J. C. (John Charles) Ryle.

The Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago online

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Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 29 of 36)
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in fact, the whole foundation of his fame. Thousands and tens
of thousands of Christians have never known anything of Hervey
except as " the author of Theron and Aspasio." His first work,
the Meditations, ran through twenty editions in a very short time,'


and was translated into the Dutch language ! Theron and
Aspasio met with acceptance all over England and Scotland,
and obliged even worldly critics to take notice of it. All these
are plain facts which admit of no controversy. They are facts
which arouse in our minds a little curiosity. We naturally want
to knovv what kind of religious writing was popular in England a
hundred years ago.

The first thought that will probably start up within us as we read
Hervey's Meditations and Dialogues, will be unmixed surprise
and amazement. The style is so peculiar, that we marvel how
our forefathers could possibly have hked it. From first to last
the author writes in such a florid, high flown, luxuriant, bom-
bastic, stilted fashion, that he almost takes your breath away.
You can hardly believe that he is in earnest, and that the whole
thing is not an assumed mannerism and affectation. The long
words, the grandiose mode of expressing thoughts, the starched
and painted dress of the sentences — all, all is so utterly unlike
the writing of the present century, that the reader stands dumb-
founded, and hardly knows whether he ought to laugh or to cry.
In the whole range of popular English books, I do not hesi-
tate to say that I do not know a style of writing less to be
admired than the style of" Theron and Aspasio." One cannot
help inwardly feeling, What a strange standard of public taste
must have prevailed, when such writing as this was deliberately
published and universally admired !

However, first impressions are not always correct. We must
not hastily condemn Hervey's writings as worthless, because
their style is not to our mind. A little calm consideration will
probably show us that there is far more to be said for them than
at first sight appears. A second look at the rector of Weston
Favell's writings will very likely modify our verdict about them.
To those who are disposed to think lightly of Hervey's writings
I venture to submit the following considerations.

For one thing, we must in common fairness remember the


times in which Hervey wrote. The middle of last century was
an era in English literature, when no writing would go down
with the public that was not somewhat stilted, classical, long-
worded, and stiff. The short, plain, cut-and-thrust style of the
present day would have been condemned as indicative of a
vulgar, uneducated mind. Poor Hervey wrote in days when,
moral essays were framed on the model of the Spectator, the
Tatler, and the Ramb/er, and fictions were written like " Sir
Charles Grandison " and " Clarissa Harlow." If he wanted to
get the ear of the public, he had no alternative but to write
according to the public taste. Let us grant that his style of
English composition is far too ornate and florid ; but let us not
forget to lay the blame at the right door. His faults were the
faults of his day. If he had written Theron and Aspasio in a
plain unadorned style, it is probable that the book would have
fallen unnoticed to the ground.

For another thing, we must do Hervey the justice to remem-
ber, that under all the gaudy ornamentation of his compositions
his Master's business is never forgotten. The more we read his
books the more we must admit, that although he may offend our
tastes, he is always most faithful to Christ's truth. It is impos-
sible not to admire the vein of piety which runs through every
page, and the ability with which he defends doctrines which the
heart of man naturally detests. The only wonder is that books
containing so much scriptural truth should ever have become so '
extensively popular. Even Whitefield did not expect so much
acceptance for them. " I foretell the fate of these volumes,"
he said in a letter ; " nothing but your scenery can screen you.
Self will never consent to die, though slain in so genteel a man-
ner, without showing some resentment against the artful mur-
derer." In fact, I always feel that God gave a special blessing
to Hervey's writings on account of his eminent faithfulness to
the gospel in evil times. I look at them with reverence and
respect as weapons which did good service in their day, though


the fashion of them may not suit my taste. To use the author's
own words, they were an " attempt to dress the good old truths
of the Reformation in such drapery of langu-age as to allure
people of all conditions." God was pleased to honour the
effort in its day, and we need not be ashamed to honour it

No well-informed Christian will be surprised to hear that
Hervey's writings did not please everybody. Of course they
were far too Scriptural to escape the enmity of the children of
this world. But this unhappily was not all the enmity that the
author of " Theron and Aspasio" had to endure. His clear and
sharply cut statements about justification gave great offence to
Christians of the Arminian school of theology. John Wesley
openly assaulted his views of imputed righteousness. Sande-
man, a Scotch Independent, fiercely attacked his views of faith.
In short, the amiable rector of Weston Favell-had to learn, like
many other good men, that the most beautiful writing will not
command universal acceptance. The way of accurate Scrip-
tural divinity is a way which many will always call " heresy,"
and speak against.

