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Having a few days ago reviewed the death of John Knox, it is only fitting here to also review his burial.

Parking Space Number 23

You might wonder what in the world is a post about a parking space doing in This Day in Presbyterian History?  Well, if this author tells you that it is the final resting place of Scot Reformer John Knox, as seen in the photo of this post, you will understand.  And yet we don’t really understand or comprehend it.  All right, every church needs a parking lot. Every church needs space for its worshiper’s automobiles. But to pave over a portion of the church graveyard without moving the graves there, especially the grave of a former pastor of the church and Reformation leaders, namely John Knox, that is really crass, in this author’s opinion. But that is exactly what happened sometime in the 1970’s of the last century.

knoxJohn_parkingLot23

His funeral had taken place on this day, November 26, 1572, two days after  he died. Read the words of Thomas M’Cree from the “Life of John Knox” (p. 277):

“On Wednesday, the 26th of November, he (knox) was interred in the church-yard of St. Giles.  His funeral was attended by the newly-elected regent, Morton, by all the nobility who were in the city, and a great concourse of people.”

William M. Hetherington in his History of the Church of Scotland, on pg 77, continues the story of his burial when he wrote:

“When his (Knox) was lowered into the grave, and gazing thoughtfully into the open sepulcher, the regent emphatically pronounced his eulogium in these words, ‘There lies he who never feared the face of man.’”

Regent Morton knew himself the truthfulness of these final words as John Knox had reproved him to his face, with Hetherington calling the regent later on in his history “that bold bad man.” (p. 77)

It is interesting to this author that, despite searching, he has not found anything of the burial service itself other than these brief remarks around the grave. We in these United States usually have a funeral message, with Scripture being read, and other remarks of comfort and promises  regarding the bodily resurrection of the Christian being buried.

What we do know is that in St. Giles Cathedral parking lot is a parking space with number 23 painted on it, with a blank yellow stone at  its head. Below that yellow stone that can be found written  in a circle of colored bricks the following message, “The above stone marks the approximate site of the burial in St. Giles graveyard of John Knox the great Scottish divine who died on 24 November 1572.”

Words to Live By:
There are several monuments to John Knox in Edinburgh, one inside St. Giles Cathedral itself. Another one is standing in Geneva, Switzerland. In one sense, all of Scotland is a memorial to this great Reformer. whether they acknowledge it or not. We who are the spiritual Presbyterian heritage of John Knox, have the hope and confidence that one day Parking Space number 23 will be emptied of its remains and John Knox will be reunited with his spirit already up in heaven. Come, Lord Jesus.

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Our post today comes from guest author, Rev. David W. Hall, excerpted from chapter 2 of his book, The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003). That Zwingli was a key figure in the Protestant Reformation is undeniable, and so it seems appropriate to include this account of him here today on the anniversary of his death.

Zwingli: Patriot Reformer of German Speaking Switzerland
by Rev. David W. Hall

William Farel was the pioneer of the Reformation in Geneva, but closer to Germany another fiery minister preceded him by a few years. Huldrych Zwingli (b. 1484), a Swiss reformer immediately prior to Calvin, also recognized that resistance was legitimate if a civil ruler ordered the squelching of true religion (as in Acts 4-5). However, he qualified that such resistance should only occur with the support of the large majority and without murder or war.  Nonetheless, by the Peasants’ War (1525), Protestant extremists scandalized the movement with their sectarian rebellion against the King of Germany. The Peasants’ War slowed the momentum of Protestant support for resistance, and itself was an instance of experience shaping a theology of the state.

Just prior to Calvin’s surge, Zwingli, a contemporary of Luther, began his work in Zurich. Zwingli studied at universities in Basle, Bern, and Vienna. In 1506, he was selected to be the parish priest in confederated Glarus. Whether he was “an out-and-out democrat”  or not, it is certainly the case that he tried to reform all of society from the church outward. He served as a chaplain in the fateful 1515 Battle at Marignano, a turning point for the Swiss psyche, and later accompanied Protestant troops in skirmishes against Catholics, dying a courageous death in a 1531 battle. Despite his unfortunate demise, later American clergymen could draw on his example and would accompany Colonial militias into battle against the British.

