Joseph Lathrop (1731-1820) Biography:
Lathrop was born in Norwich, Connecticut. After graduating from Yale, he took a teaching position at a grammar school in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he also began studying theology. Two years after leaving Yale, he was ordained as the pastor of the Congregational Church in West Springfield, Massachusetts. He remained there until his death in 1820, in the 65th year of his ministry. During his career, he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity from both Yale and Harvard. He was even offered the Professorship of Divinity at Yale, but he declined the offer. Many of his sermons were published in a seven-volume set over the course of twenty-five years.
Lathorp, himself now 80, uses the example of the 80 year-old Barzillai (2 Samuel 19:35) to discuss the nature of old age This message, however, was not the first time he had preached on this topic. Six years earlier, in 1805, he delivered a message to the older members of his congregation entitled The Infirmaries and Comforts of Old Age. (Read this 1805 sermon here.)
DELIVERED TO THE PEOPLE OF THE FIRST PARISH IN
By Joseph Lathrop, D.D.
OCTOBER 31, 1811,
THE DAY WHICH COMPLETED THE 80TH. YEAR OF HIS AGE.
Old Age Improved.
2 SAMUEL xix 35.
I am this day fourscore years old.
Barzillai the Gileadite, on a particular occasion, says to king David, in the second book of Samuel, xix chap. 35 ver. I am this day fourscore years old.
In a preceding verse he is called “a very aged man.” He assigns his great age as an excuse for not accepting the king’s invitation to go and spend the rest of his days in Jerusalem.
David, by the rebellion of his son Absalom, was compelled to flee from Jerusalem and pass over Jordan. He and his faithful followers encamped at Mahanaim, not far from the seat of Barzillai, who, being a wealthy man, and well affected to the king, contributed liberally to his support, while he continued there, waiting the event of the rebellion. After the rebellion was suppressed, David, at the request of his loyal subjects, decamped from Mahaniam, and commenced his march for Jerusalem. Barzillai accompanied him to conduct him over Jordan. The king, gratefully remembering the faithful services of this good subject, and desiring to render his old age as easy and pleasant as possible, said to him, “Com thou over with me, and I will feed thee with me in Jerusalem.” Barzillai answered, “How long have I to live, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? I am this day fourscore years old. Can I discern between good and evil? Can thy servant taste what I eat, or what I drink? Can I any more hear the voice of singing men and singing women? Why hen should thy servant be yet a burden to my lord the king? Thy servant will go a little way with the king, and turn back again, that I may die in my own city, and be buried by the grave of my father and my mother. Behold thy servant Chimham,” who was one of Barzillai’s sons, “let him go over with thee, and do to him what shall seem good to thee.” David accepted the aged man’s excuse, and complied with his request in behalf of this son; and afterward gave Solomon a charge to shew kindness to his other sons. He respected the family of a man who had served him faithfully to so great an age.
The example of the aged Barzillai will afford some useful instructions to other aged men.
1. He kept an account of his time. He remembered, to a day, how old he was. “I am this day fourscore years old.” The greater part of those, who had commenced the journey of life with him, had fallen by the way. He was almost a solitary traveller; and he must soon finish his course.
We find the aged saints, who are named in scripture, often reviewing their past years, and anticipating their approaching dissolution. Thus did the patriarchs—thus did the apostles—thus ought we, who have arrived to that period, which nature, experience and scripture pronounce to be a great age. For such transient mortals as we are, to live thoughtless of the progress of time, is great folly; for the aged thus to live, is folly in the extreme. Nothing shocks a serious mind more than to see an old man, who is tottering on the brink of the grave, still retaining that levity and vanity, which we should condemn in a youth; and still discovering that worldly anxiety, which we could not excuse even in the vigor of maturity. Yet some there are to whom the Poet’s description may be applied;
Tho’ grey their heads, their thoughts and aims are green.
Like damaged clocks, whose hand and bell dissent,
Folly strikes six, while nature points at twelve.