I will not weary my readers by entering into the details of
Hervey's controversial campaigns. Without pretending to en-
dorse every sentence that he wrote, I feel no doubt that on the
whole he was right, and his adversaries wrong. Cudworth,
Ryland, and others, ably defended him. The only remark that
I make is, that Hervey's spirit and temper, under the assaults
made upon him, were beyond all praise. Never was there a
divine so utterly free from " odium theologicum." Well would
it have been for the credit of the Church of Christ, if the con-
troversialists of the last century had all been as meek, and
gentle, and amiable, and kind-tempered as the author of "Theron
and Aspasio."

The letters which Hervey wrote, on a great variety of subjects,
are exceedingly good, and will repay an attentive perusal. Sit-


ting in his quiet country parsonage, he had time to think over
all that he wrote ; and his correspondence, hke his contemporary
Venn's, is one of the best part of his Hterary remains. Those
who read his letters will fmd their style, as a general rule, very
different from that of " Theron and Aspasio." The writer
seems to come down from his high horse, and to deal familiarly
and easily with men. The following letter to a dying young
lady is a beautiful specimen of his epistolary style, and is so
good all through that my readers will probably not blame me if
I give it to them whole and entire. A fac-simile of it faces the
title-page of my copy of Brown's life of Hervey, and is a per-
fect specimen of small, delicate, finished, copper-plate hand-
writing :

" Dear Miss Sarah, — So you are going to leave us, and
will be at your eternal home before us ! I heartily wish you an
easy, a comfortable, and a lightsome journey. Fear not. He
that died for you on the cross will be with you when you walk
through the valley of the shadow of death. (Ps. xxiii. 4.)

" People that travel often sing by the way, to render their
journey more pleasant. Let me furnish you with a song most
exactly and charmingly suited to your purpose : ' IVho shall lay
anythi?2g to my charge 1 It is God that justifieth vie. Who is
he that condenmeth me ? It is Christ that died; yea, rather, that
is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also
??iaketh intercession for me.'' Shall the law lay anything to my
charge % That has been fully satisfied by the obedience and
death of my divine Lord. Shall sin condemn me ? That has
all been fully borne, all been abolished, by the Lamb of God
which taketh away the sin of the world. Shall Satan accuse
me*? What will that avail when the Judge himself justifies me,
the Judge himself pronounces me righteous ! (See Rom. viii.
ZZi 34^ Gal. iii. 13 ; i Pet. ii. 24; Daniel ix. 24; John i. 29,)

" But shall I be pronounced righteous who have been and
am a poor sinner? Hear what the Holy Ghost saith : ' Christ


loved the Church a?id gave himself for it, that he might present it to
himself a glorious Church, not having spot or tvrinkle, or any such
thifig.' What reason have they to be afraid or ashamed who
have neither spot nor wrinkle, nor any blemish 1 And such will
be the appearance of those who are washed in Christ's blood,
and clothed in Christ's righteousness. They will be presented
faultless and with exceeding joy before the throne. (See Eph. v.
25t 27 ; Jude 24.)

" But what shall I do for my kind companions and dear
friends 1 You will exchange them for better, far better. You
will go to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly
'Jerusalem. You will go to an innumerable company of angels,
to the general assembly and Church of the first-born which are
written in heaven, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.
You will go to God, your reconciled God, the Judge of all, and
to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood
of sprinkling that speaketh better things for you than your
heart can wish or your thoughts imagine. ^ (See Heb. xii.

"Perhaps your spirits are weak. Therefore I will not tire
you. The Lord Jesus make these sweet texts a cordial to your
soul. I hope to follow you ere long, to find you in the man-
sions of peace and joy, and to join with you in singing praise,
everlasting praise, to him who hath loved us, and washed us
from our sins in his own blood. (Rev. i. 5.)

