Peter Thacher.

A sermon preached June 12, 1799, before His Honor Moses Gill, Esq., lieutenant governor and commander in chief : the honorable Council, Senate and House of Representatives of the commonwealth of Massachusetts at the interment of His Excellency Increase Sumner, esq., who died June 7, 1799, aet. 53 online

. (page 25 of 51)
Online LibraryPeter ThacherA sermon preached June 12, 1799, before His Honor Moses Gill, Esq., lieutenant governor and commander in chief : the honorable Council, Senate and House of Representatives of the commonwealth of Massachusetts at the interment of His Excellency Increase Sumner, esq., who died June 7, 1799, aet. 53 → online text (page 25 of 51)
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Very different is the testimony of God's word. While it does
not deny that the influence of evil deeds and of evil men lives
after them, it declares that the influence of good deeds and of
good men, instead of being buried with their bones, lives after
them with a special and superior vitality and power. Thus it is
written, " The memory of the just is blessed, but the name of
the wicked shall rot." God, by his providence and Spirit,
watches over the good deeds and character of the righteous,
preserving them in the minds of men, that they may speak with
beneficial power to succeeding generations and ages. Thus four
thousand years after the death of Abel, the sacred writer in
text said of his righteous conduct ; " By it he, being dead, yet
speaketh." And it is equally true to-day, six thousand years
after his death ; " By it, he being dead, yet speaketh."

During the last week, in this city, there has passed away
from among the living a Christian man, whom God richly en-
dowed with the gifts of nature and of grace, and abundantly
blessed with useful power. His eminent position as a pastor for
many years, and as a preacher of Christ for nearly fifty years, in
this community ; his great influence for a third of a century as
a teacher of sacred theology ; his relation to this church and
congregation, as one who, in the intervals of pastorates, has
supplied your pulpit by his ministrations ; and his relation to
me as my teacher and friend, whose advice commended me to



12

you, and who by prayer and the laying on of his hands conse-
crated me liere, in my youth, to your service for Christ's sake,
in the work of the sacred ministry — these considerations strongly
move me to improve this occasion by a sketch of his life and
services, by which " he, being dead, yet speaketh."

He was born in New Milford, Conn., June 23, 1786, the son
of Nathaniel Taylor, and the grandson of Kev. Nathaniel Tay-
lor, who was for fifty- three years pastor of the Congregational
Church in that town. He was named Nathaniel William —
Nathaniel from his father and grandfather, and William from
his father's brother, who graduated at Yale College in 1785. He
fitted for college with Dr. Azel Backus, pastor of the Church
in Bethlehem, and afterwards President of Hamilton College,
who in his family prepared, for college many youth, especially
of Litchfield county. I have often heard my father, who pre-
pared for college with Dr. Backus at the same time with young
Taylor, speak of his early promise and especially of his boyish
beauty and amiableness. He graduated at Yale College in
1807, six years from the time of his entrance, having been in-
terrupted two years by sickness.

It was at some time during his college life, in his senior year
I think, that he became decidedly a servant of Christ. Ke-
specting that event I have heard him make a statement which
is very instructive and monitory. There was a classmate and
particular friend of his, who at the same time, by the working
of the divine Spirit, was concerned for his eternal interests. The
two friends communicated their feelings to each other. And
one day, while walking together, they raised the question
whether they should then call on President Dwight, who had
invited all persons thoughtful upon religion to call and converse
with him. At length, while still talking and doubting on that
question, they came to President Dwight's gate. There they
stopped and hesitated. At length Taylor said, " Well, I shall
go in." ct Well, (said his companion,) I think I will not, to-
day." Taylor went in ; and the result of his conversation with
that eminent christian guide was that he gave himself to Christ
in a covenant never to be broken, and became " a burning and
a shining light" in his kingdom. His companion from that
time thought less and less on the subject ; and, though he lived
for many years afterward, a respectable man, he died without
giving any evidence of a saving interest' in Christ. Such are
the crises in the history of immortal souls. Such are the turn-*
ing points in eternal destiny. Thus it is that companions travel
together till they come to where they see plainly the open path



13

to Christ. They consider ; they decide ; ihe one taking the way
to everlasting life, and the other pursuing the way to everlast-
ing death. Oh, let all see to it that in these crises of eternal
destiny, they act aright. Kegard the divine warning, and heed
the divine entreaty, " Quench not the spirit."

