Repost: “My Own Life” by John Williamson Nevin (part 3)

Part One

Part Two

Between Princeton and Pittsburgh

As I have already said, it had come to a sort of general understanding, before I left Princeton, that I was to pass into the service of the new Western Theological Seminary, whose location was now settled at Allegheny City, a mere suburb, at the time, of Pittsburgh. Dr. Herron, the President of its Board of Directors, had come on to Princeton for the purpose of consulting with the Professors there, in regard to a proper person for the position, and was at once satisfied, that I was the only one to be thought of in the case. The discovery was to him, at the same time, a very welcome one; for although he knew, as yet, nothing of me personally, he had been, in his youth, an intimate acquaintance and friend of my father- – both having grown up in close neighborhood on the banks of the same beautiful stream (my own birthplace also), which still bears, from his family, its old name of Herron’s Branch. He assumed toward me, from the start, the relation of a kinsman, treated me throughout as a son, and continued my fast and firm friend on to the end of his life. The way was not open, however, for the new institution to go at once into full operation; and my own health, besides, seemed to require building up, if it were possible by pursuing, for a time at least, a different kind of life. So there was another interim or break, in what might be called my general academical career. Not so long this time, indeed, as when I came home from College. It lasted only fourteen months. But the period was much in the same way as before, a general vacation from all regular study.
Not this so entirely, however, as I remember, but that I was brought to fall somewhat enthusiastically in love, for part of the time, with what was for me then, the new science of Political Economy. I took the affection (not to say infection) from my acquaintance with Professor Vethake, of Carlisle College; who was happy to find in me one that could sympathize with the turn of his own mind in this direction, and furnished me from his library all the books I chose to read on the subject. It struck me, that the study was capable of being used, with great effect, as an argument from the secular side in favor of Christianity. I was so full of this, that I wrote an article in glorification of the science, and sent it to Dr. Green for publication in his “Christian Advocate;” which, however, was never allowed to make its appearance. Since that day it has fallen to lot to teach Political Economy myself to college classes; but my old admiration of it has long since passed away. Starting from its own merely natural and secular premises, it cannot bring any positive aid to Christianity. It can only end, like all merely humanitarian theories of the world’s life, in showing negatively, through its own self-ruination, the necessity of help from above–a strictly supernatural redemption for society, no less than for the individual man. In this view, even Dr. Wayland’s text-book (now generally used in our colleges), with all its professed Christianity, is no better really than a scheme of infidelity applied to the State. In the principle of his work, what is he better as a teacher in this respect than Say or Adam Smith, Malthus or Jeremy Betham?

But study was not now my proper occupation. I found this rather, while in quest also of health and strength, in preaching the Gospel wherever Opportunity came in my way. I had been accustomed 6t Princeton to a good deal of exhorting and teaching in an informal way; but I was now licensed to preach in full form; and I considered it a privilege, as well as a duty, to exercise such gift as I had freely in this way. My services in churches and school houses, most of the time, were at the rate of twice a week; and they were commonly of a plain, popular character, which caused them to be received with favor.

I set out from the start on the plan of preaching without manuscript, trusting at most simply to a brief outline of points for bringing into use my previous preparation. This subjected me, at times, to a slow and hesitating manner; but I felt well persuaded that, however it might be with others it was the only method which would answer in the end for myself. It was a satisfaction to know also, that it was gratifying to my honored father; for this was a point on which, with many others at that time, he held no uncertain opinion; as may appear from the following characteristic extract from one of his letters, written to me a short time before my leaving Princeton.

