Mrs. ELLEN WOOLSEY,
Preached Feb. 15, 1885
St. LUKE’S CHURCH
By the Rector,
—PRINTED BY ORDER OF THE VESTRY.—
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2016
Text courtesy of Leigh C. Eckmair, Historian/Archivist
the Gilbertsville Free Library, Gilbertsville, New York
At a meeting of the Wardens and Vestrymen of S. Luke’s Church, held Feb. 22, 1885, the following action was taken:
WHEREAS, This Vestry, feeling most deeply the great loss the parish has sustained in the death of Mrs. Ellen Woolsey;
Resolved, That the able eulogy pronounced on her character on the Sunday preceding her funeral, by our Rector, is worthy of a very wide circulation, and that a copy be asked of him for publication;
Resolved, That the suggestion made in said discourse that a Parish Hall be erected, dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Woolsey, be adopted as the purpose of this Vestry;
Resolved, That the two Wardens be a committee directed to carry out this action, and by such suitable procedure place the subject before the friends of the late Mrs. Woolsey as may engage their notice and co-operation.
JNO. BLUNT, Clerk, Pro Tem.
[GEORGE F. NESBITT & CO., PRINTERS, N. Y.]
“Why are they then Baptized for the Dead.”
I Cor.. xv: 29.
Ut quid Baptizantur pro illios (i.e. Mortuis)
These are very familiar words. They occur in a service of the church which, though surrounded always by painful associations, because of its power to bestow a heavenly comfort is undeniably precious. Sometimes we have felt when we have been reading the office for the burial of the dead over the remains of some fellow toiler who has ended his warfare, the question has pressed affectingly home. Whatever scholars may think of the real meaning of our text, whether interpreting it literally of a vicarious baptism at the time of writing customary in the church, or treating it from an entirely different standpoint, our idea has always been that the question is intended to suggest a vacant place in the heart, or the household, or the church whenever it is asked, and the suggestion of a succession is at once made. So we feel naturally when death has stricken down some standard bearer of the faith, and a place is left vacant which it seemed he only could fill; almost in despair we take up S. Paul’s sentiment, and turning it into an interrogation, we ask: “Who will be baptized for the dead?” Who will take his place, lift up the cross he laid down, and carry forward the work he was doing when summoned home? We have chosen these words for the text of a brief discourse this morning, because they [3/4] seem to suggest some thoughts which may be appropriate to the solemn service in which we are now engaging, appropriate, too, to the more solemn obsequies which are so soon to follow. “A mighty one has fallen in Israel.” “Full of good works and alms deeds which she did,” our oldest communicant, the only member of our parish who has been continuously connected with it from its beginning, our noblest soul, greatest worker, most Christ-like character, at the ripe age of three score and fifteen years, after a brief illness of a week, has entered into her rest. The thoughts connected with our text are therefore opportune, and will be fitting preparation for us who are so soon to pay the last tribute of devotion to her whom we all so dearly loved. No one can think of her, the mention of whose name is not at this time necessary that anyone present may know to whom we refer, and not be reminded of the constant worshipper and constant worker, the one filled with the love of God to such an extent she had to share it with others. One who by day and by night was concerned in the one idea of ministering to the glory of God, and the welfare and salvation of men.
There is not a spot in this house of God which has not been hallowed by her presence. Not a poor family in this parish which has not been blessed by her continued interest and anxious concern. Not a working organization of the parish but is in some way concerned in her taking away. Not one to whom she was a dearer personal friend than he who now with difficulty addresses you. She was more too, than the property of the parish. Catholic in her mind she was as catholic in her heart. Her interest in the poor and afflicted was not limited by anything but her physical strength in reaching them, and in this almost to the very last, in answer to her own prayers, she was abundantly endowed. The last day she was out of her house, just one [4/5] week before she fell asleep in Jesus, she was present in different portions of the city attending to the wants and duties of diocesan charities, general charitable institutions, and lastly, very appropriately laid down the burden of active Christian work in our own parish hall, there engaged ‘til the close of the working hours, attending to the wants of the poor, sewing for the needy, distributing clothing to the distressed, and otherwise assisting the Parish clergy in their arduous labors of ministering most effectually to the down-trodden and the outcast. My last active relation with her was this very afternoon when I handed her some money and a ticket, which she in turn was to give to one in whom she has had for some time a deep interest, and who will be among the countless true mourners who will lay her away to rest. As I think of her in my various relations with her the last five years, recalling her uniform Christian disposition, her loving interest in everything good, her sweet encouragement in every difficulty, the word of praise only given when needed to encourage, the lovely resignation to what seemed to be best whether she agreed or did not, take this character all in all, I say truthfully I have never seen one like it. In mediaeval times she would long ago have been named a saint. “Walking daily as seeing Him who is invisible,” she lived as a child of God should live, and quietly as the evening steals on in summer, she sweetly died as only a child of God can die. A child of God, a member of Christ, now an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. A member with us in the communion of saints, now at rest in the paradise of God. This parish has much to thank God for, but to my mind nothing so much as its members who are now praying for its welfare as they see God face to face, and worship in the immediate presence of their Saviour. In view of such solemn facts there is something very suggestive in the words “Why are they then baptized for the dead?”