Zwingli first served as a pastor in idyllic Einsiedeln (still the home of one of the most ornate monasteries in the world) for two years (1516-1518), prior to beginning his thundering ministry at Zurich’s Grossmunster church on January 1, 1519, making him one of the earliest declared Protestants in the world. Throughout his tenure, Zwingli labored for a political practice that conformed both religion and politics to the precepts of the Bible.  Although he never held civil office, he frequently advised local magistrates and served on numerous commissions to resolve diplomatic or political matters. However, not all Swiss citizens agreed with him. While his colleague Vadianus convinced St. Gallen of the Protestant cause, and while Bern, Basle, and Zurich created a Protestant alliance, interestingly the Forest states (the three original mountain cantons) preserved their allegiance to Catholicism.  An armed conflict between the two alliances was only narrowly averted by the Peace of Cappel, which legitimized the local choice of religion for each Swiss canton from that time on.

Some historians have suggested that Zwingli changed his views over his life. Recent studies, however, have defended the consistency of his thought over time. Robert Walton vindicates Zwingli from the onerous charge of theocrat as it is used in modern times. Certainly, Zwingli expected cooperation between the two distinct jurisdictions of church and state. That cooperation, much like the practice of colonial America, however, is different from assigning the care of both church and state to the same officers. Rather than confusing the terminology, the more helpful way to understand the Swiss Reformer’s position is to ask, as Robert Walton does: What place did Zwingli assign to the magistrate and to the clergy in order to realize the rule of God?  Instead of attempting to combine the spheres of government, Zwingli simply submitted, as Calvin would later, both sacred and secular jurisdictions to transcendental norms.

Certainly Zwingli and Calvin desired the rule of God over government. That is altogether different, though, from confusing the rule of God with the acts of certain politicians. A separation of legitimate jurisdictions (though not an immunization of the state from religion) is as apparent in these Swiss Reformers as it is in Colonial American pastors a century later. They did not endeavor to submit the city government to the church and its officers. If anything, Zwingli sought to deprive the clergy of the secular authority and wealth it had gained since the end of the eleventh century, because he believed that these secular concerns had diverted the clergy from its God-given function, the preaching of the Gospel.  The clergy’s role was to give God’s counsel, lest the city governors lacked the best wisdom. Earlier attempts to castigate Zwingli as a theocrat, who was bent on the clergy ruling political measures dictatorially, stand corrected in view of recent scholarship.

Zwingli hoped to renew the church from within, and subsequently to have the church reform society. Of the inherent overflow of spirituality into ethics, Zwingli claimed, “Christianity has always served the public justice most powerfully.” In later correspondence, Zwingli would contrast the effect of the spread of biblical truths with those of secular reason, boasting of Zurich as the leading Christian municipality in adapting its laws and political officials to the Christian faith. Zurich’s ethical overflow was noted as follows: “each desires to anticipate the other with kindness, to oblige with gentleness, to share the labor of the other, to lighten his burden, for each cares for all as brothers; blasphemy is abominated, piety is esteemed and is increased among all.”  These Swiss Reformers believed that a view of life which included God’s standards would result in humanitarian action by private citizens. The chief calling of the clergy was not to rule the city council but to reform the conscience.

Accordingly, Zwingli distinguished between the inward thrust of the ministry of the church and the outer containment by the secular magistrate. In so doing, Zwingli circumscribed the domain of the civil officer. While he might supportively protect external matters of the church (e. g., church attendance, performance of duty by the ministers, the offering of the sacraments, the architecture of the building), secular officials “could not force one to believe, for the realm of faith, Christ’s kingdom, had nothing to do with the world. The true church obviously did not depend upon the Zurich government, nor was it confined to the limits of the canton; it was universal.”  Thus, he explained, “if your rulers wish to be Christian, they must allow the clear word of God to be preached and afterward let it work.” Importantly, he also distinguished various jurisdictions, noting that “the authority which the government has over our temporal goods and bodies cannot extend over the soul.”

Several of his Sixty-Seven Articles (1523) directly addressed the role of the civil governor. In these articles, he rejected the notion that ministers should command civil matters, maintained that the good governor could promote measures that comported with biblical practices, and encouraged rulers to support “an externally pious Christian city.”

Prior to Zwingli’s arrival at Zurich, the city was governed by a Small Council of 26 and a Great Council of 212, similar to the form eventually adopted in Geneva.  The Zurich councils were involved in many areas of life, and Christian magistrates were to seek the common good. The magistrates were to maintain the faith, and keep it from reverting to Catholic patterns. As early as 1450, Zurich’s counterpart, Basle, stated its purpose similarly: “Above all, the government of each city is to be established for this: to increase and to consolidate the honor of God and to repulse all evil and especially gross sin and misdeed, according to the regulation of the Holy Christian World.”  With similar words, most Swiss cantons that embraced Protestantism should not be tarred and feathered with the theocrat slur, merely for the customary support of religion, especially if the church was to be protected during its reformation.

