A Classic Study by Horatius Bonar (1809–1889)

[Here, we continue a study that enumerates the character traits of great spiritual leaders. This study was written by Horatius Bonar, and is taken from the preface of a book that he edited by John Gillies called "Historical Collections of Accounts of Revival". Mr. Bonar came up with this list of character traits by looking at the lives of the people who lead the great revivals in history. In the first two parts of the study, Mr. Bonar looked at the following traits: 1. They were earnest about the work of the ministry; 2. They were bent upon success; 3. They were men of faith; 4. They were men of labour; 5. They were men of patience; 6. They were men of boldness and determination; 7. They were men of prayer; 8. They were men whose doctrines were of the most decided kind, both as respects law and gospel. In this part, Mr. Bonar concludes the list of character traits.]—Ed.


Character of a Spiritual Leader - III

9. They were men of solemn deportment and deep spirituality of soul. Their lives and their lips accorded with each other. Their daily walk furnished the best attestation and illustration of the truth they preached. They were always ministers of Christ, wherever they were to be found or seen. No frivolity, no flippancy, no gaiety, no worldly conviviality or companionships neutralized their public preaching, or marred the work they were seeking to accomplish. The world could not point to them as being but slightly dissimilar from itself, or as men who, though faithful in the pulpit, forgot throughout the week their character, their office, their errand. Luther once remarked, regarding a beloved and much admired friend, "he lives what we preach." So it was with those much-honoured men, Stoddard, Shepard, Mather, Edwards, Tennent, and their noble fellow-workers, whose names are in the book of life. We extract the following account of Tennent’s life and doctrine from the pen of Prince, another of the glorious band. It will illustrate some remarks under the former head as well as this:

"He did not indeed at first come up to my expectation, but afterwards exceeded it. In private converse with him, I found him to be a man of considerable parts and learning; free, gentle, condescending; and, from his own various experience, reading the most noted writers on experimental divinity, as well as the Scriptures, and conversing with many who had been awakened by his ministry in New Jersey, where he then lived, he seemed to have as deep an acquaintance with the experimental part of religion as any I have conversed with; and his preaching was as searching and rousing as ever I heard.

"He seemed to have no regard to please the eyes of his hearers with agreeable gesture, nor their ears with delivery, nor their fancy with language; but to aim directly at their hearts and consciences, to lay open the ruinous delusions, show them their numerous, secret, hypocritical shifts in religion, and drive them out of every deceitful refuge wherein they made themselves easy with the form of godliness without the power. And many who were pleased in a good conceit of themselves before, now found, to their great distress, they were only self-deceived hypocrites. And though, while the discovery was making, some at first raged, as they have owned to me and others, yet in the progress of the discovery, many were forced to submit; and then the power of God so broke and humbled them, that they wanted a further and even a thorough discovery; they went to hear him, that the secret corruptions and delusions of their hearts might be more discovered; and the more searching the sermon, the more acceptable it was to their anxious minds…

"And now was such a time as we never knew. The Rev. Mr Cooper was wont to say, that more came to him in one week in deep concern about their souls, than in the whole twenty-four years of his preceding ministry. I can also say the same as to the numbers who repaired to me. By Mr Cooper’s letter to his friend in Scotland, it appears he had had about six hundred different persons in three months’ time; and Mr Webb informs me, he had had in the same space about a thousand."

We might swell out these remarks upon the characteristics of the ministry of that day, as illustrative of what a Christian ministry ought ever to be, and as in many respects exposing and rebuking its defects in our day, but we must not unduly protract our study. And, therefore, instead of any further comments of our own, we add a few quotations from Whitefield’s Journals. The reader will see how they bear upon the preceding statement regarding the Christian ministry.

