Project Canterbury

In Memory of
The Rev. George Hendrick Houghton,

Priest in the Church of God.

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This Memorial Sermon was preached in Saint Mary’s Chapel, Sherwood
Park, Yonkers, New York, on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany,
January 30th, 1898, by the Rev. Harry I. Bodley, at
the request of the Curate in Charge, the Rev.
George Hendrick Houghton Butler,
and is published for the
benefit of said

[undated pamphlet; no publisher; 16 pp; illus.]

For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.
Acts xi: 24.

On the margin of a field of ripe grain stands the husbandman with his band of harvesters. He comes to gather in the reward of his labors at seedtime and since. The gentle breeze rolls the ripe grain into waves of beauty to delight his eager eyes. The soughing, sighing, swishing, hissing of the undulating golden sea is music, joyous as rippling laughter, to his attentive ears.

Because the harvest is rich and full the husbandman is satisfied that ploughing, sowing soil and culture have been right. Only when the harvest fails do we look for causes, and review our delinquencies.

Beneath the overshadowing boughs of the orchard, full of laden trees, the owner walks. Long since the beauteous robe of blossoms has melted away like some ephemeral snow of flowers. Already the summer's heat and drought, the autumn's chill have somewhat dulled the foliage, and leaves begin to fall. But round and luscious hang the abundant apples, red, russet, gold and green. The master looks, then garners and is satisfied. He sees that seeding, grafting, pruning, culture must have been good. He knows that root and stem, branch and twig, foliage and flower have done their share well, else, whence such goodly fruit? So at the judgment, friends and brethren, the Lord of the Harvest, Jesus Christ, will come seeking fruit. "By their fruits ye shall know them," He declares of his true followers. But until the judgment is the time of culture and the Harvest Master of the end is now our "Christus Cultor."

That we shall be judged by our fruits does not prove the uselessness of antecedent root, stem, foliage and flower, but the necessity that they be the best and the culture-means most diligently applied.

Not natural selection, but a sort of supernatural selection has taken the wild weed out of its old environment and developed by devotion, thought and proper means the modern rose and chrysanthemum, the strawberry and grape.

So during our day of opportunity here, God lifts us out of nature's unfriendly grasp and gives us favorable culture and environment to make us blossom and bear the best of flowers and fruits.

The rose and berry are not developed contrary to nature's system or without means. But by a power above and beyond any natural capacity of their own, even by human intelligence and will, they are relieved of the hindrances that destroy their life and deter their growth, and are surrounded by nature's beneficence in larger abundance. Nature's badness is eradicated as far as may be; nature's goodness is intensified.

St. Barnabas was a product of Jewish religion and Church. The Jewish religion and Church were not contrary to natural religion, but were the concentration of all that was most favorable to souls of the natural religions of Egypt, of Assyria, of Babylon, of all ages and races thitherto. And all were systems with means to ends, in a word, with some means of grace; sacrifice, for instance, and priesthood.

