EXTRACTS FROM A SERMON
PREACHED AT NASSAU HALL, PRINCETON, MAY 28, 1761.
OCCASIONED BY THE DEATH OF THE
REV. SAMUEL DAVIES, A.M.,
LATE PRESIDENT OF THE COLLEGE OF NEW JERSEY.
BY SAMUEL FINLEY, D. D.,
PRESIDENT OF SAID COLLEGE.
" For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; or whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord's."—Rom. xiv.
As the very dear and reverend man, whose premature and unexpected death we, amongst thousands, this day lament, expressed his desire that upon this mournful event a sermon should be preached from these words, he plainlyintimated his expectation that the audience should be entertained, not with an ornamented funeral oration, but with such an instructive discourse as the text itself naturally suggests. The subject being his own choice, I cannot doubt but this friendly audience will the more closely and seriously attend, as conceiving him, though dead, yet speaking to them the solemn truths it contains. For having been admitted into the full knowledge of his religious principles, I may presume on speaking many of the sentiments he intended from this text, though not in his more sublime and oratorical manner.
When I reflect on the truly Christian, generous, yet strict Catholicism that distinguishes this whole chapter, and how deeply it was imprinted on Mr. Davies' own spirit, and influenced the course of his life, I am ready to conelude that perhaps no text could be more aptly chosen on the occasion. It expresses the very temper that should be predominant in all, and which actually is so in every pious breast.
Thus, while our text affords a convincing argument for moderation in judging of other Christians, who differ from us in circumstantials, it teaches us what should be" the principle and end of our life, and that both negatively and positively. We may not live nor die to ourselves, but to the Lord.
I. " We may not live to ourselves."
This proposition supposes what is a demonstrable truth, that we are not the absolute proprietors, and therefore have not the rightful disposal, of our lives. For since we could exert no kind of efficiency in bringing ourselves from nothing into existence, we could not possibly design ourselves for any end or purpose of our own. Hence it is evident, that whose property soever we are, we belong not to ourselves; consequently, it is the highest indecency to behave as though we were accountable to none other. We are not at liberty, nor have we any authority to employ either the members of our bodies or the powers of our souls at pleasure, as if we had originally designed their use.
Since we were not the authors of our lives, we can have no right to take them away. We have no power to determine either the time or kind of death, any more than we can ward off or suspend its blow, when commissioned to destroy. Therefore, amidst all the miseries that can make life an unsupportable burden, and the glorious prospects that can make us impatiently pant for dissolution, it must be our determinate purpose that " all the days of our appointed time we will wait till our change come."
Eeflecting further upon the preceding observations, they force upon us the disagreeable conviction that our whole race has revolted from the race of God, and risen up in rebellion against him. " The world evidently lies in wickedness;" for the allowed practice of men supposes principles which they themselves, being judges, must confess to be palpably false and absurd. They act as if they believe they were made for themselves, and had no other business in life but the gratification of their respective humors. One exerts all his powers and spends all his time in nothing else but endeavoring to amass heaps of worldly treasure; another by riotous living disperses what had been collected with anxious care. Some live in malice and envy, whose favorite employ is calumny and wrathful contentions, as if* they had been created for no other end but to be the pests of society; others blaspheme the name of God, despise his authority, mock at religion, and ridicule serious persons and things. One has no other purpose in life but sport and merriment; another eats to gluttony and drinks to besottedness. Yet all these and nameless ranks of other daring offenders would be ashamed in a Christian country to profess it as their serious belief that that they were made by a most wise, holy, and righteous God, preserved, blessed, and loaded with benefits every day, on purpose that they "might work all these abominations, or in order to live just as they do.
If, then, it is confessedly impious and unreasonable to live to ourselves, it necessarily follows that we are the property of another, for it will ever be "lawful for one to do what he will with his own." And whose can we be but his who gave us existence ? Or, if ties of gratitude can more powerfully influence ingenuous minds than even those of nature, who can so justly claim us as He " who, as we hope, loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood ?" This leads me to observe,
II. That we should "live and die to the Lord." This can admit of no debate; for if our Maker and Eedeemer be our rightful owner, then, whatever we are, or have, or can do, must be for him. We must " present our bodies a living sacrifice," without reserve or hesitation; and avouch the Lord to be our God, to " walk in his ways, and to keep his statutes, and judgments, and commandments, and to hearken to his voice.