"On Thursday, he preached the public lecture at the Old South. He had chosen another text, but it was much impressed on his heart, that he should preach from our Lord’s conference with Nicodemus. A great number of ministers were present: and when he came to the word, ‘Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things,’ he says, ‘The Lord enabled me to open my mouth boldly against unconverted ministers; to caution tutors to take care of their pupils; and also to advise ministers particularly to examine into the experiences of candidates for ordination. For I am verily persuaded the generality of preachers talk of an unknown and unfelt Christ; and the reasons why congregations have been so dead is because they have had dead men preaching to them. O that the Lord may quicken and revive them, for His own name’s sake. For how can dead men beget living children? It is true, indeed, God may convert men by the devil, if He pleases, and so He may by unconverted ministers; but I believe He seldom makes use of either of them for this purpose. No, the Lord will choose vessels made meet by the operations of the blessed Spirit for His sacred use; and as for my own part, I would not lay hands [of ordination] on an unconverted man for ten thousand worlds. Unspeakable freedom God gave me while treating on this head. In the afternoon, I preached on the Common to about fifteen thousand people, and collected upwards of £200 for the orphan house. Just as I had finished my sermon, a ticket was put up to me, wherein I was desired to pray for a person just entered upon the ministry, but under apprehensions that he was unconverted. God enabled me to pray for him with my whole heart; and I hope that ticket will teach many others not to run before they can give an account of their conversion. If they do, they offer God strange fire.’

"He preached on Monday at Westfield and Springfield, and on Tuesday at Suffield, to large audiences, and with his usual power. A little below Springfield, when crossing a bridge, he was thrown from his horse, and ‘stunned for a while;’ but was soon able to remount and proceed. At or near Suffield, he met with a minister, ‘who said it was not absolutely necessary for a gospel minister to be converted;’ meaning, doubtless, that though conversion was necessary for his salvation, it was not indispensable to his ministerial character and usefulness. This interview gave Whitefield a subject, ‘I insisted much in my discourse upon the doctrine of the new birth, and also the necessity of a minister’s being converted before he could preach Christ aright. The word came with great power, and a great impression was made upon the people in all parts of the assembly. Many ministers were present. I did not spare them. Most of them thanked me for my plain dealing. But one was offended; and so would more of his stamp if I was to continue longer in New England. For unconverted ministers are the bane of the Christian Church.’

"He preached with good success at Milford on Monday morning, and with less at Stratford in the afternoon. He was still more restrained at Fairfield and Norwalk on Tuesday, when the weather was cold, snow had fallen, and his hearers were few. Yet he observed that some were affected, and believed the Lord never let him preach in vain. His ride to Stanford, on Tuesday evening, was dark and rainy. That night he was visited with a great inward trial, so that he was pained to the heart. He was somewhat dejected before he went out of his lodgings the next morning, and somewhat distressed for a text after he got into the pulpit. ‘But at length the Lord directed me to one, but I looked for no power or success, being very low by my last night’s trial. Notwithstanding, before I had preached half-an-hour, the blessed Spirit began to move on the hearers’ hearts in a very powerful manner. Young, and especially many old people, were surprisingly affected, so that I thought they would have cried out. At dinner, the Spirit of the Lord came upon me again, and enabled me to speak with such vigour against sending unconverted persons into the ministry, that two ministers, with tears in their eyes, publicly confessed, that they had laid their hands on young men, without so much an asking them whether they were born again of God or not. After dinner, finding my heart much enlarged, I prayed, and with such power, that most in the room were put under concern. And one old minister was so deeply convicted, that, calling Mr Noble and me out, with great difficulty (because of his weeping) he desired our prayers; for, said he, "I have been a scholar, and have preached the doctrines of grace for a long time, but I believe I have never felt the power of them in my own soul." O that all unconverted ministers were brought to make the same confession.’"

Such were the instruments. Such were the mighty things accomplished by them in the strength of the Spirit of the Lord. In the different awakenings, there were doubtless many things which proclaimed the frailty and imperfection of the agency through which the Holy Spirit wrought His mighty signs and wonders. There were things to remind man that the treasure was in earthen vessels. These revivals were not without their blemishes. There might be errors, there might be imprudencies, there might be excitement, there might be physical emotion; but still, notwithstanding all that may be spoken against them, the hand of God was manifestly there, awakening, deepening, extending, carrying forward the mighty movement by which the walls and bulwarks of the prince of darkness were, in many of his strongest fastnesses, shaken to their deepest base. The Lord gave the word, and great was the company of those who published it, as well as of those who received and obeyed it.