Zwingli’s preaching was magnetic, exhibited a strong patriotism, and addressed major problems besetting the entire Swiss Confederacy.  With up to a third of the city attending his preaching, his popularity discouraged civil officers from opposing his ideas. Such moral suasion would prove more lasting, for Zwingli and Calvin, than any theocratic imposition. Like Calvin, his ideas would have international impact.

The effect of his preaching is seen in altered treatment of the poor as Reformation ideas began to be implemented in the city. The Zurich city council refused to give assistance to beggars, pimps, drunkards, and adulterers. Moreover, insisting on the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor, failure to attend church and other immoral behavior disqualified a poor person from receiving financial assistance.  However, this was, rightly or wrongly, by order of the magistrate, not by pulpit decree. Zwingli would continue to preach guidance for the city council, but that was different from the pulpit directly wielding the civil sword. Of the moral impact of this Reformation preaching, Zwingli’s successor Bullinger wrote, “Before the preaching of the gospel, Zurich was in Switzerland what Corinth was in Greece.”

As an outworking of the Christian faith, Zwingli also called for the end of mercenary excursions, a longstanding tradition associated with the highly skilled native military. Even though the termination of mercenary service might leave the Swiss vulnerable to the French, as well as introduce negative economic impact (higher unemployment and less income in some cantons), Zwingli led his city to lessen its warring ways—a quite radical step for the time. In his 1522 Godly Admonition to the Oldest Confederates at Schwyz, the Zurich reformer desired to persuade the citizens of Schwyz to abandon mercenary tactics and replace those with the ethics of Christ. In that tract, Zwingli hinted that the early Swiss confederates had a unique covenantal relationship with God, much like OT Israel. Sounding like later Puritan American preachers, he indicated that recent defeats such as Marignano  were providential indicators of God’s curse. In the process, he rebuked greed, bribery, violence, sloth, and wrongful war. Robert Walton summarizes Zwingli’s tenets: “The cantons of the Confederacy stand in a covenant relationship with God; they are the Israel of the present. Political stability and national freedom depend upon the proper obedience to the Lord.”  In a May 1522 response that foreshadowed the historic Swiss neutrality, the canton of Schwyz agreed to avoid foreign alliances for the next quarter century. However, supporters of the mercenary system reversed that agreement in August.  In any event, at this early stage it is evident that Zwingli sought social change by preaching and writing, not primarily by political coercion.

On January 29, 1523, Switzerland, and much of the West through her, entered a new age, thanks to Zwingli’s leadership. In a day when elections were rarities, over 600 people gathered to hear a dispute between Zwingli and a Catholic debater. This meeting (the first of many) introduced a virtually new style of decision making: citizens would have free assembly and free speech, and then they would freely choose which course to pursue. What began as a referendum on religion, i. e., whether to be a Protestant or a Catholic establishment, paved the way for many future civic choices.  Once begun, there was no turning back and the West has a fiery preacher to thank in part.

Robert Walton has correctly observed a delicate balance of power in Zwingli’s thought. He writes: “The division of power between the magistrate and the pastor was based upon his doctrine of divine and human righteousness. The magistrate exercised all secular power and had the right to direct the external affairs of the church. The Christian magistrate . . . made possible the preaching of the Gospel by the pastor. The knowledge of the Gospel that the pastor proclaimed prevented the ruler from becoming a tyrant . . .”  Walton has clarified that the Swiss reformers were not strictly theocrats, but believed in each God-ordained sphere of government performing its own duty—and not usurping the jurisdiction of the other.

Zwingli died in the second battle of Cappel on this day, October 9, in 1531, only 47 years old. He was initially injured while attending a wounded soldier, later pummeled by stones, and finally stabbed with a spear. Upon learning that the flamboyant patriot was wounded, the opposing forces rallied to kill him, only after he was given an opportunity to recant of his Protestantism, which he refused with these words: “They may kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul.”  The same battle took the lives of 500 Zurichers, several pastors, and 10% of Zurich’s ruling Great Council of 200.