Now to live wholly to the Lord will appear to be our reasonable, service if we consider,
First, That such a life is most worthy of rational and immortal creatures.
Secondly, Such a life is most worthy of God our Maker.
Thirdly, Such a life is our own happiness; for, acting as prescribed, we move in our proper sphere, and tend to our native centre. We live as near the fountain of blessedness as our present state can admit, and nothing can be so animating as the glorious and blissful prospects our course affords. Our hearts being fixed on the chief good, are at
rest, and no more tortured with anxious hesitation and uneasy suspense a^ to what we shall choose for our portion, nor do our desires wander in quest of a more suitable object. We can wish for no more but the full enjoyment of God, whom we serve " with our spirits;" " whose peace, that passeth understanding, rules in our hearts," and for whose glory we hope, secure from confounding disappointment in the day of the Lord.
Now, methinks, every attentive hearer prevents my improvement of the subject, being ready of his own accord to make such reflections as these:—How serene and placid is the life, and how triumphant must be the death of a true Christian! How reasonable a service do we perform, when we consecrate ourselves to the Lord, and receive him, freely offering himself to be our portion, our Father, and our Friend! None can plausibly urge that some things unfit or detrimental are required. None can pretend a conscientious scruple about complying with the proposal, nor dare any, however secretly reluctant, openly avow their dissent. Every mouth is stopped, and all acknowledge their obligation to this plain duty. What, then, should hinder the unanimous agreement of this whole assembly to so advantageous an overture ? Why may we not join ourselves this day to the Lord in an everlasting covenant ? Would it not seem uncharitable to suppose that any one in this Christian audience rejects a proposal so infinitely just and kind? How pleasing is the very imagination of a universal concurrence f Not only would each of our hearts who are here present exult, but unnumbered hosts of angels and all "the spirits of just men made perfect" would rejoice.
Since, therefore, all things that pertain to our present or future happiness conspire to urge this point, let us with one accord, in the most affectionate and reverent manner, approach the throne of our august Sovereign, and cheerfully resign ourselves to him for ever, spend our lives in his service, and expect his approbation at our end.
In some such strain, but more diffusive and sublime, would our reverend and dear deceased friend have addressed us on such a subject. We may imagine how fervent his desire was of " living to the Lord" himself, and persuading others to the same course, when he fixed on this for the subject of his funeral sermon. Now, as it is generally agreed that example has the most powerful influence, perhaps a few sketches of his own life and character may best recommend the preceding discourse, as they will prove the life described to be practicable.
President Davies was an only son, and, what is more, was a son of prayers and vows; was given in answer to fervent supplications, and, in gratitude, wholly devoted to God from earliest infancy by his eminently pious mother, and named Samuel, on the like occasion as the ancient prophet. The event proved that God accepted the consecrated boy, took him under his special care, furnished him for, and employed him in the service of his church, prospered his labors with remarkable success, and not only blessed him, but made himself a blessing.
The first twelve years of his life were wasted in the most entire negligence of God and religion, which he often afterwards bitterly lamented, as having " too long wrought the will of the flesh." But about that time, the God to whom he was dedicated, by his word and spirit awakened him to solemn thoughtfulness and anxious concern about his eternal state. He then saw sufficient reason to dread all the direful effects of divine displeasure against sin. And so deeply imprinted was the rational sense of danger, as to make him habitually uneasy and restless until he might obtain satisfying scriptural evidence of his interest in the forgiving love of God.
While thus exercised, he clearly saw the absolute necessity and certain reality of the gospel plan of salvation, and what abundant and suitable provision it makes for all the wants of a sinner. No other solid ground of hope or unfailing source of comfort could he find besides the merits and righteousness of him "whom God sent forth to be a propitiation for sin, through faith in his blood." On this righteousness he was enabled confidently to depend; by this blood his conscience was purged from guilt, and "believing he rejoiced with joy unspeakable, and full of glory." Yet he was afterwards exercised with many perplexing doubts for a long season, but at length, after years of impartial repeated self-examination, he attained to a settled confidence of his interest in redeeming grace, which he retained to the end.
