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 33 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 33 of 51)
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known by the name of College, at the early age of fifteen,
in the year 1792, about the time that the Rev. Dr. Ewing
became Provost. He pursued the study of law, under the
direction of Joseph Thomas, of Philadelphia, aided, no
doubt, by the abilities of his father. His early compan-
ions and friends were gentlemen who afterward attained
a grade of eminence in their profession which few jurists in
this country have ever reached.* Of Mr. Wilson it is not
too much to say, accommodating the words of the Apostle,
that he was " not a whit behind the very chief of" his as-
sociates. In the exercise of his profession he was remark-
able for the soundness of his counsels, founded on extensive
knowledge of general principles and careful attention to the
particular cases under consideration. He soon obtained a
place in the office of the Commissioner of Bankrupt Law,
and when a young man of only twenty-five, was appointed
" President Judge" of the Court of Common Pleas, in a
judicial district composed of several of the eastern counties
of Pennsylvania, and known as the Seventh Circuit. His

* Among the distinguished persons alluded to, it is sufficient to mention
the names of Mr. Horace Binney, Messrs. Chauncey, and Mr. John Ser-


residence was then at Norristown, where he was held in
high respect and esteem for his virtues as a Christian man,
and his integrity, uprightness and ability as presiding
officer of the Judiciary Department. In this honorable po-
sition it was his habit thoroughly to examine all accessible
data bearing on any litigated matter in question. Keeping
in mind all the points of evidence, great and small, on both
sides, he weighed them in the balance of equity with the
utmost scrupulousness, drew his conclusions with most log-
ical accuracy, and formed his judgment with the most con-
scientious carefulness. Indeed Judge "Wilson was so distin-
guished for the soundness of his decisions, that only one
was ever reversed in a superior court, and that simply be-
cause he had not access to a document which contained
such information on the case as, if known, would have
modified his view.

In the year 1813, the President Judge published Mat-
thew Bacon's Abridgment of the Law, an English work,
with considerable additions by a Barrister.* The Ameri-
can editor informs his readers that his object was " to in-
corporate into " his publication " the substance of the
English decisions" which had been passed since the appear-

* The title of this publication is as follows : A New Abridgment of the
Law. By Matthew Bacon, of the Middle Temple, Esq. With considerable
additions, by Henry Gwillim, of the Middle Temple, Esq., Barrister at Law.
The first American, from the sixth London Edition ; with the addition of
the later English and the American Decisions. By Bird Wilson, Esq.,
President of the Court of Common Pleas in the Seventh Circuit of Penn-
sylvania. In seven volumes. Philadelphia : Published by Philip H. Nick-
lin. 1813.


ance of the last London edition, " together with the cases
upon the same subjects decided in America." The prepa-
ration of this work, which is in seven volumes, large 8vo 5
demanded great labor and research ; and the additions are
characterized by the editor's extensive investigations and
well known accuracy.

During the time that Judge Wilson resided at Norris-
town, he so employed his moral and religious energies, as
to induce the few Episcopalians of the place to erect the
church which stands there at the present day. Of this
church he was Warden for several years, and a delegate to
the Conventions of the Diocese.

His deeply religious character led him, on an official oc-
casion, when his kindly feelings were more than usually
wrought upon, to turn his attention very decidedly to the
sacred office of the Ministry, and on the 12th of March,
1819, he was ordained Deacon, by the Right Rev. Bishop
White, in Christ Church, Philadelphia, and Priest about a
year afterwards. I avail myself of the following extract
from the Episcopal Address delivered to the Convention,
May 3d, 1820, as it shows the esteem in which the vene-
rated Head of the Diocese held two of his clerical sons :

" Our ministry has received a heavy loss in the much
lamented decease of the Rev. Thomas P. May, Rector of
St. John's Church, Norristown, and of St. Thomas's
Church, Whitemarsh. After giving the fairest promise of
future usefulness, he has been taken from us by one of the


inscrutable visitations of Divine Providence. It is an alle-
viation to the loss of the congregation, whose esteem and
affection he possessed, that there was residing within their
hounds, the Rev. Bird Wilson, recently ordained, but long
known among them by his able and faithful discharge of
the duties of a highly responsible office in the judiciary
department ; and who, without delay, was chosen and set-
tled as their pastor."*

