Thursday, March 31, 2011

William S. Plumer on Pastoral Writing

By Ryan M. McGraw

Most ministers of the gospel do not do enough writing. The general assumption that most have is that ministers who write are in a higher caste, beyond the province of the common pastor. However, the southern Presbyterian theologian and pastor, William S. Plumer, set “doing good with the pen” within the scope of pastoral theology.[1]  All ministers share the same set of gifts and qualifications for their office, yet not all ministers have the same degree of gifting within that office. Nevertheless, all ministers may extend their usefulness and do at least some good through the use of writing, and congregations should allow their pastors to do so as a part of their calling. Plumer sets forth five categories of pastoral writing, to which I shall add two more.

“Epistolary Writing”

“Letters are among the most powerful means of influencing mankind.”[2]  “Under the guidance of inspiration, the apostles have set us an example of this kind of writing.”[3]  Plumer referred to John Newton as an excellent example of a man whose letters were not only useful to their original recipients, but to posterity. However, the most useful form of letter writing will of necessity be that which is highly tailored to the addressee, and that ministers directly to his or her peculiar need. “Letters have one advantage over all else we write. They are always read.”[4]

“Periodical Press”

This format is equivalent to periodical magazines and theological journals. This audience is broader than mere letters, but is still somewhat limited in scope. Through writing useful articles, the minister extends his ministry beyond his endeavors in the pulpit. Moreover, many articles will easily arise from the minister’s studies for the pulpit. Plumer did not add much detail concerning this form of writing.

“Tracts and Small Books”

“He who succeeds in writing one good tract has not lived in vain.”[5]  “There are several living men whose thoughts are before the community in millions of pages, because they have written five, ten, or more good, popular tracts.”[6]  An outstanding example of the usefulness of tracts and small books is illustrated in the republication of Archibald Alexander’s tracts from the American Tract Society.[7]  Most of these tracts span between three and five paragraphs, yet they are some of the most profound and outstanding examples of devotional writing that I have ever seen. A contemporary example is John Blanchard, who’s Ultimate Questions and other tracts have sold several million copies world-wide.

Books that Serve One Generation Only

The question raised is whether or not ministers should publish sermons or material that “will not undergo a second edition.”[8]  “In reply, it may be said that there are two classes of authors. The first writes for generations to come. The other writes but for the present generation. The latter class is the larger. The former is the more distinguished. But it is not possible for any mortal to say which class confers the greater blessing upon mankind. Nor can it commonly be told to which class a given man belongs until his thoughts are published, and often not till one or two generations have passed away.”[9]  In most cases, modern theological writing secures for itself a short shelf-life. Specialized or academic writing that is predominantly concerned with contemporary theological trends shall always be “dated” quickly. Much of this kind of writing lacks a timeless quality. We must not despise writing that meets the needs of our time, but it is valuable to ask the question whether or not the bulk of contemporary theological research meets any need at all, or whether it has become research for the sake of research.

Regarding works that serve a true need in the Church, Plumer added: “Every generation ought to produce a large body of publications for its own use. Let not men despise a good writer as ephemeral, if his work is but useful in its own day. Yet it is a mercy, a great favor, to be allowed to write even a small work for other ages and countries besides our own. Let us earnestly covet the best gifts.”[10]  A good example of this kind of writing is found in George Gillespie. Most of Gillespie’s works are polemical and difficult to read for those who were not embroiled in the debates of his day. Nevertheless, he did much good in protecting the cause of Reformed worship and Presbyterian Ecclesiology and, despite the form in which they were written, his works are still studied seriously at the present day.

Books (in General)

Plumer sets forth four categories of books. He illustrated these four in terms of four kinds of “shops.”  The first is like a toy shop, in which everything is entertaining and of little value. Ministers should never write for the sake of mere literary recognition. “For a minister of Christ to earn, or to desire the reputation of a literary harlequin, is monstrous.”[11]

The second type of book is like entering a “shop” where “remnants” are sold. Nothing is complete or developed, but these books present only loose or open-ended ideas. Ministers ought to avoid this kind of writing as well. The third are like shops “with vast quantities of rich goods in the piece. The wise man loves to deal here. He is sure to be suited. He always gets the worth of his money.”[12]  Plumer likened this type of book to raw ore that a man finds and rejoices over, yet which he must mould and shape according to his purposes. Such works are often monumental and provide a wealth of information to develop and build upon. Plumer pointed to Jonathan Edwards as an example of this kind of writer. “To produce a book of this description is hardly given to one man in each generation.”[13]

The last illustration is a shop “where you find an excellent variety already prepared for use. . . . Books of this description are brought out in every century. They do great good. Were it possible to extinguish the light of one of them, it would be a public calamity.”[14]  He cited Milton who wrote, “[he] who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.”  To produce even one such book is a great honor. “A wise man will rather be the author of some of our best and brief religious books than to have written all the Greek and Roman classics.”[15]  At this point, Plumer lamented the explosion of interest in and publication of novels in his day, as endangering people’s abilities to devote themselves to serious study and attention.[16]

Book Reviews and Internet Resources

There is a sixth category of writing that Plumer did not address: namely, book reviews. Book reviews are a useful means to do much good and to prevent much evil. The merits of good books may be highlighted in order to promote wider circulation. On the other hand, there are some books that I would not have purchased if I had read a thoughtful review. Book reviews should be brief, yet searching. They should not simply rehearse the contents of a book, but they should evaluate them and point out why the book shall or shall not be useful to readers, or what kind of audience will value the book. Remember that book reviews are not book reports.

Plumer could not address the seventh category of writing, which is posting resources on the internet. If writing itself holds potential for tremendous good or evil, the internet magnifies this potential intensely. The great caution that should attend writing online is that such writing can be published without seeking the approval of publishers, let alone of the Church. This is probably the first type of writing that most ministers engage in, yet it is the one form of writing that requires no accountability or review. The only question I ask is, “Why are men who would hesitate to publish their thoughts in a journal or book so ready to publish their thought to the world on the internet?”  Use this resource well, but use it with appropriate caution.

Let us be diligent to use all of our time and labors for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ!  Our time is short and we must use every means at our disposal to do as much good as we can. We must be cautious in our writing and we must not publish hastily or without godly counsel and criticism. May the Lord grant that more ministers of the Word may take up and write so that men and women may come to Father, through the Son, by one Spirit. And may you encourage your pastors to do more good through the use of the pen. As Plumer concluded, “USE YOUR PEN ARIGHT.”[17]

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was previous published in Puritan Reformed Journal.


[1] William S. Plumer, Hints and Helps in Pastoral Theology (orig. pub, New York: Harper and Brothers Publications, 1874, reprint, Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2003), 296-307.
[2] Ibid., 296.
[3] Ibid., 297.  
[4] Ibid., 301.
[5] Ibid., 302.
[6] Ibid.  
[7] These tracts have been collected and printed in Archibald Alexander, Practical Truths   (orig. pub, New York: The American Tract Society, n.d., reprint, Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications,1998).
[8] Plumer, 302.  
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 303.  
[11] Ibid. In a preface to one of John Owen’s sermons, Daniel Burgess complained, “It is the complaint of many that our bookseller’s shops have become heaps of dry sand, in which many a rich stone is lost.”  In The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), IX, 3.  
[12] Ibid.  
[13] Ibid., 304.
[14] Ibid.  
[15] Ibid., 305.  
[16] Compare to R. L. Dabney’s article, “On Dangerous Reading,” in, Discussions (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1980) vol. I, 158-169.
[17] Plumer, 307.