A Great Christian Biographer
William Buell Sprague was born in Andover, Tolland county, Connecticut, on October 16, 1795. He graduated at Yale College in 1815, then in 1816 entered the Princeton Theological Seminary, and after studying there for over two years, was licensed to preach by the Association of Ministers in the county of Tolland, on August 29th, 1818. As a pastor of the Congregational Church of West Springfield, Massachusetts, Rev. Sprague served with great success from August of 1819 until July of 1829, at which time he answered a call to serve the Second Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York. He was installed as pastor there on August 26, 1829, and he remained in this post for forty years, “remarkable for the extraordinary steadfastness and warmth of attachment existing through all that protracted period between himself and his large and intelligent congregation, and even more remarkable for the vast and varied labors performed by him” during those forty years. Rev. Sprague has aptly been described as “an industrious man, a cultivated, elegant, voluminous, useful and popular preacher; an indefatigable and successful pastor; an unselfish and devoted friend; loving, genial, pure, noble; an Israelite indeed, in whom there was no guile; one of the most child-like, unsophisticated and charitable of men.”
While Dr. Sprague never relaxed his pulpit and pastoral duties, his added literary labors were prodigious, and their fruits exceedingly great. He preached nearly two hundred sermons on special public occasions, the most of which were published. He also produced a large number of biographies and other volumes on practical religious subjects. But the great literary work of his life was his Annals of the American Pulpit, which was undertaken when he was fifty-seven years old, and finished in ten large octavo volumes. [From this set, the three volumes pertaining to Presbyterian pastors was reprinted in 2005 under the title Annals of the American Presbyterian Pulpit]. Another of Dr. Sprague’s better known works is Lectures on the Revivals of Religion.
On December 20, 1869, Dr. Sprague was released, at his own request, from his pastoral charge in Albany, and he retired to Flushing, Long Island, where he quietly spent his remaining years. He passed away peacefully on May 7, 1876, and his mortal remains were taken to Albany for burial, with his funeral service held in the church where he had so faithfully served for so long.
[adapted from the entry found in Alfred Nevin’s Encyclopedia of the Presbyterian Church (1884).]
Words to Live By:
As a brief sample of one of Dr. Sprague’s sermons, the following is from the opening words of the sermon delivered upon the occasion of the death of his first wife, Charlotte Sprague. A particularly difficult occasion for any pastor, to deliver a sermon over the grave of any member of his family:—
Job xix. 21. “Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, oh ye, my friends, for the hand of God hath touched me.”
I have not chosen this passage, my friends, with a view to attempt any thing like a connected discourse; because my feelings forbid such an attempt. I have not chosen it with a view to urge any new claims upon your sympathy, because I know that your hearts have already bled for my affliction. I have not chosen it as an apology for an impatient and complaining spirit, for I am well aware that such a spirit, always unbecoming, is never more offensive, than in the sanctuary of God, and at the throne of grace; and I also know, that in addition to the common obligation of Christian submission which rest upon me, it is my imperative duty, as a minister of Jesus, and as one appointed to lead you to Heaven, now to give you some practical proof of the power of religious consolation. But, my friends, I have chosen this text, as a faithful expression of my feelings, under this bereaving stroke of Providence; and with a view to suggest from it some remarks, which I hope may have such an influence upon your minds, that you will be able to say, that it is good for you that I have been afflicted.
There are two thoughts upon which I shall dwell for a moment, which seem to be suggested by the latter clause of the text: The hand of God hath touched me.
I. The first is, that the afflictions of the present life are some of them peculiarly grievous. I know, my friends, that it is hard for those who are strangers to adversity to realize its bitterness; they can have but a faint idea of what passes within the heart which is wrung by the disruption of ties which seemed almost entwined with the thread of existence. They can go to the house of mourning and be affected by the tears of others, and by the badges of grief, and by the funeral procession, and by the open grave; but, after all, if they have never felt the rending of these ties themselves, they will be likely to carry away but a feeble impression of the agony of bereavement. Ask the husband or the wife, who has been bereaved of a fond, affectionate companion;—ask the father and the mother who have seen the object of their affections laid low in the dust;—ask the brother or the sister, who has wept over the grave of departed friendship, whether the afflictions of life are to be thought lightly of—and whether we can comfortably sustain them without the aids of Divine grace; and the bursting heart of each will return you an answer. Do not think, my friends, that I wish to heighten the picture by adding one dark shade which does not belong to it; I have no wish to give an exaggerated account of the ills of life, or to harrow your feelings, by pointing you to scenes of sorrow, into which you are in no danger of being brought. But I do wish to make every one of you who has never yet felt the bitterness of deep affliction, now feel that it is not a light thing to be even touched by the hand of God;—that those chords of tenderness which are strung in the heart cannot be broken without sending a thrill of agony through the soul;—and that if you think to pass through the furnace of deep affliction without the consolations of religion, you are only laying a plan to harrow your souls with anguish. You will find enough to bear in the day of adversity without the burden of unpardoned sin; there will be no excess of consolation, if you have all that which arises from an unwavering confidence in God, and from communion with a throne of grace. The reason, therefore, for my suggesting this thought, that the afflictions of life are some of them very grievous, is, that a correct impression of them may lead you to gain a seasonable interest in the consolations of religion. Rely upon it, that whatever you may now think, when the day of adversity actually comes, you will need the support of an almighty arm; and if you have not that to rest upon, you will find your hearts torn and rent by the severest anguish.
II. The other thought to which I wish to direct your attention is more consolatory: “the hand of God hath touched me;” that is, my afflictions have not sprung out of the ground; they are not the product of chance; but they are directed by Infinite goodness, and unerring wisdom. The hand which hath touched me is the hand of God—it is the hand of my Father.
And what, my Christian friends, is more consolatory than the thought, that all these dark dispensations are planned and executed by our Heavenly Father; that though there are many revolutions of the wheel of Providence which we cannot comprehend; nay, though there may seem to be a wheel within a wheel, and the mighty machine may confound us by its magnificent and mysterious operations; yet every movement is guided by an arm, absolutely resistless, by wisdom, which can never err, and by goodness, which does not even overlook the falling of a sparrow. “The hand of God hath touched me,”—not the hand of an impotent, or short-sighted, or malicious mortal,—not the hand of one who afflicts in cruelty, and has no concern for my happiness; but a paternal hand,—the same which pours blessings into my cup, from day to day, and which never wields the rod, but with the most kind and merciful designs. Is not this enough, O my soul, to assuage the tempest that has been raging within thee, and to bring back the calm, and sunshine, and quiet, which affliction had well nigh chased away? . . .
To read the rest of this sermon, The tribute of a mourning husband : a sermon, delivered at West-Springfield, July 1, 1821, the Sabbath after interment of Mrs. Charlotte E. Sprague, click here.