The Memories of Our Fathers
A Centenary Discourse Addressed to the Members of the
Baptist Churches in the Northampton Association,
Assembled at Rushden, June 7, 1865
By J. T. Brown, College Street Chapel
"Your Fathers, where are they?" -- Zech. i.5
"Your Father did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead." -- John vi.49
"We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, what work thou didst
In their days, in the times of old." -- Psalm xliv.1
"Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today and forever." -- Hebrews xiii.8.
At the request of the Association I have undertaken to say something relative to the present occasion -- the Centenary of the Society; and, in doing so, all I shall attempt will be to notice some points which arise in a review of the past, and some lessons and truths which it suggests.
I. Let us review the period comprised in our history.
1. In glancing back over the past, the first point to be noticed is the time itself. One hundred years have waxed and waned since a very few kindred spirits gathered themselves together at Kettering to form this Association. From some points of view this period seems inconsiderable. A century is but a unit in the mighty sum of time, and a society thus old is only recent. There are institutions around it whose grey antiquity makes it look as an infant of days; there are houses and trees far older; and here and there are living men who were before it. But when regard is had to the few days of man -- the great changes which have taken place -- the work done -- the fullness of events -- the rapid ruin which has overtaken a multitude of persons and things within that space -- then this term of years recovers a certain greatness, and a voluntary society consisting of a succession of frail men inheriting like sentiments, and exposed to all the dissipating forces of earth, reaching its hundredth year belongs old and venerable to our thought. It has long survived its founders; it was a contemporary of some who have been dead long enough to be forgotten, and has seen the whole living world three times "carried away as with a flood" from the face of the earth; it was when things now hardened into history sprang forth; it has lived on while a countless number of objects far younger than itself have risen and flourished and crumbled away.
Small as the time may be in some lights, it is nevertheless great in relation to the fullness of its history. Our society has kept no exact annals of itself; but when you remember that it has embraced many churches -- that each of these has it own life and orbit -- and, further, that the separate history of their several members is included in the whole -- then how much has entered into these hundred years! How much of steady, laborious effort, fulfilled duty, strivings and prayers, agonies and joys, and travail of soul! What an unknown quantity of profound exercises of the heart and what fluctuations of state! It is a scroll, if we could only read it, written within and without with the experience of the times and the men. It grows large, and fills to our imagination with vanished men -- invisible realities -- with noiseless conflicts, and those subtle facts of the soul which "eye hath not seen nor ear heard" -- with a wonderful affluence of life behind the outward, of which we catch some faint glimpses like the broken sight of a far-off land.
And, as we think of the time and its history, we are struck again with the meagreness of what is known compared with the actual. Earth ever draws back into itself such a large proportion of what grows upon its surface. Time does so much even of the rarest life as God did with the body of Moses, when he buried it out of sight and kept its sepulchre a secret. How this actual world thins away into the shade and poor ghost of itself! It is only a skeleton of the living man which is anywhere left -- Only some floating spars of the huge wreck of living things which has gone down in silence into the great deep. So the records of our society are a poor representative of its past history. You may write in a few pages all that is told us about the men -- their meetings -- their ways -- their united spiritual life. We are left to guess the reality from slight hints -- to picture its continuous being from the few bones and unsoldered fragments lying scattered along the way. How much leafage is withered and gone! How the men have shrunk into names, and the meetings into the short dry breviates on the last page of the annual letter, and the signs of their state into the dumb figures in the table of statistics or a casual resolution -- a word dropped here and there! But where is the life, the thought, and emotion; the working of heart beneath all these? where the details of circumstances and facts -- the body of flesh which clothed them? As well might you ask for the faded things: the gleams of beauty -- the sunshine and flowers and warbled notes -- the glory of heaven and earth of those summers long ago. A few years have reduced the history of our Association to such a meager skeleton of its once full and outspread life.
1. In thinking of the time, moreover, there are certain differences which rise into notice. Some things recur again and again as we travel down the years. Whitsun-week comes in its season, and with it the annual gatherings -- its early prayer-meeting, its business, its sermons, and brotherly communion. The names of places as it moves from year to year -- such as are with us this day -- Clipstone, Kettering, Northampton, Olney, return upon us; but beyond these matters, how little else remains the same! What changes have swept over society leaving the broad marks of their progress! What an altered world is round about us! Some of these towns have grown, and are no more like themselves; the old inhabitants have gone out of them into the grave; there is such an air of novelty cast over the whole, that our fathers now walking the streets and entering the chapels where there [their] forms were once familiar as nightly stars, would be as strangers, "alike unknowing and unknown." In other respects, gratifying changes have occurred within and outside ourselves. The little one has become many, the churches have multiplied, and the gospel has spread widely over our country. In numbers, means, and state, Nonconformity has greatly improved, and risen to a more commanding position. Chains which our fathers wore have been struck off from our limbs, and a larger freedom spreads around us. Some evils against which they fought well -- the Test and Corporation Acts, the Slave-trade and Slavery -- have passed away; and now, in this day of ampler light, of altered social condition and greater power, we hold a freer, more open and prosperous life. "The Lord hath done great things for us, whereof we are glad."