Four centuries after his birth, Zwingli’s influence was honored with a bronze statue prominently displayed at the foot of the Wasserkirche in Zurich. The statue, designed by a Roman Catholic sculptor,  commemorated Zwingli with Bible in one hand and a sword in the other. As late as a century ago, a full century after the American Revolution, Zwingli was still revered by his countrymen as a force for education, democracy, and courage. His bold opposition to tyranny was a lasting icon for both American and Swiss patriots, until the rise of an age that thought itself too enlightened to be associated with a brave clergyman who changed the West. In the spring of 1999, the statue was removed from its prominent position, long a tourist site, under a program of “cleansing.” In the process, vestiges of the historical impact of Protestant Christianity on a nation, a continent, and a hemisphere were eradicated.

Walton notes that although Zwingli pursued goals informed by the Bible, he did not seek them by theocratic measures. Both minister and magistrate were to do their own jobs, and the clergy were not to “interfere with the Christian magistrate’s performance of the duties that God had assigned him.”  He is also correct that Zwingli only initiated certain trends. The growth of his ideas, however, was stunted both by military conflict and by counter-reactions. It would remain for William Farel and Calvin to revive reform measures in the French speaking part of the Confederacy a decade later.

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The Most Perfect School of Christ Since the Days of the Apostles

There is no doubt that Geneva Switzerland in the time of John Calvin was the perfect asylum for persecuted Presbyterians from all over the world. They would arrive there whenever times in their own country were harsh and forbidding in the practice of the Reformed faith and life. In the mid-sixteenth century, that state was certainly true of Scotland and England with the crowning of Mary Tudor to the throne.  Immediately, approximately 300 believers were sent to the fiery stake. Countless fled to other countries, including John Knox and his family. And Geneva was his destination, arriving there on this day, September 13, 1556, with his wife Marjorie. On the following month, the church of English exiles called John Knox to be a co-pastor of that church.

During this period Knox enjoyed, as M’Crie writes, one of the quietest times in his life and ministry. He would preach three sermons a week to his church family of 100 English exiles. often about two hours plus in length. He found time to work on the Reformed footnotes of the famous Geneva Bible, which were then being introduced to the Reformed world by the son-in-law of John Calvin. Knox wrote a lengthy work on predestination, as well as a political one on the female but wicked rulers of his home country.

Family happiness was expanded to include two sons from his wife, named Nathaniel and Eleazar. Both died without issue however in later years.

But his time there was blessed by simply being present in the town and enjoying the fellowship of countless Reformed brethren, including John Calvin. Writing to a friend once, he said “In my heart, I could have wished,  yea, and cannot cease to wish, that it might please God to guide and conduct yourself to this place, where, I neither fear nor shame to say, is the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles. In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religions to be so sincerely reformed, I have not yet seen in any other place besides.”  What a statement!

And while all the above was true, that is, “the enjoyment of personal accommodations, the pleasures of literary society, and the endearments of domestic happiness,” as Thomas M’Crie puts it in his book, The Life of John Knox, still Knox couldn’t forget his  own dear congregation languishing in Scotland.  And at the earliest opportunity, and upon receiving advice from the brethren there in Geneva, including that of John Calvin, Knox responded to the clarion call to return to the Scottish fray in May 1559.  It was but a year when the First Reformation, as it has been called, came to Scotland.

Words to Live By:
Every pastor needs a change of pace from the demands of an active ministry. We call it a vacation, yet often it is filled with work.  Sometimes intrusions can come by way of unthinking church members who somehow find out the when and where of the vacationing pastor’s family. It would seem the duties of ministry are never laid down. Yet the importance of a family vacation, a time when the pastor can re-connect with family members, is so very important. So whatever your status, whether a church officer or simply a member of the church, do what you can to press upon your pastor the importance of a family vacation. Don’t let your pastor be a workaholic! Better yet, consider giving him a Sabbatical when he can thoroughly recharge his spiritual batteries from the pressing work of the ministry. He will come back refreshed beyond words to take up again the challenges of ministering to the souls of men, women, and children.

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Today we are pleased to have as our guest author the Rev. Dr. David W. Hall, pastor of the Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) of Powder Springs, GA. It was Dr. Hall who so competently headed up the Calvin 500 celebration just a few years back, a celebration which included the publication of almost a shelf of new works on the life and ministry of John Calvin, with several of those works written by Dr. Hall himself.

