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 26 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 26 of 51)
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tional views of government, of the nature and tendencies of sir
and of holiness, and of known facts. He insisted that God, so
far from regarding sin as that without which the highest good
could not be done, regards it as good for nothing anywhere, as
evil and only evil everywhere, in all its tendencies and relations ;
and therefore he does not wish it, ever, or anywhere, but forbids
it everywhere, and laments it whenever and wherever it occurs.
His solution of the difficulty was that sin comes in, as a neces-
sary and unavoidable result of such materials as God uses in a
moral universe — to wit, free agents — that notwithstanding all
that can be done, short of breaking down the freedom he has
given, and thus contradicting himself, sin will come in some-
where in the moral realms. Whatever may be thought of the

*With reference to the statement, " They can if they will," he used to say,
in his terse and strong way, " They can if they wont."


correctness of this solution of a difficult question, it must be
admitted that it gives the preachers of God's word freedom
consistently to represent sin as, everywhere and in all its rela-
tions, the abominable thing which God hates ; which freedom
surely they can not have under the solution which he rejected.

A large part of Dr. Taylor's power as a preacher, and as a
teacher of theology, consisted in his profound, comprehensive
and sublime views of God as lawgiver and moral governor ;
that is, governor by law and authority. Out of these grew his
impressive views of law, of moral obligation, of the excellence
of obedience, of the evil and guilt of sin, of the penalty of the
law, and of the atonement, which takes the place, as the ex-
pression of God's mind, of the penalty, in the case of the
penitent and pardoned. These views were not new with him,
for they have been propounded from the time of the younger
President Edwards ; but by him they were enlarged, confirmed
and elucidated, and have been the most successful of the means,
by which those errors which come under the name of Unitarian-
ism have been withstood, and in a great measure subverted.

As Dr. Taylor never published any of those profound lectures,
by which he taught ethics and theology, it is impossible for
those who have not attended his lectures adequately to appre-
ciate him. But the greater part of those who have had this
means of knowing him, and are also familiar with the New
England theologians, beginning with the elder Edwards, will
estimate him as the ablest of them all. Such certainly is my
judgment ; and such will be, I doubt not, the general verdict,
when his works are published.

Having said this, I must also say, in the spirit of fair criti-
cism, that there is one part of his theological system which, in
my view, will not bear the test of time and of light. That is
the self-love theory, or desire of happiness theory, as it has been
called ; viz. that all motives that come to the mind find their
ultimate ground of appeal in the desire of personal happiness ;
and that the idea of right in its last analysis is resolved into a
tendency to the highest happiness. This theory, though advo-
cated by him, was not peculiar to him, and never should be at-
tributed to him as a peculiarity. It was plainly taught be-
fore him, by Dwight ,and the elder Edwards ; though, with his
accustomed frankness and boldness, he gave it, perhaps, greater
prominence than they. But improvement in theology is not
ended : in theology not as it is in the Bible — that can not be
improved — but theology as it exists in the ajmrehension, inter-
pretation, and exposition of men. And one of the improve-


ments, I confidently trust, will be the general acknowledgment
that the idea of right can not be wholly resolved into the idea
of expediency or utility ; and that the idea of right and the
sense of duty, are as real, and as ultimate grounds of appeal or
motive in the mind, as the desire of happiness.

The greatest mistake, in my judgment, which Dr. Taylor has
made in his theological life, was in spending so much of his
precious time as he did, when so often attacked, in proving him-
self orthodox according to human standards. Whether one is
orthodox according to the Bible, God's standard, is a worthy
question ; whether one is orthodox according to varying and
imperfect human standards, is a very inferior if not wholly
worthless question. The time thus spent by him, though he
was completely successful, would have been far better employed
in elaborating, and elucidating, and fortifying by the word of
God and right reason, his own views of truth, and letting his
reputation for orthodoxy take care of itself ; or rather in letting
God take care of it, whom he was endeavoring to glorify.

