The Effect of Character on Ministerial Usefulness

Winthrop Bailey

Berry Street Lecture, 1825


Read before the Ministerial Conference

Boston, Massachusetts

May, 1825


            THE subject of the present address is, the effect of character on ministerial usefulness. In every different employment of life, there is an intimate connexion between a good character and usefulness. By the possession of a single excellence, or of uncommon skill and ability, a person may render himself in a measure useful, in the ordinary occupations of life, or in some of the learned professions, while his character is, in other respects, very defective. Important legal advice, or medical aid, may be given by those, whose conduct and dispositions are very far from the standard of the Gospel. A family, or a community, may derive benefit from the industry of one, whose general example could by no means be safely followed. In such cases, however, the individual would be much more useful, were his character what it ought to be; and perhaps, in every such instance, he is doing injury in one respect, while in another, he is beneficial to his fellow-creatures. But in the station, which the ministers of the Gospel occupy, there is a peculiar necessity for excellence of character, in order to usefulness. This necessity results from the grand moral purpose, which they are designed to accomplish. The object of their labours is to form men to virtue and holiness, and in this way to prepare them for future happiness. But the official duties, which they are called to perform, will effect little toward this object, while their own characters are grossly defective. If they are visibly and habitually under the influence of dispositions and motives, which their office obliges them to reprobate in others, their reproofs will probably be received with indifference, if not with disgust. If they are notoriously destitute of the virtues, which they recommend, or fall into the vicious or irreligious practices, which in their publick ministrations they cannot but condemn, their example will completely counteract the effect of their preaching. The influence of example is great in every situation; in ministers of the Gospel, a good example is indispensable. How can they effectually dissuade from vice, who are themselves the slaves of it? How can they hope successfully to recommend virtue and religion, whose lives testify, that they are strangers to those delightful paths? In the Christian orator, more than in any other, sincerity and a practical conformity to his own instructions, are absolutely requisite. In the view of his hearers, his life must be the test of his sincerity; and if it is not proved, to their satisfaction in this way he will labour in vain. When they cannot but perceive a striking contrast between what he inculcates, and what he practices, they will consider his publick services as a matter of form, to which he attends from motives of worldly interest; and instead of being benefited by his labours, their minds will be occupied by the proverb, ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ Instead of feeling reproved for their own faults, they will rather be disposed to ask, ‘Thou that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?’ If they cannot perceive in him a pattern of the excellencies, which he recommends to them; if they find that he has no inclination to exhibit an example of the Christian virtues; if he show them the way only by his words; they can hardly avoid the remark, ‘he does not believe his own instructions worth observing, and why should we? In their minds he will be compared to the senseless guide, which points out to others a way, which it never travels; and the whole effect of his ministry will be to inspire them with the persuasion, that virtue and religion are a drudgery, to which he is unwilling to submit; that a life of holiness is a life of gloom and misery; and that the way to enjoy themselves in this world, is to cast off the restraints of the Gospel.


            The character of a minister, as connected with his usefulness, may be contemplated in two points of light. In the first place, he must exemplify the common virtues, which Christianity inculcates. He must faithfully observe all the precepts, which relate to ordinary conduct, and to mankind generally. He must not imagine that his office excuses him from the obligation of those virtues, which adorn the life of a private Christian; or that the sanctity of his employment will render that a good act in him, which would be a crime in another. On the other hand, he should feel himself under peculiar obligations to be holy, upright, and kind, in all manner of conversation, in all his intercourse with mankind, and in all the relations of life. He should feel himself bound by more than ordinary ties, to conduct aright in all the connexions, which he sustains; and to manifest the most sacred regard to the claims of justice, fidelity, charity, and mercy. If he is conscious of a gross or habitual violation of these obligations, he cannot urge them on others with confidence and satisfaction. That clergyman, who allows himself to speak evil of others; to be forward in foolish talking and jesting; to spend his time in idleness; to associate with the vicious portion of society, in their coarse amusements; to overreach others in his pecuniary transactions; or who shows in any other way, that his thoughts and affections are occupied with the vanities, or the gains of this world, cannot rationally hope to be respectable or useful. The nature of the employment, to which he is by profession devoted, requires him to keep at a distance from these things. If it is important for any, it is peculiarly so for him, to avoid even the appearance of evil; to give no occasion for others to suspect, that he is actuated by any sordid motive, that he has assumed the sacred office chiefly for his own ease, honour, or profit. So far as he is suspected of being actuated by views of this kind, his usefulness is at an end. He will not be regarded with affection and confidence; his instructions will not be listened to with respect and delight.


