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Samuel Miller

Category Book Reviews
Date November 14, 2014

A review article on An Able and Faithful Ministry: Samuel Miller and the Pastoral Office, by James M. Garretson, published by Reformation Heritage Books (2014), clothbound, 440 pp, $35.00/£18.99, ISBN 9781601782984. The page references in the text are to this volume.

Miller was the second professor appointed to Princeton Theological Seminary, in 1813. He and Archibald Alexander, who was appointed the previous year, were godly, able men who set the Seminary on a solid foundation and carried the entire teaching load for the first decade.

Samuel was born the son of a Presbyterian minister, in Delaware state, in 1769. He made a public profession of faith in 1788, the year he began his studies in the University of Pennsylvania. About that time his father wrote, making plain his priorities,

You well know what my desire is respecting him: that he may be a well-informed, sincere, prudent and humble follower of Christ. Unless his education is sanctified, by divine grace, for this purpose, I think he had better be without it (p 14).

He had clearly been well taught at home, for he graduated from university after just one year’s study. His mind was by now being directed towards the ministry and, with his father as his tutor, he began divinity studies in 1789. He had written in his diary:

Set apart a day of fasting and prayer for the divine direction in my choice of a profession. Before the day was closed, after much serious deliberation, and, I hope, some humble looking for divine guidance, I felt so strongly inclined to devote myself to the work of the ministry that I resolved, in the Lord’s name, on this choice. How solemn the undertaking. May the Lord help me to make a suitable estimate of its character, and to enter upon it with the deepest humility, and at the same time with confidence in the riches of His gracious aid (p 17).

He was only 20 when he lost his mother Margaret. Her husband paid her the following tribute:

The older she grew, the more she seemed pleased with the gospel plan of salvation and a life of strict holiness. And though she was early and late attentive to domestic affairs, studying always to redeem her time, yet I have reason to believe that she retired three or four times a day . . . at which time she read her Bible on her knees, and poured out her heart in fervent supplications at the throne of grace (p 19).

On his twenty-first birthday, Samuel Miller recorded in his diary his thanks for God’s mercies, and continued:

What reason have I more than ever to be humbled before God that I have hitherto been so useless in the world – have so little glorified His name, or served my fellow creatures! Lord, prepare me for extensive usefulness. Give me wisdom, understanding and strength to walk in all the ways of Thy commandments blameless; and such activity and diligence as to be a means of doing some good in the world (p 20).

When his father died in 1791, Miller told the other members of his family: ‘May we all endeavour to follow him as he followed Christ. May we never sully his unblemished reputation by irreligious and dishonourable conduct’ (p 21). And, by God’s grace, that was the kind of life that Samuel Miller lived until he passed into eternity in 1850.

Miller became a minister in New York at the beginning of 1793. As one who recognised the necessity for entire dependence on God, he wrote,

O give me a wise and understanding heart! O give me a single eye to Thy glory in all things! Bind my heart to the Saviour in sanctified affection! Fill me with the knowledge of Thy will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; and as my day is, so may my strength be! (p 25).

And, we are told, he ‘quickly immersed himself in ministry among his congregation’. He married Sarah Sargeant in 1801.

An outbreak of yellow fever in 1798 swept into eternity more than 2000 from this city of 50,000 souls. Miller recorded:

Never have I had more occasion to bless God for the return of my birthday than now. I have just passed through the most awful scene of epidemic sickness and mortality that I ever witnessed . . . I preached every Sabbath; but only a few attended public worship; and I know not that any sensible [tangible] – certainly no conspicuous – good was done. The people appear to me to emerge from this calamity as hardened, as careless, as ungodly, as they were before. I have not heard of a single instance of conversion which can be traced to this awful dispensation of divine providence (p 30).

Why, Miller asked, was this? He answered by quoting the words: ‘If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead’ (Luke 16:31). Miller’s sad remarks remind us that, whatever subsidiary means may be used in the salvation of sinners, the main instrument always is the Word of God, applied to the soul by the Holy Spirit. God is always sovereign as to whether or not he will make use of particular means to awaken the careless.