Calvin’s Death

calvinJohn02On April 25, 1564, sensing the nearness of death, Calvin filed his final will. In it he pled his unworthiness (“Woe is me; my ardor and zeal have been so careless and languid, that I confess I have failed innumerable times”1) and thanked God for mercy. He appointed his brother, Anthony (whose reputation for divorcing an earlier wife due to adultery had been maliciously used to malign Calvin himself), to be his heir, and in his will he bequeathed equal amounts to the Boys’ School, the poor refugees, and his stepdaughters. He also left part of his meager estate to his nephews and their children. To vindicate Calvin against charges of greed, Beza reiterated what Calvin had stated earlier: “If some will not be persuaded while I am alive, my death, at all events will show that I have not been a money-making man.”2 When his will was notarized and brought to the attention of the Senate,3 members of that council visited the declining Calvin to hear his final farewell personally.

Calvin’s importance and relationship to the city leaders may be gleaned from his Farewell Address to the Members of the Little Council.4 The members of this council had gone to his home to hear his advice and to express their appreciation for the “services he has performed for the Seigneurie and for that of which he has faithfully acquitted himself in his duty.” A contemporary recorded his sentiments from April 27, 1564. In that chronicle, the dying Calvin first thanked these leaders for their support, cooperation, and friendship. Although they had engaged in numerous struggles, still their relationship was cordial. Even though he wished to accomplish more, Calvin humbly suggested that God might have “used him in the little he did.” He urged the senators to honor God and to keep “hidden under the wings of God in whom all our confidence must be. And as much as we are hanging by a thread, nevertheless he will continue, as in the past, to keep us as we have already experienced that he saved us in several ways.”

He concluded by encouraging each one to “walk according to his station and use faithfully that which God gave him in order to uphold this Republic. Regarding civil or criminal trials, one should reject all favor, hate, errors, commendations.” He also advised leaders not to aspire to privilege as if rank was a benefit for governors. “And if one is tempted to deviate from this,” Calvin added, “one should resist and be constant, considering the One who established us, asking him to conduct us by his Holy Spirit, and he will not desert us.”

Calvin’s farewell to these political leaders was followed by his Farewell Address to the Ministers on April 28, 1564. From his chamber, Calvin reminded them poignantly: “When I first came to this Church there was almost nothing. We preached and that was all. We searched out idols and burned them, but there was no reformation. Everything was in tumult. . . . I lived here through marvelous battles. I was welcomed with mockery one evening in front of my door by 50 or 60 rifle shots. Do you think that that could disturb a poor, timid student as I am, and as I have always been, I confess?” The farewell address continued to review his Strasbourg exile, the tensions he faced upon return, and some of his experiences with various councils. Calvin concluded by predicting that the battles would not lessen in the days ahead, warning, “You will be busy after God takes me, even though I am nothing, still I know I prevented three thousand uproars that there might have been in Geneva. But take courage and strengthen yourselves, for God will use this Church and will maintain her, and be sure that God will keep her.”

Calvin humbly confessed: “I say again that all that I did has no value, and that I am a miserable creature. But if I could say what I truly wanted to, that my vices always displeased me, and that the root of the fear of God was in my heart, and you can say that what I was subjected to was good, and I pray that you would forgive me of the bad, but if there is anything good, that you conform yourselves to it and follow it.”

He denied that he had written hateful things about others, and he confirmed that the pastors had elected Beza to be his successor. “Watch that you help him [Beza],” exhorted the dying Calvin, “for the duty is large and troublesome, of such a sort that he may be overwhelmed under the burden. . . . As for him, I know that he has a good will and will do what he can.” Further, he requested that senators not change anything in Geneva’s structures and urged them “not to innovate—we often ask for novelties—not that I desire for myself by ambition what mine remains, and that we retain it without wanting better, but because all change is hazardous, and sometimes harmful.” The advice from this leader is filled with layer upon layer of wisdom.

Always sensitive to the calling to lead in many sectors of public life, he concluded with a plea for his fellow ministers to recall how they would affect matters outside the walls of the church, too: “Let each one consider the obligation he has, not only to this Church, but to the city, which has promised to serve in adversity as well as in prosperity, and likewise each one should continue in his vocation and not try to leave it or not practice it. For when one hides to escape the duty, he will say that he has neither thought about it nor sought this or that. But one should consider the obligation he has here before God.”

calvin_deathbed When Calvin passed away almost a month after making these comments on May 27, 1564, “the whole State regretted” the death of “its wisest citizen . . . a common parent.” He was interred in a common cemetery at Plein Palais, finally finding the anonymity he craved. That, one historian wrote, was characteristic of Calvin in life as in death.5 The widespread notice and sadness at his death should serve to correct any faulty view that his contemporaries either despised him or underestimated his importance. He was mourned, and his large number of friends would keep his memory alive far more than some contemporaries would have predicted.

