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An essay by George William Curtis

Clergymen's Salaries

Title:     Clergymen's Salaries
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

Whether we bear or forbear, it is difficult to appease Mrs. Candour. Her responsibility is incessant, and the world always needs her correction. A certain religious society recently decided to give their minister a certain salary, which was apparently larger in the opinion of Mrs. Candour than any minister should receive, and she expressed herself to the effect that no society ought to offer and no clergyman ought to accept so large a sum. Mrs. Candour's impertinence is certainly as striking as her sense of responsibility. What business can it possibly be of hers whether a clergyman, or a lawyer, or a carpenter, or a physician, or a railroad superintendent, or a shoemaker, or a bank president, is paid more or less for his services? It is a purely private arrangement between private persons, and if Mrs. Candour had a quick sense of humor, which we sincerely hope, but are constrained to doubt, and were the editor of a paper, how she would smile if the Easy Chair should gravely remark: "We learn with great pain that the proprietors of the weekly Green Dragon have decided to pay the editor, Mrs. Candour, twenty thousand dollars a year. This is a sum much too large for the proprietors of any journal to offer, and very much more than an editor ought to receive." Does the laborer cease to be worthy of his hire when he enters the editorial room or the pulpit?

The facts of the case make this remark of Mrs. Candour's the more comical. The receipts of the society in question are very large indeed. They enable it to do good works of many kinds, and upon the largest scale--the Bethel, for instance, one of the wise charities of good men, which gathers in the poor, young and old, and thoughtfully and tenderly gives them glimpses of a bright and cheerful life. The large resources, overflowing in benefactions, are perhaps chiefly due to the minister, whose fame and eloquence constantly draw multitudes to the church. The salary which he receives, therefore, is really but a part of the money which he makes. And to put the argument as before, if Mrs. Candour, editing the paper, "ran it up" and increased the profits, for instance, by fifty thousand dollars, could she feel unwilling to receive ten thousand dollars in addition to her present salary?

Or is she of those who think that clergymen ought not to be well paid? Then she belongs to the class whose opinion is faithfully followed. The clergy are the worst-paid body of laborers in the country. They work with ability and zeal. They are educated, sensitive men, often carefully nurtured, and they are expected to be everybody's servant, to hold their time and talents at the call of all the whimsical old women of the parish and of the selectmen of the town. They are to preach twice or thrice on Sunday, to lecture and expound during the week, to make parochial calls in sun or storm, to visit the poor, to be the confidant and counsellor of a throng, and always in every sermon to be fresh and bright, and always ready to do any public service that may be asked. Of course the clergyman must be chairman of the school committee, and a director of the town library, and president of charitable societies. He cannot give a great deal of money for educational and charitable and æsthetic purposes--not a very great deal--but he can always give time, and he can always make a speech, and draw the resolutions, and direct generally.

He is, in fact, the town pound, to which everybody may commit the truant fancies that nobody else will tolerate upon the pastures and lawns of his attention. He is the town pump, at which everybody may fill himself with advice. He is the town bell, to summon everybody to every common enterprise. He is the town beast of burden, to carry everybody's pack. With all this he must have a neat and pretty house, and a comely and attractive wife, who must be always ready and well-dressed in the parlor, although she cannot afford to hire sufficient "help." And the good man's children must be well-behaved and properly clad, and his house be a kind of hotel for the travelling brethren. Of course he must be a scholar, and familiar with current literature, and he may justly be expected to fit half a dozen boys for college every year. These are but illustrations of the functions he is to fulfil, and always without murmuring; and for all he is to be glad to get a pittance upon which he can barely bring the ends of the year together, and to know that if he should suddenly die of overwork, as he probably will, his wife and children will be beggars.

And when a man who does his duties of this kind so well that a great deal of money gladly given is the result, and it is proposed that he shall be paid as every chief of every profession is paid, Mrs. Candour exclaims in effect that the alabaster box had better be sold and given to the poor. If the good lady is of this opinion, let her advocate the method of the Church of Rome. If she thinks that a minister is a priest of the old dispensation, a part of a complete ecclesiastical system, let his support be made part of the system. But if she prefers that a minister shall be a man and a citizen, like the rest of us, discharging all the duties of a parent and an equal member of society, and leading the worship of those who invite him to that office--then let him have the same chances and fair play with other men. Now one of the proper aims of other men is a provision for their families; the possibility of saving something for the day of inaction, of ill-health, of desertion. If the reward of labor which is offered a clergyman is more generous than Mrs. Candour thinks to be becoming for him--if she insists that, like certain friars of the Roman Church, he shall take the vow of poverty, let her, at least, be as just to her own communion as those of that Church are to theirs. Let her also insist that he shall not marry, that he shall not be left to the mercy of a congregation that may tire of him, and that he shall be supported when he is not in service, or is unable to serve longer.