Miller’s first publication was Letters Concerning the Constitution and Order of the Christian Ministry. It was intended to defend Presbyterian principles from the hostile attacks of high Episcopalians on the Scripture doctrine of the Church. Dr Garretson describes it (p 41) as ‘an articulate and well-reasoned vindication of Presbyterian ecclesiology’ (the doctrine of the Church). This volume was to be the first of many.

Samuel Miller took a leading part in proposing a theological school for the Presbyterian Church in America, which was established in Princeton, in New Jersey in 1812. He preached at the inaugural service, on 2 Timothy 2:2: ‘And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also’. He highlighted the need for ministers to have piety, learning and diligence. To this new institution Miller was called from New York the following year as Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government.

The directions to students included the following:

It is expected that every student in the Theological Seminary will spend a portion of time every morning and evening in devout meditation and self-recollection and examination; and reading the holy Scriptures, solely with a view to a personal and practical application of the passage read to his own heart, character and circumstances; and in humble, fervent prayer and praise to God in secret.

The whole of the Lord’s day is to be devoted to devotional exercises, either of a social or a secret kind. Intellectual pursuits, not immediately connected with devotion or the religion of the heart, are on that day to be forborne. The conversations had with each other are to be chiefly on religious subjects (pp 61, 62).

It was difficult for Miller to tear himself away from his New York charge, but he at last concluded that, ‘under the divine blessing, I can be more useful to the Church of Christ as a professor in the new seminary than in any pastoral charge whatever’ (p 80). And for the next 36 years he was to make a major contribution to the training of ministers in America. Humble man that he was, he felt conscious of being unfit for the work he had entered. But he resolved ‘to throw myself humbly on the grace and strength of God’ (p 99). Others formed a rather different view of his abilities and spoke of his work in fulsome terms.

Dr Garretson emphasises ‘Miller’s principled commitment to the vows he had taken as a minister and as a professor to uphold the doctrinal and ecclesiological convictions of his denomination’ (p 113) as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith. ‘The prevalence of doctrinal error and the decline of practical religion’, he once noted, ‘have always gone hand in hand’, and, ‘When false doctrines have begun to appear in any church, the course has too commonly been from one degree of heterodoxy to another’ (p 118). The history of the Christian Church since Miller’s time has confirmed the accuracy of his analysis.

Miller also commented,

Just so far as we retain the simple devoted spirit of the apostolic age, we shall love, retain and honour Presbyterianism. Those who possess most of this spirit will be most friendly to this system. But just in proportion as that spirit declines, Presbyterian doctrines will be thought too rigid; Presbyterian worship will appear too simple and naked; and Presbyterian discipline will be regarded as too unaccommodating and austere. Let Presbyterians then learn a lesson of wisdom from this consideration. Let them remember that their system will never appear so well, or work so well, as in the midst of simple, primitive and devoted piety (p 129).

Thus far we have been referring to the Part One of the book, ‘Life and Ministry’. Part Two goes on to deal with ‘Theological Foundations for the Gospel Ministry’. Here the author summarises several sermons and lectures which were published in Miller’s lifetime. Some of these have been reprinted in full in volume 1 of the set edited by Dr Garretson: Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry, published by the Banner of Truth.1

One of these sermons, on Titus 1:9, published with the title, ‘Holding Fast the Faithful Word’, was preached at the induction of W B Sprague to a charge in Albany, New York state. (Sprague wrote extensively. His excellent volume, Lectures on Revivals, has been reprinted by the Banner of Truth.2) In his address Miller argues against those who claim ‘that doctrine is of little moment, and that practice alone is all in all. But such persons surely forget that there can be no settled and habitual good practice without good principles; and that sound, correct doctrine is but another name for sound principle.’ He illustrates:

What is faith but cordially embracing, with confidence and love, the great truths concerning duty and salvation which the Scriptures reveal? What is repentance but a holy sorrow for sin, founded on a spiritual perception of those doctrines concerning God, His character, His law, and the plan of mercy which His Word proclaims? What is hope but looking forward with holy desire and expectation to that ‘exceeding and eternal weight of glory’, which ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’ freely offers to our acceptance? What, in short, is religion, in the largest sense of the term, but the combination of ‘knowledge of the truth’, ‘love of the truth’, and ‘walking in the truth’? (p 257).