2. In the review of our past history we mark also the men who figured in it. Very many of these were obscure at the time, and are now nothing better than a name; nay, not even that. Two or three of the founders, many of the preachers, messengers who pray and take part in the proceedings, have left little else to perpetuate their memory. Here, as far as we know, is the only slight trace of their having ever been upon the earth: a bare mention in these records, like the naked name upon the gravestone, if hungry time has not eaten even that away! No echo of their voice or step lingers in the world. Yet they were once living parts of this society. The few prominent men did not make up the Association: there was a goodly multitude behind them like the less distinguishable figures in the back-ground of a picture where some few appear bold and outstanding in the front. But death has blotted them out, and "cut off their remembrance from the earth."
God, however, has conferred honour upon this Association in that it has had some illustrious names connected with it. Stars of the first magnitude have shone in our sky. Men have been identified with us who, for native intellect, for gifts and culture, for force and beauty of character, for their spiritual loftiness and noble works, have earned a fame which is not only our delight but the glory of the Christian Church and a part of our country's wealth. The names of Carey and Fuller, of the Halls and the Rylands, and others -- our fathers, are heard beyond our borders, and are such as their children rejoice in, and "the world will not willingly let die." Here, in their day, they lived; and then, as we now, so in holy assembly they met. Here Carey, grand in simplicity, came burdened with the divine thought which was working in him, and which was to become the contagious thought of the church. Here Fuller, with his masculine, massive intellect, held the congregation fixed by his strong thought, or subdued them by his solemn pathos. Here Pearce, the seraph of the company, poured out his tender soul. Here the fire of the elder Ryland blazed, and the affectionate earnestness of his son overflowed. Here Sutcliffe, grave and wise, instructed them by his pious sagacity; and here Hall followed his venerated father, not "with unequal steps"1 but with a mind rounded and brilliant as a star, inspired and inspiring, rapt in his theme, and speaking "as with the tongue or angels," charmed the assembled people with his eloquence. Verily, "great men have been among us."
But with all the differences, and whether the men were chiefs or subordinates, there are some things common to them all which now meet our eye as we look back. One holy light is in these stars of differing magnitudes. Great and small are alike consecrated to Christ. He who in heaven is in the midst of the throne, and gathers its many people about himself, is the centre of this earthly group. The eyes of all are upon Him -- all fall down at His feet -- all bring their offerings unto Him: these their greater things, "gold, frankincense, and myrrh," talent, learning, eloquence; and these their less costly, but not less sincere and welcome gifts. For their warm devotion unto Him, far more than for their mental distinctions -- for their spirituality, their fast attachment to "the truth as it is in Jesus," their courageous adherence to their principles "on evil days though fallen" -- for their interest in one another, and wide sympathy with mankind, their manly patience under the wrongs and indignities of the time -- for the charm of their piety which made them dear to their Master in heaven, we hold their memories sacred. "By it the elders obtained a good report." "The beauty of the Lord our God" gleams upon them all; and we feel, as we gaze upon them, that, though many, they are one body -- one fellowship in Christ.
There is another and yet more tender unity which binds them together in our view, as we now remember them: they are all dead. "Your Father, where are they?" Each in his turn came and went; each rose, and shone, and set. The more brilliant were as comets which hang upon our sight for awhile and then depart on their mysterious journey; the rest like forest leaves that have had their summer, and are fallen. It is pathetic to see how one name comes up and recurs for a few annual meetings, and then drops out -- how, after every little while, new preachers preach, and new secretaries act, and new messengers assemble -- how, while the theatre remains, the actors are ever shifting. The towns where they met stand, and the houses in which they were guests -- even the names of the inns where they put up are still read in our streets. These slighter things survive; but they, where are they? "Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness and are dead." "They were not suffered to continue by reason of death." They were greatly different among themselves -- in outward feature, mental powers -- in position, character, and a number of accidents; but there is one thing in which now they are deeply united -- in which the strong are as the weak the intellectual as the more feeble, the prominent actors as the silent figures -- they are all gone, and are sleeping together now in their silent graves.
