All preachers, myself included, need a good smack upside the head by a loving and godly man once in a while. “Let a righteous man strike me- it is kindness; let him rebuke me- it is oil on my head,” said David.
I came across this spicy little letter of loving exhortation written by Charles Finney to Thomas Brainerd, a student at Andover Seminary. It has impacted me deeply.
If I could, I’d have this letter read to every young preacher and pulpiteer in every seminary in North America.
Finney was used of God to revive and save hundreds of thousands of souls in New England during the 1800s. He wasn’t perfect, but he was used more than you or I, and that means we should listen to him more than just some Tom, Dick and Harry! When he preached, ale houses would close and never open again. Entire communities would repent and be transformed.
Subsitute your name for “Mr. Brainerd” as you read it this. Listen to it and obey it or your eloquence will be “mere wash, noise and foppery” and your prayerless ministry will “do nothing or next to nothing.”
I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting a few important and striking statements.
Philadelphia 21st Oct 1828.
My Dr. Brainard.
Your letter by Br. Abbott came duly to hand, & afforded much pleasure. As he is about to return, I seize a moment in which to mention a thing or two.
First be careful, amid the various specimens of publick speaking which are constantly before you, not to become a copyist. Be Brainard or you will be nobody. I have seen many young men spoiled by setting up a model & attempting to fashion themselves after it. In this they fail. In the attempt however, they spoil themselves by loosing themselves under their borrowed manner, & often, to observing eyes, render themselves very ridiculous & disgusting.
Be careful, My Dr. B. not to suffer yourself to be criticised out of a natural & colloquial style of communication. I can not speak of Andover particularly as to style & manner, but I am certain that much that is called pulpit eloquence at the present [day], is mere wash, & noise & foppery. I have the greatest confidence in the piety, & theology of Andover, but there are three principle defects in the specimens which I have seen from there, which I shall mention to you with perfect freedom.
Their young men are not half enough in earnest. A hearer would be very apt often to catch the impression that they were performing professional duty. This makes infidels, however logically they may reason. Unless they appear to believe their own message, it would be a miracle if others believed it.
They are too stiff, there is not enough of nature in their manner. They are not colloquial enough.
Their style is too elevated, their periods too round, too much dress & drapery & millinary & verbage about their preaching. They are, or seem to be afraid of being called vulgar. They are not by the multitude understood.
I do not mean that these things are peculiar to Andover, they are the common defects of most theological students.
The more I preach, & the more I hear others preach the more I am impressed with the ripe conviction, that a prominent reason why preaching produces so little effect is, because it is not understood.
Young men are often afraid and ashamed of using common words. From this error stand off wide. Keep clear, or you make shipwreck of your usefulness.
I am called vulgar & yet I find that I often use language that a great part of my hearers don’t understand. The remark is often made to me. “I never understood preaching until I heard you”. Don’t think by this, that I mean to make myself a standard. By no means I only mean to advert to the fact that if a man will be understood, he must dare to be called vulgar.
There is another thing however of infinite importance to a student of divinity & that in which it is not slander to say almost all ministers greatly fail.
I mean a spirit of prayer.
I am convinced that nothing in the whole christian religion is so difficult & so rarely attained, as a praying heart. Without this you are as weak as weakness itself. With it you are irresistible.
This would be thought a strange remark by some, & to savour strongly of fanaticism. But I tell you my Dr B. before the Millennium comes the church have to turn over a new leaf & take a new lesson on the subject of prayer.
You remember this! When I think how almost certain you are to loose what of the praying spirit you ever had, & come out of the Seminary very wise but very dry, & go about “sowing seed” without unction & life & spirituality. I am distressed, & could I raise my voice with sufficient strength, you w[ould]hear me cry “Brainard beware! Lay down your books and pray”!
Frequent seasons of secret fasting & prayer, is in my own mind, wholly indispensable to the keeping up an intercourse with God.
My Dear brother let me say again & again, if you loose your spirit of prayer you will do nothing, or next to nothing, though you had the [intellectual] mental endowments of an angel.
My beloved B. will you remember this? If you loose your spiritually, you had better stop & break off in the midst of your preparations & repent & return to God, or go about some other employment, for I can not contemplate a more loathsome & abominable object than an earthly minded minister.
The blessed Lord deliver & preserve his dear children from the guidance & influence of men who know not what it is to pray. Yours in the best of bonds, *
C. G. Finney
When Mr Brainerd recieved this letter, He wrote this by his own hand at the bottom of the page:
O Lord, assist me to remember and practice the precepts contained in this letter, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
It is said of Thomas Brainerd that he “went on to become an eminent Presbyterian minister, who ‘lived and laboured for revivals’.” Interestingly, Thomas was a close ancestor of David Brainerd and wrote a biography of John Brainerd, David’s brother. There is a biography on Thomas Brainerd’s life if you are interested.