Still the mistake was natural and almost unavoidable : for he
and many others thought that the usefulness and even the ex-
istence of the theological institution, in which he was a teacher,
would be sacrificed by the numerous assaults made upon his
theological reputation, unless he defended himself, and main-
tained his orthodoxy according to the standards of New Eng-
land theology.

But it is time to close. It is pleasant to know that our be-
loved and admired friend's intellectual vigor did not fail before
he was withdrawn from his active sphere. Even after he was
Cwiifined to his house and his bed, his mind would fire up into
a sacred fervor and eloquence, when he dwelt, as he often did,
on his sublime views of God and Christ, of the law and the'gos-
pel. Such views made him regard as trifling the financial losses
which have occupied so much of the public attention during
recent months. In one of the last walks which he took in his
feebleness, he met an old and familiar friend, who referred to
those losses. "And what are they ?" said he, with rising voice
and kindling eye. " Should we not, like Paul, count all these
things as dross that we may win Christ ? What though the
whole world should fail ? It will work out for those who love
Christ a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." And
thus he pursued the theme till he arrived at his house.

He felt to the last an unabated and even an increased interest
in those views of divine things, which he had endeavored to

. 23

present in his teaching ; and said that he did not know how to
die, there was so much more which he thought he could do here.
When he became unable to read his lectures himself, and even
during the two and a half weeks of his confinement to his bed,
he used to request his daughter to read to him this and that
one which he would indicate. Of one of them, the last which
he wrote, written not more than two months before his death,
his wife said to him : " How I wish that could be put into the
form of a sermon and that you could preach it !" " And 0, how
/wish it/' said he — "0 that I could be permitted to preach
again, and to preach to ministers !"

His gradual decline for several weeks was attended by his
calm and trustful confidence in the grace of God in Christ and
in the ministration of the Spirit, which he had spent his life in
setting forth to his fellow-men. He said, "I wish to go, saying,
as the martyr Stephen did : ' Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' "
After his mind through bodily weakness began to wander, his
thoughts were upon divine truths and heavenly glories, and in a
half unconscious way he frequently repeated the stanza,

" See Salem's golden spires

In beauteous prospect riso !
And brighter crowns than angels wear,

Which sparkle through the skies !"

A few days before he died, and while he was in full possession
of his mind, he called to his bedside his wife,* (between whom
and himself, as all the friends of the family know, there existed
the most devoted, simple and beautiful affection) and, taking
her hand, he said very earnestly, and in that plain Saxon style
which he was so accustomed to use : " I shall not be with you
long ; and when I am called to go, I want you to be very calm
and very quiet, and to let vie go ; and the widow's God will be
your God." He had a strong aversion to an exciting death-bed

Galm and quiet was the scene of his death, even beyond his
wish. He passed away so quietly that it was not known when

* He was married Oct. 15, 1810, to Eebecca Maria Hine, of his native town
New Milford, Conn. She was of his kindred, the daughter of his cousin. Her
maternal grandfather and his mother were brother and sister, of the name of
Northrop. Passing their childhood together, they were early joined in devoted
affection. Referring to this early attachment, Dr. Taylor once said to a friend
that they never were engaged, for there was never any need of it.


he died. His attendants, not long after midnight, had helped
him to an easy position, and took their seats, leaving him appa-
rently asleep. One of them made the remark that he was
sleeping more quietly than usual, and after some time had
elapsed, saying that he had slept longer than usual, he went to
him, and found that he was dead. So the poet's phrase was
literally true respecting him,

" They thought him sleeping when he died."

He is dead ; and the places which have known him here will
know him no more forever. But though dead, like righteous

Oh, that we, my christian friends, may regard his words, as
they sound down to us from the past, exhorting us to he earnest
in prayer and labor for the salvation of men. And, 0, that
you, who are out of Christ, would regard his words — those di-
vine words, from which he used to speak with so much eloquence
and power. " Grod so loved the world that he gave his only
begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish
but have eternal life." " God is angry with the wicked every
day." " Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die ?
turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die!" "Make you a new
heart and a new spirit." " Is he not thy father that hath
bought thee, hath he not made thee and established thee ?"
" Quench not the Spirit." " Now is the accepted time, and now
is the clay of salvation." Through his words let memory preach
to you, and preach not in vain.

