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Just a few days ago, we looked briefly at the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Francis Herron. This Lord’s Day we present the sermon delivered by the Rev. William M. Paxton, in 1861, on the occasion of Dr. Herron’s death. In good 19th-century fashion, the sermon is in places somewhat flowery to modern sensibilities. Still, it provides a good example of an appropriate sermon for a significant pastor, one who was greatly used of the Lord.
“My Father, My Father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof.“–2 Kings 2:12.
Never, perhaps, had the name Father been uttered in deeper grief, or with warmer affection.
Elijah, the Prophet Father and Elisha, the Prophet Son, were bound together by no ordinary ties of endearment. When it became manifest to the old Prophet that he must ere long retire from his sacred office, and i was indicated as the will of God that Elisha should fill his place, Elijah sought him, and, throwing his own mantle upon him, indicated and installed him as his successor. Accordingly, Elisha bade farewell to the home of his youth, and crossed the mountains of Gilead to take part in the ministry of the old Prophet, and to comfort and cheer him with the ready offices of kindness and affection. From that time they lived and labored together in the intimacy of a harmonious fellowship and reciprocated attachment. It was no ordinary friendship that bound them to each other. They had one interest, one aim, one motive, one sphere of blessed, holy, consecrated action; but deeper than this was the affinity of congenial temperament, the unity of kindred sympathies, the harmony of feeling strung to the same key; and deeper still, the affiance of grace, the common experience of the love of God, and the endearing intimacy of spiritual fellowship and communion which bound them together, heart and soul–wedding age and youth with a bond of perfectness.
The life of Elijah was spared longer than he seemed at first to anticipate. It was doubtless so ordered in mercy to Elisha. He needed the experience of age to direct him, and the wisdom and instructions of the old Prophet to prepare and mature him for his future responsibilities. For a period of about ten years this happy association and co-operation in the work of God continued; but now at last the time arrived when they must part, Elijah to ascend into glory, and Elisha to bear the responsibilities of the sacred office alone.
When it became known in the school of the Prophets at Jericho, that Elijah was about to finish his earthly course, it awakened such a painful interest among the young men in training there for the work of God, that a band of fifty followed after the two Prophets, as they took their course toward the Jordan, and ascending an eminence that overlooked the Valley, witnessed the sublime scene that followed. The Jordan parts before the stroke of Elijah’s mantle, and now they stand upon the opposite shore–the Prophet Father and the Prophet Son in their last act of earthly communion. Elijah with an overflowing heart, tells Elisha to present now his last request: “Ask what I shall do for thee before I am taken away from thee.” Elisha had no difficulty in fixing upon his request. One great thought now filled his mind–anxiety about the cause of God after Elijah was gone. Hence he instantly replies: “I pray thee let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me.” But whilst they were talking, “behold there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses o fire, and parted them both asunder, and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.”
And now, Elisha stands alone. Oh, who can tell the solitary desolation of his spirit at that moment? The Friend, the Father, the Counsellor to whom he had always looked, is gone. He had never before been left to himself. Elijah had always been at his side. Did he need direction? Elijah was there. Had he a sorrow? Elijah’s heart was full of sympathy. Had he a joy? it was repeated in the joy of Elijah. But now, alas! he is alone, without his helper; solitary, without his comforter. With streaming eyes he follows the receding chariot, till his grief bursting into language he exclaims: “My Father, My Father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof!” It was the expression of his own personal grief. It was the deep outgushing of a stricken heart–the sorrow of one who felt that his earthly comforts, stays and supports had all been severed in one sad blow. “The mantle of the ascending Prophet, loosed by an invisible hand, had fallen from his shoulders, and it floated down before him heavy laden with an official appointment, cast to him as it were out of the open heavens.” He felt, therefore, that he was not only alone, but alone under the weight of accumulated responsibilities. He was now to carry on the work of God single handed, to bear the burden of the sacred office without a helper, and added to all this, he had to assume the cares and responsibilities of instruction and government in the schools of the Prophets.
