Archibald G. Brown, November 20, 1870, Stepney Green Tabernacle
"I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, and companion in labor, and fellow-soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs." Philippians 2:25
DEATH has been exceedingly busy in our ranks of late, and we have been more than usually reminded of the fact that the church on earth is on the march to join the church triumphant in Heaven. Emigration of the happiest kind has been taking place in numbers that have arrested our attention. For a long time souls were coming in troops from the far-off country of sin into the border-land on which we dwell — but comparatively few crossed the narrow sea that divides the heavenly land from ours. For months we sojourned together without any of our family receiving orders "to go over to the other side!" As a church we were constantly receiving fresh troops from Heaven — but few obtained their discharge for Heaven.
Lately it has been the reverse. While we have been still receiving as many fresh recruits as ever — we have also been called to part with many of our beloved "fellow soldiers." It is but a short time since the first-fruits of our ministry — the first soul God ever made us the means of winning in this sanctuary — was called to her home. I refer to our beloved young sister, Jane Hodges, in whom grace glowed so brightly.
During the past week I have been called to stand twice at the open grave of those who used to hear our word. And this evening we are gathered together to hear the Lord's voice to us in the death of our honored brother WILLIAM FREDERICK NIMKEY. For the first time in our history as a church, an office-bearer has been laid low in death — a standard-bearer removed.
It is not our custom, as most know, to preach funeral sermons for departed members. As a habitual practice, we do not agree with it, and in a church as large and as rapidly growing as this, it would soon become a too frequent service, and to make exceptions would be invidious. But this bereavement stands alone and claims some special notice, on the ground of its forming a new experience in our church history. Often we have been able to say that many who once were one with us in fellowship are now before the throne; but never until now have the deacons and elders of this church had a representative on high. It is not in fulfillment of any desire of our departed brother that we hold this evening's service — far from it — one of his dying requests was, "Never extol me when I'm gone, for I am only a poor sinner saved by sovereign grace!"
We will try and obey his request by magnifying — not him — but the grace of God in him. May his God and ours make it a solemn and yet happy time to all our hearts tonight. I can easily suppose that some present are rather surprised at the text we have selected for this occasion, and find it rather difficult to see how it bears upon our subject. I think that in a few introductory words I will be able to show the reason for it suggesting itself to our mind, and enable you to see that in the death of our brother Nimkey, we have lost our Epaphroditus.
Paul wrote this letter to the church at Philippi from Rome, and sent it by the hands of Epaphroditus, who had been sent by that church with a present to the apostle. In the letter Paul gives its bearer the highest testimonial. It appears that while at Rome Epaphroditus had been taken seriously ill, and that during his illness his chief anxiety arose from the thought of the sorrow his sickness would cause in the little community to which he belonged; for in those early days, a strong family feeling pervaded the churches, making the sorrow and trouble of one the grief of all. Longing to return to Philippi to allay anxiety, Paul found it necessary to permit Epaphroditus' departure, and sent an earnest request by him that he should be received with all gladness and held in high repute, because for the work of Christ he had been near to death, not regarding his life in his effort to fulfill their wishes.
Now between Epaphroditus and our late brother Nimkey there exists, I think, a striking likeness.
I.Notice first the TERMS employed by Paul in describing him. He speaks of him first as "My brother." Not implying any relationship of blood — but of grace and spirit. Paul knew that in their union with Christ and regeneration by the Spirit, they were actually brought into the relationship of brethren, and he knew moreover that in his daily fellowship with the messenger of the church, he had found a spirit that could only be described as brotherly.
Does this description not apply to our friend? Any doubt as to his union with the Savior is an impossibility. His being a brother in Jesus was an undoubted fact by all his fellow members. Every child of God could say concerning him, "My brother." Our Father, we knew, was his Father. Our Elder Brother, we feel, was his Elder Brother — and our future home is where we know he now dwells.
"A brother in Christ" could be said of him by every Christian that ever knew him since he was saved. But he was something more. There are many whose brotherly relationship to us by grace we dare not doubt — yet of whose brotherly character we see but little. They no doubt are relations — but they make us feel they are distant ones. Not so with the departed. His congenial, sympathetic, loving disposition won our hearts' best love, and in losing him from our number we feel that we have sustained no mere official loss — but the bereavement of one whose whole life and spirit made us say of him, "Our brother!"
