Content with Carrying the Pegs

And the appointed guard duty of the sons of Merari involved the frames of the tabernacle, the bars, the pillars, the bases, and all their accessories; all the service connected with these; also the pillars around the court, with their bases and pegs [pins] and cords. (Numbers 3:36-37 ESV)

Focusing on the detailed description of this Levite clan, Andrew Bonar (1810-1892), pastor in Scotland, mentor of Robert Murray McCheyne, crafted a sermon titled, “The Pins of the Tabernacle.”

Therein, Bonar reflects on God’s design and plan for the designation of someone specific to carry the pins (or pegs) during the days of the Israelites wanderings. A potential source of discontent, Bonar sees where the sons of Merari might say, “Why do our brethren the Kohathites carry the Ark while we carry the pins?” Bonar’s response:

Because God said it; that is all. He that serves most is the greatest in the kingdom. He who carries the pins may get the greatest reward …. Do not say, ‘I want to get out of the rut into another place.’ If you get out of the rut of carrying pins when God put you there, you will not be blessed. Are we in the camp with God? That is the great thing.[1]

Decades earlier, another Scot, Claudius Buchanan (1766-1815), faithfully lived out the kind of service Bonar would describe. Though largely forgotten today, Buchanan was a friend of William Carey who carried the “Tabernacle pins” of missions advocacy among his contemporaries to the degree that historian Wilbert Shenk noted Buchanan’s influence in “playing the decisive role in opening India to Christian missions in the early years of the nineteenth century.”[2]

Through his memoirs, field reports, and sermon collections, Buchanan labored persistently to inspire others to the task of global evangelization. Yet, while he made a number of significant contributions in his own lifetime toward the expansion of the missionary task, it was a single sermon, an ordinary “Tabernacle pin,” if you will, that God used to direct the heart and mind of the pioneer American missionary, Adoniram Judson at a time when he needed a word from God the most.

After Judson’s dramatic conversion culminated in 1808 while at Andover Theological Seminary, Judson began to “reflect on the personal duty of devoting his life to the cause of missions.”[3] The idea of consecrating his life to go to the ends of the earth, though perhaps an abrupt concept for his family, was not a novel development in 1809 New England.

Jonathan Edwards’ Diary and Journal of David Brainerd appeared on the reading list for all students, and, in New England, especially among evangelicals, there existed a wide following of William Carey. Judson’s reading of Brainerd and awareness of Carey prepared him to respond to a sermon he read in September 1809 by Claudius Buchanan.

On February 26, 1809, Claudius Buchanan, preached the sermon The Star in the East, in Bristol, England on Matthew 2:2, “For we have seen His Star in the East, and are come to worship Him.”[4] In his biographical essay, Shenk relates that Buchanan, an Anglican priest and a chaplain in the East India Company, was first discipled by John Newton and later Charles Simeon while a student a Cambridge. Following Cambridge he served in India in the chaplaincy. There Buchanan met William Carey and soon his passion became missions and missionary strategy.[5]

While Buchanan and Carey’s tedious labor of Scripture translation could be compared to the carrying of “Tabernacle pins,” so also could Buchanan’s service as a publicist. Shenk tells of Buchanan’s persistence, often during times of ill health, of writing and finding ways of “stimulating others to write in support of the cause of missions.”[6] This started in journeys throughout India to gather research on the state of Christianity in various regions and concluded in the publication of his sermons upon his return to England. Buchanan would die at age 49 in 1815. One of his most widely read sermons was The Star in the East.

In The Star in the East, Buchanan took the account of Jesus’ birth and emphasized the uniqueness of the Gentile visitors, the wise men following a star, as “representatives of the whole heathen world.”[7] The star’s eastern location, Buchanan noted, is significant because “millions of the human race inhabit that portion of the globe.” Therefore, just as in the day of the arrival of God’s Son, the East once again was bearing witness to the Messiah, “not indeed by the shining of a Star, but by affording luminous evidence of the divine origin of the Christian Faith.”[8] Buchanan then proceeded to give evidence for the spread of Christianity in the East and the need for men to take the gospel to that region of the world.

A copy of The Star in the East appeared in the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Magazine in September 1809 just at the time of Judson’s missionary reflections. [9] The result of Buchanan’s influential sermon was a decision finally by Judson to break with home and country and set out with the gospel for Burma. Since that day, Judson has been held in memory for two centuries and Buchanan has been forgotten. Yet, Buchanan’s faithfulness to carry his Tabernacle pin served Judson and thousands more.

For most of us, our life and calling will be that of the Merari and Buchanan—contentedly carrying the pegs of the Tabernacle in historical obscurity while others carefully and prominently carry the “Ark of God.” For the shared task of world evangelization both are vital, and only in eternity will we see how God used us or even just one of our sermons. That we get to serve Him and walk with Him as we do is the greatest reward. For as Bonar reminds and teaches us the secret of contentment (Phil 4:11-12),

“Are we in the camp with God? That is the great thing.”

 

[1] Andrew Bonar, “The Pins of the Tabernacle,” in Marjory Bonar, ed., Reminisces of Andrew A. Bonar, D. D. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1895), 287-88.

[2] Wilbert R. Shenk, “The Legacy of Claudius Buchanan,” in IBMR (April 1994): 78.

[3] Francis Wayland, A Memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, D.D. (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Company, 1853), 1:29.

[4] Claudius Buchanan, The Star in the East (New York, NY: Williams & Whiting, 1809). For further context for this and other of Buchanan’s sermons see Karen Chancey, “The Star in the East: The Controversy Over Christian Missions to India, 1805-1813,” in Historian (Spring 1998).

[5] Shenk, “The Legacy,” 78-79.

[6] Shenk, “The Legacy,” 80.

[7] Buchanan, The Star in the East, 4.

[8] Ibid., 5-6.

[9] See Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Magazine (Sept 1809): 202-206.