“What do I wish someone had told me before seminary?” Perhaps this question was on the mind of Samuel Pearce (1766-1799) when he sat down to answer an overdue letter to a young man preparing to enter the Bristol Baptist Academy in 1798.
Pearce, though too humble to admit it, was more than qualified to supply an answer. He was the beloved pastor of Cannon Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, England, and he had recently helped establish the Baptist Missionary Society that sent William Carey to India.
When Pearce sought to join Carey overseas, the BMS executive committee denied his request due to his significance to the mission in England. Pearce accepted the committee’s decision humbly and continued to minister faithfully, but soon developed a fatal illness. According to his close friend, Andrew Fuller, Pearce maintained “a constant aim to promote the highest degrees of piety in himself and others” to the end of his life.
When Pearce penned this letter to a young seminary student, he had been sick for several months. He would preach his final sermon to his dear congregation in less than three weeks. His time on earth was drawing to a close, and he was aware of his pending death. What advice would a dying minister give to a young seminarian? Here is a summary of Pearce’s letter.
1. Cultivate Personal Spiritual Disciplines
Without the guidance of a “warm piety,” Pearce warned, you are likely to “pursue trivial and unworthy objects,” or worse, pursue worthy endeavors “for a wrong end.” Interestingly, the student to whom Pearce wrote would be expelled from the Bristol Academy for immorality, an historical detail that underlines the significance of this advice.
2. Submit to Your Professors
The opportunity to increase your knowledge carries the temptation to become puffed up with pride. To combat this inevitable enticement, Pearce would have you to submit to your teachers in humility and avoid sowing discord among your classmates.
3. Practice Self-Control
Seminaries are full of men and women preparing for ministry—young men and women, who will undoubtedly bear some marks of immaturity. Pearce recognized this danger and challenged his young friend to govern himself wisely, lest he develop a “light or trifling spirit” in such a youthful environment.
4. Be Wise with Your Time
Pearce advised, “Let every hour have its proper pursuit.” For many, seminary is secondary to various primary commitments such as family, ministry, or full-time employment. Pearce advocated for setting aside time throughout the week to effectively accomplish your various responsibilities and then sticking to the plan unless you find a way to “employ it to better advantage.”
5. Pursue Excellence
Pearce challenged the seminary student to pursue excellence in his studies because, “The hours at such a place are precious beyond conception, till the student enters on life’s busy scenes.” Seminary can be a busy season, but that is no excuse for giving second-rate effort.
6. Stay Focused
It is easy to get preoccupied with position papers and Greek participles and all of the other peculiarities of theological education. In Pearce’s words, you must “avoid a versatile habit” and never forget the reason you began the process of training for ministry in the first place. Even in the 18th century, Samuel Pearce recognized the dangers of distraction and therefore closed his letter with one final piece of wisdom: “Amidst all, do not forget to enquire, Am I more fit to serve and to enjoy God than I was last week?”