Presbyterians of the Past

A Typical Day for a Pastor

Those serving on presbytery committees examining candidates for licensure or ordination are required constitutionally to include in their list of questions a few inquiries regarding the individual’s Christian experience and practices. The intention is to discern his consistency of Christian living and growth in sanctification, and as Paul wrote to Timothy, whether he provides a suitable example for those he will serve. Subjects covered might include a personal testimony regarding faith in Christ, devotional practices, family life, and daily schedule. One query used to fulfill the requirements could be, “Would you please describe your typical day from beginning to end?” If you have been on such a committee and asked a similar question, have you ever received an answer like the following?

Here is my plan for days which I spend at home, not always adhered to. Rise at 4:00; shower-bath; dress; shave; a walk or exercise in the garden; family prayers at 6:00; breakfast at 6:45; read Scriptures; a lesson in Hebrew; Greek Testament in course with commentaries; Old Testament with commentaries; cursory reading of Greek Testament; English Bible; preparation for sermons; theology; German; I have luncheon at 11:00, dinner at 2:30; after dinner I expatiate [write copiously], read everything, ride, walk, lie on the grass, etc.; tea at 7:00; family worship at 8:00; bed at 9:00. (July 1827)

For a twenty-first century reader this course of duties each day may not only be surprising because it includes a bath each morning in an era when personal cleanliness was not so common, but also because his day was so long. Also, he ate lunch at 11:00 and dinner at 2:30, really? Who was this individual whose day extended from four in the morning until nine at night, when it went according to plan? It was James Wadell Alexander (1804-1859) who was at the time the minister of the Presbyterian Church at Charlotte Courthouse in Virginia. The excerpt is taken from Forty Years’ Familiar Letters and it was written by Alexander to his good friend from Princeton days, James Hall. It is not clear what he meant by the days which I spend at home, but he is likely excluding days of travel to presbytery and other destinations along with Sabbath duties. Generally, rural pastors worked out of their homes. Any failure to keep his schedule was not an indication of laziness, but rather shows how the emergencies and unexpected events of ministry will adjust the best laid plans. However, just before the quotation taken from the letter, Alexander told Hall about the books he was reading, which are numerous and may show too much interest in study and not enough time spent in pastoral work. Or, he may have had time for abundant reading because of the small size of his congregation.

One can only wonder how James Hall responded to his geographically distant friend’s daily itinerary. Was he surprised by such a schedule, or was it the case in their era that anyone seeking to be a diligent worker whether a minister, farmer, lawyer, or cobbler had a long day with only the particulars of their professions varying their schedules? If Alexander and Hall could return for a visit today they would surely be surprised that there is such a thing as a forty-hour work week.

The point of this article is not to encourage presbyters in committees to press those under examination to pursue a pre-dawn-to-post-dusk daily routine, but it is instead a reminder to the examined that their days should be used efficiently. Sometimes schedule efficiency for a harried pastor is elusive because the squeaky wheel gets the oil and some days the oil can runs dry, nevertheless, it is good to attempt a planned routine. In the course of writing biographies for Presbyterians of the Past it has been found that some ministers over the years have been rebuked for not using their time efficiently. In one case a church pastor, Andrew D. Mitchell (1824-1882), became a military chaplain after serving a church which reproved him for lacking initiative. J. W. Alexander did not have a smart phone, television, computer, nor a host of other modern distractions to impede his ministry. However, his library may have been as tempting to him as electronic devices are today. As he shepherded his flock his schedule shows that he used the day efficiently, but his pastoral work might have benefitted from spending more time with his sheep pastorally. Moderation in all things is an endless pursuit.

Finally, reading the two volumes of J. W. Alexander’s Forty Years’ Familiar Letters is a helpful venture. Alexander’s correspondence is particularly interesting because he was writing to his friend and his comments–some of which were not published because Hall edited them out for personal reasons–show his practical concerns for the ministry and a sometimes-barbed sense of humor. The books have been reprinted and are readily available.

Barry Waugh

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