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Life and Times of D. M. Stuart, D.D.

Chapter XXXVII. — His Great Ministerial Work

page 256

Chapter XXXVII.
His Great Ministerial Work.

Dr Stuart's great work, to which he consecrated his main energies, was that of building up and holding together the vast congregation to which he ministered for thirty-four years in the City of Dunedin. It was practically created, organised, and consolidated by himself, and year by year acquired new strength and a widening usefulness, chiefly by dint of his own great personality—his largeness of heart and force of intellect, his liberality of view and intense human sympathy with men of all classes and creeds, in all the varied circumstances of life in which they can be placed.

Sir William Pox, the great New Zealand statesman, whose home was in the far North, and who rendered in his day distinguished services to our Christian faith, as well as to the cause of Temperance, used to speak of the Doctor as his minister, and many others, in recognition of his Christian heroism and moral greatness, instinctively as it were, stood informally and unavowedly in that relationship to him.

Knox Church congregation, which is admittedly the premier one in Australasia, has been along the whole line of its history noted for its liberality, enterprise, works of faith, and labours of love. The page 257minister inspired the people with something of his own enthusiasm, and gathered around him an army of willing workers, to whom were assigned such duties as they were competent to fulfil. With watchful eye he marked the conduct and Christian deportment and unfolding intelligence and capacity of the young people who came within range of his voice and influence; and, when he discerned in them any special aptness for work, he set himself to secure their services for some position in the Church in which their special gifts might be utilised.

Where families were grouped together in suburban districts, out of easy reach of the ordinances of grace, he exerted all his influence to induce and encourage men of good repute and of Christian experience and attainments to put their hands to some form of work for Christ, such as conducting prayer meetings among their neighbours, and organising Sabbath Schools for the instruction in Christian truth of the children in their immediate neighbourhood.

But the special department of ministerial activity into which the Doctor seemed to throw his whole heart, and which awakened his tenderest solicitude and interest, was the preparation of candidates for Holy Communion. Here is the loving testimony of one * who passed through his hands:—

"The corner of Old Knox Church, where a band of young communicants sat one summer evening is sacred ground to me. It was near the Communion, and we were looking forward with a certain tremulous page 258desire to commemorate the dying love of Jesus. The tones of our beloved pastor grew more solemn and tender as the shades of night deepened. He seemed to lead us to the very foot of the cross. We saw the Christ hanging in utter loneliness of spirit and unspeakable agony there. We heard a voice that seemed calmer than silence pleading with us, and our inmost hearts made grateful response, 'God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.'"

"Hiked to see young communicants," he wrote to us, "singly or in pairs, and at least four times, partly to make their acquaintance, and go over the doctrines bound up in the Communion, and show the life in which they should eventuate."

We have seen it stated somewhere that a "passion for direction and government was a strong element in his character." He had without doubt splendid organising ability, and wonderful tact in dealing with men, and a practical sagacity in choosing the best means to reach his end. But he never attempted, so far as we know, to ignore any rules laid down authoritatively for his guidance, or to ride rough shod over the convictions, or to trample on the feelings of his fellow men. He knew both how and when to yield, and was loyal and deferential to the decisions and rules of the ecclesiastical courts.

It was not only in his own great Church that his influence was felt. It was also constantly operative throughout the community, giving direction and stimulus to the public thought on most of the great questions that had a more or less intimate bearing on page 259the public well-being; and more than any other man in Dunedin he contributed to the maintenance of a healthy tone in the public life.

It was well enough known that his relations with some of his brethren in the ministry of the Presbyterian Church were, to some extent, strained—at least they wanted that affectionate cordiality which would naturally be expected to exist in such a case. This, we have shown elsewhere, took open manifestation at the annual meeting of the Synod in 1886, in connection with the debate on the nomination of a candidate for one of the University chairs, when something like hostile feeling was exhibited to the Doctor, which moved his office-bearers to rally round him with generous expressions of their love and continued attachment to him. We used to hear it said that he did more than any man in the Church to keep the dividend at low levels—not only by refusing to accept a large stipend for himself, but by speaking in such a way as to leave the impression on the minds of office-bearers that the liberality of congregations to the Sustentation Fund was as large and generous as it might be expected to be.

