THE USELESSNESS OF ABSTRACT PREACHING.
THERE are few questions better worth discussing than that which the Bishop of Oxford started at the Church Con- gress, and on which Sir Stafford Northcote touched in his address to the Torrington farmers,—to wit, the relation in the instruction and guidance of mankind of the abstract to the concrete, the general to the particular, the law or principle to the specific instance. The method of dealing with the dispute between the agricultural labourers and their employers, which the Bishop of Oxford commended, and of which Sir Stafford Northcote highly Approves, is one which may be applied in countless ways. "Preach a pure and lofty morality to both parties, and pronounce no deci- sion upon the particular case,"—this is in effect the advice of the Bishop and the Baronet. The " functions" of the clergy, thinks Sir Stafford, are "spiritual,"—it is their duty "to raise the general character of their parishioners," "to endeavour to bring among them feelings of Christian kindliness," to expatiate in a lofty and cloudless region where no speck of mundane dust can sully the white of their professional garments, and to keep themselves apart from the controversies of the street, the field, the market. One thing must be conceded to Sir Stafford Northcote, that there is comfort in the method he praises. It is easy ; and it is pretty sure of being applauded. I Most people have recourse to it, more or less, in their vocation. 'In politics it is, for its own purposes, invaluable and almost in- fallible, and it may be doubted whether Constitutional government could get on without it. How could Prime Ministers compose speeches from the Throne, or under-secretaries answer Parlia- mentary questions, or orators produce their most thrilling effects, if they were not permitted to launch into general principles ? The very thunder which shakes the arsenal is a general maxim wrapped up in a sonorous phrase. If we were asked by a young -orator—for an old orator would not require any information on the subject—how he could without fail move an audience, we should tell him to think of some political or social maxim which no human being in a state of mental and moral sanity could question, and to utter it in loud tones, with flashing eyes, fierce gesticulation, and the whole air of one who was incurring imminent risk of martyrdom. In society, the fluent and vivacious retailer of current maxims, who shuns par- ticular cases, and is deft enough to avoid treading on the toes of the company, is the successful man. Writers for the Press enjoy less than most persons_ of the emotional glow of easy and applauded vagueness, but even they occasionally divest them- selves of that "exactness" which, according to Bacon, is made by writing, and don the loose-flowing dishabille of platitude. All readers of the Times—the Editor, we fancy, best of all—can tell the article which is written for the sake of sound from that which has a definite purpose and is based upon real knowledge. An amusing example in the former kind was given the other day. The article was on farming, and apropos of the grazing of mulch cows agriculturists were admonished that "all these things are in the hands of a Power which we cannot control, and had best not rashly impugn." The tenant-farmers of Bucks and Somerset were illuminated with the remark that "man has to assist Nature, and supplement the great work of Creation." After this, can we
doubt that the price of beef will fall, and that Mr. Disraeli may once more indulge freely in the mutton of black-faced sheep ?
The grand drawback to the general method is that, though men are pleased with it, nature disowns it, and that men even, when asked to pay for it, not in plaudits, but in cash, are apt to find it out. The social favourite, who is thought by everyone to be a paragon of wisdom because his observations are wide enough to cover, or seem to cover, contradictory opinions, will meet sometimes with a rebuff. "Then you are of my opinion," says Croaker to Honeywood in Goldsmith's play. "Entirely," is the reply. "And you reject mine ?" cries Mrs. Croaker. "Heavens forbid, madame ! No, sure, no reasoning could be more just than yours." This appeases the lady. " 0, then," she says, "you think I'm quite right ?" "Perfectly right," smiles Honey- wood. But unhappily the husband has not taken himself away. "A plague of plagues !" exclaims Croaker, "we can't be both right. I ought to be sorry, or I ought to be glad. My hat must be on my head, or my hat must be off." in politics general maxims are good for the hustings, or even in the House of Corn- moos; but they will not do for Crimean wars or Indian mutinies. Their worth in the world of action has been pithily pronounced upon by Macaulay, and no practical man will dispute the sound- ness of his estimate :—" Every one who has seen the world knows that nothing is so useless as a general maxim. If it be very moral and very true, it may serve for a copy to a charity-boy. If, like those of Rochefoucauld, it be sparkling and whimsical, it may make an excellent motto for an essay. But few indeed of the many wise apophthegms which have been uttered, from the time of the Seven Sages of Greece to that of Poor Richard, have prevented a single foolish action."
We may be permitted, then, to doubt whether the general and abstract method of spiritual instruction is that by which the Clergy of England will practically benefit their parishioners. Our own experience, extending over a period of nearly ten years in a country parish, would lead us to conclude that preaching of this kind has absolutely no more effect upon the character or lives of the parishioners than the moaning of the wind has upon the bones that lie in the churchyard. During that period we have gradually become acquainted with the characteristic temptations, failings, tricks, vices, and crimes of the neighbourhood. The chief social ill, of course, is that the men drink their wages, in- stead of taking them home to their wives. Market gardening is the prevailing occupation. The people are tempted to trickery in weighing their goods and in preparing them for market, and many tricks they practise. It is not safe to buy a sack of potatoes with- out weighing it, or a basket of apples without looking whether those on the top are not immensely better in quality than those below, or a truss of hay without ascertaining whether a brick has been inserted to increase the weight. The rule with the farmers, when any of their live stock is ailing and cannot be perfectly cured, is to "get rid of it," without mention of the ail- ment. There is a constant temptation to overload horses, and to use them with cruel carelessness. We said that we have been nearly ten years in the parish. We have heard preaching in the parish church all the time ; and we are prepared to state that, if a few allusions to drunkenness are allowed for, we have never known the preacher lay a "fiery finger" upon, or so much as mention, any one of the peculiar vices and temptations of the place,—systematic selfishness, utter and unabashed, is the practical moral code, and never have we known the clergyman come down from the clouds to the extent even of saying, "If you best 'your neighbours, and watch day and night for the advantage in bar- gains, you are violating the law of Christ." The consequence in our case has been that we scorn and detest the hypocritic sham of mouthing moral platitudes which have no effect whatever. Our distinct impression is that it has never occurred to the great body of parishioners that the sermons preached in the parish church have, or are meant to have, any connection whatever with their daily life. And we are perfectly sure that no good will be done by inculcating, as the sum of morality, the imitation of Christ, until preachers also say how Christ would act if He had vegetables to sell or horses to drive.