A Faithful Priest: A Sermon in Memory of the Reverend George John Magill, D. D., Rector of Trinity Church, Newport, R.I.
By George McClellan Fiske.
Newport, Rhode Island: F.W. Marshall, 1898.
I will raise Me up a faithful Priest that shall do according to that which is in Mine heart and in My mind: and I will build him a sure house; and he shall walk before Mine Anointed forever. I. Samuel ii. 35.
This year we keep S. Peter’s Day, before this altar, in a peculiar state of mind. It is a Festival of one of the brightest jewels in the Kingdom of God. We feel, as the Church guides us to feel, how good it is to think upon the person and career of Simon the Galilean, Prince of the Apostles, and Pastor of the Flock of Christ—to trace in him the course of God’s power and sustaining grace—to mark how, in spite of trial and temptation; in spite even of sin and the weakness of our mortal nature; in spite of the fear of man and of cruel persecution, even unto death, he has attained to be one of the very chiefest of those Saints in whom Christ shall come to be glorified and to be admired in all them that believe. We are filled with joy and a sense of exultation; our mouths show forth high praise and hearty thanks to God, as we scan that upward pathway of His Saints shining more and more unto that perfect day, where
“Now they reign in heavenly glory,
Now they walk in golden light.”
And yet we of this Diocese and of this Parish are this day mourners, even while we rejoice and sing. We miss one here, because his place is empty. We have parted with a father, a brother, a friend, a fellow-labourer in the [3/4] Kingdom of Heaven. For the present the Church in Rhode Island lacks something of life and light and interest, because the Rector of Trinity Church, Newport, has gone hence and is no more seen. It is appropriate and consoling to speak of him to one another, through our tears, upon S. Peter’s Day. We are told, among the other incidents of S. Peter’s life, how people brought their sick into the streets that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them. It is something so with us. In our affliction and lamenting our great loss, it is as though the shadow of Peter passing by in this commemoration might overshadow some of us at least with a thought of comfort. For there were just those qualities about S. Peter of which we are reminded in our departed Priest. S. Peter was frank, impetuous, vehement, loving, and large-hearted. And we cannot but feel sure that S. Peter had pre-eminently the Pastor’s gifts. It is he to whom the perpetual and universal pastoral commission of the Church was spoken. It is he who speaks unto all generations these tender monitions to the shepherds:
“Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind;
Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.
And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.”
It would seem as if a glow of pastoral genius from the Sacred Heart of the Good Shepherd Himself had lighted on the heart of Peter, and made him Christ’s chosen spokesman for the Pastoral Office. This is the Church’s leading thought in the observance of S. Peter’s Day. In the Collect she reminds us that our Lord Jesus Christ gave to His Apostle S. Peter many excellent gifts, and commanded him earnestly to feed His Flock. And then we pray that God [4/5] will make all Bishops and Pastors diligently to preach His Holy Word, and the people obediently to follow the same, that they may receive the Crown of everlasting glory. The Pastoral Office, its duties and the mutual responsibilities involved in its discharge; Pastoral Fidelity; and the Eternal Reward; these are the lessons of S. Peter’s Day. And to be convinced that the spirit of S. Peter lingers in the Church; that his works do follow him; and that his mantle rests on others, we have one evidence in the good example of that life now before us. In the Pastoral Office, George John Magill, Priest and Doctor, certainly excelled. Let us draw near, and with affectionate reverence and deliberation contemplate that life, brought up in God’s stedfast fear and love, kept under the protection of His good Providence, and actuated by a perpetual fear and love of His Holy Name. This life was such an one as makes us feel that in it God repeated and fulfilled His ancient promise, “I will raise me up a faithful Priest that shall do according to that which is in Mine heart and in My mind; and I will build him a sure house; and he shall walk before Mine Anointed forever.”