We also have summaries of a few of Miller’s lectures to his students. Ministers, he told them, are ‘always to preach Christ’. He reminded his students about Philip, who ‘went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them’ (Acts 8:5). Again he said, ‘The great business of an ambassador of Jesus Christ is to preach the glorious gospel’. He insisted that every sermon must lead to Christ, ‘but Christ is not to be brought in and preached in a forced manner’ (p 241).

His remarks on experimental preaching are well worth quoting:

By ‘experimental’ preaching I do not mean that you should be always retelling the exercises of Christian experience, and far less that you should be constantly retelling (as some) your own experience! But it means:

1. Carefully distinguishing between mere morality and true religion; between the morally honest and decent man, and the true believer.

2. Again, experimental preaching not only implies laying down the marks and characteristics; but also [consists] in dwelling much and in a distinguishing manner, in our discourses, on the hopes and fears, the joys and sorrows, the doubts and anxieties, the temptations and difficulties of real Christians.

3. It also implies that we not only dwell much on the duty of self-examination, but also that we endeavour to treat every subject in such a way as to impress it upon the hearts and consciences of our hearers . . .

4. Experimental preaching also implies often and affectionately reminding men of their situation by nature. Reminding sinners of their total moral impotence. Reminding the pious of the constant need of the influences of the Holy Spirit to enlighten. It is to lead men to Christ, to the Fountain that is opened; to point them to the Lamb, the bleeding victim (pp 242-3).

A third, shorter part examines ‘one of Miller’s most influential books’, Letters on Clerical Manners and Habits, dealing with the minister’s conduct. Dr Garretson comments that ‘Miller properly recognised that a clergyman’s conduct influences the way a congregation will respond to his preaching and pastoral labours. The minister’s example will often make or break his ministerial influence among his people’ (p 325). ‘Be careful’, Miller advised, ‘to give clear doctrinal instruction concerning the plan of salvation to those who are anxious and inquiring.’

He told his intended audience of students and young ministers that he considered it of great importance

that you constantly endeavour to fill their minds with plain, simple, connected Bible truth; that you dwell on the scriptural character of God, the nature and requisitions of His holy law, the pollution, guilt and danger of all men in their natural state; the divinity of the Saviour, the efficacy of His atoning sacrifice, the unsearchable riches and freeness of His grace, the work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating and sanctifying the heart, and the utter helplessness and, at the same time, perfect responsibility and blameworthiness of man. Just as far as these great doctrines are fastened on the conscience, and impressed on the heart, and no further, may we hope to become the instruments of saving benefit to those whom we address (p 377).

In a biography of a New York colleague, Miller pointed out that godly ministers will so live that

their deportment in private corresponds with their language in public. Their preaching is, in some good measure, exemplified in their lives. They recommend religion as much on the other six days of the week as on the Sabbath. Their piety is of that uniform, unaffected, impressive character which, while it assumes nothing, is seen whenever they go; which combines evangelical seriousness with simplicity, benevolence and cheerfulness; which exhibits as much of the meekness and humility of the Christian as of his heavenly mindedness; and which continually shows itself to originate rather from the heart than from the office (p 409).

A brief concluding section reviews Miller’s ‘final days’ and the impact of his life. His son, who wrote his biography, noted that ‘he had often prayed for himself and others that, in the dying hour, they “might have nothing to do but to die”; and the prayer was perceptibly and most mercifully answered in his own experience’ (p 396).