" Into his hands, his ever merciful and most compassionate
hands, I commend your spirit. — Your truly affectionate friend,

" J. Hervey.

"Weston, April ■zd, 1755."

I make no comment on this letter ; it needs none. There
are not many such letters written in these days of universal
hurry, under the influences of railway travelling, electric tele-
graphs, and penny post. The faculty of writing such letters is
fast dying out of the world. But my readers will probably agree


with me that the man who could write to his friends in this
fashion was no common correspondent.

The published sermons of James Hervey are very few in num-
ber. It is much to be regretted that we have no more of them.
The few published are so extremely good, both as to matter and
composition, that one feels sorry he did not give the world a
hundred more of the same sort. Of course, he could never be
a popular preacher. His weak health, feeble voice, and deli-
cate constitution, made this impossible. He often lamented
his inability to serve his people better in the pulpit, comparing
himself to a soldier wounded, bleeding, and disabled, and only
not slain. He would frequently say, " My preaching is not like
sending an arrow from a bow, for which some strength of arm is
necessary, but like pulling the trigger of a gun ready charged,
which the feeblest finger can do." This remark was most true.
No doubt, his want of a striking action and delivery robbed his
sermons of effectiveness. But they were always full of excellent
stuff, excellently put together.

The reader of Hervey's Sermons will discover at once that they
are written in a style very unlike that of "Theron and Aspasio."
He will find comparatively little of that luxuriancy and orna-
mentation to which I have already alluded. He will see, to his
surprise, a mode of address eminently simple, perspicuous,
pointed, and direct, though never degenerating into rant and
vulgarity. The rector of Weston Favell had evidently most
just and wise views of the wants of a mixed country congrega-
tion. He knew that, next to proclaiming sound doctrine, a
minister's first aim should be to be understood. When, there-
fore, he got up into his Northamptonshire pulpit, he deliberately
left behind his flowers and feathers, his paint and his gilding,
his fine words and long sentences, his classical allusions and
elaborate arguments. Usefulness was the one thing that he
desired to obtain, and to obtain it he was not ashamed to speak
very plain English to plain men. The following paragraphs


from a sermon preached by him in 1757, on "The Means of
Safety," from Hebrews xi. 28, will probably be read with interest,
as conveying a fair idea of his style of preaching : —

" Let me give a word of direction. Fly to Christ, alarmed
sinners? Come under the covert of his blood. Appropriate
the blessed Jesus ; look unto him, and his merits are your own.
Thus sprinkle his blood : sprinkle it upon your lintel and door-
posts ; upon all you are, upon all you have, and all you do ;
upon your consciences, that they may be purged ; upon your
souls, that they may be sanctified ; upon your works, that they
may be accepted. Say, every one of you, I am a poor, guilty,
helpless creature; but in Jesus Christ, who is full of grace and
truth, I have righteousness and strength. I am a poor, polluted,
loathsome creature ; but Jesus Christ, who is the image of the
invisible God and the brightness of his Father's glory, has loved
me and washed me from my filthiness in his own blood. I am
by nature a perverse, depraved creature, and by evil practices a
lost, damnable sinner; but Jesus Christ who made the world,
Jesus Christ whom heaven and earth adore, Jesus Christ him-
self came from the mansions of l)liss on purpose to save me, to
give himself for me. And how can I perish who have sucli a
ransom %

" Should you say. Have I a warrant for such a trust? I
reply. You have the best of warrants, our Lord's express per-
mission, 'Whosoever will let him take tlie water of life freely.'
It is not said, this or that person only, but 7cihosoa>er, including
you and me, excluding no individual man or woman. It is not
said, whosoever is worthy, but whosoever is williug. Wilt thou
be made whole? was our Lord's question to the impotent man
at the pool of Bethesda. Wilt thou, all terms and conditions
apart, inherit grace and glory? is his most benevolent address
to sinful men in all ages.

"You have our Lord's most gracious invitation; 'Come
unto me.' And whom does he call? The righteous? No.