Jesus Christ Himself, a product, on the human side, of this chosen folk and select system, came to fulfill it, to complete the culture, to exercise the supernatural selection, completely to set at work the farthest reaching, even the absolutely universal spiritual evolution. He was still systematic. He used means. Hence St. Barnabas' story is one which cannot be dissociated from careful choice of men as chief means, of preaching, of baptism, of Church. He was a good man because of his fullness of the Holy Ghost, of which preaching, Baptism and Laying on of Hands were means to him, or, through him, to others. So faith was the faith of Jesus Christ the Saviour, and all his ordinances of strength and help unto goodness. St. Barnabas' goodness disproves such wild and demoralizing theories as that of Mr. Stead, who says: "there is no greater surprise in the Bible than that which is occasioned when we come upon the simple narrative telling us that we shall not be judged by anything which we profess to believe, or by any ceremonial or ritual to which we have conformed, or, still less, by the fact of our membership or non-membership in any organized body, ecclesiastical or otherwise." . . . "His (the Master's) words are so distinct and so precise, that there is no getting away from them. Yet they have been ignored so much that salvation, which, according to Christ, was to be found in feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, showing hospitality to the stranger, and visiting those who were sick or in prison, is now almost universally held to consist in the acceptance of a more or less abstract series of religio-philosophical propositions." (If Christ Came to Chicago, pages 138-139,) I might refer simply to the story of St. Barnabas. But we need not return across nineteen centuries to confute such. The answer is simple and easy, as it is convincing. Go question such a Christian life as that of our departed friend of whom I am specially to speak to you to-day, then question the institutions of grace and mercy and love over which such as he have been the presiding geniuses, of which they were the center and inspiration. The houses of mercy for the fallen, hospitals for the sick, orphanages for the fatherless, houses for the aged and the poor, sisterhoods and ministries of men to serve suffering wherever love can. Ask these, "Whence came ye?" All make reply, we have sprung up and been fostered directly or indirectly by the Church of Christ. If civilization is to be credited with much, it is because it is a Christian civilization, whose very forms of government, Mr. Stead himself declares, are borrowed from the Church. This Kingdom of Heaven with its positive creeds and ministries of the Holy Ghost, renders men holy too. It keeps us of Heaven while yet on sordid earth, like God amidst the most brutal of mankind. "His gentle humanity (says one tribute to Dr. Houghton), first made the fame of the 'Little Church 'Round the Corner.' He played the part of the kindly sympathizer and counsellor, never too busy to listen, never too shocked to hear."

The logic of the Spirit as much as of the reason, compelled the entrance of George Hendrick Houghton into this branch of the Holy Catholic Church. To one constituted as he was, the highest goodness was to be attained only in the Church— that Church which teaches the faith once for all delivered to the saints and teaches it with authority. That Church which conveys the gifts of the Holy Ghost by Holy Sacraments. This is the clue to his life, his work, his sanctity. Let us see whether his story bears this out.

George Hendrick Houghton was born in Deerfield, Mass., in February, 1820, A.D. It is remarkable that that little town should have given to the Church in these United States, about the same time, John Williams, Bishop of Connecticut and Presiding Bishop of the American Church, and the late Rector of the Church of the Transfiguration, both of Congregational lineage.

In a poem entitled "To my Mother," young Houghton pictures his mother thus:

"Where is thy fair, unforrowed face
Thy mild and radiant eye,
Thy gentle tones so soft and sweet,
Like music floating by?
Thy dark hair streaming o'er thy brow,
When kissed by summer's breeze;
The rose of June upon thy lips;
My mother, where are these?"

His father was already dead some years before this date (February 1, 1844), for he continues pathetically, answering his own questions.

"These all are gone, forever gone—
All—all—that childhood gave.
The winter's snow is resting now
Upon my father's grave.
Yet, dearest mother, well I know,
Thy love is still the same,
As when upon thy yearning breast,
I learned to lisp thy name."

He removed with his mother to New York City, probably for his education, as early as, or even before 1838. He entered the University of the City of New York in the autumn of 1838, when that institution was but six years old, and he graduated at the head of his class. He delivered his valedictory oration July 20th, 1842. He was evidently very delicate, even frail at this time. I have heard from his own lips how, when he and the late Mr. George Henry Moore, librarian of the Lenox Library, were striving for the mastery of the Class of '42, the other classmen used to say, "Never mind, Moore, don't worry, for Houghton will be dead before graduation." He also told my mother that many a time he had come home late at night, entered the house quietly, and retiring, had covered his face with the bed clothes to keep his mother from hearing his sobs, as he cried from sheer exhaustion. There is an allusion to his delicate health in a poem "On Leaving the University, May, 1843.

"But shall there one be found
Who shall miss my pale and sunken cheek,
Or sigh when I am gone?
And the night wind whispers back again
Oh one, there will be one."

* * * * * *

"Methinks he will remember, as his lonely lamp he lights,
And sits beside his table for many weary nights,
The days when we were listening to each other's voices here
And upward lift his moistened eye, and wish that I were near.'

He seems to have been shy, reticent, self-contained, sensitive. The above poem speaks of one who will remember, and this one bosom friend was the same Mr. G. H. Moore, as the poem just quoted is dedicated to G. H. M.

But every friend held inferior place to his mother. There are so many tender allusions to her that I cannot quote them, save only one that alludes to his longing for her entrance into the Church.

