The Duty of Ministers to interest themselves in providing a further supply of candidates for the Ministry[1]

John Gorham Palfrey, Harvard Divinity School

Berry Street Essay, 1832

Read before the Ministerial Conference

May 30, 1832

The subject upon which I have been desired to address you, my friends and brethren, is some further provision of candidates for the ministry in churches sympathizing with us of this company in our general views of religious doctrines.  I believe it to be an object capable of being advanced by joint action on the part of ministers & other Christians; & I have no hesitation in saying that among objects capable of being so advanced,  I regard this as absolutely the most important.  I make this remark certainly not without deliberate consideration of the claims of other means of influence contemplating the religious benefit of the community.  I estimate, for instance, as highly perhaps as any one, & would as cheerfully do my small part towards aiding, the distribution of books, designed to communicate Christian knowledge & the Christian faith, but there is no other human instrumentality for this purpose like the living example & the living voice.  From my heart I hail the day of the devising of the system of Sunday schools; and because I prize so highly that method of operation, I think, who is to teach the teacher, & who, under God, is to dispose them to the work.  If we consider the relation of the ministry to publick worship alone, this is the prominent institution of our religion; it is what gives to our religion its most distinct manifestation as one of the elements of society.  And whatever consequences we are disposed to ascribe to the various expedients of benevolent agency, we shall but attach so more to the Christian ministry, since it is mainly by the more or less direct influence of this that, in the common course of things, these things are put, & kept in action.

Let us, in the first place, see what that present supply is, which compared with the existing need, is to show whether or not any deficiency exists.  The only publick institutions to which we look for the supply of vacant places in our churches, is that at Cambridge.  I suppose that if I should estimate the number of those who, in the last years, when the number has been greatest, have been taken in the ministry from that school, at eight, I should be thought to rate it sufficiently high.  Occasionally, also candidates appear, either under private instruction, or at other schools, having abandoned in the latter case, the opinions to which they had been trained.  If we reckon the number of those to be half as great as of the others, again probably a large average, we have an annual supply of 12 individuals to maintain the ministry of all our churches.  While for myself I apprehend that this number might be found rather to exceed than fall short of the truth, I offered it mainly as a rude approximation thereto, for the sake of argument.  The result will not be found to be materially varied in the view of one who should consider the number supposed to be too small.

Let us look now at the other side.  It is said that there are about 170 or 180 churches in the United States, requiring to be supplied, whenever vacant, by that class of candidates of which we are speaking.  If we reckon the average term of a ministry at 20 years, 8 or 9 candidates yearly are wanted, if I may use the expression, to keep our churches up, by supplying the vacancies occasioned by death & retirement.  Let us compute an average ministry at thirty years, certainly a great allowance, & still six young candidates are wanted yearly to maintain our churches in existence.  Further, if the proportion of natural increase of those who compose those congregations, corresponds to that of the whole American people, which here is no reason why it should not, then the number of those churches is to be expected to double once in twenty-five years.  Say, once in 30 years.  Then there will be in 30 years an addition of 180 new churches, or an average of six a year, requiring six ministers to serve them, additional to the six required for the supply of the old, so that we have already our twelve candidates disposed of, supposing the portion of our population professing liberal opinions to continue to be on only the same proportion to the rest that it has of late hitherto done.