A diary, which he kept in the first years of his religious life, and continued to keep as long as his leisure would permit, clearly shows how intensely his mind was set on heavenly things; how observant he was of the temper of his heart, and how watchful over all his thoughts, words, and actions. His love to God and tender concern for perishing sinners excited his earnest desire of being in a situation to serve mankind to the best advantage. With this view he engaged in the pursuit of learning, in which, amidst many obvious inconveniences, he made surprising progress, and, sooner than could have been expected, was found competently qualified for the ministerial office. He passed the usual previous trials with uncommon approbation, having exceeded the raised expectations of his most intimate friends and admirers.
When he was licensed to preach the gospel, he zealously declared the counsel of God, the truth and importance of which he knew by experience, and did it in such a manner as excited the earnest desires of every vacant congregation where he was known, to obtain the happiness of his stated ministrations. But, far from gratifying his natural inclination to the society of his friends, or consulting his ease, moved by conscience of duty, he undertook the selfdenying charge of a dissenting congregation in Virginia, separated from all his brethren, and exposed to the censure and resentment of many.
Nor did he there labor in vain, or "spend his strength for naught." The "Lord, who counted him faithful, putting him into the ministry," succeeded his faithful endeavors, so that a great number, both of whites and blacks, were hopefully converted to the living God.
As to his natural genius, it was strong and masculine. His understanding was clear; his memory retentive; his invention quick; his imagination lively and florid; his thoughts sublime, and his language elegant, strong, and expressive.
His appearance in company was manly and graceful; his behavior genteel, not ceremonious; grave, yet pleasant; and solid, but sprightly too.
In the sacred desk, zeal for God and love to men animated his addresses, and made them tender, solemn, pungent, and persuasive; while at the same time they were ingenious, accurate, and oratorical. A certain dignity of sentiment and style, a venerable presence, a commanding voice, and emphatical delivery, concurred both to charm his audience and overawe them into silence and attention.
Nor was his usefulness confined to the pulpit. His comprehensive mind could take under view the grand interests of his country and of religion at once; and these interests, as well as those of his friends, he was ever ready zealously to serve.
His natural temper was remarkably sweet and dispassionate, and his heart was one of the tenderest towards the distressed. His sympathetic soul could say, " Who is weak, and I am not weak ?" Accordingly, his charitable disposition made him liberal to the poor, and that often beyond his ability.
To his friend he was voluntarily transparent. And perhaps none better understood the ingenuities and delicacies of friendship, or had a higher relish for it, or was truer or more constant in it than he. He was not easily disgusted; his knowledge of human nature in its present state, his candid heart and enlarged soul both disposing and enabling him to make allowances for indiscretions which narrower and more selfish minds could not make. He readily and easily forgave offences against himself, whilst none could be more careful to avoid offending others; which, if he at any time inadvertently did, he was forward and desirous to make the most ample satisfaction. It would hardly be expected that one so rigid with respect to his own faith and practice could be so generous and catholic in his sentiments of those who differed from him in both, as he was. He was strict, not bigoted; conscientious, not squeamishly scrupulous. His clear and extensive knowledge of religion enabled him to discern where the main stress should be laid, and to proportion his zeal to the importance of things, too generous to be confined to the interests of a party as such. He considered the visible kingdom of Christ as extended beyond the boundaries of this or that particular denomination, and never supposed that his declarative glory was wholly dependent on the religions which he most approved. Hence he gloried more in being a Christian than in being a Presbyterian, though he was the latter from principle.
He sought truth for its own sake, and would profess his sentiments with the undisguised openness of an honest Christian, and the inoffensive boldness of a manly spirit; yet, without the least apparent difficulty or hesitation, he would retract an opinion on full conviction of its being a mistake. I have never known one who appeared to lay himself more fully open to the reception of truth, from whatever source it came, than he; for he judged the knowledge of truth only to be real learning, and that endeavoring to defend error was but laboring to be more ignorant. But, until fully convinced, he was becomingly tenacious of his opinion.
The unavoidable consciousness of native power made him bold and enterprising. Yet the event proved that his boldness arose, not from a partial, groundless self-conceit, but from true self-knowledge. Upon fair and candid trial, faithful and just to himself, he judged what he could do; and what he could do, when called to it he attempted; and what he attempted, he accomplished.
