A GOOD MAN'S BURIAL.
GRACE CHURCH, NEW-YORK
TRINITY SUNDAY, MAY 26, 1872.
HENRY C. POTTER, D.D.
"And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great Lamentation."--ACTS 8: 2.
THIS was something more than a conventional funeral. The people among whom it transpired were given to burial rites of elaborate and studied ceremonial. Like all orientalists, their mourning was chiefly marked by a painstaking and intentional publicity. It sought the general gaze, and, not content with the cries and tears of friends, it hired professional mourners, with whom the dramatic exhibition of feeling was a trade, and who were, in the expressive language of the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes, "skilled in lamentation." [*Ecclesiastes 12: 5.] Nothing could mark more strongly the wide difference between the social customs of oriental nations and our own than the usages of the burial of the dead. [3/4] With us, demonstrations of mere emotion on such occasions are at once unusual and unlooked for; but among the Aryan and Semitic races alike, grief, whether actual or simulated, was demonstrative, and even boisterous and obtrusive. Wide apart as were the Greeks and the Egyptians, and widely as were the Hebrews distinguished, both by their religion and their customs, from either, these three great and representative peoples of the elder world were almost identical in the usages of their mourning. With all of them, grief for the dead meant baring and heating the breast, sprinkling or sitting in ashes, songs of lamentation, and the employment of mourning women.
And so, when the martyred Stephen is buried, the customs are not changed. True, he was not merely a Jew, but a Christian; yet the infant Church still clung to the cherished ceremonies of the elder, and what was usual was followed here. It was indeed the hatred and vindictiveness of Judaism which had slain this godly man; yet, when he is dead, the manner of his burial is the usage of Judaism itself. To have changed it, would have been to have surrendered [4/5] his claim as a veritable and loyal Israelite and doubtless, also, to have grieved and wounded his surviving relatives. All the more because his death had been so cruel and distressing, would they have his burial decent and reverent and painstaking; even as when the nation buries some honored soldier, she surrounds his funeral cortege with every element of pomp and state and ceremony, as though she would atone for the hardships of his bitter and lonely end upon the field of battle, by utmost tenderness and reverence in dealing with his lifeless body.
And thus it was with the bruised and mangled form of Stephen. The funeral order of his race was carefully observed. There were not wanting trains of mourners, a funeral escort, nor the tones of loud-voiced lamentation. Every thing that mere custom demanded seems to have been scrupulously and painstakingly observed.
But there was this difference, and it comes out with a singular and touching significance in two Greek words, used here only in all the New Testament. The mourning at Stephen's [5/6] funeral was the mourning of unaffected feeling, and the attendants who followed him to his grave were not hired mutes nor paid mourners, but grief-stricken and godly men. I presume that every slightest ceremony that Judaism, with its elaborate ritual, demanded, was performed without an omission. But no careless or perfunctory hands touched the martyr's scarred and shattered form, and "devout men,"who knew and loved the saint and hero sleeping in his blood-stained shroud, "made great lamentation over him."
Such a scene at once suggests the thought of the difference that there is in funerals. The Church of which we are members, unlike the Christian bodies about her, follows the usage of the elder church in having one common ritual for all her baptized dead. She does not attempt to discriminate either in her customs or her utterances. All who die within her pale are buried with the same Office, and have said over them the same incomparable words. She is not a judge, with such infallible insight that she can weigh character and prophesy of destiny. There are some of us who deplore that "liturgical stiffness," [6/7] as it is called, which leaves no room for the play of individual pastoral utterance in our funeral customs, and affords no opportunity for converging the general lines of thought and emotion, appropriate to the occasion, to the individual case or character. But the candid testimony of those who enjoy such liberty, and who are free to conduct the funeral offices of religion unreservedly at their own discretion, is almost unanimous in declaring the exercise of that discretion to be at once painful, embarrassing, and in its results, very often, most unfortunate. Where prayer and hymn and eulogy are left free to be ordered by the supposed demands of every individual instance, they will be very apt to become presumptuous in their condemnation, or else unreal in their praise. The minister of Christ becomes either a judge or a eulogist, and the congregation before him are apt to be a jury of critics rather than an assemblage of mourners. On the one hand, are those whose grief makes them eager for commendations, the want of which breeds resentment if they are not spoken; while on the other are those, whose less interested but [7/8] perhaps not less prejudiced judgments denounce or deride such commendations, if they are.
