Dr. John Alexander of Norwich: IV.
Being a theological student is and has always been, a serious and often daunting business. Traveling to engagements often uncomfortable, even in our days of heated railway trains and cars. In early 1817 it was wretched. A cold, comfortless journey in the Day Coach was made worse for John Alexander when he spoke to a fellow-passenger and said he was going to preach at the Tabernacle with a view to becoming their pastor. At once he was regaled with the well-known stories of the problems at that church (an experience by no means uncommon today, but now the student must wait until after the service). Alexander was horrified. What sort of a place was he going to preach?
A few miles out of Norwich they were informed that the Mail Packet, the other route from London to Norwich (a fast steamer running between London and Great Yarmouth) had suffered a terrible disaster, the boiler having burst just as it was starting, killing eleven passengers.
Arriving in Norwich late in the day, John Alexander went straight to the house of the minister, who was an old man and close to retirement, only to find that the minister and all his household had already gone to bed! What was worse, the old man refused to let him in! Alexander not unnaturally considered taking the next coach back to London. If this was the sort of hospitality students got from the Tabernacle's pastor, what would the people be like?
But he stayed. On Lord's Day morning he mounted the high pulpit (pictured) of the Tabernacle and gave out his text.
"But we see Jesus, Who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour." It is hard not to think that he heard his father's advice echoing in his ears, "Put Christ up!"
The response was favourable. That evening he preached on the text, "Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of Man cometh." He had remembered the steam-packet disaster, and now he used it to press home on men a right response - to repent and believe the Gospel.
The great Tabernacle was crowded, many having been made to think of eternal things by the news of the disaster. Can we say that we turn these things to the good of the Gospel?
John Alexander left Norwich having promised to return to preach there during the midsummer vacation. That he did, and he was asked to stay longer.
A majority of the membership wanted to call John Alexander to be the next pastor of the Tabernacle, but unfortunately the church had one of the most unbiblical systems of government known to man. While Biblical arguments have been raised about whether the 'Session' (elders and deacons) or the congregation as a whole has the right to call a pastor, not one scrap of Biblical evidence suggests that the responsibility should lie with trustees. Yet the trustees of the Norwich Tabernacle insisted that they had the sole right to appoint a minister, and were willing to go to court over it.
Quite apart from the unseemliness of such an action, it had a disastrous effect of the church. When the court found in favour of the trustees it split the church.
Alexander had no intention of splitting the church himself. He heard the news of the result of the action on a Lord's Day morning, in time for him to announce that the evening sermon would be his last in the Tabernacle. Alexander was a staunch Congregationalist, and he would not for a moment consider pastoring a church where the wishes of the membership could be ignored by a few unelected trustees. His text that evening was, "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."
The night of weeping and the morn of joy shall, God willing, be our subject next time.
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