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Book of Scottish Story
The Probationer's First Sermon


On a cold March evening, and in the metropolis of Scotland, I received licence as a probationer. The reverend fathers of the Presbytery were so satisfied with my orthodoxy that they gave me most cordially the right hand of fellowship, and warmly wished me success. I had half-anticipated a reprimand for heretical tendencies; but as no censure was uttered, I was at once overcome by their kindness, and charmed with their unexpected liberality. I hastened home to receive the congratulations of my friends, and then repaired to a clothier's for a suit of canonical blacks. My mother had already provided a boxful of white cravats sufficient to supply the whole bench of bishops. To err is human, and it is also human for a humble man to feel considerably elated in certain circumstances, and at certain times.

I need not be ashamed to confess that a new dignity seemed to rest upon me, like the mantle of the prophet, on that eventful evening. I saw the reflection of my face on the bowl of a silver spoon, and wondered at the resemblance it bore to the bold, heroic countenance of Edward Irving. High were my hopes, and few were my fears, for I only expected to speak and conquer. The responsibilities of the procession were great, I knew, but they only cast their shadow before. The kind of life on which I was about to enter possessed all the attractions of novelty. I was to exchange passivity for action—the quiet of the cloister for the stir of the field. Yet, while thus I thought of the battle, and made my vows, the still picture of a rural manse, girdled with incense-breathing flower-plots, and shaded with murmuring trees, stole upon my slumbers ere I awoke at the dawn of the next day—a vision, alas! too often resembling the unreal beauty of the mirage in the desert.

It may be pardoned in a novitiate, standing on the threshold, if I saw only the sunny side of preacher-life. Spring was coming, like Miriam and her maidens, with timbrels and with dances, and the golden summer-tide was following in her wake, and I knew that I would look on many lovely scenes, receive kindness from strangers, enjoy the hospitality of the humble, and haply sow some seeds of goodness and truth in receptive hearts.

I had frequently heard strange stories about preachers, and several times I had met some curious specimens of the class. One, it was said, travelled over the country with a sermon and a-half and a tobacco-pipe. Another, it was averred, carried neither parchments nor portmanteau, went gadding abroad, and was in fact the generalissimo of gossips. A third poked his nose into presses, supped jelly and jam, pocketed lumps of sugar, and performed other absurdities not at all creditable to his cloth. I had also learned from ministers' wives in the country, that some were as unsocial and morose as turnkeys, and others quite the reverse—lively young fellows, who could rock the cradle, and keep all the children in high glee. It was necessary for me, then, 1 felt, to be circumspect, to abstain from all eccentricities, to be sociable among social people, and dignified when occasion required. Experience soon taught me that a joke from clerical lips sounds like profanity in the ears of the rigidly righteous. A kind friend told me to beware of elders who wished to discuss the doctrine of reprobation, and to avoid walking arm-in-arm with any rural beauty.

"Were you, in your unsuspecting innocence," he said, "to commit this last enormity, the village gossips would tell it to the beadle, the beadle to the managers, the managers to the elders, and your glory would depart."

The advice was a wise one, as I afterwards found; but gallantry is more a characteristic of youth than prudence.

I had prepared a considerable supply of discourses. They were elaborately written, and I looked with paternal affection upon the companions of my future wanderings. I shunned those dry doctrinal discussions which shed so sweet an opiate over the eyes of old, young, and middle-aged. The topics selected were such as I believed would interest and instruct all classes of people. I had. enlarged upon the zeal and self-sacrifice of the sainted men of old, pictured the Holy One silent in the death chamber, and weeping at the tomb, and drawn illustrations from the heavens above, and the earth beneath. Something fresh was needed, I thought —a Christianity rich in blossoms as in fruit.