This is, therefore, the language of a heart greatly burdened, and pouring out in this single exclamation its great surge of responsibility and grief.
But to this language of personal sorrow, he adds also that of religious and patriotic lamentation: “THE CHARIOT OF ISRAEL AND THE HORSEMENT THEREOF.” The thought was evidently caught from the scene before him; and the idea is, that whilst Elijah had been to him a father, he had been to Israel, to the Church and the Nation, a chariot and a horseman. His labors and prayers had been of more value than military defences. He had done more by his counsels and intercessions for the protection and security of his country than chariots and horsemen. Whilst he had lost a Father, Israel had been bereaved of its strength and security. Hence he combines the expression of personal sorrow, with that of religious and national lamentation. He was bereft of a Father, the Church of a Prophet, and the nation of a Defender.
Now, my dear friends, all this is only too vividly realized in the bereavement that hangs this pulpit in mourning, and fills this church and community with sorrow.
This language of Elisha is only too apposite to the occasion. Whilst it describes by a remarkable coincidence, and with a striking minuteness of detail, the relation of the speaker to his departed Father and Counsellor, it is almost equally applicable to this whole assembly. He was the Father of this congregation—indeed of a whole family of congregations in and around these cities. The spiritual Father of multitudes here assembled, and perhaps the Father’s Father of many. The Father who witnessed your Father’s vows, and sprinkled upon you the water of baptism. The Father who instructed your childhood; solemnized your marriage covenant; received you into the family of Jesus; counseled at your fire-side; prayed with you in sickness, and brought comfort and tranquility amid the storms of affliction and bereavement. He was the aged Patriarch to whom this whole community did obeisance, and before whose venerable and majestic form even the stranger was ready to pause and say in Eastern phrase, “O King, live forever!” We may, therefore, adopt this language as the expression of our common sorrow, and as we look upward and trace the radiant pathway along which he passed to glory, exclaim, “My Father, My Father!”
But we may also add, this expression of religious and patriotic grief: “THE CHARIOT OF ISRAEL AND THE HORSEMEN THEREOF!” for whilst we have lost a Father, the Church has lost an able Minister, a wise and influential Presbyter, venerable for character and office, well known in all Israel; and the nation a patriot citizen, who had caught the spirit of liberty fresh from his Revolutionary Sire, whose heart was true to the union of these States, and whose counsels and prayers in this day of our country’s danger would have been of more value than chariots and horsemen. We may all, therefore, like Elisha, mingling together our personal, our religious and patriotic lamentation, exclaim: “MY FATHER, MY FATHER, THE CHARIOT OF ISRAEL, AND THE HORSEMEN THEREOF!”
It may gratify our feelings of personal sorrow to recount the events of his life, and deepen our conviction of the loss which the Church and the Nation has sustained, to estimate his character and worth.
From here, Rev. Paxton turned to a narrative of the life of the Rev. Dr. Francis Herron. Click here to continue reading his sermon. The remainder of the sermon continues from page 23 of the memorial.
Two Discourses upon The Life and Character of the Rev. Francis Herron, D.D., by the Rev. William M. Paxton, D.D., Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh. Preached and Published at the Request of the Board of Trustees and the Session of the Church. Pittsburgh: Robert S. Davis, No. 93 Wood Street, 1861. Press of W. G. Johnston & Co.
Standing Against Conformity to the World
Born, in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, June 28, 1774.
Graduated, at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, May 5, 1794.
LIcensed to Preach, by the Presbytery of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, October 4, 1797.
Ordained to the ministry and Installed as Pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Rocky Spring, Franklin County, PA, April 9, 1809.
Removed to Pittsburgh, and Settled as Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, May, 1811.
Resigned his Pastoral Charge, December 1850.
Died, December 6, 1860.
So in short compass the life of a venerable Presbyterian divine, as it is summarized at the head of a slim volume issued in his memory. Rev. Herron’s life, it was said, was “a life of more than usual historic importance.”