I. Before proceeding to portray the characteristics of Dr. Magill as a Christian and as a Priest, let us carefully recall the fact of his rich, sterling, and abundant manliness. The rough material of the Priest is manhood. Among the “Discourses addressed to Mixed Congregations,” of the late Cardinal Newman is one entitled, “Men, not Angels, the Priests of the Gospel,” and in the course of it the preacher says: “Among the Priests of the Gospel there have been Apostles; there have been Martyrs; there have been Doctors; Saints in plenty among them; yet out of them all, high as has been their sanctity, varied their graces, awful their powers, there has not been one who did not begin with the old Adam; not one of them who was [5/6] not hewn out of the same rock as the most obdurate of reprobates; not one of them who was not fashioned unto honour out of the same clay, which has been the material of the most polluted and vile of sinners.” Cardinal Newman, in this sentence, dwells, as Holy Scripture does, on the power of the Grace of God to change and sanctify the sinner, and on the infinite honour done to our nature, though fallen and sin-stained, by the conferring of the dignity of the Priesthood. Holy Scripture also justifies us in regarding manhood in another aspect—that is, as a work of God, originally beautiful and glorious from His Hands, and although now marred and mortal, yet retaining so much of its primal power and grandeur as to impress us still with the unmistakable stamp of its Maker. The image and superscription may be blurred, but they are plainly the image and superscription of the King. By blending these two views of manhood, we secure the full and proportioned recognition of Nature and of Grace, and faults neither surprise us nor disturb our favourable judgment. We magnify God’s work as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.
There are specimens of manhood, whose endowments are so attractive as to compel not only our attention but our admiration. Such an one was Doctor Magill. A glance was enough to tell us that he was a man of no commonplace order. Goodly in person, he was invested with that distinction of bearing and presence, which marked him out among his fellows. He seemed in harmony with the antecedents of his youth. He came from out that northern land, whose history is as picturesque and romantic as its scenery. The Old World and the New, the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin, the fairest flowers of Chivalry and of Religion have met, and wrought, and suffered, and striven, and then clasped each other in lasting reconciliation and peace on Canadian soil. From a land so redolent of Heroes, [6/7] Saints, and Martyrs, the fitness of things would dictate the production of men fired with noble enthusiasms, spirited and generous souls, capable of the higher levels of thought and action. This sense of fitness seemed to have been met and satisfied in Doctor Magill. His was a manhood strong and vigorous to do and to dare; brave, yet gentle and loving. “He had,” says a member of your vestry, “the courage of a lion with the heart of a little child.” His was a manhood strung with a quickly responsive chord to all the many songs mankind is singing. His ear and heart were attuned to everything which is of good report. His was a manhood large enough to welcome and espouse the multitudinous interests of men, and he sympathized, so far as things were true and honest, just, and pure, and lovely, with whatever men were thinking of and trying for and doing.
His was a manhood charged with life and power, physical and intellectual. Will and determination and energy were written in this man’s face and form and manner, and uttered in his speech. Mind and matter were in him most felicitously fused, as if to signify that some special Divine intention was in store for him. And there was. Considered simply as a child of man, as God’s child by creation, he seemed adapted, above many of his fellows, to be anointed with the oil of gladness, to become a vessel, choice and unto honour, fit for the Master’s use.
II. By the vocation of God he was made a member of Christ, the Son of God. He became a child of God by adoption. That virile personality, that active nature, strong in spirit, was plenteously endued with heavenly gifts, and replenished with the Grace of the Holy Spirit. The honour of being a Christian is a transcendent honour. It is enough to evoke our loftiest gratitude. We bless God for our Creation, Preservation, and all the blessings of this life. [7/8] But above all we bless Him for His inestimable love in the Redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of Grace and for the Hope of Glory. The gifts of Creation and Preservation, thankworthy in themselves, are unspeakably enhanced because the recipients of those gifts have been redeemed, and Creation and Preservation open the way for the bestowal of the higher gifts of Grace and Glory. In such a scale of value does the true Christian reckon his membership in Christ. Mindful of the state of life to which he has been called, he cherishes his birthright, and having its hope purines himself even as Christ is pure. The truest Christian is not faultless. He never will be in this life. But as between himself and men he can be blameless. And a life irreproachable with men means a heart which is whole with God. And such was our father and brother departed. He was a man in every aspect. But he was a Christian man. Unblemished, he sustained the honour of the name he bore. It would be well for us to reflect oftener than we do upon the tenor of the Christian vows. They show us that the will to submit one’s self to God, and the persevering effort, relying on God’s grace and help, to realize that submission, constitute the essence of Christian honour and loyalty. The Christian makes no extravagant promise that he will never do amiss. He lays down the intention of his life. He renounces the Devil, the World, and the Flesh. He declares them his enemies. And then he promises that, by God’s help, he will endeavour not to follow nor be led by them. He promises that, by God’s help, he will obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments and walk in the same all the days of his life. He accepts the Christian Faith, and desires to be born into it of water and of the Holy Ghost. The Christian Faith is made his native instinct and the atmosphere of his life. And so he goes forth to his warfare and to his wayfaring. The burden of [8/9] his promise is to try, trusting in God’s mighty aid. The Christian many times may fail or fall. But he keeps on trying and believing in God’s Grace, and looking ever to it for assistance. The true Christian is humble, knowing his own weakness. He has a lifelong consciousness that he is a sinner. And as such, he lives in the habitual practice of repentance. He is a penitent. And penitence is the fruitful source of fresh beginnings and of deepening, ever-deepening love. “Her sins, which are many,” said the Saviour of sinners, “are forgiven; for she loved much; but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” Such was our father and brother. He was a Christian of the truest type in his unwearied, persevering endeavour to fulfil his covenant vows to Christ. He was a true Christian in his thorough penitential sense, and in his reliance on the Merits of Christ and the Riches of His Grace. He believed in, and sought, and used the fullest ministries of the Body of Christ. The Ministry of Reconciliation, of which, by God’s power and Commandment, he was a minister to others, he used himself. He knew, from personal experience the grateful peace and joy of Absolution. In lowliness and meekness he plunged himself in the Fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness. He knew the power of that precious blood, Which cleanseth us from all sin.
