Baptist History Homepage

By J. R. Graves

"Ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even
a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away
." James 4:14.

     WHAT means the gathering of this large and anxious concourse I see around me? The deep solemnity that pervades it? The gloom and sorrow pictured upon every countenance! Truly this can be no ordinary occasion. The heart of a whole community has been touched, and its attention arrested by some unusual grief. Need I look for an answer? These weeded habits and the bowed forms of these mourners, and this confined clay, shrouded for the tomb, tell but too plainly where the thunderbolt hath fallen that makes a hearthstone desolate, and turns the fountain of love into bitterness and grief.

      Death, our common enemy, has entered this circle of relatives, and seized and bound his victim in his icy chains before their eyes, and is now hurrying him away to the dusty caverns of the grave.
"The funeral discourse of William D. Martin preached at the residence of Col. Matt. Martin, Bedford County, Tenn."

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     The relative, the brother, the student, and the soldier has fallen. William Davenport Martin, the pride and the promise of the family name, is no more. He ceases to be numbered among the living. The death he so often, and so undauntedly, defied on the field of battle, 'mid the shock of contending armies, he has met and, armed with the Christian's hope, triumphantly vanquished, in the bosom and quietude of his uncle's family - but he fell. Draw near and look into the coffin's depth, upon those calm features, smiling even in death, and say that his warrior spirit expired not in the arms of victory! Say not that this is death. It was to him the conquest of an immortal life!

      The highest glory of a soldier is to die on the field of battle, 'mid the first shouts of victory: but such a departure has no charms for a Christian.

"From such a dying bed,
Though o'er it float the stripes of white and red,
And the bald eagle brings
The clustered stars upon his widespread wings
To sparkle in my sight,
O, never let my spirit take her flight."

      He died as a man, as a soldier, as a Christian would wish to die, in peace with God and man.

      Well may friends and relatives meet around these ashes, and mourn their mutual loss, while religion may approach and gather a fresh trophy - a new and bright star for her already flashing coronal.

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      We have met to improve this sudden and distressing providence and to perform the last rites of our religion for the dead. But these obsequies will not affect the departed. Should your tears fall upon his coffin's lid, he could see them not. Should you call to him through the silent night, he would not answer you. He has passed away from the walks and the reach of the living. Not e'en the trumpet's blast, or the clarion's swell, or the roll of the stirring drum, that beat to arms, can move that cold bosom now, that they once heaved and thrilled with almost invincible energy.

      To the living alone, then, I address myself. To the young and the old, the relative and neighbour, these friends and fellow-soldiers, seated around his remains, let me say: Look upon them again; what you behold, you must, we must all, soon be - a mass of inanimate clay. Tis the lot of us all. Death, our common and implacable enemy, is in pursuit. We are all but the objects of his cruel mockery. When he defers to strike, he holds us, like criminals, cowering, trembling, and terrified at the stroke he threatens. None so bold as to lay his hand upon his heart and say: "I fear him not." He awaits us in various forms; his messenger may meet us in broad sunshine or in deep midnight. Never ready for him, he is ever waiting for us. No previous admonition is given to us, to set our houses in order, to examine the state of our hearts; but in a moment we are launched upon the wreck-covered

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river and hurried away from the sight forever. No bribe can stay the fatal stroke; no obstacle can interpose to parry the deadly blow - like the glittering of an assassin's knife in the dark, the wound is inflicted, the deed is done.

      What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!

      With these remarks, I invite your attention for a few moments to the sentiments of the text: "Ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away!"

      How startling, how humbling, this declaration! Yet how forcibly do we see it fulfilled here before our eyes! Who thought, the evening before his death, that at the rising of the morrow's sun you would behold him a corpse? Did the uncle think for one moment that his hand would then close the eyes forever, that ever looked upon him with love and confidence? Did the deceased think it? You encouraged him with a prospect of recovery. Alas, alas! We "know not what shall be on the morrow." We who remain, though apparently with the prospect of a long life before us, know not how it shall be with us on the morrow. The bowl may be broken at life's fountain - the windows of our friends be darkened for us, and the mourners bear our bodies to the grave.

