Project Canterbury

The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg
Doctor in Divinity

By Anne Ayres

New York: T. Whittaker, 1889.

CHAPTER XXVIII. 1876-1877.

Seldom at St. Johnland.--Delight in sheltering Children there.--Dr. Adams's Lunch Party.--Another "I would not live alway."--Fourscore not Labor and Sorrow.--The Youth of the Angels.--The right Side of Seventy.--Does not expect to lie down in the Dust.--The Festival of the Ascension.--Happy Gathering at St. Johnland.--The Chapel Service.--The Founder's Well.--Muhlenberg Endowment.--Eightieth Birthday.--"Let me die in my Nest"

IN these latter years he saw his dear St. Johnland very seldom. Many months intervened between his visits; its local affairs being administered mainly through his assistants. But he kept himself well informed as to all that was going on, and took great interest in sending down poor children for a share in the benefits of the place. Two instances of the kind occurred at this time in quick succession. A poor consumptive widow in- the Hospital was near her end, and wanted to see her little boys. They were brought late one evening, by their uncle, the poor mother's brother and only relative, who was so intoxicated that Dr. Muhlenberg encountering him as he was about to take back the children, and fearing for their safety--they were but four and six years old--bade him leave them at the Hospital, and come back in the morning to take care of them. The man was arrested and sent to the Penitentiary, and the poor mother died. Then the little orphans were tenderly gathered to the good Pastor's breast, and laying a hand on either flaxen head, he told them, as if it were a kingdom he was promising them, "You shall go to St. Johnland, my dear children!" The others were a family of four, deprived in a single day of both parents; healthy, well-reared little ones, but being recent immigrants, without a friend to shelter them in their sudden orphanage, until Dr. Muhlenberg took them in. Opportunities such as these would enliven his spirits for hours. In the month of February (1876) he accepted an invitation to a rather remarkable lunch party. The Rev. Dr. Adams of the Presbyterian Church invited him. with a few other octogenarian friends, to meet a venerable gentleman who, bright and well in his ninetieth year, was then expected on a visit. Among those present, were the poet Bryant, Mr. Peter Cooper, Mr. James Brown, the Rev. Dr. Calhoun of Syria, and others. As Dr. Muhlenberg exchanged greetings with Mr. Bryant, he playfully quoted with mock ruefulness two lines from the poet's "Death of the Flowers:"

'The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,
Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sere.

Mr. Bryant laughed, enjoying the application.

"Coming to the table," wrote Dr. Adams in his mention of the occasion, "I requested Dr. Muhlenberg to ask a blessing, and taking from his pocket a slip of paper, which at this moment lies before me in his own handwriting, he read these lines:

'"Solemn thanks be our grace, for the years that are past,
With their blessings untold, and though this be our last,
Yet, joyful our trust that thro' Christ 'twill be given,
All here meet again, at his table in heaven.'

"'Amen,' 'Amen,' was the hearty response from that bright, beautiful, and cheerful group."

Dr. Muhlenberg and Dr. Adams loved each other. "More than once," said the latter, "I have said to my family, when returning from some interview with him, in which he had honored me with a kiss, that I felt as if the Apostle John had embraced me, and repeated in my ear some words which had been whispered to him by the Master on whose bosom he had leaned at the supper."

In the same month with the lunch party at Dr. Adams's, Dr. Muhlenberg completed another "I would not live alway," which is thus inscribed: '"I would not live alway'--A version written in illness in 1874. Revised at this time and dedicated to my beloved friend, Adam Norrie, for his eightieth birthday.

"I would not live alway--I ask not to stay,
For nought but to lengthen the term of the way;
Nay, fondly I've hoped, when my work days were done,
Then, soon and undim'd, would go down my life's sun.

"But, if other my lot, and I'm destined to wait
Thro' suffering and weakness in useless estate,
Till I gain my release, gracious Lord keep me still,
Unmurmuring, resigned, to thy Fatherly will.

'Yea, thus let it be, so that thereby I grow
More meet for his presence to whom I would go,
More patient, more loving, more quiet within,
Throughly washed in the Fountain that cleanseth from sin.

"So the days of my tarrying on to their end,
Bringing forth what they may, all in praise I would spend--
Then, no cloud on my faith, when called for I'd leave,
Calm in prayer, 'Lord Jesus, my spirit receive.'

