James Francis Armstrong

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A Long Pastorate Under the Pain of a Thorn in the Flesh.

James Francis Armstrong was born in West Nottingham, Maryland in 1750, the son of Francis Armstrong, a ruling elder in the Presbyterian church of that town. James began his education in Pequea, but he showed great promise and his parents were able to secure a place for him in the noted school founded by the Rev. Samuel Blair, at Fagg’s Manor, Pennsylvania. During the time that James was a student there, Samuel’s brother John was the primary teacher, and this was shortly before John Blair was elected to serve as Professor of Theology at Princeton College.

James entered Princeton in 1771 and was accorded the rare privilege of living with the family of the College President, Dr. John Witherspoon. Graduating in 1773, he immediately began preparing for the ministry, studying theology under Dr. Witherspoon’s tutelage. James was then received as a candidate for the ministry by the Presbytery of New Brunswick, in June of 1776, and had passed a number of his examinations and trials for the ministry, but his licensure was interrupted by war, when British troops invaded New Jersey.

With Dr. Witherspoon’s aid and certification, James was able to transfer to the Presbytery of Newcastle, was received there as a candidate and soon licensed to preach, in January, 1777. The battle of Princeton occurred that same month, and we previously told of the death of Chaplain Rosbrugh during that same battle. Like Rosbrugh, James too was stirred with patriotism and joined a volunteer company, though just a year later in 1778 he was ordained and commissioned a chaplain in the Second Brigade of the Maryland Forces. It was during this time of service that he contracted rheumatic fever, and he suffered from this illness for the remainder of his life.

Leaving the Army in 1782, Rev. Armstrong began preaching at the Presbyterian church in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. He married not long after and continued his preaching in Elizabethtown for about another year until his health weakened. When Dr. Elihu Spencer died at Trenton in 1784, Rev. Armstrong was asked to preach the funeral sermon, and this led to a call for him to serve the Trenton church. But it took nearly two years for the church to manage the financial aspects of the call, and Armstrong not installed as pastor until 1786.

Rev. Armstrong served the church from 1786 until his death on January 19, 1816. The entire time of his ministry in that church, he suffered the effects of the disease contracted during the war. Concerning his final year, one biographer wrote:

“It was in the summer of 1815 that he performed his last public service. There was no reason to suppose at that time, that he might not be spared for years, and be able occasionally to bear a part in the services of the sanctuary. On the Sabbath referred to, his text was “Wo is me, if I preach not the Gospel,” and it was noticed that the only Psalm used in the singing was the third part of the seventy-first; the first half being sung at the beginning, and the remainder at the close of the devotional exercises. Nothing could have been more appropriate to his circumstances, or more expressive of what seems to have been the habitual temper of his mind. A few months after this brought his sufferings to a close—he died on the 19th of January, 1816, in the sixty-sixth year of his age, the thirty-eighth of his ministry, and (counting from the date of his call) the thirty-first of his pastorship. The sermon at his funeral was preached by the Rev. Dr. Samuel Miller, Professor in the Theological Seminary at Princeton.”

[I can find no evidence that Dr. Miller’s funeral sermon was ever published.]

Words to Live By:
How remarkable to continue on in an effective life and ministry despite constant pain. Most of us are strangers to pain like that, though perhaps all of us know someone who suffers so. In the Apostle Paul’s case, what he termed a “thorn in the flesh” (II Cor. 12:7-10) was given to him by the Lord, in his case to humble him. And as much as there was the lesson of humility, there was an even greater lesson which applies to us all, that the Lord’s grace is sufficient in the face of every adversity. Moreover, as Matthew Henry notes, when we are weak in ourselves, then we are strong in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

A photograph of Rev. Armstrong’s grave can be viewed here.

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