MY dear friends — (a voice: Get into the pulpit) — it would take me a long time to get into the pulpit, and I am sure you will all be able to hear me if I stay where I am. I cannot understand why you did not have the Tabernacle to hold your meeting in. It is too late to go there now, but we shall be very glad to welcome you another year. The chapel is so full that there is another meeting to be held in the schoolroom, and I must try to scatter you a little. There are some of the brethren quite equal to the task of scattering you. I have known many men who have great gifts in that way, and who did not preach long in a place before their hearers became thinned out, and I am going to try. I will be as dull. and prosy as I can be.
If I am, it is just what I should have been, whatever might have been the state of the meeting. I did not expect such a meeting as this. I came to speak a few practical words to you to-night. I have got to that advanced age — you don’t know how old I am inside — that I like sermons better than speeches. When I do make speeches I have got beyond the poetical. I greatly admired that piece of poetry read by our friend Mr. Wilson about some rippling rills. I always admire that sort of thing, but I can’t do it myself, and if I can’t I won’t.
But, my friends, these village churches and these churches in small towns must be supported. Till I heard that report I thought you were supporting them more largely than I find you are. It is not for me to spur you on in this matter, but for so large and wealthy a body you are hardly keeping up your mission work as you might. I take into account that your county unions do the work; but still, I think in your consciences you must say, “We have not kept up the mission work at the rate at which it should have been kept up.”
The village causes must be sustained, for their work is of vast importance, and the village pastors are the honor and glory of our churches. There are men laboring as ministers in out-of-the-way places, at miserably low salaries — many of them under L100 a year. Yes, it is a shame that men should have to do such work at that salary; it is a shame that they do not have more; but it is no shame that men can be found who are willing to work for that salary. It is the honor and glory of the church that she herself finds men who will undertake such a charge, and that our village churches are not without pastors, although the salaries those pastors get are not equal to the wages paid to artisans. By all means, I say, let the salaries of the village pastors be increased. I always was of opinion that everybody’s salary ought to be increased all round. I by no means exempt myself from the general rule. Being a Particular Baptist, I like to see general rules particularly applied. Instead of saying this is a dishonor to the church, I say it is an honor to the church that she has men who are willing to spend and be spent, and to work for such small pay; and instead of feeling humble I feel glad that the Lord of the church gives enough of Christian zeal and self sacrifice to his church to redeem her from the charge that she is mercenary, and that the ministers labor for hire.
Another reason why the village pastors should be supported in their work is, I look among the village Christians as being among the most valuable men we have. Here in London we go too fast; we live too fast altogether.
For instance, I asked my friend Mr. Paxton Hood what; time it was just before we came to the meeting, and he looked at his watch and said it was eight o’clock; but I found it was not so late, and that his watch was too fast. And this is only a specimen of many ministers. We work too much and have too much to do. There is not enough time given us to think, and our opinions are not always the wisest to follow; we have not sufficient time to digest them, and bring them out properly. The old Puritan! what a thinker he was. His range of subjects might have been limited, but what he knew he did know! and hence it is that the works of the Puritan period constitute the golden age of theological literature. I think our country Christians have more of the thoughtful and meditative element in them than we have in town. It is needful, for us that such men should be with us to season us and keep us right. I like the good old country deacons. I always find deacons; the best men I ever met with. If ever there is a cause to be arbitrated, if half-a-dozen men were picked to do it, they would be the deacons; and on the whole they would be the best for the work. I like to see these good country brethren come up to our town meetings; they give an air of solidity to the whole concern, not merely by the bulk of their persons, but also by the solidity of their opinions. Those gentlemen here in London who want to be on very good terms with the State Church will find very little sympathy from our friends in the country. A bear in a cage is a very fine animal to look at, but when he is unloosed few would care to accept his invitation to “meet me by moonlight alone.” We often hear in London soft cooing voices about brotherly charity; but our brethren in the country have to bear the lash, and contend with the State Church in its worst aspects.