 

Source: David W. Hall, The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding (Lexington Books, 2003).

1 Theodore Beza, Life of John Calvin (contained in John Calvin, Tracts and Treatises on the Reformation of the Church [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958], vol. 1), cxxv.

2 Theodore Beza, Life of John Calvin, cxxxviii.

3 Beza refers to this Little Council as the “senate.” See Theodore Beza, Life of John Calvin, cxxii.

4 This translation is from an unpublished translation of Calvin’s “Farewell Address,” trans. Kim McMahan of Oak Ridge, TN; originally published in 1999 at: http://capo.org/premise/99/jan/p990110.html.

5 Emile Doumergue, The Character of Calvin (Neuilly, La Cause, 1931), 173.

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An excerpt from Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, edited by Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet (Baker, 1983), vol. 7, p. 183.

“There exists but a small number of letters exchanged between Knox and Calvin. Those of the Scotch Reformer alluded to [earlier in this letter] in Calvin’s answer, have been lost and the letters of the Reformer of Geneva have not had a better fate. Dr. McCrie, the learned historian of Knox, affords no explanation of the loss of this precious correspondence, which leaves in history a void so much to be regretted.”

Geneva, 23d April 1561.

calvinJohn“. . . I come now to your letter, which was lately brought to me by a pious brother who has come here to pursue his studies. I rejoice exceedingly, as you may easily suppose, that the gospel has made such rapid and happy progress among you. That they should have stirred up violent opposition against you is nothing new. But the power of God is the more conspicuously displayed in this, that no attacks either of Satan or of the ungodly have hitherto prevented you from advancing with triumphant constancy in the right course, though you could never have been equal to the task of resistance, unless He who is superior to all the world had held out to you from heaven a helping hand. With regard to ceremonies, I trust, even should you displease many, that you will moderate your rigor. Of course it is your duty to see that the church be purged of all defilements which flow from error and superstition. For it behooves us to strive sedulously that the mysteries of God be not polluted by the admixture of ludicrous or disgusting rites. But with this exception, you are well aware that certain things should be tolerated even if you do not quite approve of them. I am deeply afflicted, as you may well believe, that the nobles of your nation are split into factions, and it is not without reason that you are more distressed and tormented, because Satan is now plotting in the bosom of your church, than you were formerly by the commotions stirred up by the French. But God is to be intreated that he may heal this evil also. Here we are exposed to many dangers. Nothing but our confidence in the divine protection exempts us from trepidation, though we are not free from fears.

knoxJohn04Farewell, distinguished sir and honored brother. May the Lord always stand by you, govern, protect, and sustain you by his power. Your distress for the loss of your wife justly commands my deepest sympathy. Persons of her merit are not often to be met with. But as you have well learned from what source consolation for your sorrow is to be sought, I doubt not but you endure with patience this calamity. You will salute very courteously all your pious brethren. My colleagues also beg me to present to you their best respects.”

Words to Live By:
In my younger years in the ministry, this verse never failed to temper my agitated feelings against those who were my opponents in doctrine and life:
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness, God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” — (2 Timothy 2:24-26, ESV)

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Man Knows Not His Time.

“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”—(Psalm 90:12, KJV)

It was on this day, January 19th, in 1812, that the Rev. Dr. Samuel Miller delivered a sermon “at the request of a number of young gentlemen of the city of New-York who had assembled to express their condolence with the inhabitants of Richmond, on the late mournful dispensation of Providence in that city.” A terrible event, the tragedy caught the attention of the young nation, and throughout the Church, not a few pastors addressed themselves to various aspects of the horrible fire. [See a partial list at the end of the sermon text, below.] By way of background, as Dr. Miller himself relates in a note suffixed to his sermon:—

“On the night of December 26, 1811, the theatre in the city of Richmond, Virginia, was unusually crowded; a new play having drawn together an audience of not less than six hundred persons. Toward the close of the performances, just before the commencement of the last act of the concluding pantomime, the scenery caught fire, from a lamp inadvertently raised to an improper position, and, in a few minutes the whole building was wrapped in flames. The doors being very few, and the avenues leading to them extremely narrow, the scene which ensued was truly a scene of horror! It may be in some degree imagined, but can never be adequately described!—About seventy-five persons perished in the flames. Among these were the governor of the State; the President of the Bank of Virginia; one of the most eminent Attorneys belonging to the bar of the commonwealth; a number of other respectable Gentlemen; and about fifty females, a large portion of whom were among the Ladies of the greatest conspicuity and fashion in the city.”

richmondtheatre

In Dr. Miller’s sermon, the first two major points of his sermon are much more in keeping with what we might expect. However, in his third division of the sermon—the moral applicationMiller uses the occasion to speak out against the theatre as an institution. In this, he echoed a common sentiment among Christians of his day, who generally opposed the theatre and the profession of acting.