Most wisely, therefore, does the Church use one common Office for all her dead, leaving scarce any discretion to her ministry, and uttering one uniform voice to her people. Her language is general, not specific. She writes as Inspiration has written before her, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord;" but she utters no verdict of application in connection with their use. She speaks words of Christian hope; but they are coupled with the Scriptural conditions of all Christian hope. Hers is not a heathen, but a Christian burial; and its language, as Dr. Vaughan has admirably said, in defending the English burial service, is language which said, as it only can be said, over a baptized disciple of Christ, "OUGHT to be true of such an one, if it is not." In a word, it is the language of Christian faith and trust, and while it is utterly devoid of any specific application of its very general terms, we feel that its tone is only what the tone of any thing save a heathen burial ought to be.
And yet, when we come to use it, we recognize, [8/9] as I have already intimated, what a really tremendous difference there may be in even the Church's funerals. As with Stephen's burial by the elder church, there are the same preliminaries, the same customs, the same words, and yet, as there, there may be the widest and most radical difference in what those words and customs express. Have we not all witnessed funerals where even the sublime ritual of the Church seemed powerless to touch the heart or lift the thoughts? The pathetic words of prophetic confidence, of divine assurance, of patient acquiescence, the incomparable argument, the pleading entreaty, the hopeful committal, the fervent thanksgiving, have alike fallen upon the ear, only to leave behind them a sense of ghastly and painful incongruity. Christian symbols stood around; flowers, cunningly fashioned into emblems of faith and hope, bloomed upon the bier, but all the while our thoughts have been full of their utter meaninglessness. The trumpet tones of that grand demonstration of the doctrine of the resurrection, which St. Paul pours forth in his epistle to the church at Corinth, fall upon our hearing, [9/10] but in vain. With utmost charity, with every willingness to leave the vanished life in the hands of a Love at once deeper and wiser than ours, we can not bind that life and the church's tones together. Somehow, they do not fit into, and form a part of, each other. Verily, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; for they rest from their labors." But if they have not lived in the Lord, nor labored for Him--We may say these questions are useless. But we can not help asking them.
On the other hand, there are other funerals where we use precisely the same ritual; where there is no diversity in usage or custom from what is wonted, unless it be in the direction of greater simplicity; where merely the Church's appointed words are said, and no others, and yet where the emotions of our own hearts and the very atmosphere of the whole occasion are utterly and wholly different. There is deep and wide-spread sorrow, but it is a grief gilded with light. We listen to the words of inspired hope and promise, and, as we lift our eyes from the bier before us, lo! the clouds are parted, and we see how, to a Christian, the grave is only a [10/11] low-browed portal, through which, bending as, he passes, he emerges into larger life and freer. The apostle's words, in that which forms the Church's burial Lesson, are no longer a mere argument, a piece of dialectic skill; they are a heaven-inspired prophecy and revelation; and, mounting step by step in thought with him, as he advances, we cry, at last in his own words, even out of the valley of our bitter grief, "Thanks be to God, for death is swallowed up in victory!"
Such a funeral service has taken place within these walls, since we last gathered here, and was marked by features so signal and exceptional, that to fail to note them would be to miss the significance of one of the most suggestive assemblages which these walls have ever embraced. I have seen children belonging to public institutions, present on such occasions, when a benefactor had been called away; but I never before saw little children weeping for the death of one who in age stood at a remove from them of all but four-score years. I have seen the clergy gathered to do honor to men in public life; but I do not think I ever saw so large a body of the [11/12] clergy, of every shade of opinion, gathered in attendance upon the funeral of a layman who never left the most retired walks of private life. I have seen institutions of charity largely represented on such occasions; but I doubt whether there have been many occasions in the entire history of this community where representatives of such varied and diverse enterprises, homes and refuges, hospitals and asylums, museums of art and science and literature, schools and shelters and colleges, nay, the friends of the dumb brute even, as well as of neglected or overdriven human beings, were gathered in such numbers, or with such unmistakable evidences of feeling.
Why was it? Was it because he to whom I now refer was a rich man? On the contrary, rich men are no novelty nor rarity in New-York; and, whatever may be the respect which mere wealth inspires while its possessor is living, we all know that nothing is more powerless to secure the genuine and unbought homage of love when he is dead. We are said to be great worshipers of money in America; but it is at once an instructive and a cheering fact that the mere [12/13] possession of money alone goes but a very little may to endear its possessor to the esteem and regard of his kind. Rich men die in our great cities every day, and dying,
"Vanish out of sight
And are forgotten;"
but here was a private citizen, whose wealth was not greater than that of many others around him, and yet the sense of whose loss, betraying itself as it did in the exceptional and almost pathetic character of his obsequies, will, I venture to declare, go on deepening and increasing as the days and months go by.
