Religious Conversation

Samuel Miller (1769-1850)Samuel Miller, D.D.1

Religious Conversation

Copyright © 1998 Naphtali Press

 MY DEAR YOUNG FRIEND:— To be able to introduce the great subject of religion, in an easy, seasonable, and acceptable manner, in the daily intercourse of society, is a most precious talent, the uses of which are more various, more rich, more numerous, and more important, than almost any that can be mentioned.

That this ability, when it exists in a high degree, is, in part, a natural talent, cannot be doubted. The physical temperament of some men is much more favorable to the ready and unconstrained performance of the duty in question, than that of many others. More stress, however, I apprehend, has been sometimes laid on this fact, than there ought to have been. Not a few allege that they have no gift of this kind, and, therefore, content themselves in the habitual neglect of the duty. At any rate, they rarely attempt it, and think that they cannot perform it, even tolerably. But it would be just as reasonable to plead, because an easy, pleasant, and attractive elocution is natural, in a peculiar degree, to some, that therefore others who cannot attain equal excellence in this respect, ought not to attempt to speak at all. The fact is, the power of introducing and maintaining religious conversation well, though to a certain extent a natural gift, is yet capable of great improvement, nay, it may be said, of unlimited improvement; and the true reason, no doubt, why some persons of plain talents, and with even striking disadvantages of physical temperament, yet excel in this happy art, is that they have taken pains to cultivate a talent so peculiarly precious to the pious mind, and so manifestly useful in all the intercourse of life. To what appear to me some of the best means of carrying on this cultivation, I shall advert before closing the present letter.

My first object shall be to point out some errors, in relation to this subject, which appear to me to be prevalent; and this will prepare the way for a few general counsels for conducting religious conversation, and also for cultivating a happy talent for the discharge of this part of Christian and ministerial duty.

l. It is an error to suppose that religious conversation must be introduced on all occasions, and in all companies, indiscriminately, whether the time, the character of the persons present, and the circumstances, favor it or not. No doubt many who have but little taste for such conversation, omit to introduce it, under the plea that there is no good opportunity, when it is really otherwise. But there can be as little doubt, that there are many occasions, in which no suitable opening for it is presented. On such occasions, to drag forward the subject, in a formal manner, and, as it were, by main force, is never judicious, and often very revolting. It frequently has the appearance of being done as a kind of official task, which is never likely to do good. Be always on the watch for opportunities of saying something for the honor of your Master, and for the welfare of the souls of men; but do not think it your duty to compel people to listen to you on this most sacred, important and delicate of all subjects, when their character, their situation and their employment evidently close up every suitable avenue of approach.

2. It is an error to imagine that the same methods of introducing and maintaining religious conversation, are equally adapted to all persons, and all occasions. If I am not deceived, many adopt the notion that the very same plan of approach will answer in all cases, for the rich and the poor, the learned and illiterate, the occupant of high office, and the most unpretending, obscure citizen. This is to set at nought all the principles of human nature, and to forget that the circumstances of men have much effect in modifying their feelings and character. If we open the Bible, we shall see ample warrant for addressing some persons on this subject unceremoniously and directly; and others in a more cautious and circuitous manner. In this sense, we ought, with the Apostle, to become all things to all men, that we may gain some; not by flattering their prejudices, or countenancing their corruptions; but by endeavoring skillfully to adapt our instructions and exhortations to their several habits, attainments, circumstances, and tastes. Those who are most intelligent, and whose pride would be most apt to be offended by an abrupt address, might be approached, and perhaps won, in an indirect and gradual manner. There are thousands to whom I might safely say, Pray, sir, do you cherish the hope that you are a real Christian? But there are many others, to whom if I were to address such a question, I should expect to be shut out from all opportunity of approaching or benefiting them afterwards. Yet the very same people might, by a little address, be insensibly drawn into a free conversation on the same subject, and to answer that very question without the least offence. This is one of the many cases in which some knowledge of human nature and of the world is essential to a wise discharge of duty. Nor is it a valid objection to this counsel to say, that, if we follow it, we may be tempted to defer too much to human rank, and corrupt refinement. There is, no doubt, danger on this quarter, against which we ought to guard. But the abuse of a thing is not a legitimate argument against its use. Counterfeits do not prove that there is no true money, but rather the reverse.

3. Another very common error in religious conversation, is to say too much. A man may be too full of talk on this, as well as on any other subject. That is, he may talk so much and so long, as to become a weariness even to his pious hearers, and much more to those who are not pious. This is far from being a rare occurrence; and it becomes especially an evil, when the pious sentiments uttered, are all of the most common-place sort; and, not only so, but dealt out in that common-place, task-like manner, which very seldom makes a favorable impression among discerning people. Guard, then, against excessive talkativeness, even here. Let what you say on this subject be a real conversation. Let one object of your address be, to induce others to talk, and disclose their sentiments and feelings, that you may know how to answer them. Let your part of the discussion be as lively, pointed, and short as you can make it. Never allow it to degenerate into formal, tedious preaching, or rather prosing.