The next description is equally true, "Companion in labor." Never did I know him shrink from any work, or leave his brethren to toil alone. One with us in affection, he was always one with us in labor, and with us as "companion." He was no mere critic in labor, or grumbler in work — but always a companion, never jealously desiring to be dictator, or selfishly seeking his own aggrandizement — but willingly taking his share, either large or small, in every department of church enterprise.
He was most emphatically a "fellow-soldier;" but as we purpose to make this term the subject of our discourse, we will say but little on it now. Let it suffice that he was never a laggard in the army, and whenever in the heat of battle we had a moment to look round, we always found him breast to breast with us. A truer comrade on the field, or a more steady warrior for the cross it would be hard to discover.
The last description given of Epaphroditus is peculiarly adapted to our brother Nimkey, "Your messenger." It is supposed by Dr. Gill that in the early Church there were some whose special mission was to look after the distressed and sick, and carry them the relief the church could afford. These men were termed messengers, and occupied the same position our newly appointed "church visitors" will. Our departed brother was most certainly your messenger — he was never happier than when doing the service of an Epaphroditus. Visiting the sick, the poor and the dying was his forte. Always ready to go anywhere and be a messenger of mercy to anybody, he acquired the name of "our traveling elder." If every person present who has been visited by him were to hold up his hand, the result would be a very forest of palms. He was a willing and welcome messenger to all prisoners at home.
II.But along with the names given to Epaphroditus, must be placed his evident CHARACTER in order to make the illustration complete. He was, we learn from the twenty-sixth verse, of a soft-hearted disposition. It was no matter of indifference to him whether the members at the church at Philippi were sorrowful or not; "He longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill." The grief of the members about his sickness, troubled him more than the sickness itself. Epaphroditus was none of your walking icicles, or animated icebergs. He was a man of warm and tender sympathies, who wanted to assuage grief wherever he found it, and would not for the whole world be the cause of it, if he could possibly prevent it.
We saw the same in our Epaphroditus; he was a man of an enlarged heart and almost womanly affections. His was not the character to overawe with its grandeur — but the one to melt by its love. His dying words to me were, "Pastor, as far as I know I have never intentionally wounded the heart of any — and if ever I have done so unwittingly, it has always been a source of deepest sorrow to me." The secret of his being so universally loved, was found in the fact that he loved so universally.
Paul also indicates that the messenger from Philippi was a man devoted to his work, "For the work of Christ he was near to death, not regarding his life." We would be sorry to think or say that any work our brother did, ever helped to bring him near to death, or had a hand in his death. But we are prepared to say that for the work of Christ, he did not regard his life as important to himself. Many a time within the last few months he came here, when we all felt it was disregarding his life to do so. To the very last, while an atom of strength remained, he was willing and wanting to perform the office of your messenger, and taking a step ahead of Epaphroditus, he has not only come near to death — but died in the work; and the sorrow which Paul rejoiced that he was spared — has now become our sorrow.
One more word about the character and I finish drawing the parallel between the two. Both were worthy of being held in high reputation. The world is often grossly mistaken in those it considers worthy of its notice. The wealthy — the unscrupulous — the successful — those are often the ones chosen by the world as the subjects for honorable mention.
Christians know better! And let those you hold in reputation are the men who living, have lived for their Savior, and whose lives have been devoted to the glory of His cross. Hold those most in reputation, whose Christian eloquence has been the eloquence of Christian and self-denying action.
III.Leaving now all the descriptions of Epaphroditus, and putting him also on one side, we will speak of our "fellow soldier" William F. Nimkey. As a regiment of the Lord's hosts, we mourn the gap that death has made in our ranks; and gathering, as it were, around our campfire, we will call up a few memories of the warrior who is now taking his rest before the throne.
We will speak first of his enlistment into the army;
then our remembrance of him as a fellow soldier;
then his last battle;
then his present victory; and
then the voice of his death to all.