3. In the review, we may just glance at the work of this society; and, in speaking of the works of our fathers, we do not refer to their more ordinary labour in preaching and ministering to the churches -- in mutual strengthening counsels -- in brotherly aid given to the needy and suffering of their number, but to work of a wider and more lasting kind. Within their own borders they created the Provident Society, ministering priceless comfort to the old and worn-out, to the widow and the fatherless. Civil and religious liberty found them fast friends and warm advocates: their souls ever sprung to its voice, heard at home or abroad, swift and strong and glad. They hailed the earliest movements for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, and nobly stood by the side of Wiberforce and his fellow-workers when the nation deserted and laughed at them. The resolutions upon this subject are among the most honorable minutes in our records. The writings of some -- more especially of Fuller and the Halls, produced a revolution in religious sentiments and practices of which the beneficial effects are growingly visible at this day. A more expansive and generous creed -- a more genial theology -- a warmer liberality softening our rudeness among the churches of Christ -- a larger fellowship and freer activity -- are the fruits of writings for which they brought upon themselves hard words at the time, and have earned the fervent gratitude of a long posterity. But, above all these, our Foreign Mission -- the divinest of modern institutions, the parent of many children, the representative of Christ's mercy, and far-traveling almoner of his grace to the world -- is among the noble imperishable monuments of its history.
II. Let us now proceed to notice some truths and lessons which this cursory review sets forth.
And 1st. As we think of the men, the glory of the Christian doctrine of immortality is impressed upon our minds. We have been speaking of men who, a little while since, were here in all the vivid reality of their being -- each one a living soul with definite relations to this universe, and putting forth his energies within it -- spiritual, devout, holy -- their minds filled with the light of heaven, and their hearts warmed with its fire -- filling up their place and doing their work in the kingdom of God; and we ask, "Our fathers, where are they?" They have most surely gone out from us, their visible ministry at our altars is over, and their place knoweth them no more! We never by any chance catch a glimpse of them returning upon our sight, or hear a voice among all the whisperings of the secret places, "Behold, we are here." The silence which gathered about their exit remains unbroken. Have these, then, who have fallen asleep in Christ, perished? Has the omnivorous grave devoured their souls as well as their bodies? or has the life, so personal and real, which rose up here to think and feel and act, lost all distinctness and fallen back into the infinite, undistinguished being of the universe? It is a pensive fact enough, to feel that they are gone out of their sight; it would be unbearable to think that they have become extinct, like a light burnt out -- that so much mind, sanctified energy of character, moral beauty, so much piety, trained at great cost and capable of much holy service and enjoyment, had been crushed out by the harsh omnipotence of death. It is not, it cannot be that they have perished. Our gospel -- precious for this as well as other things, above all price -- enables us to stand by the tombs of "our fathers," thinking of them with a congratulatory joy, as still retaining their continuous happy being. Death is not omnipotent: it shattered their tabernacle, but it did not touch themselves; it had no power to hurt the higher relations and parts of their nature, nor to meddle with those elements of their character for which we hold them dear, and by which alone many of us know them -- except to set them free, to raise and beautify them, to bring them out in the light of another world in ampler forms and more vivid colours. The kingdom of our Lord is exceeding large -- earth is only one among the many places of his dominion; and somewhere within the invisible realm, and in some heavenly service, these self-same men, who once performed the work of this Association -- each in his own place, and according to the definite personality he carried there -- "serve him day and night." The birds flown from their nest here are gone to sing in some celestial grove.
"He that has found some fledg'd bird's nest may know
At first sight if the bird be flown;
But what fair dell or grove he sings in now
That is to him unknown."
Dead silent to us, we know not where they sing; but that they are singing still, this we surely know. "They all live to God." They have only changed their place: their life is in the same direction, though revolving in a higher plane. As, in the earlier days, Carey, Chater, and Daniel, went forth from them to work in India and Ceylon, so they all have now gone out from us and entered heaven to serve there, still like themselves and still joined in spirit with us. The only novelty is the region, the kind of service, and the perfection and glory with which they are crowned. The Gospel comforting us about our dead "with these words," is indeed "the glorious gospel of the blessed God." How poor beside it are the cold, vague words of human philosophy! What a warmth of sunlight is in the Christian truth! How, under its reflection, the distance glows and grows attractive even to men who cling to life and shrink from death!