2. It becomes the aged to review the changes, which they have seen in their long life.
Barzillai lived in an eventful period. In the course of 80 years there had been revolutions in the government; national wars; intestine convulsions; general prosperity; public adversity; generations passing away; and others coming in their place. We, who have arrived to his age, have witnessed equal changes. The political state of Europe, and of our own country is vastly different from what it was when we were young. In early life we could have no anticipation of the events which have occurred. Many of them are grand and interesting; and they stand in connection with other events, which are to come in their proper time, but which we cannot now foresee, nor shall we live to realize. Our successors, however, will see them; and we may behold them from a superior station. They will probably be greater, and, I fear, more distressing than the past.
Let us look around among our neighbours. Where are they who lived here 60 or 70 years ago? They are generally gone from us, and will return no more. They who are now our neighbours and the acting members of society, had not an existence, when we were young. They have come forward in the place of the departed mortals whom we first knew, and like them are soon to depart.
Who now occupy the lands, and dwell in the houses, which we see?—A new race; some the descendants of former occupants, and some strangers. Our fathers, where are they?—Gone to their long home. Even of our brethren few remain; and some of our children and younger descendants are numbered with the dead.
We feel great changes in ourselves. We are not the men we were once. Our corporeal powers, and our mental faculties have sensibly decayed. Grey hairs are upon us; our limbs are feeble; our eyes dim; our ears dull of hearing. Our memory deceives us; our judgment fails. Our early pleasures have fled. We may say with Barzillai; “Can I taste what I eat or drink? Can I hear the voice of singing men and singing women? We experience the justness of Solomon’s description of this evil day. “The keepers of the house tremble; the strong men bow themselves; those that look out at the windows are darkened; the daughters of music are low; fear is in the way; we are going to our long home.”
3. The man who has lived 80 years must have known many afflictions.
There is a difference in the condition of different persons; but none pass through this probationary state without a share in its adversities. They who live to the greatest age usually have the greatest share; not only as they have longer time to experience them, but as in the latter part of a long life, “woes cluster;” afflictions are multiplied. Besides their increased infirmities, there are additional family sorrows. Many of their dear friends and relatives have gone to the grave before them. There is scarcely one in twelve, who reaches their age; consequently most of their early friends must have left them. 1 When they take a retrospect of life, they recollect many sorrows of mind and pains of body; many disappointments in business and losses in substance; many dangers which threatened life, and many critical escapes from death; many mournful visits to the house of silence there to deposite, and there to leave the dear relatives, who had been the comfort of former days, and who, they had hoped, would be the joy of days to come.
In this review let them examine whether their long experience of the vanity of the world has disengaged their hearts from it—whether they have grown more spiritual in their views and more heavenly in their affections—whether they can meet disappointment with more serenity and bear trouble with more patience. If after all their experience, the same worldly temper continues, there is cause for deep humiliation and serious concern.
4. As God daily loads us with benefits, in a long life great is their sum. They are more than can be numbered.
It becomes us frequently to look back and remember the years of the right hand of the most high; to remember his wonders of old; to talk of his works—his works of providence and his works of grace. When we were young, it was our desire to live many years. Our desire has been granted. We have lived many years and have seen much good. We have been distinguished from the greater part of our fellow mortals. What numbers of our juniors have gone down to the grave before us? What supports, supplies, protections and deliverances have we received? What a mercy, that we have all along enjoyed he gospel, and lived near to God’s house? May we not add? I hope some of us can add, we have felt the transforming power of the gospel on our hearts, and have brighter prospects and firmer hopes, than we had when we were young. How precious have been God’s thoughts to us—how great the sum of them! If we would count them, they are more in number than the sand.
Impressed with a thankful sense of such numerous benefits, let us devote ourselves ore zealously to God’s service, abstract our hearts more entirely from the world, bear our infirmities more patiently, and trust more confidently in the divine care. The spirit and language of pious old age, we may learn from the example of David. “By thee have I been holden up from my birth; my praise shall be continually of thee. I am as a wonder to many. Thou art my refuge. Let my mouth be filled with thy praise, and with thine honor all the day. Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth.”
5. Let the aged man enquire, how his days have past; what use he has made of them; what he has been doing; whether he is prepared to render an account of so long a life.