Our country churches make the very backbone of dissent, and their members hold sternly and strongly to the truth. We ought also to support and strengthen our village churches, because they furnish us with some of their best recruits. There is a constant influx of young men who come up from the country and increase the numbers and power of the London churches. How much of that is due to the obscure pastor in the country village! These young people are of course taken away from the churches in the country, and it is no small thing that the country sends London so many godly men. If they were, on the contrary, ungodly, London would be much worse than it is. When I consider the number of country churches depleted every year, I am not surprised to hear of a great increase in London churches. We hear a good deal about the increase of church members in America. Why, about one-third of all the increase at the Tabernacle goes to America. We are continually feeding their churches by the growth of population derived from this country. The town churches obtain a goodly proportion of their increase from their country brethren just in the same way. Keep up, therefore, I say, your country churches. They are the feeders of our town congregations, and keep us well supplied with good and useful members. Many a merchant here in London, who is a pillar and ornament to the church with which he is connected, began his religious life at a country chapel, and but for his early intercourse with the pastor there, he would not have now been what he is.
Faults are sometimes pointed out to us in connection with our work in the villages, and there is something to be said for the objections which are urged in regard to it. We should look at our failings, and work away heartily until we have taken the edge from the arguments of our opponents.
I fear it is the fact that it would be very difficult to supply the gospel to every village in England if the State Church is abolished, Part of the difficulty lies in the independent policy of the Baptists and Independents.
Independency is not perfect; depend upon it there is a screw loose somewhere, there is something wanting. The Free Church of Scotland has managed to support ministers in the villages, and to support them well. I am not here to speak on behalf of Presbyterianism to-night, but whatever may be its faults, somehow or other it does that which our own system fails to do. It ought to be a matter of very serious thought with us, how, without violation of what we hold to be scriptural principles, we can in some way supply this very evident lack. I hope we are not such sticklers for our system that we cannot see where it does not work. We must have common-sense in these matters. A little common-sense is a fine thing for any man, and sixpennyworth of it is useful to any minister. The laity and the deacons always have enough of that — they say so.
Between. us all — ministers and deacons — we must see that there is something lacking in our system, with respect to the payment of our village pastors. How is that lack to be supplied? The grouping of churches together is an admirable system, and the more it can be arranged the better; I should like to see a. number of our ministers pluralists, and attending to two or three churches. A man works better when he has a bigger lot of people to look after. I confess I never had the ability to manage a small church. They are like those canoes on the Thames, — you must not sit that way, or the other, or do this thing or that thing, lest you should be upset. I happen to have a church like a big steamboat, and whether I walk here or there my weight will not upset it, If a big fellow thinks himself to be somebody, his importance vanishes when he joins a big church like mine.
Brother ministers have said, “This man will be a troublesome member of your church; you must watch him.” I say, “No, he won’t; nobody ever troubles me, because I don’t let them.” These fellows only want something to do; they have too much energy to be unemployed. I set them to work, and they are no longer troublesome; if that does not cure them, I give them still more work to do. These men who are so troublesome have too much energy for small places, and want to be put where their powers can have scope, and then they would have less time to fret over little things. The churches must call out their laymen and set them on to preach, as the Wesleyans do in their Plan; this would make the cause flourish. I ought not to come here to make suggestions, but I turn these things over in my mind.
I want to see the Church of God in England spread by some means, by any means, and have the country evangelized somehow, anyhow.
I believe our village churches want more open-air preaching. The next best thing to the grace of God is oxygen. Preachers cannot preach and people cannot hear half so well in close, crowded places. I recommend you to try and find out who it was that once did a lot of damage to the windows of Park-street chapel. The attention of the deacons had been frequently called to the fact that the windows would not open, and at last there was a great noise, for it was found that somebody had gone round — it was evidently done by design — and broken the windows. I wanted the deacons to offer L5 reward for the offender, and if they had done so I intended to have got it, but they never offered it.. A little ventilation would be extremely useful to us here, and so it would to congregations everywhere. Many a man would come to hear the gospel on a village green who will not go to hear it in a village chapel; and many would thus hear, for the first time, the glorious news of salvation through Christ. The Wesleys and George Whitefield did a mighty work for God through preaching in the open air. In the winter every place ought to be used as well as chapels. I recollect my grandfather, who, I am sorry to say, like you, was an Independent, and I remember Piper’s Barn where he used to preach. I got up on the mow and listened to him. He always went to preach there just as they had thrashed out.
Everybody came to hear him. We want to preach the gospel everywhere through England, not only in unconsecrated chapels, but in consecrated barns — consecrated by fresh air and devotion, the best sort of consecration. Ears would hear, and hearts would be touched.