“I am not certain,” he says, “whether you intend to read your discourses from the pulpit; but the longer I live I feel the more convinced, that this practice, which is becoming so lamentably prevalent, is doing much injury to our Church. Who does not see, that the Methodists, blundering and limping as they go, secure the attention of their audience more than the formal reader of the most labored production? ‘So did not Paul.’ As he passed along through Athens, he discovered an inscription on some temple, ‘To the Unknown God;’ and he immediately seizes upon it as an appropriate text. There is a certain something– sympathy, or whatever it may be called–communicated by the eye, and flowing indeed from every lineament in the face of an earnest, animated speaker, which is worse than lost in the reader of the same discourse, ever and anon feeding his utterance from the supply before him. ‘If you have come up here,’ said a young man who preached in Mr. Wilson’s church last Sabbath, and married Mr. Mc.’s daughter the Tuesday after—‘If you have come to have your ears tingled and to hear an eloquent speaker, you will be much disappointed.’ Very true; so all such were. But I thought this seemed to imply, that a good man should not desire to hear an eloquent discourse. Now what is eloquence? The mother is eloquent, when she pleads for her child. The slave is eloquent, when he solicits the master, who is about to sell him, not to separate him forever from his family. These practise not ‘attitude and stare, and start theatric.’ They speak as they feel; and every word and tone and gesture, is genuine eloquence. And every minister of the Gospel who enters heartily upon the cause of his Master, and is duly impressed jth the importance of his situation, will display something of this kind of eloquence, less or more. f he does not, he ought to examine himself with fear and trembling. Our friend, McCulloch, read a very labored discourse at Middle-Spring a few Sabbaths ago, and seemed to pride himself that he did not attempt to conceal the sheets, nor silence the rattling of the leaves, as our worthy pastor always takes care to do. He says in fifteen years all our clergymen will read. It may be so; and in that case, I think it might be predicted, that in fifteen years a revival of religion will rarely be heard of in the Presbyterian churches. The misery of confining themselves to their written productions does not end with their pulpit exercises. Such ministers are painfully deficient, when called upon, as it often happens, to speak a word at a funeral, sick room, or many places which will occur to you. Now ready utterance, as well as memory, is improved by exercising it; and, oh how I have felt for the habitual reader on such occasions. What do you think Paul meant, when he urged Timothy to be able to draw upon his treasure for things old and new, things suitable for every time and place? Think you he cautioned his son Timothy to have his pockets and the crown of his hat (if Timothy wore a hat that would answer the purpose), stuffed with written discourse that might suit any emergency?!! But enough. May the Good God, who has hitherto protected and led You on, and to whose cause I have freely surrendered you, furnish you most amply with those gifts and graces which He knows will best forward the mighty work, and make even you instrumental in winning many souls to Christ.”

I may add, in regard to my preaching that, as there was no artificial oratory about it, so neither was it in the ranting Methodistical vein., Its object was to set forth the so-called evangelical truths of Christianity, as I then understood them, in a thorough, earnest and practical way. In this view it had a tendency to take on it more or less of the John Baptist style, holding its position on the threshold of the Gospel more than in the very sanctuary and bosom of the Gospel itself. It was felt to be awakening, searching and solemn; and as something on the whole considerably ahead of the humdrum formal manner, which, in the view of many, had been too much the fashion with the older ministers. As for myself, however, it gave me very little satisfaction; and I never left the pulpit without feeling (and knowing) that my work in it was very much of a botch–so much short did it seem to come of my own ideal of right preaching. At the same time, my religious earnestness was in truth very great; not holding itself to public occasions simply; but improving our hours of family worship also, at home, as a frequent opportunity for private homilies of the most solemn and anxious kind.

Among other objects, the cause of temperance, which was then something new, engaged, at this time, my special zeal0 I threw myself into it with the ardor of a young Melanchthon, expecting all to give way to the mighty reformation. There was presumption in the feeling, of course; and no doubt a certain touch of juvenile fanaticism also, in my manner of preaching it. For the subject was one, on which it seemed to me doing God’s service to be as intolerant as possible. I wrote and published an Address in regard to it, full of severe language; and my temperance sermons, preached in different places, bore down especially, without any sort of mitigation, on what I held to be the heinous son of manufacturing and selling ardent spirits. This, in certain quarters, gave offence; but I rather courted that than otherwise. It was a cheap sort of martyrdom in a good cause. A large and wealthy congregation, I have been told, had it in mind, at this time, to get me for their pastor; but my second sermon before them was an assault on distillers and rum- sellers, to which class of persons, unfortunately, Several of the “pillars of the church” belonged; and the consequence was, of course, the dropping of my name, and a quiet understanding all round hat, even if I could be had, I would not be, there at least, just “the right man in the right place .“