If God will bring every work into judgment, how solemn must be the reckoning to which such a man will soon be called? He has had more time to serve God and his generation—more time to increase in holiness and prepare for glory, than most others. If he has misspent it, he is more guilty than they, and exposed to a more awful condemnation. Let him reflect, how many opportunities to do, or to get good he has neglected—how many Sabbaths he has lost—how many instructions he has heard in vain, or refused to hear at all—how unprofitably to himself and others a great part of his life has stolen away. In the reflection let him be excited to a more diligent improvement of the little which remains. Let him pray in the humble and penitent language of David; remember not against me the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions; according to thy mercy remember me for thy goodness sake, O Lord.
6. The aged man should seriously consider the shortness of his remaining time.
When king David invited Barzillai to reside at his court in Jerusalem, he returned a very proper and pertinent answer. “How long have I to live? I am this day fourscore years old. Can I enjoy the pleasures of a royal table? What are they to a man of my years? I have other things to mind.” Moses observes, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow, for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” He therefore prays, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”
If to the man of 80 years, the time past appears to be soon cut off, what will he say of the remaining time? He finds, on recollection, that the years seem shorter, than they did in early life. What are two or three years to come? They can hardly be called an addition to life. He may say in the language of ancient saints, “The time of my departure is at hand.” “I must shortly put off my tabernacle”—“my breath is spent, my days are extinct, the graves are ready for me.” Let us, my aged friends, converse much with death and eternity, and converse with ourselves on our preparation for the solemn scenes before us. Let us not reckon our lives dear to us, that, having accomplished the work assigned us, we may finish our course with joy. If death is near, as we know it must be to us, it is high time to awake and enquire, whether we are ready to meet it. It is too late to remain at uncertainty on the decision of so momentous a question. Ours is an evil day, in which there are few earthly pleasures. We need pleasures of a better kind. To one filled with the joy of heavenly hope, old age cannot be very unpleasant, for “now is his salvation nearer than when he believed.” Every infirmity reminds him, how near he is to heaven, and how soon he will be in that world, where is no more sin and temptation; no more sorrow and death. Let us never entangle ourselves in those earthly cares, nor indulge those earthly affections, which will obstruct a preparation for our change, or obscure our title to that glorious state, where purity, peace and love, the enjoyment of God, communion with the Redeemer and the society of saints and angels will be all the happiness. Barzillai, invited to a king’s court, considered how old he was, and how short was his remaining time. He would not suffer his mind to be diverted, by such a new situation, from the business, which at his time of life more immediately concerned him. He chose to remain in his own mansion—in his own city—among his old neighbors and friends, and near the graves of his father and mother, where he would be under favorable circumstances to meditate upon, and prepare for the solemn scene which was just before him. “Let me turn back, that I may die in my own city, and be buried by the grave of my father and my mother.” Meditation on death and the grave was more proper for him, than to seek the pleasures of a royal table.
7. A review of life should excite the aged to promote religion among the succeeding generation.
They know how short and unsatisfying is human life. They lament their past follies and neglects. They from experience can tell the young what views they will one day have of life and of the world. They can address the young to better advantage and with more authority, than they could in former years. Their days can speak, and the multitude of their years can teach wisdom. It was David’s concern, in the prospect of death, to leave a savior of religion in the minds of those who were coming after him. “O God, thou hast taught me from my youth, and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works. Now also, when I am old and grey headed forsake me not, until I have shewed thy strength to this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come.” Moses, contemplating the mortality of man, the shortness of life, and the infirmities of age, prays that all, and particularly the young, might apply their hearts to wisdom. “O satisfy us early with thy mercy, that we may be glad and rejoice all our days. Let thy work appear to thy servants, and thy glory to their children. Let the beauty of the Lord be upon us, and establish thou the work of our hands.”
The apostle “exhorts the aged to be sober, grave, temperate, and sound in faith, charity and patience, that they may teach the young to be soberminded.”
The words of our text, and the reflections which have arisen from them, apply to us who are advanced in years, and particularly to the Speaker, who may adopt the same words. “I am this day fourscore years old.” Much the greater part of this time has been spent among you and your fathers. My ministry, which has been more than 55 years, has equaled, in length, that of both my predecessors. 2 There are now, in this parish, but three persons, whose age exceeds mine. I have accompanied to the grave a greater number, than lived within the present territorial limits of this society at the time, when my relation to it commenced. I have buried more than my whole parish. But the society still lives in a new race of mortals.