The excellent % Quite the reverse. He calls sinners, miserable
sinners, even the most miserable of sinners. Those who are
weary and heavy-laden, overwhelmed with iniquities, bowed
down to the brink of hell, and ready to think, ' There is no
hope.' Yet them he encourages, them he invites ; to them he
declares, ' I will give you rest,' rest in the enjoyment of peace
with God, and peace in your own consciences. Observe and
admire the riches of your Redeemer's grace. He says not, Ye
are vile, wretched, polluted by sin, and enslaved to the devil,
therefore keep at a distance ; but therefore come. Come, and
be cleansed by my blood ; come, and be made free by my
Spirit. He says not. Furnish yourselves with this or that or
the other recommending accomplishment ; but only come.
Come just as you are, poor, undone, guilty creatures. Yea,
come to me for joardon and recovery ; to me, who have given
myself, my life, my all for your ransom.

" Should you still question whether these inestimable bless-
ings are free for you % Remember, brethren, they are free for
sinners. Is this your character'? Then they are as free for
your acceptance as for any person in the world. To us eternal
life is given — not to us who had deserved it by our goodness,
but us who had forfeited it by our sins. To you is preached
the forgiveness of sins — not to you whose transgressions are
inconsiderable, but you whose iniquities are more in number
than the hairs of your head. Even to you who are the lost
and perishing sinner of Adam's family, is the word of this salva-
tion sent. And by God's commission we publish it, that as sinners
}ou may receive it, that receiving it you may commence be-
lieving, and that believiug you may have life through his name.

" Come then, fellow-sinners, believe the record of heaven.
Set to your seal that God is true. Honour his word, which
cannot lie. Honour his grace, which is absolutely free. JEionour
his dear Son, who has obtained eternal redemption for such
unworthy creatures as you and 1."


I have only two remarks to make on the above extract
before I pass on. If any reader of Hervey's works has imbibed
the idea that he could only write English after the model of
" Theron and Aspasio," I advise him to alter his estimate of
the good man's powers. The rector of Weston Favell could be
plain enough to suit the humblest intellect, when he pleased.
If any one thinks that the English pulpit of the present day is
greatly in advance of the last century, I venture to think that
he has something yet to learn. My own deliberate opinion is,
that it would be a great blessing to this country, if we had
more of such direct preaching as some parishes in Northamp-
tonshire heard a hundred years ago.

T\\Q private life of Hervey was in thorough harmony with his
writing and preaching. It is tlie universal testimony of all who
knew him, that he was an eminently holy man. Even the
clergy of the neighbourhood, wlio disliked his theology, and
had no sympathy Avith his ways and opinions, could find no
fault in his daily walk. In fact, they used to call him " Saint
James." He never married, and by reason of ill health seldom
left home, and was confined to the house. But in-doors or
out-of-doors, he was always full of his Master's business, always
redeeming the time, always reading, writing, or speaking about
Christ, and always behaving like a man who had recently come
from his Lord's presence to say something, and was soon going
back again.

His JuuiiUity was eminent. He never considered himself as
James .Hervey, the celebrated writer, but as a poor guilty sinner,
equally indebted to divine grace with the lowest day-labourer
in his parish. To two malefactors condemned to be hanged,
he said : " You have just the same foundation for hope as I
must have when I shall depart this life. When I shall be
summoned to the great tribunal, what will be my plea, and
what my dependence % Nothing but Christ. I am a poor
unworthy sinner; but worthy is the Lamb that was slain. This


is my only hope, and this is as free for you as it is for your
friend and fellow-sinner James Hervey." On publishing his
famous Fast-day Sermons, he observes : '* May the Lord Jesus
himself, who was crucified in weakness, vouclisafe to work by
weakness, or, in other words, by James Hervey !" — When near

his death he wrote to a friend : " I beseech Mr. to unite

his supplication with yours, for I am fearful lest I should dis-
grace the gospel in my languishing moments. Pray for me,
the weakest of ministers and the weakest of Christians."

