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The Lack of Students for the Ministry

Not long since, I received a letter from a young man who graduated from our Seminary only three years ago, saying that within the past year six different churches, all of them strong and large, had made him pressing overtures, urging him to leave his present place and to become their pastor. And yet, on the same day that I received this letter, a prominent layman in one of our country churches told me that when his pastor recently resigned, the church received a flood of letters from ministers in all parts of the State, offering themselves as candidates for the vacant pastorate. I beg you put these facts together. Ministers enough and to spare, of a certain sort — uneducated men, men who cannot preach, men who cannot stay more than a year or two in a place —but such a lack of trained and competent men, that the strong churches find pastors only by robbing one another, and a famine of the word of God impends unless this lack of ministers is supplied.

What are the figures? Simply these: In 1832, fifty years ago, there were in the United States 3,600 Baptist ministers to 5,300 churches, or 1,700 more churches than ministers. In 1882, there were 16,000 ministers to 26,000 churches, or 10,000 more churches than ministers, while the proportion of ministers to church members had declined 25 per cent, During the last ten years there have been reported in our year-books 4,500 ordinations to the ministry; during those same ten years our Theological Seminaries have graduated not more than 1,000 men, so that not one quarter of those who have entered the ministry have had a full course of training. Our population has been largely increasing, yet in sixteen Northern Baptist Colleges we had in 1882 only 1,582 students, as compared with 1,694 in the year 1872 — that is, a loss of seven per cent. in the last ten years. In 1872, there were in these colleges 408 students for the ministry; last year there were only 294,— that is, a loss within ten years of 28 per cent. Within fifty years the proportion of college graduates entering the ministry of all evangelical denominations has dropped from 46 to 17 per cent, while in two of our principal Baptist colleges it has declined from 42 to 20 per cent. Twelve years ago, or as early as 1871, a writer in the Bibliotheca Sacra called attention to the decreasing number of trained men entering the ministry. But the evil is far greater to-day than it was twelve years ago. The sum and substance of it is that young men of culture and promise are ceasing to enter the ministry, and that while our church membership has increased several fold, the supply of educated ministers has greatly diminished, and is still continuing to diminish.

* An address delivered at the meeting of the New York Baptist State Convention, Buffalo, October 25. im.

The result is that a multitude of weak men and of half-trained men are pressing into the ministry. We are not getting as good material in our Seminaries as we got twenty years ago. Meu come to us without college training; or, if they come from the colleges, they are not in general the strongest men. We have some men — a few — as good as we have ever had, but these are the exceptions. We can take only what is given us, and neither the churches nor the colleges are giving us as many men, nor as able men, as they once did. Yet the demand for men even of imperfect training is so great that the student is tempted by the offers of some admiring church to cut short his brief period of study, and to enter the ministry before he half knows what he is to preach. Our strong churches find it very hard to secure fit pastors; they spend months and sometimes even years of their history in search of them; when they do secure one who pleases their fancy, they often learn too late that his resources fit him only for temporary success; they are not long content with his imperfect work, and they soon seek a new pastor ; and amid all this weakness and change the hold of the church upon the thoughtful and active minds in the community is lost, and after ten or twenty years facts show that the church has gone backward, both in numbers and in influence.

We want pastors of mental grasp and thorough culture, to instruct and lead our stronger churches. Where shall we look for them? To the Seminaries? But the Seminaries—where shall they find them? In the colleges? But who will furnish them to the colleges? You would naturally answer: Just such churches as need their services. In other words, if the strong churches need able and cultivated pastors, the strong churches ought to furnish the ministry with recruits of this sort from their own number; from their own families, at least the raw material for ministers should come. Does it come from such churches? I answer: Hardly to an appreciable extent. Almost all the students of our Seminaries come from the small country churches, and from the families of the poor. I belong to the First Baptist Church of Rochester. The church lives under the shadow of the University and the Theological Seminary. I asked one of our deacons the other day how many young men had entered the ministry during the last forty years from the families of our First Baptist Church. "Well," said he, "there is you." "Yes," I said, "and who else is there?" And he could mention no other. I love the church to which I belong, and I speak of it only because I believe it an illustration and sample of many others — of almost all our large and well to do churches throughout the State and the land. But I ask: Is it right for these large churches to be always taking and never giving — depending upon others to give them their ministers, but furnishing no ministers themselves? Is not something wrong, when a strong church does nothing toward filling up the ranks of the ministry? If it has a half dozen ministers in forty years, ought it not to raise up from its own number at least another half dozen ministers, to supply the wants of other fields?

