Material History of American Religion Project

The Minister's Wife; or What Becomes of the Salary

Since the first organization of American congregations clergy have written about—and often complained about—the size of their salaries. These writings open a window on attitudes toward money within their congregations—and within their households. They provide a glimpse of the parsonage’s household economy, and the challenges confronted by the pastor and (generally) his wife in dealing with an often insufficient salary. These accounts give a more revealing glimpse than plain statistics allow.

Here is an excerpt from an early gem of this tradition. The anonymous The Minister’s Wife; or What Becomes of the Salary (1861) briefly tells the tale of a minister who finds financial trouble when he moves to a wealthier congregation. The minister’s wife bewails the expense of maintaining a larger house and keeping up appearances for a more fashionable community. She is unable to help her needy widowed mother, and, to her horror, finds herself in debt. Her bitterness against the wealthy and snobbish women in the congregation grows until they surprise her with Christmas gifts to pay off the debt and buy a new silk dress.

The introduction, excerpted here, provides the story’s moral.

The first lesson which is enforced, is one which both ministers and people almost wholly overlook in their aims and actions—viz: that of those to whom little is given, but little is required, while much is required of those to whom much is given. In a country village, with a small society, of patriarchal simplicity in manners and the style of their living, asking no extra labors of the minister, doing many things for him and his family; the minister himself living in a small cottage, with a garden of fruits and vegetables which he has abundant time to work with his own hands, compelled to no extravagance of furniture or dress in order to satisfy the pride of his congregation, who wish him to live and appear as well as his neighbors—in such case a small salary is in just relation to his wants and circumstances; and he is a happy man who can be content with these things, and feel that he is blessed in his freedom from the thousand cankerous cares, and painful anxieties, and incessant toils, and multiplied struggles, which come with a change of circumstances.

The poor wife, whose record is here given, who was so desirous to aid her mother and sister in their pressing need, wept for joy when her husband was called to a larger society, with a salary nearly double. Now she should have an abundance, and could lift those she loved out of all their troubles. But how soon her joy was turned to sorrow—how soon her new freedom changed into the most intolerable bondage, and her abounding wealth into poverty and debts.

It is always so in all spheres of life; with every increase of means comes a corresponding increase of wants and claims; and often the last grow far more rapidly than the first. The world always supposes if a man’s income is large he must be rich, forgetting that in all probability, his expenses have not only equaled, but outrun, his revenue; and that really he may be all the poorer for his increase of salary or profits. The minister in the following story was not near so rich with seven hundred dollars as he was with four hundred—for, with the last named salary he lived with an humble people, in an humble way, and easily kept within his means; for the simple reason that nothing was asked or expected of him. But with the change to a larger society and a more fashionable location, his expenditures were more than doubled, and the end of the year found him in debt.

This is the experience of every minister in the land, who has passed through these changes. There is a certain conformity to the circumstances of those with whom your lot is cast, and an adaptation to the position you occupy in the community where you live, which the minister as well as other men, is expected to observe; and which, more or less, has to do with his standing and influence.

All this eats into the salary, and hinders his action in other directions where he thought, with his increased means, to do a great deal. Then there is a multitude of charities, of benevolent, religions and educational enterprizes [sic], daily confronting the minister, and which he cannot ignore without prejudice to himself and the cause he represents, no matter how poor he is.

Many of these things involve expenses which can only be appreciated by those who have had the experience. Perpetually ministers are called upon to give; and it is surprising with what keen scent certain classes will track you out, with what remorseless precision they will measure and weight you, your house and furniture and dress, and then put in their claims as though they were your creditors, and had a right to a certain per cent. of all you possessed.

The Missionary agent, the Tract and Bible societies, young men seeking an education or preparing for the ministry, destitute societies, Temperance, Slavery, Fugitives buying their relations out of bondage, the Indian, the fallen, the poor, the sick, the widow and the fatherless, the unemployed, the unfortunate, the blind and crippled, all swarm in upon you, and claim a double subscription; and if, knowing how rapidly your money has wasted away, you hesitate or plead excuse, you are reminded of the larger salary, of the house you live in, of the rent you pay, of the rich society of which you are a pastor; and you are impertinently questioned on many points, and it is hinted very strongly that you had better practice as well as preach.

These people forget that the very facts they name as reasons why you ought to give more to all these objects, are precisely reasons why you cannot give so much. If the income could be doubled without trebling the expenses, it would all be very well. If the income could grow and the expenses remain stationary, then the ability to give might be as they expect.

The large house requires a large rent, and more furniture than the little cottage in the country; and it is more work to take care of it, and somebody must be paid for doing it—for the wife cannot do it, and care for the children, and visit the parish, and look after the sick, and attend all the meetings besides. She did it in the "one story-and-a-half house," but she cannot do it now over all those flights of stairs. Then with "Irish help," comes waste, and frequently a mysterious increase of appetite on the part of your family, as an explanation of the mysterious disappearance of things not wasted. Then your house is the home of all the ministering brethren from abroad; of all the friends visiting the city from all the various parishes over which you may have presided as preacher—and often, if you have been faithful, the number is not small; of all the Missionary and Tract agents; of all who come to beg aid of your rich men for some destitute society; and of many others who, having business with you "put up" with you longer or shorter. With this increase of company comes increase of expense, and much additional work in the house. Bridget complains—cannot cook, and be table girl, and wash and iron, and do chamber work, and tend the bell which is always ringing. You must keep another girl, or she will leave.

So more "help" and less work, more wages, more waste, more care, more expense and trouble generally. And is it difficult to see where the salary goes after examining all these channels through which it runs away? Is it difficult to see how debts begin to be, which never before had been; and how the larger salary with all its unavoidable appendages and expenses, brings poverty instead of riches, or at least less ability to give rather than more?

Excerpted from The Minister’s Wife; or, What Becomes of the Salary (Boston: James M. Usher, 1861).

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