     The striking points in the text which we propose to notice for a few moments are:

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     I. Life - its fleetness, object.

     II. Death - its nature, origin, certainty.

      I. "What is your [our] life?"

      Philosophers as well as poets have sought for appropriate figures and comparisons by which to illustrate life.

      "What is life?" said once a follower of a distinguished teacher of antiquity. He was pointed, for his answer, to the burning self-consuming taper. "What is life?" inquired the student to the stoic. The philosopher rose, and with a hasty step passed once around his narrow room, and disappeared through the door in an adjoining apartment.

      Do you ask to-day: "What is life?" Opening this Word of life, I answer:

      1. "Even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time." How frail and unsubstantial is the morning vapour! Job, who is fruitful in illustrations, compares it:

      2. To a weaver's shuttle. How swift its passage through the opening web! And this is life.

     3. As "swifter than a post." How soon the fleet horses reach the destined goal! And this is our life.

     4. As the eagle that hasteth to its prey. How like a thunderbolt he hurls himself from his lofty eyrie upon his victim! Yet this is life. <

     5. As a dream in the night, passed and gone before we are conscious of its existence - like our life!

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      6. As "a tale that is told." With what interest we hang upon the lips of the tale-teller, knowing not at what sentence the tale will close. And this too is life; the more it increaseth, the more it decreaseth; the farther it goeth, the nearer it cometh to death.

      7. Finally, he compares it to "the swift ships." How soon our swift ships sweep the waters of even the wide ocean, and gain the appointed harbour! Thus the bark of life sweeps the waters of time.

      Thus we see how they all labour for expressions, marking a period of the shortest duration, to denote, and vividly impress the mind with, the fleetness of life.

      Yet with all these declarations, verified daily, in the most startling manner, before our eyes, we live on, and plan, and scheme, and lay up stores, and build our cloud-piercing hopes, as though our stay here was for ages, or this our only place of existence. Who records his life as a swift ship, under full press of steam and sail, making the passage of a narrow strait, for a port almost in view? What should we be compelled to think of that fellow passenger who, when assured again and again that he could carry nothing from the ship with him when he landed, and that his passage would be but a few hours, at the longest, would endanger his life and expend all his resources in purchasing tons of beef and pork, 10,000 hats and 5,000 changes of raiment, etc., etc.? In a few hours the vessel

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reaches the port, and he is thrust ashcre to find himself a beggar in a strange land.

      Do you smile at his improvidence and recklessness of all the advice of the captain and passengers, when it might have availed him? How many of this assembly, of you, my hearers, are doing otherwise? Are you not all passengers upon swift ships, rushing across the narrow strait of time to eternity's haven; and as you go, or rather are borne along, are you not adding acres still to your already hundreds? Servants to your already scores? Rearing new and costly mansions in place of old and humbler dwellings, and thus spendiig all your time and expending all your treasures upon your own lusts? But what care are you taking for your souls? Are you securing, through the grace of God, mansions for them in the skies, which shall receive you when your earthly hand-built habitations are no longer of use, and your bodily tabernacles crumble into dust?

      Oh, prisoners of hope! The strait of time is well-nigh passed. In a few moments the ship's beam will strike hard upon eternity's shore, and you thrown overboard upon its beach. Will you be found in that day to have laid up all your treasures in time, and be found a beggar, imploring for oil with which to enable you to see the ever increasing horrors that beset your pathway through eternity's night, and the fierce storms of merited wrath, that must beat upon your houseless and unmansioned

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spirit? Remember to-day the proverb of the wise king: "The prudent man foreseeth the evil and hideth himself; but the simple pass on, and are punished " (Proverbs 22:3).

      II. But what is death?

      In the Scriptures death is described in various ways and designated by various titles.

      1. Death in our text is called a vanishing away - the removing from our sight.

     2. David calls it "the way of all earth." "I go," said he to Solomon, "the way of all the earth." It is a way that all must pass, to that "undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns."