4. Once more, it is the error of some to imagine that religious conversation is to be carried on with a tone of voice, and an aspect of countenance, peculiar to itself. Hence, while these persons converse on all other subjects in a simple, easy, natural manner, the moment they pass to the subject of religion, their whole manner is changed. It becomes formal and artificial; so that you would scarcely know them to be the same persons who had been a few minutes before conversing on ordinary subjects. This is a fault as unreasonable as it is repulsive. Why should men cease to speak naturally, when they come to speak on a subject the most interesting and delightful in the world? Shun this fault with the utmost care. Do not, indeed, allow yourself to fall into the opposite extreme; I mean talking on the subject of religion with levity. But, at the same time, let all grimace, all sanctimoniousness of manner, all affected solemnity, all lofty dictation, be carefully avoided. The more simple, affable, and entirely inartificial your manner, the more you will gratify all classes; nor is this all; the more easy will you always find it to slide insensibly into religious conversation, without alarming the fears of the most thoughtless; and the more easy to recur to it again, after a little interruption from other topics.

But, to guard against these errors, is not all that is incumbent upon you in privately conversing with men on their eternal interests. My next object, then, shall be to offer a few counsels, which I would fain hope may not be altogether useless. And,

l. My first counsel is, that you make a point of introducing religious conversation, whenever you have a good opportunity, and that you abound in it wherever you go.

It is melancholy to think how many hours ministers spend in company, without saying a word to recommend either the service or kingdom of their Master. Nay, some of these hours are spent in the company of the truly pious, with whom there is no obstacle to religious conversation; who expect it; who desire it; and who are disappointed at not finding it introduced. To be backward in introducing it in such company is unpardonable. But this is not all. In every company and in every situation, be on the watch for opportunities to speak a word for Christ. And when you do not find opportunities, by a little address, you may make them; and you will often do so, if you have as eager, and incessant desire to do good, as the miser has to turn everything into the channel of gain, and the ambitious man to gather laurels from all quarters. I have often been struck with that passage, in which the Apostle Paul, when writing to the Hebrews concerning ministers, says—They watch for souls. And, truly, the minister who acts on principles of enlightened fidelity will thus watch, not only in the pulpit, but daily, and in all the walks of private intercourse. Let me entreat you, then, to lose no good opportunity of conversing on the most precious of all subjects. Let your conversation continually be with grace, seasoned with salt, that it may minister grace to the hearers. You may say a thousand useful things in private conversation, which you never could utter in the pulpit. You may answer questions, solve scruples, obviate objections, reprove faults, and communicate knowledge in the parlor, which could by no means be brought into the sanctuary. Above all, in many cases of private discourse you may come near to the heart and the conscience, and adapt your instructions to individual exigencies, in a way altogether impracticable in addressing a public assembly. It has, therefore, often occurred to me as a fact equally wonderful and humiliating, that Christian ministers are not commonly more vigilant in availing themselves of this advantage, and more unceasing in the use of it: that their minds are not found teeming with good thoughts, pious hints, and instructive, weighty sentiments, as well as direct addresses, wherever they go.

2. Cultivate the important art of introducing conversation on the subject of religion in an easy and happy manner. One of the greatest difficulties attending this whole subject is to begin well. A formal introduction of the subject; an introduction which, as it were, announces beforehand the intention of talking piously; and which, of course, excites the fears of those who have no taste for such conversation, ought certainly, in ordinary cases, to be avoided. No less undesirable is an abrupt commencement of this species of conversation, that is, suddenly entering upon it, when something very different had been, the instant before, the subject of discourse. But why should we ever do either of these? What subject can possibly be started, by any individual, or in any company, which a man of good sense, and whose heart is filled with pious and benevolent emotions, may not soon, and without violence, convert into a medium of some useful suggestions on the subject of religion? The state of the weather; the prospects of the husbandman; the news of the day; an ordinary domestic occurrence; the return of spring; the approach of autumn; or an accident on the road; —these, or any analogous topics which may be hinted at, furnish ample occasions for the introduction of pious sentiments; insomuch that a social circle might, by a person of tolerable address, and of the proper spirit, be translated from the region of perfect levity, to the region of serious and devout reflection, before they were aware that the transition was intended. This is a happy art. All may learn it who will be vigilant enough, and take pains enough for the purpose. With a moderate knowledge of human nature; a tolerable address; a little attention to incidents as they arise; and a heart glowing with a desire to do good, the task is easy. Covet earnestly this gift; labor without ceasing to gain it; and you will not labor in vain.