1. His Enlistment into the Army.On this point we will speak very briefly, as we know but little of his earlier life, and our brother was never one to refer much to himself in conversation. This however we do know, and he has often declared it — he was enlisted by Divine grace. Like all the rest of God's soldiers, there was a time when he served under Satan's black banner of rebellion. His heart like ours was at enmity against God, and his determination was "I will not have Him to rule over me!" In God's own time the mighty change was effected, and the rebel became transformed into the devoted servant. This change our brother always most emphatically attributed to the full, free, sovereign grace of God. Nothing roused his spirit so much as anyone hinting that such change could be accomplished apart from the direct influence of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the eternal decrees of God's gracious purposes.
From first to last, his enlistment, like that of every other heavenly warrior, was of God. It was grace that first aroused his soul from the lethargy of indifference, and breaking through the plated armor of his soul's carelessness, made him cry out with earnestness, "What shall I do to be saved?" He always loved to declare that it was the same grace that showed him a Savior, that first showed him his need of one; and it was all owing to free distinguishing grace that he ever cast the weapons of his rebellion at the foot of the cross.
Looking up into the face of Him who hung on it, he exclaimed "Hail, Lord Jesus! I acknowledge You to be my Lord, and from now on it is only under your banner that I fight and die!" He enlisted at Calvary through the constraining power of the Spirit, and through that alone. The loyalty of soul he showed so constantly, was God-given.
We cannot say positively at what age he joined the army — but from most careful inquiry and comparing one thing with another, we have come to the conclusion that he enlisted in early youth; but shortly after, he became somewhat of a backslider. Never into open sin, or neglect of attendance at God's house — but sufficient to keep him from making any public profession. His light for some years was dim. We mention this because we are most anxious not to overdraw his picture — but give it as faithfully as possible, as we are certain that if he could but speak to us himself, it would be on this that he would dwell the most.
I was much struck with one sentence he uttered the last time I ever saw him alive. "I feel," said he, "that my life has been a backsliding one." Let none for one moment imagine that this season of coldness was after his public profession. Far, very far from it! From the time when his light came out of obscurity (about ten years ago) there has been no wavering, no weakness — but it has brightened more and more, until now it has developed into the perfect day!
He was drawn to Christ by quiet and gradual means. The same Spirit has a diversity of operations, and perhaps no two sinners are converted in precisely the same manner, and with identical experiences. With some, as with the speaker, not only can the means be remembered — but the year, the month, the day, the hour and the very spot. But with a large number, the work is too gradual to be detected, and they can only say with the man of old, "One thing I know, whereas I was blind, now I see!" It was in this latter way, that our brother was enlisted. There may perhaps be some few present who remember the time when he came before the church for fellowship, when it worshiped in Grosvenor Street. If so, they will remember that when asked by what means and when he found the Savior, he replied in the language of scripture, The wind blows where it will; you hear the sound of it — but cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes! So has it been in my case."
This church was the first one he ever joined, although he had been in the constant habit of frequenting the sanctuary. He was brought up among the Wesleyans, and was then for some years a seat-holder at Coverdale Chapel, during the ministry of Mr. Seaborne; and afterwards at Salem Chapel, Bow Road. This is all we know of his spiritual life previous to his becoming one with our regiment. We will now speak more fully of what we found in him during the years of his church life.
2. Our recollections of him as a fellow-soldier.We have but to recall to our minds his familiar face and some of his conversations with us, to find many a happy memory.
The first recollection of him as a fellow soldier that occurs to me is that he was always one remarkably jealous of his Captain's honor. No one held more tenaciously than our brother, those doctrines that more especially glorify the sovereignty and grace of our God; and never could he tolerate anything that seemed in any measure to give to man the glory due to the Captain. So jealous was he about the honor of his Lord, that any word that appeared to suppose a man could do anything of himself, was sure to be noticed by him.
I have often smiled when, after some evening sermon in which I had been inviting and entreating sinners to come to Christ, he would say to me in his kind and loving way, "I hope, dear pastor, that none of them will think they can come by their own power, for it is not by might nor by power — but by my spirit, says the Lord."
No man loved the sinner or the freeness of the gospel more than he — but he was ever anxious, and rightly so, that the gospel should be preached in a way that put man in the dust, and Christ on the throne. The ruling passion was, in his case, as strong in death; and the passages of scripture that afforded him the most joy were those that most abounded with the glory of divine grace. One remark of his is so deeply impressed upon my memory that I think I can give it you in the precise words. He said, "I have often been thought to have been rather high in doctrine; but I find now that they are the only doctrines on which a man can die with joy."