But to suppose this, again, is to leave out what I am forced to call the chief element of a just calculation.  I must be absolutely blind if I do not see that this whole American people, from Maine to Mississippi, from the ocean’s line to the farthest western log hut, is waking up on the subject of religion.  We may look at some little men around us, and remarking the stir which they make, we may dream that they are really presenting some serious obstacle to the majestick, self-moving progress of better visions of Christianity.  But it is improbably in the nature of things that a people accustomed to the consideration of grave questions & to looking at them in all lights of experience, as by the very nature of our political institutions our people are compelled to be, should long fail to look with some clearness at the great subject of religion, after they have begun to contemplate it at all, and it is as improbable, that they should long fail to contemplate it, whatever prejudices they may first have to overcome.  For God so made man’s mind, that it must speculate upon religion.  He so touches men’s hearts, that it craves and flies to religion.  He so ordered man’s lot, that it is intolerable without religion.  Men may be so disgusted with its adulterations & counterfeits as to make up their minds angrily that it is abuse & counterfeit all.  But the conclusion will not stand.  There is mechanism in God’s world, which will be found at times to shake it in every mind, & to prostrate it in all but a few of the most unhappy frames.  When I consider with what repulsive accompaniments our religion has been offered, when offered at all, to a great portion of this people, I cannot say, as others have done, that I rejoice in their rejection of it.  No!  I greatly regret it, for I am lothe to believe that the spirit of that blessed faith can ever be wholly wanting from its most distorted forms.  But while I regret I do not wonder at it, so much more apt is the common mind to scoffing at once upon the case offered to its judgment than to the preliminary task of considering the justness of the representations.  Nor, while I regret, would I be the least solicitous respecting it, as if it threatens to be any other than a temporary evil.  I have little fear of its being seen to be permanent, unless through gross unfaithfulness to their high trust on the part of those who hold the simple faith of Jesus.  Reasons which have been glanced at, & other such, satisfy my mind, that a headlong decline into infidelity, into heathenism, can not be extensively the destiny of a people like this.  And they equally satisfy me that investigations into the growth & decline of our faith, when there has been time for them to be deliberately conducted in the now apparently most exposed parts of our country, will be seen to be conducted with a manly & intelligent inquisitiveness.  Had the American mind been much more deficient than it is in this propensity to force investigation, there have not been, & are not wanting appliances which cannot fail to have the effect of goading it into just such bold and active exercise as the lover of truth must of all things desire to witness.  This is on principle more distinctly to be traced through the line of changes by means of which providence has brought about great improvements in the moral world, than what is expressed in the old maxim, whom God means to destroy, them he first infatuates.  Or perhaps I should better describe the principle, & its perpetually witnessed operation, were I so say, that every false theory, when, in the course of urging it up for other’s adoption, it has come to be sufficiently defined & sufficiently insisted on by its friends, turns upon them then & demands of them for consistency’s sake, to reduce it to practice, & when reduced to practice, it is put into a shape, which it is not before, for the common mind to understand it, & be disproved accordingly to its rejection.

Such a precept it was, which[2] brought about the Protestant reformation.  The doctrines of the saints’ merits & the Pope’s authority, baseless, & unscriptural, & impious as they were, would never, as doctrines, have stirred the stagnant souls of the religious world.  But when their advocates had forced them into [recitations], & in doing this had caused them to be understood & thought upon, they saw that they could not then profess that the doctrines were true, [though] it was necessary to treat them as true.  It was necessary to use them.  This was done in the practical abuse of the sale of indulgences.  And the practical abuse at once divided Christendom.  The wise & good were led immediately to examine & so to forsake that false foundation of doctrine from which the intolerable nuisance that had been let loose upon them was only a perfectly logical deduction.  The same principle, in a different application, is now manifesting its power among us.  As long as the Calvinistick doctrines remained in the form only of abstract propositions to be dreamed of, it was not to be expected that, except under some particular advantages, they should be extensively dispossessed of their ascendancy over any but the more independent and sanguineous class of minds. But so, from the nature of the age, they couldnot forever remain.  The persons who had urged so impetuously their truth & impertinence were led, no doubt in the blind precincts of their hearts, & also counseled in good faith to others, to introduce them into the practical operations of their religious body.  The fated time for this their reduction to practice has come among us, & with it apparently the time of their extensive overthrow.  I do not propose to be acquainted in detail with the history or statisticks of the subject, but I suppose it is not much more than a year since the machinery of what are called the Four days’ meetings[3] was put in motion.  Nothing could be a more necessary & direct deviation from the principles of the Calvinistic scheme than the adoption of just the measures of which these are a specimen.  The only wonder, if there be any, is that they who adopt the theory are not even more excessive in such extravagances, of a corresponding practice.  But how instantly they revolted, and how widely they have disabused the publick mind, the reports which are continually reaching us of churches remonstrating, & of ministers displeased, are just so many testimonies. –I repeat it, it is only a portion of men who are very perceptive on the subject of abstract false doctrine, but every man has sensibility to be affected by practical[4] abuse.  And by connecting them together so indissolubly in fact, though it is sometimes remotely in time, in the relation of cause and consequence, providence has made ample provision for the eventual exposure & rejection of the former.  The time for practical application [&] development of false doctrines must sooner or later come.  The time in respect to the form of it most current appears to have come among us, & the establish[hment] had reason of the case, without much observance of the signs of the times, which however bring their own loud confirmation, may convince us that when the period of its practical development has arrived, it is not long that its judgments lingereth, or that its consummation has to slumber.

