Notes from J. W. Alexander’s Letters to Young Ministers

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 1, no. 3 (September 1992)

We are persuaded that grave errors prevail in respect to what should be the aim of the pastor, in his parochial studies and discipline. Looking at the greatness of the harvest, and the shortness of life, one is tempted at the first blush to say, “Let the study alone; go forth and save souls.” When learning in the ministry is mentioned, some are ready to think of a purely secular erudition, such as withdraws a man from his duty, or unfits him for it. I beg you to observe that the ministerial learning which I am recommending is solely the discipline and accomplishment whereby you shall be better fitted for your work. The study is not a place for lettered luxury, but the sacred palaestra in which Christ’s soldier is supposed to be forging his armor, and hardening his muscle, and training his agility, for the actual combat of the ministry. If, in the daily pursuit of knowledge, you keep constantly before your mind the end for which you seek it, there need be no fear of excess. To the last day of life, regard your mental powers as given you to be kept in continual working order, and continual improvement, and this with reference to the work of preaching and teaching. You will find all great preachers to have lived thus. I earnestly charge you to hold all studies as only means to this end, the glory of God in the salvation of souls. The day is near when your whole ministerial life will seem to you very short in retrospect. You must allow me to tell you plainly, that the danger is not that you will have too much of this preparation, that you will be over-educated, or extravagantly learned, but all the reverse. You may get great learning, with a bad motive; you may get little, with same: but all you will ever get, multiplied ten times, will not be too much for your work, or more than the Church and the times demand. Neither devotion, nor active labor, will furnish you an excuse for the neglect of knowledge. This is a question where examples are worth more than reasons. Look at Luther. Who was more devout? Who was more active ? Yet who was more devoted to learning, or more profoundly anxious, to the very close of life, that literature and religion should never be divorced, in the ministry of the Protestant Churches? “There be some,” he says, “who think that the writer’s office is a light trifling office, but that to ride in armor, and bear heat, cold, dust, drought, and the like, is labor indeed. I would fain see the knight who could join me in sitting still all day, looking on a book!” John Owen and Richard Baxter, whose works by themselves make a library, were working pastors, through as much of their life as was allowed to them from persecution. Edmund Calamy is famous, as one of the authors of Smectymnuus, written in answer to Bishop Hall's Divine Right of Episcopacy. No London preacher was favored by greater crowds, and that for twenty years. But he had not attained his fullness of preparation without some pains. While a chaplain, he studied sixteen hours a day. Need I assert the diligence or erudition of Matthew Pool? Look at his tall folios, especially his Synopsis Criticorum, the fruit of ten years’ toil, during which he used to rise at three and four o’clock. He was pastor of St. Michael’s, London, fourteen years, till the Bartholomew’s Day, and was a laborious preacher. Tuckney is memorable as the principal writer of the Shorter Catechism. Calamy relates, in regards to the college elections, that Tuckney used to say, “No one shall have greater regard to the truly godly than I; but I am determined to choose none but scholars: they may deceive me in their godliness, but in their scholarship they cannot.” The grace of God did not leave our Scottish forefathers without some striking examples of parochial studies and successes. The value which they set upon ministerial learning is inscribed on the constitution of our Church. It could not be otherwise, where the foundations were laid by such hands as those of Knox, Buchanan, and the Melvills. Robert Bruce, that saintly preacher, favored beyond most with near approaches to God in prayer, and marvelous power in awakening sinners; and whose life you ought to examine in detail, thus speaks of himself in old age:—“I have been a continued student, and I hope I may say it without offense, that he is not within the isle of Britain, of my age, that takes greater pains upon his Bible.” David Dickson’s name is a precious ointment in Scotland. He was exceedingly blessed in an age of wonderful revivals. Multitudes were convinced and converted by his means, yet Dickson was the author of several learned works and in his latter years professor of theology in Glasgow. I must mention Samuel Rutherford. Christians of the present day, knowing him chiefly by his letters, scarcely remember that he was one of the most learned men of his age. He was professor as well as preacher. He commonly rose about three in the morning. He spent all his time either in prayer, or reading and writing, or visiting families. Read his Letters; they will prove to you that great study need not quench the flame of devotion. I could easily record the names of clergymen still living, who add to the constant labors of the ministry, regular and persistent efforts to discipline the understanding and enrich the heart by private study. Engrave it upon your souls, that the whole business of your life is to prepare yourself for the work, and that no concentration of powers can be too great. Ministerial study is a sine qua non of success. There is such a thing as maintaining a transient popularity, and having a little usefulness, without any deep study; but this fire of straw soon burns out, this cistern soon fails. The preacher who is constantly pouring out, and seldom pouring in, can pour but a little while. The crying evil of our sermons is want of matter; we try to remedy this evil, and that evil, when the thing we should do is to get something to say. The grand point is this: there must be perpetual acquisition. This is the secret of preaching.

