Perspectives from the Past: Dickson on Elder Visitation
The frequency of an elder’s ordinary visitation must depend on the nature of the district, the time at his disposal, and the mode of his visitation. Every elder should have a plan, and keep to it. The day and hour selected should, of course, be convenient for the people, when domestic arrangements will not be disturbed and the household are likely to be all at home.
An elder should visit all the people, rich as well as poor. While endeavoring to keep to a plan of full and regular visitation an elder must not think that a short visit occasionally is of no use. This would be a great mistake. If we are intimate with our people we can often do much good by dropping in, even though we scarcely sit down in the house. Let us never seem when visiting as if we grudged every moment, as if we were fidgeting to get away — a habit both rude and injurious. When we come into a house we should seek to bring some of heaven’s own sunshine into it. The children must not run away and hide themselves, but be the first to welcome us; for, like their fathers and mothers, they should all be our personal friends.
Our conversation when visiting should be suitable to our office and our object. It should be profitable, yet pleasant, lively and interesting — grace seasoned with salt. We should avoid stiffness and formality, still more moroseness and formality, for we must get at our people’s hearts if we are to do them any good.
Cheerfulness becometh saints, and we would be more cheerful if we walked all the day in the light of God’s countenance. We would thus present, especially to young people, truth with a winsome face. Did you ever observe the power of a pleasant, genial, or even humorous, remark in opening the fissures of the human heart so as to let you drop in some seed of divine truth? Avoiding foolish talking and jesting, which are never convenient, a vein of humor is a great gift for Christ if balanced with discretion and humility.
The matter of conversation is fully as important as the manner of it. While we may talk about congregational matters, let us beware of congregational gossip. We should avoid, if possible, all talk about persons, especially neighbors, unless we can speak well of them and to edification. Let the elder prevent all this by reference to the last Sabbath sermons, the work of the congregation, or some news in the last religious periodical. Even in the events of the day and their lessons we may find ample scope for most profitable conversation. Let us throw out hints that may be useful, such as the importance of reading regularly through the sixty-six books of the Bible.
The elder should deal personally with each member of a family. This must be done privately, yet even when the children are present there will be many opportunities for earnest religious conversation. Young anxious inquirers may be there, secretly wishing you to speak of what is near their hearts, though, with the reticence of many people on these subjects, they may never have opened their minds even to their father or mother.
Our visits should be sanctified by the Word of God and prayer. We may read a passage, and if we can add a few remarks on it, so much the better, but they should be practical, interesting, and brief. It may be enough at times merely to quote a text. In prayer we should avoid a long preface, or other formalities. The circumstances of the family and each member of it, present or absent, should be specially remembered.
For several years I have adopted a plan in which I have had much comfort and satisfaction. The plan I refer to is, spending an hour every Sabbath evening with one family in my district. Having ascertained at church that it will be convenient for the family to receive me that evening, after my own family exercise I go to the house at eight o’clock. If there are children there, the first thing I do is to catechize them a little, which they and the parents seem to enter into very heartily. I find thus an opportunity of giving hints to the parents as to the matter and manner of family religious instruction. This being over, I have a short exercise for all, like family worship, praise, reading a short passage of Scripture, with a few remarks for old and young, and prayer, especially remembering any of the family who have left home. The children then leaving us, there is a little time for conversation with the father and mother.
Never have I come home from one of these Sabbath-evening visits without feeling thankful that I had been led to begin this plan, and that it was lawful thus to do good on the Sabbath day. It is the best time for the elder, for the rest and privileges of the Sabbath have put his heart in tune for such employment. And it is best for the family; they are all at home, disengaged, expecting us and not likely to be disturbed. How good and pleasant it is thus to go to a family on a Sabbath evening, the family Bible on the table ready for us, the whole reminding us of that family religion which once made Scotland great and good, and which, if continued and renewed, would make her still a joy and blessing to the whole earth! The family — how much of a nation’s happiness and prosperity depends on that institution as a nursery, a school, a society, a sanctuary, a little church, an emblem of the great family — “the whole family,” part of which is in heaven, and part still on earth.