 We see in these words the apostles great argument for succession of workers, and the perpetuity of the work. Shocked by the removal from our numbers of one so manifestly great in every particular, we may well despair as we look about us for one to take her place. Yet, confronted by the assurances of the Gospel, we know that God always provides workers for His work by the unceasing baptizings of new ones into the places of the departed. The apostolic succession no less applies to the laity than to the clergy. It is a part of the divine plan by which baptism into the place of the dead, the solid phalanx in Christ’s army shall remain unbroken. In the first place we ought to see in these words of S. Paul a very strong argument, to my mind a conclusive argument, for the future life. Some among the Corinthians must have denied the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead. This carried with it of course a denial of a future life. Why then perpetuate the Gospel and the Church, asks the apostle. “If the dead rise not, why stand we in jeopardy every hour?” He reminds them that he had preached the gospel in Ephesus and established the church there. So fierce the opposition and so terrible the danger, that he might say of it even “I have fought with beasts at Ephesus.” What advantageth, he says, if there be no life beyond? Nay, I protest, I even now am in danger of daily death. So “if the dead rise not, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”; and, moreover, “what shall they do who are baptized for the dead?” “Why are we then baptized in their place, and why stand we in jeopardy every hour?” His argument, you see, is based wholly on the extension and perpetuity of the church. So he speaks very properly of baptism, for by that sacrament we are admitted into the church, and thus the ranks depleted by death, by the Holy Spirit, stronger than death, [6/7] are kept full; and so it is, the gates of hell (Hades, death) cannot prevail against it.” Some one interested in the exact meaning of this passage may very properly ask, does the expression “For the dead” admit of the interpretation you put upon it, “In the place of the dead?” Was not S. Paul’s expression based upon the fact of such a custom as baptizing vicariously then in vogue among Christians? We think not. It is not at all certain that such a custom ever was prevalent among Christians. If it ever were so, it was more likely a custom, the result of a too literal interpretation of this very scripture, than antecedent to the writing. But the expression is often used both in the New Testament and by classical writers, in the sense we take our text where one takes the place of another in the duties and the functions of that place. A Greek historian, whose words in all probability S. Paul had read, and with which the Corinthians would very likely be familiar, speaking of the disposition of a reserve of troops on the eve of a battle, says: “The general so placed them that when any soldiers in the front should fall, men in the reserve could take their places, and thus stand (now using S. Paul’s very words), in the place of the dead.” It would indeed almost seem the apostle had this figure in mind, maybe the very passage, when twice in as many lines he uses the same words, and in exactly the same connection. And to strengthen our interpretation of the passage, we can refer to the text where the same apostle, speaking of the Christian ministry, says: “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, in the place of Christ,” and “‘We pray you in Christ’s stead,” (again it is the same phrase), be ye reconciled to God.” “Baptized for the dead,” means then, according to our understanding of the phrase, “taking their place,” “assuming their work.” So God provides for the [7/8] perpetuity of the church in the generations of the faithful unto the end.