'Has charity a?id se/f-denial WQTQ most eminent. He literally
gave away almost all that he had, and lived on a mere fraction
of his income. In his giving he was always discreet. "I am
God's steward," he said, "for his poor, and I must husband
the little pittance I have to bestow on them, and make it go as
far as possible." But when money was likely to be particularly
serviceable, as in the case of long sickness or sudden losses, he
would give away five, ten, or fifteen guineas at a time, taking
care it should not be known from whom the money came. His
income was never large, and it might be wondered how he
managed to spare such sums for charitable uses. But he saved
up nothing, and gave away all the profits arising from his books
— which were sometimes large sums — in doing good. In fact,
this was his bank for the poor. " I have devoted this fund,"
he said, " to God. I will, on no account, apply it to any
worldly uses. I write, not for profit or fame, but to serve the
cause of God ; and, as he has blessed my attempt, I think my-
self bound to relieve the distresses of my fellow-creatures with
the profit that comes from that quarter." He carried out this
principle to the very last. Even after his death, he was found
to have ordered all profits arising from any future sale of his
books to be constantly applied to charitable uses.

But space would fail me if I were to dwell particularly on all
the leading features of Hervey's private character. The picture
is far too large to go into the frame of a short memoir like this.


His spirit of Catholic love to all God's people of every denom-
ination — his delight in the society and conversation of godly
people — his faithfulness in reproving sin — his singular love to
Christ, and delight in his finished work and atonement — his
devotional diligence — his veneration for the Scriptures — his
meekness, gentleness, and tenderness of spirit — all these are
points on which much might be written, and much will be
found in the pages of his biography. So far as I can judge,
he appears to have been a man of as eminently saintly character
as any that this country can point to, and one worthy to be
ranked by the side of Bradford, Baxter, and George Herbert.
Few evangelical men, at any rate, in the last century, can be
named, who seem to have had so few enemies, and to have
lost so few friends. None, certainly, were so universally

The closing scene of James Hervey's life was curiously
beautiful. He died, as he had lived for seventeen years, in the
full faith and peace of Christ's gospel. His life had long been
a continual struggle with disease ; and when his last illness
came upon him, it found him thoroughly prepared. Invalids
have one great advantage over strong people, at any rate — a
sudden accession of pains and ailments does not startle them,
and they are seldom taken by surprise. The holy rector of
Weston Favell had looked death in the face so long that he was
no .stranger to him ; and when he went down into the cold
waters of the great river, he walked calmly, quietly, and undis-
turbed. Those glorious evangelical doctrines which he had
proclaimed and defended as truths while he lived, he found to
be strong consolations when he died.

His last attack of illness began in October 1758, and carried
him off on Christmas day. Disease of the lungs, with all its
distressing accompaniments, was the agent employed to take
down his earthly tabernacle ; and he seems to have gone
through even more than the ordinary suffering which such


disease entails. But nothing shook the dying sufferer's faith.
He had his days of conflict and inward struggle, like most of
Christ's faithful soldiers ; but he always came out more than
conqueror, through Him that loved him. An abundant entrance
into rest was ministered to him. He entered harbour at last,
not like a shipwrecked sailor clinging to a broken plank, but
like a stately ship, with all her sails expanded, and wafted
forward by a prosperous gale.

The dying sayings of eminent saints, when God permits
them to say much, are always instructive. It was eminently
the case with James Hervey. Like dying Jacob, he was
enabled to speak to all around him, and to testify his deep
sense of the value of Christ's great salvation. Like Christiana,
in " Pilgrim's Progress," he was enabled to speak comfortably
to those who stood near him, and followed him to the river-
side. To his doctor he wrote, at an early period of his last
illness: "I now spend almost all my whole time in reading
and praying over the Bible. Indeed, you cannot conceive how
the springs of life in me are relaxed, and relaxing. ' What thou
doest, do quickly,' is a proper admonition for me as I approach
dissolution. My dear friend, attend to the one thing needful.
I have no heart to take any medicine ; all but Christ is to me
unprofitable. Blessed be God for pardon and salvation through
his blood ! Let me prescribe this for my dear friend. My
cough is very troublesome ; I can get little rest ; but my never-
faihng remedy is the love of Christ."

On the 15th of December — the month that he died — he
spoke very strongly to his curate, Mr. Maddock, about the
assurance of faith, and the great love of God in Christ. " Ohl"
said he, " how much has Christ done for me, and how little

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 29 of 36)