           To abstain from what is usually termed vice, to be free from those faults, which would bring reproach on a man in any station, is but a small part of the duty of him, who sustains the office of a Christian minister. We look to him not only for an exemption from disgraceful vices, but for an example of no common virtue, for a pure and elevated character, for an enlarged and generous benevolence, for a sacred regard to the principles of justice and integrity, and for all the points of a supreme love to God, and a genuine faith in Christ. We justly expect oh him an habitual regard in all the precepts of the Gospel. This is the general expectation of mankind, in reference to the Christian minister; and though they do not look for perfection in him, yet, if his conduct or disposition is so different from what the Gospel requires, as to lead them to suspect his sincerity and piety, and to attribute his attendance on his official duties to a worldly or selfish spirit, they are not in a condition to be improved by his labours, and his usefulness is, in the same degree; destroyed.


            There may have been a state of society, in which vicious clergymen were caressed and honoured. But happily for us, my fathers and brethren, we do not live in such a state. There never was a period, however, when ministers of such a character could be useful. Their influence would necessarily be, not to improve, but to corrupt. They would be tolerated only in an ignorant, superstitutious, and licentious age; and what had already become bad, they would be likely to render worse. In such a state of society, they might retain their places and their authority; and the veneration, with which their office was regarded, might conceal from the vulgar eye the deformities of their character. But the object of such a clergy would be, not to be useful to others, not to promote the interests of virtue and religion, not to render mankind wiser and better; but to secure their own influence over the people, and to gratify their own sordid, ambitious, and corrupt passions. In our state of society, a minister of the Gospel must have a fair, honourable, and pure character, not only if he would be useful in his office, but if he would enjoy even common respect. There is, perhaps, no other station, in which man would be so certainly and completely degraded in the estimation of the publick, by an immoral course. The reputation of a clergyman is of the most delicate kind; it is easily blasted. Sins, which others may commit with a sort of impunity, would fix an indelible stigma of his character; and drive him, not only from the pulpit, but from all reputably society. We cannot expect, nor can we wish, that the community, in which we reside, will be so blinded by a superstitutious veneration for our office, as not to regard the moral character of the incumbents. On the other hand we have a reason to rejoice, that they are watchful and jealous in this matter; and that they insist on purity, integrity, and elevation of character, in those, whom they support as religious teachers. The liberty of examining and judging for ourselves, respecting the instructions of the Bible, I trust we shall always claim, and always enjoy. But the liberty of pursuing a course, which the Gospel condemns, and which is incompatible with our obligations, and with our usefulness, as ministers of Christ, it is to be hoped we shall never desire.


            In the second place, the usefulness of a Christian minister depends on the fidelity, with which he performs the appropriate duties of his office. A gross neglect of them, or a careless and indolent mode of performing them, will render his labours of little value. When a man professes and engages to give up himself to the spiritual instruction and moral improvement of a society, and receives an adequate and honourable compensation for his services, that, by being free from the ordinary cares of life, he may devote himself to their religious interests, common honesty requires him to attend to the duties of his station, and to employ his time and talents for the benefit of those, with whom he is connected. They have right to expect, not only that he will sustain a fair and honourable reputation among men, but that he will exert his best powers in those interesting services, which, at their request, he has undertaken; that he will exercise his reason in the study of the Scriptures, and give them the result of his researches; that he will publickly instruct them in the great principles of religion and virtue, and in the various branches of duty; bringing forth out of his treasure, things new and old; that he will cultivate the spirit of devotion, and strive to imbue them with sentiments of piety; that, by his example and exertions, he will endeavour to promote their intellectual and moral improvement; that he will, at all times, be to them a faithful and kind friend; and that in seasons of affliction, he will present to them the rich consolations and hopes of the Gospel. These are but reasonable expectations; and if they are disappointed by the indolence, the levity, or the worldliness, of a minister, he proves himself unfaithful in his work, and prevents his usefulness. He is proven guilty of a fraud upon those, whose best interests he is bound by every tie to promote. He is chargeable with a dishonesty, which, in an ordinary transaction, would expose a man to legal punishment.