Again the true Christian is merciful and loving. There is no class of people who, as a class, are so merciful to wrong-doers and so charitable in judgment as Christian people. And among Christians, those, who have the profoundest sense of sin, the truest penitents, are the most merciful. It is sometimes rashly assumed that the knowledge of the sins of others, makes Priests who receive confessions, think less of penitents or judge them harshly. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reverse is exactly the case. There are no persons who touch so [9/10] powerfully the deepest springs of the Priest’s respect and reverence as those who confess their sins. Because penitence dignifies human nature in the sight of God and of all God-fearing and God-loving men. And it is safe to say, that there is no class of men who are so merciful, so forbearing, so lenient to the erring, so ready to make allowances and to admit extenuations, as Priests who hear confessions and make their own. The practice of penitence is the most powerful generator of mercy and charity and long-suffering.
And the true Christian is hopeful. He is made so by the constraint of Christ’s love towards himself. The hope, which the Merciful Saviour plants in his heart, burdened with his sins, he entertains for others to the last, and often, when the unrelenting verdict of men has been rendered, the Christian, out of love’s undying impulse, breathes the prayer of Hope for the living and the dead.
On this wise, I perceive the Christian life and character of Dr. Magill, persevering, prayerful, penitent, humble, loving, merciful, and hopeful. These qualities can never die, and the mere naming of them is an affirmation of eternal life.
III. The Divine Goodness and Wisdom had still further vocation for this man after God’s own heart. Having called him to be a Christian, God crowned this call with a call to the Priesthood. Our coming together here to hold this sacred service and to speak words of eulogy, itself attests the honour and the fidelity with which we feel that Priesthood has been exercised. We feel that this Priest has a title to be remembered and to be praised. He was strictly true to his vocation. He had a correct and noble conception of the Priesthood. He saw it by the light of Holy Scripture and in the witness of the Church, as a call from God, and not as a profession among men. He saw the [10/11] Priest at Ordination gathered into the Eternal Priesthood of Jesus Christ, and made an instrument to express and apply that Priesthood to the souls of men. He knew that the Priest’s place was first at the altar, and that the Church was a House of Prayer. He was convinced that the Priest is ordained to make the Continual Remembrance of the Sacrifice of the Death of Christ, to absolve, to bless, to rule, to feed, and to preach. You, of this parish and of this town, know only too well how faithful he was to the claims of his office. One of your own laymen said to me: “He was always ready to do his duty, and no man or woman ever saw him shirk or neglect it. I have no words sufficiently strong to describe to you what a faithful parish Priest he was.”
This faithfulness and devotion to duty were far from being the mechanical routine of a dull and narrow mind. His was the mind of the highly-trained Messenger, Watchman, and Steward of the Lord. Shunning not to declare unto you all the counsel of God, your Priest’s lips studiously kept knowledge. Dr. Magill was a painstaking and diligent reader and student. A good classical scholar and well versed in Hebrew, he brought to the Holy Scriptures, which he daily read and weighed, the best powers of an enriched and cultured intellect, and of a profoundly reverent and believing spirit. No wonder that he waxed riper and stronger in his ministry as the years went on.
He was, moreover, a musician of superior native ability and of no mean acquirements, He loved the grandeur of the organ and the august Gregorian chant, because his deeply religious nature recognized as the noblest function of music, the Praise of God.
