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I am first to give you some directions for bringing your people to submit to this course of catechizing and instruction.
1. The chief means of all is this, for a minister so to conduct himself in the general course of his life and ministry, as to convince his people of his ability, sincerity, and unfeigned love to them. For if they take him to be ignorant, they will despise his teaching, and think themselves as wise as he; and if they think him self-seeking, or hypocritical, and one that doth not mean as he saith, they will suspect all he says and does for them, and will not regard him. Whereas, if they are convinced that he understandeth what he doth, and have high thoughts of his abilities, they will reverence him, and the more easily stoop to his advice; and when they are persuaded of his uprightness, they will the less suspect his motions; and when they perceive that he intendeth no private ends of his own, but merely their good, they will the more readily be persuaded by him. And because those to whom I write are supposed to be none of the ablest ministers, and may therefore despair of being reverenced for their parts, I would say to them, you have the more need to study and labor for their increase; and that which you want in ability, must be made up in other qualifications, and then your advice may be as successful as others.
If ministers were content to purchase an interest in the affections of their people at the dearest rates to their own flesh, and would condescend to them, and be familiar, and affectionate, and prudent in their carriage, and abound, according to their ability, in good works, they might do much more with their people than ordinarily they do; not that we should much regard an interest in them for our own sakes, but that we may be more capable of promoting the interest of Christ, and of furthering their salvation. Were it not for their own sakes, it were no great matter whether they love or hate us; but what commander can do any great service with an army that hates him? And how can we think that they will much regard our counsel, while they abhor or disregard the persons that give it them? Labour, therefore, for some competent interest in the estimation and affection of your people, and then you may the better prevail with them. But perhaps some will say, What should a minister do who finds he hath lost the affections of his people? To this I answer, If they be so vile a people, that they hate him not for any weakness, or misconduct of his, but merely for endeavoring their good, and would hate any other that should do his duty; then must he with patience and meekness continue to ‘instruct those that oppose themselves, if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth.’ But if it be on account of any weakness of his, or difference about lesser opinions, or prejudice against his own person, let him first try to remove the prejudice by all lawful means; and if he cannot, let him say to them, ‘It is not for myself, but for you that I labor; and therefore, seeing that you will not obey the Word from me, I desire that you will agree to accept of some other that may do you that good which I cannot,’ and so leave them, and try whether another man may not be fitter for them, and he fitter for another people. For an ingenuous man can hardly stay with a people against their wills; and a sincere man can still more hardly, for any benefit of his own, remain in a place where he is like to be unprofitable, and to hinder the good which they might receive from another man, who hath the advantage of a greater interest in their affection and esteem. 2. Supposing this general preparation, the next thing to be done is, to use the most effectual means to convince them of the benefit and necessity of this course to their own souls. The way to win the consent of people to anything that you propose, is to prove that it is good and profitable for them. You must therefore preach to them some powerful convincing sermons to this purpose before hand, and show them the benefit and necessity of the knowledge of divine truths in general, and of knowing the first principles in particular; and that the aged have the same duty and need as others, and in some respects much more: e. g. from Hebrews 5:12: ‘For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk and not of strong meat,’ which affordeth us many observations suitable to our present object:
(1) That God’s oracles must be a man’s lessons.
(2) Ministers must teach these, and people must learn them from them.
(3) The oracles of God have some fundamental principles, which all must know who wish to be saved.
(4) These principles must be first learned: that is the right order.
(5) It may be reasonably expected that people should thrive in knowledge, according to the means of instruction which they possess; and if they do not, it is their great sin.
(6) If any have lived long in the church, under the means of knowledge, and yet are ignorant of these first principles, they have need to be yet taught them, how old soever they may be.