3. Let your conversation be adapted to the character of the company into which you may happen to be thrown. If the company with which you are called to converse, be all professors of religion, there will, ordinarily, be little difficulty in adapting your discourse to them; for you may speak directly and pointedly on any topic which occurs as important. Especially, you may enter with freedom into all the refreshing richness of conversation on Christian experience. If, on the contrary, the company consist altogether of gay and worldly people, your utmost ingenuity will often be put to the test in leading them on to instructive and edifying, as well as pleasant discourse. Yet even this may be done, if you take them by the right handle. When the circle in which you are seated, as will be apt more frequently to happen, is made up partly of professors of religion, and partly of those who are not so, a very happy use may be made of the former, as a medium of conveying instruction to the latter. As it is oftentimes one of the most effectual modes of addressing parents, to do it through the medium of their children; so we may frequently speak to the worldly and thoughtless most impressively through the medium of the pious, who are seated in their presence. In short, study diligently the different tastes and habits of the aged and the young, the polished and the rough, the learned and the illiterate, the fashionable and the plain, in whose society you may find yourself; and endeavor to have a word in season, a set of topics, and a mode of treating them, adapted to their several characters.

4. Guard against giving your remarks on religion, in the social circle, an air of dictation and authority. This caution, which was mentioned before in reference to common conversation, is no less important in reference to the subject of religion. Ministers, from the circumstance of their being so much accustomed to speak with authority from the pulpit, are apt, spontaneously, and even insensibly, to fall into a similar manner of speaking in private; to be impatient of contradiction; and to feel, when their opinions are in any measure controverted, as if their official dignity were invaded. Let no spirit or feeling of this kind intrude into your social intercourse. The more entirely you can divest yourself of it, and sit down with your friends and associates on terms of perfect equality, as a friend and brother, who claims no authority over their consciences, but is actuated supremely by a regard to their temporal and eternal interest, the more easy and affectionate will your conversation be, and the more likely will you be to make a favorable impression on their minds.

5. In conducting religious conversation, as much as possible avoid theological controversy. I before cautioned you against the habit of falling into controversy on any subject in company. But I would now warn you that religious controversy, when you are conversing with persons with a view to their spiritual benefit, is peculiarly undesirable, and ought to be avoided as much as possible. I say, as much as possible; for there are doubtless cases in which it is not possible to avoid it, without shrinking from the defence of the truth. You will sometimes fall in with persons, who, from a love of disputation, from ill manners, from enmity to the truth, or from a desire to put your ingenuity to the test, will compel you either to be silent, or to defend your opinions. When you meet with such persons, you must manage them in the best way you can. Do not, however, even with such, allow a dispute to be much protracted. Draw it to a close as soon as practicable. Carry it on, while it lasts, with all the meekness and gentleness of Christ. And let them see that you take no personal offence at having your opinions questioned; but simply desire to defend what you deem truth, and to guard them from injurious error.

But in all cases in which controversy can properly be avoided, by all means decline engaging in it. Theological disputes, in the social circle, are seldom profitable, and often highly mischievous. They sour the temper; but commonly leave each party confirmed in his original opinion. In your ordinary religious conversation, then, keep as clear of what are called disputed points in theology, as possible, consistently with conveying sound and useful instruction in divine truth. When you are compelled to touch on them, let it be under a practical rather than a polemical aspect, and in terms as little adapted to give offence as possible. When you perceive the most distant symptom of approaching controversy, take measures to avert the impending storm. This may commonly be done by a few kind words, or by giving a practical turn to the argument. It may be easy to prevent the evil; but by no means so easy to cure it when we have once fallen under its power.

6. You will sometimes fall in company with infidels, who totally reject revelation. Conversation with them is always a delicate, and often a difficult task. Make a point of treating them respectfully, as long as they maintain decorum on their part; and even if they scoff and blaspheme, do not suffer yourself to be so far borne away by irascible feeling, as to address them in opprobrious language. As long as their deportment admits of your continuing to argue with them, do it in the spirit of meekness and benevolence. In addressing them, do not permit yourself to call them by hard names, or to impute to them base motives. Endeavor to convince them that you are actuated, not by a spirit of personal resentment, or wounded pride; but by a regard to the cause of God, and their own eternal welfare. In arguing with them, however, do not merely stand on the defensive; but show them, on the plan of Butler’s Analogy, and similar books, that most of the objections which they urge against Revelation, lie with equal force against natural religion, which they commonly profess to believe. I have seldom seen an unbeliever who was able to stand five minutes before the argumentum ad hominem plan of treatment. Above all, in addressing them, while you appeal to their understandings, never fail, in a mild and respectful manner, to appeal to their consciences and their hearts. All my experience tells me that nothing is so likely to impress them as this.

7. In conversing with persons of a different religious denomination from your own, there is need of much vigilance both as to the matter and manner of your conversation. In all such conversations, guard against either manifesting or feeling a proselyting spirit. Be much more anxious to see them Christians, than to see them Presbyterians. Dwell, therefore, much more on the fundamental and precious points of our common Christianity, than on the peculiarities of either their or your church. While they see that you are deeply serious, and anxious to promote their eternal welfare, let them perceive that you are not anxious to win them to your party. Agree with them as far as you can. Treat them with pointed respect and attention; if they appear pious, with as much affection as if they belonged to your particular denomination; and even if they make overtures for joining your own church, do not be ready to catch at their proposal. Manifest no eagerness to receive them. On the contrary, rather show, in all their extent, the difficulties which lie in the way of transferring their religious connection. However unworthily, in relation to this subject, persons of other sects may treat you or yours, never allow yourself to imitate their pernicious example.