"But inside the veil--How, how is it there?
Dare we ask for some sight, or some sound to declare,
What the blessed are doing--afar or anear?
Oh I but for a whisper, the darkness to cheer!

"Yet, why aught of darkness? Light, light enough this,
The Paradise life--it can be only bliss--
And whatever its kind, or where'er its realm lies,
The Saviour its glory, the Sun of its skies."

He would never allow that there was any thing woeful or forlorn in Christian old age. "My fourscore years are not labor and sorrow, I am sure, I can thankfully say;" alluding to the Psalm in the burial service. On Easter Day, discoursing on the words, "And entering into the sepulchre they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment," he broke into one of those instant, natural applications of the Gospel, so common with him, and so impressive. "A young man--an angel--and who ever heard of an old angel? No, nor (looking at the wan, pale faces of the patients around him) a sick or paralyzed angel. The angels have perpetual youth and health, that belongs to life and immortality, and righteousness is immortal. Our Lord Jesus Christ says of us in the resurrection kingdom, 'Neither can they die any more, but are equal to the angels.' . . ."

"Did you ever hear any thing so beautiful?" said a poor; aged, trembling one, after the Chapel service. "And how happy Dr. Muhlenberg looked--just like an angel himself."

"We're both a good way on the wrong side of seventy," a worthy old friend observed to him one day as they exchanged greetings.

"The wrong side!" exclaimed Dr. Muhlenberg, "surely it is the right side, for it is the side nearest heaven."

He manifestly enjoyed what one has called "The gran' delicht o' seein' auld age rin hirplin awa' frae the face o' the Ancient o' Days." A brother clergyman read at evening service the formula for Family Prayer in the Prayer Book where the petition occurs, "make us mindful of the time when we shall lie down in the dust." "A-----, do you ever expect to lie down in the dust?" he inquired of his friend afterwards. "I know I do not." He occasionally used these morning and evening prayers in the family, but invariably changed the petition alluded to, and also one in the morning prayer, regarding the remembrance of "the strict account to be given of our thoughts, words, and actions, at the last day, when, according to the deeds done in the body, we shall be eternally rewarded or punished by him who is appointed," etc.--He always substituted the latter by these words: "May we so know our Lord Jesus Christ now, as our Saviour, that we may not then fear to meet him as our Judge."

The Festival of the Ascension this year was a marked day. He spent it at St. Johnland, where about a hundred ladies and gentlemen from the city met him by special invitation of the Trustees, for the purpose of acquainting themselves with the work; thus far, owing to its remoteness, little personally known. Few -who were present will forget the hallowed charm of that day. The picture of the venerable Founder seated under the trees in the midst of the groups of children provided for by his care, as he led them in singing a Centennial song, an adaptation by his own hand of his President's Hymn; or, better still, the glowing Ascension Day service in the little cross-surmounted Church, which followed after, when for a few moments he held all hearts as he spoke on what to him was the theme of themes--"Brotherhood in Christ," from the words of our Lord, "Go tell my brethren, I ascend to my Father and your Father, my God and your God." He was not feeling as strong as usual, but there was a pathos in his somewhat broken earnestness, and in the meekness with which he asked that, if he had said aught amiss or omitted aught that he should have said they would pardon him, which was more eloquent, under the circumstances, than any grander discourse. He himself was very happy. It cheered him that his guests were so evidently impressed with his St. Johnland. It was a young child to have so aged a father, and he did what he could that day to bespeak friends and helpers against he should leave it. This tender anxiety gave a deepened interest to every expression of appreciation that met his ear, and he watched, with pure and grateful pleasure, the impression made upon the company at large, by the primitive simplicity and rural beauty of the place. The weather was perfect; the atmosphere fresh and pearly, and the great St. Johnland flag, never, in those days, raised except when the Founder was in residence, floated its Johannean symbols as a consecration of the whole.

It was during this visit that the Founder's Well came into being. Dr. Muhlenberg, as if under an inspiration, suddenly said, "Come, let us dig a well for the cottages." Reaching the place, he chose the spot where, eventually, excellent water was found, and having driven in a stake to guide the diggers, and uttered a text from St. John's Gospel, he uncovered his head and breathed a fervent prayer, and a father's blessing on the place. The well has since been very handsomely housed as a Tribute of Respect to the Founder; the legend he chose, heavily engraved in brass, forming the frieze, thus: "Jesus said, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again, but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst."