Preached in the Chapel of Yale College, March 14, 1858,



Dwight Professor of Didactic Theology.


Livingston Professor of Divinity.

DANIEL XII. 3. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness


What glorious promises are held out, in the Bible, to those
who spend their lives in bringing sinners to God ! They are
pronounced blessed even in their persecutions. Having a part
in the sufferings of Christ, they go to reign with Him on high.
They are forever lifted above the troubles of this dying exis-
tence, as the firmament is exalted above the earth. In the
sphere to which they are removed, they are like the stars set in
the tranquil sky. No man can pluck them down out of the
hand of the Father. They are together there in heaven, shining
on one another, with a mingled radiance, reflected from " the
Lamb who is the light thereof." They do not die and pass
away like the inhabitants of the earth, but they resemble the
stars which have held their course undimmed, from the morning
of creation until now. Their life is everlasting — an everlasting
progress in knowledge, and purity, and blessedness. Yea, when
the stars shall fall, and the heaven depart as a scroll, the Apos-
tles of G-od will continue, near their Redeemer forever and ever !

We cherish the hope that the venerated father whose body
we have lately committed to the grave, was a true minister of
Christ ; and that Christ was with him, according to the promise,
unto the end, and that now he is with Christ in the mansions
prepared for His followers. We honor the Creator when we
recognize any real excellence to be found in his creature. We
honor the Saviour when we admire the fruit of his grace, and



contemplate the work of those whom he has led by the hand.
Only let us keep in mind the words of John the Baptist, him-
self " a burning and shining light :" " A man can receive noth-
ing except it be given him from heaven."

Grant me your attention, while I attempt to delineate the
virtues of the deceased, and interweave the leading circum-
stances of his life and death.

Nathaniel William Taylor was born in the town of New Mil-
ford, Connecticut, on the 23d of June, 1786. His ancestors
were from England. His grandfather, for whom he was named,
was the pastor of the town upwards of fifty years, and a mem-
ber of the Corporation of this College about half that period —
from 1774 until his death. He was a vigorous preacher, a wise
and affectionate counsellor, and an ardent friend of liberty.
During a part of the old French war, he was chaplain of a
regiment of Connecticut troops ; and his farewell sermon to the
soldiers, preached at Crown Point, is an evidence both of his
patriotic zeal, and his christian fidelity. His family were pos-
sessed of wealth. Two of his sons were graduates of the Col-
lege ; but the father of our departed friend was a farmer, and a
highly respected citizen in his native town. There Dr. Taylor
spent his early years. As a boy he was remarkable for his
strength of body, and the activity of his mind. In every school
to which he was sent, as his contemporaries remember, he was
seen at the head of his class. An excellent mother made him,
her youngest son, the object of a love peculiarly tender and
watchful. Time never wore away her image from his grateful
heart. For out-of-door sports, like hunting and fishing, he ac-
quired a hearty relish, which he long retained. His especial
fondness for domestic animals grew up in boyhood. He always
took delight in his garden ; and his uncommon skill in horse-
manship, so well known to all his friends, gave him diversion in
the midst of arduous studies. These characteristics may also
be traced back to his early life.

He prepared for college under the tuition of Dr. Azel Backus,
afterwards President of Hamilton College, who had established
a select school for boys in his parish at Bethlehem. He was a
man of original and decided character, with much intellectual
force and depth of feeling. He became strongly attached to
his young pupil ; and I have heard Dr. Taylor describe a meet-
ing which he had, soon after he had begun to preach, with his
old instructor, when Dr. Backus, placing his hand on the
shoulder of his youthful friend, expressed in a very simple and
touching manner — the tears flowing down his cheeks — the joy


