Edinburgh, before the Commissioner who represents her Majesty at the meetings of the General Assembly of the Scotch Church, and an exceedingly crowded and brilliant audience. Given there, with all the skill of the most accomplished actor, yet with a simple earnestness which prevented the least suspicion of anything like acting, the impression it produced is described as something marvelous. Hard-headed Scotch lawyers, the last men in the world to be carried into superlatives, declared that never till then did they understand what effect could be produced by human speech. But we confess that now we have these magic words to read quietly at home, we find it something of a task to get through them. A volume just published by Dr. Guthrie of Edinburgh, the greatest pulpit orator of the ‘Free Church,’ contains many sermons much more likely to interest a reader.

The sermon is from the text, ‘Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.’ [Footnote: Romans xii. 11.] It sets out thus:--

To combine business with religion, to keep up a spirit of serious piety amid the stir and distraction of a busy and active life,--this is one of the most difficult parts of a Christian’s trial in this world. It is comparatively easy to be religious in the church—to collect our thoughts and compose our feelings, and enter, with an appearance of propriety and decorum, into the offices of religious worship, amidst the quietude of the Sabbath, and within the still and sacred precincts of the house of prayer. But to be religious in the world—to be pious and holy and earnest-minded in the counting-room, the manufactory, the market-place, the field, the farm—to carry our good and solemn thoughts and feelings into the throng and thoroughfare of daily life,--this is the great difficulty of our Christian calling. No man not lost to all moral influence can help feeling his worldly passions calmed, and some measure of seriousness stealing over his mind, when engaged in the performance of the more awful and serious rites of religion; but the atmosphere of the domestic circle, the exchange, the street, the city’s throng, amidst coarse work and cankering cares and toils, is a very different atmosphere from that of a communion-table. Passing from one to the other has often seemed as the sudden transition from a tropical to a polar climate—from balmy warmth and sunshine to murky mist and freezing cold. And it appears sometimes as difficult to maintain the strength and steadfastness of religious principle and feeling when we go forth from the church to the world, as it would be to preserve an exotic alive in the open air in winter, or to keep the lamp that burns steadily within doors from being blown out if you take it abroad unsheltered from the wind.

The preacher then speaks of the shifts by which men have evaded the task of being holy, at once in the church and in the world; in ancient times by flying from the world altogether, in modern times by making religion altogether a Sunday thing. In opposition to either notion the text suggests,--

That piety is not for Sundays only, but for all days; that spirituality of mind is not appropriate to one set of actions, and an impertinence and intrusion with reference to others; but like the act of breathing, like the circulation of the blood, like the silent growth of the stature, a process that may be going on simultaneously with all our actions—when we are busiest as when we are idlest; in the church, in the world; in solitude, in society; in our grief and in our gladness; in our toil and in our rest; sleeping, waking; by day, by night; amidst all the engagements and exigencies of life.

The burden of the discourse is to prove that this is so; that religion is compatible with the business of Common Life. This appears, first, because religion, as a science, sets out doctrines easy to be understood by the humblest intellects; and as an art, sets out duties which may be practiced simultaneously with all other work. It is the art of being and of doing good: and for this art every profession and calling affords scope and discipline.

When a child is learning to write, it matters not of what words the copy set to him is composed, the thing desired being that, whatever he writes, he learns to write well. When a man is learning to be a Christian, it matters not what his particular work in life may be, the work he does is but the copy-line set to him; the main thing to be considered is that he learn to live well.

The second consideration by which Mr. Caird supports his thesis is, that religion consists, not so much in doing spiritual or sacred acts, as in doing secular acts from a sacred or spiritual motive.  ‘A man may be a Christian thinker and writer as much when giving to science, or history, or biography, or poetry a Christian tone and spirit, as when composing sermons or writing hymns.’

The third and most eloquent division of the discourse illustrates the thesis from the Mind’s Power of acting on Lattat Principles.  Though we cannot, in our worldly work, be always consciously thinking of religion, yet unconsciously, insensibly, we may be acting under its ever present control. For example, the preacher, amidst all his mental exertions, has underneath the outward workings of his mind, the latent thought of the presence of his auditory.