Our reverend brother occupied this place until toward
the close of 1821. His intellectual and religious character
had made him widely known and highly respected. At
that time the General Theological Seminary was in opera-
tion in New-Haven. At a meeting of the Trustees, held
in that city on the 24th of July, 1821, Dr. "Wilson was ap-
pointed Professor of Systematic Divinity. In the following
autumn a special General Convention was held, and on the
2d day of November the establishment was re-organized, by
combining with it the Diocesan Institution of New- York ;
and thus was formed the present General Seminary. At
the first meeting of the Trustees, held Dec. 19th, 1821, the
appointment of Dr. Wilson was renewed,! and in the next
spring he entered upon his office.

* Journal of the 36th Convention of the Prot. Epis. Church in the State
of Pennsylvania, p. 10.

t See Proceedings relating to the Organization of the General Theologi-
cal Seminary, &c. Compiled and arranged agreeably to a resolution of the
Trustees. By a Member of the Board (the Rev. Abram B. Hart). New-
York : Daniel Dana, Jr. 1854. 8vo, pp, 89, 95, 96, 122.


This position he continued to hold for twenty-nine years.
To the duties required thereby, and to the general interests
of the Seminary, he devoted this portion of his life. In
November, 1823, he delivered the Annual Address in Trin-
ity Church, which was published at the request of the
Trustees. In this discourse, he takes occasion to represent
the importance of cultivating the Science of Theology. He
recommends attention to it, from its tendency to produce
gratification and improvement both to the mind and to the
heart — to restore to purity and holiness — and to prepare, by
ennobling the human character, for the highest state of its
existence. He then proceeds to note some causes of its
comparative neglect, and concludes by showing the propri-
ety and necessity of promoting its proper cultivation, espe-
cially in connection with the institution of which he ap-
peared as the advocate.

A few years afterward the respected professor made so
strong an impression on the minds of the students, by a
sermon which he preached on Christian and particularly
ministerial duty, that they requested its publication. I
cite a clause from their note, because it shows how rightly
they regarded the character of their instructor. "Deeply
sensible of the various duties of the Christian ministry, the
students cannot appreciate too highly the able exposition
which the subject obtained at your hands, and the feelings
which seemed to animate your bosom at the time of deliv-
ering the discourse. Neither of these, be assured, can
they ever forget." These remarks apply to the whole


course of his professorial action. His instructions on grave
and profound matters of Christian theology were conveyed,
proved, defended, and inculcated, with a degree of feeling
which showed that they had made a radical impression on
the teacher's own mind and heart, a feeling so sincere
and deep as sometimes to restrain utterance. And, indeed,
I have occasionally witnessed the same result of inward
experience and natural sensibility, in his pulpit discourses
on devotional and practical topics. It is needless to add,
that the evidence of such a truly religious character could
not be without a salutary influence on the minds of
thoughtful and well disposed young men, preparing for
the ministerial office.

The character of " able exposition " which the authors
of the request apply to this particular discourse, is equally
applicable to his instructions in general. He was a
thoroughly read English divine, had formed his opinions
on all doctrinal topics, however litigated, with his
characteristic calmness, perseverance, truthfulness, in-
dependence of undue bias, and profound reverence for
the revealed Word, before the clear decisions of which
he caused every consideration which savored of merely
human reason to succumb. The Holy " Scriptures
given by inspiration of G-od," (2 Tim. iii. 16,) were
his only recognized infallible Gruide, his only Rule
of Faith. He never admitted an unproved claim to
positive authority over the human mind. He was not
a man to content himself with the limited view of