Mr. Taylor, after graduation, spent an unusual time for that
period, five years, in the study of Theology ; being two years
of the time in the family of President Dwight, as his amanu-
ensis and private pupil. In the year 1812, when he was twenty-
six years old, he was ordained Pastor of the First Church in
this city, as the successor of Professor Stuart, who had been
removed to the newly established Theological Seminary at An-
dover. Ten years after, in 1822, when the corporation of Yale
College, in strict accordance with the design of its founders that
a chief object of the institution should be to prepare young
men for the sacred ministry, established a theological school in
connection with it, he was chosen, at the age of thirty-six, to
the Dwight Professorship of Didactic Theology. This profes-
sorship had been endowed by the liberality of the late Mr.
Timothy Dwight, the eldest son of Dr. Dwight, and was en-
dowed by him chiefly that it might be filled by his admired
friend, Dr. Taylor, who had already shown himself, both by his
sermons and by his published defences of christian truth and
doctrine, to be a master in sacred theology. In this position he
remained until his death at the age of nearly seventy-two, a
period of thirty-six years.

Dr. Taylor did not, however, on entering the professorship,
relinquish preaching, which he greatly loved. He often preached
to the students in college, especially in times of unusual reli-
gious interest, and he was always ready in his room to receive
and direct inquirers in the way of life ; and hundreds and hun-
dreds of young men, afterward laborers in the Lord's vineyard
all over this land and the world, have blessed God for his suc-
cessful guidance of their awakened souls. When the Third
Church was formed in 1826, he preached for them the greater
part of the time till their first pastor was ordained, nearly four
years. For the church which is now the College street Church,
then the Free Church, he preached for a considerable period
before the installation of the Eev. Mr. Ludlow. The pulpit of
this Church he supplied a large part of the time during the in-
terval of four and a half years between the pastorates of Eev.
Mr. Merwin and Eev. Mr. Sawyer. When the Chapel street
Church was organized, he preached for them. And then, when-
ever there was any unusual interest in religion, till his physical



14

vigor began to be impaired, lie was ready to help, and on account
of the great fitness and power of bis preaching for such times,
be was frequently called on to belp, tbe pastors of tbe city. He
bas often been employed by the churches in neighboring towns,
to supply their pulpits, when they have been destitute of a
j)astor. Very few are the churches in this county which he has
not served in this way, and in which there have not been seals
of his ministry. And few have been the Sabbaths during his
long professorship, until the few years past of his advanced age,
in which he was not engaged in his favorite employment of
preaching the gospel.

Such is a brief outline of the life of Dr. Taylor, showing
that not only the College, not only the Church of which he was
once pastor, but all this community, and the people of many
other communities, those to whom he preached in person, and
those, far more numerous, to whom he has preached through
the pupils whom he has taught to preach, have an interest and
property in his memory.

The characteristics of Dr. Taylor's labors in the two depart-
ments in which he has been engaged as pastor and preacher, and
as a teacher of theology, should receive our consideration.

Rarely has a pastor been so beloved by a people ; as is well
attested by their treatment of him during the ten years of his
ministry, and perhaps still more by the pertinacity and liberality
of their affection for him during the thirty-six years after he
left them. The reasons for this are plain. He was commended
to them by his qualities both as a minister and a man. They
knew that he loved their souls, and they admired the gifts and
graces, the wisdom, love and power, with which he commended
" the truth as it is in Jesus" to their hearts. * And in his in-
tercourse with them, as with all men, he was free, frank, affable,
courteous, affectionate, free from all small and mean traits, libe-
ral-minded,* open-hearted and generous.

His physical qualities favored him much as a preacher — a
fine expressive countenance, a beautiful and melting eye, and a
powerful and sonorous voice. The first time I heard him preach,
which was at the Commencement before I entered college, when
he delivered his Goncio ad Clerum, though I was a mere boy of
fourteen years, and incapable of appreciating the intellectual
merits of his discourse, there were some things which I could
appreciate ; and the impression then made upon me that he had
more of manly beauty than I had ever before seen, and was the
prince of preachers, is vivid to this day.