Like a secret atmosphere it surrounds and bathes his spirit as he goes on with the external work. And have not yon, too, my friends, an Auditor—it may he, a ‘great cloud of witnesses’—but at least one all glorious Witness and Listener ever present, ever watchful, as the discourse of life proceeds? Why, then, in this case too, while the outward business is diligently prosecuted, may there not be on your spirit a latent and constant impression of that awful inspection? What worldly work so absorbing as to leave no room in a believer’s spirit for the hallowing thought of that glorious Presence ever near?

We shall give but one extract more, the final illustration of this third head of discourse. It is a very good specimen of one of those exciting and irresistible bursts by which Caird sweeps away his audience. Imagine the following sentences given, at first quietly, but with great feeling, gradually waxing in energy and rapidity; and at length, amid dead stillness and hushed breaths, concluded as with a torrent’s rush:--

Or, have we not all felt that the thought of anticipated happiness may blend itself with the work of our busiest hours? The laborer's coming, released from toil—the schoolboy’s coming holiday, or the hard-wrought business man’s approaching season of relaxation—the expected return of a long absent and much loved friend; is not the thought of these, or similar joyous events, one which often intermingles with, without interrupting, our common work? When a father goes forth to his ‘labour till the evening,’ perhaps often, very often, in the thick of his toils the thought of home may start up to cheer him. The smile that is to welcome him, as he crosses his lowly threshold when the work of the day is over, the glad faces, and merry voices, arid sweet caresses of little ones, as they shall gather round him in the quiet evening hours, the thought of all this may dwell, a latent joy, a hidden motive, deep down in his heart of hearts, may come rushing in a sweet solace at every pause of exertion, and act like a secret oil to smooth the wheels of labor.  The heart has a secret treasury, where our hopes and joys are often garnered, too precious to be parted with, even for a moment.

And why may not the highest of all hopes and joys possess the same all-pervading influence? Have we, if our religion is real, no anticipation of happiness in the glorious future? Is there no ‘rest that remaineth for the people of God,’ no home and loving heart awaiting us when the toils of our hurried day of life are ended?  What is earthly rest or relaxation, what the release from toil after which we so often sigh, but the faint shadow of the saint’s everlasting rest, the rest of the soul in God? What visions of earthly bliss can ever, if our Christian faith be not a form, compare with ‘the glory soon to be revealed?’ What glory of earthly reunion with the rapture of that hour when the heavens shall yield an absent Lord to our embrace, to be parted from us no more for ever! And if all this be most sober truth, what is there to except this joyful hope from that law to which, in all other deep joys, our minds are subject? Why may we not, in this case too, think often, amidst our worldly work, of the House to which we are going, of the true and loving heart that heats for us, and of the sweet and joyous welcome that awaits us there? And even when we make them not, of set purpose, the subject of our thoughts, is there not enough of grandeur in the objects of a believer’s hope to pervade his spirit at all times with a calm and reverential joy? Do not think all this strange, fanatical, impossible. If it do seem so, it can only be because your heart is in the earthly, but not in the higher and holier hopes.  No, my friends! the strange thing is, not that amidst the world’s work we should be able to think of our House, but that we should ever be able to forget it; and the stranger, sadder still, that while the little day of life is passing—morning, noontide, evening—each stage more rapid than the last; while to many the shadows are already fast lengthening, and the declining sun warns them that ‘the night is at hand, wherein no man can work,’ there should be those amongst us whose whole thoughts are absorbed in the business of the world, and to whom the reflection never occurs, that soon they must go out into eternity, without a friend, without a home!

The discourse thus ends in orthodox Scotch fashion, with a practical conclusion.

We think it not unlikely that the sermon has been toned down a good deal before publication, in anticipation of severe criticism. Some passages which were very effective when delivered, hate probably been modified so as to bring them more thoroughly within the limits of severe good taste. We think Mr. Caird has deserved the honors done him by royalty; and we willingly accord him his meed, as a man of no small force of intellect, of great power of illustration by happy analogies, of sincere piety, and of much earnestness to do good. He is still young—we believe considerably under forty—and much may be expected of him.

But we have rambled on into an unduly long gossip about Scotch preaching, and must abruptly conclude. We confess that it would please us to see, especially in the pulpits of our country churches, a little infusion of its warmth, rejecting anything of its extravagance.


This is taken from Recreations of a Country Parson.




Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved