Preached on Sunday Morning, May 28, 1848, by John Angell James.
With what utterance shall I break the silence of this solemn moment, and meet the necessities and the expectations of this vast and more than attentive audience? With what sentiment shall I tranquilize their minds, calm the perturbations of their hearts, and prepare them for those services which, by the mysterious providence of God, I am called to conduct?
"Even so, Father; for so it seemed good in your sight."
Yes, there is enough in that one consideration, not only to repress every murmur and to produce the most entire acquiescence—but to dispose and enable to listen to the teaching, which is to be founded on one of the most afflicting events that could happen to this congregation.
It is at the request of the saint, whose decease has filled us all with grief, that I occupy the pulpit of her bereaved husband on this melancholy occasion. Such a request, backed as it was by the solicitation of your deeply afflicted pastor, my much-loved friend, could not be refused; although the occasion and the place cannot but harrow up my own feelings, and tell me, that having, like him, been called twice to drink of the bitter cup, I am fitted, at least by experience, to feel and to express the tenderest sympathy with him.
It was a proof and a manifestation of the exalted religion of our dear friend, that she felt anxious that her decease might be rendered effectual for the spiritual benefit of the church and congregation, of which she was so bright an ornament; thus evincing a desire even to the last, that her usefulness might extend beyond the period of her natural life. I have been requested to address the Church; and I shall, by God's help, endeavor to carry out her design, and render this discourse the means of benefit to those for whose welfare she cherished so benevolent an anxiety.
For this purpose, I could think of no passage of Holy Writ more appropriate than the apostle's admonition, "That you be not slothful—but followers of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises." Hebrews 6:12
I might have selected a text, containing more of pathos, more of what may be called the sentimental, and more of what excites the imagination—and lying a little more outside of the ordinary track of our reading and our preaching. But where could I have selected one which entered more deeply into the design of our deceased friend, in wishing this discourse to be delivered; a text which more powerfully appealed to the conscience; which, in one view, more aptly suited the condition of the great bulk of Christian professors, or which, in another and an opposite manner, more exactly described the example, which is this day to be held up for imitation? Blessed spirit! I would feel I had betrayed the trust so generously and confidently reposed in me by you, if I did not seek that every syllable of my sermon should be employed to promote the eternal welfare of the church, whose interests occupied your thoughts in the hour of separation, and in the dark valley of the shadow of death!
Can I, my dear hearers, members of this church, more effectually promote your spiritual well-being, than by endeavoring to rouse you from slothfulness, if that be the state of your hearts, and excite you to give all diligence by a renewed exercise of faith and patience "to make your calling and election sure?"
Is it not surprising, that with the promise and the prospect of glory, honor, immortality, and eternal life, with heaven expanding above us, hell yawning beneath us, and eternity opening before us, and, at the same time, with a professed belief of the truth and reality of all these stupendous objects of faith and contemplation, we should need such an admonition as that contained in the text? It might have been supposed, (did we not know what human nature is,) that with such scenes present to our minds, it would be difficult to keep our thoughts sufficiently separated from them, to pursue the ordinary callings of the present world. How astounding is it sometimes to ourselves, that, favored with a certain, though distant, view of the celestial city, living almost within the sight of its glories and the sound of its music, the base cares and the petty enjoyments of the present world should have so much power over us, as to retard us in our heavenward course, and make us negligent and indolent, heedless and forgetful; and especially that the departure of our friends to the regions of immortality should not of itself be sufficient to render it unnecessary to admonish us to set our affections on things above, "where Christ sits on the right hand of God!" My dear brethren, "these things ought not so to be." Time is short, life uncertain, death at hand, and immortality about to swallow up our existence in eternal life or eternal death; listen then, this morning, to the united voice of Providence and Scripture, which now says, "Be not slothful—but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises."
"But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that
day the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and
be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be burned up. Since all
these things are to be destroyed in this way, it is clear what sort of
people you should be in holy conduct and godliness as you wait for and
earnestly desire the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens
will be on fire and be dissolved, and the elements will melt with the heat.
But based on His promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where
righteousness will dwell. Therefore, dear friends, while you wait for these
things, make every effort to be found in peace without spot or blemish
before Him." (2 Peter 3:10-14)
I. First, the text informs and assures us of the state and happiness of departed saints. They "inherit the promises."
The apostle Peter beautifully spoke of the "exceeding great and precious promises," which are given unto us in the gospel of the grace of God. Another of the apostles has summed them all up in one—"this is the promise that he has promised us—even eternal life." In the infinite comprehensiveness of this one assurance are included all that the omniscient mind of the Father in the exercise of his love has contrived in eternity, all that the incarnate Son has obtained by his sacrifice upon the cross, and all that the Divine Spirit has revealed upon the page of Scripture, and all which is contained in that one majestic, inconceivable, and expressive word—heaven! I do not need flamboyant descriptions and eloquent representations of the celestial state, to raise my desires and hopes; it is enough to know that it is GLORY, first prepared, then promised, and ultimately bestowed by Jehovah—as the concentration of his infinite beneficence and the full manifestation of his boundless benevolence!
Heaven is the absence of all evil, natural and moral; the possession of all possible good; a glorified body united with a perfect soul, and all this in the immediate presence of God, and in the elevating society of the spirits of just men made perfect and the innumerable company of the angels. There we shall see God; not only see him—but love him; not only love him—but serve him; not only serve him—but enjoy him; not only enjoy him—but hold such communion with him as will assimilate us to the all-perfect source of our felicity. The objects of our contemplation, our situation, our companions, our personal constitution, our constant exercises of holy intellect, heart, and volition, will be so many distinct sources of bliss. Perfect knowledge, perfect holiness, and perfect love must of necessity open the fountain of perfect joy. No secondary concern will call off our unwearied attention from the service of God; no sin or pain will interrupt us in it; nor will death ever dismiss us from it. The business and the blessedness of that happy state are the same; our supreme delight will be our constant employ. Every sense will be an inlet, every faculty a capacity, and every energy a pulsation, of the purest bliss. It will be "Life," life in perfection, the life of the soul, the life of God, the life of heaven, the life of eternity!
But to describe it, how vain and arrogant the attempt, when even to conceive of it is impossible! "In your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand there are pleasures for evermore," neither language nor thought can go beyond this. Mind cannot conceive more. God himself can tell us no more, than that heaven consists in his presence, and the enjoyment of his favor, forever and ever! "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him." (1 Corinthians 2:9) Such is the state on which the saints who have left our world have entered; such the happiness which they possess, or which, indeed, rather possesses them. They "inherit the promises." The apostle speaks of it as their actual condition, their present position. So much of it as they can receive before the resurrection of the body, they already have received, even now while their bodies are slumbering in the grave. A representation utterly inconsistent with the idea of the insensibility of the soul—a dogma no less unscriptural and unphilosophical than it is unwelcome. For them "to depart" is "to be with Christ;" and to be "absent from the body" is to be "present with the Lord."
Therefore comfort yourselves, you mourners in Zion, with
this blessed thought. Could you see the dear objects of your affection now,
and contrast the pale and wan and wasting bodies, to which it was your
painful privilege to minister through "wearisome days and months of
vanity"—with the angelic forms that now they wear; could you contrast with
the agony in which by sympathy you had such sad fellowship—with the seraphic
rapture which they now enjoy; would you not, in beholding their happiness,
forget your own sorrows? It was your study and your delight to make them
happy while they were on earth; yet even with all your love, you could,
through the ills of life—but imperfectly succeed; the Lord has finished your
labors of love, and has himself undertaken to make them perfectly blessed.
He saw that he could do this in no other way than by removing them into his
own presence; will you complain, and wish them back again amidst the sins
and the sorrows of this imperfect world? Would you, if you could, for your
own comfort, draw them down from their elevated seats of glory—to this low
sphere of earth-born care and daily trouble? Rest, you happy spirits! and
let it be our wish, our effort, and our prayer, not to have you with us
again, which is impossible—but to join you in that realm of unclouded glory
and perfect bliss!
II. Let us now consider the instrumentality of "faith and patience" in forming the saints for their heavenly inheritance.
With our knowledge of the word of God, and our own practical experience, we can be at no loss to discern this connection. It is revelation, and not reason, which informs us that there is a future state of glory for the believer. While to the heart yearning for immortality, and to the intellect straining its vision to catch even some faint and distant glimpse of it through the darkness of the tomb—philosophy holds out only her dark lantern of conjectural speculation—the Bible presents, in glorious radiance and assured reality, this 'grand desideratum of our dying race'. To the eye of faith, a hand, infinite and divine, unrolls the page of eternity, on which heavenly and immortal things are pencilled by sunbeams. The humblest believers in the gospel, the pauper of the workhouse, the Lazarus at the gate, the poor but heaven-taught Sunday scholar, refresh their illuminated and regenerated spirits on the bed of death, amidst the commingling sufferings of disease and poverty—with thoughts which Plato never imagined, and Socrates never taught—with descriptions of the paradise of God, drawn by the infallible pen of inspiration in colors of light and life. Oh! ten thousand thousand thanks to you, O God of revelation, for this blessed book, which sheds luster upon the tomb, and raises the visions of immortality over the dark valley of the shadow of death!
It is by faith that the soul of the convinced sinner applies to Jesus Christ for justification, and rests upon the merit of his atonement and righteousness as the sole procuring cause of his salvation. Turning away from every other ground of hope, and every other means of relief, he fixes his eye upon the cross, exclaiming,
"Should worlds conspire to drive me thence,
It is byFAITH, as an operative principle of universal obedience to the gospel of Christ, that the believer "purifies his heart" and adorns his character with "the beauties of holiness," through the power of the Divine Spirit. It is by faith he "overcomes the world"—the dread of its frown, the desire of its smile, its evil maxims, and its corrupt principles. It is by faith he quenches "the fiery darts of the wicked one," is delivered from the wiles of the devil, and bruises the serpent's head. It is by faith, as a pilgrim and stranger upon earth, he nourishes the desire for, and indulges the expectation of, that country which God has promised to those who love him. It is by faith that he rises superior to the love of life, vanquishes the fear of death, and while this monster puts his most horrid form of mischief on—he smiles at his terrors, and, swelling into rapture, exclaims, "O death, where is your sting!"
Read the descriptions of faith in God's Word, and you will be ready to say, "It is all but omnipotent." Peruse the eleventh chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews; and thus enter into the temple, where God has recorded the victories, treasured up the spoils, and canonized the heroes of faith. Read the pages of ecclesiastical history, and in "the noble army of martyrs" behold the power of faith. Ascend up into the celestial world, and in the "multitude which no man can number," redeemed out of every kindred, and tribe, and people upon earth—see the power of faith. For though faith is there changed into vision, and hope, its companion, into fruition—it was faith which raised to their seats of glory, everyone of those beatified inhabitants.
But faith does not stand alone upon earth; it gives rise toPATIENCE. This follows of course. Patience is the rich ripe fruit of faith. It is faith in an unseen world that makes patience both necessary and possible. Necessary, because that world is so glorious; possible, because it is so sure. On account of its glory, without patience the delay could not be endured; on account of its certainty, delay can be made tolerable. By patience, then, we mean a quiet waiting, amidst sufferings and sorrows, for the heavenly kingdom; an uncomplaining willingness to remain any length of time, and amidst any tribulation, for the glory to be revealed. It is through patience, therefore, that the saints "inherit the promises," as well as through faith. By it they hold fast the hope of everlasting life, when everything seems calculated to loosen their grasp, and to induce them to abandon their cherished expectation. "You have need of patience," said the apostle, when alluding to the bitter persecutions of those to whom he wrote, "that after you have done the will of God, you might receive the promise." It is true, this applied to their circumstances with a force which does not appertain to ours; they had earth embittered to them by every kind of painful affliction; they "endured a great fight of affliction," were "made gazing-stocks to others," were treated "as the filth and offscouring of all things," were tortured, afflicted, tormented. Had they not "need of patience," then, to wait for a heaven which was drawing them, with its irresistible attractions, at the time when earth was converted into a minor hell? Had they not "need of patience," to endure the mockings of men—when there awaited them the congratulations of angels? Had they not "need of patience," to endure the gloom of a dungeon—when there were prepared for them the felicities of paradise? Had they not "need of patience," to endure the fetters of a prison-house—when, by dying, they could put on the robes of light? Had they not "need of patience," to endure the terrors of protracted martyrdom—when one mortal struggle would elevate them to a crown of life? This was endured! Behold the patience of the saints!
But is this sacred virtue confined to times of persecution, and exhibited only by martyrs and confessors? Must the storms of bygone days rise and burst again upon the church, to give us the exhibition of the grace of patience? Oh, no! How bright a manifestation of patience has given rise to this discourse! Think of that dear saint whose loss we all this day so deeply mourn. Arrested by disease in the midst of as much marital delight and domestic happiness as fall to the lot of the most favored of mortals; with so many and such endeared objects to detail her heart upon earth; alternating for months, and even years, between the flattering illusions of hope, and the dark forebodings of apprehension, and witnessing the gradual extinction of the one amidst the deepening hue of the other; enduring the languors of disease through the "wearisome nights and months of vanity" which were appointed to her; and when the dread certainty was realized that the hour of separation was come, and when the pledge of heavenly bliss was in the soul, and the vast possession itself in all its glory and attraction stood present to the eye of faith, and when the heaven-drawn, heaven bound soul, had herself untied "the cords of love, and the bands of a man," and had yielded herself up to a divine and heavenly love, and felt herself no more belonging to earth but to heaven—was not here something of a martyr's patience, to endure the sufferings of a poor, frail, wasting body, through lingering months of disease, without a murmur—and to wait thus long without one fretful wish for the moment of her entrance into eternal glory? "Here also is the patience of the saints."
What must be the influence of such a state of mind, in fitting the possessor to be "a partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light!" No circumstances of life, (and let the sufferer hear and drink in the soul-comforting thought,) no circumstances of life seem to ripen the Christian so fast or so perfectly for heaven, as the experience of sorrow and affliction. Oh! then let our comforts go, then let our eyes weep, then let our hearts bleed—if our Father is thus ripening us for everlasting fruition and inconceivable bliss! It is on this account the apostle says, "Let patience have her perfect work, that you may be perfect and entire, lacking nothing"—as if he intended to intimate, that when we are enabled to exercise the grace of patience, we have reached the highest class in the school of Christ, have nothing more to learn upon earth, and are ready and fit to depart, and to be with Jesus; and have then obtained as much grace as can be possessed, short of glory itself!
Hence the apostle's wonderful prayer for the Colossians "that they might be strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness." Patience is the suffering Christian's power, his passive fortitude, in which the apostle prays they might be "strengthened with all might;" that there might be a kind of almightiness in them; that they might exhibit a capacity for endurance which should look like the impress of God's own patience—and of which the Divine power should be the principle and the pattern. Of such a patience, who can measure the result? What mind is vast enough, what heart is big enough, to comprehend the full sense of those words, "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory?" How might I dwell upon every syllable, and every point of contrast! "Affliction" and "glory;" "light affliction," and "far more exceeding weight of glory;" "momentary affliction," and "eternal glory." Well might the apostle say, "I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us." Heaven were a poor heaven, if it did not make us gainers, whatever we lose or suffer upon earth. It were high time, brethren, for us to give over the Christian profession, if we do not credit the account that its rewards and honors will surmount its reproach and trouble; or if we think its cross more weighty than its crown. Are the price and worth of eternal glory diminished? It has been counted worth living for, worth suffering for, worth dying for, worth waiting for; and shall it not be so accounted by us?
Patience, then, sufferer, patience! The first moment, and
the first glance of heaven will be an infinite recompense for all you
suffer, all you lose on earth. If every step on earth is a step of
suffering—then let each be a step of patience. Weep you may—murmur you must
not. Nature may pay the tribute of a groan—but grace must pay it with a
smile. The shower of your tears may fall—but in the rays of the Sun of
Righteousness must reflect the beauteous rainbow of the promise. It is
neither over rocks of stoicism, nor through floods of unrestrained grief,
you make your way to glory, Christian; but along the path of patient
resignation, which, if it is like the Valley of Weeping, and has its briars
and its thorns--has also its refreshing rain-pools of heavenly consolation!
III. Let us now consider and enforce the apostle's exhortation to surviving Christians, to imitate the example of those who "through faith and patience inherit the promises."
"That you be notSLOTHFUL." Slothfulness, in every aspect in which it can be viewed, and in every relation to human affairs, is a censurable, disgraceful, and destructive habit. With that incalculable source of energy which every rational and healthy mind carries about within itself, and with the many occasions and demands for its exercise, which in this busy world surround us, it is a sin and a shame for any man to "stand idle all the day long." Indolence, in reference to the concerns of this world, is bad enough. But where shall we find language sufficiently strong to describe the present guilt and future misery of indolence and sloth in reference to the soul and the soul's concerns? Of all the instances of folly, sin, and misery, which the inhabitants of earth present, either to the angels in heaven, or to the fallen spirits in the bottomless pit, the most astounding must be the sight of an impenitent sinner, slumbering in careless security over the over the bottomless pit! One would be led to imagine, did not experience testify to the contrary, that there is enough in that one word 'eternity' to rouse all men to the most intense concern, and to the most laborious diligence. The import of that solemn word 'eternity' speaks, without one additional remark, the necessity of being prepared.
But I remember that my business, by appointment, this morning, is not so much with slumbering worldlings—as with slothful professors; not so much with those who are sound asleep upon the precipice of destruction—as with those who are slumbering upon the couch of spiritual ease. You nominal Christians, you over whom conscience has sufficient power to prevent you from altogether absenting yourselves from the means of grace and from discontinuing prayer—but whose attendance upon them is cold, profitless, and vain; you who retain your place in the church of God—but whose heart is going after the world; you who have not abandoned your profession by open apostacy, either in the way of heresy, immorality, or miserly covetousness—but who, by a prevailing worldliness, and an ineffectual attempt to reconcile God and Mammon, are lowering the import, sullying the honor, and beclouding the luster of the Christian name; you who have lost "your first love," and are now among the heartless, the lukewarm, and the careless—though not among the wicked and profane; you who take up religion only at random opportunities, and abandon to it such fragments of time as the busy history of a life spent in worldliness can afford—consider, I beseech you, on this solemn morning, the danger and the guilt of such a state of heart and conduct. How perilous to yourselves, how corrupting to others, how discreditable to religion, how displeasing to Christ, is slothfulness in the Christian profession! Do, do, consider the mighty work to be done, and the "few and evil days" for doing it. The fight of faith is for a crown of glory, and failure is everlasting infamy. The race of Christianity is for life eternal; and it is a race against time, in which there is not one moment to spare from its earnest and toilsome prosecution. Remember, you need not only a title to heaven—but a fitness for it, and that fitness lies in victory over the world, sin, and self. "Yes, the mighty work to be done before we die, (and we may die any day,) is that we may be translated from the dominion of sin to the kingdom of grace—is the crucifixion of 'the old man,' and the resurrection of the new; is the transmutation of the character of earth which we have at first, into the character of heaven which we must acquire afterwards—else heaven we shall never reach. The distance, great as it is, between the two states, must be traversed on this side of death—or we shall never attain to a state of blessedness on the other side death. It is a far journey, and short is the period that we have for the performance of it. With many of us the day is far spent, and the shades of night are gathering around us." And shall we still linger, loiter, hesitate? Shall we still, with a setting sun, a coming night—and trifle and slumber, and content ourselves with a few feeble and ineffectual aspirations after holiness and heaven?
Foolish and slumbering virgins—awake, awake! The Bridegroom is coming. I hear the sound of his solemn procession. It is near, even at the door with some of you. Arise, and trim your lamps, and be ready. Oh, the indescribable, the inconceivable misery, to be among the number against whom "the door is shut!" and to be shut out with a 'lamp of profession' in your hand; to go down to the pit with a 'lamp of profession' in your hand; to go into the deep shades of eternal night with a 'lamp of profession'—but a lamp without oil, and therefore without one single ray to illumine and enliven the "outer darkness!"
"Be not slothful," but "gird up the loins of your mind." Ever be in that state in which you would be found when the grim messenger shall come to usher you into the presence of the Judge of the living and the dead. Could that happy spirit who has lately left our world be permitted to address you from her throne of glory, with what an emphasis would she say, "Beloved friends, with whom on earth I took sweet counsel, and walked to the house of God in company, could you conceive of but a thousandth part of the glory which now surrounds me, you would account that world which so sinfully engrosses your attention scarcely worth a passing glance, a momentary thought. Do not be slothful, when heaven or hell hangs upon your life! Do not be slothful, when eternity is before you! Do not be slothful, when infinite joy, or endless woe, attends on every breath! How would your indolence be rectified by the consideration of what is before you! Do not be slothful! And if my death should contribute to your increased and full decision, it will add another note to the song of praise, which I have commenced in heaven, and am to prolong through eternity. And, therefore, with all the emphasis derived from the felicities of heaven and the wonders of eternity, I say to you—Do not be slothful."
But observe also the other part of the apostolic injunction—"Be followers of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises." The word translated FOLLOWERS signifies imitators. If we would follow them to their seats of glory, we must resemble them as they were in their state of grace. Their faith and patience must be copied into our character and conduct. The examples of departed saints, especially of such as were eminent for their piety, must be held sacred by memory. The righteous must be "had in everlasting remembrance." We perpetuate their name upon the sculptured monument, and preserve their bodily resemblance by the painter's art (and blessed be the art which can so perpetuate a mortal form!) we may do so innocently—we may lawfully indulge in all the 'sober luxury of grief', by going forth to the sepulcher weeping, and by gazing upon the portrait which looks so lovingly upon us, until it seems almost to speak to us. All this is well, Christian—but it is not enough. Their sanctified character, their once living piety, is their best monument and their most exact image. Affection gazes with fondness upon the one—but faith looks with a kind of holy reverence on the other.
It is that eye of penitence, that look of faith, that smile of hope, that air of devotion, that brow of confidence, that posture of humility; in short, that whole moral countenance, so like the Savior—which ought to be dear to us. How ought it to be cherished in most precious remembrance, and remembered to be imitated! Imitation of their excellences, is the highest tribute of respect to the memory of the departed spirit. 'Biography' has peculiar honor, considered as one of the most powerful means for the formation of character; but what books have such power over us as the vividly recollected example of our pious friends? They have all the charm to attract us with which affection invests them—they are the moral pictures of the departed; they are viewed in that light, which brings out their excellences into prominence, and throws their imperfections into the shade; for who can see the failings of a friend whom death has taken away? They show us what grace can do for us, in what it did for them. And then, the very sorrow with which these patterns of excellence are viewed, does but soften us to receive the impress of their likeness.
Bear in recollection, dear brethren, that it is the living saint rather than the dying one, that is commended to our notice and imitation. It is not the professor uttering his swan-like song on the eve of death, and entering heaven with the note of triumph on his lips; this is beautiful enough, though perhaps in some cases somewhat delusive. I am not insensible to the value of a triumphant passage through the dark domain of the king of terrors; Christianity then appears in power and glory, when it changes the spectral form of death into a welcome visitant, erects its trophies on the tomb, and inspires immortal hopes in dying moments. But to be of value, then, all this must be preceded by a life as holy as the death is happy.
Dying ecstacies, as well as mortal agonies, may undoubtedly be attributed in some cases to a fictitious source; to the dreams occasioned by opium, to the illusions of a perturbed imagination, or to that morbid excitement, that preternatural radiance which disease will sometimes impart to the intellect, and which resembles the delirious splendor which it can occasionally enkindle in the eye. But when a triumphant death is the close of an eminently holy and useful life, it is a scene as beautiful in the spiritual world—as is the glorious sunset of a fine autumnal day—as in the natural world. It is a scene for the imitation of earth, the admiration of heaven, and the instruction of all.
Such a scene has been exhibited to this congregation in the lamented decease of their pastor's beloved, inestimable wife. Next to the pastor himself, speaking generally, the most important and influential member of any church is the woman he has chosen to be his companion in the journey of life. Were I to concede what has been contended for by some, that no more is to be desired or expected from her, as regards the church, than from any other woman in the community, (though I am not disposed to concede this,) still it is impossible to forget the influence, for good or for evil, she must necessarily exert over the character and conduct, the usefulness and comfort of her husband. And it does therefore appear to me to be the solemn duty of those who are called to the Christian ministry, to make their selection with a view to their usefulness in their pastoral, as well as their comfort in their domestic, life. The wife of a pastor has an opportunity of doing good allotted to no other woman in the whole church. The publicity of her situation gives to her example a power, which, from its being so constantly and thoroughly before the people, no other can possess; while her knowledge of the circumstances of the flock, and the institutions connected with it, present to her an opportunity of filling that wide circle of operations with the gentle and beneficent influence of her prudence, her piety, and her activity—which no other situation can command.
I may, with great propriety, and with equal boldness, make these remarks on the present mournful occasion, when I am called upon to hold up one of the most beautiful specimens of female excellence, and one of the most perfect examples of a pastor's wife, which it has ever been my lot, or yours, to behold. The account which I shall now read to you speaks, of course, and indeed avows, its authorship; and what other hand could sketch the picture of her, who is so mysteriously taken from us—but his who once possessed the bright original? It may be well conceived with what a mixture of sorrowful, yet admiring affection, he drew each line upon his painting, and with what disappointment he looked upon his labors when he had finished it, from a consciousness how far short he had fallen in this attempt to do justice to the excellence which he wished—but vainly attempted to portray.
BRIEF SKETCH OF THE CHARACTER AND LABORS OF MRS. SHERMAN.
The dear departed one was "a saint indeed." Few people were better fitted to shine in the world than herself. Her beautiful form and lovely countenance, her engaging manners, her facility of expression, her ready wit, her amiable disposition, her musical talent, her buoyant spirits, her deep humility, and her readiness to serve and oblige all—rendered her a most joyous companion, and the favorite of all who had the happiness of her acquaintance. But when all these ornaments of mind and person became sanctified and directed to the highest end for which they can be enjoyed—the service of God and the salvation of souls—she shone with a splendor among the sons and daughters of the Lord God Almighty which few attain.
Blessed with the pious example and instructions of a devoted mother, she very early imbibed a regard for religion and for pious people, and maintained with great punctuality her set times for reading the Scriptures and prayer. But her devotion wanted that living power which faith in Christ alone imparts. Of this she was sensible, and for this she prayed. God graciously answered her prayer, in a manner she little anticipated.
When about twenty-two years of age, a District Visiting Society was formed at Enfield, for affording temporal relief to the poor. She took a district, in which she found an old woman, ninety years of age, exceedingly ignorant—but very anxious to be taught the way of salvation. Her interesting inquiries drew forth the sympathies of Martha's loving heart to teach her the way of Christ; but now she found her lack of the very essentials of a spiritual teacher, she needed to be taught herself the merit and preciousness of the atonement, before she could explain it to another. Sad and prayerful, she oft returned home, determining that she would search the Scriptures, and gain information to convey the truth to her veteran pupil. She did so—but obtained little increase of knowledge, until, after prayer one morning for direction, previous to her visit, she remembered having heard Dr. Burder, with great interest, deliver a course of lectures on the Essentials of Religion; and thought she might find something in them that would aid her to impart light to her anxious inquirer. She began reading the chapter on the Atonement. Before she finished it a Divine light was shed upon her soul, she saw, as in a sunbeam, the substitution of Christ, and his perfect atonement for sin, laying a safe foundation for her hope. By faith she embraced this gospel remedy, and fell down at the footstool of mercy, to bedew with tears of joy the spot at which she had sought for illumination, with a broken heart.
Now she went to her aged inquirer with new zeal, love, and knowledge. Twice a week, for four years, she continued her visits, pouring the light of Christ's gospel into a mind which had been closed against it by prejudice and ignorance during a long life. Never had she entered a place of worship but to be baptized, married, and churched; yet the gospel from the loving Martha's lips penetrated, enlightened, and saved that soul; and she died at ninety-three, in the full prospect of eternal life, exclaiming to her devoted teacher, "Then there is hope for me, Miss!"
Even before her conversion, she was undesignedly useful to convert a soul. A young friend, who became strongly attached to her, observed, while staying at her house, Martha's punctual retirement for prayer and reading; but thought it unnecessary for herself. Martha immediately persuaded her to adopt the practice, and very soon her young friend began to pray in earnest for salvation and found it, while Martha was a stranger to its enjoyment. In return, she became an exhorter to Martha, not to be satisfied with mere formal devotion. This young friend died soon after, in the assured possession of a justified state.
Thus two souls, one before, and another immediately after, her conversion to God, were given her as the reward of efforts to do good and serve God. At the time they were great encouragements; and she often referred to them in after life as a stimulus to exertion for so good a Master.
After a year and a half's residence at Reading, which God graciously gave her as a preparation for a larger sphere, she came with her husband to this church and congregation, with a deep sense of her responsibility and the importance of using her talents for Christ, her gracious Lord. How effectively she employed them, this assembly can bear cheerful witness. Soon after she arrived, she formed, one after the other, four classes, which she superintended with great affection and zeal. One for poor mothers, which met once every two weeks; and the other for mothers occupying superior stations in life, which assembled at her house once a month. It is better felt than described, how kind and loving she was to both poor and rich; how willing to take the lowest place, so that everyone might be benefitted; how she labored and studied to find suitable reading for the classes, and how earnestly she sought the salvation of all the children of the mothers. Oh, how pleasantly has her face shone with delight as she greeted her husband, on her return from those meetings, while she told the tales of improvement in domestic life, and the hopes of mothers in the conversion of their children! Ah! none will feel her loss more severely than her maternal societies.
Two other classes she formed for the young; one for the young ladies of the congregation, which she met once a month, and the other for young people who had left the Sunday school, which she taught every sabbath afternoon. The young people who had the privilege of her instructions, will not, cannot, forget her prayers, her lovely demeanor, her useful advice, her ardent endeavors after their conversion. But they do not know the labor it cost her to prepare to meet them. All her notes are preserved; every one she wrote twice over; first in rough, and then more maturely. Yet they are but notes, allowing herself the utterance of a full heart, which her felicity of expression enabled her to pour forth in melting tones of tenderness and love. Her correspondence with her classes was continued amidst the demands of correspondence with a large circle of friends. Most of the members have some written memorial of her fidelity and affection.
As may be expected, many were converted. Some of the most unlikely among the poor mothers became members of the church, and blessed the day they ever heard her voice, for the domestic comfort it had brought to their humble dwellings. And several among the young attested that her instructions became the means of leading them to Christ and to join his people.
In all the societies connected with this church, specially those conducted by ladies—the Clothed Female school, the Missionary, the Dorcas and the Clothing societies—her regularity, punctuality, and efforts to gain subscribers made her influence very precious, while every society or individual that sought her aid generally found a laborious helper.
To her husband she was a help-meet, indeed! What can he say about his loss? "Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in your sight." Her patience, forbearance, affection, labor, devoted zeal for Christ, attention to the interests of children and servants, and too ardent love for him—placed her as near perfection as he can well conceive a saint to be. Oh, how swiftly have the thirteen years of blissful union passed away! But her works follow her.
Two years and a half ago, disease took fast hold on her frame. It was thought that change of air and scene, and the use of medicine, might remove its incipient threatenings. They were all tried—but in vain. The physicians who were consulted stated, that by care, her life might be prolonged; but unless something extraordinary and unexpected occurred she could not long survive. Yet during that affliction grace ripened, her love to Christ and souls increased; and her labors were not lessened, only exchanged. She thought she could do good by her pen, and corresponded more freely with her friends and her classes—when her strength failed, she tried other means to exalt Christ. At Ventnor, she liquidated, by application to friends, a small debt on the chapel; and by her patient, persevering instructions, a young widow, who had recently lost her husband, was led to see that her Maker was her husband, and has recently joined the Independent church in that place, praising God for the sickness that brought her unknown friend to Ventnor. She formed a Maternal Society there, which is still flourishing, and the cause of spiritual comfort to many. At Hastings, she induced the excellent clergyman to form a Bible class for young men, which is still in existence, and gives joy to his heart. When on the Continent, whether visiting among nobility or the poor, a word for Christ was sure to be introduced; and her character and conduct have left a sweet savor, which distance and time have not diminished.
After an interview with Dr. Moore, at Hastings, on the 10th of February, her husband had the affecting duty to announce to her that the sickness was unto death, and that the physician thought the sooner she was at home the better. With many struggles between affection and fidelity, he accomplished his painful task. But to his astonishment, she received the news as a relief to her spirit; and, after a few yearnings over her husband and children, wept tears of joy that her pilgrimage was about to close. "How soon does he expect me to leave you?" was her calm inquiry. "It is quite uncertain; but you may linger until April or May," was the reply. "I thank God!" she exclaimed; "heaven is nearer than I expected."
On February 12th, she returned hone, and, amid many alternations, continued to cheer all around her by her piety, patience, and cheerfulness. At her request, her friends and classes came to see her in groups; all who were present on those occasions, will remember her smile and her few words of love to each, as she shook them by the hand. Oh, it was a delightful sight, while all around were deeply affected at their anticipated loss, to behold her calm spirit bidding them farewell, as if she were about to start for a short journey and soon to return!
She was favored with many visits from the elders and from ministers, and especially from her kind friend, the Rev. George Clayton, who, at her request, continued them until she needed them no more.
On the 17th of May, it was evident that death was
approaching; but, to the surprise of all, she rallied again, and slept
tolerably well during the night. About twelve o'clock on the 18th, no doubt
could remain what the result must soon be. The struggle for breath, the
excessive pain in the side, and the convulsive agony of the whole frame,
were fearful; but the celestial joy within surpassed the expectations of
all. To the last, her intellect was unimpaired, and her speech sufficiently
loud to be heard. "The long looked-for hour is come, my dear," said her
husband. "It is," she replied, "blessed be my Savior!" "You have long
professed that Christ was precious, is he precious to you now?" Lifting up
her almost fleshless arms and hands, like the wings of a bird ready to fly,
she let them fall on the bed, and exclaimed, "Infinitely! infinitely!" "Have
you, my precious one, any consciousness of the immediate presence of Jesus
Christ?" Pausing a moment, she replied, "No; I do not know what that is, my
consciousness is the consciousness of faith. I know that he is with me by
the support and ineffable consolations he pours into my soul; but I shall
soon know what it is, for I shall be with him, and be like him." "Then, like
David, you can say, you fear no evil in the dark valley?" She replied, "The
valley is very long—but not dark, for he is with me in it, his rod and staff
comfort me." "Then you can bear testimony to your children, that a life
spent in the service of God is a most pleasant and profitable life?" As if
making an effort beyond her strength, to say something which her heart
dictated—but finding it impossible, she replied with all energy, "I can! I
can!" "What now, when earth is vanishing, is your sole dependence for
acceptance with God at the great day?" "Only the perfect and finished
righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Many other precious sentences and words fell from her lips; but these will suffice to show the fullness of her joy, and what an abundant entrance was given her into the kingdom of her God and Savior. At twenty minutes to four o'clock on Thursday afternoon, May 18th, she fell asleep in Jesus.
