William Bourn Oliver Peabody (1799-1847) graduated from Harvard in 1816. He was a teacher at Exeter Academy (1817). Peabody was pastor of the Unitarian Church in Springfield, MA, a position he held throughout his life.
Delivered January 22, 1832.
BY WILLIAM B. O. PEABODY,
Minister of the Third Society in Springfield.
This Sermon, suggested by a time of unusual anxiety and sorrow in this place, is respectfully dedicated to those who have suffered and those who are apprehending the loss of their children.
This was said by a Hebrew mother, whose child had but just before expired in her arms. It was taken away suddenly and without warning: but she bore it, as became one who was acquainted with Divine Providence, and knew that He who gave, had a right to take away. She was not acquainted with the disclosures of Christianity which have thrown such brightness into the far regions of death: so that in her, this God, to whom this feeling was expressed, rewarded it divinely—by restoring the child living to her arms.
There are many who are looking upon the opening promise of their children, with a joy, which none but a parent understands: and they ought never to forget, that the young human being is delicate as the flower, whose whole history is embraced in the words “the wind passeth over it, and it is gone.” It would seem as if in the ordinary course of life, this was taught them by sufficient warnings. But there are times, when the air of death breathes widely and fatally from the dark cloud: when many wither at once, as the storm is passing by: there are times when the most thoughtless parents begin to tremble, and feel as if they heard the rushing of the death-angel’s wing. It is well that they should keep before their minds, the consolations which they may need sooner than they suppose: they know not where his withering touch may fall next—but wherever if falls, the mourner will need all the comfort, which the kind Providence of God has given.
When the first born of Egypt were slain, the Hebrew children were secure with death all around them;—but there is no mark of God upon your doors. Since you may be called to mourn, come and meditate on the grave: it is the place where you may lay your treasure down to-morrow; come, and meditate on the grave: it is the place where you may lay your treasure down to-morrow; come, and meditate upon it now—not in sorrow—not in dismay—but in the preparation of the gospel of peace. Those who are familiar with death, see him without his terrors: if they lose what they love, they can say “it is well,” the Lord gave and the Lord taketh away.
It may seem to the world—the thoughtless world, as if little consolation were required in preparation for the loss of children: if they are called away, they say, they will leave no vacancy in society—there will be no loss to the world. They will say this, because they cannot look down into a parent’s heart and measure the depth of her affections: they can no more understand the anguish which she feels when her infant’s heart is cold, then they can understand the looks of unutterable delight with which she gazed upon its living features, studying their first dawnings of expression: or the intense interest with which she hung over its fainting head in its sickness, trembling every moment lest she should see the seal of death upon its brow: they cannot imagine what warm affections are broken—what towering hopes are struck down on the quenching even of the fatal spark of life in an infant’s breast:—they know not therefore the energy of submission which is required, for the parent to say, Father, thy will be done.
But they will wonder less at the sorrow—or I may rather say, they will believe in the sorrow, which such events occasion, if they will remember this—the parent loses not only all it was, but all she hoped it would have been. It was to her a subject of constant and affectionate interest: she saw in it what others could not see: she saw the revelations of mind, and the play of the affections upon its features: she felt that young as it was, it had a heart—a living heart, which beat in answer to her own. She loses this: and then her hopes! She hoped that it would be in its childhood among the beautiful and happy: she had already imagined a glorious path in which it was to travel up to life: she foresaw no disappointment—no downfall in all her visions of its future welfare: and when all this is suddenly destroyed, no wonder that for the time, the whole heart is a wild and desolate ruin.
That it is well with children when they die, we know: we will then inquire what are the designs of Providence in calling children away from their parents’ arms.
I think that you cannot possibly imagine more than two reasons why children are thus called away. The first is, to save them from the evils of the world. Far be it from me to represent this life as a vale of tears—or as a place where the miserable out-number the happy: I know that it is not so, and that the great proportion of the earth’s inhabitants want not the power but the disposition to be happy. Still, time and chance happen to them all: and if you look upon those who started together in life, with high hopes and bounding steps, you find some who are soon bent down with suffering, while others keep on successfully to the last. You find some, who midway in life, are wasted with disease, which breaks off all the purposes of life and sinks them slowly and heavily to the grave: you find some, who, without any fault of their own, are thrown into a condition in life, in which they have everything to endure, with no hope of any thing better in this world: you see the man with the crown of rejoicing taken from his head: you see the aged moving alone, unsupported and uncared for to the tomb. Such destinies in life there are: and such might have been the portion of the child who perished yesterday, to-day, or the one that shall die to-morrow: if so, the parent should thank God, who hides it from the evil, even though He hides it in the grave.
