Project Canterbury






Rev. E. A. WASHBURN, D.D.,










2 and 3 BIBLE HOUSE.



"Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?" II. SAMUEL, 3: 38.

IT would strike us all with a strange awe, if, at night, we should find that some "bright, particular star," with which we had long been familiar, had suddenly ceased to appear in the heavens. There are many who were moved by much the same feeling when the tidings came that one, who had been to them as a guiding star and a bright beacon on the shore of thought, had passed away, to be seen no more on earth. We knew that his earthly career must soon come to an end, and we could not desire that he should continue to live long, when his life was only a weariness and a sorrow; but, when the blow came, it struck like a lightning flash, and the darkness that followed was a darkness that might be felt. I have more than once heard him say that he had sometimes longed for death, as the child longs for his bed, and now the rest has come and he is at peace.

The existence of such a man as Dr. Washburn is a phenomenon worth studying. With his natural endowments, he would have been almost sure to achieve distinction in some line of life, let his early training have been as it might. If he had been bred a statesman, he would sooner or later, in spite of every form of opposition, have found his way into our halls of legislation, and made the walls ring [3/4] with such words as are not often heard there, however much they may be needed. It is not difficult to imagine the lofty scorn with which he would have denounced many a popular measure and many a popular man, and the keen, ruthless thoroughness with which he would have unraveled the meshes which artful demagogues so often weave to beguile the public. If he had been bred a journalist, he would have been heard from throughout the whole land, and no great abuse or wrong would have been allowed to pass unnoticed. He would have been a faithful chronicler of the times, superior alike to the cajolements of flattery and the intimidation of open assault.

He was, however, in a certain sense, born into the Christian ministry, coming, as he did, of that old Puritan stock, in which it seemed to be taken for granted that certain children were fore-ordained to that holy calling. His classical education he received at Harvard, and his theological at Andover and New Haven--the influences under which he came in these three institutions combining to modify the views in which he had been trained; although, indeed, under any circumstances, the strong bias of his mind towards a free and catholic theology would have been almost certain to assert itself. The careful study of Coleridge and the teachings of Dr. Marsh, his American disciple, had great effect in shaping the course of his thought, and he plunged at once into the depths of philosophical study. He was, from the beginning, a careful reader and a patient scholar--digesting and assimilating everything that he read, and making it a part of his own individual being. He had none of the [4/5] common vices and foibles of youth, but lived for the most part among books; while, at the same time, he was distinguished as an athlete, and with his temperate habits and abundant exercise, it might have been supposed that a long and vigorous physical career would await him here on earth. His temperament was sunny and cheerful, and he enjoyed existence to the full. His religious experience was in keeping with his character, calm and reflective, and not at all violent or ecstatic. After a short ministry among the Congregationalists as a licentiate, he was induced to enter the Episcopal Church; for, with his great love of intellectual freedom, he was by nature very conservative and a strong friend of law and order. He regarded this Church as at once evangelical and catholic--positive in asserting the fundamental truths of the Gospel, and yet allowing much latitude in nonessentials--anchored securely to the old creeds, but with sufficient play of rope to meet the rising of the tide and the occasional surging of the elements.

He was first settled in "old St. Paul's," Newburyport, Mass.--a parish that had been long in existence, and accustomed to move quietly in the grooves worn by the fathers. An event connected with his ordination as priest occasioned much remark at the time. The bishop and clergy had assembled, the church was opened and the bell rang, when, to the amazement of all, it was announced that the ordination of Mr. Washburn would be deferred. The bishop expressed his readiness to ordain another young candidate who was present; he, however, declined to receive orders, except in the company of his friend, while the vestry refused [5/6] to allow the use of the church for a public service, if their own minister was to be excluded. The explanation of the extraordinary proceeding was this: On the previous Sunday morning, the news came of Gen. Jackson's death, and Mr. Washburn, who was not at that time very familiar with the customs of the Church, asked one of his parishioners if there was any Collect in the Prayer Book that might be appropriately used in recognition of the ex-President's death. He referred the young minister to what is known as the "Commendatory Prayer," in the office for the visitation of the sick, which he accordingly introduced into the morning service, without the slightest suspicion that he was violating the order of the Church, least of all that he was laying himself open to the charge of heresy. If you will read over that prayer, you will see how it was that he exposed himself to this suspicion. In these days a similar event might not occasion the same trouble. As soon as the matter was understood, and as soon as Mr. Washburn was disposed to present himself again to the bishop, priest's orders were given him, and I never heard of his being charged with a tendency towards the Church of Rome afterwards.