One day her husband asked her what message he should carry from her to the people when she was taken from them; her brief answer was, "Tell them to love Christ and one another, to labor for souls, and exhibit holiness—then they must be happy."
To all the dear friends, whose attentions have been so unremitting to soothe her passage to the tomb, her husband can only offer his grateful acknowledgments. May he who rewards a cup of cold water given to a disciple, in the name of a disciple, return into their bosoms their kindness a thousand-fold! For himself, he asks as the greatest favor, "Dear friends, pray that the grace of Christ may descend on him, and on his now motherless children."
If anything need or can be added to this heart affecting narrative, I would mention the interview which I was privileged myself to hold with Mrs. Sherman, about a week before her dismissal. It was a scene to which I recollect no parallel, and which it is quite impossible for me either to forget or to describe. Her countenance, beautiful even in death, was lighted up with a smile, that looked rather like the joy which we can conceive illuminates the soul emerging from the cold stream of death, and taking her first step into paradise, than the peace of one who was about to step into that stream; in other words, the smile of one who was looking back upon death as a dreaded event that was over, than of one who was looking forward to it as just at hand. It was not only a smile in death—but it was a smile at death. It was the morning of the missionary sermon in this place; when she could catch the sound of the organ, and the chorus of praise rising from the congregated host, which in bygone times she had helped to swell; she could hear the hum of voices, and the sounds of recognition and gratulation beneath her window, of the tribes that had come up to Zion, and there was she, in the chamber of sickness, on the bed of death, contrasting her situation with the gladsome circumstances of multitudes in all the vigor of life and the joyousness of health. If a momentary cloud, a passing gloom, had come over the spirit from such a contrast, who could have wondered? Yes, who does not wonder that it did not? But it did not. The Sun of Righteousness in cloudless splendor shone upon her soul, which reflected his beams in that most heavenly smile that I ever saw upon the countenance of any human being in life or death. She seemed standing within the precincts of glory; and the only thing that reminded me of mortality, was the wasted form and the natural tear she dropped, (but wiped it soon,) which, though it glistened in her eye still sparkling, did not for a moment interrupt the ineffable joy.
I felt, and said to her, "If this be dying, who could not lie down and die with you, if they could die like you?" She would have talked if the strength of her body had been equal to the vigor of her soul; but every syllable she uttered was descriptive of a "peace that passes understanding," a "joy unspeakable and full of glory." Could such a scene as that be witnessed in public, as, to be known, it must be witnessed, for no words can describe it, Christianity would, one should suppose, appear to all men a Divine reality, a heavenly plant, an eternal exsistence; and no man would have power or heart, except he were a demon, to say anything against it. Before that scene the loftiest philosopher must be humbled, infidelity turn pale and silent, and folly and vice, for a brief season, become serious, and disposed to say, "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like hers."
It will probably be expected by some, that, in conclusion I should attempt a formal delineation of her character; but I confess myself unequal to the duty. She, who, whether viewed as a daughter, a wife, or a mother; whether as a Christian professor or the wife of a Christian pastor; whether shedding her gracious and gentle influence upon the domestic circle which she adorned and cheered, or in a more public sphere combining and directing the energies of her own gender by the light of her wisdom and the warmth of her zeal, was equally excellent in all; she, in whom the active and the passive virtues were so nicely balanced, in whom all the sweetness of the private character was so well blended with the prudence of the public one, in whom the power of grace elevated and sanctified the loveliest endowments of nature, and whose beautiful and symmetrical character was so well known and so much admired—needs no eulogy from me. Through faith and patience she now inherits the promises. "I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth—Yes, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them."
To you, my beloved brother, my bereaved friend, "my companion in tribulation," what shall I say? To affirm that I sympathize with you, truly and tenderly sympathize, is an expression too cold and too feeble to utter the emotions of my heart. And yet what more can I say? I can imagine, we all can, what you have lost; but you only can fully know it. Once before now, in similar circumstances, you have "glorified God in the fires;" may it be granted to you, in this second trial of your faith and patience, to repeat the lesson you have already given by your example to the flock, of your submission to the will of God! Honored, my brother, above most of your brethren of the ministry, it may seem necessary in the view of Infinite Wisdom, which better knows us than we know ourselves, that you should be tried more than others; the Savior, your Master, who has redeemed the church, was the deepest sufferer that ever trod our valley of tears, and through suffering was made perfect; and they who come nearest to him and most resemble him in usefulness, must be most like him in suffering. You are the center of universal sympathy. You have no need to say, "Pity me, pity me, O my friends, for the hand of God has touched me;" myriads pour forth the tide of their sympathy into your heart, which may God open to receive it! May it be granted to you, to say with something of the same feeling as the language was originally uttered by its inspired author, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so our comfort overflows through Christ. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is experienced in the endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will share in the comfort." (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)
You lovely, and now motherless children! all our hearts feel for you. But God, my lambs, will take care of you. With such a father still left to you, incalculable and irreparable as is your loss, you are not orphans. Much is lost; but much is left. We will invoke for you the omnipotent care, the infallible guidance, and the beneficent smile of your mother's God, and your living father's God; and entreat that, although now denied the privilege of her maternal care on earth, you may dwell with her in heaven, and reap in that blessed world the fruit of those prayers which she presented for you before she ascended to glory.