I have seen many mercies. Among these I reckon the friendship which I have enjoyed with you and your fathers, and the harmony which has subsisted among you from the beginning of my ministry to the present time. I pray that nothing may occur on your part or mine which shall interrupt the peace, for which this church and society have from the beginning been distinguished. 3 I recollect many favors which I have received from you and your fathers, from the society and from individuals. Injuries, I remember none.
I have seen afflictions. But among the causes of sorrow and humiliation, the fear of an unprofitable ministry has not been the smallest. I hope, however, it has not been wholly unprofitable. How far the want of success is to be imputed to my unfaithfulness, or to your negligence, is an enquiry which concerns us both. Let us try ourselves at the tribunal of conscience, knowing, that there is a higher tribunal before which we must all stand, and some of us soon. “If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart and knoweth all things. If our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God; and may hope to appear before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy.”
My aged brethren and friends, the time of our departure is at hand. The duties incumbent on us I have stated in this discourse. Let us seriously and prayerfully attend to them. Let us review our lives, examine our hearts, renew our repentance and self-dedication, and give diligence to the full assurance of hope to the end.
There are some of my aged brethren, who, though they have long since professed the religion of Christ, have not taken a seat at his table. Why do they delay? Why will they not now exhibit this testimony of their faith in Christ and love to his gospel for their own consolation, and for the benefit of those who are coming after them? The door is open. If there is any hindrance, it must be within themselves.
Let the aged maintain religion in their houses. The time may soon come, when they will be unable to lead in the family devotions. Let them perform this duty while they are able; and thus encourage the sons, on whom they must soon lean for support, to succeed them in the sacred service.
May all heads of families, not only the aged, but those in earlier life, attend to this duty. The preservation and transmission of religion depend on no one thing more than on this. Let all your houses become churches. Let them all become little sanctuaries of God. You will soon stand on the list of the aged, unless death should strike off your names. In your advanced age you will have no greater joy, than to see your children walking in the truth, and to reflect that you early lent your hand to guide them in the way.
There is, I believe, an increased attention to religion among our young people. Encourage hopeful beginnings; strengthen tender minds. “Break not the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax,” lest to you the bruised reed should become a rod of iron; and the smoking flax, a consuming fire. Beware lest you incur the denunciation of our Lord against those, who enter not into the kingdom of God themselves, nor suffer those who are entering, to go in. The young, when they are beginning the religious life, need assistance, and they expect it from those who are older than they; especially from their parents. If they can find none to assist them, they are disappointed—they are discouraged, and perhaps turned back. Cast no stumbling blocks in their way. “Whoso shall offend one of Christ’s little ones, it were better for him, that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the depth of the sea.”
In regard to yourselves, your families, the young in general, the society at large, I request your diligent attendance on the ministrations of the sanctuary. These you know to be divine institutions, which cannot be neglected without guilt and danger.
Whenever there shall be a vacancy in the ministry, let it be soon supplied. A long continued vacancy will be attended with many evils. On so delicate and important an occasion, as the resettlement of the ministry, you will need to exercise a condescending and accommodating spirit. Seek not merely to please yourselves, but each one to please his neighbor for his good to edification. Regard not a tinsel glitter, but solid worth. Choose a man of learned education, competent abilities, evangelical sentiments, a pious character, a candid spirit and a discreet behavior. That you may proceed with safety take good advice, and be at peace among yourselves. And may the man, whom who shall choose, be more useful in his place, and more worthy of your esteem, than your present minister has been.
I shall probably leave among you a considerable part of my family. I hope they will continue to be attached to your best interest; and I doubt not that they will share in your friendship. And if the person, who has been my worthy companion, and your cordial friend for more than 52 years, should survive me, I trust she will receive from you all that attention, which a state of solitude and infirmity may require.
The day is approaching which will dissolve the relation between you and me. Let it be our joint concern and prayer, that we may meet in a better world, and in a more pure and exalted connection.
And now I beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our fathering together unto him, that ye be not shaken in mind from the faith and profession of the gospel; but that ye work out your salvation with fear and trembling in humble reliance on the power of divine grace—that ye do all things without murmurings and disputing—that ye be blameless and harmless, the sons of God without rebuke, striving together in your prayers for yourselves, for the church of Christ, and particularly for your pastor, that, while he is continued among you, he may labor with faithfulness, and may not labor in vain, and that after he has long preached to others, he may not himself be a cast-away; but that we may all met in the presence of Christ, and he may joy and rejoice with you, and ye also may rejoice with him.