But the subject of the reasons for considered hope of a progress of better views afforded by the present aspect of religious fermentation in our country is one of far too wide relations to be incidentally discussed, & it is altogether undesignedly that I have wandered into it even so far.  I leave it merely asking of any one who hears me to consider what reasons force themselves at once upon his mind for trusting that, of those who now rank themselves with one or another class of erroneous believers, not hundreds but hundreds of thousands are speedily to be seen admitting different apprehensions of our religion, & demanding a different kind of  conception of it, which we, for this is my point, are not prepared or preparing to give them.  I leave this case for each one to think of as he will, to present another, which I say for one, my brethren, we ought to diminish the slumber we give to our eyelids till we have found some way to provide for.  I say, under a solemn sense, I hope, of one man’s responsibility, that the religious conditions of our border settlements, & of others, which though very new too, are no longer on the border, so rapid is the progress of civilization, is one for which at our great peril we must come, & so care as not only to talk or pray about it, but to do something in the way of action.  Of the nearly 4 ½ millions of people who inhabit the great valley of the Mississippi, it has been ascertained from data statistically satisfactory that less than 2 ½ are affiliated in any way with any Christian denomination, the remaining more than 2 millions being either necessarily destitute, or else refusing as yet, to avail themselves, of the ministrations of our faith in any form.  2,000,000 of men & more, bone of our bone, flesh of our own flesh, living & dying within the reach of Christianity, and yet not reached by it.  Do we know any thing ourselves of the worth of [Christian faith and institutions], & are we willing that these things should be?  Do we profess to care any thing for our country or posterity, & can we confess that their destinies shall be in such hands?  Or does it not in any degree depend on us?  If not, there is an end of the question.  But if it be true, what we are told with one voice by many intelligent travelers in that incalculably important region, that the simple truths of Unitarian Christianity are found, as often as offered there, to be like the waters of an [unprimed] spring to thirsty souls, that it is Unitarian Christianity, which is to convert the unconverted [mass], then to persuade ourselves that we are under no imperious obligation in the case, is not better than blind unconcern about the plainest reasons, & a mere presumptuous tempting of the divine displeasure.

I am constrained to allude in a word to a different department of the subject, though I must needs refer to it in the briefest and most general way.  I would anxiously ask what is the reason that, as a class of Christians, we take no more consistent a part in the various religious charities of the time.  I do not say that what has been done in this way by our associates is small, their numbers considered, in comparison with what has been done by others.  That is not the question. But I cannot escape the conviction that compared with what might have been done by themselves, it is deplorably, shall I say, —shamefully small.  No doubt that one of the great instruments by which some of the numerous sects pressed important charitable objects is their influence over the minds of their adherents, but no more is it to be doubted that there is a yet larger class of our citizens, whose confidence & accordingly whose aid they cannot command, on account of the suspicion under which they labour of connecting with their ostensible objects, objects of a narrow sectarian kind.  Why are not such persons addressed & enlisted, as they might be bringing a vast accession of now unemployed influence & talents & wealth to the resources of charity, —why  are they not addressed, I ask, to this end, by the agents of a Christian denomination with whose fundamental principles a narrow sectarianism is wholly inconsistent.  Why are not liberal Christians labouring with the untold power which using with the meekness of wisdom the advantage they propose they might be able to exert for the furtherance of the objects of missions, temperance, prison discipline, Sunday schools, the national peace, & other such.  Among the deficiencies of their means to this end, is any more considerable than is to be found in the fact, that, of their trained ministers, who would be the fit agents for this work, there are no more than the supply of the parochial cures?  What a marvelous event was that, famously presented among remarkable events which the history of the world records, which took place when, a few years [ago], a great man sprang up from the bosom of Heathenism to invite Christian ministers to use & aid his own influence devoted to turning his countrymen from a licentious & bloody idolatry?[5]  How are we to answer to posterity, my brethren, for suffering that golden opportunity to escape.  Would it have been lost had we been provided with a sufficiently numerous ministry to be able to spare some of our best labourers to that exciting field?

