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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
From The Baptist Reporter, 1860
Many have seen, we doubt not, a small volume of Vincent, the nonconformist minister, respecting the great plague and fire in London. Its title is “God’s Terrible Voice in the City.” In it there is a description of the manner in which the faithful ministers who remained amid the danger discharged their solemn duties to the dying inhabitants, and of the manner in which the terror-stricken multitudes hung with breathless eagerness upon their lips, to drink in salvation ere the dreaded pestilence had swept them away to the tomb.
Churches were flung open, but the pulpits were silent, for there was none to occupy them; the hirelings had fled. Then did God’s faithful band of persecuted ones come forth from their hiding-places to fill the forsaken pulpits. Then did they stand up in the midst of the dying and the dead to proclaim eternal life to men who were expecting death before the morrow.
They preached in season and out of season. Week-day or Sabbath was the same to them. The hour might be canonical or uncanonical, it mattered not; they did not stand upon nice points of ecclesiastical regularity or irregularity; they lifted up their voices like a trumpet and spared not. Every sermon might be their last.
Graves were lying open around them; life seemed now not merely an hairbreadth but a hair-breadth; death was nearer now than ever; eternity stood out in all its vast reality; souls were felt to be precious; opportunities were no longer to be trifled away; every hour possessed a value beyond the wealth of kingdoms; the world was now a passing, vanishing shadow, and man’s days on earth had been cut down from threescore years and ten into the twinkling of an eye!
Oh, how they preached! No polished periods, no learned arguments, no laboured paragraphs, chilled their appeals, or rendered their discourses unintelligible. No fear of man, no love of popular applause, no over-scrupulous dread of strong expressions, no fear of excitement or enthusiasm, prevented them from pouring out the whole fervour of their hearts, that yearned with tenderness unutterable over dying souls. “Old Time,” says Vincent, “seemed to stand at the head of the pulpit with his great scythe, declaring it offensive to the day of grace, saying, with a hoarse voice, ‘Work while it is called today, at night I will mow thee down.’
Grim death seemed to stand at the side of the pulpit, with its sharp arrow, saying, ‘Do thou shoot God’s arrows and I will shoot mine.’ The grave seemed to lie open at the foot of the
pulpit, with dust in her bosom, saying,–
‘Louden thy cry
And now fulfill thy trust;
Here thou must lie –
And silent in the dust.’
Ministers had now awakening calls to seriousness and fervour in their ministerial work; to preach on the side and brink of the pit into which thousands were tumbling. Now there is such a vast concourse of people in the churches where these ministers are to be found, that they cannot many times come near the pulpit doors for the press, but are forced to climb over the pews to them, and such a face was seen in the assemblies as seldom was seen before in London; such eager looks, such open ears, such greedy attention, as if every word would be eaten which dropped from the mouths of the ministers.”
Thus did they preach, and thus did they hear, in these days of terror and death. Men were in earnest then, both in speaking and hearing. There was no coldness, no languor, no studied oratory. Truly they preached as dying men. But the question is, Should it ever be otherwise? Should there ever be less fervour in preaching, or less eagerness in hearing, than there was then? True, life was a little shorter then, but that was all.
Death and its issues are still the same. Eternity is still the same. The soul is still the same. Salvation is still the same. Heaven and hell are still the same. Only one small element was thrown in then which does not always exist to such an extent, viz., the increased shortness of life.
But that was all the difference. Why, then, should our preaching be less fervent, our appeals less affectionate, our importunity less urgent? We are a few steps farther from the shore of eternity; that is all. Time may be a little longer than it was then, yet only a very little. Its everlasting issues are still as momentous, as unchangeable.
Surely it is our unbelief that makes the difference! It is unbelief that makes ministers so cold in their preaching, so slothful in visiting, and so remiss in all their sacred duties. It is unbelief that chills the life and straitens the heart. It is unbelief that makes ministers handle eternal realities with such irreverence.
It is unbelief that makes them ascend with so light a step “that awful place the pulpit, to deal with immortal beings about heaven and hell.