In the spring of 1829, I set out on a horseback excursion, which occupied me for a period of three months. My first point was Pittsburgh, to see after the new Theological Seminary. It had started under Dr. Janeway; but he was now gone away again in disgust; and the whole enterprise looked a good deal uncompromising. Still Dr. Luther Halsey was expected to come on in the fall; and it was now arranged, that I should hold myself in readiness to join him also at that time. My excursion carried me afterwards to Erie, the Falls of Niagara, Saratoga Springs, Schenectady, New Haven, Princeton, and so finally home again by the beginning of July; at which time I took charge, for four months, of the vacant congregation of Big-Spring, in the character of Stated Supply. Many friends there, and among them, especially, the old pastor, Dr. Williams, were very anxious to have me with them permanently. There was also, a serious movement to get me back to Princeton again, in the position of a standing writer of books for the Sunday School Union. But my way was now fully shut to Allegheny City.

Here, however, there fell upon me the shadow of a great sorrow. My father, in the vigor yet of his age and strength, took sick and died. I Was now a man myself, and had gone forth, in a measure, from the parental roof; but in certain respects his felt presence, as a power holding between myself and the world, was still a sort Of need for me almost as much as in my earlier youth. His death brought with it, for me, thus a sense of overwhelming desolation, such as I had never felt before; and caused me to feel as if a large part of my own life had in fact come to an end. It threw upon me at once also, new responsibilities and cares of the most serious kind; for although his family was left in sufficiently good worldly circumstances, it needed years yet of guardianship and guidance; and on me, accordingly, as first-born of the house, this trust fell in its full weight, not simply in the course of nature, but also, by his own dying wish. Here then was a new phase, or turning point in my life, quite as important for its subsequent character as my going soon after to the Western Theological Seminary. I was to be, henceforward, in some measure at least, a man of business as well as a man of letters and books.

I have already, of purpose, allowed the image of my father to come into view, to some extent, in this sketch, speaking, as it were, for itself. Take him altogether, he was a man of rare and admirable nature. Few men surpassed him in fine social and moral qualities. Earnestness and genial humor were happily blended in his spirit. He was loved and respected wherever he was known, both for his public and his private virtues. His soul was the shrine of integrity, honor, kindness and truth; as it refused all contact also, with whatever was vile or mean. His religion too, was of a better kind than common; although there were some things about it, which, to my own judgment, as it then stood, were not altogether satisfactory It was not demonstrative; that was not his nature; but it was unquestionably very sincere, and it wrought as the power of principle, strongly and profoundly, in his whole life. He was not one of those who make haste to be rich, and on whom the love of money grows with their growth in age. On the contrary, there was with him a measure of unworldliness and easy contentment with his outward estate, in this view, which, now that I look back upon it from the general feverish existence of our recent age, seems altogether marvelous. In two things he was quite ahead of his generation; namely, total abstinence from ardent spirits, and a mortal hatred of all slavery. With his last years, there was an evident turning of his thoughts more and more to the solemnities of the invisible world. He seemed to identify himself somehow with the idea of my entering the ministry, and took an interest finally in my preaching as though it were to be by proxy his own work. He gave me to understand that, when I became fairly settled at Allegheny, he would quite possibly sell his farm, and retire with his family to close his days in the same place. That dream, alas, was only half fulfilled; his family did follow me there in fact; but he himself lay down, hoping for the resurrection, beside his own father and mother, in the rural burying ground of Middle-Spring, Only a very short time before his last sickness, I had gone, by special invitation, to preach what might be called a dying sermon at the house of Mr. McKee, an aged bed-ridden elder of the congregation, who soon after departed this life. My father was there also, on foot. The text was Ps. cxlvi. 5: “Happy is he that bath the God of Jacob for his help; whose hope is in the Lord his God.” On our way home, passing through a range of wood in the September twilight, he seemed to be unusually tender and thoughtful; and, among other things, said there was one text, which struck him as especially appropriate and precious on such occasions; the words of the Saviour to His disciples on the Sea of Galilee: “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid” How often have these mystical words come back upon me since, hallowed by this sacred associat1,on ,, He was soon after himself in the midst of the dark sea, whose name is death; but while crossng it, he assured me, in the calmest way, that he had no fear, that he knew in whom he had believed, and was well persuaded that all would come right in the end. d so he passed away in the Lord.

