December 16: A Most Difficult Sermon

SpragueWBWhen called upon to preach in difficult situations, there are thankfully available to pastors some great examples from which they can learn. One of the most difficult situations for a pastor is the funeral of a child. Equally difficult and even burdensome is the funeral of someone who was widely known to be disreputable. It was on this date, December 16, in 1825 that the Rev. William Buell Sprague, still a young pastor only 30 years old, was called upon to conduct the funeral of Samuel Leonard, who had murdered his wife Harriet and then committed suicide. As a pastor, what would you say? How would you conduct such a funeral? A portion of that sermon, heavily edited for length, is presented here today. As you read, consider a wider application to the state of affairs today.

[For a more contemporary portrait of Rev. Sprague, as he would have looked about the time of this sermon, see the engraving preserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. ]

Taking as his text, Psalm 9:16, “The wicked is snared in the work of his own hands,” Rev. Sprague begins his discourse:

We have often assembled, my friends, to perform the last sad office for our fellow mortals; but never did we meet, in circumstances so appalling, as those which mark the present occasion. The event, which has brought us to these solemnities, has caused the ears of all, who have heard of it, to tingle, and circulated a chill of horror through the community. It is not without reluctance, that I stand here today, to attempt to guide your thoughts to some improvement of this awful dispensation; but, inasmuch as I have consented to address you, I must be permitted to say, that I shall feel constrained, as a minister of Christ, to disregard, in a great degree, the dictates of private feeling. It is delightful to a Christian minister to be able to pour consolation into the hearts of the bereaved, by pointing them to the path, by which their friends have ascended to glory; and in all ordinary cases, it is considered our privilege, so far to regard the sacredness of surviving friendship, as to avoid adverting, even indirectly, to the errors and crimes of the departed. Gladly would I be the minister of consolation to this circle of mourners, whose hearts, I well know, are rived with agony; but to attempt to mitigate their anguish, by palliating the crime which has occasioned it, would be as useless to them, as it would be unworthy of me; and I doubt not that they will do me the justice to believe, that it is with the sincerest sympathy in their affliction, that I attempt to discharge this painful duty. I wish not to heap useless reproaches upon the memory of the man, who has been guilty of this unnatural deed: that would not aid us at all to an improvement of it;—but my design is, simply to impress upon you the lessons, which it so loudly inculcates, that this awful instance of the wrath of man, may be made subservient to the praise of God.

. . . The term wicked, as it is generally used in Scripture, is of extensive application. It includes not only those, who are abandoned to open vice, but all, who are not the subjects of evangelical holiness; and in this sense, it is the counterpart of the term righteous. The word, however, is sometimes used in a limited sense, to denote such, as having made great progress in sin, openly and fearlessly insult the authority of God. It is in this latter sense, chiefly, that I shall consider it in the following discourse. And I shall endeavor to present before you an analysis of the text, by considering, first, some of the means, by which a pre-eminently depraved character is formed; and by shewing, secondly, that wicked men, in their efforts to injure others, and oppose religion, actually ensnare themselves.

I. I am, first, to consider some of the means by which a pre-eminently depraved character is formed. On this article, upon which much might be said, the time will permit me only to select two or three points, which are most prominent, and most obviously suggested by the occasion.

  1. And, in the first place, I mention profanation of the sabbath, and especially, neglect of the public worship of God. . . .
  2. Another means, by which men often arrive at an extreme degree of depravity, is the indulgence of angry and malignant passion. . . . 
  3. Another means, which is often very efficacious in the formation of a habit of gross wickedness, is, resisting the influences of the Holy Spirit. . . .
  4. I observe, once more, that there is nothing, which is more likely to constitute the foundation, or to accelerate the progress of a grossly depraved habit, than a belief in the doctrine of universal salvation. . . . 

II. I pass to the second division of the discourse, in which I am to shew, that the wicked, in their attempts to injure others, and oppose religion, actually ensnare themselves. 

  1. The wicked ensnare themselves at the commencement of a habit of wickedness; inasmuch as they begin a course, which terminates in respect to their own character, very differently from what they intend.
    It is proverbial, that no one ever becomes a great sinner at once; it is usually from a small beginning, and by almost imperceptible degrees, that a habit of confirmed wickedness is formed. . . .
  2. The wicked ensnare themselves, inasmuch as their conduct brings evils upon them, in the PRESENT life, which they do not anticipate. . . .
  3. Equally true is it, that the wicked ensnare themselves, inasmuch as their conduct will bring upon them evils, in a FUTURE life, which they do not, at present, anticipate. . . .

Words to Live By:
Moving ahead in this discourse to Rev. Sprague’s conclusion, he offers these words among his final thoughts:

Yes, mourning friends, it would not be strange, if, under the weight of this overwhelming visitation, you should exclaim, ‘my trouble is greater than I can bear.’ You cannot look around you, without perceiving that you have the sympathy of a thousand hearts; but the bitterest ingredients in your cup. I well know that it is beyond the power of human sympathy to extract. Happy I am to be able to point you to an all-sufficient source of consolation in the gospel of Christ. Weary and heavy laden mourner, lay down thy burden at a Saviour’s feet. Be still, and know that He, who has permitted this event, is Jehovah. Let this dark page in the history of your life, while it contains the record of the keenest anguish you ever knew, testify also to your humility and submission, under the rod of God. When the mysteries of providence shall be unfolded in a future world, may you be found among those, to whom they shall be an occasion of eternal rejoicing!

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