In the month of September following, he was persuaded, though reluctantly, to go again to St. Johnland. For some time previous, a measure had been on foot for signalizing his eightieth birthday, by the presentation of a substantial sum ($20,000), as the beginning of a "Muhlenberg Endowment" for that work. It was well understood that no expensive gift to himself would be acceptable to his disinterestedness and humility, but such an advancement of his latest work could be only a joy. The subscriptions were made with the utmost privacy, and only among choice personal friends. As the time drew near for the offering, more than one thoughtful contributor, fearing the effect of any sudden surprise on one so feeble, suggested that he should receive some intimation of what was in prospect.

There was much talk at the time about the Bryant vase, recently presented to the poet at his fourthscore anniversary, and it was easy to lead Dr. Muhlenberg's mind to his own approaching fete.

"Your eightieth birthday must be honored too."

"Well," he replied simply, "people might give me a thousand dollars for St. Johnland. I should like that"

"What would you say to five or ten thousand dollars for St Johnland?"

"Ah!" he said, turning away, "that is not to be thought of;" and although the intimation was repeated later, he did not accept the possibility.

It was desired that the offering should be presented at St Johnland, and he was induced to make the journey the evening before, so that he might be rested for the demands of the morrow. He rose bright and well the next morning at an early hour, and the first event of the day was his acceptance, while yet in his chamber, of this grateful tribute. He was left alone with his emotions for a while, then a choir of voices broke out in song on the green sward northward of the house. Young and old had gathered below his windows at break of day, to wish him joy of his eighty years, in the native birthday lyric sacred to his anniversary. He threw up the sash and looked out. It was a beautiful sight. Every upturned face standing a little aslant that they might see him the better, was illumined by the newly risen sun, and beaming also with the pleasure of his presence.

Leaning forward a little, that he might take in the whole, his countenance irradiated with holy love, and his arms stretched out and over them in unspoken benediction, he stood there awaiting the termination of their singing. Scarcely had the last word died upon their lips, when his own voice, strong and sonorous led them in "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," then came the Lord's Prayer in heartiest accord, followed by a fervent, soul-breathing benediction, after which they dispersed for breakfast in the several families; and every household later had a brief, sweet visit from him.

Dinner-time brought a gathering of another kind. About a dozen sons of an earlier day came down from the city to wish their dear father joy, between the morning and afternoon trains. Three of them were organists, and it being Saturday they had to return for the next day's duties. It was a genial, joyous company. There were rich, well-trained voices among them, and for "grace before meat," they chanted beautifully the "Gloria in Excelsis." Dr. Muhlenberg was in his element, thus surrounded by his boys. His spirits rose unusually.

He said this was one of his happiest birthdays, and told them at length the story of the earlier part of the day, of "the Muhlenberg Endowment," and of the "Founder's Well" It was an enjoyable, if not very orderly, meal In the midst of it the little ones of the "Children's Home" came pattering along the piazza under the dining-room windows, and sang their innocent congratulations.

The young men rushed outside and brought in a troop of the pretty little creatures. Then there had to be hurrying for the train, and amidst so much happy interruption, dinner was but half over when it was time to go. The place abounds in fruit and flowers. A huge pyramid of these, intermingled, had been improvised, under Dr. Muhlenberg's direction, as a centrepiece for the dinner-table. He pulled it all apart, as the guests made their farewells, and sent them off laden with the spoils, for refreshment on the road.

In the afternoon came the ordinary festivities of the Founder's birthday for the whole settlement, in the fine old grove. It was thought that the previous exertions of the day would make him unable to be among his children there; but in the midst of their hilarity, some one joyfully exclaimed, "Why, there's Dr. Muhlenberg."

He had walked up alone from the house, and was pausing a moment on the brow of the hill to gaze upon the scene. His slender form stood out strongly against the golden autumnal sky, the soft rich hues of which were all in harmony with the ripe saintliness of his well-nigh perfected spirit. He joined the holiday-makers, and all went as merrily as if that were not the last time he and his St. Johnlanders would ever be together again upon earth. But it was the last. Nor had he been unmindful that it might even be so, though he would cast no gloom over their joy by intimating it.

Returning to the city, as he reached the Hospital gate, he sighed out, in one of those rhymings habitual with him:

"Having now done my beat,
Let me die in my nest,
Trusting God for the rest"

"Has it been, so great an effort?" asked his friend "Rather," was all the reply.'

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