2. This review reminds us of the permanence of Christian work and influence. Man often survives himself, and his work lives and grows while he sleeps in the grave. He is a fugitive who soon flies away; but the reflection of his image is held for a time by this mortal air. The admiring memory of his fellows receives his photograph and hands it down to children’s children -- it may be for many generations. It is strange to realize the contrast which may thus obtain between the work and result of his specific activity and the workman's own self. He quits the field at evening, and is seen no more: it springs up in renewed harvests. He decreases: it increases. He at last is utterly forgotten: it continues to gain more notice and honor. The old buildings which adorn our towns and villages stand; but where are the builders? Who planted the trees under whose shadow we rest from the noontide heat? What thoughts of nameless men -- what effects of the unremembered existence of multitudes -- are working in the society around us to-day? How the river that enriches our meadows is fed by waters flowing in from unknown springs! Great spiritual movements require more than the little life of a man to carry them out, to mature their form, and realize their expansive advantages. It is enough for one man to begin -- to plant the germ. Time shall take up and perfect his incipient work; that shall prosper when he is dead, as a tree set by his own hands might bear fruit over his grave. It was thus with our fathers: they began labours into which we have entered. The founders are dead; but the Association lives. A thought came from heaven into their hearts, "Let us set apart the first Monday in the month to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit: for religion is low, the world lies in the wicked one, and the days are evil;" and now such prayer-meetings over the world are the fruitful result of that seminal thought. Carey and others of them said, "Let us form a society to spread the Gospel among the heathen;" and in the grandeur of modern missions -- calling forth all churches, uniting different countries, compassing the world -- is the magnificent growth of their early labour. "Their works do follow them."
Their memory, too, is a lasting power. Elisha was strong in death -- his very bones gave life; and a quickening spirit issues from the tombs of our fathers "even to this day." They are at once absent and present -- in heaven and on earth: there in the reality of their personal being; here as a spiritual influence mingling with our assemblies -- hovering about us as we go along our way -- coming to us in the silence of our thoughts -- and working upon our hearts to reprove, to excite, and to comfort us. Who more dead, yet who more living, than they? What great things they did while alive! how much they are still doing, though dead!
This is a fact as encouraging as it is gratifying to us. So our work, if true and spiritual, shall last. We are frail, passing, "not better than our fathers;" but our influence, recognized, shall descend. Some words spoken by us shall blossom when we are withered, and work in hearts who know us not when our force has been long spent. Let us be faithful; and our memory, while it reddens for a short while the evening sky, shall stir shall stir some souls who fondly gaze upon its lingering setting beams; and the results of our ministries, our preaching, our prayers and our lives, shall flow in that "river which makes glad the city of God." Our fathers' example says to us, as we are spread out at work over the field where they laboured before us, "Ye children, be of good courage, for 'your labour is not in vain in the Lord.'"
3. The review brings to our mind some things relating to the connection of Christ with his church. It is the divine element which imparts true greatness to human history. If it were man only who came upon the stage -- if there were nothing more than his thoughts and passions and activities running through it -- then it would be but as an empty pageant or a solemn play. It is God within the world who gives community, and dignity, and importance to the fleeting ages as they roll. The periods of time are "the years of the right hand of the Most High;" the traditions of the church are His divine memorials. They testify of Him; they bring out His image on the ground of the past; they illustrate His power, the largeness of His thoughts, the glory of His character, the tenacity of His purpose, and the fertile resources of His infinite mind. These hundred years are -- on one side -- a tale of men, of their meetings, their experience, their doings; but they involve also a divine story of Christ in union with them. The space is narrow -- the history homely. It is like some limited quiet scene in our own country. There are meadows and woodlands, corn-fields and pastures, with trees and brooks; nothing to strike the eye -- no bold mountains, no rugged grandeur: it is a soft, gentle, homely scene; yet how many individual objects of beauty it contains! What richness of form and what a diffused, manifold life are in it! And this century of our society, how much it tells in its quiet course of the Shepherd and Bishop of His church! It reproduces for us, in other ways, that image of Him walking in the midst of the golden candlesticks which John saw in Patmos. We realize, as we look back over this tract of our history, how He lives with us, cares for us -- how He tries and rewards the faith and patience of His servants -- how He goes and returns -- how He changes His methods, but still Himself remains the same. Who -- as he thinks of the life called forth, the new converts, the succession of ministers and servants, the fitting agencies raised up for the day, the deliverances wrought and results achieved -- who can but be struck with the freshness and reproductive energy of His Spirit working all in all? Whence this new spiritual life springing up as the grass of the earth from year to year -- this impulse descending from soul to soul -- this strength and victory? It is from Him, the foundation hidden within the years.
