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An address read before the Knox College, Theological & Literary Society

Nov 30 1909


The number and varied nature of the occupations which draw men out of the ranks of ecclesiastical office must make every prospective minister ask himself, what are the legitimate limits of the ministerial calling?

Without going outside of our own denomination, we have, within the last few years, seen one minister become the president of the provincial university; we have seen another undertake the editorship of a daily paper, and yet another offer himself as a candidate for the legislature. And when we add to this the number who from year to year turn aside to follow secular pursuits of a less prominent character, we may well wonder what obligations our ordination vows impose upon us.

Such a problem, however, would be much too wide to attempt to discuss in a single evening. Nor is it really within the province of our subject to-night, for as soon as a man gives up his charge, he ceases to be or at least to perform the functions of a minister in the strict sense of the word. To put it briefly, the topic which it is proposed to submit for your discussion just now is: "What part, if any are we as ministers to take in public affairs?

Are we to adopt the attitude that Heaven is our house, and that we have no more to do with the administration of mundane affairs than if we were transient strangers in a foreign country? To take such a course as this would not be to follow the lead of the prophets of old who ever sought to present practical remedies for present conditions rather than to picture a purely imaginary paradise suspended in mid-air.

The prophets of Israel did not hesitate to play a part in the politics of their day.

Charles Reynolds Brown in his book "The Social Message of the Modern Pulpit, says:--

It was an American bishop of a former generation, standing in the true apostolic succession, not by virtue of any peculiar title-deeds held by his own communion, but thorough his own high character & noble usefulness, who said: "More than once did the Hebrew kings seek to break away from the intermeddling of the clergy, but God smote the politician and not the prophet. Saul meddled with Samuel's duties and God took his kingdom from him; but Samuel was never censured for his intermeddling with the affairs of Saul. David had to submit to the authority of more than one priest or prophet, but no prophet was ever compelled to silence before him. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea and all the preachers of righteousness dwelt on social & civic sins–they dwelt on hardly anything else."[sic, punctuation]

Jesus did not preach political reform because to do so would have been to precipitate a revolution for which the world was not ripe, and to cut short the propagation of great universal principles for the sake of what would have been at best not merely a premature but a practical application of them.

Yet it was quite clear that the object at which Jesus aimed was not simply the regeneration of individuals, but the foundation of a kingdom, and that, too, of a kingdom which should have its commencement in this age & on this earth.

I cannot but believe that it is the function of Christianity not merely to prepare pupils for paradise, but to permeate & to purify every sphere of humanity activity. With this view I do not doubt that you all agree. The only point of difference is in regard to the way in which it is to be brought about. The Presbyterian Church not long ago introduced machinery for the purpose of making organized attacks on the more flagrant social vices, in the hope of stamping out the brothel and the saloon [Social Gospel].

But is it enough simply to remove these foul & blighting excrescences? Would not such an achievement be negative merely? Even when it was accomplished, it would still remain to impregnate the whole political organism with the positive principles of Christian ethics.

Now how is this to be done? By simply preaching personal piety and aiming at nothing beyond the regeneration and spiritual upbuilding of the individual? I think not. A man might keep every one of the ten commandments, and yet be anything but a good citizen.

We must bring home to the men of our congregations a sense of personal responsibility for the existing condition of things.

I believe in preaching politics. By that I do not mean preaching partyism, making your pulpit a coward's castle, from which to level invective at the opposite party whenever some flagrant act of electoral bribery or administrative jobbery affords a favorable opening. I do not mean breaking out into sensational tirades against the rottenness of politics in general, such as any pin-head with a school-boy's command of vituperative language could give utterance to. But by preaching politics, I mean making an honest effort to get every man before us to realize the extent to which he is individually to blame for the corruption that prevails.

And I believe that one can make out a pretty strong indictment on this point. It is not the superior numbers of the crooks and grafters in the country that enable them to dominate political life. It is simply the culpable indifference & abject cowardice of the so called respectable portion of the community.

I believe, too in preaching practical politics. Too many of us devote our chief interest to matters of Imperial politics, which after all have really little more than a culture value for Canadians. We glory in great issues. Dominican & even Provincial politics are not only too rotten but too petty for us. And anything so trivial as municipal politics is quite beneath our notice.

Now there is where we make our basal blunder. In that tendency to belittle the smaller, local political spheres lies the crucial cause of most of the political corruption of the day. In the elections for city and town councils lies the key to political clearness.

It is by this modest entrance that most of the men who are a menace to the dominion, enter public life. Here is the place to get to know your men and to nip predatory careers in the bud. They are dealing with transactions which come within the personal knowledge of most of their constituents, and it is possible to keep a check on their conduct and the motives behind them. (Illustrate by contract for sidewalks)

But what is the minister to do in regard to all this? He is to inform himself to the point of understanding the situation himself, and then to make his people appreciate it. He should not hesitate to descend to practical details though never to personalities. Above all he should endeavour to arrive at for himself and to present to his people something approaching a practical remedy for the existing situation. In other wards he should be prepared with some kind of an answer to the ever-vital question--"What are we going to do about it?

We are likely to differ widely in regard to what that answer should be. My own plan would be to urge every man in my congregation to connect himself with either the local Conservative or the local Liberal Association, according as his convictions led him.

I believe that there are many small towns in which the members of the Presbyterian Church could control the local political association if they would only join them en masse.

I do not see how I could consistently urge my congregation to do this to a man, without doing it myself. But, if I did join one of the local associations, I certainly would not undertake to run the whole thing.

Moreover I do not see why a congregational whip should not be appointed for each party to gather the church members of his party into the association and to keep them informed on what was coming up at its meetings.

To some this may seem to be going altogether too far. But a man's vote is of little value on election day, if the grafters and the men with axes to grind have controlled the caucuses at which the party nominees were chosen. And what is more, I believe that where it is desired to influence a Government on some question of moral or social reform, representations made through the regularly organized political associations would have far more weight than those made by delegations of clergyman who can easily be bluffed off with fair promises.

In closing I wish to emphasize just one point, and that is the necessity of preserving a proper proportion in the attention which should be given to this and other interests. A minister should be a many-sided man, yet he should never leave any room for doubt as to what is the great outstanding passion of his life. At the same time surely nothing has as good a right to be placed next to the service of our God as the service of our country.

And what truer form of patriotism is to be found than the attempt to purify the public life of our native land.

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Copyright 2002 Whitehern Historic House and Garden
The development of this website was directed by Mary Anderson, Ph.D. and Janelle Baldwin, M.A.
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