While at Duke in the late 1990s, I enjoyed a seminar led by historian of American Methodism Dr. Russell Richey. Each week we read stacks of old Methodist documents: letters, histories, reports of annual conferences, newspapers, and – the genre I remember best and enjoyed most – obituaries and memorials of departed ministers (and in a few cases, laypeople).
What follows in this series of posts is the substance of my notes taken while reading these documents. These contain my emerging sense (as a relatively newly-minted graduate student in American religious history) of the deepest values of early American evangelicals. These were people who valued assurance of salvation above all else, whose heroes were macho circuit-riding ministers who literally worked themselves to death for almost no pay, but who also valued gentler virtues. People who, in good Victorian fashion, wrote the lives of others in order to present a moral example to the reader; who lauded preaching prowess and the sort of demonstrable success of quantifiable results: souls saved, new memberships in the church.
At the end of these notes, I pulled a passage out of a 20th-century memorial to a deceased Pentecostal minister for comparative purposes (my primary study at Duke at that point was Pentecostalism). What I found—and this didn’t surprise me in the least—was a great continuity of themes from late-18th and 19th-century Methodism.
A secondary purpose of memorial writing: Assurance of salvation
The theme of assurance of salvation is a natural one which comes up from the very earliest obituaries. The key term in the late 18th-c. accounts was “resignation” or “resigned in death.” This seems to have stood for the idea of assurance, though it has perhaps a more negative connotation for us today. Sometimes the idea was extended a little, as in the 1789 obituary of William Gill, who was “resigned and solemly happy in his death,” or of Francis Spry, from the same year’s minutes, who is recorded as having been “placid in his mind, of unshaken confidence and patience, in his death,” or of Cornelius Cook, who in 1789 “departed in peace and confidence,” or of James Conner, who in 1790 was memorialized as having been “blessed with confidence in his last moments.” Other phrases used include “died without any expressions of the fear of death” and “was blest with frequent consolations in his last hours.”
One hundred years later, the theme of assurance had taken wing, in sometimes elaborate reconstructions of the departeds’ final state of mind. For example, in Memorial Sketches of the Lives and Labors of the Deceased Ministers of the North Alabama Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1870-1912), written mainly from the memorials found in conference minutes, we read the following of one Rev. Ambrose F. Driskill:
On that last evening, as the hour for family prayers drew near, his wife with choking voice said: “My dear, shall we have family prayers now for the last time together?” He readily consented, and listened to the reading of the Scriptures; and when the prayers were ended, he requested that they sing his favorite hymn, “How Firm a Foundation!” His face beamed with heavenly radiance as he listened; the sweet thoughts expressed in the hymn seemed to fill his soul. That radiant smile remained even after the soul had fled away to God and heaven. (Memorial Sketches… [1870-1912], 21)
Much as the image may remind us of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, who departed, leaving nothing but his smile, there is a deeper meaning here. That is, that the Christian hope sustains its holder to the very end…and beyond! Again, the memorialist writes of Rev. Daniel Duncan:
A few weeks prior to his death he expressed himself as being unusually hopeful of the complete fulfillment of all of God’s promises to him. “And if so,” he said, “what a glorious inheritance is soon to be mine!”
The good Rev. Duncan then expresses his wish to repeat in his dying moments the Alexander Pope hymn ending with the biblical words, “O grave! where is thy victory? O death! where is thy sting?” (Memorial Sketches… [1870-1912], 32)
The most “purple” account I found was the following, from the 1884 memorial of the Tennessee Conference’s Robertson L. Fagan, who had died of pneumonia:
He was happy and triumphant in view of his [condition], and when questioned as to the foundation on which he was resting, replied in very positive and unmistakable language. As the hopes of continued life faded away, the light of immortality gleamed upon his latter hours with the assurance of peace and eternal joy. It cheers us to know that in the death-valley through which his ready soul was called to pass God gave him power to whisper, in tones of tenderness and faith, his hopes of soon entering into the opening glories of the immortal life. The end was at hand. The wanderings of time were over. Eternity’s glories were breaking around. The dying Christian spoke out in full and even triumphant accent: “My trust is in the Lord who made the heavens and the earth. ‘Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.’ ‘And I will be a father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.’” The pulse throbbed its last beat, and the spirit flew to its God and immortal destiny; and thus he died with the word of God on his lips.