The place in which he was now settled being my own native town, I was, of course, very familiar with his work there, and watched with not a little interest the impression made by such a man upon a parish which had, for many generations, been accustomed to a very different style of ministration. He was then in the full vigor of body and mind, and addressed himself to his duties with a heartiness and zeal that won the respect of all sorts and conditions of people. [6/7] At this period of his ministry, his style had not altogether worked itself clear of the influence which came of his metaphysical studies, and did not possess all the clearness and transparency which afterwards distinguished his composition. And yet he edified the congregation and gave them much to think about, that was not familiar before. Long years after he had left this field, I found that all kinds of persons clung to his memory with reverence and affection, and were fond of telling how they had loved him as a pastor, and how kind he had been to them in their troubles. It was a quiet place for such a man to live in, but he found congenial companions and was content with his lot. There was no great amount of general work to be done, and so he dwelt among his books, gathering in the rich treasures, of which he was destined to make such splendid use in the future. I also remember how carefully he attended to the training of his body, little anticipating that the physical part of his being was doomed to give way long before his mental powers had begun to wane.

At the close of his first ministry, he went abroad on a voyage to China, returning to England overland. He learned many things from this experience which he could never have found in books. His activity and power of endurance at this period of his life were very great, and his self-possession and courage were equally conspicuous. As an illustration of this, I remember to have heard described an occasion when he was crossing the desert without any escort, and, from the demeanor of the wild Arabs about him, was led to suspect that they were plotting mischief. Assuming an air of unconcern, he took his revolver from his pocket, and, as if for [7/8] mere amusement, fired several times at a mark some little distance off When the Arabs, who watched his movements with great interest, saw how each shot told, they retired, evidently concluding that it would not be worth while to deal with such a man as that.

It so happened that, on his return to this country, we were again brought into close and intimate relations as pastors of the two churches in Hartford', living for a time together under the same roof and eating at the same table. Here I learned to appreciate his private qualities and his value as a companion as I had never done before. In that cultivated city he was, recognized in all quarters as a mighty power; Trinity College felt his influence, and his lectures in the Theological Seminary, of which he became a professor, left their impress upon the minds of many a clergyman, who, to this day, has reason to bless the kind Providence that brought him into contact with such teachings as his.

After some years, subsequently passed in St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia, he was called to the rectorship of Calvary Church, New York, where he continued till his death. What he has been to you, no stranger is competent to tell. Brought in contact, as he has been here, with so many minds in substantial sympathy with his own, and entirely competent to appreciate the profound and earnest thought which gave to his preaching such peculiar prominence, it was to be expected that such a stimulus would quicken the processes of his mind and incite him to throw the full strength of his Christian manhood into the sermons, which, from Sunday to Sunday, he was called to preach. And yet, during these [8/9] years, what a battle he has had to fight with pain and disease, and what a wonder that he should have been able to do so much of the very highest order of intellectual work. The words of your vestry express more felicitously than any language of mine could do the hold which he had upon your hearts. "We knew him," they say, "as a Christian pastor, always faithful to his duty and tenderly kind in time of distress and sorrow; as a preacher of his Master's Word, not only in the burning words of his sermons, but in his daily walk and conversation; as a true friend, a manly hero, a Christian gentleman, without fear and without reproach."