Again I ask, Why was it? It will be answered more confidently. and more generally perhaps, "Because it was not merely the loss of one intrusted with wealth, but the loss of one who freely gave of that wealth to every good and Christ-like cause; one who scattered his benefactions with a royal hand, and who knew no stint in the measure of his gifts, or the range of their objects."
And as a partial explanation of so wide-spread and unwonted a sense of bereavement, this is [13/14] undoubtedly true. Mr. John David Wolfe was a man of catholic benevolence, and of wide-reaching and comprehensive gifts. Some men, situated as he was, would have touched the great circle of religious and philanthropic charities strongly, but at a few points. He never did any thing penuriously; but at the same time, his range was almost boundless. If he had "pet" charities, they did not shut others, less engaging or less romantic, from out the range of his vision. He saw with as vivid a discernment the claims of the cause of Christ on the coast of Cape Palmas, as he saw the needs of neglected and untaught children in our own crowded streets.
And yet it was something more than the profuseness or catholicity of his charities which so, greatly endeared him to others when living, and which makes him so unaffectedly lamented now that he is dead. It was rather the rare and happy combination in him of great practical wisdom, of habitually sound discrimination, of a warm and generous and sympathetic heart, with untiring activity in carrying out its impulses. His benefactions were freighted with good-will, and his habitual liberality won its choicest perfume [15/16] from the personal interest, and constant and painstaking anxiety, for the welfare and succor of others, which always and everywhere went with it. I doubt whether any other man in the community gave so much time to visits among our public and private institutions of charity as did he; and I certainly have not been privileged to meet any one who was so thoroughly at home among them. He knew almost every physician, nurse, attendant, and, in many institutions, even their patients. When he entered such homes for destitute childhood as St. Barnabas' House or the Sheltering Arms, the shouts of welcome that greeted him, and the thronging of little ones about him, was a spectacle never to be forgotten. It was a devotion unpurchasable by money, and it was the only thing that I ever greatly envied him. Children intuitively and instinctively recognized and loved him, and their faces reflected the tenderness and benignity that shone upon them from his own, with a warmth and kindliness that could not be mistaken. I owe to him, almost exclusively, my personal knowledge of the charities of New-York; and, as I remember how it was his custom to go among [15/16] them, especially on seasons so exclusively devoted, ordinarily, to private festivity as Christmas and Thanksgiving day, I do not wonder that one who knew and valued him most warmly said to me the other day, "We have no one to take his place among the children."
It was this same spirit of warm personal interest, and of painstaking and discriminating charity, which marked his benefactions when they took a wider range. More than any other layman in the whole history of our American Church, Mr. Wolfe was concerned in laying its broad and deep foundation in our distant West. The dioceses of Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, Utah, Nevada, and Oregon owe more to his gifts and personal interest than to those of any other layman. In some of them, almost the whole educational structure of the diocese was his exclusive work. Here at home this was but little known, for Mr. Wolfe's benefactions were as free from ostentation as they were princely in measure; but the missionary bishops of this Church have sustained a loss in his departure which is simply and utterly irreparable. I dread to hear the cry of grief and dismay [16/17] which I know is already on the way to me from those far-distant frontiers. The valiant hearts that are fighting there, almost single-handed, for the Master, will know no keener pang than that which has come to them with the tidings that their friend and fellow-worker is no more.
For it was because, as I have already implied, he was so truly this last, that he will be most of all missed. It is a very interesting and, to me, a very precious fact, that, while Mr. Wolfe had very strong and decided convictions of his own on all points of Church doctrine and polity, this did not exclude from his sympathy and interest men who often widely differed from him, so long as they were men, and men in earnest. He was not hasty in his judgments, nor impulsive in his confidences; but when he was once persuaded that a missionary bishop or presbyter was honestly working for Christ, and when he saw that the opening was a good one, it was, with him, enough. He exercised the same prudence in making a charitable investment that he did in making a business investment, and the schools and churches which he [17/18] reared now stand in flourishing prosperity to witness at once to his wisdom and his liberality. His correspondence was large and various, and he kept himself constantly informed of the interests of the church of Christ and Christian education on our most distant outposts. Who can wonder that he made himself widely felt, or that, now that he is gone, he will be widely and sorely missed?