8. The introduction of religious conversation among entire strangers, is often very desirable and important; and yet, frequently, requires no little address. I said that it is often very desirable and important; for more than once have I known a minister to be in company a whole afternoon, or longer, with a circle of strangers, several of whom, though unknown to him, were earnestly desirous of hearing him engage in religious conversation; and were not a little disappointed to find the interview at an end, without his having introduced it. Many a precious opportunity of instructing the ignorant, of directing the perplexed and inquiring, and of comforting the sorrowful, has thus been lost. Guard against all such omissions. Never allow yourself to be half an hour in company, even with the most perfect strangers, without endeavoring to ascertain whether any of them have a taste for serious conversation. There are many ways of ascertaining this, without intrusion or indelicacy. A cursory remark, or an apparently incidental inquiry, may, and probably will, elicit enough to solve your doubt. Many a precious conversation has resulted from such an exploring remark or inquiry. Like the discovery of a refreshing spring in a parched and dreary wilderness, not unfrequently has a minister of the gospel, as well as a private Christian, met with a spiritual feast himself, and been the means of imparting a feast to others, when he least of all expected such a pleasure; when, perhaps, he was ready to say within himself, there is no fear of God in this place.

9. Introducing and conducting religious conversation with persons of wealth, and high station in society, is a peculiarly important, and, at the same time, a very delicate and difficult duty. Peculiarly important, because any good impression made on them, will be likely to extend itself more widely; and in many respects, delicate and difficult, because this class of persons are more in the habit of being approached with deference, and, for various reasons, more apt to be nice, and even fastidious in their feelings, than many others. At the same time, I have no doubt that the difficulties of this duty have been, by some, greatly overrated; and that plain, good sense, with a heart overflowing with piety and benevolence, will be found, humanly speaking, a safe and adequate guide, in all ordinary cases. My advice on this point shall be short. Never, on any account, court or affect the company of the wealthy and great. Never take pains to be much with them; and never boast of their acquaintance. When you are providentially thrown in their way, sacredly avoid every thing that approaches to a supple, sycophantic spirit of accommodation to their errors or vices. Never accost them with that timid, embarrassed diffidence, which may lead them to suppose that you have more veneration for them, than for your duty or your God. At the same time, let nothing of the unmannerly, the sullen, or the morose mark your deportment toward them. An old divine was accustomed to say, Please all men in the truth; but wound not the truth to please any. Let them see that Christian duty is not inconsistent with the most perfect politeness. Introduce pious thoughts, and divine truth, to their view, in a gentle and sometimes in an indirect manner; and let them see that you are much more intent on doing them good, than gaining their favor. When you have occasion to oppose them, let it be done mildly and meekly, but firmly; with the air of one who dislikes to oppose, but feels constrained to obey God rather than man. In a word, I believe that a minister of the gospel never appears to more advantage in the view of those who are considered as the great ones of this world, and is never more likely to make a deep impression upon them, than when he makes them to feel, not by ostentation, sanctimoniousness or austerity; not even by importunately soliciting their attention to his own views of truth and duty, but by exhibiting meek decision of spiritual character, that they are in the presence of a man, who regards the authority and favor of God above all things, and whose supreme and habitual object is to promote the everlasting welfare of his fellow-men.

10. Never imagine that it is your duty to violate good manners, either in introducing or continuing religious conversation. This is never proper, because never necessary. If you cannot persuade an individual, by a mild and respectful mode of address, to listen to you, it is better to forbear. An attempt to force what you have to say, on one who steadfastly or profanely resists you, is casting pearls before swine. And violating the respect which is due to any person, under the notion of promoting, in this way, his spiritual interest, is, usually, of all delusions, one of the greatest. If you watch for the mollia tempora fandi [times favorable for speaking], you will have an opportunity of approaching him, if he be accessible at all. If you wait, with a proper temper, and with humble prayer, for a door to be opened for doing him good, you will, probably, not wait in vain.

ll. When you are called to converse with persons under religious impressions, address yourself to the duty with much seriousness and prayer. Remember that what you say, may influence their eternal condition; and, therefore, that every word is important; important to them, to yourself, and to the church of God. Remember, too, that the task of instructing and guiding those who are asking the way to Zion, is as delicate and difficult as it is important. It requires much knowledge of the human heart, and of human nature, and much acquaintance with the gospel as a practical system. Study to qualify yourself for this interesting and momentous duty, by much converse with your own heart; by much intercourse with those whose ministry God has eminently blessed; by reading the best books which tend to throw light on Christian character and experience; and, above all, by humble importunate prayer for that wisdom which is adapted to win souls, and to guide them in the way of peace. He who allows himself to enter on this duty without much consideration, and humbly looking to heaven for aid; or to perform it in a slight and careless manner, must make a miserable estimate both of ministerial fidelity, and of the worth of immortal souls

