The Lay Preacher by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Whether the Rev. Andrew Adkin had or had not a call to preach, is more than we can say. Enough, that he considered it his duty to "hold forth" occasionally on the Sabbath; and when "Brother Adkin" saw, in any possible line of action, his duty, he never took counsel of Jonah.
Brother Adkin kept a store in the town of Mayberry, and being a man of some force of character, and not, by any means, indifferent to this world's goods, devoted himself to business during the six days of the week with commendable assiduity. It is not the easiest thing in the world to banish, on the Sabbath, all concern in regard to business. Most persons engaged in trade, no matter how religiously inclined, have experienced this difficulty. Brother Adkin's case did, not prove an exception; and so intrusive, often, were these worldly thoughts and cares, that they desecrated, at times, the pulpit, making the good man's voice falter and his hands tremble, as he endeavoured, "in his feeble way," to break the bread of life.
He had his own trials and temptations--his own stern "exercises of mind," going to the extent, not unfrequently, of startling doubts as to the reality of his call to preach.
"I don't see much fruit of my labour," he would sometimes say to himself, "and I often think I do more harm than good."
Such thoughts, however, were usually disposed of, as suggestions of the "adversary."
A week in the life of Brother Adkin will show the peculiar influences that acted upon him, and how far his secular pursuits interfered with and marred his usefulness as a preacher.
Monday morning had come round again. He had preached twice on the Sabbath--once to a strange congregation, and with apparent good effect, and once to a congregation in Mayberry. In the latter case, he was favoured with little freedom of utterance. The beginning of the secular week brought back to the mind of Mr. Adkin the old current of thought, and the old earnest desire to get gain in business. On the Sabbath he had taught the people that love was the fulfilment of the law,--now, he had regard only to his own interests; and, although he did not adopt the broad, unscrupulous maxim, that all is fair in trade, yet, in every act of buying and selling, the thought uppermost in his mind was, the amount of gain to be received in the transaction.
"What are you paying for corn to-day?" asked a man, a stranger to Mr. Adkin.
"Forty-eight cents," was answered.
"Is this the highest market rate?" said the man.
"I bought fifty bushels at that price on Saturday," replied Mr. Adkin.
Now, since Saturday, the price of corn had advanced four cents, and Mr. Adkin knew it. But he thought he would just try his new customer with the old price, and if he chose to sell at that, why there would be so much gained.
"I have forty bushels," said the man.
"Very well, I'll take it at forty-eight cents. Where is it?"
"My wagon is at the tavern."
"You may bring it over at once. My man is now at leisure to attend to the delivery."
The corn was delivered and paid for, and both parties, for the time being, were well satisfied with the transaction.
The day had nearly run to a close, and Mr. Adkin was in the act of estimating his gains, when the man from whom he had purchased the corn entered his store.
"Look here, my friend," said the latter speaking rather sharply, "you paid me too little for that corn."
"How so?" returned Mr. Adkin, in well-affected surprise.
"You was to pay the highest market price," said the man.
"I offered you forty-eight cents."
"And I asked you if that was the highest rate, didn't I?"
"I told you that I had bought fifty bushels at that price on Saturday."
"Oh, ho! Now I comprehend you," said the man, with a sarcastic curl of his lip. "I was recommended to you as a preacher, and one who would deal fairly with me. I asked you a plain question, and you purposely misled me in your answer, to the end that you might get my corn at less than the market value. You have cheated me out of nearly two dollars. Much good may it do you!"
And saying this, he turned on his heel and left the store. Mr. Adkin was, of course, no little disturbed. The charge of dishonesty in dealing at first aroused his indignation; but as he grew calmer and thought over the affair, his conscience troubled him. As a Christian man, and especially as a Christian minister, he could not reconcile his dealing with strict gospel requirements. The more he reflected, the more closely he brought his conduct to the standard of Christian principles, the less was he satisfied with himself. The final result was, a determination to go to the man on the next morning, and pay him the balance due him on the market price of his corn. But, when he sought for him, he was not to be found, having gone back to his home, a few miles from the village.
On the next day he sent for a bill, which had been standing a good while. His clerk brought back some impertinent and altogether unsatisfactory answer.