For those with the time and interest to read, the text of Dr. Miller’s sermon follows.

A SERMON.

Lamentations 2:1,13: How hath the Lord covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in his anger, and cast down from heaven unto the earth, the beauty of Israel, and remembered not his footstool in the day of his anger! What thing shall I take to witness for thee? What thing shall I liken to thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? What shall I equal to thee, that I may comfort thee, O virgin daughter of Zion? For thy breach is great like the sea; who can heal thee?

THE prophet Jeremiah lived in a dark and distressing day. Religion, among his countrymen, had sunk to an ebb awfully low. The body of the people had become extremely licentious in principle, and corrupt in practice. And a holy God had visited them with many tokens of his righteous displeasure. By fire, by famine, by pestilence, and by the sword, he had taught them terrible things in righteousness; until, at length, wearied with their iniquities, he delivered them into the hands of their enemies, by whom they were, as a people, nearly destroyed.

Over this melancholy scene of guilt and suffering the Prophet composed his Lamentations. And never were scenes of misery, and feelings of anguish, painted with a more masterly hand. Never were the pathos and tenderness, as well as the force of grief, more strongly displayed. As one of the ancient Fathers beautifully expresses it, “every letter appears to be written with a tear, and every word to be the sound of a broken heart; and the writer a man of sorrows, who scarcely ever breathed but in sighs, or spoke but in groans.”

Having been requested, on this occasion, to address my audience with reference to a late awful calamity, well known to you all, which had destroyed many valuable lives, and has covered a sister City with mourning; I have chosen the words just read as the foundation of what shall be offered. May the great Master of assemblies direct us to such an application of them as shall be profitable to every hearer!

How hath the Lord covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in his anger, and cast down from heaven unto earth, the beauty of Israel! What shall I take to witness for thee? What thing shall I liken unto thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? What shall I equal to thee, that I may comfort thee, O daughter of Zion? For thy breach is great, like the sea; who can heal thee?

Without staying, at present, to explain in detail the several parts of this passage, I shall only observe, that by the daughter of Zion, and the daughter of Jerusalem, we are to understand, by a figure common with this Prophet, the inhabitants of the Jewish capital, in which Zion stood; or rather the Jewish nation, the covenanted people, the visible Church of God, under the Old Testament economy. Of course, what the Prophet applies to that afflicted city, may, without impropriety, be applied either to the whole, or any part of a community, who call themselves a Christian people; or who are embraced even by the most lax profession, within the pale of the visible Church.

We may therefore consider the text first, as a devout acknowledgment of the hand of God, in the afflictions which the Prophet laments;—secondly, as an expression of sympathy with the afflicted;—thirdly, as pointing to the moral application of the calamities which he deplored.

I. There is, in the passage before us, a devout acknowledgment of the hand of God, in the affliction which the prophet laments. How hath the LORD covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in his anger! How hath the LORD cast down the beauty of Israel!

The doctrine, that the providence of God extends to all events, both in the natural and moral world; that nothing comes to pass without either his direct agency, or, at least, his wise permission and control; is a doctrine not only laid down in the plainest and most pointed manner in scripture; but also one which results from the perfections and the government of God when admitted in almost any sense. If there be a general providence, there must be a particular one. If God govern the world at all, he must order and direct everything, without exception. Yes, brethren, if it were possible for a sparrow to fall to the ground without our heavenly Father; or if it were possible for the hairs of any head to fail of being numbered by the infinite One; in short, if it were possible that there should be anything not under the immediate and the constant control of the Governor of the world; then it would follow that some things may take place contrary to his will; then prayer would be a useless, nay, an unmeaning service; then Jehovah would be liable, every moment, to be arrested or disappointed in the progress of his plans, by the caprice of accident. But, if none of these things can be supposed without blasphemy, then the providence of God is particular as well as universal. It extends to all creatures, and all their actions.—Is there evil in the city and the Lord hath not done it? No; the devouring fire; the overwhelming tempest; the resistless lightning; the raging pestilence; the wasting famine; and the bloody sword, even when wielded by the vilest of men, are all instruments in the hand of God for accomplishing his will and pleasure. And as the providence of God is actually concerned in every thing which befalls individuals or communities; so he requires us to notice and to acknowledge that providence in all his dispensations towards us. Not to regard the work of the Lord, or not to consider the operation of his hands, he pronounces to be sin; and denying his agency in the works of providence, he expressly condemns, as giving his glory to another.