12. Before you enter on the duty of conversing with any one on this most important of all subjects, endeavor, if possible, to learn something of the peculiar character and temperament of the individual. There are peculiarities of this kind, which frequently exert an immediate and important influence on religious exercises. Some persons have a remarkably sanguine temperament, and buoyant animal spirits, which are apt to impart ardor to their feelings on all subjects, and, of course, to confer on their religious impressions the appearance of more decision and intensity of character than they really possess. Others labor under a constitutional depression of mind, which is ever disposed to look on the dark side of things, and sometimes borders on melancholy, and even despondency; and which always prevents them from doing justice to the evidence in their own favor; while a third class are affected with some bodily disease, which not unfrequently benumbs or agitates the mind, and creates no small difficulty in judging of its real state. Now in conversing with an individual who is anxious respecting his eternal interest, it is of great importance to know whether he is under the special influence of any of these physical difficulties, or temperamental predispositions. For, by the result of this inquiry, the course to be pursued must be in some measure modified. The undue confidence of some ought to be firmly repressed; and the precipitancy of others restrained or cautioned. The backwardness of the timid should be stimulated, and the trembling apprehensions of the melancholy and desponding, if possible, removed, by affectionate encouragement. The wise physician of the body is always careful to inquire about the presence of disturbing forces in the mind, and prescribes accordingly. In like manner, the wise physician of the soul will endeavor to explore every physical idiosyncrasy which distinguishes the spiritual patient to whom he may be called, and address him in a corresponding manner. If you have not already a particular acquaintance with him, make such inquiries respecting his habits, life, temperament, and other peculiarities, as may put you in possession of all the requisite information. And instead of making your conversation, if such it may be called, to consist chiefly of continued address on your part, which is the favorite manner of some, resort much more to the plan of affable and affectionate interrogation, which will lead the individual, at every step, to disclose the state of his own mind, and thus furnish you with some of the best indications for adapting your addresses to his case.

13. Be careful to give clear doctrinal instruction concerning the plan of salvation to those who are anxious and inquiring. I have observed it to be the manner of some in conversing with such persons, to deal chiefly in tender and solemn exhortation; under the belief that the grand object aimed at ought to be to impress the conscience and the heart, rather than to impart doctrinal knowledge. But it ought to be remembered that neither the conscience nor the heart can ever be suitably impressed but through the medium of truth. It is only as far as gospel truth is apprehended, that any genuine scriptural exercises with regard to it can exist. Carefully study, then, to impart to every anxious mind clear views of the fundamental doctrines of the gospel. Not that, in conversing with such persons, you are ever to perplex them with the metaphysical refinements of theology, which ought ever to be, as far as possible, avoided. But the course which I deem of so much importance is, that you constantly endeavor to fill their minds with plain, simple, connected Bible truth; that you dwell on the scriptural character of God; the nature and requisitions of his holy law; the pollution, guilt and danger of all men in their natural state; the divinity of the Savior; the efficacy of his atoning sacrifice; the unsearchable riches and freeness of his grace; the work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating and sanctifying the heart; and the utter helplessness, and, at the same time, perfect responsibility and blameworthiness of man. Just as far as these great doctrines are fastened on the conscience, and impressed on the heart, and no further, may we hope to become the instruments of saving benefit to those whom we address.

14. Be not too ready to speak peace or to administer consolation to those who are in a serious, anxious state of mind. It is, undoubtedly, painful to see any one in distress; and the spiritual physician will be often strongly tempted by false benevolence, to encourage, and administer comfort, where he ought not. Beware of this. It is far better that an anxious inquirer after salvation should pass a few more weeks or months in a state of deep mental solicitude, and even anguish, than that he should be prematurely comforted, and led to repose in a false hope, from which he may never awake. Be not afraid, then, to be perfectly faithful; to lay open every wound to the very bottom, before you attempt to heal it. Be slow in administering comfort, while the least doubt remains with regard to the real state of the individual. Indeed I have often thought that it is very seldom proper for a minister, or any other pious man, in conversing with an anxious person, to be forward to pronounce a favorable judgment with respect to his state. You may be deceived in your opinion, and you may be the means of deceiving him fatally. It is, in general, much safer and better for him to be brought to a favorable conclusion concerning himself, by that heavenly teaching, which cannot deceive; and which, though sometimes more tardy in exhibiting its results than earthly wisdom expects and desires, always furnishes the safest and best testimony.