I received an appointment for the first Sabbath after licence, and on Saturday afternoon I was rattling along Princes Street in the Queensferry omnibus. A small town across the Firth, in the kingdom of Fife, not far from the coast, was my destination. Although the sermon I was to deliver on the morrow had been well committed to memory, and frequently declaimed during the week, yet I found myself conning it over again ere we had crossed the Dean Bridge, and certain passages became mysteriously blended in my mind with the images of Craigcrook and Corstorphine. Then I began to wonder if the other passengers suspected I was a preacher on my maiden expedition. One woman was occupied in gazing very fondly upon the face of a dozing child three months old; a red-faced, purple-nosed old gentleman was sucking the round head of a walking-stick; a stout elderly lady seemed to find the leathern cushion very uncomfortable, since of her down-sitting and up-rising there was no end; a young gentleman of the Tittlebat Titmouse tribe breathed heavily, and at intervals snored; and a young lady, my vis-a-vis in the opposite corner, was the only one who seemed really to be aware of my presence, and the only one who appeared willing to break the unsocial silence. I remembered my friend's advice, and was somewhat afraid to speak. Besides, heads, and particulars, and practical applications, were making such a thoroughfare of my mind, that there was considerable danger of committing absurd mistakes in conversation. I became really sorry for the young lady, she looked at me so inquiringly, and seemed so anxious that I should speak. There was a keen frost in the air, and one or two outsiders were flapping their hands across their shoulders—might I not say that the afternoon was cold? Gray-white clouds were gathering from horizon to horizon and dimming the day—might I not suggest the possibility of snow ? Suddenly the light wavering crystals slid down the window-glass, and with uplifted eyebrows and look of innocent surprise, the fair young traveller exclaimed, "Oh! it snows."

"So it does, ma'am," I rejoined, and spoke no more.

She might think of me that evening as very silent or very surly; but she no doubt changed her opinion next day. for I saw her sitting in the front gallery of the church when I rose to give out the first psalm.

In crossing the ferry, I thought no: of the royal dames and princely pageants that so often in the days of other years passed to and from the shores of Fife. The waters of the Forth were dreary enough. Inchcolm and the opposite coast were shrouded from view in the streaming skirts of the snow-clouds. I rolled myself up in a corner of the boat where no deacon's eye could intrude, and warmed my heart with a cigar. Then some limping fiend whispered in my ears the awful words, "What if you should stick!" Once I had witnessed an unfortunate being in that painful predicament in the pulpit. I had marked, with sickening apprehensions, the string of unconnected sentences, the hesitation, the palor overspreading his face, the terrible stammer, the convulsive clutch, the pause, the sudden gulp, the dead stop, and portentous silence. A "stickit minister," like Dominie Sampson, is nothing to a preacher who " sticks." It was a horrid idea. I resisted the fiend, knit my brow, clenched my fist, and determined to speak or die. "Always keep your mouth open," was the charge of a learned divine to his son, and the words afforded me much consolation.

The night was falling fast, and the snow was falling faster when I reached the outskirts of the little inland town where I had been appointed to officiate. Here my rapid march was arrested by an elderly man who inquired if I was the expected preacher, and receiving an answer in the affirmative, he relieved me of my portmanteau, which contained my precious parchment, and led the way to my lodgings. He gave me to understand that he was the beadle, and that I was to lodge with Mrs M'Bain, who kept a small grocery shop, and had a room to spare in her house. The congregation, with much saving grace, had let the manse until a new minister was obtained. Old John, like the great proportion of country beadles, was a simple, decent man, and a sort of character in his way. He was particularly inquisitive, and asked me some very plain questions as we trudged along the narrow street, getting gradually whitened by the falling snow. He told me that my predecessor on the previous Sabbath was a very clever young man, but only a "wee thocht new-fangled." From further inquiry I found that the learned Theban had been astonishing John and several members of the congregation by describing the revolution of the earth on its axis.

"Noo, sir," said the worthy beadle, "can ye tell me, if the world is aye whirlin' round aboot, what's the reason we never come to the warm countries?"

I endeavoured to make the matter plain to his apprehension by supposing a rotatory motion of the human head, and the nose always maintaining its dignified position in the centre between the right ear and the left—an illustration which honest John did not seem to regard as satisfactory in the slightest degree.