A former student, Nicholas Murray, now a minister, visited Millar during his last days. Before they parted, Miller prayed. With characteristic humility, he concluded,

And now, Lord, seeing that Thine aged, imperfect servant is about being gathered to his fathers, let his mantle fall upon Thy young servant, and far more of the Spirit of Christ than he has ever enjoyed. Let the years of Thy servant be as the years of his dying teacher; let his ministry be more devoted, more holy, more useful; and when he comes to die, may he have fewer regrets to make in reference to his closing ministrations. We are to meet no more on earth; but when Thy servant shall follow his aged father to the grave, may we meet in heaven, there to sit, and shine, and sing with those who have turned many to righteousness, who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Amen (p 389-90).

The time came when life was ebbing away. Archibald Alexander, his colleague for several decades, came to visit. Alexander asked his friend about, among other matters, the foundation for his hope, his desire to depart, and his view of the fundamental truths of the Bible. Although his voice was now not at all clear, the answers were decided: ‘O yes’, or, ‘O no’, as the question might require. Alexander prayed and then said, ‘You are now in the dark valley’. ‘O yes’, was again the reply. To this Alexander responded, ‘I shall soon be after you’ (p 395). It was the conclusion of a long, spiritual, and profitable friendship.

Whatever differences one might have with some details of what Miller said and wrote, there is no doubt that his was an able and faithful ministry. Dr Garretson’s efforts to keep the memory of this godly and useful pastor and teacher alive are to be warmly welcomed. And when, one by one, each of us reaches the time when we must leave this world, may we, like Miller, have nothing left to do but to die!

Other books by James Garretson, published by the Trust, are Princeton and Preaching (2005)3 and Pastor-Teachers of Old Princeton (2012).4


    • image of Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry

      Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry

      2 Volume Set: A Collection of Addresses and Articles by Faculty and Friends of Princeton Theological Seminary

      by James M. Garretson

      price £34.00
      Avg. Rating


      A review article on An Able and Faithful Ministry: Samuel Miller and the Pastoral Office, by James M. Garretson, published by Reformation Heritage Books (2014), clothbound, 440 pp, $35.00/£18.99, ISBN 9781601782984. The page references in the text are to this volume. Miller was the second professor appointed to Princeton Theological Seminary, in 1813. He and […]

    • Lectures on Revivals
      price £16.50
      Avg. Rating


      A review article on An Able and Faithful Ministry: Samuel Miller and the Pastoral Office, by James M. Garretson, published by Reformation Heritage Books (2014), clothbound, 440 pp, $35.00/£18.99, ISBN 9781601782984. The page references in the text are to this volume. Miller was the second professor appointed to Princeton Theological Seminary, in 1813. He and […]

    • Princeton and Preaching

      Princeton and Preaching

      Archibald Alexander and the Christian Ministry

      by James M. Garretson

      price £16.75
      Avg. Rating


      A review article on An Able and Faithful Ministry: Samuel Miller and the Pastoral Office, by James M. Garretson, published by Reformation Heritage Books (2014), clothbound, 440 pp, $35.00/£18.99, ISBN 9781601782984. The page references in the text are to this volume. Miller was the second professor appointed to Princeton Theological Seminary, in 1813. He and […]

    • Pastor-Teachers of Old Princeton

      Pastor-Teachers of Old Princeton

      Memorial Addresses for the Faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary 1812-1921

      by James M. Garretson

      price £17.00


      A review article on An Able and Faithful Ministry: Samuel Miller and the Pastoral Office, by James M. Garretson, published by Reformation Heritage Books (2014), clothbound, 440 pp, $35.00/£18.99, ISBN 9781601782984. The page references in the text are to this volume. Miller was the second professor appointed to Princeton Theological Seminary, in 1813. He and […]

Kenneth D. Macleod is pastor of the Free Presbyterian Church in Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris. He is the editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the November 2014 issue of which the above has been taken with permission. Links, and Notes 3 & 4 added.

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