The time – November 1848, the location – a church meeting at Romney Street Baptist. One of the topics for discussion tonight included a dispute over their minister’s title. Dissatisfaction was brewing, due to a recent publication in which the title “Reverend” had been prefixed to their preachers’ names. After considerable discussion, the church considered this dispute resolved with the following statement:
“This church considers it not in accordance with the primitive simplicity of the gospel to prefix the term ‘Reverend’ to the name of a minister.”
Was this an unusual, and even superfluous dispute? We know that other pastors took on this title, including those with close relationships to Romney Street. So what spurred this acrimonious debate? A view into a few other primary sources may offer the solution.
History of ‘Reverend’
Firstly, a brief history. The term ‘Reverend’ was being used for centuries in the broader church, before this debate arose at Romney Street. The records at the Parish of Tamworth reveal that this title was used in 1657. Before this time, the title typically ascribed to pastors was “Sir.” In King James’ reign we see that “Master” was also frequently used. In 1657 Tamworth shows the addition of “Reverend” when it mentions the death of their former pastor, the “Reverend Pastor Master Thomas Blake.” The term itself, “reverend” goes back to the early 15thcentury, from the Latin term ‘reverendus’ and is an adjective which describes someone who was found worthy of respect. Indeed, by the 19thcentury this term, coupled with rising respectability, was often used as a conventional courtesy for ministers. Whereas it might have previously been only applied to certain noteworthy ministers, it was now applied to all ecclesiastics. Furthermore, those who were considered a rank above the rest were being called “Right Reverend” or “Very Reverend”.
This conventionalism common with respectability grated many Christians of this time. One of these individuals, an editor for The Evangelical Repositorycomments on the disagreeability of this title in an article published in 1870. He argues that grades should not be given in the ministerial office, since all ought to be equal in increasing Christ’s name, not their own. He laments the “simplicity of apostolic times” when the only titles taken by ministers were Bishop, Presbyter, Elder or Pastor – all biblical titles which were apparent in the original Greek manuscripts. Another victim of this agitation was C.H. Spurgeon, renowned Baptist Pastor in the latter 19th century. Spurgeon addresses this custom in an article written for Friends Intelligencer in 1875. He asserts that while it is understandable, and even acceptable to revere particular pastors, or highly esteemed friends – it should not be a title given to “every strippling who ascends the pulpit.” Spurgeon argued that this inclination for pastors to call themselves “Reverend” was vain and unbiblical. Indeed, he chides those who have bought into this tradition asking why they do not call themselves, or their fellow church-workers, by other adjectives:
“Why does he not occasionally vary the term, and call himself estimable, amiable, talented or beloved? Would this seem odd?… Why does not the Sunday School teacher call himself ‘the respectable John Jones,’ or the city missionary dub himself ‘the hard-working William Evans’?”
The growing tradition of using this term as a title for every minister clearly exasperated some Christians in this period – Spurgeon included. This was part and parcel of a growing movement towards respectability which permeated the evangelical sphere. Respectability, a movement which encouraged and rewarded moral living was seen as a cause of duplicitous hypocrisy by many of its objectors – though this is a topic for another blog post for another day. Suffice it to say – this convention of calling all ministers “Reverend” for simply stepping into a pulpit and reaching was seen as a promotion of two errors:
1. Drawing the emphasis away from where it ought to be – on Christ
2. Promoting a superficial spirituality.
It is apparent that Romney Street Baptist felt the same.
Lambert, B. (1874). The Title of Reverend. Notes and Queries. 5(2). London: John Francis.
Spurgeon, C.H. (1875). On the Title of Reverend. Friends’ Intelligencer. 32(51). New York: W.m. W. Moore
Editor. (1870). Clertical Titles. The Evangelical Repository and United Presbyterian Review. New York: W.S. Young.
Westminster Baptist Church: Church Minutes C.4.1