15

The intellectual qualities of his preaching were thorough,
lucid and scriptural exposition and discussion of his subjects ;
a full and frank meeting of difficulties ; bold and powerful
grappling with objections ; fearless reference, in defence of Scrip-
tural doctrine and precept, to reason and common sense ; close
and pungent applications to conscience ; and earnest and touch-
ing appeals to the heart. He scorned to evade the difficulties
of religion, and applied himself to their solution and removal.
He never conceded the ground of reason to the infidel, but ever
maintained, with triumphant confidence, the rationality of
Christianity and the irrationality of infidelity and irreligion.

The language in which he clothed his thoughts was always
elevated, yet terse and strong ; and his imagination, though
not exuberant, was vigorous, and sometimes, when his mind was
filled and fired with divine ideas, it was truly Miltonic.

The truths which constituted the staple of his preaching
were the excellent and glorious character and consequent au-
thority of God ; the nature, the righteousness and glory of the
divine law and government ; God's all-comprehending and
beneficent providence ; the guilty and lost condition of man
on account of his unnecessitated and inexcusable sin ; the
magnifying of the law, and the provision of salvation, by the
atoning sacrifice of the Kedeemer, God manifest in the flesh ;
the necessity of the Holy Spirit's influence for the conversion
and sanctification of men, and the motives, not to passivity but
to action, involved in that truth ; the universality, freeness and
sincerity of God's offers of salvation, and his intense desire that
they should be accepted ; man's full power and consequent ob-
ligation, as a rational and accountable being, to obey all God's
requirements, and of course to accept the offers of the gospel by
repentance and faith ; God's sovereignty in the bestowment of
his Spirit ; the terrors of the Lord in his wrath and everlasting
punishment ; the glories and joys of holiness and heaven ; and
the infinite pity and persevering love of Jesus Christ.

His preaching was specially designed and fitted to convict
men of sin and lead them to Christ — to produce in them the
beginning of a Christian life. This was the one point to which
he made a large part of his preaching tend. A just criticism
probably would say, that it was disproportionately devoted to
this purpose — not enough to the edification, instruction and
completion of the Christian character. This was owing to the
fact that his ministry was in the early part of the era of modem
revivals of religion, when the way of repentance and faith, of
conversion to God, was confused and hedged up with theological



16

difficulties and inveterate obstacles in the public mind. He,
therefore, turned all his mental powers upon the elucidation of
the subject of reconciling sinful men to God through Christ
by repentance and faith ; and upon the doctrines and on the
mental states and processes involved in that he shed great light.

In this special object of his preaching, the conversion of men,
he was eminently successful, among his own people, and where-
ever he preached during his long dispensation of the word. In
the time of " four days meetings," and " protracted meetings,"
and indeed in revivals of religion at every period, his labors
were widely sought. There are doubtless many present who
recollect, as I do, the impressive power of his sermons in the
protracted meetings in this city in 1831 and 1832. No instru-
mentality at that period was more blest with success than his.

Such qualities of mind, and heart, and person, employed in
the use of such truths, made Dr. Taylor one of the ablest
preachers of his time. Indeed, for the effective presentation in
a discourse of a solid body of pertinent scriptural truth, — for
continued and powerful cannonading, more and more power-
ful to the end, on the fortress of the reason, the conscience, the
will, and heart of those unreconciled to God, he had, in my
judgment, no equal in his day among those whom I have had
the privilege to hear.

We have seen that the chief part of Dr. Taylor's mature life,
thirty-six years, more than a third of a century, he spent as a
teacher of theology. In that period nearly seven hundred young
men received his instructions, who have gone into all parts of
our own country and the great missionary field of the world.
A chief part therefore of any just estimate of his character and
usefulness must consist in a right view of his character as a
theologian and theological teacher.