Nothing was to be seen but a faithful minister of Christ, surrounded by a small band of praying ones, leading on the array against the prince of darkness! There was no pomp, no display, no artifice, no carnal attraction. Yet the ranks of darkness gave way before them, and multitudes owned the power of the simple yet resistless words that fell from their earnest lips! How could the world but wonder at such vast results, so disproportioned to the apparent cause? How could they but feel, if they did not confess, that all this was the doing of the Lord?

As an illustration of how remarkably the work was of God and not of man, we quote without comment the following passages:

"It is observable how, at this remarkable day, a spirit of deep concern would seize upon persons. Some were in the house, and some walking in the highway; some in the woods, and some in the field; some in conversation, and some in retirement; some children, and some adults, and some ancient persons, would sometimes on a sudden be brought under the strongest impressions, from a sense of the great realities of the other world and eternal things. But such things, as far as I can learn, were usually, if not ever, impressed upon men while they were in some sort exercising their minds upon the word of God or spiritual objects. And for the most part, it has been under the public preaching of the word, that these lasting impressions have been fastened upon them."

"Presently upon this, a great and earnest concern about the great things of religion and the eternal world, became universal in all parts of the town, and among persons of all degrees and all ages; the noise among the dry bones waxed louder and louder; all other talk, but about spiritual and eternal things, were soon thrown by. The minds of people were wonderfully taken off from the world; it was treated among us as a thing of very little consequence. They seemed to follow their worldly business more as a part of their duty, than from any disposition they had to it. It was then a dreadful thing amongst us to lie out of Christ, in danger every day of dropping into hell; and what persons’ minds were intent upon was to escape for their lives, and fly from the wrath to come. All would eagerly lay hold of opportunities for their souls, and were wont very often to meet together in private houses for religious purposes; and such meetings, when appointed, were wont greatly to be thronged. And the work of conversion was carried in a most astonishing manner, and increased more and more. Souls did, as it were, come by flocks to Jesus Christ. From day to day, for many months together, might be seen evident instances of sinners brought out of darkness into marvelous light. Our public assemblies were then beautiful; the congregation was alive in God’s service, every one earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth. The assembly in general were, from time to time, in tears while the word was preached; some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbours. Those amongst us that had formerly been converted, were greatly enlivened and renewed with fresh and extraordinary incomes of the Spirit of God; though some much more than others, according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Many that had before laboured under difficulties about their own state, had now their doubts removed by more satisfying experience, and more clear discoveries of God's love."

When man proceeds to the accomplishment of some mighty enterprise, he puts forth prodigious efforts, as if by the sound of his axes and hammers he would proclaim his own fancied might, and bear down opposing obstacles. He cannot work without sweat, and dust, and noise. When God would do a marvelous work, such as may amaze all heaven and earth, He commands silence all around, sends forth the still small voice, and then sets some feeble instrument to work, and straightway it is done! Man toils and pants, and after all effects but little: the Creator, in the silent majesty of power, noiseless yet resistless, achieves by a word the infinite wonders of omnipotence! In order to loose the bands of winter, and bring in the verdure of the pleasant spring, He does not send forth His angels to hew in pieces the thickened ice, or to strip off from the mountain’s side the gathered snows, or to plant anew over the face of the bleak earth, flowers fresh from His creating hand. No. He breathes from His lips a mild warmth into the frozen air; and forthwith, in stillness, but in irresistible power, the work proceeds; the ice is shivered, the snows dissolve, the rivers resume their flow, the earth awakes as out of sleep, the hills and the valleys put on their freshening verdure, the fragrance of earth takes wing and fills the air—till a new world of beauty rises in silence amid the dissolution of the old! Such is God’s method of working, both in the natural and in the spiritual world: silent, simple, majestic, and resistless. Such was the reformation! Such were the revivals in Scotland under our fathers of the covenant! Such was the Kirk of Shotts on that memorable Pentecost, when the unstudied words of a timid, trembling youth, carried salvation to five hundred souls. Such was Ayr in its Pentecostal days, when from the lonely church at midnight, there went up to heaven the broken sighs of that man of prayer, John Welsh. And such was Northampton in later times, when Edwards watched and prayed for its citizens, and when, from the closet of that holy man, there went forth the living power that wrought such wonders there! "And is the Lord’s hand shortened that it cannot save, or is His ear heavy that it cannot hear?" (Isa. 59:1).

(This concludes Mr. Bonar’s study)

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