" Not to thy eternal resting place
Shalt thou retire alone. . . .
. . . Thou shalt lie down With patriarchs of the infant world; with kings,
The powerful of the earth; the wise and good;
Fair forms and aged seers of ages past;
All in one mighty sepulchre."

     3. He is called the king of terrors. For at his approach the waters of life freeze back upon their fountainhead, and at his touch heart and flesh fail, and this clayey fabric dissolves into the dust from whence it came.

      4. It is represented by the apostle as a serpent with a deadly sting. He steals gradually and

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stealthily upon his victim, and then in an instant strikes his mortal and immedicable wound.

     5. The Revelator calls death "an enemy," and the "last enemy." Like an enemy, he seems to delight in injuring us, in disappointing all our hopes, and cutting off our brightest expectations. He has slain our fathers and mothers; he has cut off and removed relative and friend far from us; he has smitten our babes in the mothers' arms, and hid our children in the dust. We are all mourners before his face to-day.

"Friend after friend departs;
Who hath not lost a friend?"

     Not satisfied with his slaughter, he lies in wait for us, as we go out and as we return. No place or condition is secure from his attack. Neither the babe at the breast, nor the child at its play, the bride at the altar, no more than the soldier in the smoke and shock of battle.

     6. Death is a leveler of all distinctions. Life is a promoter of titles and honours; death lays them in the dust. The rich and the poor he lays, side by side, in the grave. "There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and the great are there; and the servant is free from his master," saith the king of Israel.1 "What art thou doing with those vile things?" saith the conqueror of the world to Diogenes, whom

1 See Job 3:18-19.
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he saw sitting by the roadside busily employed in separating a pile of bones. "I have, O Alexander, here the bones of thy father Philip and his slave, and am endeavouring in vain to distinguish between them." What a lesson - what a rebuke to the monarch's pride! How humiliating is death! It despoils man of all his boasted wealth, and sends him out of the world poorer than when he entered it. He brought nothing but a naked body into it, and he is thrust out without even that!

     7. The Bible alone teaches us the nature of death - that it is but a change in passing from one state into another. It is not the cessation of our existence, but the laying aside of one mode for another, upon a more expanded and (if blest) nobler form.

     This earth is but a training spot for the spirit. Here the powers of the soul are matured, developed, and strengthened, for the boundless area of its course in eternity. In an earlier day in this country, you first erected your temporary shelters and rough log houses; and after years of patient toil and studious economy, you secured a competency and wealth to erect your splendid mansion. Was it painful or a fearful thing for you to remove from your old and decayed tenements into your new and magnificent dwellings? Nor will it be to us, if in this life we are wise, and lay up our treasures, and build our hopes above the skies. Death to us will only be a pleasant change, as it was to

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our departed brother here, from a tabernacle of clay, to a house not made with hands, eternal and in the heavens.

     8. The tearfulness and terror of death arises from the uncertainty of what that future state may be, added to a consciousness of sin. "The sting of death [its fear and pain] is sin," says Paul, "and the strength of sin is the law," i.e., conviction of sin. Now, when peace is made with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, the consciousness of sin is removed and the sting of death extracted, and the "end of that man is peace," and often "joy unspeakable and full of glory."

     The Christian's triumph in death is of more value than a conquered world with all its cankering wealth and perishing honours. Balaam saw its glory and burst forth, with his hands closed upon the king's gold, in language like this: "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his." Impious prayer! - and repeated by every sinner to this day. Neither he nor they wish to live the life of the righteous; for if they will, their last end would be like his. Pray to live right, and leave the end with God.

     9. We pause one moment here and learn the origin of death - by man, on account of sin.

     "Wherefore, as by man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; so death hath passed upon all, for all have sinned."1 We know not what the

1 See Romans 5:12.
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condition of man might have been had he remained pure and sinless. He might have lived here until a patriarch of a thousand years, and afterwards translated to a brighter sphere, a lovelier and purer world, associated with those to whom his years would be but those of a child; and when a sire in this, transferred from thence to another still nearer the throne of God, until at last he might be ushered into the heaven of heavens the kingdom of thrones. We can reasonably infer that there would have been no death.