One of his prominent characteristics, as a teacher, was his
great confidence in the truth — in its reality and in its power.
He regarded it as the instrument of divine wisdom, perfectly
fitted for its avowed purpose of enlightening, convincing and
correcting the understanding, and of moving and converting the
heart ; though he deeply felt, and always taught, that, owing to
human sinfulness, perversity and obstinacy, it never has this
effect unless attended by the Spirit of God. He had confidence
in the power of all truth, but especially of the truth of God's
word. He never allowed Christianity, so far as committed to
him, to acknowledge any weakness, or to go begging in any re^«
spect ; before the tribunal of truth and reason ; but he always



17

challenged for it the fullest investigation before that tribunal,
confident of victory in proportion to the fullness of the investi-
gation.

This confidence in the truth, and in the capability of men
under the divine guidance and assistance to know it and to de-
fend it, he imparted to his pupils. He taught them to be
thorough and independent thinkers — to call no man master, and
to go for the truth themselves " to the law and to the testi-
mony." This, doubtless, was right and wise ; though it needed
to be guarded against perversion — a perversion which has some-
times been seen, especially in the earlier ministrations of some
of his students, in inordinate self-confidence, and a too liberal
disregard of seniors and betters and good authorities. His
method of instruction was one of the utmost freedom and
frankness. He never dodged difficulties, nor evaded objections,
but invited their free and full j3resentation and always met
them kindly and fully. His mode was, after finishing his lec-
ture of an hour, to invite questions, saying, " Now I'll hear
you." And often for two hours after lecture I have seen him
patiently and earnestly discussing the objections and difficulties
of those who did not see the way clear.

Dr. Taylor aimed to make his students able to preach so as
to bring men to repentance, faith and salvation. This was his
chief aim. His theological instructions were to an uncommon
extent clustered about the doctrine of regeneration — its nature,
necessity, mode and means. This was natural. For when he
entered on his professorship he came, as we have seen, from
preaching in revivals of religion, and at a time when obstacles
of a doctrinal and speculative kind in the path of repentance
were far more prevalent than now. On the one hand was the
plea of inability to repent and come to Christ, thoroughly be-
lieved, with some a natural inability or want of natural power,
with others a misnamed moral inability, which differed from
the other only in name — in either case a real and total incom-
petency to accept the offers of the gospel, and under the influ-
ence of which men felt that they had nothing to do but to wait
for G-ocl to make them christians, or, as the phrase of the day
was, " to wait God's time." Then there was the objection that
Grod had wholly decided the case for them by an eternal and
irresistible decree of election or reprobation ; and the only rea-
sonable course for them was to wait for its execution, in the use
of such means of grace as reading the Bible, prayer and attend-
ance on the Sanctuary. We have little idea, in these days, of
the prevalence and strength of these obstacles as long ago as

3



18

the earlier part of this century. I have often heard my father
say that in his childhood and youth he was educated in the full
conviction that he could do nothing effectually to become a
christian ; and earnestly desiring to be a christian, and having
received the impression that in the millenium all could become
christians if they would, he used anxiously to reckon whether
the millenium would come in his lifetime ; for should he live
till then, he could accept the offers of the gospel. On the other
hand was the Hopkinsian doctrine that it was sinful to use the
means of grace, and that all the acts of the unregenerate man
are sinful — that all his trying to repent, by prayer or otherwise,
is only an abomination to God. These objections and obstacles
Dr. Taylor had cleared away in his own ministry ; and he felt
the importance of enabling his students to clear them away,
and to teach that the path is open to come at once to Christ by
repentance and faith ; that what God commands man to do,
man can do ; and that the Holy Spirit is graciously bestowed,
not to give him natural power to do it (for that he has as a ra-
tional and accountable being) but to overcome his unwillingness
or disinclination to do it. And this cherished purpose he ac-
complished. His students did learn how to show the open way
to Christ and to press men to immediate repentance ; and they
were very successful, especially his earlier students, in converting
souls to God. No doubt his influence, by his preaching, his
publications, and through those whom he taught, has been, in
large part, the cause of the changed condition of the public
mind respecting the practicability of coming at once to Christ
by repentance and faith.

Dr. Taylor greatly excelled in what may be called the ana-
lytic way of teaching.

