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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : LECTURE IX. THE PREACHER AS A THINKER.

The Preacher And His Models by James Stalker


Gentlemen, in the foregoing lectures I have adverted very little to the studies, in preparation for the work of the ministry, with which you are at present occupied. Indeed, I have rather ostentatiously kept to a standpoint at some distance from the academic one, for reasons which I explained in the opening lecture. But the clue which I have endeavoured faithfully to follow has brought us at last to this point also; and I welcome the opportunity of saying something about the more intellectual aspects of our work. The subject to-day is the Preacher as a Thinker.

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In my last lecture I spoke of the vast sphere of operations assigned to St. Paul and of the almost superhuman exertions which he made to fill it. But what did he exert himself to fill it with? It was not merely to overtake the ground and be himself present in so many countries and cities that he was so zealous. That which drove him on was the glorious message of which he was the bearer, with the sound of which he desired to fill the world. He often combines these two ideas in his writings -- that the Gentile world had been committed to him as a trust, to care for the souls which it contained, and that the Gospel had been committed to him as a trust, to be communicated to the Gentiles. These two things were included in his apostolate -- on the one hand, the care of the heathen world, and, on the other, the publication of the Gospel.

Of course he had not, like the original apostles, heard the Gospel from the lips of Christ; but he had received it directly from Christ in some other way; and you know how vigorously he claimed that he had not received it from man and was not indebted to the other apostles for it. He frequently calls it his own gospel, and he maintains it to be as authentic and authoritative as that preached by any of the other apostles. How it was revealed to him we cannot tell. This is the same mystery as we encountered in studying the prophets of the Old Testament. Both prophets and apostles speak with a knowledge of the mind and will of God which has a certainty and authority peculiar to their writings. We ought to speak, if we speak at all, with certainty and authority too; but there is a difference between ours and theirs. I know how difficult it is to define the difference; we cover it up with the vague word Inspiration; but I do not see any use in hiding from ourselves that it exists.

Admitting, however, that there is this mystery, yet we can see, in some respects, how the truth, when it came, dealt with St. Paul, and how his mind was exercised about it; and in these respects he is not beyond our imitation.

What I wish to emphasize in this lecture is, that Christianity did specially lay hold of him in the region of the intellect. It is meant to lay hold of all parts of the inner man -- the feelings, the conscience, the will, the intellect; and it may lay hold of certain people more fully in one part of their being and of others in another according to their constitutional peculiarities. Some suppose -- and perhaps they are not far wrong -- that the first preaching of the Gospel consisted of little more than the simple story of the life and death of Jesus; that those who heard it sympathetically began forthwith to live new lives in imitation of Christ; and that this was the most of their Christianity. In a fine and peculiar nature like that of St. John, again, the Gospel caught hold chiefly in the region of the emotions; and his Christianity was a mystical union and fellowship between the Saviour and the soul. St. Paul was not by any means deficient in the other elements of humanity; but he was conspicuously strong in intellect. That is to say, he was one of those natures to which it is a necessity to know the why and the wherefore of everything -- of the universe in which they live, of the experiences through which they pass, of the ends which they are called upon to pursue. This natural tendency was strengthened by the training of an educated man. And therefore the Gospel came to him as a message of truth, which cleared up the mysteries of existence and presented the universe to the mind as a realm of order.

St. Paul often expresses the intense intellectual satisfaction which Christianity brought him, and the joy he experienced in applying it to the solution of the problems of life. The light which Christianity cast on the universe was to him, he says, like the morning of creation, when God said, Let there be light, and there was light. Before, all was darkness and chaos, but then all became sunshine and order. He often speaks with wondering gratitude of the fact that the mystery which had been hidden from ages and from generations had been revealed to him: Eye had not seen, nor ear heard, neither had entered into the heart of man, the things which God had prepared for them that love Him, but God had revealed them unto him by His Spirit. And by this mystery he meant the tangle of God's providence in history, which the coming of Christ disentangled and smoothed out into a web whose pattern the mind could discern.