His abiding presence especially rises into an exceedingly impressive beauty. Our records, as we have said, show endless change. One goeth and another cometh; death reaps his yearly harvest, and each Circular Letter tells his spoils. He smites down on all sides, and the strong, the prominent, the ripe spirits, as they appear, in turn fall beneath his blows; and, at moments, it seems as if all would go; but, through the changes anmd the slaughter, there is One who still keeps his undeparting place -- one presence remains for the children to cling to -- and one agency works on. A voice sweet as an angel's, comes to us from the heaps of ruin; and the years sing to us "Behold, He is alive for evermore." Lo, He is "with you alway, unto the end of the world."
4. This review forces our own position on our notice. We hold a filial relation to these former men. They are our fathers. Many of us were directly born from them: it was from their lips we heard the quickening word and lived. All of us are successors to them in their sphere and work. Our feet now stand where they once stood; their labours, their responsibility, and their honour, it is no trifling thing to call such men fathers. A weight of glory rests upon us: "what manner of persons ought we to be?" how spiritually minded -- how 'strong in the grace which is in Christ Jesus' -- and how given up to Him, to be worthy of an ancestry of such devout and earnest men! Let us take heed that the Roman name suffer no damage from us. Let us follow their faith, "remembering the end of their conversation."
The difference of our position should not be without its effect upon us. Great advantages over them are with us, burdens and trials are taken off, our churches are increased, and we enjoy the fruits of their figthings and toils. Let us give thanks to "the Lord of lords" for His mercy; let this progress, which is His doing, be marvellous in our eyes. It will be a poor return for all His goodness if our gratitude do not take a loftier tone, and consecrate itself to-day in memory of their piety with a greater devotion to the Lord Jesus, "both theirs and ours."
Our altered position has its dangers and its appropriate duties. We may be too lifted up, or our energy relaxed, by the warmer summer air. We may lose, in this easier day, that sense of evil in ourselves and in others -- that living hold of essential truth -- that nearness to the vivifying spirit of our Lord -- that grasp of our principles and manly fidelity to them -- that faith which waiteth only upon Christ -- that fire in the soul and patience of hope which were the power and ornament of our fathers. A listlessness -- a religious easiness -- a life that sleeps upon itself -- is what we have to fear. And yet our day is critical, and calls upon the churches to arise and shake themselves from the dust. Is it a time for slackness, for self-seeking, for sauntering about our palaces in inglorious ease, now that controversy is rife and everywhere the sound "To arms" is heard: now, when the enemy is astir at all points and opposition seems coming towards us like a growing storm: now, when as ever, our dear Lord is despised, and our brethren are perishing all around us? I beseech you, let us arise, and watch, and pray, and labour. Think who we are; and then, as seeing our fathers looking on, as a cloud of witnesses, to see how we -- their sons fight the battles of the Lord, let us gird ourselves to nobler efforts. By their names, by their boldness in Christ, by their diligence and zeal, I [... line missing ...] elder ones, who belong more to them than to us, and who are soon to join them -- and ye younger, who are just coming on the field -- let us all, this day, at the altar where we meet them still, and in our "great task-master's eye," let us give ourselves once more to the Lord. If there be any corner of our hearts reserved from Him -- if anything be kept back -- let us bring that thing now and offer it to Him, and let our whole heart be filled with Him. And if there be any here living hitherto away from Him, and unto themselves, come to-day with us and consecrate yourselves to the Lord.
Finally, they were and are not, and yet are; and we, too, are but strangers and pilgrims on the earth. Now it is with us as it once was with them; and again, a little while, and it shall be with us as it now is with them, New names will appear on the letters; new preachers will occupy the pulpit. We have had our entrance, and we shall have our exit too. The evening cometh, and shall bring us all home. They are gone: they sleep sweetly in their holy beds. Blessed are they! The toil, the heat, the pressure, the weariness are over. "They rest from their labours, and their works do follow them." They had their day of exertion, their burdens, and their cares; but night came, with its respite and hush, and fell as a soft calm on these tired men. Happy are they now!
"Hear what the voice from heaven proclaims
For all the pious dead;
Sweet is the saviour of their names,
And soft their sleeping bed.
Let us be faithful. Let us work on till evening, and then we shall be gathered unto our fathers. First we are united with them in strife and trial and earthly activity, and afterwards in their rest -- their heavenly service and sublime immortal life behind the veil. AMEN.
1 Robert Hall in his preface to his Father's "Help to Zion's Travellers" (originally a sermon preached at the Association), says, "I shall ever esteem it as one of the greatest favors an indulgent providence has bestowed upon me to have possessed such a father, whom in all the essential features of character it will be my humble ambition to imitate, though conscious it must ever be haud passibus aquis." Hall's Works, iv., 433.
[From the Baptist Magazine, 1865, pp. 574-582. -- Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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