But still I would one other change
My mother I might see,
That she who taught my lips to pray
Would breathe her prayers with me;
That she would kneel in Holy Church
And learn her solemn ways
The peaceful calm that she can shed
O'er life's declining days.

"There's rest within our Holy Church
That no where else is found,
She spreads her broad, encircling arms
The whole wide earth around.
She calleth to her bosom all
Who love God's Holy Son,
Who fain would keep the memory
Of all that He hath done.

"Who fain would tread the quiet way
By saints and martyrs trod,
And breathe the prayers which they did breathe
When dying, unto God.
It knows no name, no earthly name,
Which later time hath given,
It is the living Church of Christ
It leads secure to Heaven.

"Then by the love that erst was mine
In helpless infancy;
Then by the years of ceaseless care
Thou didst accord to me,
And by each thing thou then didst share,
Each thing thou lovedst best,
O mother, share with me, I pray,
The Church's holy rest.

"Be mine the hand to smooth thy path
That leadeth to the tomb,
With love and care and tenderness
Life's evening to illume.
And when, dear mother, in the dust
I lay thee and deplore,
Oh, may thy spirit whisper then,
'Thou could'st have done no more."'

As a natural consequence of impaired health and overdrawn vitality, he seemed depressed, almost morbid at this period. His religion was his salvation. Naturally gifted with an indomitable will, we can almost see and hear him as he rises, shakes off this lethargy and says, "I shall not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord." As always, so for him, God made his adversities stepping stones to Heaven. Poor health, bitter disappointments, death of dear ones, struggles for self-maintenance, these wring a cry of utter weariness from him now and again; but, nevertheless, faith, hope, love and courage early begin to dominate his life, and promise the victory of body, mind and spirit, which eventually came to him, as you all know, so that he lived and declared the Lord's works until seventy-seven years of age.

His love of mystic numbers follows him herein. Seven is the perfect number. Seven times seven years were the span of his single rectorship. Seven times eleven were the years of his life.

Mr. Houghton studied theology from 1842 to 1845, and was ordered Deacon by Bishop Onderdonk of New York in the latter year. He became curate to Dr. Muhlenberg at the Church of the Holy Communion, New York, and seems to have remained there until he began his work of founding the Transfiguration in 1848, in the house of Reverend Lawson Carter, Nos. 126 to 132 East Twenty-fourth street.

Meanwhile he was advanced to the Priesthood on December 6th, 1846, and leaves recorded this prayer of his for that occasion:

"Help me, Lord, henceforth to be
Thine, in all sincerity,
Purge my soul from every sin,
Be thine image shrined within.
At thine altar may I wait,
Clad in robe immaculate.
Oft, I know, I shall transgress,
Sometimes sink in weariness,
Lord, my trust can only be
In the love thou hast for me."

His love of language is evidenced by his service as instructor in Hebrew in the General Theological Seminary for several years.

Bearing on this same taste I find metrical translations by young Houghton, (then about twenty-five,) from Greek, Latin, French, Spanish and Polish authors. One by I. Sienkiewicz, entitled "The Three Wishes," of which both Polish text and English version are written out in full. There is also a metrical version of the legend on which "Quo Vadis" is founded. And one great purpose of my many quotations is to evidence to you his early development of literary culture and ability of no mean order. And how should the mystic that he was, speak to us so well as in poetry?

I have already spoken of the sensitive and sombre state of mind which accompanied physical depletion, and the strong will which helped young Houghton to throw off his morbid tendencies. Strength of will had a mighty ally, of which I must here make mention, viz: his sense of humor and relish for true wit, which was keen and constant to the end. Witness this:

"When Pagan Rome her vestal choir possessed,
Each holy robe, each sacerdotal vest,
For Jove's high temple, and each humbler fane,
Their hands unspotted, washed from every stain.
But Christian vestals! O alas, how few!
Work sermon covers or a parson's shoe."

We are carried from gay to grave by another bon mot of his entitled "Amateur Puseyism."

"It knows the Fathers better than the Faith,
And less of Christ than Chrysostom it saith."