Having himself received Christianity as an intellectual system, he very specially addressed himself to the intellect of others. The door of the kingdom of heaven, it has been beautifully said, can only be opened from the inside; but to that observation this other may be added, that in a sense there are many doors, but each man can only open to others the one by which he has entered himself. Christianity had come to St. Paul as the truth about God and the world and himself. There was plenty of emotion besides; but the emotion for him came after the clear intellectual conviction and sprang out of it. And he expected that others would receive Christianity in the same way. Therefore he never spared the minds of those he addressed; he expected them to think; and he would have said that, if they would not open and exert their minds, they could not receive Christianity.

I hardly know anything more puzzling than the audacity with which he cast himself on the minds of his hearers and trusted them to understand him, when he was thinking his strongest and his deepest. Imagine an epistle of his arriving in Rome or Ephesus, and read out in the audience of the church for the first time. Who were the hearers? The majority of them were slaves; many had till a short time before been unconcerned about religion; in all probability not a tithe of them could read or write. Yet what did Paul give them? Not milk for babes; not a compost of stories and practical remarks; but the Epistle to the Romans, with its strict logic and grand ideas, or the Epistle to the Ephesians, with its involved sentences and profound mysticism. He must have believed that they would understand what he wrote, though scholarship has considered it necessary to pile up a mountain of commentaries on these epistles. Christianity, as it went through the cities of the world in St. Paul's person, must have gone as a great intellectual awakening, which taught men to use their minds in investigating the profoundest problems of life.

How deeply he was interested in the intellectual reception of the Gospel is shown by the earnestness with which he prays that his converts may excel in mental grasp of the truth. |I pray,| he says, |that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment.| And again he says, |Making mention of you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened,| etc.

But nothing proves so clearly the value which he set on this element of Christianity as his earnestness that his version of the Gospel should be kept pure and entire. He called upon younger ministers, like Timothy and Titus, to guard it as a precious treasure and to transmit it to faithful men who would be able to teach others also. It filled him with the most poignant anxiety and pain when the minds of his converts were assailed with doctrines subversive of the truth which he had taught. He had to encounter assaults of this kind coming from the side of orthodoxy as well as of heterodoxy, and no small portion of his energy had to be expended in refuting them. You remember, for example, with what a heat of zeal and affection he cast himself on the Galatians, when they had lent an ear to false teachers: |O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you?| |If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that which ye have received, let him be accursed.|

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Gentlemen, you are going to be teachers of Christianity, and this implies that you should yourselves have mastered it in thought. A certain number of people will be more or less dependent on you for the view they have of Christianity; and this really means the view they have of all the most important and solemn objects of existence; for to them all things will be comprehended in Christianity; and on you will largely depend whether this view is true or false, narrow or noble.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance to men and women of their fundamental convictions about this universe in which they live. There is current, indeed, at present a way of speaking about the intellect, as if, while all the other faculties have to do with religion, it were only an intruder; and there is a way of speaking about definite religious truth which really implies, if any strict meaning is to be attached to it, that in religion, when the truth is not found, the opposite may answer quite as well; and yet, strange to say, this language is usually to be heard from the lips of those who make special claims to intellectuality and affect to be the special champions of truth. But the intellect is a noble faculty and has an important office in religion. It is, properly speaking, antecedent to both feeling and will; and what is put into it determines both what feeling and choice will be. People are often, indeed, swept into the Church on some current of feeling; and the pressure on every side of the Christian society, along with the examples of superior Christians, does much to develop the religious nature; but probably in the great crises of temptation, when a flood of passion or some great worldly opportunity is about to sweep a man away from his connection with Christ, that which keeps hold of him is the force of conviction -- if the roots of his mind have gone deep down and clasped themselves about the great verities of the faith. Our Lord Himself called the truth the foundation on which the whole structure of life is built. All that a man is and does depends, in the last resort, on what he knows and believes. It will be a calamity for your hearers, if from your preaching they are not able by degrees to put together in their minds a conception of Christianity both true and elevating, which will supply them with the fundamental principles of their life.