While, therefore, we deplore the heart-rending calamity which had fallen upon a neighboring city, let us not forget, or place out of sight, the hand of God in the awful scene. It was not the work of chance. A righteous God has done it. His breath kindled the devouring flame. Not a spark of the raging element rose or fell without his providential guidance: not a victim sunk under its destroying power, without the discriminating and immediate hand of sovereign Wisdom. He ordered and controlled all the circumstances attending the melancholy scene. He doth not, indeed afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men. But still affliction cometh not forth of the dust, neither doth trouble spring out of the ground. What! shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil also? The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!

II. The Language of the mourning Prophet, while it notices and acknowledges the hand of God in the calamities which it deplores, at the same time expresses the tenderest sympathy for the sufferers. This is indicated in every line of our text and context: and it is the feeling which ought to be cherished upon every similar occasion.

To sympathize with suffering humanity, however that suffering may have been produced, is a dictate of nature, as well as demanded by the authority of our common Creator. Thou shalt weep with them that weep, is a divine precept. When one member of the body suffers, all the members suffer with it. Thus it is in the social as well as in the physical body. Thus it is in domestic society. And thus it ought to be in the large family of a city, a state, or a nation. When one part of a nation is afflicted, all the rest ought to feel for it. When, therefore, any of our friends or neighbors, or any of the most remote portions of the same associated family are visited with any signal calamity, we are bound to consider it not only as a solemn lesson addressed to the whole body; but also as calling upon us to feel for, and sympathize with them; as they, under like circumstances, ought to sympathize with, and feel for us. When this is not the case, one great design of Jehovah’s judgments, which is to instruct and to impress a whole people, by the calamities of a part, is, undoubtedly, speaking after the manner of men, opposed and defeated.

The melancholy dispensation of providence which we this day deplore, is one pre-eminently calculated to interest the feelings, and to excite the tenderest sympathy of very mind. How shall we speak of a scene of such complicated horror? The heart sickens at the dreadful recital! When our beloved relatives die on the bed of disease, the event is solemn, and the bereavement trying; but it is the course of nature; and the frequency of the occurrence disarms it of more than half its terrors. When our friends and neighbors fall in battle, the stroke is painful; but the soldier is expected, by himself and by others, to be in danger of such an end. When those who sail on the mighty deep, are dashed on the rocks, or swallowed up in the merciless waves, we mourn over the catastrophe; but when be bade them farewell, we remembered that they might never return.

But how shall we describe a calamity which has plunged a whole city into agony and tears? A calamity which, to the number and the importance of its victims, added all the circumstances of horror which can well be conceived, to overwhelm the mind! How sudden the burst of destruction! How unexpected its approach, at such a place, and at such a time! What complicated agony, both to the sufferers and to the survivors, attended its fatal progress! But I dare not attempt further to depict a scene from which the mind revolts with shuddering!

Is there a Husband or a Wife who does not feel for those who saw beloved companions writhing in the merciless flames, and sinking in the most dreadful of all deaths, without being able to afford them relief? Is there a Parent who does not feel for those agonizing fathers and mothers, who saw their endeared and promising children torn from them in an hour of unsuspecting confidence and mirth? Is there a Brother or a Sister who does not sympathize with those almost frantic survivors, who were compelled to abandon to their cruel fate relatives dear to them as life? Is there a Patriot who does not feel for the fatal stroke which snatched an amiable and respectable Chief Magistrate from the bosom of a beloved family, and from the confidence of his fellow citizens? Is there a mind capable of admiring the attractive, the interesting, and the elegant, who is not ready to drop a tear over youth, beauty, genius, learning, and active worth, all sinking together in one smoking ruin? Is there a heart alive to the delights of society, and the endearments of friendship, who does not mourn over the melancholy chasm, which has been made in the social circles of that hapless city?—O Richmond! bereaved and mourning Richmond! What shall we say unto thee? How shall we comfort thee? Thy breach is great like the sea; who can heal thee? None but that God who has inflicted the stroke! O that our heads were waters, and our eyes fountains of tears, that we might weep over the slain of the daughter of thy people!

III. We may consider the passage before us as pointing to the moral application of the calamities which it deplores. Read the rest of this entry »

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