Mrs M'Bain's house was of a very humble description; but she appeared to be a tidy woman, and the room allotted to me, though small, was clean and comfortable. John put down my portmanteau on a chair, with the mien and manner of one who has done his duty, and informed me that one of the elders and the precentor would likely call in a short time. For the precentor I was perfectly prepared, knowing well the psalms that would best suit my discourse ; but I was not so sure what motive an elder could have for visiting me on a Saturday night. I inwardly hoped, at least, that if he did make his appearance, he would have the good sense not to trouble me long with his presence or his conversation, as I was again anxious to rehearse my discourse to silent chairs and an attentive table.

When Mrs M'Bain was placing the tea-dishes on the table, she seemed disposed for a little talk, while I, on the contrary, was not at all in a communicative mood. However, she persevered, and drew me on by degrees, until at last she brought a series of queries to a climax by asking if I had been long a preacher. Now, this was a most absurd question for me to answer in my peculiar circumstances. If the people knew that I had never "wagged my head in a poupit" before, they would be sure to listen to me with the most dreadful silence, so that the slightest stammer would be multiplied and magnified by a hundred echoes. What was to be done? The question must be answered. and the truth must be told, despite the consequences. Mustering up courage, I told my landlady how the matter stood. Astonished she was, as might naturally have been expected. She uplifted her eyebrows, opened wide her eyes, drew a long breath, and said—"Dearie me, sir, ye'll be awfu' feared!" With this ejaculation, which afforded me little consolation indeed, Mrs M'Bain left the apartment, and I knew that the tidings would be over the town, and talked about at every fireside in less than twenty minutes. It could not be helped; courage and resignation alone were required.

I had just finished swallowing in haste three cups of very hot tea, when the precentor entered. He was a man past middle age, with a countenance somewhat grim and gaunt, and a very unmusical mouth. His hair was sandy-coloured, and he was Sawney all over. I saw at once, from his steady stare, and the peculiar expression of his face, that Mrs M'Bain had communicated to him the very pleasant intelligence that the new arrival was a "green hand." He was not long in making me know that he was aware of the fact, although he did so in a very cautious, provoking kind of style. When the ice was fairly broken, he said, " It's a kittle thing standin' up afore an audience the first time. I mind fine yet what an awfu' state I was in when I first sang i' the desk. I kent the Auld Hunderd as weel as I keut my mither; but I wasna lang begun when I ran awa' wi' the harrows. This kind of talk was rapidly becoming unendurable, and I enterined anything but a Christian sentiment of brotherly love towards the conductor of the psalmody.

"How long have you acted as precentor," I enquired, anxious to change the current of conversation.

"I've precentcd in oor kirk," he replied, "for twunty years, and, barrin' three days last simmer, I've never missed a Sabbath."

"That is very extraordinary," I rejoined; "and what was wrong with you last summer?"

"Weel, sir, ye see I was howkin' tatties for the denner in oor yaird ae day, when I coupit ower a skep by mistake, and I was awfu' stung by bees."

"Dear me," I rejoined (for I could not resist such a favourable opportunity of stinging him again). "it was curious how the bees should have taken you for a drone!"

This remark had the desired effect. The precentor soon look himself off, and I was left in undisputed possession of the room. I had offended the beadle, and insulted the precentor—how was it possible that I could preach with acceptation to the people? I became nervous lest the elder also should enter, for I was perfectly persuaded that I could not escape incurring his reprobation by some unfortunate reply.

As the night wore on, my trepidation increased. I paced up and down the room, repeating and re-repeating my discourse from beginning to end, and from the end to the beginning. Every period, colon, hyphen, point of exclamation, point of interrogation, ana comma was engraved upon my mind, and yet I was not satisfied. Something might escape me—some sounding sentence might take wings and flee away. I heard Mrs M'Bain listening at times behind the door when I went humming and thrumming across the room; and I felt a strong inclination to call her in, and punish her by making her act the part of a popular audience. I cooled down somewhat before bedtime, and, at my landlady's request, retired early to bed.

"A gude sleep," she said, "is the forerunner of a good sermon."

"Yes," I rejoined, "and a good sleep is the ordinary accompaniment of a bad one."

Mrs M'Bain chuckled, and looked as if she thought there was something promising in the young man after all.