"Did Mr. Giles say that?" he asked, his eyes flashing indignantly.
"His exact words," replied the clerk.
"Very well. I'll not send to him again," said Mr. Adkin. "He thinks, because I am a preacher, that he can treat me as he pleases, but I'll let him know that being a preacher doesn't make me any the less a man, nor any the less inclined to protect myself."
So Mr. Giles was served with a summons, to answer for debt, before the week was out.
On the day following, a certain lady, a member of the congregation in Mayberry to which he preached, whenever, from sickness or other causes, the regular minister was absent, came into Mr. Adkin's store. Her manner was considerably excited.
"There's a mistake in your bill, Mr. Adkin," said she, in rather a sharp tone of voice.
"If so, Mrs. Smith, the remedy is a very simple one," replied Mr. Adkin. Her manner had disturbed him, yet he concealed the disturbance under a forced suavity of manner. "Where does the mistake lie?"
"Why, see here. You've got me charged with six yards of muslin and five pounds of butter that I never got!"
"Are you certain of this, Mrs. Smith?"
"Certain! Be sure I'm certain! D'ye think I'd say I hadn't the things, if I had them? I'm not quite so bad as that, Mr. Adkin!"
"Don't get excited about the matter, Mrs. Smith. We are all liable to mistakes. There's an error here, either on your side or mine, if it is my error, I will promptly correct it."
"Of course it's your error. I never had either the muslin or the butter," said Mrs. Smith, positively.
Mr. Adkin turned to his ledger, where Mrs. Smith's account was posted.
"The muslin is charged on the 10th of June."
Mrs. Smith looked at the bill and answered affirmatively.
"You bought a pound of yarn and a straw hat on the same day."
"Yes; I remember them. But I didn't get the muslin."
"Think again, Mrs. Smith. Don't you remember the beautiful piece of Merrimac that I showed you, and how cheap you thought it?"
"I never had six yards of muslin, Mr. Adkin."
"But, Mrs. Smith, I have distinct recollection of measuring it off, and the charge is here in my own handwriting."
"I never had it, Mr. Adkin!" said the lady much excited.
"You certainly had, Mrs. Smith."
"I'll never pay for it!"
"Don't say that, Mrs. Smith. You certainly wouldn't want my goods without paying for them!"
"I never had the muslin, I tell you!"
Argument in the case Mr. Adkin found to be useless. The sale of the five pounds of butter was as distinctly remembered by him; and as he was not the man to yield a right when he had no doubt as to its existence, he would not erase the articles from Mrs Smith bill, which was paid under protest.
"It's the last cent you'll ever get of my money!" said Mrs. Smith, as she handed over, the amount of the bill. "I never had those articles; and I shall always say that I was wronged out of so much money."
"I'm sure, madam, I don't want your custom, if I'm expected to let you have my goods for nothing," retorted Mr. Adkin, the natural man in him growing strong under an allegation that implied dishonesty.
So the two parted, neither feeling good-will toward the other, and neither being in a very composed state of mind.
Each day in that week brought something to disturb the mind of Mr. Adkin; and each day brought him into unpleasant business contact with someone in the town of Mayberry. To avoid, these things was almost impossible, particularly for a man of Mr. Adkin's temperament.
Saturday night came, always a busy night for the storekeeper. It was ten o'clock, and customers were still coming in, when a lad handed Mr. Adkin a note, it was from the regularly stationed minister of the church in Mayberry to which Mr. Adkin belonged. The note stated, briefly, that the writer was so much indisposed, that he would not be able to preach on the next day, and conveyed the request that "Brother Adkin" would "fill the pulpit for him in the morning."
Brother Adkin almost groaned in spirit at this unwelcome and not-to-be-denied invitation to perform ministerial duties on the Sabbath. Of theological subjects, scarcely a thought had entered his mind since Monday morning; and, certainly, the states through which he had passed were little calculated to elevate his affections, or make clear his spiritual intuitions.