One of the most interesting illustrations of his wisdom and discrimination, in cooperating in the missionary work of the Church, is to be found in a little pamphlet known as the Mission Service, a compilation made and published by himself, and issued in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. For twenty years, the Church has been discussing the question whether it could safely allow its ministers some slight liberty in modifying the order or abbreviating the length of her services, and, up to this day, has, with a timidity and stiffness which do her little honor, practically refused such liberty. Mr. Wolfe, with a courage and practical good sense which were alike worthy of the emergency cut the Gordian knot by himself [18/19] preparing and printing such an abbreviated service. I have never yet heard of any bishop or presbyter who refused to give it practical approval by making use of it, and among those who have demanded it most eagerly, in their missionary operations, have been some of the most unbending churchmen, whether prelates or presbyters, in the land. Hundreds of thousands of copies of it have been scattered from Maine to New-Mexico, educating strangers to her fold to love and long for the prayers of the church, and to accept thankfully and reverently a fuller ritual, when at length it could be permanently provided for them.
I may not, within these limits, undertake to speak of Mr. Wolfe as I should wish to; in his relations to this parish, and I dare not trust myself to speak of him as I would, in his more intimate relations to myself. The senior officer of Grace Parish, he was its faithful and unswerving friend and servant for more than a quarter of a century. A member of its vestry, when the present edifice was erected, his connection with that body continued, without interruption, until the day of his death; and it is but a few [19/20] weeks since he came to me to submit a plan for the future of the parish, which showed how alive he was to the importance of rightly shaping that future, though he could not hope to share in it himself. A man of four score years, he yet took an active and discriminating interest in every living question, and in his relations to the vestry of this church, as well as out of it, he was singularly free from that coldly
retrospective conservatism which settles torpidly upon the lees of the past, and is equally indifferent to the wants of the present and the exigencies of the future. Above all, he was distinguished by an unswerving loyalty to the interests of the parish, and to every least obligation which his official connection with it involved; and the harmony and unanimity of official action, which have long been the rare and honorable distinction of the corporation, found in him one of their happiest and most steadfast illustrations. If I or others differed from him at any time concerning certain lines of parochial policy it never, for one moment, made him obstructive in his action, or cold or reserved in his bearing. He never took advantage of his official [20/21] position to seek to coerce the judgment or action of others; and, where he could not approve a certain course himself, he acquiesced promptly and cheerfully in the prevailing opinion of those with whom he was associated.
If I were to attempt to speak of him as I knew him personally, I would have to trench upon the privacy of his home, and to speak of some things almost too sacred for utterance. But I may at least venture to declare that all that was best and most engaging in him was deepened and consecrated by the grace of the Gospel of Christ. He was a consistent and devout disciple of the Master, and his reverent bearing here in this holy house, and his godly walk and conversation elsewhere, were too clear and unequivocal in their testimony to be mistaken. Not naturally impulsive or emotional in his temperament, an eager business man for many years of life, the grace of Christ so wrought upon him as steadily to enlarge his kindly heart, and open, more and more widely, his generous and untiring hand; and when at last he lay down to die, his thoughts were still busy with schemes of good for others, [21/22] and almost his last words to me were concerning those schemes and his own earnest desire for their speedy realization. "And so he fell asleep, and was not, for God took him."
Men and brethren! who among us will not bless God for a life so beautiful and benignant? Men of wealth in this congregation, young men whose earnest and hourly ambition it is that you may be men of wealth, see in such a life, I pray you, the portraiture of a Christian stewardship. We may pile up vast and exceptional fortunes, we may startle other men, alike by the boldness and by the success of our business ventures; we may excel ever so conspicuously in the mad race for gain and moneyed precedence, sacrificing rest and health and strength in the strife; when the struggle is over, what will it all be worth if we have never used this mighty agency of good or of evil for Christ and for God? On a tombstone in an Italian churchyard, as I have been told, there is this inscription: "Here lies Estelle, who having transported a large fortune to heaven, in acts of charity, has gone thither to enjoy it." Is not this to use our stewardship, whether of wealth, of intellect, [22/23] or of opportunity, at once christianly and wisely? Blessed privilege, to spend and be spent for the Master! Ours be it to imitate their "good example," who, whatsoever were the talents which their Lord had given them, have so used those talents that, at the last, their ears shall hear their Lord declare, "Thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord!"