He felt the sacredness befitting the Church and all connected with it. He saw the Church, as Jacob did, none other than the House of God and the Gate of Heaven. [11/12] And in God’s Temple he would have every whit speak of His Glory. One writes me of Dr. Magill: “He would never, if he could have had his way, have permitted any man to be a Warden or Vestryman unless he were baptized, confirmed and a communicant. And he thought that Choirmaster, Organist, and Sexton should have like qualifications.”
Dr. Magill was a thorough Churchman, true to Reason, History, and Faith. He realized the fact that the “Holy Catholic Church” is as much an Article of the Faith as is the Death of Christ upon the Cross. And he acted accordingly. He saw the Church as the very Body Mystical of Christ imparting to sinful men that, which by nature they cannot have, and as the Kingdom of Heaven opened to all believers. He believed in the Church as identical with the first Church—the Church in Jerusalem—and as coming down through the ages, One in Ministry, Faith, Sacraments, and Worship. He understood the English Reformation as a Catholic movement; as a reassertion of the Catholic principles and constitution of the Church; and as a return to Catholic practice. He was an Anglo-Catholic along with Andrewes, and Laud, and Ken, and Seabury, and Hobart, and Keble, and Pusey. He was never afraid or ashamed of his Mother the Church; of Her language or Her customs. He never had to apologize for, or ignore, or evade the ways and nomenclature of the Church and of the Prayer Book in order to speak the tongue of Zwingli, or Calvin, or any other alien teacher.
In the maintenance of the discipline of the Church, Dr. Magill was a man of splendid moral courage. I am told that he was once offered as much as $10,000 to perform a marriage which he believed to be contrary to the Law of God, and the indignation with which he spurned the offer was worthy of S. Peter himself in his rebuke of Simon the [12/13] Sorcerer. As a preacher, Dr. Magill was clear, forcible, and instructive, appearing to especial advantage, it is thought, in dogmatic sermons. When he set the trumpet to his mouth it gave no uncertain sound. He carried conviction because he was himself convinced. Probably no parish in this Diocese has enjoyed sounder preaching, in which doctrine and practice were more discreetly and justly mingled; preaching bolder and more helpful; preaching truer to the Scriptures and the Church, than the preaching which has edified this venerable parish from the lips of your late Rector. And among the great number of eminent preachers, who have been heard here, I am sure he never suffered by contrast.
As a Pastor, his record is written in the sorrowing hearts of all his people. Alike, in all homes, there is, today, a sense of loss, of gloom, of bereavement, of a friend gone never to return, which can come only from years of patient, loving mindfulness. He cared for all. The true Priest is the true Pastor. The Jewish High-Priest bore on his breastplate the names of all the tribes of the children of Israel, prefiguring in this the Eternal High Priest, who bears upon His heart before the Father the name of everyone. And so the Priest of Christ, in the likeness of his Master, bears in his heart the names of all his people. Each one is his solicitude, as he stands before the altar; as he prays at morning and at night; as he goes in and out of their dwellings. The vigilant sympathy and affection of this faithful Priest, whom we memorialize today, are not easy to find paralleled.
The Rectorship, which closed on May the 25th, in this year of Grace, was one of the three longest Rectorships in your parochial history. It will rank for duration beside those of Honyman and Wheaton. But this last Rectorship will be memorable, not merely for length of days in a [13/14] chronological record. It will be memorable, not merely for the positions of honour and importance to which Dr. Magill was called in this Diocese and in the National Church; not merely for the recognition of his merits as a godly and well-learned Priest by the University of the South; not merely for the upbuilding and extension of this parish and of the Church in Newport. It will be memorable for all these things, and they will not be forgotten. But beyond all these things, Dr. Magill’s Rectorship will be a living and precious memory on account of the eternal love and gratitude it wrought in many hearts; on account of the consolation, the healing, and the blessing, which it shed upon the poor, the heavy-laden, the afflicted, the friendless, and the sinful.