But these which I have named, are not the worst evils of life. This is a world of sin. They who come forward to bear a part in it, meet a thousand various temptations: and there are too many who yield to them and fall. The generous and high-minded youth sometimes becomes a cold, selfish and unfeeling man: the man who used to look the world in the face, becomes base and dishonorable, and either frowns in savage defiance or looks down with shame: they who were loved for their kind hearts, become slaves to their vices which make them a burden and sorrow to their friends: and very often, those whom the world accuses of no vices, are yet entirely destitute of moral principles and religious affections. If it might have been the fate of your child, to sink in any one of these snares—if there were the least danger of his becoming an alien from heaven, and self outcast from his God, what parent would not rejoice to have this child taken to a better world before it becomes deeply stained with the corruption of this? You should bless the hand that throws open a door of the grave.
No parent feels as if her child could ever have become a slave to corruption—but God knows—and if it is not to save them from the evils of life, that they are taken away, it must be for the second reason:—to place them in a condition more favorable to their improvement than this world affords.
I fear that the future life is so imperfectly realized, that this consolation loses most of its power. Why will men persist in thinking of heaven as a place of unmeaning rest?—of indolent happiness,—where the soul finds nothing but still and deep repose? They ought to reflect, that repose is not happiness to the mind—and that the enjoyment they dream of, is rather stagnation than repose—it is a state wholly unsuited to the nature of man. They ought to think of heaven, as a place where every power of every mind shall be steadily, successfully, and therefore happily exerted: where every affection of every heart shall be deeply interested, and therefore fully blessed. What the employment of that state will be, we know so far as this—it must be the employment of mind, in such researches as give the highest happiness—in discovering the manifestations of the glory and goodness of God. To think of heaven as we do, affords no comfort, no attraction;—it is like the long yellow line of a desart, seen by mariners who are looking for green hills and vallies as they draw near the shore: when, would they imagine it, as a place, where all are active, interested and happy, they would feel that when their child is gone to that world, there are some there, who will watch the flower, as it unfolds the beauty of its promise, and spreads out to the Sun of Righteousness, its leaves from which the dew of youth will never dry.
Think thus of heaven, and it will be something real and substantial to offer to the mourning heart. It is evidently a region more favorable to the growth of the immortal nature than this world: for, though in this world, there are trials and hardships, which serve to discipline some spirits and in this way to form them for heaven; there are other spirits perhaps, which are comparatively pure, and do not need them;—which are gentle, and could not bear them; which could not endure the rough climate of this world, but can grow and flourish divinely in the milder air of heaven. Such spirits, it is but reasonable to suppose, are translated, because heaven is better for them than earth—and God in his mercy, places every soul in the state, whatever it may be, which is most favorable to its growth in excellence: in our Father’s house there are many mansions—and all are open to the innocent as well as the just.
This accounts for the fact which has been so often observed, that many children of the brightest promise are removed from this world. A fact I have no doubt it is: though parents naturally esteem their own children too highly, and the lost are often the most loved, without being the best—still, it has been remarked from the earliest ages, that early death is given to the favorites of heaven. And why should it not be so? If there I a better world, for which they are better fitted than for this, why should we wish to detain them here? Why should we lament when the heavenly spirit ascends to its home in the skies? The parents should be ready to give up their child to a father, who has more right to its presence and affection than they—and, assured that “of such is the kingdom of heaven,” they should feel, that the hour cannot be untimely, which numbers it with the cherubim and all the radiant spirits round the throne.
I have mentioned the only reasons that I can imagine why children should be removed so early from the world—one is to save them from evils in the world—the other to place them in a state more favorable to improvement than this. And now we may humbly inquire why it is that parents are thus afflicted: there are reasons, which the kindness of God has graciously permitted us to know.