But part of what I have been mentioning has not been uncontradicted and on the principle of oeconomicks that a demand will create a supply, —a principle, however, which hardly seems to admit, in this instance, of such application.  We may have heard it said, that if more ministers were wanted by the community, more would without doubt be forthcoming without any particular exertion to that effect.  I ask, if any one will look at the circumstances of the case, & undertake to defend that proposition.  Whence is our supply of students preparing for the ministry to be looked for, but from the Colleges?  And what is the condition of things at them?  In every other College in the country, one might perhaps safely say, except that at Cambridge, a powerful influence is exerted over young men’s minds to prevent them from pursuing theological studies, if such be their destination, in places where they might be exposed to the contagion of liberal opinions.  The supply of students liberally educated being thus limited to graduates of one collegiate institution, it is plain that in the existing state of things it cannot but be small.  To suppose that one-fifth part of each class in Cambridge, say 12 on an average, will devote themselves to the ministry, would not probably be unduly limiting the number.  Educated under circumstances favouring the most unstinted freedom[6], it cannot be wondered at if 1/3 of these should be found retaining at the close of their academick course the Calvinistick opinions which they brought from their homes, and seeking their professional education accordingly at other schools.  The number then remaining for the supply of that at Cambridge without allowance for its being reduced by all sorts of casualties, will be 8 a year.  It is true that a few students have been lately furnished by two other Colleges, those of Providence & Brunswick, but this proves nothing in opposition to the view which has been proposed of the scantiness of the sources which may be looked to for the supply, but only the power which a simple faith has to resist strong & insistent influences, so as to establish itself in educated minds!

Again, we may have heard it said, if so many candidates for the ministry are wanted in this country, why is it that we do not hear of applications being often made for them.  I have two responses to make to this.  In the first place they have been made, in such numbers as to weary those to whom they are naturally addressed with having to reply that there were no means of meeting.  If they are less frequent now than at any time they have been, it is because it has come to be understood throughout the country, in consequence of repeated disappointments, that it was almost in vain to make such applications further.  This being understood, congregations already formed cease to send, & content themselves, as they may, with a different kind of ministry, or else dissolve themselves in discouragement; —while in other neighborhoods, all prepared for the step of forming a society, that first step fails to be taken in consequence of the known improbability that when formed, it would be able to provision itself with a satisfactory ministry.  My second reply is that we expect altogether too much if we expect that extensively congregations will be formed, & then send for a minister to serve them.  This is reversing the natural order of the proceeding.  Especially in those parts of the country where the elements of society are not yet fully consolidated, the course for which we are to look is this, that the minister will go & satisfy a neighbourhood[7] in his preaching that his sentiments are already or ought to be their own, & that he can afford them the edification sought by them, hitherto in vain at other sources.  Their interest in him will then become to them a principle of union & a basis of vigorous actions, & the rest will easily follow.  Proposing this course, I have a firm belief that there is not a place in our country, having inhabitants enough disconnected now from any religious society, to begin one on the smallest scale, where a preacher of liberal opinions, capable of expounding them tolerably well, may not place himself directly in a situation of honourable effectiveness.