he felt at the report of his success. Dr. Taylor entered college
in 1800, when he was only fourteen years of age ; but he was
soon attacked with an affection of the eyes, which compelled
him to leave. He came back and joined the next class, but he
was again obliged to lay aside study, for the same cause. Once
more he returned, in the autumn of 1805, so far recovered as to
be able to finish the course, and graduate in 1807. But his re-
peated disajjpointments, involving the loss of three years, had,
for the time, chilled his aspirations, and he resumed his studies
in the third instance rather to gratify his parents, than with any
hope, or intention, of becoming a scholar. He said, himself,
concerning this period : " Though I had previously felt an in-
tense interest in study, I had, by that time, entirely lost it.
Occasionally, however, my emulation was stirred ; but it was
to little purpose, as I had abandoned the thought of either
doing or being much in future life." But this apathy was
foreign to his nature, and could not long continue. It was in
consequence of the encouragement which he received from Dr.
Dwight, that he was aroused and inspired with fresh zeal for
intellectual exertion. In his Senior year, he read in the presence
of the class, and before the President, an essay on " The Foun-
dation of Virtue." His classmates who had preceded him, had
failed to apprehend the point of the theme ; and the President
had observed as each of them finished, that they did not un-
derstand the question, but after Taylor had read, the President
remarked with great emphasis : " That is right," — and added
warm words of commendation, which made his young heart beat
quick. His despondency was over ; and to this event he attri-
buted not only his revived enthusiasm, but also the direction
which his studies afterwards took. The circumstance proves
how much a few words of a teacher may effect, if spoken at the
right moment. It was during his Junior year that he became
interested in religion. His mind was profoundly agitated, and
so painful were his convictions of sin, that Dr. Dwight feared
that his reason would be deranged. He obtained, however, a
faint hope in the mercy of God, which was kindled, as he once
told me, by the affecting manner in which the President in one
of his prayers in the chapel, quoted the passage ; "A bruised
reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not
quench." But not until several years afterwards, when he had
come to enjoy a more intimate intercourse with his revered
guide, did he obtain a confirmed hope of everlasting life. His
experimental knowledge of the guilt of sin, and of the awful
condition of an unpardoned soul, gave rise to his solemnity in


expounding the moral government of God, and to the uncom-
promising earnestness with which he insisted on the doctrine of
retribution. It was the testimony of his conscience given dur-
ing his own personal struggle for salvation, that gave vitality
to the deductions of his logic, and moved him towards them.
The great source of religious influence over others, the source
even of the best activity of a man's own intellect, is in the
moral trials, and victories, through which he has gone himself.
During the next year after his graduation, Dr. Taylor was
the private tutor of a son of Mr. Van Kensselaer of Albany, and
spent several months in the city of Montreal, where he learned
the French language. He then became a student of theology
with Dr. Dwight, entering his family, becoming his amanuensis,
and writing down,' at the dictation of his teacher, most of the
sermons which compose his Theological System. For this friend
of his youth, his spiritual father, Dr. Taylor ever cherished a re-
verence such as he felt for no other man. May we not hope that
both are now permitted to sit together at the feet of the Great
Teacher ! He obtained his license to preach in 1810, and en-
tered on his work with the utmost ardor. Being called, soon
after, to preach in his native town, with many young men among
his hearers who had been his associates from childhood, he de-
livered a discourse from the text in John's Gospel : " If I say
the truth, why do ye not believe me ?" This passage is one on
which, in after life, he was accustomed to dwell ; one which
he frequently repeated with peculiar emphasis. It is suggestive
of the spirit with which he ever investigated the Gospel, and
strove to bring his fellow-men to the same convictions with him-
self. It is Coleridge, I think, who observes, that a man who
begins by loving Christianity more than truth, will love his sect
more than Christianity, and be apt to end by loving himself
better than either. Dr. Taylor was not of this class. He first
loved the truth, and was a Christian, because he was thoroughly
and conscientiously convinced that Christianity is true. There
was something adventurous, almost chivalrous, in the tone in
which he often avowed his readiness to go wherever the truth
would lead him. All of his pupils will recollect certain sayings
of his to this effect, and the gesture and the flash of the eye,
which accompanied them. He had no faith for which he was
not ready to give a reason. He addressed the understanding on
all occasions, though his highest desire and ultimate purpose
were to affect the feelings and change the will. Every ser-
mon that he preached was an attempt to inculcate important
truth, which he took care to establish by argument and evidence.