15. Be not hasty in publishing the exercises or situation of those whom you know to be anxiously inquiring. It is deeply painful to observe the frequency and injudiciousness with which this rule is infringed. A person, perhaps, has scarcely become conscious to himself of deep solicitude respecting his spiritual interest, and given a hint of it to his minister, or to some pious friend, before it is blazed abroad; becomes matter of public speculation; and leads a number of persons immediately to crowd around him, and offer their services as his instructors and guides. The consequences of this method of proceeding are often extremely unhappy. Some are puffed up, by becoming objects of so much unexpected attention and conversation. Others are revolted, and, perhaps, deeply disgusted, at being addressed by so many on the subject of their exercises, and by some, it may be very injudiciously. While a third class, whose impressions are slight and transient, are mortified at being held up to view as awakened persons, and afterwards lying under the odium of having gone back; and, possibly, in some cases so much mortified, as to withdraw from those individuals and opportunities, which might have been essentially useful. Besides all this, it has often happened, that the number of serious persons who have immediately clustered around an individual thus publicly announced as under religious impressions, has been so great, and their talents, knowledge, experience, and capacity for giving sound instruction so extremely various, that they have perplexed, confounded, and most unhappily retarded, the object of their well-meant attention, instead of really helping him. With almost as much propriety might a physician of the body, when he found a patient ill of a dubious disease, throw open his apartment to every intruder, and invite every medical practitioner within twenty miles of him, however discordant their theories, to come in and prescribe at pleasure for the sufferer.

My advice is, that, when you ascertain that any one is becoming seriously thoughtful on the subject of religion, you keep it, for a short time, to yourself: indeed, that you thus keep the fact, until his exercises begin to assume a definite shape and character; being careful, in the meanwhile, to attend to the case with conscientious diligence yourself. When you judge the way to be open, communicate a knowledge of the situation of the individual to one or two of those persons in whose knowledge, piety, prudence you have most confidence, and whom you know to have the peculiar confidence of the individual in question. The case of the spiritual seed is a little like that of the natural. When we place a seed in the ground, we allow it a little time to vegetate under the concealment of the soil. He who should go every few hours to the spot, where it was deposited, and drag it forth, in order to see how the process of vegetation was going on, would be considered as a very unwise cultivator. So he who, in regard to seed of a much more important and delicate nature, will not give it time to shoot and grow a little, before it is forced on the public gaze, acts a part, I must think, by no means adapted to promote the best interests either of the individual immediately concerned, or of the church. If he would consent to wait a short time, the view taken would probably soon be found much more pleasant and edifying, or to assume a character which ought not to be made public at all.

16. Guard against conversing too much at one time, with those who are under serious impressions. I am deeply persuaded, that, in many cases, the minds of such persons, in consequence of being incessantly plied with conversation, even though of good quality, yet excessive as to quantity, have been kept in a state of agitation and conflict, longer than they would probably otherwise have been. And the evil has been, no doubt, increased, as I just hinted, when a number of individuals, of different degrees of knowledge, piety, and judgment have undertaken to inculcate, each his peculiar views, on the persons in question. I am confident that although persons in this deeply interesting state of mind, ought to be frequently instructed and exhorted, by competent counselors, yet few things are more injurious to them than to be annoyed by incessant, common-place conversation. It is an utter mistake to suppose that they are benefited by being always in society, even of the best kind. They need much time for retirement, self-examination and prayer, and ought to be referred much to the spirit of God, and the teaching of the Holy Spirit. A few thoughts at a time, from a pious friend, clear, seasonable, instructive, and to the point, will be most likely to be useful. After receiving these, at suitable intervals, they ought to be left much in their closets, with their Bibles and their God; and to be frequently told to look rather to the Savior than to man for help.

17. If, after becoming a pastor, you should be so happy as to know of any considerable number of individuals in your congregation who are beginning to think seriously on the subject of religion, it may become desirable to convene them weekly, or as often as convenient, for the subject of receiving instruction and exhortation together. This practice has been much recommended by experience, and is attended with several very important advantages. It enables a faithful pastor to accomplish more in the indispensable duty of conversing with the serious and anxious, in a single afternoon, or evening, than would be practicable in a week, in the ordinary method of visiting from house to house. The appointment of such a meeting, too, may induce many persons who are really in some degree serious, to come forward and put themselves in the way of conversation on the subject of experimental religion, who, if no such opportunity were presented, might conceal the state of their minds, and lose the advantage of being personally and pointedly addressed. I am also inclined to think that every pastor, even when there is not sufficient attention excited among his people to keep up such a weekly meeting of inquirers as I have described, ought to have a stated time, occurring as often, at least, as once a fortnight, and distinctly made known to his people, when he will make a point of being at home, and ready to attend to any, whether professors of religion or not, who may wish to converse with him on their spiritual state. A faithful pastor will rarely pass such an appointed time without some visitors. And some will go, perhaps, and be happily led to the Savior, who, but for such an appointment, would, humanly speaking, have lost their serious impressions, and hardened themselves in sin. Who does not know that, when the mind begins to be exercised on the subject of religion, the merest trifles will, in some cases, serve as excuses for concealing the fact? The inquirer will feel, it may be, that he ought to converse with his minister; but he cannot summon resolution to venture on the interview. He fears, perhaps, that he will not be at home; or that he will have company; or be otherwise engaged; or that it will be difficult to disclose to him his feelings. The consequence is that he does not go; and his seriousness, after a short time, wears off. But if he knew that his minister, on a certain day, would be at home; that he would have no other engagement; that he would be hoping and desiring to see persons in his state of mind; and that his very appearance at the house of his pastor on that day would itself disclose the object of his visit, and furnish an introduction to a free conversation; his excuses would probably all vanish, and he would avail himself of the precious privilege.