He told us one day in the presence of two of our elders that the acre of native bush, with its wealth of foliage and melody of song, that adorned our glebe at Anderson's Bay was worth £100 a year to us. But we laughingly dissented from his view, for the reason given that foliage and song, with all the sweet loveliness of which they stood possessed had no financial value in the realm of trade, and would hardly be accepted by our tradesmen in payment of their page 260bills. We think, however, that Dr Stuart's attitude towards the Fund was entirely misunderstood. He knew well enough that people in prosperous circumstances often saved their own pockets by sending applicants for help up to the Manse, and none rejoiced more than he to see full streams of liberality flowing in upon the ministry of the Church. To his congregation more than to any other, under his generous influence and guidance, the prosperity of the Sustentation Fund was largely due, and now that his giving hand and pleading voice can give and plead no more, it may require desperate efforts to rescue that central scheme of the Otago Church from the threatening peril of collapse.

There was another question that disturbed to some extent the harmony of the Doctor's relations with some of the brethren. It was his alleged departure from the doctrine of the Standards on the administration of baptism. His practice, it was said, made discipline impossible, and tended to weaken the hands of the clergy in country districts. But we found him always perfectly reasonable and courteous and tenderly loving in his counsels on that point. He wrote to us on one occasion: "——, of ——, called on me a week ago about baptism. I remember marrying him, but have rarely seen him for years. I promised him I would write you. I would suggest that you see him. Should he show a sense of duty and a desire to serve the Lord, I would not keep him on tenterhooks. Evangelists prepare men and women in a few hours for sealing ordinances. For the sake of himself and family, and for Christ's sake, page 261lead him gently to Christ. I make these remarks in the spirit of brotherhood." That was the spirit in which he dealt with such cases. He had confidence in human nature, believed there was "a soul of good in all things evil," and appealed with the "charity that believeth all things and hopeth all things" to what was best in all men's hearts, with the result that he was trusted, and found a fulcrum for the lever of his Christian influence to rest upon in moving them in the direction of Christ.

The Doctor was in great request in marriages. Persons came long distances to be married by him. He attended constantly and ungrudgingly the funerals of persons who had not been connected with his church, but whose relatives or neighbours were anxious that the Doctor should conduct the funeral services.

A highly improbable story was once circulated to the effect that a woman, under deep convictions of sin, had called on the Doctor for comfort and help, and that, without any reference to Christ's atoning work and to her need of His regenerating grace, he dismissed her with the counsel to put her hand energetically to the work which lay to it at home, and she would find in the faithful discharge of common duty that the desired peace would possess her heart. We mentioned to the Doctor that such a story was passing from lip to lip to his disparagement, and with a face that glowed with indignation at what he called "the perversion of truth," he put the case before us in its proper light.

Cavillers have objected to him that he allowed page 262himself to be engrossed with educational concerns, to the, detriment of his proper work as a minister of Jesus Christ. But his estimate of the value of knowledge and culture was a very high one, and the intelligent adhesion of the people to the Church of their fathers is, he believed, in exact ratio to the soundness and breadth of the education which they receive. And the objection of the cavillers is sufficiently answered by pointing to the vast multitude who waited on his ministry, as well as by the statement that people desirous of sharing that privilege had sometimes to wait for years before pews were available for them.

The objection would have carried some weight and conviction of its reasonableness to our mind, had we seen a depleted Church and a shrinking communion roll, and a huge incubus of debt portending gigantic financial disaster. But when we see nothing of the sort, but just the contrary of all that, we are forced to the conclusion that it was only some of his superfluous energy that flowed over on the large and important subject of education, which occupied a place in his heart only one step lower than Christianity, the supreme boon and pledge of God's love to man.

It was often said, and indeed it has been repeated recently in connection with Mr Davidson's resignation, and assigned as one of the causes that led up to it—that the Doctor was much too easy with his people—that he looked with a too benevolent and condoning eye on the gaieties of the world, when he should have frowned them down and denounced them page 263as being out of keeping with an earnest prosecution of Christian aim.

It is quite true that he was more than merely tolerant of harmless amusements. He could watch with a kindling countenance the joys of the quiet dance, and listen with rapt attention to the martial or pathetic melodies of the pipe and song. But he could not assume any other attitude towards these things without being false to his very nature, and doing violence to his inmost heart, which loved, with all the strength of an unconquerable passion, romance, and poetry, and mirth, the sweet warbling of birds, the gay gamboling of lambs, and the joyous social pastimes of the children of men. His love for these things made him none the less earnest and devoted a minister of Christ, but rather, by bringing him into intimate sympathy with those around him, contributed in no small measure to the large success that crowned his labours.

* Rev. James Chisholm, of Milton, Otago.