But, again, we may have heard it confidently asked, if more ministers than we have are wanted, why is it that any whom we have remain disengaged.  There is delicacy in the consideration thus presented, but I will not shrink from it, for the inquiry clothes a loose form of thought which has gone far to create the lukewarmness prevailing on the subject.  I ask, again, is it quite certain that, if three hundred ministers were wanted, & there were only 3 to meet the want, is it quite certain that every one of those 3 would be taken up.  Might it not be that the very smallness of their number compared with the largeness of the demand, might make the ministers themselves fastidious, & that a part of them might of their own will remain out of employment, reserving themselves for something better than they will ever find?  And on the other hand, have not societies their peculiarities, their tastes, their caprices if it be so, preventing them from being satisfied—to find what ought to satisfy them, & much more.  It is not reproach to ministers now unemployed, to say that more are wanted.  I have no idea that the number of our churches ever could be so great, or that of candidates for them so small, that the services of every one of the latter would be engaged.  Some have family connexions, disinclining them to labour out of a particular sphere, & so taking them, if I may use so coarse an expression for the greater explicitness, out of the general market.  Others, with much learning it may be, & eloquence, & weight of character, & all things also mainly desirable, may yet have been formed for the ministry under the influences of other times, & so not be seen by the newly gathered societies, at length, to be the best suited to their wants, & others with high qualifications for some situations, may not have the highest for any of those which at a given time happen to be vacant.  But apart from all such general considerations, the forming of the relation of pastor & people supposes such a natural suitableness of views & tastes between the parties, that it is no problem which any body is called upon to solve, that there should be men of merit who never find their place.  If the number of vacant parishes & of candidates for them even both quadrupled, while the arithmetical disproportion between the two would be thus greatly increased, I should fully expect to find the number of candidates not settled at any given time at least doubled, instead of disappearing.  The fact, it is quite clear, will sustain no argument of the kind imagined.  Be the candidates many or few, there will always be some, who, by their own will or that of others, will remain for the time being not chosen.  The more they are, that is the demand remaining sufficient, the more it is to be expected there will be chosen, & the more also left.  But the demand can never be so great, nor the supply so small, that there will not be some of both.

I see no ground therefore for hesitating in the opinion which I have more than once before expressed, that as the needful supply be obtained, instead of 8, 100 candidates for the ministry from the school of Cambridge might for a few years to come, & I know not how many more than a few, be annually settled forthwith in comfortable situations of employment.  If it be so, brethren, how much are we losing, nay not we but the church and the world, how much is in a way to be lost to the best interest of men of the present time & of future times for want of this needful provision of a numerous ministry being made.

But if needing to be made, what is to be done towards making it?  Let us see what is already done, & this will help us to discern the narrowed ground of what remains.

Is there no proper place of education provided?  For a long time there was none, & this was a want which occupied the greatest solicitude & engaged the anxious counsels of friends to fund an  efficient Christian [seminary].   This limit[8] no longer exists.  It [does] not become me to say, or to conjecture how well it may have been provided for.  But such provision has been made for it as those on whose discretion it rested judged sufficient.  The different departments of instruction are filled at the publick institution.  A course of study preparatory for the ministry has been carefully digested.  All needful aids & accommodations are already furnished, & in short the system is in regular operation which might as well educate two times the present number of students, as the present number.  The manufactory, may I be pardoned again the crudeness of the expression, asks for nothing further but plenty of raw material.

And this brings me at once to the point at which I have been arriving.  How is a larger number of young persons to be brought to engage in studies preparatory to the work of the Christian ministry?  And to that I answer directly for others, as I would for myself, that it is the duty of each minister, in his own lot, to have this object distinctly & always in his view.  And in the first place, I will not look at them as ministers, but merely as influential citizens scattered each in his own parish, through the country.  Now I say that it can scarcely be that in every larger parish there might not be found, at any given time, some one young person, or more, of competent endowments, whom the influence of a little proper & seasonable encouragement would lead to benefit themselves & gratify their friends & serve God & their generation better than they could in any other sphere, by devoting themselves to the Christian ministry.  Some one such person at least, I repeat it, could hardly fail to be found, at any given time, in any society in the country.  Nothing is wanted but the word of encouragement to which I have referred.  That word might be spoken effectively by any individual of influence in his neighborhood, & to speak it there always is one individual of influence in his neighborhood, & one too, to whom his promise is or ought to be known, & this is his minister. 