If you should ever make such an appointment as I have last mentioned, and, if on the recurrence of the day, for several times, you should have no visitors, be not discouraged. Continue the appointment; and give public intimations, from time to time, in the manner that you may judge most suitable, that it is not made in vain. No one can tell how far such intimations may serve to rouse up the pious, and excite them to prayer and exertion.

18. Be not too hasty in encouraging those of whose seriousness you have a favorable opinion, to go forward and make a profession of religion. This is undoubtedly often done with very undue precipitation. Persons of very tender age, and others, previously of very equivocal character, have been, literally, hurried to the Lord’s table in less than a week after the commencement of their serious thoughtfulness; without allowing them time fully to count the cost; and before they were able to put their exercises to such a test as might be satisfactory to themselves or others. Hence many young persons, of both sexes, in a few months or even weeks, after making this solemn profession, have found themselves unexpectedly bereft of all comfortable hope; their evidences of Christian character gone; their interest in the subject in a great measure lost; and their minds filled with regret that they had been so hasty. It was now, however, difficult to retreat, and their whole lives, perhaps, have been spent in a heartless, and of course, a comfortless profession.

It is readily granted that neither Scripture nor reason fixes any precise period, during which candidates for church communion are bound to wait, in order to put the stability of their religious character to the test. And it is equally evident, that extraordinary cases ought to prescribe rules for themselves. But, in general, it is evident that there ought to be a few months, at least, of serious and prayerful deliberation, before taking a step so solemn, so momentous, so irrevocable; a step likely to be followed with so many interesting consequences to those who take it, and to the sacred family with which they propose to become connected. Let no desire to see the rapid multiplication of professors, ever lead you to depart from this principle. I have more than once repented having given what afterwards appeared to be premature encouragement to come to a sacramental table; but never did I repent advising to a few months’ deliberation and delay, when the preparation was doubtful.

19. In conversing on the subject of practical religion, especially with those who are not well informed on the subject, be sparing in the use of that technical language, which many continually employ. I refer to a number of phrases, of standing use in many pious circles, which, although the meaning intended to be conveyed by them is undoubtedly correct and important, are yet so remote from the language of ordinary social intercourse, that they sound strangely, not to say unintelligibly, out of the circles to which I allude. Many pious ministers and others are in the habit of using this language in a manner, and to an extent, which I know render their conversation not a little revolting to those who are unaccustomed to it, and frequently present a serious obstacle in the way of their acceptance and usefulness.

As it is desirable not to be misunderstood on a subject so important, I think it proper to give a specimen of the phrases to which I refer. Thus it is by no means uncommon to hear it stated, that a great revival has broken out in such a place; that there is a great religious stir in this or that congregation; that such an individual, or such a number of individuals, have been struck under conviction; that a particular person appears to be in the pangs of the new birth; that a person whose anxiety on the subject of religion is very great has been roughly handled, but is likely to be brought through; that such another has been happily brought through; that so many, in a certain place, are brought under conviction, and so many have obtained hopes, etc. Now, although I am confident I need not assure you, that I am a warm friend to revivals of religion; although the ideas intended to be expressed by the phrases in question are, in my view, perfectly sound and scriptural, and infinitely momentous; and although any one who is capable of ridiculing these ideas knows nothing yet as he ought to know; yet I cannot think that the use of these phrases, especially in mixed companies, is advisable. My objections to them are several. Some of them are, in a great measure, if not altogether, unintelligible to many whom they are addressed. Others are derided as vulgar cant, as terms expressive of the appearance of a plague or pestilence, rather than of a rich blessing, and which rather repel, than instruct or conciliate. While a third class are regarded as a presumptuous invasion of the prerogative of Him who alone can know the heart, and tell the number of those who have become reconciled to him. Would it not be better to use language which all seriously disposed persons understand and approve? Would it not be quite as expressive, and more intelligible to many, if you were to say, that a revival has commenced, or a work of divine grace appears to have commenced, in such a place: that a particular individual is under serious impressions, or is deeply anxious on the subject of religion, or appears to be convinced of sin, or is in great distress of mind: that many appear to be awakened from a state of carelessness, and to be more or less anxious, and that others appear, or profess, to enjoy the comfort of gospel hope?

I presume, if you had occasion to interrogate an intelligent stranger, who you had reason to fear was destitute of piety, in relation to the state of his mind, on the subject of religion, you would hardly think it wise to begin by saying Pray, sir, are you born again? or, are you yet carnal? Yet, why not, as both the principal phrases in this question are taken from the Bible, and as you and I fully believe these phrases to be expressive of important realities? Your reason, I suppose, for not thinking it wise, would be, that this language is very imperfectly, if at all, understood by many who are well informed on other subjects; and that such persons, because they have frequently heard it bandied about by the ignorant and fanatical, and cannot enter into its precious meaning, are generally revolted by it.