It may here be properly observed, that he was chosen by the Synod of New York, at the instance of the trustees of New Jersey College, as a fit person to accompany the Rev. Mr. Gilbert Tennent to Great Britain and Ireland, in order to solicit benefactions for the said college. As this manifested the high opinion which both the synod and corporation entertained of his popular talents and superior abilities, so his ready compliance to undertake that service, hazardous and difficult in itself, and precarious in its consequences, which required him to overlook his domestic connections, however tender and endearing, manifested his resolution and self-denial. How well he was qualified as a solicitor, is witnessed by the numerous and large benefactions he received.
As his light shone, his abilities to fill the President's chair in this college, then vacant, was not doubted by the honorable board of trustees. He was accordingly chosen, and earnestly invited to accept the charge of the society. Yet he once and again excused himself, not being convinced that he was called in duty to leave his then important province. But repeated application at length prevailed to make him apprehend that it was the will of God he should accept the call; yet, lest he should mistake in so important a case, he withheld his express consent until the reverend Synod of New York and Philadelphia gave their opinion in favor of the college. This determined his dubious mind. He came and undertook the weighty charge.
His manner of conducting the college did honor to himself, and promoted its interests. Whatever alterations in the plans of education he introduced were confessedly improvements on those of his predecessors. Had I never had other means of intelligence, save only my knowledge of the man, I should naturally have expected that all his public appearances would have been conducted with spirit, elegance, and decorum ; that his government would be mild and gentle, tempered with wisdom and authority, and calculated to command reverence while it attracted love, and that his manner of teaching would be agreeable and striking.of the venerable Edwards. Were they set in so conspicuous a point of view, only that their imitable excellences might be more observable? or was Nassau-hall erected by divine Providence for this among other important purposes, that it might serve to adorn the latter end of some eminent servants of the living God, itself being adorned by them ? In this view, the short presidency of a Dickinson, a Burr, an Edwards, and a Davies, instead of arguing the displeasure of the Almighty will evidence his peculiar favor to this institution, which I know was planned and has been carried on with the most pious, benevolent, and generous designs. Now one more shining orb is set on our world. Davies is departed, and with him all that love, zeal, activity, benevolence for which he was remarkable. This the church, and this the bereaved college mourns. For this we hang our once cheerful harps, and indulge the plaintive strains. Yet we are not to lament as those who are hopeless, but rather with humble confidence to " pray the Lord of the harvest," with whom is " the residue of the spirit," that he would send forth another Davies to assist our labor and forward his work.
But I propose not these as mere conjectures. The learned tutors of the college, the partners of his counsels and deliberations for its good, and these young gentlemen, once his care and charge, who judged themselves happy under his tuition, all know more than I shall speak.
You know the tenderness and condescension with which he treated you; the paternal care with which he watched over you; the reluctance with which he at any time inflicted the prescribed punishment on a delinquent; and how pleased he was to succeed in reforming any abuse by private and easy methods. But his persuasive voice you will hear no more. He is removed far from mortals, has taken his aerial flight, and left us to lament that " a great man has fallen in Israel!" He lived much in a little time; " he finished his course," performed sooner than many others his assigned task, and in that view might be said to have died mature. He shone like a light set on a high place, that burns out and expires.
He went through every stage of honor and usefulness compatible to his character as a dissenting clergyman; and while we flattered our fond hopes of eminent services from him for many years to come, the fatal blow was struck; our pleasing prospects are all at an end, and he is cut down like a tree that has yielded much fruit, and was laden with blossoms even in its fall.
This dispensation, how mysterious, how astonishing, nay, how discouraging does it seem ! Why was he raised by divine Providence in the prime of life to so important a station, and amidst useful labors, while he was fast increasing in strength adapted to his business, quickly snatched away ? This is a perplexing case, and the more so that it so soon succeeded the yet shorter continuance
Nor should the decease of useful laborers, the extinction of burning and shining lights, only send us to the throne of grace for supplies, but excite us to greater diligence and activity in our business as we have for the present the more to do.
Finally, This dispensation should lessen our esteem of this transitory disappointing world and raise our affections to heaven, that place and state of permanent blessedness. Thither ascends, as to its native home, all the goodness that departs from earth; and "the more of our pious friends that go to glory, so many more secondary motives have we to excite our desires of " departing and being with Christ," which is far better than any state under the sun; for there in addition to superior felicity, "we shall come to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are written in heaven—and to the spirits of just men made perfect."