I shrink from the attempt to analyze a mind like his; for only one who, in some degree, approaches his lofty standard, is competent to do a work like that. There has never been a man, in our branch of the Church, who, in dealing with the great problems of thought which pertain to our time, struck nearer the heart of things than he. His learning was so profound that he could at a glance detect any attempt to revive exploded errors and impose them upon the world in the garb of a new uniform; familiar with all the falsities and all the follies which have vexed Christendom in days gone by, he stood ready to expose and explode them, whatever guise of seeming sanctity they might assume. Whenever he encountered any formidable obstruction which seemed to block the progress of Christian truth, the lightning of his thoughts did not merely play about the surface, but it shivered the rock to atoms. He brought to bear upon the most troublesome questions of the day the full power of a well-informed mind, a keen philosophic insight, and a fair and [9/10] generous reason. His treatment of such matters was exhaustive--he said all that the argument required, and left unsaid all that was superfluous. His power of concentration was so great as to enable him to write with rapidity as well as accuracy under very unpropitious circumstances, and his ordinary talk was often as profound and clear-cut as his most elaborate writing. He had his resources at command, and one who ventured rashly to cross weapons with him in argument was likely to suffer in the end. His critical knife sometimes cut very close to the bone, because it was in his nature to make thorough work of whatever he undertook. Not that he needed the stimulus of an opponent to rouse him--once started upon any line of thought that interested him, he could talk on, eloquently and ably, without any rejoinder from others. He was somewhat given to this sort of monologue--very likely in the presence of those who could hardly be supposed to apprehend him--and when I have ventured, under these circumstances, to throw him off the track, he always took it pleasantly, and fell into the ordinary tide of conversation with the utmost grace and facility. I do not know how far he was conscious of his own powers; certainly he was superior to all forms of petty vanity, and was very considerate of those who were his manifest inferiors. He had great reverence for scholarship, and was the strong advocate of a learned ministry. In certain departments of learning, he had no superior in our branch of the Church, and the services which he rendered as a member of the Bible Revision Committee, in which he took so deep an interest, will be long remembered, as they were well appreciated by those [10/11] connected with him in the work--and it is no slight honor for a man to have his name identified with what will hereafter be regarded as the most important religious performance of the nineteenth century.

A more fearless preacher never stood in an American pulpit. His was not that kind of faithful preaching which consists in a vehement reiteration of dogmas already known to be accepted by the congregation; if he felt that he was right, it did not matter whether the hearer agreed with him or not. It was his business to press home what he believed to be the truth; and if the people would not, or could not, be convinced, so much the worse for them. He was a discriminating preacher, and did not indulge in "glittering generalities," or content himself with the repetition of time-honored formulas, without regard to the fact that they conveyed no distinct meaning to the mind of the hearer. He was as skillful in handling the plainest and most practical subjects as he was in the discussion of the most abstract topics, and when he expounded the ten commandments, everybody knew what he meant. He was not accustomed--using the well-known illustration of his distinguished predecessor, Dr. Hawkes "to fire broadsides into Christianity," but took careful aim, as he did with his revolver among the Arabs, and the splinters would show where the shot hit. He was not what is called "a sensational preacher "--he was always chaste and dignified, and had no pulpit tricks; neither was he much inclined to indulge in lofty flights of rhetoric. At the same time, he was capable of producing a profound impression by some felicitous oratorical device which served to clench his [11/12] argument and indent the truth upon the mind of the hearer. I remember to have once heard him preach a very long and elaborate discourse, in which he dealt with the great controversy, now waging between faith and agnosticism, after a style which, it seemed to me, must carry conviction to the mind of every one present; when, at the close, he paused for a moment, and then repeated, in the most solemn and deliberate manner, the whole of the Apostles' Creed. The effect was electric. He was an earnest and impassioned preacher, and when he appealed to the conscience, the sinner could not help feeling himself to be self-condemned; when he spoke to the believer, it was as the voice of one who had been with Jesus.