I am far from agreeing with Mr. Foster, the pious and eloquent English essayist, in his proposal to discard what he calls, the Theological dialect, the technical terms of evangelical religion. I am afraid that, if these terms were dismissed, the things intended by them would soon disappear also. I do not wish a single Bible phrase to be banished either from the pulpit or the parlor. Yet, I can easily conceive that there are even Bible phrases, which may be advantageously exchanged for others, more familiar to those who are ignorant of the Bible, and better adapted, until they become enlightened, to convey spiritual ideas to their minds. It is, evidently, on this principle that ministers, every Sabbath, in the pulpit, explain Scripture, by using more common language, and that which is better understood, to express its heavenly doctrines. But the language which I advise you to avoid, is not, as commonly employed, Bible language at all. And I see no advantage, but rather the contrary, in the use of terms, against which many are strongly prejudiced; and which, if they do not deserve the name of cant, will certainly, by many, be considered as bearing that character. Let your general rule be, in conversing on the great and precious subjects of revivals of religion, and Christian experience, to employ terms which are warranted by Scripture, and the most enlightened practical writers, and adapted to make the best impression on those whom we address.

20. Take pains to prepare yourself for conducting religious conversation in an easy and edifying manner. For this purpose, be familiar with practical books, and especially with the lives of eminently pious men. Take a few minutes to premeditate before you expect to go into the company of any person or persons on this important errand. Adjust in your own mind topics and thoughts for discourse, adapted to the cases of those whom you expect to meet. Study some variety in this matter. If you go over the same common-place, narrow, little round of remark, in all companies, for thirty or forty years together, you will soon entirely cease to interest any one, unless, perhaps, a stranger, who happened to hear it for the first time. Above all, let every attempt to perform the service in question, be preceded by humbly asking for divine help. Remember that God will be inquired of to grant us his aid; and that he will not give his glory to another. Remember that he can render the feeblest sentence that ever escaped the lips of simple piety, richly and eternally beneficial: while the most able and well conducted conversation, if administered without imploring a blessing upon it, may, and probably will, prove useless to all concerned.

21. If you desire to gain an easy, natural and attractive manner of introducing and maintaining religious conversation, let the foundation of all your efforts at improvement in this respect, be laid in the culture of the heart. Study daily to grow in vital piety. Perhaps there is nothing more indispensable to the happy discharge of the duty under consideration than that the heart continually prompt and speak; that heart-felt emotion and affection dictate every word, and tone, and look, while engaged in addressing a fellow-creature on the most important of all subjects. Truly, without active, fervent love to God, and to the souls of men, it will be vain to hope for the attainment of this happy art, in any considerable degree. But if your heart habitually glow with interest in this subject; if the love of Christ constrain you; if you daily cherish a tender concern for the salvation of your perishing fellow-mortals; if your mind be constantly teeming with desires and plans to do them good; then religious conversation will be as natural as to breathe. Then your lips will be opened seasonably, unaffectedly, and profitably to all around you. Then, instead of being at a loss what to say; or being timidly backward to say it; or saying it in an embarrassed, awkward, pompous, or unnatural manner; there will be a simplicity, a touching tenderness, a penetrating skill, a native gracefulness, an unction in your mode of conversing, which no spurious feelings can successfully imitate. The true reason, I have no doubt, why religious conversation is so often what it ought not to be, and so often useless, is that it is so seldom the offspring of that unaffected warm, spiritual feeling, which piety of an elevated character alone can give.

22. Finally, it will be a stimulus to diligence, and an auxiliary to improvement, in the precious art of religious conversation, if you daily and faithfully call yourself to an account for the manner in which you have performed this duty. We stand in need of something of this kind to quicken us in every department of our Christian work; and in none more than those which consist in frequently recurring details, rather than in single great acts. Never retire from any company, then, without asking yourself, What have I said for the honor of my Master, and for promoting the everlasting welfare of those with whom I conversed? What was the tenor of my conversation? What opportunity of recommending religion have I neglected to improve? From what motives did I speak, or keep silence? In what manner did I converse? With gentleness, modesty, humility, and yet with affectionate fidelity; or with harshness, with formality, with ostentation, with vanity, and from a desire to avoid censure, or to court popular applause? Few things, I believe, would have a more powerful tendency to promote watchfulness, diligence, and unremitting perseverance in this important duty, than the constant inspection and trial of ourselves here recommended.

  1. Samuel Miller, D. D. (1769-1850) Dr. Miller was licensed in 1791, and completed a theological education begun by his father, under Dr. Nisbet of Dickinson College. He became a co-worker with Dr. Rodgers and Dr. McKnight in New York in 1792. He served as Moderator of the General Assembly in 1806, and took a keen interest in the establishment of Princeton Seminary, from the time the idea was suggested by Dr. Alexander. In 1813 he himself was inducted into the Chair of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government. From the beginning of his career in New York Dr. Miller enjoyed a high reputation. “Besides having the advantage of a remarkably fine person, and most bland and attractive manners, he had, from the beginning, an uncommonly polished style, and there was an air of literary refinement pervading all his performances, that excited general admiration…”. He was the author of a great number of works. []