Besides this sacred obligation to our people, there is the obligation to the truth itself. This was felt by St. Paul profoundly. A revelation of Christianity had been committed to him, and he had to present it in all its splendour and apply it to all the details of life. So the Word of God is committed to us, and we are responsible for delivering its whole message. If we take up a single text of the Bible, our merit as preachers lies in bringing out attractively and comprehensively the truth which it contains. It would be considered still more meritorious to present the whole message contained in a book of the Bible; and it would be quite in accordance with the theological fashion of the time if a preacher were able to show that he was master of some single section of Scripture, say, the Prophets of the Old Testament or the writings of St. John. I do not know why we should hesitate about the next step, which, if we have gone so far, we are logically bound to take -- the mastery of the message of the Bible as a whole. This is what we are responsible for. The Bible is the message of the mind and will of the loving and redeeming God; and this we are bound to deliver in such a way that neither its truth nor its glory will suffer in our hands.

How this is to be done, of course it requires wisdom to decide, and there will doubtless be different ways for different men and for different times. In a former generation a president of this college preached in the College Chapel straight through the doctrines of Christianity, taking them up one by one in systematic order; and his book was long a model to preachers both in this country and Great Britain. He was preaching to an academic audience, and there are probably few congregations for which such a course would be suitable now; although I know at least one able young minister in a country village who has been pursuing this method from the commencement of his ministry. Once a month he gives a sermon of the course; perhaps his people do not know that he is doing so; but he is giving his own mind the discipline of investigating the doctrines of Christianity in their order; and I am certain both that he himself is growing a strong man in the process and that his people, though unconsciously, are getting the benefit of it. In the Lutheran and Episcopal Churches the observance of the Christian festivals gives occasion for regularly bringing the circle of the grand Christian facts before the minds of the people. We have not this guidance; but a faithful minister is bound to make sure that he is preaching with sufficient frequency on the leading Christian facts and doctrines, and that he is not omitting any essential element of Christianity.

Not unfrequently ministers are exhorted to cultivate extreme simplicity in their preaching. Everything ought, we are told, to be brought down to the comprehension of the most ignorant hearer, and even of children. Far be it from me to depreciate the place of the simplest in the congregation; it is one of the best features of the Church of the present day that it cares for the lambs. I dealt with this subject, not unsympathetically I hope, in a former lecture. But do not ask us to be always speaking to children or to beginners. Is the Bible always simple? Is Job simple, or Isaiah? Is the Epistle to the Romans simple, or Galatians? This cry for simplicity is three-fourths intellectual laziness; and that Church is doomed in which there is not supplied meat for men as well as milk for babes. We owe the Gospel not only to the barbarian but also to the Greek, not only to the unwise but also to the wise.

I do not believe, however, that it is only in cultured congregations that this element of preaching is required. There is no greater mistake than to suppose that you will drive the common man away from the Church by strong intellectual preaching. You will do so no doubt if you preach over his head, and use a language which he does not understand. You must find him where he is, and either speak to him in his own language or teach him yours by slow degrees. But, if you accommodate yourself to him so far, you will find him alert and willing to accompany you; you will find that he has not only sturdy limbs for climbing, but even wings for soaring to the heights of truth.

A greater difficulty lies in the preacher himself. At the beginning of his ministry he may be encumbered with doubts and far from clear in his faith. This is a real obstacle, and the first years of ministerial life may be a time of great perplexity and pain. I suspect our congregations have often a good deal to suffer while we are endeavouring to preach ourselves clear. It is vicarious suffering; for they do not know what is perplexing us. They have to stand by and look on while their minister is fighting his doubts. But, if he is a true man, it is worth their while to wait. If these are the pangs of intellectual birth, and the truth is merely divesting itself of a traditional form in order to invest itself in a form which is his own, he will preach with far greater power when the process is complete, and he is able to speak with the strength of personal conviction.

But, gentlemen, it is important for you to see that your opening ministry is not enveloped in mist simply because you have never made a real study of Christianity. This, I am afraid, is the commonest source of a vague theology. In a former lecture I have recommended a wide acquaintance with the masterpieces of literature; but some able men at college substitute this for the studies of their profession; and this is a fatal mistake. Literature ought to be a supplement to these, not a substitute for them. I have watched the subsequent career of more than one student who had pursued this course; and I must say it is not encouraging. Their supply of ideas soon runs out; their tone becomes secular; and the people turn away from them dissatisfied.