And you, the venerable surviving parent, accept my tenderest condolence on the loss of such a child. She was the evening star of your life, when almost every other had set before your own sun went down. But though that star has set on the hemisphere of grace, it has risen and become a morning star in the skies of glory. Be thankful that you had such a daughter; be thankful that she was so trained for her situation in the church of God. And anticipate, as you well may, at no distant day, the moment of reunion in that world where there shall be no more death.
Members of this Christian church, I do not ask you to sympathize with, and pray for, your bereaved pastor; it is unnecessary for me to do this; for there is not a heart in this whole church that does not bleed for him. Much and justly as you have loved him, you never have loved him as you now do, when you see him lifting up his head, a widower among you. He has been endeared to you by his character, and his labors, and his usefulness; and that endearment is now increased by his heavy loss. But I would tell you, in few sentences, how you can most effectually bind up the wound of his lacerated heart, and how you can even yet sweeten his now bitter cup. Let this bereavement be sanctified for the spiritual benefit of his church. I do not wrong his marital love, and do only justice to his pastoral fidelity, when I say, that if his loss shall promote your good; if you shall be made more earnest in prayer, more spiritual, more consistent; if there should be a revival of genuine religion in this congregation—then heavy as has been his loss, yet standing at the grave of her that was dearest to him on earth, he will unmurmuringly say, "It is well!" nor querulously ask, why some sacrifice less costly to him might not have sufficed to accomplish the end.
And could a messenger be sent after his departed wife to that world of glory on which she has entered, to bring from thence some counsel and admonition bearing the weight and emphasis of a message sent from heaven and eternity, I cannot imagine she would alter one syllable of the solemn words she sent to you from her death-bed. Imagine at this moment you see heaven opened, and her spirit now beaming upon you with the affection which found its habitual dwelling in her heart, and its constant manifestation on her most lovely countenance. Behold, there she is! She is about to speak; her lips move; hearken to her words! "Love Christ and one another; labor for souls; exhibit holiness—and then you must be happy." Oh! let those words from this hour sink deeply into every heart. Let her have a monument in every heart; and be this the inscription.
Consider what an example has been set before you, and has now been withdrawn. It was, indeed, a privilege, to have such a pattern; but what a responsibility rests upon you! You have had in her a real, though not official, minister—the ministry of a holy and useful life. To the glowing eloquence of her husband's pulpit, she has added the silent—but powerful eloquence of her own personal and domestic life. You have lost her example, her activity, and her prayers; and, as a church, you are in spiritual excellence much poorer for the loss; but still you can, by memory, perpetuate the recollection of all she was. I solemnly, I earnestly, entreat you, to be imitators of her faith and patience. I am tremblingly concerned that the influence of such a life and such a death should not be lost upon you. Such a state of things would be a dark sign indeed. If there be in this church a single soul in a state of backsliding—may her death restore that soul! If there be any one sinking into a state of sloth and worldliness—may that soul, by her death, be aroused! If there be any cooling, or cooled down, from the ardor of first love, into a Laodicean lukewarmness—may they, by her death, have the flame of devotion rekindled! If there be signs of declining religion in the church at large—may her death be the blessed means of revival! If the melting voice of ministerial solicitude, habitually heard from this pulpit, has, through the hardness of your hearts, lost any of its power—may her death give it pungency! Over her grave may the fertilizing drops of celestial shower be seen descending in answer to a renewed spirit of wrestling and persevering prayer.
Except in one solitary, and to me mournful instance, I never have been so solicitous as I am at this moment, that the death of an member of the church might be blessed to survivors. The one exception, to which I now refer, had much in it that resembled the case before us. It was that of another minister's wife, not unknown to this congregation—but how much better known to him who now addresses you! She also prayed that her decease might prove to be a dispensation of love to the church of which she was a member, in the way of increasing their spiritual attainments. From her death-bed, she also sent the following message, "Give my love to the church, that church which I so much love, and tell them to be a pattern of holiness to all the churches around." Oh that living professors would think as much of holiness, and long for it as much, as dying ones do! This was the wish of your departed friend. The wishes of dying friends are sacred; let hers be sacred with you. Fulfill her dying request, and be a holy church. You have lost her life; lose not her death. She will never again speak to you with her living voice; listen to her admonition from the tomb, and receive the voice which says, "you also be ready—for in such an hour as you think not the Son of man comes!"
May the female members of the church cherish this bright example of piety in one of their own gender. Mothers! I especially beseech you to recollect, not only her maternal excellence—but her assiduity to promote yours. You have lost her, and will not fail to miss her from the meetings of her Maternal Societies. Her judicious and well-balanced mind will shed its light no more upon yours; and her sweet persuasive voice will no more soften the cares, relieve the anxieties, and guide the efforts of a mother's heart, yearning for the welfare of her children. But remember what she has done. Follow out her counsels; act out her plans; and teach your children to repeat and bless her name and her memory next to your own. When they shall throw their arms about your neck, and weep the thanks they cannot speak, for your wisdom, fidelity, and affection, in guiding their youth and forming their character, then whisper in their ears the name of this dear saint, and tell them it was Mrs. Sherman who inspired you with a resolution, and taught you how to fulfill it, to bring them up in the fear of the Lord.
And now, redeemed, beloved, lamented, and glorified immortal, farewell! until we meet in glory everlasting, where there shall be no more death, and where the sigh and the tear of separation will be exchanged for the smile and the song of mutual recognition and eternal reunion. You are gone to that heaven which is attracting to itself all that is holy upon earth. We could part with you for no other place or society, than you have found there. The voice of Him who has washed you in his blood, clothed you in his righteousness, and "put his loveliness upon you," and who has therefore a deeper interest and a nearer right in you than we have, has called you to himself. To him we resign you; and instead of fretfully, selfishly, fruitlessly wishing that you wert again with us; we will, from this hour, make it our urgent solicitude, our practical endeavor, and our most earnest prayer, to be your followers and your imitators in that faith and patience, by which you do now "inherit the promises."