Samuel Miller (1769-1850)
Conduct in Church Judicatories
Points of Advice 9-16.
9. Be slow to speak.
I would earnestly advise every young minister to speak very little the first two or three times that he occupies a seat in the higher judicatories of the church.
The late venerable Dr. Rodgers of New York, often mentioned to me, that during the first two or three sessions of the old Synod (then the highest judicatory of our church) which he attended when a young man, he never opened his lips, unless it were to ask a question, or, by a word or two, modestly to solicit information. And he often expressed the deepest disgust, when he saw young men, the very first time they appeared in a Synod or a General Assembly, making more frequent and longer speeches than, perhaps, any other individuals in the body. Many a young minister, in the outset of his official career, has lowered his own character for wisdom and discretion, a number of degrees, in the estimation of his brethren, by allowing himself to take such a course. So flagrant a violation of every principle of dignity and prudence is apt to be long remembered.
The art of transacting business wisely, expeditiously, and with suitable temper, in a deliberative assembly, is not to be learned in an hour, or a day. To do it well, requires close observation; considerable experience; watching the manner, course, and success of the best models; much attention to the discipline of our own feelings; and a frequent conning over the lesson, which we are always slow to learn, that other people have knowledge and wisdom, as well as we; and that opposing us, is not always infallible testimony that our opponent is wrong. All this requires time. The first two sessions of ecclesiastical bodies that you attend, then, are by no means too much for you to pass as a close, vigilant, silent learner. Rely on it, for any young minister to wish that distinguished precocity should mark his efforts as a speaker in church courts, is seldom, nay, never wise.
Your own good sense, my dear sir, will readily suggest to you, that the general rule which I have here laid down, is, in some cases, at least, to be followed with much allowance. Sometimes a very young minister may be the only member present from a quarter of the church from which important information is desired. In this case, he must give it, or it cannot be received. It may happen, too, that when a deeply interesting cause is about to be decided, a member who attends for the first time may be in possession of facts and views in relation to it which appear to him exceedingly important in leading to a just decision. In such a case he certainly ought not to shrink from the task of imparting them. But, in all cases whatsoever, in which a very young member rises in a Synod, or in a General Assembly, let it be manifest that he does it reluctantly. Let it be seen that he is actuated by an unavoidable call of duty. Let modesty and humility mark every word he utters. Let there be no impassioned oratory, no positiveness, and no reference to what has been said by others, but the most filial respectfulness.
10. Listen to experienced men.
During the first ten years of your ministry, do not, in ordinary cases, rise to express your opinion in church judicatories, until you have heard some of the more aged and experienced express theirs. If there be any situation in which we should suffer age to speak, and grey hairs to teach wisdom, it is in church courts, where experience and piety are the best counselors. In the earlier periods of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, young men seldom rose to speak until they were invited by the moderator, and never until a number of their superiors in age had previously delivered their judgments. In later times the practice has been in a considerable degree different in that respectable body. In the Associations of New England, a very dignified example in this respect has been long set, and is still, it is believed, retained. My advice is that you imitate this example. The more carefully and uniformly you do so, the more likely will you be to judge wisely, to speak to the purpose, and to prove a blessing instead of a nuisance in every church court in which you appear.
11. Be concise.
Guard against very frequent, or very long speaking, in ecclesiastical judicatories, at any age. No member of any deliberative assembly, either ecclesiastical or civil, ever allowed himself to be a very frequent or a very long speaker, without depressing his influence, and of course diminishing the respect with which he was heard. Whatever a man’s talents may be, he must not be upon his feet on every question, or he will soon be made to feel that he cannot command the undivided and respectful attention of his audience on any question.
The celebrated Dr. Witherspoon spoke very seldom in church courts; and his speeches were very rarely longer than from ten to twenty-five or thirty minutes. He generally waited until he heard a number of other speakers, and until, from the debates on both sides, he was confident that he was in possession of all the principal facts, and of the principal arguments on which each party relied. Hence his speeches were always directly to the purpose; never tedious, and commonly in a high degree lucid and convincing. He was able, in this way, to disentangle the most complicated subjects, and to take the most impartial views; and seldom failed of carrying with him a large majority of the body. Few men, indeed, can be compared with Dr. Witherspoon, who was entitled and expected to take the lead in every assembly of which he was a member, and who was, in every view, warranted in reserving himself for important occasions.