There are two facts which, it seems to me, speak volumes for the character of Dr. Magill. One is a testimony to the reality and consistency of his Priesthood and of his Christian piety, in a sphere hidden from the public eye. Of a Priest at Ordination it is demanded: “Will you be diligent to frame and fashion your own selves, and your families, according to the Doctrine of Christ, and to make both yourselves and them, as much as in you lieth, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ?” The answer to this in Dr. Magill’s life is that one of his sons has been moved to follow in his father’s steps, and has been called to serve as a Priest before the Lord. This, alone, is a sufficient tribute to the hallowed character of the inner domestic life of that father, which needs only to be mentioned that its force may be felt. The other fact is this: For upwards of twenty-two years this noble Priest has stood here in an unusually conspicuous parish—a parish whose almost cosmopolitan make-up, whose social circumstances, and whose relation to the world of fashion and fortune, render it well-nigh unique. He has stood here, [14/15] and gone up and down, and in and out, under the scrutiny of many eyes; under the keen criticism of a necessarily critical auditory. He has won and held respect and affection. He has been commended by no adventitious circumstances to the regard of men. But men have regarded him with highest favour. They knew him as always courteous, hospitable, and refined. He was reputed a delightful conversationalist. He was in the world, but not of it. He was always the Priest and the Christian. He was without pretence and without guile. He has stood on his own merits. He has been here for just what he was. And the parish and the community mourn. What a testimony to his worth! He has not been dazzled by the glare of the world, nor deceived and spoiled by position or association. He has practised no arts. He has acquired no affectations. He has put on no airs. There was nothing about him of that sadly vulgar creature, the “clerical snob.” He wore his heart upon his sleeve, and remained to the last simple, sincere, ingenuous, natural, and genuine. He has been the servant of all, but the slave of none. He has gone down to his grave a sturdy, honest man, a true Christian gentleman, a faithful Christian Priest.
He has gone, I say, to his grave. Yes—his body. It is buried in peace, but his name liveth forevermore. It will live here, long after you and I have passed away. It will live on High and shine forever, because it is written in Heaven. His soul is with the Lord. Let us turn now—as we close this survey—from the Past to the Present and the Future. Let us look forward. The Faith concludes with an onward, upward look of Hope, “I look for the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Life of the World to come.” As Evensong approached, our brother saw the light of another world. He saw his Priesthood not ended, but expanding. He saw his work not finished, but developing into a brighter era. Let us dwell upon his own [15/16] sublime words, as he faced what proved to be his death-crisis: “The conviction that, if He has no more work for me to do here on earth, He may (all unworthy as I am) have other service for me higher up, makes the ordeal seem less intolerable.”
It was lately said in a Church in England, concerning the departure of that great and saintly soul, who will be a lasting object of admiration and reverence in the Anglican Communion, William Ewart Gladstone—“it is deemed more fitting to offer prayers for the spiritual welfare of his future life than to recount the narrative of his past career. Prayer, not praise, best befits the memorial of the Faithful Dead. If the Faithful Dead could speak, the day after death, they would, surely, with their fuller knowledge of spiritual things, much prefer the supplications, not the laudations, of mankind.”
So I believe it would be with our beloved dead. Of what he was with us—we may say that God raised up for Himself a faithful Priest, who did according to the Divine heart and mind. God has built that Priest a sure house, for he leaves a son to share his Priesthood and to bear his name. Of what he now is we believe that he walks before God’s Anointed—before His Christ forever. Our Priest, Pastor, father, brother, and friend executes the Priest’s office in the Land of the Living. He prays for us. Let us pray for him, and let heart touch heart at the Altar of our God. And may you, his sorrowing people, so obediently follow that Holy Word, which he so diligently preached that with him you may receive the Crown of Everlasting Glory.
“Sounds the bell in solemn cadence,
Tolling on the morning air,
For the soul hath sought the mansions
Where is no more toil nor care;
God hath dried the weeping eyes
In the vale of Paradise.
We may hear his voice no longer
Calling souls to meet the Christ,
Pleading for the sinful people
With the atoning Eucharist;
He is gone to meet his Lord,
In the joy of his reward.
Death nor hell may vex the blessed
In the realms of endless joy,
God’s eternal sunshine warms them
Where no sounds of earth annoy;
Bathed in visions of delight
Weep no more; he goes to Jesus,
Where is no more pain nor sin;
Where his work of intercession
May his unbound hands begin;
Where, annealed from earthly dross.
His pure lips may pray for us.
For the Eternal High Priest leads him
Through the veil with Him to dwell.
To approach the unveiled Presence
Of the Lord he loved so well;
What his faith here saw by grace
Now beholds he Face to face.
Mists of earth enfold our vision,
We see not where he is gone;
But we know he pleads, as erewhile,
For his flock before the Throne;
And our hearts no more complain,
For we know our loss is gain.”