This held me back for a time; and it was not till the beginning of December, therefore, that I crossed the mountains, and joined Dr. Halsey finally in the work of organizing the new Western Theological Seminary.


Retrospective Self-Criticism

When I entered on my work in the Western Seminary, I was passing through the twenty-seventh year of my age, and I felt myself to be at the time pretty well on in life. I had gone through a more than usual course of preparation for the service to which I was called; having spent, after my college course, five years at Princeton (the theological Athens of the Presbyterian Church), in the use of the best opportunities of sacred learning then known in the country. These opportunities, moreover, had not been lost upon me; I had improved them with diligence and success; so that I was acknowledged, on all hands, to be very fairly qualified for the appointment with which I was now publicly honored; as in my own mind also, I may add, I found no occasion at all for shrinking from its duties. In looking back now, however, upon myself as I then was, it is easy enough, of course, to see much that was defective and immature in what I may call my general theological life–much which required, as it has since gained also, in some measure, I trust, development or culture, into a better form. For is it not so, in fact, with every inward life, that is not dead while it seems to live? Must it not move, if it be really alive?

I have but small faith, I confess, in minds which pretend to be, at the age of fifty, just what they were at twenty-five. I consider the mobility of Melanchthon, in this view, something much better than the alleged stability of Calvin; who is magnified, by some, for having written his Institutes when yet quite a young man, and never finding occasion to change the work afterwards. Alexander conquered the outward world, it is true, at the same age. But it is not the right age, surely, for any such monarchy in the world of mind.

At all events, in my own small sphere, as I have now said, there has been a certain amount of movement, unquestionably, belonging to my inward life–a progression of spirit along with the progress of years–which needs especially to be taken into consideration, and, if possible, made intelligible, in the present auto-biographical review. I was not, in my general theological and ecclesiastical views, in 1830, what I came to be a score of years after; and the difference, I consider now to have been, a defect, an immaturity, or shortcoming, on the part of my earlier culture. In this view, it forms a fact which enters essentially into the right understanding of my subsequent life; and here, accordingly, is the proper place for bringing it distinctly into notice. This can be only in the way of a retrospective criticism of what I seem to myself to have been, theologically considered, at the momentous epoch to which we have now come.

First of all, I may say, there was an utter want of proper historical culture in all my thinking at this time. I had not yet awaked at all to the apprehension of what history necessarily is for the life of humanity and the moral world in every view. It was, for me, still a system only of dead outward facts. I had no sense of its constitutional relation everywhere to the inmost significance of these facts themselves. I saw in it no science, much less a philosophy. Its necessary a priori principles and postulates, as connected with the general scheme of the world, had not begun to dawn upon my mind. The true historical feeling–than which there is no one element that enters more essentially into the idea of all really liberal and free culture; the feeling of the past in the present, which is, at the same time, the tact of right judgment also, in estimating each under the view of its proper relation to the other, as well as both together under the view of their proper common relation to the future; all this, I say, was something to which I bad not yet attained, and of which, indeed, I had formed, as yet, no conception. How could it well have been other-wise? History, in this view, is one of the youngest of our sciences–a full regeneration in truth, within the past fifty years, of all that was counted history before. A regeneration, I may add, which we owe to Germany, rather than to England, or our own country. It was no wonder, therefore, that it had not entered as a power into my education at the time of which I now speak.