We must encourage all the brethren in the country to preach the gospel with great simplicity. I am persuaded that a large proportion of the sermons that are preached are not understood by the people. I have at home all the volumes of The Pulpit, and I was reading some of them this morning. Of course, you will consider that is where I get all my sermons from. I am happy to say there are very few sermons which I should like to preach. They are altogether too fine, and not plain enough for people to comprehend — too grand altogether; the meaning might have been put in about half the space if the words had been Saxon words, instead of Latin ones. The people don’t know what we mean. We come forward with the language of the class-room when they want the language of the shop, the market, the language of their own village. There must be a setting forth of the gospel to suit all hearers. For the educated there must be culture, that is wanted; for the uneducated, that superior culture which has learned to make the gospel, plain to plain people — to check oneself from getting into the jargon of learning, and thus to speak in a language which shall reach the people’s hearts!
Though I trust we shall never get to be political as Dissenters, I hope as Dissenters we shall always have the sympathies of the people. I heard a representative of the agricultural laborers say, the other day, that if we did not mind we should lose the laborers. I am sorry he made that threat. I would not go across the street to do anything to win either a laborer or a lord in that way. If they suppose that our political views and sentiments are to be regulated by our desire to win them for our denominations they are very much mistaken. If they choose to come, they may come — if they want the gospel, they may come; but if they suppose we wish them to change for our gain, they are in error. I am a member of the Liberation Society, not because I believe the liberation of the Church of England would be of the slightest benefit to us as Dissenters — probably the whole of the gain would be on the side of the Church of England. If I thought I went into that selfishly to aggrandize my own sect I would scorn myself. If the thing is right it will stand on its own footing; if not it will fall. Still, our sympathies as a body are with the working people; and with regard to the agricultural laborers, I do desire to see their whole status and position changed from what it has been for many years. I believe the spread of religion amongst the laborers will elevate them, and teach them that a greater wage means more work for it, greater thrift — though I do not know how that can be with those who have to keep ten children on thirteen shillings a week; but they must have all the thrift they can. The men who carry the gospel to these laborers must be men of their order — men who know them, and can talk intelligently to them. Above all things, all of us must show condescension — that oleaginous kind of religion which is “dearing,” and giving a little sugar to everybody; which lives in the seventh heaven, but will “stoop” to the people. There is not a man on earth that can stoop; there is no such a thing as stooping for such poor worms as we. If we have riches or ability, we are so much the more in debt to God’s infinite goodness. Every Christian man should be to us as a brother. We ought to feel that we are going up, not coming down, when we tell the poor men and women the story of the cross and, try to bring them to it. May our country brethren feel this. May God send them comfort and blessing. They should be the objects of our sympathy, for few know the discomforts which attend the work in the country. They should be remembered by us when we pray, and it would cheer them up and help them to labor on. I am sure Mr. Wilson will cheer them, for he is one of the most genial of men; and as for Mr. Morley, he cheers everybody up.
I hope the funds of the society will tend to encourage the brethren in the country. How much good has been done by a little timely sympathy and help! My grandfather — of whom I have spoken before — was a very poor minister, and kept a cow, which was a great help in the support of his children — he had ten of them — and the cow took the “staggers” and died. “What will you do now?” said my grandmother. “I cannot tell what we shall do now,” said he, “but I know what God will do, God will provide for us. We must have milk for the children.” The next morning there came L20 to him. He had newer made application to the fund for the relief of ministers; but on that day there was £5 left when they had divided the money, and one said, “There is poor Mr. Spurgeon down in Essex, suppose we send it to him?” The chairman, a Mr. Morley of his day said, “We had better make it £10, and I’ll give £5.” Another £5 was offered by another member, if a like amount could be raised to make it up to £20, which was done. They knew nothing about my grandfather’s cow; but God did, you see, and there was the new cow for him. And those gentlemen in London were not aware of the importance of the service which they had rendered. Some of them, in heaven since then, may have met my grandfather, and he has perhaps told them all about the cow. I don’t see why not. Perhaps one of the joys of heaven will be to find out what good, unknown by us on earth, has resulted from what we have done here. Why should it not be mentioned by the saints in heaven when it was mentioned by the Master on earth? I earnestly entreat you to help the agents of this society by giving towards their support.