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On Pulpit Censure
by [?]

[This case shall be introduced by Mr. Boswell himself. “In the course of a contested election for the borough of Dumfermline, which I attended as one of my friend Sir Archibald Campbell’s counsel, one of his political agents, who was charged with having been unfaithful to his employer, and having deserted to the opposite party for a pecuniary reward, attacked, very rudely, in the newspapers, the reverend James Thompson, one of the ministers of that place, on account of a supposed allusion to him in one of his sermons. Upon this, the minister, on a subsequent Sunday, arraigned him by name, from the pulpit, with some severity; and the agent, after the sermon was over, rose up and asked the minister aloud, ‘What bribe he had received for telling so many lies from the chair of verity.’ I was present at this very extraordinary scene. The person arraigned, and his father and brother, who also had a share both of the reproof from the pulpit, and in the retaliation, brought an action against Mr. Thompson, in the court of session, for defamation and damages, and I was one of the counsel for the reverend defendant. The liberty of the pulpit was our great ground of defence; but we argued also on the provocation of the previous attack, and on the instant retaliation. The court of session, however, the fifteen judges, who are at the same time the jury, decided against the minister, contrary to my humble opinion; and several of them expressed themselves with indignation against him. He was an aged gentleman, formerly a military chaplain, and a man of high spirit and honour. He wished to bring the cause by appeal before the house of lords, but was dissuaded by the advice of the noble person, who lately presided so ably in that most honourable house, and who was then attorney-general. Johnson was satisfied that the judgment was wrong, and dictated to me the following argument in confutation of it.” As our readers will, no doubt, be pleased to read the opinion of so eminent a man as lord Thurlow, in immediate comparison with one on the same subject by Johnson, we refer them to Boswell’s Life, vol. iii. p. 59. edit. 1802; from whence the above extract is taken.]

Of the censure pronounced from the pulpit, our determination must be formed, as in other cases, by a consideration of the act itself, and the particular circumstances with which it is invested.

The right of censure and rebuke seems necessarily appendant to the pastoral office. He, to whom the care of a congregation is entrusted, is considered as the shepherd of a flock, as the teacher of a school, as the father of a family. As a shepherd, tending not his own sheep but those of his master, he is answerable for those that stray, and that lose themselves by straying. But no man can be answerable for losses which he has not power to prevent, or for vagrancy which he has not authority to restrain.

As a teacher giving instruction for wages, and liable to reproach, if those whom he undertakes to inform make no proficiency, he must have the power of enforcing attendance, of awakening negligence, and repressing contradiction.

As a father, he possesses the paternal authority of admonition, rebuke and punishment. He cannot, without reducing his office to an empty name, be hindered from the exercise of any practice necessary to stimulate the idle, to reform the vicious, to check the petulant, and correct the stubborn.

If we inquire into the practice of the primitive church, we shall, I believe, find the ministers of the word exercising the whole authority of this complicated character. We shall find them not only encouraging the good by exhortation, but terrifying the wicked by reproof and denunciation. In the earliest ages of the church, while religion was yet pure from secular advantages, the punishment of sinners was publick censure, and open penance; penalties inflicted merely by ecclesiastical authority, at a time when the church had yet no help from the civil power; while the hand of the magistrate lifted only the rod of persecution; and when governours were ready to afford a refuge to all those who fled from clerical authority.