The Baptist world is divided between two camps—the clergy and the laity. Baptist thought usually admits that both camps are expected to be Christian servants. But one of the mysteries to the laity is the matter of “the call” to which the clergy always makes reference. Are both camps subject to “the call”? Are their “calls” different? Is there a distinction between someone “called” to the gospel ministry and someone simply “suited” for any vocation? Are their degrees of “call”? Is “the call” different for a minister than, say, a missionary or a religious education worker? Ah, the mystery of “the call.”
For the early ministers, there seemed to be a quick jump from conversion to calling. Some professed agony in their decision-making with wrestling of soul and mind. Some referred to the call as a response to duty.
Many, if not all, were encouraged by their church and other fellow Christians. Of William Fristoe, an early minister in Northern Virginia, it was said, “The church soon discovered that he possessed promising gifts and requested him to preach.” Rane Chastain, one of the persecuted dissenters in Colonial Virginia, described his calling, “I knew I should be lost and [my neighbors] too, if God would not have mercy on us, and therefore was compelled to tell my neighbors of their danger; for if I was lost, I would not wish them to be lost with me.”
When John Weatherford was converted, he considered which of the various Christian groups to join. He narrowed his considerations between Baptists and Presbyterians. He talked with ministers of both persuasions. Finally, one of the Presbyterians observed, “I perceive you will be a Baptist; go, and the Lord be with you.”
Weatherford's biographer wrote: “The Baptists were few, poor and despised. They were suffering much on account of their distinctive tenets. If he should unite with them, he must expect to pass through fiery tribulation. But no conference was held with flesh and blood. As soon as he became thoroughly convinced of duty, he at once obeyed his Lord, by being buried with him in baptism. This was before he reached his 20th year.”
Weatherford's high calling did place him in dangerous situations. He was imprisoned for five months in Chesterfield for preaching the gospel. He bore scars to his grave from an attack upon him while he was preaching from the jail.
Over and over again the early ministers emphasized that “the call” did not come from “flesh and blood” but was from some deep-seated understanding of the Spirit. Duty and compulsion are emphasized. And most of them proved the validity of their “calling” by their living.
Some never spoke of one decisive “call.” Jeremiah Bell Jeter, arguably the single most effective of the 19th century Virginia Baptists, reckoned that he “glided into the ministry.” He admitted: “I glided … without carefully inquiring whether I had been divinely called to it. After some months my mind became quite anxious on the subject. I feared that I had run before I was called. My call, if call I had, seemed to differ widely from that of many of the old preachers. They represented … that they had been constrained to enter the ministry sorely against their wills. The words of the apostles were often on their lips: ‘Necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe unto me, if I preach not the gospel!' ”
Jeter acknowledged that as a youth he enjoyed preaching. “I preferred being a preacher — poor, despised and persecuted — to being a king or an emperor. I dared not affirm that my desire was free from selfish and worldly considerations, but of its sincerity and earnestness, and that it originated in scriptural views of the duties and design of the office, I had no question. I had no doubt of my call to the ministry than I have had of the genuineness of my piety.”
In 1838 the Dover Association considered what constituted “the call” and Andrew Broaddus I, one of the brilliant minds of the times, was asked to write a lengthy “circular letter” which addressed the essential aspects of the question. “What are essential qualifications which constitute or evince a call to the gospel ministry?,” wrote Broaddus. “We conceive them to consist of two sorts: Proper exercise of mind and talents or gifts suited to the work.”
As for the mind, Broaddus contended that there “ought to be a desire for this work … a desire of the right sort.” While the appointment was different, he concluded that “the same motives and feelings of heart which actuated an apostle, must actuate every minister of the gospel.” He used Paul as a model while admitting that few could be effectively compared to him. Broaddus wrote of “the necessity of an ardent thirst for an increasing knowledge of holy truth, for a right understanding of the mind of the Spirit.” He emphasized “a persuasion of duty.”
As for talents, Broaddus acknowledged that these had to be judged by others. “As the minister is to be considered in the capacity of servant of the church, it is perfectly fit and proper that his qualifications should be submitted to be thus judged.”
The subject of “the call” has always been fraught with mystery and differing opinions. In its first six months of publication, the Religious Herald published an article by someone on the nature of ministerial calls. William Sands, the editor, became quickly embroiled in a debate with the editor of the New York Baptist Register. Back and forth there were claims and counter claims. The columns were filled with nit-picking on the subject until finally the Herald editor called an end to the dialogue. It seems that even in 1828 everyone had something to say on the subject of “the call.”
Note: The illustration which accompanies this column is Samuel and Eli and is a reminder of Samuel's distinctive call. The illustration is from the Bible of John S. Mason, a 19th-century Virginia Baptist minister said to have been “the foremost preacher in the Appomattox Association.” He was converted at a Methodist camp meeting but his study of the New Testament led him to become a Baptist. He began preaching at 19 and was a gospel preacher for 58 years. “Thousands were converted under his ministry.” Someone observed, “He was free from kinks and eccentricities, and the churches he served were notable for harmony, Christian love and good work.” It sounds like John Mason heeded “the call” and lived up to his “calling.”
Fred Anderson may be contacted at [email protected]