The Oxford Movement was born three years before George Houghton entered college. As he associated himself at once after his ordination with the great apostle of High Churchmanship in America, viz.: Dr. Muhlenberg, and as he had been in the Church some three years before, that movement evidently made an immediate and profound impression upon him. Indeed, in his writings at that time, I find a very deep religious tone taking the place of the mere college boys' flights of fancy and sentiment. His mind and soul deepen in capacity and needs. There are evidences of the foundation laying of the profound piety and the profound faith of after years. Piety and faith which were fed and grew upon the Church's full doctrinal and sacramental system, as believed and taught by him during his richest, ripest years. For the Feast of the Annunciation in 1844 there is an Annunciation poem:

"An angel from Heaven such honor accord
The mother of Jesus, my Saviour and Lord?
And a worm of the dust, no word shall I raise
In glory of Mary, no song in her praise?"

* * * * * *

"Jehovah would stoop from her womb to be born,
Then cursed be the lip that the Virgin would scorn."

* * * * * *

"Of Angels in glory then first be her name,
While Jesus, my Saviour, sole worship shall claim."

For Holy Week, 1845, he composed a whole series of lyrics, closing with "Resurrexit, Laus Deo.'

The Incarnation and the Resurrection were firmly fixed immovable, fundamental in the structure of his faith and his life.

Of his deep, inner life there are vistas everywhere. I cannot give you these without overtaxing your time, but one breathes such sweet incense that it suffices:


"In mine ear an angel whispered,
‘Jesu, Jesu,' yesterday,
Never word so sweet had sounded,
Fain I'd hear it breathed alway.

'Jesu, Jesu,' he repeated,
'Jesu, Jesu for thee died;'
I entranced, 'Good angel write it
In mine heart, I pray thee,' cried.

For hereto whatever pleased me,
I was wont to write therein.
Needless, (so it did but please me)
Were it holiness or sin.

In mine heart the angel gazing
Turned with mournful step away,
When I cried 'O, stay, good angel,'
This methought I heard him say:

'Human Love, the World, Ambition,
In thy heart each record claim:
Human Love, the World, Ambition,
Leave no room for Jesu's name.'

Sweeter still each letter sounded
Till I could no more forbear,
'Blot out all thou seest, angel,
Write but only 'Jesu' there.'

Then the angel bending downward,
In my heart, like molten lead,
Poured his tears as fast and countless
As the raindrops earthward shed.

When my tears with his commingling
Soon therefrom all else did blot—
Then we saw how love was written
Underneath in every spot.

'Still no room,' the angel murmured,
'Can we find for Jesu's name!
Christ for thee on Calv'ry dying,
In thy heart no record claim?'

Calv'ry uttering, he departed,
While with heart all sad and sore,
Down I sank with eyes o'erflowing,
Lest I hear that name no more.

While I wept, methought, returning—
Some of Jesu's blood he bore,
And, with folded pinion stooping
In my heart did straightway pour

This all earthly love effacing,
Love too deep—allied to sin,
While my heart with joy did quiver,
Wrote he 'Jesu's' name therein."

Thus I have striven, with sympathetic heart, to outline the struggle of a courageous soul against its besetting adversities, physical, psychological and spiritual. Thus we have followed the career of our friend through its hardest stages, its formative beginnings. With slender physique and slender means, though having a sensitive, reticent nature, impressionable and at times sorely tempted as well as tried, yet rising triumphant through native strength, through religious training by a holy mother, through courage, faith, hope, love, through the fostering nurture of the Church and her faith and grace giving sacraments, and withal through a ready smile for aught that was ludicrous and touched his sense of the lighter vein of life.

We have seen him launched upon that long rectorship of the Church of the Transfiguration, which after forty and nine years duration he has just closed. I have preferred to let his own writings, as far as was possible, tell the story of those earlier formative years as being least known and of most interest.

The after story of his life was but the blossoming and fruitage time of the former seed sowing. The work that he did bespoke the priest that he was. The Transfiguration and its manifold worship and ministeries of mercy were the outward, visible signs of the inward spiritual graces which God bestowed upon him.

