“The Pulpit and the Pastorate” – Charles Stillman on the relationship between preaching, pastoring, and theology

Here you will find a wonderful six page meditation upon the practical labors of a minister of the gospel, written by Charles Allen Stillman, a 19th century Presbyterian pastor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This article was first a lecture given on the afternoon of Sunday, November 6, 1881, at the Semi-Centennial Celebration of Columbia Theological Seminary, held at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. (Other lectures delivered included Thomas Peck’s “The Spirit of Presbyterianism,” Henry M. Smith’s “The Old Testament in History; or, Revelation and Criticism,” and John L. Girardeau’s famous “The Federal Theology: Its Import and Its Regulative Influence.” The complete volume published after the celebration can be found here.) Having heard Dr. Benjamin Morgan Palmer preach God’s word in the morning, the alumni association gathered to hear the sixty-two year old Dr. Stillman summarize biblical pastoral theology and the importance of pastoral training in seminaries.

Charles Allen Stillman was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 14th, 1819. He graduated from Oglethorpe University in Georgia in 1841, and from Columbia Theological Seminary in 1844. He was ordained as the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Eutaw, Alabama, in 1845; moved to Gainesville, Alabama, in 1853; and to Tuscaloosa, Alambama, in 1870. Here he stayed until he died January 23, 1895. Alfred Nevin’s Presbyterian Encyclopedia describes Stillman: “Dr. Stillman is marked for his genial temperament and fine social qualities, and conversational powers. He is endowed with a clear, strong, practical mind, and a judgment whose decisions command universal respect. His preaching is of a high order. It is addressed to the reason and conscience, rather than the emotions, but delivered with warmth and animation. He expresses his thoughts with clearness and precision, and in language singularly apt and forcible…” Dr. Stillman’s most lasting influence came through his work with the Institute for Training Colored Ministers, which was eventually named after him (and is now called Stillman College in Tuscaloosa). In 1876, the General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church authorized the founding of this seminary, upon Stillman’s urging, and Stillman was appointed Superintendent. Many African-American preachers were trained here, including William Sheppard, the famous Presbyterian missionary to the Congo.

Stillman’s article is rich in reflection upon the work of the pastor, particularly as it relates to the study of systematic theology. He asserts, first, that the chief function of the pastor is to minister God’s word to God’s people – and thus he must know the Bible, thoroughly, accurately, and fully.

Second, Stillman discusses what the pastor has to do with systematic theology. He writes, “He cannot be thoroughly furnished for his great work without a clear and familiar acquaintance with it. He must know the Scriptures; but in order to expound them clearly, truly, and in an edifying manner, their contents must assume, in his mind, the shape of a well defined, connected, and harmonious system.” Of course, when he preaches he doesn’t give systematic theology lectures; rather, “when he goes before his people, he puts the various truths of that system in forms which are adapted to popular edification.” Theology is absolutely necessary for the pastor to preach properly in an evangelistic and edifying way. Yet the theology he believes must be deeply imbibed – “the true Christian pastor is an experimental preacher of the gospel.” Stillman explains, “He is not a mere theologian nor a mere lecturer. As all his instructions are intended to reach the hearts of his people, they must come living and warm from his own heart. This can only be the case when he has had a genuine experience of those truths. He cannot learn the real nature, power, and excellency of the gospel in any other way…How can he warn, exhort, and invite sinners to Christ unless he has felt the plague of his own sins, the sorrows of a personal repentance, the desolation of a conscious helplessness, the fitness, power, and preciousness of Christ as his own Savior, and the peace of God shed abroad in his own soul?”

Finally, Stillman considers the relationship between a pastor’s public ministry and his private ministry, to families and individuals. It works both ways – we apply the truth we’ve preached to the lives of God’s people in the concrete circumstances we meet in their homes; and we take what we learn in their homes back to the study with us that we might preach all the more powerfully. “With God’s word in his hands and with these various cases borne on his heart to the throne, he seems to get a new message from on high, and then carries that message into the pulpit, prepared to preach with unwonted appropriateness to their real necessities.”

Stillman’s conclusion is a powerful declaration of what every Reformed seminary should want to be: “We aim at no progress in its standards of doctrine, either as to the faith, the order, or the worship of the Church; for these we regard as based upon the complete and unchangeable teachings of God’s inspired word. What we long to see is, that the most ample means shall be provided for the inculcation of these great principles upon the largest number of students consecrated to the ministry of truth – men who will hold up these standards with unswerving fidelity amidst prevailing defections; who will combine the most thorough scholarship with humble and ardent piety, and who will labor to spread these sacred principles with evangelic zeal in our own broad land and amongst the nations of the earth.”

May the Lord enable all pastors to preach and minister as Stillman describes, and all seminaries to long for the same things for which he longed. Tolle lege!



2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by George Hicks on September 16, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    “We aim at no progress in its standards of doctrine, either as to the faith, the order, or the worship of the Church; for these we regard as based upon the complete and unchangeable teachings of God’s inspired word”…How does this excellent statement square with John Piper’s manipulation of the answer to the first question of the Shorter Catechism?


    • Posted by calebcangelosi on September 18, 2012 at 10:39 am

      Hey George, I wouldn’t say Piper is changing the teaching of the catechism as much as he is emphasizing one key facet of how we glorify God – BY enjoying Him forever. Boston does the same thin in his commentary on the catechism. There are other areas of Piper’s thought where I disagree with him more; but as with any author, even when I disagree with parts of someone’s theology, I still seek to glean from him what is biblical – like eating pecans, you have to separate the kernel from the husk, according to the light given you by the Holy Spirit.


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