The covenant of grace, the glorious sufficiency of the atonement, and the unutterable affection of God for His people — these were the subjects that chiefly employed his lips in life, and sustained his heart in death.
Telling him one Sunday afternoon that I was going to preach in the evening on complete justification through the imputed righteousness of Christ, he exclaimed, "That is it — preach that, preach that — all of grace and the sinners' salvation all in Christ." Feeling that nothing but sovereign grace could ever have suited his case, he was always jealous of its honor.
He was one who had a high sense of a soldier's duty. To be a Christian, in his estimation, was something more than merely assuming the name; and to be a church member entailed in his opinion a high responsibility. As a Christian soldier, he believed in enduring hardness, and the standard he set for himself was a high one. Like Epaphroditus, he believed that in the path of duty, life itself should be unregarded.
I heard the other day an anecdote of him, illustrative of this high sense of a soldier's duty. Being desirous of visiting a family where there was a most infectious disease, many asked him not to go, and tried their best to dissuade him. His answer was, "I believe a Christian ought to dare to go anywhere on his Master's service — and if they keep away, who can you expect to go?" It was this same spirit that brought him into our midst until so near his end.
Only a few weeks before he took to his death bed, I went to his house one Monday, before the prayer meeting, to have a chat with him. Knowing he was exceedingly ill, great was my surprise to find him in the hall, just getting ready to start. Gently remonstrating with him, he answered, "I must go so long as I can, and it will not be much longer. Let me have the help of your arm and I think I can crawl there." I could not help but admire the Christian stuff he was made of, and wishing more were like him in this respect.
He was also noted for his cheerfulness. It is by this characteristic that he will be remembered by many the longest. Gloom seemed a thing unknown to him, and even his long and painful illness was unable to altogether remove the habitually happy expression of his countenance. He was always found sitting on the sunny side of the hedge, and never was he lacking in some happy cheerful word to others. This I willingly grant was in great measure due to someone of naturally the best of tempers, which was all the more remarkable considering his calling. For of all things calculated to mar a happy and amiable spirit — I would think the daily teaching of a number of boys was the worst. Grace, however, counteracted every temptation to an acidity of temper — and he will long be remembered as the brother who always seemed happy himself, and was always trying to make others so.
He was one willing to do any kind of work. I never had to fear lest I would wound his dignity or hurt his pride in asking him to do anything. He was happily free from that stupid "standing upon one's dignity" that cramps so many in their work. It was all one to him what he did. He always seemed to me a living commentary on our morning's text, "Here I am, send me!" If a brother was needed to show friends into the pews, he was always ready, and used to say laughingly, "I believe I am just the one for the work, for I can never remember whose pews they are; so after the hour, I always fill them straight up, and there is no fear of my showing any favoritism." If there was some sick one that wanted visiting, who lived in an out of the way quarter, he was all ready to go, no matter where. And who was it you always found standing at the door, no matter how cold the wind, to take your tickets at our tea meetings? Why, our brother Nimkey! Any service for the church, however humble, was to him always welcome.
And lastly on this point I would add, he was a brother unusually beloved in the regiment, and out of it too. I need say nothing of your love to him as a church. Last Monday gave sufficient testimony of that, when close to seven hundred of you followed him to the grave; but this I may add, that ever since I have been pastor here, now close on four years, I have never heard one word breathed against him — but countless expressions of affection towards him. As in our regiment, so out of it.
I will just read you a line or two from a letter I have here with me, that will express the feelings of many who are united with other churches. The brother says, "I regret that I cannot be with you" (that is to this service) "all the more as I have always felt a most sincere regard for our friend. And his warm hearty shake of the hand and kind words to me, a comparative stranger and member of another church, have often made me feel, when worshiping at Stepney, no more a stranger or a guest — but like a child at home. I would that God might raise up more like him in our churches." In one word, our recollections of him as a fellow soldier are most happy.
3. His last battle.There is always something deeply interesting in that which is known to be "the last." How are the final words, and the final visit, and the last look of a loved one — treasured up in the memories of friends. The words may have been commonplace, the visit an ordinary one, the look a frequent one — but they all obtain a charm for thought — they will be heard no more, received no more, and seen no more.
