It was only a year before that Archibald Alexander had been taken under care of the Presbytery of Lexington, Virginia. He was young and extremely small in stature. In our day, such a move of spiritual oversight is usually granted by a Presbytery after it has heard your personal testimony, what God has done for you in Christ in your spiritual life, and an expression of your call to the ministry. In the eighteenth century however, it included all that, no doubt, and also a sermon preached before the presbytery.
On that occasion in October of 1790, Archibald Alexander stood before the esteemed members of this presbytery. The fact that the candidate before him had utterly failed to utter anything approaching a sermon, much less give any orderly address, didn’t seem to faze him. He stood up, without any idea of what he was going to say, and delivered an exhortation which astonished everyone present. In fact, after that occasion, he delivered “exhortation” after “exhortation” several times a week.
In the spring of 1791, Alexander was examined by the Presbytery of Lexington in his Latin and Greek knowledge. He had prepared an exegesis upon an assigned topic, and read it to the brethren. He delivered a speech to the Presbytery as well. It was then moved that he be assigned a text to preach at the next meeting of the Lexington Presbytery.
At that time, on September 20, 1791, the time had arrived for his proclamation before his elders, both in age and office, on the assigned theme, which was Jeremiah 1:7, “Say not, I am a child.” And indeed, he seemed but a little boy, but the effect of his trial sermon, quickly put that to rest. There was authority in the proclamation of the Word of God. It was no wonder then that at the next presbytery meeting in Winchester, he was licensed to preach the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Words to live by: If you have an opportunity, attend a Presbytery meeting as a visitor soon, especially one in which a candidate is brought under care, or licensed for the gospel ministry, or ordained by one of our conservative presbyteries. You will see the care which the church gives to its candidates, that they be sound in doctrine, proficient in the Westminster Standards, and practical in their understanding of their calling. It will be a day well spent.
All of life is cumulative. Great men do not arrive on the scene in full measure. Rather, every step along the way builds to the later result. The following account is interesting as it shows Archibald Alexander in his youth, full of self-doubt, hesitant, and unsure of himself. Nonetheless, his heart was set upon serving the Lord, and he persisted in faithfully following after his Master, obedient to His leading. The following account is drawn from The Life of Archibald Alexander, D.D., LL.D. (1856):
In September the [Lexington] Presbytery met at the Stone Meeting-House in Augusta. He had at this time gone through all his trials, except the examination in theology and the “popular sermon.” He was however very reluctant to be licensed, on account of an abiding sense of unfitness. On this subject he had many conversations with Mr. Graham, in which he strongly and repeatedly stated his objections. But his pastor and teacher disregarded the scruples, and urged him to enter on the work of preaching, for this among other reasons that his health might be confirmed by travelling; adding that he might continue his studies as usual and make excursions among the destitute, as he felt inclined.
At this time his stature was small and his whole appearance was strikingly boyish. “The Presbytery,” we use his own words, “had given me a text for a popular sermon which I disliked exceedingly, as it brought to my mind the circumstance which distressed me in the view of entering the ministry, namely my youth and boyish appearance. The day was September 20, 1791, and the text was Jeremiah i. 7, ‘But the Lord said unto me, Say not, I am a child, for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak.’ I read the sermon from the pulpit, but with very little satisfaction to myself. As the ministers were on their way to the Synod, they had not time to examine me on theology, and so adjourned to meet at Winchester.
When we arrived there a meeting was held in the house of James Holliday, where I was examined, principally by the Rev. John Blair Smith; but as he was taken suddenly ill before it was concluded, the examination was continued by Mr. Hoge. It was then determined that I should be licensed in the public congregation, on Saturday morning, October the first, 1791. This was indeed a solemn day. During the service I was almost overwhelmed with an awful feeling of responsibility and unfitness for the sacred office. That afternoon I spent in the fields, in very solemn reflection and earnest prayer. My feelings were awful, and far from being comfortable. I seemed to think, however, that the solemn impressions of that day would never leave me. O deceitful heart!”
In regard to the text abovementioned, it is said in another manuscript; “It was assigned to me by the Rev. Samuel Houston, not only because of my youth, but because I had strongly remonstrated against having my trials hurried to a conclusion, as I did not wish to be licensed for several years. The house was full of people, and the whole Synod was present. When I stood up to answer the questions,” which were proposed by Dr. Smith, though only a corresponding member, “I felt as if I could have sunk into the earth.”
Having now been licensed as a probationer, it was his intention to return home and devote himself to study; but the purpose was overruled by a clear providence. Tidings came that the Rev. William Hill was prevented by a fever from continuing his labours in Berkeley, now Jefferson County. Some religious awakening had taken place in that region, and the neighboring ministers urged Mr. Alexander to come to their aid. Mr. LeGrand also was desirous of making an excursion, and offered an inviting field of labour in his congregations of Opekan and Cedar Creek, including Winchester. A revival had been in progress among his people for some months. The following is an abridged record of some of these earliest labours.
After the Synod adjourned, I went with Mr. LeGrand to an appointment which he had at old Mr. Feely’s, some fifteen miles from Winchester. He told me that I must preach, but I positively refused. He said nothing at the time, but when the congregation was assembled, he arose and said, ‘Mr. Alexander, please come forward to the table, and take the books and preach.’ I knew not what to do, but rather than make a disturbance I went forward and preached my first sermon after licensure, from Galatians 3:24, ‘Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.’
Words to live by: Every decision, every action in life matters. The choices we make today lead inevitably to what we will encounter tomorrow. The great giants of the Christian faith have been those who, one step after another, followed the will of God. More or less consistently, they lived their lives according to the Scriptures. But for the rest of us, in the midst of our failings, God gives a great promise: It’s never too late to start. Where we have turned aside from His will, we have missed His blessing. But for those who will return and repent, the Lord has promised, “And I will restore to you the years that the locust has eaten…” (Joel 2:25). God can use us still—often in some very powerful ways—if we will but humble ourselves, and seek His will, and turn from our sin.
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