To bed I went, but not to slumber, knowing well that sleep, like some eccentric daughters of Eve, must be won without being wooed. I did not try to "fall over." None but the rankest fool ever thinks of perpetrating such absurdity. I commenced for the five hundredth tim—what else could I do?—to con over my discourse. I had just finished the introduction, without missing a syllable, when—horror of horrors!—the first head had vanished— evaporated—gone to some outrageous limbo and could not, would not be recalled. What was to be done? I sat up in bed—a villanous crib It was—and the perspiration stood beaded on my brow. The tingling darkness filled the room ; the snow-flakes fussled on the window panes. Mrs M'Bain was in bed; the candle was out; there were no lucifers; my precious manuscript was under my pillow; the missing head was there, but I could neither see nor seize it. It was a caput mortuum. I cannot describe the agony that I endured, the feeling of despair that I experienced. My heart beat loudly, and the inexorable clock tick-ticked, as if everything in the world were going on with the utmost smoothness and regularity. I must have sat for an hour groping about in my benighted brain for my lost head. But sleep at length came, and fantastic dreams, born of fear and excitement, took possession of me. I thought that I stood on Mars Hill, and that around me was gathered a great crowd of Stoics, Epicureans, Methodists, Mormons, and Mahom-medans. They listened attentively for a time, but as soon as I had finished the introduction to my discourse, they immediately commenced to grin ano make grimaces, shouting, howling, roaring like legions of demons. In the twinkling of an eye, the scene changed, and I stood in the centre of a vast camp-meeting in the backwoods of America. Negroes and Red Indians were there as well as stalwart planters with their wives and families. A hymn, pealed with a sea-like sound from a thousand voices, had just died away, and I was preparing to address the mighty multitude, when a sudden storm came crashing down among the woods, and the assemblage was scattered abroad like the leaves of autumn. I was tossed throughout the night from one wildered dream to another, and finally awoke in the morning rather jaded than refreshed. With the return of consciousness, however, returned the lost head, and I was delighted to discover before rising that my memory was master of my discourse.

The morning wore on, stiller for the snow that lay one or two inches deep on the ground. The hour of service approached, the bells began to sound ; I never heard them pealing so loudly before, even in the largest cities. My heart beat to the beating of the bells. At last the beadle came, cool, calm, imperturbable, hoisted the pulpit Bible under his arm, and signified to me, with an easy inclination of his head, that all was now ready. Mrs M'Bain was standing in the passage as we came out of the room, holding the door-key in one hand, and her Bible wrapped in a white pocket handkerchief in the other. I walked along the street as steadily and sedately as my perturbation would permit, and all the little boys and girls, I thought, knew that I was to preach my first sermon that day. There was a death-like stillness in the church when I entered. My look was concentrated on the pulpit, but I knew that every eye in the church was fixed upon the untried preacher. I managed to get through the introductory services with more fluency and calmness than I anticipated, only I invariably found myself conning over the first head of my discourse while the assembled worshippers were singing the psalms. The precentor was a drone. Even that afforded me some satisfaction, although the unmelodious tones agitated still more my excited nervous system. At the close of the second psalm, the time of my great trial came. I rose and announced the text with great deliberation. Then every eye was fixed upon me; the moment was awful; the silence was dreadful. The ready manner in which the first dozen of sentences came to my recollection made me feel somewhat calm, comfortable, and composed; but a sudden sense of the peculiar nature of my situation, the consciousness that all the people knew it was my first appearance in public, disturbed my equanimity and shook my self-possession. A dizziness came over me; the congregation revolved around the pulpit. I grasped the Bible, and declaimed vehemently in order if possible to recover myself; but from the beginning of the first head to the last application, although I must have adhered to my manuscript, I was speaking like one in a dream, not master of myself, the will passive, and memory alone awake. When I concluded the last period, I could scarcely believe that I had preached my discourse. The weakness of my limbs told me of the struggle. On leaving the church I overheard some remarks concerning myself pass between two of the officials.

"He's a brisk bit birkie that," quoth the beadle.

"'Od ay," responded the precentor, but 'he has a bee in his bannet.'"

Sweet reader, if you are studying for the Church, do not be deterred by vain fears from prosecuting your labours. It is a glorious thing to succeed, even when you are unconscious of your success, and thus it happened with "My First Sermon."


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