A student ought, while at college, to make himself master of at least one or two of the great books of the Christian centuries in which Christianity is exhibited as a whole by a master mind. If I may be allowed to mention my own experience, it happened to me, more by chance, perhaps, than wise choice, to master, when I was a student, three such books. One was Owen's work on The Holy Spirit, another Weiss' New Testament Theology, and the third Conybeare and Howson's Life and Epistles of St. Paul. Each of these may be said, in its own way, to exhibit Christianity entire, and I learned them almost by heart, as one does a text-book. I was not then thinking much of subsequent benefit; but I can say, that each of them has ever since been a quarry out of which I have dug, and probably I have hardly ever preached a sermon which has not exhibited traces of their influence.

There is another valuable result which will follow from the early mastery of books of this kind. You will be laying the foundation of the habit of what may be called Great Reading, by which I mean the systematic study of great theological works in addition to the special reading for the work of each Sunday. Week by week a conscientious minister has to do an immense amount of miscellaneous reading in commentaries, dictionaries, etc., in connection with the discourses in hand; but, in addition to this, he should be enriching the subsoil of his mind by larger efforts in wider fields. It is far from easy to carry this on in a busy pastorate; and it is almost impossible unless the foundation has been laid at college.

One more hint I should like to give: it is a reminiscence from a casual lecture which I listened to when a student and profited by. Besides attending to theological studies in general, one ought to have a specialty. The minister, and even the student before he leaves college, should be spoken of as the man who knows this or that. Perhaps the best specialty to choose is some subject which is just coming into notice, such as, at present, Comparative Religion, or Christian Ethics, or, best of all, Biblical Theology. Such a specialty, early taken up, is like a well dug on one's property, which year by year becomes deeper. All the little streams and rivulets of reading and experience find their way into it; and almost unawares the happy possessor comes to have within himself a fountain which makes it impossible that his mind should ever run dry.

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Of course I cannot attempt to give here even the slightest sketch of the doctrinal system of St. Paul; but there are two characteristics of it which I should like to mention in closing, as they are essential to the right management of the element of preaching with which I have occupied you to-day.

The thinking of St. Paul went hand in hand with his experience. His Christianity began in a great experience, in which he discovered the secret of life and found peace with God. He set his mind to reflect upon this, so as to comprehend how it came about and what it involved; and the theology of the first part of his apostolate was nothing but the result of these broodings under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. These in their turn, however, brought him still nearer to God and closer to Christ; and so he obtained new and deeper experiences, of which the doctrines of his more advanced life are again the exposition. Thus his thinking was both experimental and progressive. If his Epistles be arranged in chronological order, it will easily be seen that there is a splendid growth in his theology from first to last. He never, indeed, gave up the doctrines of his earlier life; there is no inconsistency between one part of his writings and another; but neither his experience nor his thinking ever stood still; he made his first doctrines the foundations on which he reared a structure which was rising higher and higher to the very close of his life.

St. Paul had the heartiest scorn for intellectualism in religion divorced from experience; and it cannot be denied that it is this divorce which has brought contempt on the intellectual element in preaching. When doctrine is preached as mere dogma, imposed as a form on the mind of the preacher from without, no wonder it is dry and barren. It is when the preacher's own experience is growing, and he is coming up with the doctrines of Christianity one by one as the natural expression for what he knows in his deepest consciousness to be true, that he utters the truth with power. Never, perhaps, is a sermon so living as when the preacher has found out the truth during the week as a novelty to himself, and comes forth on Sunday to deliver it with the joy of discovery.

The other feature to which I wish to draw attention is the perfect balance in St. Paul of the doctrinal and the ethical. If reproach has been cast on the intellectual element in preaching by its want of connection with experience, this has been done no less by its want of connection with conduct. But St. Paul is not open to this reproach. This is made clear by the very external form of his writings. An Epistle of St. Paul is divided into two parts, the first containing doctrines and the second practical rules for the conduct of life; and not unfrequently the two parts are of about equal length.