Where is the difficulty? What is the cause of the trouble? It is simply this: We have forgotten that we have anything to do with respect to the reinforcement of the ministry. We have said to ourselves: The law of supply and demand will take care of that. We have forgotten that the law of supply and demand has its foundation in the purely selfish interests of men, and that without the working of God's Spirit upon human hearts, the greater the need of an unselfish ministry, the smaller will be the supply. Or we have said to ourselves: God will take care of this matter,—when he wants a minister he will call him. Yes, and when he wants a man to be a Christian he will call him. But it will not be without your help. You must go to that man and plead with him, if you ever expect him to be saved. So it is not enough for us to preach the gospel ourselves. We are bound to "commit it to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also." Nothing good in this fallen world will take care of itself. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. So the church is divine; but its doctrines, its ordinances, its offices, its privileges, are given to us to defend and maintain. When we withdraw our hand and leave any of these interests to chance, then God's cause will go down.

We have forgotten both our own personal duty and our dependence upon God. There is the plain command of Christ, to pray the Lord of the harvest that he send laborers into his harvest. How frequently have you heard that prayer in public worship during the past twenty years? How frequently have you poured out your soul in private for the same blessing? Is the day of prayer for colleges observed in your church? Do mothers and fathers pray God that their sons may be ministers? I have been reading of Hannah, and of the answer to her prayer in the birth of Samuel, the child whose very name meant '' asked of God." Hannah's song of inspired praise and her sacrifice of her son to God, when he was her only one, prove to me that it was God's cause for which she prayed, and not simply that her own reproach might be taken away. Israel had reached a low state, when the very high priest of the nation had complicity with iniquity. Hannah prayed for the turning back of this tide of sin, and for the establishment of the kingdom of God; and her prayer was answered in the birth of no common child, and in his doing of no common work for God,— for Samuel was the first of the prophets, and the setter-up of the kingdom in Israel.

How many mothers and fathers are praying now that out of the number of their children God will raise up one, large in mind and heart, sanctified from his birth, filled with the Spirit of God, that he may stand between the living and the dead, be the mouth-piece of the Almighty, proclaim Christ and his unsearchable riches, lead the perishing to the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world? How many are willing to let strangers care for them in their old age, if their sons may be only preaching the everlasting gospel? How many, when they think of their children's future, look beyond the meat that perisheth, and wish most of all that their sons may feed upon the word of God, and may impart it to others, as Christ broke the five loaves to the hungry multitude? Ah, thank God, there are some! Dr. Robinson, of New York, tells us of a mother whose long continued prayer brought no answer, though her son had graduated from college, and had begun to teach. But at last he was converted, and with his conversion came the desire and purpose to preach the gospel. He came fifty miles to bring his mother word. Then for the first time she told him how, in sending a missionary-box to the heathen, when he was a child, she had enclosed one of his little garments, and with it had sent a note begging the missionary to join his prayers to hers, and never to cease until the child that had worn that little garment was made a disciple of Christ, and a minister of his gospel.