The general defect became particular, of course, in the sphere of Church history. It is no reproach to Princeton, to say, that the way in which this was studied there, in my time, (and no doubt at Andover also, and New Brunswick), fell utterly short of what has come to be considered since the only satisfactory use of the science. It would have been little less than a miracle for Dr. Miller, deriving his whole life here from the learning of the eighteenth century, to have anticipated at all the new era of Church history, so grandly inaugurated by Augustus Neander. He stood altogether in the old mechanical, and more or less pragmatical period, represented by such men as the rationalistic Mosheim, in Germany, and the pietistically feeble Joseph Milner, in England. Our text-book was Mosheim, with a general caution in regard to his cold, unevangelical spirit, and the kindly counsel to use Milner, as a wholesome qualification. I studied both, as in duty bound; the one for his learning, the other for his piety; but with no great edification, between them, either way. I can well remember the dreary sense I got of the Christian ages from Mosheim. Milner was more to my religious taste; but his purely subjective method of construing men and facts gave me the feeling very much, in reading him, of feeding on unsubstantial wind. To him I owe, however, my first acquaintance with St. Augustine’s Confessions; a work of much account to me, historically, in later life; though under a very different view from that in which it is made to appear, in the evangelical metamorphosis forced upon it by this pious historian, To help out matters, Dr. Miller favored us, from time to time, with lectures of his own. But these added nothing to the life or freedom of the study. They served With all this, however, the work of Christianity upon the world is progressive; hence, there is no indulgence shown any longer to the view, which supposes the highest to have been at once reached in the beginning of the Church; which sees in the time following only a long course of declension and decay, held in check, perhaps, for a short period by the Reformation; and which, so far as the present is concerned, finds no hope (as though sin and the need of redemption on the side of mankind, and the power of salvation on the side of Christianity, were not the same still as in the beginning), save only in wilful eschatological dreams of Christ’s second coming. Just as little, however, does the modern Church history content itself with that so-called pragmatic method, which turns history into the mere play of human caprices and passions without any objective end of its own, actualizing itself through representative men and the general movement of the world’s life. And although some writers (as Guericke, Lindner, Kurtz), find this end only in a one-sided Lutheranism, and some again (as Baur), in the logic of a mere philosophical idea; still the greatest number (Neander, Gieseler, Hare, Schleiermacher, Niedner, Reuter, Hagenbach, Jacobi, Fricke, Schaff, Lange, &c), show a more free position, along with a due sense for the meaning of Christianity, which thus governs, through all imperfections, the general plan of their works. In opposition to the harsh damnatory judgments of the older time against Catholicism and the Middle Ages, especially against the hierarchy, as being a spawn of hell–a temper that extended itself even to a systematic fondling of those whom the Church had expelled from her communion- -room is now made for that historical justice, which not only estimates aright the rise of the hierarchical form of Church government, but candidly acknowledges also, the merits, which belonged to it as a legal discipline for the nations yet in their minority. And the same impartiality is exercised, more or less, prevailingly also, so far as doctrine is concerned, over against heresies and the opponents of the reigning Church faith; inasmuch as the doctrine and belief of the Church, whether in the first ages, or in the time of the reformation, are no longer viewed as complete, in such sort, that their foes must be counted sinners against the full blaze of truth. Since the proper dogmatic shape of Church doctrine is something that is reached only through a succession of constituent elements or factors, it is easy to see how the incompleteness of the moment might lay it open, at each stage, to relatively justifiable criticism and assault; and how heretics themselves, therefore, to speak with Irenaeus, have fallen into error, by wrestling for some partial truth in an intemperate and unskilful way. Considered in such light, false teachers appear also, as organic forces in the process of dogmatic history; forces that are one-sided, indeed, and as such to be overcome; but which, nevertheless, in this view, contribute, at the same time, both direction and momentum to the advancing movement.”