But the connection is far closer than this. In St. Paul's mind all the great doctrines of the Gospel were living fountains of motives for well-doing; and even the smallest and commonest duties of every-day life were magnified and made sacred by being connected with the facts of salvation. Take a single instance. There is no plainer duty of every-day life than telling the truth. Well, how does St. Paul treat it? |Lie not one to another,| he says, |seeing ye have put off the old man with his deeds.| Thus truthfulness flows out of regeneration. Treating of the same subject again, he says, |Lie not one to another, for ye are members one of another,| deriving the duty from the union of believers to one another through their common union with Christ. Thus does St. Paul everywhere show great principles in small duties and stamp the commonest actions of life with the image and the superscription of Christ.

This balance between the doctrinal and the moral is difficult to maintain. Seldom has the mind of the Church been able to preserve it for any length of time. It has oscillated from one kind of one-sidedness to another, sometimes exalting doctrines and neglecting duties and at other times preaching up morality and disparaging doctrine. To which side the balance may be dipping at the present time among you I do not know; but among us, I should say, it was from doctrines towards duties.

Perhaps in the last generation we had too much preaching of doctrine, or rather I should say, too little preaching of duty. Younger preachers are beginning to dwell much on a nobler conception of the Christian life, and there is a strong demand for practical preaching. Undoubtedly there is room for a healthy development in this direction. Yet this is a transition about which our country has good cause to be jealous; because it passed through a terrible experience of the effects of preaching morality without doctrine. I question if in the whole history of the pulpit there is a document more worthy of the attention of preachers than the address which Dr. Chalmers sent to the people of his first charge at Kilmeny, when he was leaving it for Glasgow. It is well known that for seven years after his settlement in this rural parish he was ignorant of the Gospel and preached only the platitudes of the Moderate creed; but, the grace of God having visited his heart, he lived for other five years among his people as a true ambassador of Christ, beseeching them in Christ's name to be reconciled to God. This is his summing up of the results of the two periods: --

|And here I cannot but record the effect of an actual though undesigned experiment, which I prosecuted for upwards of twelve years among you. For the greater part of that time I could expatiate on the meanness of dishonesty, on the villany of falsehood, on the despicable arts of calumny; in a word, upon all those deformities of character which awaken the natural indignation of the human heart against the pests and the disturbers of human society. Now, could I, upon the strength of these warm expostulations, have got the thief to give up his stealing, and the evil speaker his censoriousness, and the liar his deviations from truth, I should have felt all the repose of one who had gotten his ultimate object. It never occurred to me that all this might have been done, and yet the soul of every hearer have remained in full alienation from God; and that, even could I have established in the bosom of one who stole such a principle of abhorrence at the meanness of dishonesty that he was prevailed upon to steal no more, he might still have retained a heart as completely unturned to God and as totally unpossessed by a principle of love to Him as before. In a word, though I might have made him a more upright and honourable man, I might have left him as destitute of the essence of religious principle as ever. But the interesting fact is, that during the whole of that period in which I made no attempt against the natural enmity of the mind to God; while I was inattentive to the way in which this enmity is dissolved, even by the free offer on the one hand, and the believing acceptance on the other, of the Gospel salvation; while Christ, through whose blood the sinner, who by nature stands afar off, is brought near to the heavenly Lawgiver, whom he has offended, was scarcely ever spoken of, or spoken of in such a way as stripped Him of all the importance of His character and His offices; even at this time I certainly did press the reformations of honour and truth and integrity among my people; but I never once heard of any such reformations having been effected amongst them. If there was anything at all brought about in this way, it was more than ever I got any account of. I am not sensible that all the vehemence with which I urged the virtues and the proprieties of social life had the weight of a feather on the moral habits of my parishioners. And it was not till I got impressed by the utter alienation of the heart in all its desires and affections from God; it was not till reconciliation to Him became the distinct and the prominent object of my ministerial exertions; it was not till I took the Scriptural way of laying the method of reconciliation before them; it was not till the free offer of forgiveness through the blood of Christ was urged upon their acceptance, and the Holy Spirit, given through the channel of Christ's mediatorship to all who ask Him, was set before them as the unceasing object of their dependence and their prayers; in one word, it was not till the contemplations of my people were turned to these great and essential elements in the business of a soul providing for its interest with God and the concerns of its eternity, that I ever heard of any of those subordinate reformations which I aforetime made the earnest and the zealous, but, I am afraid, at the same time the ultimate object of my earlier ministrations. Ye servants, whose scrupulous fidelity has now attracted the notice, and drawn forth in my hearing a delightful testimony from your masters, what mischief you would have done, had your zeal for doctrines and sacraments been accompanied by the sloth and the remissness, and what, in the prevailing tone of moral relaxation, is counted the allowable purloining of your earlier days. But a sense of your Heavenly Master's eye has brought another influence to bear upon you; and, while you are thus striving to adorn the doctrine of God your Saviour in all things, you may, poor as you are, reclaim the great ones of the land to the acknowledgment of the faith. You have at least taught me that to preach Christ is the only effective way of preaching morality in all its branches; and out of your humble cottages have I gathered a lesson, which I pray God I may be enabled to carry with all its simplicity into a wider theatre, and to bring with all the power of its subduing efficacy upon the voices of a more crowded population.|