Some such mothers there are, but are there many such? Do we long to have our sons ministers of Christ, with all the trials incident to that vocation, or do we wish them to be successful merchants, lawyers, journalists, physicians? Ah, I look upon the families of our well-to-do and educated men, and I see almost no sons of theirs entering the ministry. I look upon the graduating classes of our colleges, and I see only the weak, the lame, the halt, the blind, willing to lay themselves upon God's altar. I look upon our largest city churches, and I find it the rarest exception if one of them gives a candidate to the ministry. We want the best gifts, the best training, the best social culture in the ministry. We look for such most naturally to these families, these colleges, these churches. But we find Christian parents urging their sons not to preach, rather than encouraging them to it; college presidents glorifying other professions at the expense of the ministry, till it seems to their students a mean thing to preach the gospel; Christian churches looking everywhere else for ministers but to the young men of th* ir own number.

I have heard it said that this is all due to the lack of heroic spirit in our age, and West Point has been referred to as an example. There, as I am informed, the quality of the students has greatly deteriorated since ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. Other professions hold out greater prizes than the profession of arms. Engineering and art, chemistry and the service of great corporations, offer far quicker promotion and greater salaries than can be found in army life. And some would have us believe that it is so in the ministry. Young men cannot make enough, in preaching Christ, and so they will not preach. I am unwilling to believe it of the young men of our time. I do not believe that they are all'dudes', devoid of all generous ambition, worshipers only of the almighty dollar. No, I remember how war stirred our pulses once, and how the need of sacrifices for the country brought thousands of brave men into the field, ready to fight, and if need be, to die. I believe it is the inertness and uselessness of military life in time of peace that keep the best men from West Point to-day,—and I believe that, if the young men of our churches could only hear the trumpet-call to heroic service in the ministry, they would flock to the standard, ready for any labor and any sacrifice.

Why do not young men feel thus? Because they are not better than the churches around them. Because the churches themselves do not properly estimate the dignity and the need of the ministry. They have forgotten that the minister is directly called by God, intrusted with God's words, endowed with God's spirit. Fathers and mothers have forgotten that "he who desires the office of a bishop desires a good thing ;" that it is an infinite honor to any son of theirs to be called to that high office ; that there is a satisfaction in being used to bring men from eternal death to eternal life, that passes all the satisfaction of this world; arid that to give up all for Christ and his kingdom is to gain all for time and eternity. Ah, we should pray, if we reverenced the ministerial office; and we should reverence the ministerial office, if we simply believed God's word with regard to the lost condition of man, Christ's infinite sacrifice to save him, and the everlasting import of the decisions of time. And here is my greatest source of anxiety. I fear that this lack of interest in the supply of the ministry is due to the inroads of a subtle unbelief that substitutes formalism for religion, and dependence upon man for dependence upon God. God forbid that we should first lose our reverence for the ministry, as an office of God's appointment, and then also lose the ministry itself, which we have thought a thing of so small account!

It is our business to ring the alarm-bell and to sound out the trumpetcall. As pastors, we need to direct the attention of our churches to this great matter, and to give them no rest till they feel their duty and discharge it. As church members, we need to pray and work to diffuse a new sentiment throughout our whole Baptist body. As Baptists, who claim to believe the whole word of God, we need to set ourselves to turn the tide and create an enthusiasm for the ministry among our young men. And as a Convention of Baptist Churches, met to consider the signs of the times and the needs of the cause, what could we better do than to pass with solemn unanimity the recommendation of this Report, that all Baptist pastors throughout this State be urged to preach upon this subject to their people, and that all Baptist churches throughout the State be invited to set apart the Thursday of the Week of Prayer for special intercession to God, that he will stir up the minds of the best young men of our churches to give themselves to the gospel ministry. A year ago our brethren of the German Baptist churches took this same action for themselves, and this fall we saw the result in the qnadrupling of the number of our new German students at Rochester. My brethren, we have sinned; we have disobeyed Christ's command. We are suffering, and must yet suffer, under his discipline. But we trust that it has not been wilful disobedience, but a sin of forgetfulness and infirmity. There is pardon for us, and the turning of our captivity, when we repent and pray. May God give us the mighty Spirit of grace and supplication, that as one man the churches of this State, and every member of them, may "pray the Lord of the harvest, that he will send laborers into his harvest."