Every one, of course, is not qualified to aim at that which he, often, most happily accomplished—to close a debate; to sum up both testimony and argument; and to wield the judgments of a hundred individuals. But still the leading principles upon which he acted, are those upon which every man ought to act. They were these: Never to rise until he had good reason to think that he understood the subject; never but when he had something really important to say; to say it in the shortest, clearest, and most unostentatious manner possible; and when he had done, to sit down.
It is not uncommon for youthful and ardent speakers to “take the floor,” as the parliamentary language is, at the very commencement of a debate. In this headlong course, they seldom fail to discover in a few minutes, that they are altogether unfurnished with the information requisite to an intelligent and just discussion of the subject. But this is not the worst. Having fully committed themselves by this precipitate expression of opinion, they feel it difficult, if not impossible, to retract; and are tempted to employ all their ingenuity, and to make many speeches, to patch and support their ill-commenced work. Many a florid and ingenious declamation, and many a final vote, have been thus thrown away upon a miserable effort to appear consistent, when a little later speaking, and a little less speaking, would have answered the purpose far better. Believe me, there are few situations in which it is more important to the speaker himself, as well as to the comfort and real benefit of the judicatory, to have his words few and well ordered.
12. Examine your motives for speaking.
Never rise to speak on any occasion, without solemnly examining your motives for speaking, reflecting distinctly on the presence of God, and silently but fervently imploring his blessing and aid. Be faithful with yourself. Set a guard, afresh, on your feelings and words. And beseech Him who has the hearts and the tongues of all in His hands, to preside over all that you say. If this were constantly done, how many hasty speeches; how many petulant speeches; how many ostentatious speeches; how many retaliating, passionate speeches, would be banished from the assemblies of the church!
13. Do not weary the assembly by your conduct.
Never insist on speaking when the call for the question becomes importunate. He is very unwise who does this. When an assembly has become wearied, impatient, and unwilling to hear, the best speech, in most cases, is thrown away. It is not merely not heard respectfully, it is often not heard at all. Never attempt to speak in such a state of an ecclesiastical body, unless you are very sure that you have something new and weighty to offer. Frequent trespasses of this kind on the patience of a deliberative body, not only tend to diminish the influence of him who is guilty of them; but they also tend to irritate and exhaust the assembly, and to prevent the succeeding articles of business from being well done. He who wastes the time of such a body, is one of the worst foes to its comfort, its honor, and its usefulness.
14. Speak with temperance.
On whatever occasion you may think it your duty to speak in an ecclesiastical judicatory, carefully avoid all harsh, satirical, sarcastical, acrimonious language. Let nothing escape you that is adapted to wound feelings, or to produce undue warmth.
It is not an uncommon thing for very worthy men, when they come to act in deliberative assemblies, to be extremely impatient of contradiction; to be always in a degree, and sometimes deeply, excited whenever they are opposed in their favorite plans. This arises, in some, from extreme nervous irritability, which, in spite of their better judgment, always throws them off their guard when the least opposition occurs. In others, unbridled peevishness, or arrogance, prompts them to consider every kind of resistance to the measures which they propose, as a personal affront, and treat it accordingly. Let me earnestly exhort you to set a strong guard against every thing of this kind. Whatever opposition may arise, study always to be composed and self-possessed, and endeavor to fix in your mind, once for all, that others have just as much right to differ from you, as you have to differ from them.
Again, some speakers in ecclesiastical, as well as other assemblies, seem to consider it as lawful to use almost any kind of weapon that will enable them to carry their point. Hence they endeavor to be witty at the expense of their opposing brethren; they speak with extreme severity of their arguments, of their motives, and even of their persons; and express their astonishment that men of “common sense, and common honesty” should attempt to advocate sentiments so “palpably absurd,” and so evidently “subversive of all sound principle.” And it is well if they do not sometimes indulge in language still more coarse and opprobrious. Never give countenance, by your example, to this mode of conducting debate among brethren in Christ.
Remember that ministers and elders, assembled in solemn council to deliberate on the interests of the Redeemer’s kingdom, are neither bloody gladiators, nor artful pugilists, nor snarling politicians. Of course, none of the language or habits pardonable in such characters, ought ever to be witnessed among them. Never employ language toward any fellow-member which you would not be willing to have directed toward yourself. Treat every brother, and his arguments, in a respectful and fraternal manner. There is a respect due to their office and situation, which may not be always due to their persons.