Standing, as he did, in the fore-front of that school of thought, which aims at bringing the dogmas of theology within the range of modern experience and philosophy, and acknowledged to be its most conspicuous leader in the American Episcopal Church, I think you will bear witness, that he did not bend his efforts to destroy, even what he regarded as errors and superstitions, so much as to build men up in the truth, trusting mainly to the expulsive power of truth to eradicate the error. He dealt with realities, whether they pertained to the kingdom of theology or morals, and not with dead issues, or gloomy abstractions, or superannuated vices. His preaching was not ordinarily controversial; it is true that he never hesitated to attack a falsehood at the fitting time and place; but this was not the burden of his discourse. He spoke to the age in which he lived, and to the men and women of that age; and rebuked "folly as it flies," [12/13] and not as it lies entombed in the grave of the past. Social sins, municipal sins, financial sins, political sins, were not allowed to pass without exposure and rebuke, and if what he said gave offense, he was ready to reply, "Woe unto him by whom the offense cometh!" You may have sometimes thought that he was unnecessarily severe; Christ's auditors thought the same of Him. Better to err on that side than on the side of cowardice and weakness.

Dr. Washburn was a great preacher, and he kept on growing to the end, and also mellowing to the end. As he grew older he appealed more and more to the heart and the affections. The echo of his earnest words still lingers in your ear, and in hearing his voice no more, as you come together for worship, you have lost what can never be fully repaired. God grant that the influence of his preaching may so abide in you as to give him new joy in Paradise!

If he had devoted his life to polite literature he would have become as eminent in that department as he was in the profession which he chose. Few men would have excelled him as a reviewer, for he had the art of getting at the real substance of a book, if it had any such substance, and of finding out the fact, if it had none. This power of analysis was fully equal to his constructive skill, and we can infer from what we know of his critical insight, what sort of a diagnosis he would be likely to give of certain well-known authors.

He was also a true poet, as the few verses from his pen which have been allowed to see the light sufficiently prove, while others remain behind, which we trust will not always be lost to the world. There was in his mind a singular [13/14] union of the dry light of metaphysics with the moist, warm atmosphere of feeling, and while he sometimes talked like an old Grecian sage, at other times he would tune his harp to some sweet hymn of his own, or some rare translation of an ancient Latin lyric, so compact and beautiful as to make one doubt whether he could be anything more than a poet. When he sat down to write, you might say with Robert Burns:

"Perhaps it may turn out a sang,
Perhaps turn out a sermon."

It may seem still more extraordinary to some persons that such a man should have been able to write the most exquisite humorous verses, although, indeed, the element of humor in some form belongs to almost all great men, and no one can have a well-rounded and complete intellect without it. If John Calvin had been capable of humor, it would have been a great relief to him, and to the world after him. No compend of Dr. Washburn's writings would be complete if it did not contain some specimens of his lighter verses, which are now for the most part in private hands. I think that no one ever charged him with frivolity; on the contrary, he was regarded as somewhat stern and imperious, and as a man who was desperately in earnest; and yet he could unbend and become as a child, and even seem to enjoy frivolity in others. But for this, with all the woes that he had to bear, he might have been taken from us even earlier than he was.

In passing to consider his character as a man, the first thought that comes to us is this: he was transparent as the day, and no deceit or guile was ever found in his mouth. He [14/15] never tried to conceal his opinions--so far from this, they broke out from him spontaneously, and sometimes a little fiercely. He knew well enough when it would be folly to speak, and how to win an adversary by kind and considerate words. I heard the other day of an incident abroad, where he was thrown into the company of an English gentleman, who was bitterly opposed to the views which Dr. Washburn regarded as the essential truth of the Gospel, and who was gradually enticed, by the doctor's pleasant and reasonable talk, into the full adoption of his whole scheme of doctrine. I have sometimes pitied the feeble and incautious man who ventured to question his facts or his reasonings; while again, I have admired the gentleness with which he would win conviction, in his dealings with a sincere and earnest inquirer after truth. His ,lofty contempt for everything which savored of cant and pretension often manifested itself without much reserve; for, while he could be very patient with the humble and ignorant, he had no toleration for such as put on a garb of either goodness or greatness, that did not fit them.