So much from Dr. Dorner, I do not wish to be considered as subscribing to every point in his way of putting the subject. My object in the quotation is simply to set forth what may be regarded now as the general accredited view of Church history, in its most modern form, for the purpose of showing, by contrast, ray own serious deficiency in this department of sacred learning, at the time of which I am now writing. No such idea of the science as this had, as yet, begun so much as to glimmer before me. Historical theology had for me properly no existence; and I may say, nearly as much of historical. Christianity, which I held as a very barren tradition, reaching back dimly, at farthest, to the sixteenth century. As some travel through foreign countries, seeing them only in an outward, transient manner, through the medium of their home prejudices; and so come back not enlarged at all, but narrowed rather, in their thinking; in like sort too much, I may say, had I also traveled through the eighteen centuries of the Christian era, without after all getting clear of the stand-point of my own time and place, So as to see things in any really free way. What fell in with my preconceptions was taken to be right, and what went against them, was set down as no less certainly wrong. I had no power to let the ages speak for themselves; no power to understand them speaking with their own voice. My scheme for the study of them was altogether outward, taken mainly from Newton on the Prophecies and Mede’s Clavis Apocalyptica of an inward, self-moving scheme in the life of the Church itself, I had no conception whatever. I believed, of course, in the “great apostacy;” which was supposed to have started almost immediately after the age of the Apostles; which turned primitive Presbyterianism, first into common Prelacy, and then into the full blown Hierarchy of the fourth century; and which converted the Church itself finally, in the Middle Ages, into the Synagogue of Satan, with the “Man of Sin” (Anti-Christ) presiding over it in the person of the Roman Pope. The whole thousand years before the Reformation were, to my mind, a sort of Devil’s millennium, during which, the powers of darkness had things very much their own way; while the real life of Christianity had been kept up mainly, if not wholly, on the outside of the Church, through such “witnesses of the truth” as the Waldenses, Albigenses, Paulicians, and others, of like outcast character and name, who, it might be presumed, had never been altogether wanting in the Christian world for this purpose. There were great difficulties about this scheme, of course. It was a bewildering chaos of contradictions throughout; from the sense of which there was no escape, save by hiding one’s head, like the ostrich, in the sand. Not only did it turn the middle centuries into a howling waste; it made bedlam also, of the first centuries. Who could understand them? Who could reproduce them in his thinking? Who could pretend to construe rationally their monstrous combinations of light and darkness, truth and falsehood, heaven and hell, Christ and Belial; all linked together in the same Christian life; and forming together the motive power of its triumphant progress in The world? To myself it was a vast enigma, the whole Christianity of those first apostatizing ages. Every one of the early Christian fathers in particular, I may say, from Barnabas and Ignatius down to Augustine and Jerome, confronted me, more or less, as a mystery whose hidden sense I had no power to explain. How could Tertullian be a Christian, by any modern Evangelical standard? Or Chrysostom? Or Ambrose? And yet they, and their like, were the heroes of Christianity in their day, venerable for the Protestant world, no less than the Catholic, to the end of time!

The lack of right historical freedom, however, with which I am now retrospectively charging myself, was not confined to my theory of the ages before the Reformation. It characterized also, my judgment of later times. It was a blindness to the entire world of Lutheranism, almost as much as to the Roman Catholic world. More than this, it was a blindness in large part also, to the general history and meaning of the Reformed Church, the general division of Protestantism, to which I myself belonged. I was not awake to the issues between the grand fundamental Protestant Confessions, Lutheran and Reformed; without which, Protestantism is unintelligible. All my felt ecclesiastical relations were insular and provincial; going very little beyond the religious life of Great Britain, and holding largely throughout in mere American Christianity, as its supposed best product and fruit. Altogether, I stood greatly in need of historical emancipation and enlargement.

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