But again, the minister has not only the advantage for this purpose of any other individual whose opinions carry weight, & whose countenance gives encouragement.  If he have any thing of the perception which he ought to desire, he will see around him a circle of youth formed partly by his instrumentality to a devout character.  Now very far certainly would I be from having him attempt to disconcert the plans of friends, or turn aside any young man from the pursuit of objects for which he has discovered capacity & disposition by any use of his influence to the end on which I have been commenting.  But among several youth of the character in question it may safely be inferred that there will be some whose own feelings, along with the feelings of their natural protectors, will dispose them, with the proper encouragement, to devote themselves to this course of life, & to whom individually as well as to the publick & the church affording of such encouragement can be productive of nothing but advantage.

I have thus presented, brethren, the grounds of the recommendation which I venture to make.  What I have further to say by way of repectfull advice may be briefly, & and best be simply said.  I do think that it should be made a distinct aim with every pastor to have always at least one young member of his flock engaged in studies preparatory for the ministry.  I do think that every pastor should look on his Sunday school distinctly in the character of a nursery of servants of the church; —that we should be in the habit of observing what youth it contains of abilities & dispositions promising of success in this walk, & in circumstances justifying him in endeavoring to give the corresponding direction to their thoughts.  I have no sort of doubt, that with the individual attention to the object, which it would be easy for ministers to give, each in his own sphere, the most satisfactory result on a large scale would be obtained.  Had it pleased providence to continue me in the ministry, I should have been much disappointed, if, as a result of influences which I witnessed in promising operation, the Sunday school with which I was connected had not, on an average, sent one hopeful youth every year to College, & thence to studies for the ministry, —giving, I say, one minister every year to the church.  If the larger generally would do this or a part of it, & the smaller parishes would send their contribution of the same kind, once in three or once in four years, what an unprecedented accession would forthwith be made to our means of efficient action on the public mind.  And could at least as much as this fail to be done, if every minister in his own place, would make it an object of his distinct attention.

Brethren, may God give us grace with suitable interest to ponder & pray over this great subject.  And might I urge a request in conclusion, it would be that each one who hears me, as we come together hence forward from year to year, should it please God to spare our lives, would ask himself the question whether the church which he serves is making its due contribution or not, for the time being, to the continuance & increase of the Christian ministry, & if not, whether it is through any omission of his own that the deficiency remains.  The task which each would have to take in bringing about the desired results would be small & easy.  The results of the combined effort would immediately make the most sensible change in the aspect of religious affairs throughout the land.

[1] bMS Am 1704.13 (88)  Palfrey, John Gorham, 1796-1881. [Address to the Boston Association of the Unitarian Churches] A.MS. (unsigned); [n.p.] 30 May 1832, 7s. (28p.).  Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA..  The text is extremely difficult and not always clear.  The document may have been a draft, though Palfrey may indeed have spoken from this text.  It contains a number of abbreviations and does not always include question marks when they appear to be needed.  I have tried to provide it in the most literal form possible.  The insertion of [text] is an attempt to reconstruct something which cannot be made out from the text. – Paul Sprecher

[2] An interpolated note cannot be made out in the text here and is omitted.

[3] These were revival meetings of unusual fervor led by Methodists.

[4] Extensive unreadable inserted notes – about 2 sentences – omitted.

[5] Palfrey is referring here to the story of Rammohun Roy, which is referred to at more length in the 1826 essay by Henry Ware, Sr., Duty of Unitarians with Respect to Christianity in India

[6] (in text: "[of c. speculation]” )

[7] The text seems to read "neighboring,” perhaps an oversight by the author.

[8] Looks like "event.”  The end of the previous sentence appears to read, literally, "… & this was a want wh. occasioned the greatest solicitation & engaged the anxious counsels of friends to find & efficient Xty.”