The evolution of Dr. Houghton and of Transfiguration went on together. Each reflected the other. The personal equation in his work was very large. He met people in the earlier years, at the church door, said a kindly word, especially to strangers, and gave them a welcome and a seat. He visited constantly the sick, the sorrowing, the stranger. He had a peculiarly true instinct to detect what people needed, and said for them what they fain would say, only better than they could say it for themselves. By sorrow and suffering he had learned the true significance and power of sympathy, and how to extend it. Those delicate, toilful years of struggle and sorrow had been part of his education for his life work. His convictions and scholarly tastes and teachings led him to found a parish school, which for years was connected with the Transfiguration. Religion and learning must go together. Boys must be so taught as to become not only religious men but Churchmen, in order to be good men full of the Holy Ghost and of faith. When boys were very intractable they were sent up to the Doctor's study, where he gave them candy when they would have much preferred a flogging.

His own struggles for an education made him tender toward all needy students, and especially helpful to students for the Priesthood. Moreover, he believed the best preparation none too good for such. The preacher owes his own college and seminary courses largely to Dr. Houghton. In writing to me about a college course he used this expression: "Beaten oil for the sanctuary." Meaning that he who would be a light to be ever in the Divine Presence in the temple of God should be not only as rich olive oil, but beaten to refine it, i. e., well prepared for such sacred service. See Ex. 27, 20. Lev. 24, 2.

The spiritual struggles of his own experience are clearly set forth in his writings. That calm saintliness of his late years only came after storms and struggles, the more profound as they did not stir so much the surface waters, but the deeps of his being.

These led him to be truly a shepherd of souls, a haven for the storm tossed, a refuge for the sinful or persecuted.

You may describe this function by any name you choose. Call it confession if you like. But such as Dr. Houghton are not obliged to seek to draw men and women to confession. If any effort is to be made, it must be to keep them away. His sympathy and tenderness and knowledge of human nature, his good sense and love of souls, made him a confessor by sheer force of the coming of those who must tell their sin, their grief, their need to some kind soul, ready to lift up and help. That compulsion of a sense of sin which Coleridge so forcibly sets forth in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

There was never any of the noise and rattle of modern mechanical Christianity in his person or parish, but he had double daily service for years and daily Eucharist was added after a while. He was personally accessible to the poorest and had a Maternity Society which ministered at the birth of a child, and then brought it to the font to be born again He set the example to the humanitarians by personally picking the drunkard out of the gutter and trying to reform him with undying patience. Perhaps he used the name Transfiguration for his parish because he believed that his work and the work of the Church, through the co-operation of the Holy Ghost, was to be to transfigure just such poor fallen souls until the likeness of God should shine out on their faces, and the poor soiled raiment of their humanity be rendered once more white and glistening. So he lived and wrought and died, died as he desired, with the harness on. "And he walked with God, and he was not, for God took him." "For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith." At the head of a poem entitled "To One Departed," he has this quotation. It seems to be something which the departed had said to him long before: "Pray for me forever—forever, and I will pray for you forever, till prayers brighten into rapture and wounds are healed, tears dried, sins remitted Once more let us pray for each other forever—forever." His last words to St. Anna's Guild are to the same purpose and furnish fitting conclusion to our tribute to him.

"In conclusion, if a word personal may be spoken, and a request personal only may be made: when on some soon coming night the door bell of the rectory of the church be rung, and no longer as hitherto ere its last sound has ceased the window from above be not lifted by the hand that has been wont to lift it, and the voice no longer be heard that has been wont to be heard, asking if there be sick or dying to be visited; or when you come hither on some soon coming day for the ministrations that are needed, and are told that the one, who has hitherto been so thankful to give them, has gone to the country, to the country that lies beyond the seas and the sunset, gone not for a summer holiday, but for all days and for all seasons, gone to return hither again no more, let it be a time not for tears but for prayer. If the tears must needs fall from any eyes, let them fall like the drops of the summer shower, if abundant, yet soon to be followed by the lasting sunshine, but whenever thought returns of the hither nevermore returning one, let the prayer fail not to go up from the hearts of all who hold him in loving remembrance: 'Grant him, Lord, eternal rest: and let light perpetual shine upon him.'"

"Mercy, mercy, all pitying Jesus blest!"

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