some truth, which might be taken in by a hasty glance
from the contracted valley of a partial, one-sided theory.
Acquiring all the important data within his reach,
carefully weighing all fundamental considerations tend-
ing to the settlement of points seemingly doubtful,
feeling the solidity of the ground of which he was
making himself master, he advanced far above the
narrow low lands on which hang the mists of uncer-
tainty and error. Standing upon an elevated and
wide and solid platform, he surveyed the noble domain
of theological science, and included within the com-
prehensive range of his penetrating eye the various
elements and scenes which constitute the divine par-
adise towards which his inquiries had been directed.
His system of divinity harmonized with that of the
more prominent English divines, whose teachings he
fully understood and rightly appreciated. Q,uiet and
composed, he thought for himself. He carefully ex-
amined received opinions ; and, on finding them to be
true, never suffered his faith in them to be shaken in the
least by plausible objections, or even by inexplicable
difficulties. He was a real conservative Episcopalian,
and in his instructions never gave the shadow of a
sanction to novelties whether in doctrine or practice.
At the same time well knowing, from the condition
and circumstances in which men are placed and the
different character of different minds, that to expect
unanimity on all theological points is chimerical, and
unworthy of a man of enlarged understanding and


warm heart, he never thought of excluding from
Christian fraternity any persons, merely because they
differed with him and the Church of his thoughts and
affections on points of doctrine or discipline not de-
monstrably essential to Christian truth. In this,
as in many other respects, he set an example, closely
to follow which may well be recommended to his

As a teacher Dr. "Wilson's habits with his pupils
were such as, in some respects, are worthy of the very
highest commendation. His calmness of character
never failed him. In examining into the degree of
preparation which had been attained, he constantly
kept in mind the agitation which is so apt to unnerve
a modest youth, whose confidence in his own capacity
is but moderate, and also the unreasonableness of ex-
pecting too much from one of slender abilities and im-
perfect education. The inquiries were simple and
directly to the point. When not clearly understood,
they were repeated in different terms, but equally
plain. He asked no leading questions in order to
suggest the right answer. Yet, when the diffident
student's reply gave evidence that he was on the right
track, but not so familiar with the road as confidently
to march over it with firm and rapid steps, he encour-
aged and soothed him by occasionally setting up an
index, or, like a tender father, leading him a few steps
by the hand of affection. Very different from too


many teachers in all departments, he adapted himself
to individual capability, not expecting a ready and in
all respects perfected answer equally from each, hut
giving time to the student, if necessary, to collect his
thoughts, and to clothe them in suitable language,
without interrupting him to supply defects. And yet
defects were not ignored; and the points omitted be-
came the topics of subsequent inquiry. And let me
repeat what was lately said of him by one of his
Right Rev. pupils,* whom we all delight to honor, that,
although he did not usually accompany his exercises
with many remarks of his own, yet what he did say
was always most directly to the purpose, and threw a
bright ray of light on some theological point, which
before was not sufficiently conspicuous to his hearers.

Dr. Wilson took up his residence at the Seminary
building in October, 1827. At that time a very few
country residences were scattered about in the neigh-
borhood, and there was no place of worship, except
one belonging to that religious body which has been
distinguished for producing and sustaining Christian
pioneers. The nearest Episcopal Church was St. Luke's.
In order to accommodate the students themselves, and
also the few church families of the vicinity, the Library
room was soon opened for divine worship on Sunday
mornings. Dr. Wilson and his resident coadjutor
sustained this service several years. Not long after

* Bishop Horatio Potter.


its commencement a Sunday School was established.
Multitudes of children, who had been accustomed to
spend the Lord's Day in idleness and sin, were gath-
ered into the fold of Christ, taught to " fear God and
to keep his commandments," (Eccles. xii. 13,) and
instructed in the true evangelical doctrines of our own
beloved Church. The effort was blessed by its great
Head. As the population gradually increased, and the
rural district assumed the appearance of suburbs, the
congregation also increased ; and it was thought ex-
pedient to adopt measures to erect a temple to be con-
secrated to the service of the living Grod. Thus ori-
ginated first the Chapel and afterward the Church of
St. Peter's, the germ of whose respectable and increasing
congregation was the Sunday School and small body
of worshippers that assembled in the Seminary Library,
and were edified by the instructions of our much valued

In the year 1839 Dr. "Wilson published his very in-
teresting " Memoir of Bishop White,"* which abounds
with facts and reasonings of the highest importance to
Episcopalians. The limits to which the present dis-
course ought to be restricted, which I fear have al-
ready been overstepped, compel me to content myself
with the statement of what is so generally known, with-
out entering into any examination of the work itself.