But first let me say, that it is not sent as a judgment, let the blow fall where it may: there is a language in use among some Christians, which ought never to be heard in the Christian world; which ascribes the misfortunes of life to divine displeasure. Can any thing be more opposed to our Saviour’s teaching? His words are almost indignant when he says to the narrow-minded Jews—What! Think ye that the murdered men were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you no! I do not fear that you will point out mourners as subjects of divine displeasure; but I do fear lest some who have heard this language in their youth, should retain so much of their early impressions as to feel, if they are called to suffer, that the mercy of God is for a season withdrawn—I fear lest they should forget that whatever he does, is done in kindness, and should be less ready, than in better days, to bend the knee in submission to his will.—If the least vestige of such delusion exists in any of your hearts, let me entreat you to cast it away. God seeks your welfare as much—yes, more than you seek it yourself; he knows what is for your welfare, and you do not; therefore he sometimes conducts you to happiness in a way which you find it hard to tread. But if that path conducts you to heaven where you may fold your lost resume to your heart again; there you will see that what men called judgments, were often the best blessings ever sent from above; and you will praise God with all your hearts, that, in those days of earthly sorrow when you half doubted his kindness, His will and not yours, was done.
But I may ask you to consider these as chastening—for we need chastening, and it is kind to give them; we do lean with wondrous confidence upon the world; we do cherish even the frailest of our blessings as if we could not lose them; and since a trust like this must fail us; since it may induce us to fix the hopes here, that should anchor to heaven, He warns us in the mildest way, that we are preparing for disappointment—that we are giving far too much to the world—that we are expecting from it a permanent happiness, which it cannot give and was never meant to give.—When we embark on the voyage of life in vessels which cannot live in the open sea—when the waves are only sleeping for an hour, and the storm is already gathered in the cloud, is it not a kind providence, which induces us to turn back and make better preparation? Would we wish it to allow us to keep blindly on till we dash upon the rock? Oh no! the chastening may be hard to bear—but it may save us from what is of all things the most dreadful—from shipwreck of the soul. But I may embrace all in one: children are taken for the parents’ sake, in order that the parents may have their thoughts carried gently, but irresistibly upward to the heaven of the blessed; the place where they who perish in their innocence, and they whose labor of life I well done, shall be happy forever. Where their treasure is, there their heart will be also: the child is the parents’ treasure, and it is lifted up, that their hearts may follow to its home in the skies. And follow it they will. Other warnings might be disregarded; they cannot be insensible to this! Other blessings might be lightly resigned; they cannot find it in their hearts to surrender this! And since there is a way in which they may make it their own again; since there is no need of giving it up forever; since they may at once arise and move forward in that way, which leads to the heavenly rest, they will feel an inspiration, to go on and secure the lost treasure in another world, if they can enjoy it no more in this. They will feel like the disciples when their Master ascended; they stood with him on their favorite hill—rejoicing that the grave had given up its dead, and he was once more with his own. He talked with them for the last time of what lay near all their hearts, and before the sound had died away upon their ears, he rose calmly to the skies and was lost in the depths of heaven.—Long did they stand gazing upward; and parents, when their child ascends, often feel an attraction to which they were strangers before, and which leads their thoughts upward as rapidly and surely, as the star led the eastern travelers to our Saviour’s feet.
You will understand the reason why I have directed your thoughts to this subject to-day: it is because the air of death is around us: because they who are just beginning to live, are marked out to die: because some have already suffered, and there is too much reason to fear that others, who little apprehend it now, must become acquainted with grief. If it must be so, do not let it come without preparation, for I do assure you, prepare for it as you may, you will find it hard to bear; to see the child in its morning beauty changed into that on which even affection dreads to look; to feel the current of life in its bosom wearing away; to see its eyes turned upon you as if you were a God—with a plaintive, beseeching expression, which seems to say to you as the sufferer did to our Saviour, ‘I know, that if thou wilt, thou canst heal me;’ to feel that you can do nothing to relieve it, and after many a change of anxiety and hope, to see the shadow of death pass over it and its features grow fixed and cold as if graven from the marble of the tombs,—this requires preparation—all the preparation which the gospel of peace can give. Do not hope to prepare when the sorrow is already come: it will then be too late—unless you prepare now—in the present—the only accepted time, the day of sorrow will not be a day of salvation to you. Let it not be so with you. If the next visitation of death shall come to you—if they shall ask of you as of the Hebrew mother, Is the child well? May you be able like her to say It is well—for it is gone to be happy with its God!