He had been a close student of the human mind, especially
in the light of the Bible and actual life ; and he had a pro-
found, comprehensive and discriminating knowledge of mental
states and operations, particularly with reference to morals and
religion. Hence he was able accurately to analyze the acts and
conditions of the mind in religion — to take a mental act or state
to pieces, so to speak, and show its parts and processes, and
whole nature, and how to do it, or to undo it. For example,
repentance or conversion to God — he would show what it is, and
would so unfold its constituent parts and processes that an in-
quirer would know what was to be done by him in becoming a
christian, and how to do it. He did not stop with the direction,
" Eepent and believe," which to most persons was a blind di-
rection j but he would show them what it is to repent and be-



19

lieve, and the way to do it — how to take the first step, and the
second, till, by God's help, it was done. How well I remember
the time when I went to him, asking what I should do to be
saved ! I had talked with others — they had moved my feel-
ings and increased my earnestness, and thus were of service ;
but they did not tell me what to do, so that I could understand
it. They had told me to repent and believe ; but they might
as well have told me to go somewhere they did not know where :
for I did not know what it was to repent and believe, or how to
do it. He saw in a moment my difficulty. In his calm, kind
and earnest way, he told me just what it is to become a christian.
He showed me the way to Christ by repentance and faith, step
by step, so that it was plain ; and I felt that I could go right
to my room and fall on my knees, and by God's help, do it. I
have never seen the man who had anything like his skill in
dealing with inquirers for the way of life. And it consisted
chiefly in his knowledge of the states and operations of the
human mind, and in his analytic way of presenting it. By his
preaching, and writing, and especially through those whom he
has taught, he has, with others like him, been instrumental in
making the way to Christ and salvation far more plain and
practicable than it used to be. It has not been made more easy,
in the sense of diminishing, in the least, conviction of sin, or of
the strength and stubbornness of the human heart in its wick-
edness and aversion to God ; but more easy, in the sense of being
more plain — in other words, by answering more fully and par-
ticularly and practicably the great inquiry, " What must I do
to be saved."

The central peculiarity of Dr. Taylor's theological system may
be described thus. He so represented the divine side and the
human side of religion as to make them harmonize — as to ren-
der theology consistent with itself and with all known truth.
While he admitted that in so profound and comprehensive a
subject as theology, the science of God and his government, there
are mysteries, or things above and beyond our understanding,
he abhorred and scouted the idea that there are in theology
contradictions and absurdities — things which we see and know
to be contradictory or absurd. While he maintained firmly the
doctrines of human depravity, or sinfulness, and that by nature,
of God's foreknowledge and foreordination of all events, of his
electing grace, of the sovereignty of his Spirit, and of the perse-
verance of his saints, he so presented them as that they did not
contradict the equally true and scriptural doctrines of human
freedom, and just accountability. That doctrine of human



20

freedom, which he justly defined, not merely and only as liberty
to do as we will, but also as liberty to will, power to will either
way, he illustrated, and fortified, and defended, and carried
through all parts of his system of morals and theology.* The
result was the removal of many difficulties in theological science,
and greater freedom and power in manifesting the truth to the
consciences and hearts of men.

This feature of his theological system at one time was re-
garded with alarm, very much through misunderstanding, and
he was called Arminian and Semi-Arminian. But time has
fully proved that his mode was altogether the best for the refu-
tation of Arminianism ; while it has done much to bring some
who are called Arminian, some among the Methodists for exam-
ple, to a substantial reception of many of the doctrines which
they had rejected ; and thus it has helped on the harmony,
which, we may hope, may at some time be complete between
different parts of the one flock of Christ.

One peculiarity of Dr. Taylor's system of theological teach-
ing, subordinate to the general one already mentioned, yet so
important as to deserve special notice, was his solution of the
difficult problem of the existence of sin, under the government
of a wise and benevolent God. The common solution had been
that God chose and ordained the existence of sin, when he
might have prevented it in a moral universe, because it was the
necessary means of the greatest good — because he could do more
good with sin than he could without it. This solution Dr.
Taylor rejected with all his heart, as dishonorable to God's
truth and sincerity, as contrary to the divine law and to all ra-



Online LibraryPeter ThacherA sermon preached June 12, 1799, before His Honor Moses Gill, Esq., lieutenant governor and commander in chief : the honorable Council, Senate and House of Representatives of the commonwealth of Massachusetts at the interment of His Excellency Increase Sumner, esq., who died June 7, 1799, aet. 53 → online text (page 25 of 51)