So the story goes on as each age is scored among those that are numbered. So has it ever been since the day when apostles left the little upper room to form the new creation in Christ Jesus. So will it ever be ‘til the end. Baptism for the dead has been, thus considered, the salvation of the Church. Persecution has either sent defenders into exile, or silenced them in death, but the front of the army has remained unbroken. Every time a rank has dropped, a multitude as from the dead have sprung forward to take the places. Helpers, defenders, champions have come forward to be baptized for the dead ones who, sinking down in midst of battle, laid off their armor and fell in peaceful slumbers. When Stephen was stoned things must have looked very dark for the Christian Church. A great voice was silenced upon which high hope had counted as one to be uplifted, unanswerable and mighty. Soon Saul the persecutor became Paul the Christian, and for Stephen was baptized in the place of the dead. Herod stretches forth the staying hand against James the Great, but the words recording his death are quickly followed by those which tell of men baptized for the dead, and a mighty band of prophets and teachers with Barnabas and Silas went to the fields of conquest. Often in the history of the church has it seemed that the taking away of some valiant defender would be a loss irreparable. Athanasius in exile, the death of the good King Edward, when the bigoted Spanish Philip stood near the English throne, Crammer and Ridley at the state, portentous clouds in the sky of the Church’s experience, but the idea of baptized for the dead has lived, the spirit of Elijah has rested on some Elisha, the torch lighted and uplifted at Calvary and on the cross has ever been upheld. Some heaven-baptized hand has appeared through the [8/9] darkness just as it seemed to be fading in mist, and borne it aloft. So has Christ lived; so has his work progressed; so will it unto the end.
Only see then, dear brethren, what comfort we get from these words of our lesson in the burial office. It is only one of many assurances God gives us that death is anything but what we think it, that the same work progresses, and that workers are united in the communion of the saints.
She who walked in and out of these holy courts, whose presence everywhere was in itself a blessing, whose memory is an inspiration to every one of us to “work while it is day,” has not ceased to be with us, has not withdrawn her interest, has not silenced her prayers. Only fallen, in the thick of the battle, but her place spiritually is not vacant. We shall have some one, many may be, God grant it, who, through her abiding influence shall be brought to the foot of the cross, and there baptized in the place of the dead, shall take up her work where she lay it down, and for God’s glory and man’s good, go on in it manfully and faithfully to the end. I will not in justice to her faith and sterling character, look upon the earthly side of this catastrophe and be sad. She is not taken from us. She will be with us still at our meetings, in our labors, our services, our communions. We may not fear to say, and no man knowing facts, shall judge us extravagant in saying she was one of those of whom it is written: “Right dear in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Beautifully proportioned and perfectly rounded as was her entire Christian character, she will dwell in our minds most richly by her works. Another Dorcas for the church. “Full of good works and alms-deeds which she did.” There was nothing dearer to her heart than Christian charities. Her last thoughts were on these as connected with this parish. She lived in the hope she might live long enough to see a [9/10] proper building upon our property, devoted to the work of ministering in Christ’s name to the afflicted and the needy. Her last work was in the parish hall. How appropriate a monument, could we all combine this coming year and erect on the rear of this property a plain, substantial building in accordance with her ideas, which were so frequently expressed that at least a score of persons can tell them, and have over its front door, carved in enduring stone, “In memory of one who for many years went in and out among us, and died in a ripe old age, leaving the memory of one full of good works and alms-deeds which she did.”
That she was worthy of this remembrance and this substantial monument, is the chaplet which I, her Rector, and beside a dear and personal friend desire last of all to lay upon her grave.
In the words of the wise man we may say: “She laid her hands to the spindle and her hands held the distaff. She stretched out her hand to the poor; yea, she reached forth her hand to the needy. She opened her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue was the law of kindness. She was a woman that feared the Lord, therefore shall she be praised. Her children arise up and call her blessed; give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates.”
 The undersigned, a committee appointed to carry into effect the purposes of the Vestry regarding the death of Mrs. Ellen Woolsey, would enter the following minute: That while as that of a sister we could scarcely feel a greater personal bereavement; as a loss to the Church and the community we esteem it irreparable. That having listened to the eulogy by our Rector on Mrs. Woolsey’s life and character, as delivered on the morning ending her funeral, we cannot convey our estimate of her better than to attest to the unvarnished truth of every word of our Rector’s able and touching portraiture. As long and intimate friends and co-workers with the deceased, we can truly say: While her labor and deeds of love were an unceasing benefaction and benediction to the poor and the forsaken, her example and her words were one prolonged psalm of Christian charity to elevate and inspire us all to a more devout service of the Master.
The Committee cannot but hope that the work so near the heart of Mrs. Woolsey, that of the erection of a new Parish Hall, will be now taken up by her numerous friends, and liberal offerings made to attest by this monument to the marked and genuine worth of Mrs. Woolsey’s life and character.
W. H. FLEEMAN, JOHN D. BLUXOME, Wardens. Contributions or pledges to be redeemed within six months for the above-named purpose, may be sent to Hon. W. H. Fleeman, Treasurer of the Parish, 1273 Pacific Street; or to the Rector, 520 Clinton Avenue, Brooklyn.