On the 28th of June, 1848, he resigned his Profes-

* Philadelphia. James Kay & Brother : 8to.


sorship ; but, at the earnest solicitation of the Trustees,
consented to withdraw for a time the resignation. Two
years after, June 25, "1850, he renewed it, acting in
conjunction also with another venerated Professor,* who
was then feeling the infirmities of advancing age,
though, by the good providence of (rod, his family and
friends are still favored with his presence. As a token
of their respect for both these gentlemen, the Trustees
appointed each Emeritus Professor in his respective
department. Here I must be permitted to repeat what
they so fitly and respectfully added to their resolutions,
and to avow the same personal motives which actuated
that honorable body. I quote " the eloquent tribute
of respect paid the retiring professors, contained in the
address of the Right Rev. Bishop of Maine delivered
to the former graduating class."t

" These remarks cannot well be closed without al-
luding to the event which will make this day mem-
orable in the history of this Seminary ; the appearance
for the last time among its instructors of two most
venerated men, whose eminent names, whose hereditary
associations with the best recollections of the Church,
whose consecrated learning, whose assiduous fidelity,
whose judicial wisdom, and whose meek munificence,
will ever be recalled in connection with the earliest

* Clement C. Moore, LL. D., Professor of Oriental and Greek Liter-

t See Proceedings before referred to, June, 1848, pp. 532, 534, 585 ;
June, 1850, pp. 611, 612, 613 ; and Sept. 1850, pp. 652, 653, 654.


fruits, and with all the future honors of the Institution,
which through such a length of years they watched
and served and cherished, and whose foundations must
be their monument. From the heart of the whole
Church no other sentiments but those of reverence
and gratitude, deep reverence and deep gratitude, will
attend them to the retirement, where they shall await,
as we trust, the recompense promised to patient con-
tinuance in well doing."

At the time of this action of the Board, Dr. Wilson
was very nearly 74 years old. Although he had been
favored during his whole life with remarkably good health,
owing doubtless in no small degree to his uniform habits
of temperance, exercise and general self-control ; yet, having
got so far beyond the ordinary period even of advanced life,
he was not without experience of the weakness naturally
associated with " three score years and ten :" Ps. xc. 10.
And although he still continued to live according to the
same uniform habits, yet in a few years his constitution
radically failed, and he became in some degree paralyzed.
The medical aid that was afforded him assisted his strong
recuperative powers, and more than one 3 he recovered
from attacks which in ordinary cases would have com-
pletely prostrated the victim. A severe cold caught on
the 9th of April last affected his whole system, which no
human efforts could invigorate. In addition to general de-
bility produced by this cause, its influence on the brain
seemed almost to destroy his consciousness, and he gradu-

ally sank into a state of torpor. Apparently in the enjoy-
ment of a long and quiet slumber, he reposed on the bed
of death, and at 3 o'clock on the morning of the 14th " fell
asleep" (Acts vii. 60) in Jesus so calmly, that his nearest
relative by the side of his couch perceived at the moment
no indication of the change. The whole period of his long
and useful life, and also its earthly close, were alike
marked by the characteristic which the divine word ap-
plies to the turning point of existence in a true servant of
God. " Mark the perfect man and behold the upright, for
the end of that -man is peace :" Ps. xxxvii. 37. — " Let me
die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like
his!" Num. xxiii. 10.

The prominent facts in the life of the departed, which
the present occasion made it my duty to lay before this
respected audience, are of such a nature, that they could
not be fairly presented without being accompanied by some
representations of his character. I shall, therefore, on this
point, add to what has been already said but a very few
brief remarks.

