Decades before he became Southern Seminary’s fifth president, John R. Sampey possessed an evangelical conviction for Baptist churches and their pastors. In October 1887, a 24-year-old Sampey delivered his inaugural address as assistant professor of Hebrew, Greek, and Homiletics. This address, entitled “The Proper Attitude of Young Ministers toward Issues of the Day,” exhorted his fellow young men to engage thoughtfully their generation’s most pressing theological and social issues in order to better inform and lead their churches. Sampey concentrated on four subjects of interest: biblical higher criticism, the “New Theology,” socialism, and prohibition.
The young professor encouraged every young preacher to practice “sympathy with the thought and the thinkers of his generation … striving continually to give it new and better shape,” but to avoid the error of adopting a view simply because of its popularity.1 Sampey believed cultural sensitivity essential so that the “pulpit might know what the pew is thinking about” and preachers would be able to evidence the relevancy of their message, because “when the young men in the ministry fail to understand and meet the demands of the hour upon them, we shall certainly see a marked decline of pulpit power.” 2
As to how the young preacher should discuss popular topics from the pulpit after accruing the benefits of personal study, Sampey warned against the dangers of partisanship and being overly preoccupied with a single subject:
It is dangerous for some ministers to give themselves to the study of any important moral issue because of their fondness for riding hobbies. When once such a subject has taken possession of their minds, it shows its head in every sermon and every conversation. Thus the preacher of the gospel dwindles into nothing more than a moral reformer. … The church is converted into a town-hall and all classes press into it not to hear of the Lord Jesus, but to listen to scathing denunciations of some great evil.3
Sampey believed preachers should have awareness of Old Testament higher criticism — birthed in Germany but slowly making headway into American Sunday schools — was not merely a dispute over dates and authorship of various books but “a controversy in which the inspiration of the Scriptures, the doctrine of special providence and even the divinity of Jesus are involved.”4 Likewise, the so-called “New Theology” amounted to a system of denials of the greatest tenets of orthodox Christianity. He recommended young preachers find ammunition against liberal critics through studying “wise and conservative teachers,” holding fast to belief in biblical inspiration, and proclaiming “[orthodox Christianity’s] precious doctrines with the accent of strong conviction.”5
In socialism, Sampey saw a morally defunct cultural movement that denounced marriage, advocated communism, and proclaimed atheism. The young pastor should “keep in sympathy with the poor” as Christ both lived as a poor man and lifted up disgraced men and women. He commended American labor unions for having “accomplished good results” despite some mistakes due to leadership from wicked men and encouraged pastors to exhort capitalist employers to provide opportunity for their employees to advance in business. Ultimately, the gospel is “the only cure of selfish hoarding on the part of the rich and selfish grabbing and pillage on the part of the poor.”
As to the temperance movement — a growing social reform crusade championed by many Christians — Sampey sympathized with its ultimate goals but cautioned ministers against caving into pressure to advocate prohibition at any cost, which might distract from their uniquely evangelical commitment:
The Saviour of men who made excellent wine for a wedding feast, found moral suasion a great power in winning men away from sin. As a citizen the young preacher ought to favor all wise legislation for the suppression of intemperance. … Everywhere by precept and example we should, in the spirit of our Master, try to win men from their sins, and aid, as far as may be practicable, in the removal of temptation out of their path.
Sampey recommended young ministers devote themselves to both careful study and public discussion on the great questions of their age. Commending young ministers as teachable — “not wedded to any system of ideas, but willing to adopt whatever has the stamp of truth upon it” — Sampey nevertheless warned them against the danger of conceit, advising that “we must draw largely from the resources of older heads, if we would give to our audiences strong food for mind and heart.”
According to the Strauss-Howe generational theory, Sampey and the young men to whom he addressed represented the “missionary generation,” trustworthy idealists who aspired to defend Christian civilization. Though the most pressing theological and social issues for millennials vary from their missional forebears of a century earlier, Sampey’s guidance may still find receptive ears for those who desire to lead others toward greater Christian wisdom and faithfulness.
Learn more about the life of John R. Sampey in the Archives and Special Collections of the James P. Boyce Centennial Library. Sampey’s inaugural address is accessible online at digital.library.sbts.edu/handle/10392/4996.
1 John R. Sampey, The Proper Attitude of Young Ministers toward Issues of the Day (Louisville: C. T. Dearing, 1888), 6.
3 Ibid., 8.
4 Ibid., 9.
5 Ibid., 11.
6 Ibid., 14.
7 Ibid., 15.
8 Ibid., 16.
9 Ibid., 17.
10 Ibid., 4.
11 William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 – 2069 (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), 229.