He deemed nothing gained, however his hearers might be in-
terested, until their judgment was satisfied. He was unwilling
to have them assent to what he said, unless they saw what they
were agreeing to. Persons who came to him for spiritual coun-
sel never failed to receive an intelligible, rational answer to their
inquiries ; a clear solution of their difficulties ; and hundreds
whom he has guided in this way, into the Saviour's kingdom,
have thankfully testified to the lucid manner in which he ex-
plained to them what they had to do to be saved. He showed
them the obstacles in their way, and they left him, in no
doubt how to remove them. One of his most effective sermons
was on the text "What is truth?" and none who have ever
listened to it can forget how impressively the simple thought is
presented, at the end, that the truth, — the great doctrines of
religion, — is unaltered by the opinions of men, by their belief,
or disbelief, but is everlasting, — a savor of life unto life, or of
death unto death. Dr. Taylor had an enthusiastic confidence
in the power of the truth, when fairly and earnestly proclaimed,
to vanquish error. He despaired of no unbeliever who could be
brought to lend a patient ear to reasoning. Many times I have
heard him say that, were he a young man, he should be strongly
inclined to go to Paris, and associate himself with students and
educated men there, for the purpose of proving to them the
claims of the Gospel. When fully possessed of a truth, he
held it with an iron grasp, and it seemed to him a weapon
"mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds." It
was not in a vaunting spirit, but from a glowing faith in the
efficiency of the truth, and a knowledge that the truth must
win the day, that once, when he was a young man, he said in a
familiar conversation, in reference to preaching, 'it seemed to
him that he could turn the world round/ Let it not be thought
that his high esteem of the truth crowded out the sense of de-
pendence on God. On the contrary, his hope in the truth was
founded on his habitual feeling that the Providence of God is
ever working in favor of it, and that His gracious Spirit is sel-
dom denied when good men are faithful. He shrunk with diffi-
dence from any station that involved much responsibility, and
consented to take the pastoral charge of the first church in New
Haven, as the successor of Stuart, only in consequence of the
almost imperative advice of Dr. D wight.

He was ordained in April, 1812. His sermons were written in
terse, idiomatic English, and in so plain a style as to be level to the
mind of the humblest auditor. His published writings are not
distinguished for perspicuity, but his sermons are. Many who


have merely been acquainted with his reputation as a philoso-
pher, have imagined that his discourses to the people were ab-
truse dissertations, or bold speculations in theology. So far
from this, they were made up of great, simple thoughts, clothed
in a garb so perfect that it was not noticed, and enlivened by
striking illustrations from the Bible, and from common life.
Like some of the Epistles of Paul, and his recorded discourses,
the sermons of Dr. Taylor were, to use a favorite phrase of his
own, specimens of "fervid argumentation." They never omitted
a close, searching, pressing appeal to the conscience. When he
had brought his truth out of the Scriptures, and set it in such
a light that every one saw it, he demanded, in the name of God,
the assent and obedience of his hearers. He insisted on an in-
stant compliance with every known obligation. He demon-
strated the fallacy, and folly, of the excuses of impenitent men
for living without God, and with every warning and every pa-
thetic entreaty, urged them to immediate repentance. Dr.
Taylor was pre-eminently a solemn preacher. He spoke in the
manner of a prophet. His person was beautiful, yet command-
ing, and the deep tones of his voice accorded well with the mo-
mentous doctrines which he was commissioned to enforce. As
the ambassador of God, he knew no fear of man. Since the
days of President Edwards, no one has preached with greater
plainness and directness of application, what some call the severe
truths of religion, — like the justice of God in the eternal pun-
ishment of the wicked. Another side of the Gospel, however,
he likewise loved to present. Among his most useful sermons

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 26 of 51)