Ministerial study is twofold—special and general. By special study, I mean that preparation for a given sermon; by general study that preparation which a liberal mind is perpetually making, by reading, writing, and thinking over and above the sermonizing, and without any direct reference to preaching. What theologians say of preparation for death, may be said of preparation for preaching; there is habitual and there is actual preparation: the current of daily study, and the gathering of material for a given task. The clerical scholar, however, diligent, punctual, and persistent, who throws his whole strength into the preparation of sermons, and never rises to higher views, or takes a larger career through the wide expanse of methodized truth, must infallibly grow up cramped, lopsided, and defective. His scheme of preaching may never take him through the entire curve of theology and Scripture; or the providential leadings of his ministry may bring him again and again over the same portions. These are evils which can be prevented only by the resolute pursuit of general studies, irrespectively of special pulpit performance. Such habits will tend to keep a man always prepared; and instead of getting to the bottom of his barrel as he grows older, he will be more and more prepared.

The objection to regular studies which meet us most frequently is, that there is no time for labor in the pressure of parochial cares. Indeed, I fancy I hear you exclaiming, ‘How is it possible for one situated as I am, to find hours for learning?’ I desire to suggest a few considerations which will, perhaps, clear the path, and open some light through the seeming forest.

(1) Maintain a reverential love for Holy Scripture. Keep one sacred object in view in every study you undertake. All your discipline and your acquisition are only so many means for learning God’s Word, and for teaching it. Devote the first and last part of every day to the perusal of the Bible in the original tongues. It is a source of deep regret to many in review of life, that they have scattered themselves over too many fields; let me entreat of you to spend your strength on one.

(2) From what has been said, you will deduce the all important rule, to lop off all irrelevant studies. If you mean to succeed, and to save precious time, see to it that you rid yourself of all impertinent matters. Be determined to be ignorant of many things in which men take pride. Read solid literature. Familiarize your-self with masterpieces, and disregard the perishing nothings of the hour.

(3) Observe the evils which attend the lack of thorough preparation. Of all the ways of preaching God’s Word, the worst is the purely extemporaneous— where a man arises to speak in God’s name without any solid material, and without any studious preparation. As all men dislike labor in itself considered, the majority will perform any task in the easiest way which is accept-able. And as most hearers unfortunately judge more by external than internal qualities, they will be—for a certain time—satisfied with this ready but superficial preaching. The resulting fact is, that in numberless instances, the extemporaneous preacher neglects his preparation. If he has begun in this slovenly way while still young, and before he has laid up stores of knowledge, he will—in nine cases out of ten—be a shallow, rambling sermonizer as long as he lives.

(4) You cannot well overrate the benefit to be deprived of carrying always with you a high estimate of your study-labors. The clergyman’s study, which some people regard as they would a pantry, is the main room in the house. It is the place where you speak to God, and where God speaks to you; where the oil is beaten for the sanctuary; where you sit between the two olive-trees [Zech. 4:3]; where you wear the linen ephod, and consult the Urim and Thummim. As you are there, so will you be in the house of the Lord. A prevalent sense of this will do more than anything to procure and redeem time for research, and will cause you to learn more in an hour, than otherwise in a day.

(5) Practice an economy of time in punctuality and order: as Hannah More says, ‘It is just as in packing a trunk; a good packer will get twice as much in as a bungler.’ Follow a plan. Propose questions to yourself—What part of the week do I devote to study? What head of theology has lately been under investigation? What is my plan of study for the coming day? Cover the majority of the day’s study as early as possible. Tell me how you spend your forenoon in your early ministry, and I shall be better able to predict how you will preach.

But after all, it cannot be concealed that there will be need of vigorous and unceasing efforts, to secure time for application, and to cut off all occasions of sloth and waste. You will be under a perpetual attraction to leave your study. There is constant need of decision, self-denial, and self-control. Read a book as itinerants do—finding one in their chamber windows— as though you should never see it again. He grossly errs who considers the life of an evangelist as other than a conflict. Yet it is happy; indeed I hesitate not to express my conviction, that the life of a faithful minister is the happiest on earth. To declare God’s truth so as to save souls, is a business which angels might covet: acquire the habit of regarding your work in this light. Such views will lighten the severest burdens and dignify the humblest labor. Think more of the treasure you carry, the message you proclaim, and the heaven to which you invite. Such are the considerations which may well serve to awaken true ministerial zeal.