While you maintain your opinions with firmness, and express them with candor, load no man with reproaches for differing from you; impeach no motives; insinuate no unkind suspicions; make no one’s person or reasoning an object of ridicule; carefully guard against every turn of thought or expression adapted to irritate. In a word, let the old maxim, “soft words and hard arguments;” or rather the scriptural injunction of constantly endeavoring to imitate “the meekness and gentleness of Christ,” give character to every sentence you utter in an ecclesiastical assembly. That this manner of conducting debates in ecclesiastical courts is best adapted to promote peace, love, and edification, everyone is ready to acknowledge. And further, that he who resolutely refuses to employ any other weapons than those of the purely Christian character which have been mentioned, is most likely to make friends, and to be respected even by his opponents, is quite as generally confessed. But this is not all. Such a man is more likely to gain the victory in argument, and thus to carry his point, than the sarcastic and acrimonious debater.
Surely, then, the disposition to employ, in the conflicts of ecclesiastical assemblies, those poisoned weapons, to which the children of this world so often resort in their assemblies, is, of all propensities, one of the most inexcusable; since they are as injurious to the cause of him who employs them, as they are offensive to all pious and delicate minds.
It is impossible for me to avoid recollecting here some venerable ministers of our church, with whom it was my happiness to be acquainted in early life, and who, in reference to the point under consideration, left a noble example. They spoke, in judicatories, as men who remembered that they were servants of Christ, and were assembled to advance the interests of “pure and undefiled religion.” No coarseness, abuse, sarcasm, or unseasonable levity ever escaped their lips. I have heard them reply to weak, petulant, and even highly offensive speeches, with a meekness, benevolence and dignity, which excited the admiration of all, and which more effectually mortified and humbled their indelicate opponents, than a thousand volleys in their own style could have done. Such men are too rare in any church. Would that their mantles might be found resting on the shoulders of many who came after them!
15. Be respectful, with particular deference to the experienced.
While you treat the opinions of every fellow-member with respect, you ought to treat those of the more aged and experienced with peculiar deference. Remember that such men have not only seen more years than yourself, but that they have been long accustomed to the consideration of such questions, and the routine and difficulties of such business as may come before you.
It is, therefore, not merely desirable that you should hear their opinions, if possible, on any subject under discussion, before you make up your mind upon it; but when they have uttered those opinions, it behooves you, however they may differ from your own, to treat them with the profoundest respect. And if you are constrained to express a different opinion, let it be done with modesty, and even with caution. Oppose them rather by stating the objections to their views which occur to your mind, and inquiring what can be offered for their removal, than by direct or confident attack. Let it be seen that you differ from them with reluctance, and with much diffidence. And when you refer to any thing which has been uttered by them, in which you cannot concur, let it be with something of that filial reverence with which you ought ever to regard their persons.
While you do this, however, do not fall into the extreme of those, who, when they differ, in ecclesiastical assemblies, from an individual venerable for age or standing, do it with so many circuitous apologies, and so much fulsome flattery; protesting how much it pains them to oppose a father so “learned,” so “pious,” so “illustrious,” etc., that every person of just taste is disgusted. Let your respect for their persons and opinions be manifested by your general air, tones, and manner, rather than by any direct eulogies on their character, which it is difficult to express in a happy manner, and which had better always be omitted.
16. Conduct yourself with gravitas.
Be careful to maintain habitual gravity in all ecclesiastical courts, and especially in those of the higher class. Can it require a moment’s reasoning to show, that when the ministers and elders of the church of Christ are assembled to deliberate on the most deeply momentous and solemn interests which can possibly occupy the attention of mortals, they ought to be serious, sober, and to avoid everything that approaches to levity?
One would think that the very lowest standard of propriety that could be adopted by any thinking man, would require this. And yet, such is the frailty of our nature, and such the temptation frequently arising from the gregarious principle, if I may so express it, that in our larger ecclesiastical bodies, and especially in the General Assembly, it often happens that gravity is interrupted to a painful extent, and that some of the most devout men are frequently borne away by the power of sympathy. Indeed some ecclesiastical debaters avowedly act on the plan of carrying their point by almost any of those weapons which are admissible in secular assemblies, and, among the rest, by the broadest and most undisguised ridicule. Hence, if they can so manage as to excite a burst of laughter at the expense of an opponent, they are peculiarly gratified. I cannot believe that this is a proper mode of conducting ecclesiastical business. It is an offense, in my opinion, both against Christian dignity, and Christian benevolence.