Those who knew him most intimately could best appreciate the gentleness and kindness of his heart; he was a true friend, and always ready to sacrifice his own comfort if he could be of service to others. When he went off for his summer's rest, and found a brother clergyman in the country who he thought needed relief, he would offer to take his place, and send him off to recuperate. His hospitality was unbounded; the rectory, which he used to call his "Anglo-American Hotel," was the refuge of many a brother from abroad, who found there a warm welcome and most friendly [15/16] entertainment. He did not make a parade of his feelings, but when there was anything to touch his soul the fountains were broken up, and his tears would fall like rain. No real suffering could come near to him without finding relief, if relief were possible; and you know what he has been to you in the hour of trial and suffering. He was the last man to whom I would have cared to apply with any foolish scheme of benevolence in hand; but, if there was a good work to be done, at home or abroad--a mission to be established or a poor missionary to be helped--his sympathy and aid were never sought in vain. The poor blessed him, and the converted heathen, the oppressed Indian, the redeemed Mexican, have had occasion to thank God for what this man did for their souls.

He was all this, and much more, as a man; what is to be said of him as a Christian? He would tell us that the Christian is not to be separated from the man, that character is "one and indivisible," and only a true man can be a true Christian. We shall all assent to this, and yet there are certain elements in the life of the believer which must be duly considered if we would present anything like a complete picture of such a person as Dr. Washburn. We begin by saying that he was as truthful in his religion as he was in everything else, and the salient points of his character were as conspicuous in his walk before God as they were in his walk before men. Never having sounded the depths of vice, and sinned as many young men have sinned, neither his earlier nor his later Christian life was distinguished by those stern and bitter conflicts which characterize the experience of [16/17] those who enter the kingdom through much spiritual tribulation. His faith, resting as it did upon convictions which had come to him as the result of careful study and earnest thought, quickened by a strong desire to know the truth, and confirmed by the entire assent of his heart to the rich provisions of the Gospel, was not likely to be easily disturbed. His house was built upon a rock, and when the floods came and the winds blew it fell not. He was not accustomed to talk much about 'his personal experiences, and would not have been likely to keep a diary of his daily fears and shortcomings; in fact, he was so much absorbed in the study of great Christian truths, and so earnest in bringing those truths home to the minds and hearts .of others, as to leave him little time for dwelling minutely upon his own personal prospect of salvation. He was willing to leave that with his Master, in whom he trusted as an all-sufficient Saviour and Redeemer, and then to go about the work which his Master had given him to do, as the first disciples did. He did not believe that human life was most profitably spent by retiring to a desert and passing the days in solemn meditation, and in adjusting the balance between the soul and Heaven. There was nothing of the eremite in his composition. He felt that God had placed him here, not only to work out his own salvation, but also to bring others to the knowledge of the truth. His religion was of an eminently practical type; the question that was uppermost with him took this form: "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" for he never allowed even his love of study, which might have been converted into an all-absorbing passion, to interfere with the [17/18] duties which devolved upon him as rector of a Church, the friend of the poor, and the active supporter of those great enterprises which minister to the welfare of the Church and the state. He was a devoted friend of Christian missions, as the records of the parishes which he served abundantly show; and Calvary Church has been regarded as the headquarters in this city of public missionary meetings and anniversary occasions.

I sum up this very imperfect sketch of his religious life by saying that his faith was essentially a personal trust in a personal Christ--One to whom he could go in every hour of extremity and find help. He did not expect to be saved by an intellectual belief in any dogma or the practice of any rite, or in virtue of any good works of his own, but through the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Dr. Washburn reminds one of St. Paul more than of any other apostle, having much of the same fiery disposition, and liable to the same outbreaks of passionate feeling, the same indifference to personal reputation, the same contempt for those who are inclined to temporize or compromise the truth, the same disregard of matters of mere form and usage, and the same generous breadth of mind and heart which originally forced the Church to open its doors to the uncircumcised Gentiles. There have been times when he could say with the Apostle, "I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better than to abide in the flesh."