I have often of late, as well as in former years, spoken to the young. And I know not how to close this discourse without addressing a few words to this important and beloved class of my hearers.
My dear friends; you think the man of 80 years, and particularly your minister, “who is this day fourscore years old,” should consider how old he is, and how soon he must leave you. The thought is much in his mind; and now under its serious impression he advises you to admit the same reflection.
You choose, perhaps, rather to think how young you are. You are impatient to push forward to a more advanced stage. Time seems to move too slowly. You anticipate distant pleasures, and wish to possess them. But believe what they say of life, who have already tried it. It is probable, you will not find it more pleasurable, than they have found it. Meditate on its vanity and uncertainty. Apply it to its proper end.
Life is a pilgrimage. You are not at home, but bound for another country. Much depends on your setting out right. One false step may lead to another till you are bewildered and lost. There re many devious tracts and seducing objects. Hear not the instructions, which cause to err; but enquire what is the good way; take and pursue it. Keep your eyes on the heavenly country; observe the way-marks; press on toward it in the strait and narrow path. If you turn aside at the beginning, perhaps you will never regain your ground; or if you do, you must tread back the false path by the wearisome steps of repentance.
When you reflect how young you are, you imagine there is such time before you. Be it so; yet all is not too much for the great work which lies on your hands. But it may be otherwise. Few arrive to old age. It may be your lot to die in youth. What your hands find to do, do it with your might.
When you are pleasing yourselves with the prospect of years to come, stop and consider; “If a man live many years and rejoice in them all, the days of darkness will come;” and many years spent in vanity and vice will render the days of darkness more dismal. A short life devoted to God in piety and virtue will be followed with glory. A long life lost in sensuality and wickedness will terminate in misery. “Though a sinner will do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know, it shall be well with them who fear God; but it shall not be well with the wicked.”
You think how young you are. But have you attained to that knowledge of religion—to that love of God—to that acquaintance with the Saviour—to that constancy in duty—to that fortitude in resisting temptations, which for the time might have been expected? Have you not wasted a great proportion of the little time you have had? If God should mark your iniquities, could you answer him for one of a thousand? But there is forgiveness with him. Under a conviction of your sins, resort to his mercy through the great Redeemer—fall down before him in deep repentance—seek his grace for your present renovation and future direction.
You are aspiring after maturity in age and strength. Forget not to stretch upward to the stature of perfect men in Christ Jesus. Be ambitious rather to grow in wisdom and in favor with God, than to increase in corporeal stature and strength. For the latter you must wait the process of nature. To the former you may contribute by your own application and diligence.
How beautiful it is to see a child outgrow himself in wisdom, virtue and goodness. There is no danger of such a disproportionate growth in these members, as to look monstrous and deformed. Virtue is comely in itself; and it never appears with more captivating charms, than in youth. May the beauty of the Lord be on you. Satisfied early with his mercy, you will be glad and rejoice all your days; and in the future life you will rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.
To conclude; let us all of every age learn wisely to improve this transient life. Let us employ our remaining days in the service of God, in the care of our souls and in preparation for death and eternity; not spend them in such a poor and trifling manner, as will give us cause, at the close of life, rather to wish that we had never been born, than to rejoice that we shall live forever. Let our time be all devoted to God, that in the end we may have peace in the review of life, and may rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
3. The present minister was ordained August 25, 1756. In this church there have been 11 deacons, of whom nine have deceased. Their longevity is remarkable. John Barber was chosen 1700, and died 1712, Aged 70. Ebenezer Parsons was chosen 1700, and died 1752. Aged 84. Joseph Ely Died 1755. Aged 92. John Ely Died 1758. Aged 80. Samuel Day, Died 1773. Aged 75. Joseph Merrick, Died 1792. Aged 88. Nathaniel Atchinson, chosen 1759. Died 1801. Aged 92. Jonathan White, chosen 1759. Died 1805. Aged 95. John Bagg, chosen 1782. Died 1809. Aged 79.
Such has been the harmony in this church from the time of its incorporation to the present day i.e. for the space 113 years, that there never has been occasion for an ecclesiastical council, except for the purpose of ordination.