It was twelve o'clock before Mr. Adkin was able to retire on that night. As he rested his weary and now aching head on his pillow, he endeavoured to turn his mind from worldly things, and fix it upon things heavenly and eternal. But, the current of thought and affection had too long been flowing in another channel. The very effort to check its onward course, caused disturbance and obscurity. There was a brief but fruitless struggle, when overtaxed nature vindicated her claims, and as the lay preacher found relief from perplexing thoughts and a troubled conscience, in refreshing slumber.
In the half-dreaming, half-waking state that comes with the dawning of day, Mr. Adkin's thoughts flowed on again in the old channel, and when full consciousness came, he found himself busy with questions of profit and loss. Self-accusation and humiliation followed. He "wrote bitter things against himself," for this involuntary desecration of the Sabbath.
Rising early, he took his Bible, and after turning over book after book and scanning chapter after chapter, finally chose a verse as the text from which he would preach. Hurriedly and imperfectly our lay preacher conned his subject. Clearness of discrimination, grasp of thought, orderly arrangement, were out of the question. That would have been too much for a master mind, under similar circumstances.
Eleven o'clock came around quickly, and painfully conscious of an obscure and confused state of mind, Mr. Adkin entered the house of God and ascended the pulpit. A little while he sat, endeavouring to collect his thoughts; then he arose and commenced giving out a hymn. Lifting his eyes from the book, as he finished reading the first verse, he saw, directly in front of him, the man from whom he had purchased the forty bushels of corn. He was looking at him fixedly, and there was on his countenance an expression of surprise and contempt, that, bringing back, as the man's presence did, a vivid recollection of the events of Monday, almost deprived Mr. Adkin, for a moment or two, of utterance. He faltered, caught his breath, and went on again with the reading. On raising his eyes at the conclusion of the second verse, Mr. Adkin saw his corn customer slowly moving down the aisle toward the door of entrance. How keenly he felt the rebuke! How sadly conscious was he of being out of place in the pulpit!
After the singing of the hymn, the preacher made a prayer; but it was cold and disjointed. He had no freedom of utterance. A chapter was read, an anthem sung, and then Mr. Adkin arose in the pulpit, took his text, and, ere giving utterance to the first words of his discourse, let his eyes wander over the congregation. A little to the right sat Mr. Giles, wearing a very sober aspect of countenance, and looking at him with knit brows and compressed lips. The sight caused the words "brother going to law with brother" to pass almost electrically through his mind. As his glance rebounded from Mr. Giles quickly, it next rested upon Mrs. Smith, who, with perked head and a most malicious curling of the lip, said, as plain as manner could say it--"You're a nice man for a preacher, a'n't you?"
How Mr. Adkin beat about the bushes and wrought in obscurity, darkening counsel by words without knowledge, during the half hour that followed the enunciation of his text, need not here be told. None was more fully conscious than himself of his utter failure to give spiritual instruction to the waiting congregation. The climax, so far as he was concerned, was yet to come. As he descended the pulpit stairs, at the close of the service, some one slipped a piece of paper into his hand. Glancing at the pencilled writing thereon, he read the rebuking words:
"The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed."
How could he feed them? Are holy and divine things of such easy comprehension, that a man may devote the whole energies of his mind to worldly business during six days, and then become a lucid expounder of heavenly, mysteries on the Sabbath? The influx of intelligence into the mind of a speaker, is in exact ratio with the knowledge he has acquired. He may have, without this previous preparation, "free utterance," as it is called; but this utterance brings no rational convictions; it sways only by the power of contagious enthusiasm. Moreover, as in the case of Mr. Adkin, every lay preacher takes with him into the pulpit a taint from worldly and business contact, and his presence there must turn the thoughts of many hearers from his clerical to his personal character--from the truth he enunciates, to his practical observance thereof in daily life. He may be judged falsely; but the fact of his blending the two separate characters of clergyman and layman, forms an occasion for false judgment, and detracts from the usefulness of the sacred office.
Whether Mr. Adkin "held forth" again, we cannot apprize the reader. New light, and new perceptions of duty certainly came into his mind; and we may hope that, as he was a well-meaning and conscientious man, he was led to act wisely in the future.
Having given a true picture of a week in the life of the lay preacher, our business with him is done. It is for those whom it may concern to study the sketch, and see if it does not contain some points worthy their especial consideration.