Many a battle did our brother wage with foes within and foes without; but to us, his final battle with the last enemy will always have an additional interest.
I will remark first that it was a protracted one. From the commencement of this year, it may be said the woodman Death had marked the tree for falling, and for many months our brother knew no earthly power could save him. In the month of April he was suddenly afflicted with congestion of the lungs, which laid him low for many weeks. Beside which, he had a dangerous internal disease which of itself was sufficient to make death merely a question of time. Being advised by several medical men to try a change of air, it was arranged for him to go in the month of June to Hastings. I had promised to go down with him on the Monday; but on the previous Sabbath morning he suddenly had a stroke; when sufficiently recovered to be able to speak, he turned to his wife and said, "Mother, this is my passport to Heaven." Seeing him on the Monday morning, I could hardly refrain from weeping on observing in the room the bags already packed for our intended journey. Reading my thoughts he quietly remarked, "Man proposes — but God disposes! It is Heaven, not Hastings. It is Heaven, not Hastings I am going to!"
From this time he rapidly declined; and after keeping his bed for seven weeks, with a patience and joyfulness unaffected by the great pain he was in, he breathed his last this past Monday, with the name of Jesus on his lip.
It was a battle victorious all along the line. Through Him that loved him, he was made more than a conqueror at every point of attack. His faith remained unstaggered, his joyful confidence was never put to the rout, and his hope only brightened as his end drew near.
One remark of his I consider very beautiful, and as it gives testimony to the completeness of his victory, I will repeat it. Shortly before he passed away, I said to him, "Well, brother Nimkey and how are you now?" Thinking I made reference to his body, he replied, "Very low, very low indeed." "But how about the soul, brother?" Lifting his hand slowly up and with a countenance that brightened as he spoke, he said "that still soars, that still soars!" May our last battle be as glorious as that of our fellow soldier.
4. His present victory.I will not detain you two minutes on this point, for if I try to describe it, I would only find it surpasses all power of language. Let it suffice us to know that it is complete and eternal. He is done with sickness, pain, sorrow, sin, the curse, and done with them completely. He has entered into joy, peace, holy service, and his Savior's presence, and entered into them forever. O if our eyes could but see him now, our grief for his loss would be swallowed up in joy about his gain. He rests with his Jesus and rejoices with his God.
5. The voice of this bereavement to us.It has a lesson for us all.
It speaks to those of us who hold office in this church, and it says "Be diligent! Soon you must follow in the footsteps of your departed companion in labor. Do not let your office be taken for granted, but like Epaphroditus, let the work of your master be regarded even more than life."
It speaks to the Church, and says, "You also be ready. Death is no respecter of persons. The cedar has fallen; shall the fir tree be spared? As one after another of our workers depart to their rest, determine but to do and dare more while life is spared. As one soldier after another fights his last battle — close up your ranks, and with redoubled energy press the fight."
Lost sinner it speaks to you, and, O, that you might hear its warning. Die you must, whether prepared or not. Flee from death fast as you may — it will surely and soon overtake you. The grim hunter holds by the leash a troop of hounds baying for your blood. Their names are accident, old age, and disease. They are all fleeter of foot than you. The black camel, as the Arabs picture death, will soon kneel at your door; mount you must — and ride where? Do you laugh at death? Then you are a madman. Do you laugh when the hurricane is pulling down about your ears your frail tabernacle? It is frenzy — it is worse. Die you must — but what kind of a death remains to be seen. There are only two: choose which you will have.
I see a dying saint upon his bed. There is joy in his heart and a light in his eye; as his body sinks lower, his soul mounts aloft, and at last with outstretched hands and the cry "Lord help me now," he falls asleep in Jesus. So died our brother Nimkey.
The scene changes — I see one dying fast, the death-damp stands upon his brow, and the death chill freezes the very marrow of his bones. It is dark within — it is dark without — it is dark ahead! The last breath struggles through his lips, and the spirit leaps into eternity unsaved.
Friend, that death is yours unless you fly to Christ. O hasten to Jesus now, and say in the words of the hymn last quoted by our brother —
"Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to your cross I cling!"