     Thus man laid the necessity upon God to introduce death, and his army of destroyers, and even to shorten to a point the period of his life, else the world He designed originally for a paradise would have been transformed into a very hell. Man also, by the same course, nourisheth sin and keeps it in the world, and speeds it on its flight of destruction. By our sins we are constantly replenishing the quiver of death with arrows, which from his bowstring are thrown into the bosom of our children.

     Having thus noticed life and death, we conclude with the inquiry.

     10. What is the great object of our life? We answer: To prepare for a happy change in death.

     We were placed in this world to make a decision. Two characters are placed before us with their respective claims for us to decide which to serve: One a Holy God, the other a wicked devil. Two

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worlds are opened before us, in which we are to receive our reward; one a world of delight and happiness, the other a world of misery and woe. By accepting the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is freely offered to us all, and yielding obedience to His government, an eternity of bliss is won and eternal ages of despair escaped. To decide between these is this brief period of probation granted, and to exert and leave a salutary influence over those who at present surround and may afterwards follow us.

     A contrast between the closing hours of these two characters will be the only improvement we shall make of this discourse.

     A Christian can look upon death with complaisance; it has no terrors, for his peace is made with God; it is but a change from happiness to glory. He stoops down and looks into the tomb, it brings no gloom upon the soul. Does the spirit die, or the blest affections of the soul go down into the dark and silent grave? Oh, no! "The narrow house, the pall, and breathless darkness," and funeral train but proclaim the body's dissolution. They but celebrate the vanishing away of life's vapour; man does not die. We bury not our friend to-day, but only the form; the clothing which, for a short season, he wore. That cold, impassive clay is not the friend, the brother, the cherished being. "He is not there, he has risen."

     Why then should the Christian fear to die? Why

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dread to lay down his frail body in its resting place, and his weary, aching head on the pillow of repose? Dost thou fear death, aged Christian? Oh, no! "Come the last hour in God's own time, a glorious hope shall make it welcome. Come to the hour of release! and affliction shall make it welcome. Come the reunion with the loved and lost on earth! and the passionate yearnings of affections, and the strong aspirations of faith, shall bear me to their blessed land. Come, death; to this body; this burdened, temporal, frail and failing, dying body; and to the soul; come freedom, light and joy unceasing - come, immortal life!"

     Such are the consolations of Christianity, which, when heart and flesh fail, and the springs of nature cease, like friendly visitors from the cross encircle the dying saint, and throw over him the everlasting arms of divine mercy. But the sinner, how sad, how lonely, will be the couch when his emaciated, strengthless form is stretched, unaccompanied by these dawnings of eternal day! Over his poor, unhappy, wasted clay, no starlight brightens, no cherub wings are hovering. In vain are the arms of friendship extended, or the bosom of love opened. The rays of earthly hope may gleam a moment in the horizon of his mind, but they are cold and cheerless. No vivifying influence passes over his feverish brain; no holy gust of ecstatic joy sublimates the mind. Oh, it is hard dying when these comforts are wanting - when

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the past, the present, and the future, bring in the dreadful sentence that all is lost - when no uplifted arm makes strong the soul, nor points with unerring truth the bright way up to the mansions of felicity.

     But to the Christian, how soft the bed of death; what easy, pleasant dying, when the sweet assurances of God come home to his soul in language that cannot be misunderstood! When his soul, feeling after the promises, finds itself suddenly clinging to the Rock of Ages. It is then that he looks upon the fallen pillars in which he once gloried, with a smile, and beholds unmoved the crumbling tabernacle falling down in ruins, while his new-fledged spirit breaks from its prison and its bonds, and soars away to dip his pinions in the font of light.

"Sure the last end
Of the good man is peace! How calm his exit!
Night dews fall not more gently to the ground
Nor weary, worn-out winds expire so soft."

And such was the death of William Davenport Martin.


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