Does it occur to Mrs. Candour why the cleverest men hesitate long before they become clergymen? "Yes," said the great leader of a sect in this country, a few years ago, in a convention of his fellow-believers--"yes, you wonder why the standard of the profession seems to decline. I will tell you why. If any brother has a son whom he does not know what to do with, he makes a--minister of him." And if the good lady with whom the Easy Chair is expostulating fears that if there are great prizes in the pulpit the religious character of the teacher will decline, and that the profession will become attractive to merely clever men, she states a good reason for changing the voluntary system, but a very poor one for starving ministers. Nor must she forget to ask herself, on the other hand, whether religion itself gains by identifying its preaching with feeble and timid men. There will, indeed, always be the great, devoted souls who, under any circumstances, in riches, in poverty, in health or sickness, in life or death, will give themselves to the work of the evangelist. But Mrs. Candour is not speaking of them; she speaks of an established profession like that of editing, in which she is, let us hope, prosperously engaged. If she is morally bound to give her labor for nothing, or to stint her family, when there is plenty of money made by her honest work, she may speak with the fervor of conviction, indeed, if not of persuasion, upon the impropriety of paying a minister well.

If Mrs. Candour ever looks into English history she will remember the condition of the country curate and the squire's chaplain a century and a half ago. She will recall the contemptuous manner in which he was treated. Macaulay tells of him. Fielding describes him. The plays have him. He is everywhere in the literature of the time, and everywhere a pitiful figure. Whether the portrait of the chaplain be accurate or not, it certainly faithfully shows the feeling with which he was regarded. And if the feeling were justified by the character of the men, what was the reason that the men were what they were? Because the general opinion was then what Mrs. Candour's is now--that a clergyman should not be well paid. The chaplain was a pauper, and he was treated accordingly. The result was certain. Human nature always revenges itself. If you arbitrarily set apart certain men as ex-officio a peculiarly holy class, and deny them the advantages and chances of other men, they will become servile and mean, and lose the noble spirit of a true man. Mrs. Candour may point to the fat English bishoprics--to such a shameful correspondence as that which Massey records between William Pitt and Dr. Cornwallis, Bishop of Lichfield--and ask if prizes of such a kind are a good thing, and if anything could more corrupt good men than such chances. Yes, one thing could; and that is sure penury and starvation. But there is no need of fat pulpit appointments. Wherever they exist they will be the objects of intrigue and chicanery. What has that to do with a society giving their minister part of the money that he makes for them?

If Mrs. Candour insists that the money should not be made, and that the preaching should be free, the argument is still against her, because infinitely more good can be done by the charitable organizations which the money supports than by mere free preaching. Besides, the money to which she objects founds free churches and sustains free preaching. If she will fall back upon the other system, and have the churches built and the pulpits supported by established funds, then, at least, she will be consistent. But does she think it desirable for the welfare of society that there should be huge ecclesiastical funds? Would she restore the dead hand? Upon the whole, is it better that the priesthood, or the Church as such, should hold great properties, and dispose of unlimited money? The voluntary system has, at least, this advantage, that the money is not ecclesiastically held, and while it is the system of her choice, Mrs. Candour has no right to complain of those who are willing to pay to hear a great preacher, and thereby enable countless others to hear preaching, and to be taught and succored for nothing.

Her position, indeed, is that of those who sometimes invite a speaker to lecture for the benefit of a charity, who agree to pay the lecturer what he asks, and then ask him to take half as much, giving the rest to the charity. They either think that the lecture is not worth the price agreed upon, or that it is the lecturer's duty to bestow a sum equal to half his fee. The reply to such gentlemen is short: It was a fair bargain; you have profited by it; and what the lecturer does with his part is none of your business. And there really is no other reply to Mrs. Candour: Madam, the minister and his friends have made a fine sum of money; and what they will do with it is none of your business, unless they fall to corrupting the public.

But, indeed, there was no need, madam, to argue for the reduction of the salaries of clergymen. We hear in no direction of any tendency to excess; but we do hear everywhere of those abominations, "donation-parties!" Do we make donation-parties to other people whom we pay honestly for honest service? Are bakers and lawyers and tailors and doctors surprised by donation-parties? They are public confessions of our meanness. If we paid the minister adequately, why should we abuse the language by "donating" the necessaries of life to the parsonage? Some kind soul knows that we starve our shepherd, that he is pinched and cramped in his household, that his wife is thinly clad and his children shabby, and that the man of whom we demand that he should be a model of all the cardinal virtues is torn with anxious doubts for his family; and that generous soul proposes that we should club our sugar and butter and help him out. If we do not do it next year, what is to become of him? If we do, why not make it a certainty; why not, dear Mrs. Candour, raise his salary? And if you, madam, would only issue a tariff or sliding scale, so that we might know how much a religious teacher under different circumstances might properly receive--in fine, whether all boxes, or only the alabaster box, must be sold and given to the poor--it would be the most valuable service you are ever likely to perform to society.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Clergymen's Salaries