            An unblemished moral character, a life of purity, and a faithful performance of official duties, always of indispensable obligation in the ministers of the Gospel, were never more essential than at the present time. Without these, we cannot expect to see union, peace, and prosperity, in our societies. Among us there is nothing but these moral ties, to bind a Christian society to their minister. They must love and respect him, or they will no longer consent to have him for their publick teacher; and we would hope, for the honour of our common nature, that they would not love and respect him, if he were grossly defective as to moral or ministerial character. It individuals, who become disaffected, have not sufficient influence to effect his removal, they will probably leave his society. To this measure our laws liberally grant every facility. Our citizens are not required to contribute for the support of a clergyman, whose character or official service they do not approve; and if the fault is obviously on his side, it is certain that they will lose nothing in the publick estimation, by withdrawing from him. There may be instances, in which individuals have separated themselves from a religious society for inadequate reasons. But if this is ever done in consequence of immorality, duplicity, or indolence, on the part of the minister, I need not say on whom the guilt will rest. There must be something honourable in those who will not consent to have for their religious instructer a man, obviously unworthy of their confidence; a man, who, in his ordinary deportment, or in the duties of his office, will betray a gross want of integrity and fidelity. Should we know an instance, in which a society continued satisfied and united under the ministrations of one, grossly deficient as to moral character, or official duty, we should justly consider it an evidence of general and uncommon depravity; nor could they redeem their character from this imputation, otherwise than by insisting on his reformation or dismission.


     There may be evils growing out of the facility, with which individuals can separate themselves from a religious society. It is a liberty, which may be peculiarly liable to abuse. But can we, my fathers and brethren, wish to have it taken away? Can it be pleasing to us, to have men bound to us by the mere force of law; and obliged to contribute to our maintenance, whatever may be their views of our character and labours? Is it not much better for us to have them drawn around us, and attached to us, by the influence of our own example, and by our fidelity in discharging the appropriate duties of our office? Will not this state of things have a powerful tendency to elevate the standard of ministerial character, and to render us watchful and circumspect, in what regards our own conduct, as well as affectionate and faithful in what relates to them? On the ground on which we now stand, in relation to society, all our interests are connected with our official fidelity, and with the general purity and integrity of our characters. He that would be chief of all, must be servant of all. If we would enjoy influence among men, if we would obtain their confidence, respect, and affection, if we would secure a competent number of them for our hearers, we must faithfully serve them in the duties of our office, and exhibit an example of Christian virtue and piety. If we will not do thus much, we shall inevitably sink in the estimation of the publick, just in proportion as their favourable opinion becomes valuable. The more elevated and purified the general state of society becomes, the more necessary will personal excellence, and official faithfulness, be to the ministers of the Gospel, and the less can they depend on the mere force of law, or the mere sanctity of office. We have no venerable establishment for our defence and support; we cannot depend on the partiality of a powerful individual for presentation to an eligible office in the church; we must recommend ourselves to the mass of society by cultivating the excellencies of the Christian character, and by diligently attending to the duties of the Christian ministry.


            The foregoing remarks are applicable to all the ministers of the Gospel. May I not add, that, as Unitarians, we have peculiar need of attending to our general deportment, and to the appropriate duties of our office? Belonging to a sect, which is every where spoken against; which multitudes regard with a degree of horrour; against which there exist prevalent and deep-rooted prejudices; and which is considered by a large portion of the community, as hostile to the interests of true religion, and fatal to all genuine piety, how can we hope to maintain our ground, unless we are well protected by the armour of righteousness, on the right hand and on the left? How can we expect to convince our brethren of their mistake respecting us, unless we exhibit in our lives, the good fruits of those principles, which we profess and inculcate? We cannot gain them by the strength of our arguments, and the charms of our reasoning; for either they will not read our books at all, or they will read with the fixed impression, that they must not be convinced; that their salvation depends on their rejecting our doctrine, and adhering firmly to their own system. We cannot win them over by persuasion, for they will regard it as a temptation of Satan, and will feel bound to resist it accordingly. But in holy living, in examples of piety, integrity, charity, and faithfulness, there is an eloquence, which can hardly fail of convincing; a force, which sooner or later must prevail; a voice, which in the end will be heard; a language, which few can eventually misunderstand. If our usefulness is at all connected with the dissemination of those principles, which we receive, as constituting the unadulterated Gospel of Christ, then is there a peculiar necessity, that we sustain such a character, cherish such dispositions; and perform our official duties in such a manner, as all will acknowledge to be excellent. Be it then our constant care, fathers and brethren, to pursue the only course, in which we can be extensively useful to our fellow-men; to show in our whole deportment, that we are attached to a religion, which is surpassed by none in the fruits of piety, active benevolence, kindness, forbearance, and humility; and that we have been introduced into the sacred office, not for the purpose of spending an indolent or honourable life, but, by discharging aright its interesting duties, to promote the moral improvement, and the everlasting welfare of mankind.