All this is plain from the text; whence we have a fair opportunity, by many clear convincing reasons, to show them: First, The necessity of knowing God’s oracles. Secondly, And more especially of knowing the fundamental principles. Thirdly, And particularly for the aged, who have sinfully lost so much time already, and have so long promised to repent when they were old; who should be teachers of the young, and whose ignorance is a double sin and shame; who have now so little time in which to learn, and are so near to death and judgment; and who have souls to save or lose as well as others. Convince them how impossible it is to go the way to heaven without knowing it, when there are so many difficulties and enemies in the way; and when men cannot do their worldly business without knowledge, nor learn a trade without an apprenticeship. Convince them what a contradiction it is to be a Christian, and yet to refuse to learn; for what is a Christian but a disciple of Christ? And how can he be a disciple of Christ, that refuseth to be taught by him? And he that refuseth to be taught by his ministers, refuseth to be taught by him; for Christ will not come down from heaven again to teach them by his own mouth, but hath appointed his ministers to keep school and teach them under him. To say, therefore, that they will not be taught by his ministers, is to say, they will not be taught by Christ; and that is to say, they will not be his disciples, or no Christians.
Make them understand that it is not an arbitrary business of our own devising and imposing; but that necessity is laid upon us, and that if we look not to every member of the flock according to our ability, they may perish in their iniquity; but their blood will be required at our hand. Show them that it is God, and not we, who is the contriver and imposer of the work; and that therefore they blame God more than us in accusing it. Ask them, would they be so cruel to their minister as to wish him to cast away his own soul, knowingly and wilfully, for fear of troubling them by trying to hinder their damnation? Acquaint them fully with the nature of the ministerial office, and the Church’s need of it; how it consisteth in teaching and guiding all the flock; and that, as they must come to the congregation, as scholars to school, so must they be content to give an account of what they have learned, and to be further instructed, man by man. Let them know what a tendency this hath to their salvation, what a profitable improvement it will be of their time, and how much vanity and evil it will prevent. And when they once find that it is for their own good, they will the more easily yield to it.
3. When this is done, it will be very necessary that we give one of the catechisms to every family in the parish, whether rich or poor, that so they may be without excuse: for if you leave it to themselves to buy them, perhaps the half of them will not get them; whereas, when they have copies put into their hands, the receiving of them will be a kind of engagement to learn them; and if they do but read the exhortation (as it is likely they will), it will perhaps convince them and incite them to submit. As to the delivery of them, the best way is for the minister first to give notice in the congregation, that they shall be brought to their houses, and then to go himself from house to house and deliver them, and take the opportunity of persuading them to the work; and, as he goes round, to take a list of all the persons who have come to years of discretion in the several families, that he may know whom he has to take care of and instruct, and whom he has to expect when it cometh to their turn. I have formerly, in distributing some other books among my people, desired every family to call for them; but I found more confusion and uncertainty in that way, and now adopt this as the better method. But in small congregations, either way may do.
As to the expense of the catechisms, if the minister be able, it will be well for him to bear it: if not, the best affected of his people of the richer sort should bear it among them. Or, on a day of humiliation, in preparation for the work, let the collection that is made for the poor be employed in buying catechisms, and the people be desired to be more liberal than ordinary; and what is wanting, the well-affected to the work may make up.
As to the order of proceeding, it will be necessary that we take the people in order, family by family, beginning a month or six weeks after the delivery of the catechisms, that they may have time to learn them. And thus, taking them together in common, they will be the more willing to come, and the backward will be the more ashamed to keep off.
4. Be sure that you deal gently with them, and take off all discouragements as effectually as you can.
(1) Tell them publicly, that if they have learned any other catechism already, you will not urge them to learn this, unless they desire it themselves: for the substance of all catechisms that are orthodox is the same; only that your reason for offering them this was its brevity and fullness that you might give them as much as possible in few words, and so make their work more easy. Or, if any of them would rather learn some other catechism, let them have their choice.
(2) As for the old people who are of weak memories, and not likely to live long in the world, and who complain that they cannot remember the words; tell them that you do not expect them to perplex their minds overmuch about it, but to hear it often read over, and to see that they understand it, and to get the matter into their minds and hearts; and then they may be borne with, though they remember not the words.
(3) Let your dealing with those you begin with be so gentle, convincing, and winning, that the report of it may be an encouragement to others to come.
5. Lastly, If all this will not serve to bring any particular persons to submit, do not cast them off; but go to them and expostulate with them, and learn what their reasons are, and convince them of the sinfulness and danger of their neglect of the help that is offered them. A soul is so precious that we should not lose one for want of labor, but follow them while there is any hope, and not give them up as desperate, till there be no remedy. Before we give them over, let us try the utmost, that we may have the experience of their obstinate contempt, to warrant our forsaking them. Charity beareth and waiteth long.
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