And now he has found relief, and rest from his labors and his sorrows. We do not lament for him, but we mourn for the household, which is left so desolate; for this bereaved [18/19] Church. It will be hard, if not impossible, for you to find one to fill his place. How sad to think that the reverent voice which has so often lifted your hearts heavenward in prayer will be heard here no more, that the hands which have so often ministered to you the Holy Sacrament are now folded in death, that the ringing notes of his eloquent appeals will resound along those arches no more forever.

We mourn for the Church at large, in which he has been so conspicuous a leader--a prince and a great man has fallen in Israel. What a work he has done in defending her citadel against attacks from without and treachery within! How much he has accomplished, in bringing that Church into living contact with the great heart of the age, and enforcing respect for her doctrines and institutions! The Church Congress, of which he was one of the chief founders and supporters, has done more than any other one movement to draw attention to the social power of the Church, and reconcile those who are without to our creed and policy, and who, perhaps, once looked upon us with indifference, if not aversion. And who is there to take his place in the smaller clerical circle, of which he was the light and life, and where his words distilled as the dew, quickening the growth of other minds, and showing men who once thought that they were at variance in many things, how, after all, they are one in Christ?

Can any one believe that the bright star which has now ceased to shine in our heavens has been extinguished? that it has paled its fires and gone out in darkness? Can it be that the rich stores of knowledge which had been [19/20] accumulating for three-score years, the earnest thought that kindled that knowledge into life, the sharp and bitter discipline by which our departed friend was chastened and made strong, all go for nothing now? Is there no broader and grander field in the great kingdom of God, where he may use his powers and develop to the utmost the reverent love which here bound him so close to his God? He has only passed out of the twilight into the meridian day. He has opened the gate and entered into the great temple, where there is no more need of the sun and the moon and the stars. He has laid the offering of consecrated thought at the feet of the Lamb, and we doubt not that it has been accepted. Freed from the infirmities and agonies of the flesh, he rests in peace and is content.

My eye has fallen upon a tribute to his memory which is so much grander than anything it is in my power to say, and which touches the vital point of Dr. Washburn's character so truly and exquisitely, that I cannot refrain, in closing, from repeating it to you in full:

"Go! great Crusader, now thy lance is lowered,
Leave us to bear the burden and thy loss;
Fold thou thine arms upon thy trusty sword,
Its gleaming hilt, a cross.
Thine the Crusader's temperament, to fight
The Paynim, Error, where his tents were found.
Did there come need for help of Christian knight,
Thy white cloak swept the ground.
Strong were the notes thy clarion voice rang out,
Fierce was the onslaught from thy vigorous arm;
And idle ease and comfortable doubt
[21] Took sensible alarm.
Yet in that eloquence a sad refrain,
A passionate wit, a delicate, tender thought--
These were the gems that sparkled on the chain
Thy splendid genius wrought
Like the Crusader, turning toward the East
Those learned eyes (which saw what others sought),
A pilgrim often at the sacred feast
Where knelt Sir Launcelot,
They should have placed thee in that ancient Church
At Cyprus, where the Christian knights are lain;
Or in that sunny square where sparrows perch
On bust of Charlemagne.
Filled with their names, our later sands of Time
Mark thee as worthy to have grouped with them;
No nobler hero known to book or rhyme
Marched to Jerusalem.
For thou wert of that company, the men
Born to be leaders, knowing not doubt or fear,
Who, when the Angel called, or now, or then,
Could answer, 'Here.'
Great dreams, great sorrows were thy bread and wine;
God o'er hot deserts led thy suffering feet;
The sepulchre is won, the victory thine,
Go! thy old comrades greet!

Project Canterbury