Our reverend aged brother was a model of Christian
devotion. His religious services, whether on the bed of
sickness or in the assembly of Grod's saints, were always
marked by the most entire attention of the whole inner
man. What is said by the speaker from personal obser-
vation for many years, may well justify him in compre-
hending within the same description his friend's private



family and social acts of religion. When, under the in-
fluence in some measure of the infirmity which at last
dissolved the ties that bound him to earth, his mind on
ordinary topics would wander, and imagination usurp the
throne of his reason ; if approach to the " Father of mercies
and God of all comfort" were suggested to him, the devo-
tional habits of his life would recall his thoughts, and direct
them aright in prayer, and he would audibly join without
any distraction of mind in the appropriate, simple, and
heart-expanding supplications which the Church of his love
had made familiar to his mind. In Public Worship he
gave habitual evidence that his soul was absorbed in the
exercise. Never did I see him turn his face to look upon
objects around him. Its steady and unchanging direction
always gave intimation that his thoughts and feelings
were concentrated and bound up in the one solemn ob-
ject which had led him into the temple of the Most High.

In necessary association with this element of his charac-
ter, must be noted his remarkable conscientiousness. Re-
cognizing the great truth, that the Maker of all things has
furnished every one of his accountable creatures with an
inward faculty to act in some measure as his own vice-
gerent, he felt the importance of keeping bright and clear
this internal luminary, well knowing that " if the light
that is in one be darkness," (Matt. vi. 33,) dark too must
be the whole man. Right reason and Divine Revelation
kept his conscience well informed, and made it a compe-
tent judge and director. And the decisions of this divinely


instituted court he did not presume to question, but bowed
to their authority with becoming reverence, and made
such legislation the standing rule of his conduct.

Another characteristic which marked the life of the
deceased was his unostentation. Any desire to make
a show of his talents or acquisitions or varied excel-
lences either of head or heart, was farthest from his
thoughts. His one great purpose seemed to be to
conduct himself under all circumstances as a Christian
gentleman. Accustomed from childhood to the very
best society, he made no display in his domestic and
social relations, but always behaved towards all
persons with whom he intermingled, whether equal
or inferior, with gentle and most courteous suavity of
manner and retiring modesty of deportment. Any
consciousness of superiority never seemed to occur to
him, far less to exert any influence. And, springing
from the same commendable source, his charities were
always private, and he habitually obeyed the Master's
direction, " not to let the left hand know what the
right hand was doing." Matt. vi. 3.

I conclude this imperfect statement by noting two
traits of character before illustrated, namely, his re-
markable mildness of manner together with inflexible
firmness and decision. Keeping his natural feelings
under the restraint of reason and conscience, he never
suffered any circumstances, however personal their


bearing on his own views or course of conduct, to ex-
cite him to hasty opposition, or went beyond the
pattern of all excellence in his remark, — " If I have
spoken evil, bear witness of the' evil ; but if well, why
smitest thou me ?" John, xviii. 23. Nevertheless, re-
specting the doctrines on which his mind was made up,
or the action which he thought it best to pursue, he
was inflexible, and. shaped his course by an unwaver-
ing regard to truth. Consequently, while he made no
attacks on others, he maintained the ground which he
had himself rightfully secured with a firmness and de-
cision worthy of the important positions both in the
State and in the Church, which he filled with useful-
ness and dignity. He left it to his life to be the reliable
witness of his character. And most assuredly, in this
respect, he has bequeathed to us all- a legacy inval-
uable and permanent.

Now to Him that giveth and taketh away, to the
Lord of life and of death, who "hath the keys of Hades,
who dwelleth in light which no man can approach
unto ;" (Rev. i. 18, 1 Tim. vi. 16 ;) to Him who hath
left to his true followers the promise, " Ye shall bear
the image of the heavenly ; (1 Cor. xv. 49 ;) to the
glorified Son, with the eternal Father and the Holy
Spirit, one infinite Grod, be everlasting praises: Amen.








From the Advance Sheets of the New Englander for May, 1860.
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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 33 of 51)