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There is nothing which I should more like to leave ringing in your ears than this remarkable statement of my great fellow-countryman. But I cannot close and bid you farewell without expressing the happiness which I have derived from these weeks spent in your society and thanking you for the extremely encouraging attendance with which you have honoured me from first to last. To the authorities of the college, as well as to many citizens of this town, I have to express my indebtedness for an amount of kindness and courtesy which I can never forget, and which will always make my visit to this country one of the pleasantest of memories.

Let us, in parting, commend each other to the grace of God:

O God our Father, the infinite Power, the perfect Wisdom and the immortal Love, in Thy hands are all our ways, and the success of our purposes proceeds from Thee alone. Follow with Thy blessing our intercourse together and the work which we have now completed. Bless this University -- its president, its professors and students. May knowledge grow in it from more to more, and, along with knowledge, reverence and love. May those especially who are preparing for the ministry of Thy Son be filled with Thy Spirit, and in due time may they prove faithful stewards of the mysteries of God. Bless them in their studies, in their fellowship with one another, and in their efforts to advance Thy kingdom. We commend each other affectionately to Thee; be our God and our Guide in life and in death, in time and in eternity. For Christ's sake. Amen.


The earlier President Dwight.

|Great subjects insure solid thinking. Solid thinking prompts a sensible style, an athletic style, on some themes a magnificent style, and on all themes a natural style.| -- PHELPS, My Note-book.

|We owe it to the Church, we owe it to the time in which God has called us to labour, we owe it to the restless and perplexed but often honest minds in whose presence we carry on our ministry, to be not merely a hard-working but a learned clergy. To those great questions which both stir and disquiet men, we are bound to bring that knowledge which will give us a claim to be listened to. 'Know as much as you can;' that ought to be the rule to which an educated clergyman should hold himself forever tied. A clergyman ought to be a student, a reader and a thinker, to the very end.| -- DEAN CHURCH.

Richard Baxter confesses that he deliberately preached over the heads of his people once a year, for the purpose of keeping them humble and showing them what their minister could do every Sunday of the year, if he chose!

|A sentence of Pascal would sometimes shoot more light and life through a sermon than all the commentators upon the text since the days of Noah.| -- PRINCIPAL RAINY.

Rev. Dr. Henderson, of Crieff, told me a story which illustrates in an amusing yet significant way the change which passed over the religious mind of Scotland in the beginning of the present century. His father, the late Rev. Dr. Henderson, of Glasgow, when newly licensed, was preaching, on the Saturday before a communion, for an extremely Moderate minister of the dignified and pompous school. |I do not know, Mr. Henderson,| said the latter, |what is the difference between you evangelicals and us; but I suppose it is that you preach doctrines, while we preach duties.| |I do not know about that,| said Mr. Henderson; |we preach duties too.| |Well,| said the old man, |for example, my action sermon to-morrow is to be on lying; and my divisions are -- first, the nature of lying; secondly, the sin of lying; and thirdly, the consequences of lying: now what could you add to that?| |Well,| replied Mr. Henderson, |I would add two things -- first, 'Lie not one to another, seeing ye have put off the old man with his deeds,' and secondly, 'Putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour; for we are members one of another.'| |Mr. Henderson, these suggestions are admirable: I shall add them to my discourse!|

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