Francis Herron was born near Shippensburg, Cumberland county, Pennsylvania, on June 28, 1774. He belonged to that honored and honorable race, the Scotch-Irish, memorable in the history of the world, but especially in our country, for a thorough devotion to evangelical truth and constitutional liberty. The training of his early years bore rich fruit at a subsequent period of his life, making him so eminent among his brethren as an effective preacher and an orthodox divine.
Receiving the careful training indicative of his parents high regard for knowledge, he entered Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, then under the care of that distinguished Presbyterian, Rev. Dr. Nesbitt. Here he completed his classical course, and graduated May 5, 1794. The prayers of his pious parents were answered by the influence of grace upon his heart, and he was led to study for the ministry of reconciliation. He studied Theology under Robert Cooper, D.D., his pastor, and was licensed by Carlisle Presbytery, October 4, 1797.
He entered upon his Lord’s service as a missionary, going out into the backwoods, as it was then called, passing through Pittsburgh, Pa., then a small village, and extending his tour as far west as Chillicothe, Ohio. Stopping for the night at a tavern at Six Mile Run, near Wilkinsburg, Pa., the people prevailed upon him to stay till the following Sabbath, which he did, and under the shade of an apple tree this young disciple broke the bread of life to the people.
His journey resumed the next day, and with a frontier settler for his guide, he pushed on to his destination through an almost unbroken wilderness, his course often guided by the “blazes” upon the trees. Two nights he encamped with the Indians, who were quite numerous near what is now the town of Marietta, Ohio.
On his return from Chillicothe, Ohio, he visited Pittsburgh. The keeper of the tavern where he lodged, proved to be an old acquaintance, and at his request, he consented to preach. Notice was sent, and in the evening a small congregation of about eighteen persons assembled. The house he preached in was a rude structure, built of logs, occupying the site of the present First Presbyterian church. And such was the primitive style of that day, that during the services the swallows, who had their nests in the eaves, flew among the congregation.
At this time the churches in that portion of our country were visited with a season of refreshing grace, and Mr. Herron entered into the revival with all the ardor of youth filled with hopefulness and zeal. He preached for Rev. Dr. John McMillan at the Chartiers church, during a revival season. He also preached at the Buffalo church, where his fervid eloquence made a deep impression and the people presented him a call, and strongly urged it upon his attention. He however concluded to return to the vicinity of his home, especially, as a call from Rocky Spring church was awaiting him. This call he accepted, and he was ordained and installed as pastor of that church, by Carlisle Presbytery, April 9, 1800.
Some ten years later, he was invited to occupy the pulpit of the First Presbyterian church, then vacant by the recent death of Rev. Robert Steele.
The people were charmed with his discourse, his ripening intellect modified by that refined spirituality, which was a prominent element in his ministrations, had a powerful effect upon his audience. They urged him to preach for them a second time, which he did, the result was a unanimous call was made out and presented to him in the usual manner.
The Presbytery of Carlisle dissolved the relation that existed between Rocky Spring church and Mr. Herron, and he was dismissed to Redstone Presbytery, April 3, 1811, and he was installed pastor of the First Presbyterian church, Pittsburgh, PA, the following June. In a few weeks he removed with his family to his new home, travelling in a large wagon, with his wife, children, and all his household goods.
He joined Redstone Presbytery June 18, 1811. The importance of his new position was fully and truly felt, the commercial importance of Pittsburgh had given all kinds of business an impetus, and prosperity was advancing rapidly; but this outward show referred only to worldly affairs, the religious condition of the people was cold and almost lifeless. The church to which he was called was embarrassed with debt, and the piety of the people manifested a degree of conformity to the world, which nearly appalled the preacher’s heart. But the experience of his ten years pastorate was to him invaluable, and girding himself, he entered upon his duties with a true heart and an earnest purpose. His preaching was the simple exposition of the truth as it is in Jesus, pointed, clear, and unwavering, revealing the enormity of sin and pleading with the fidelity of one who loved their souls. This style of preaching was sustained by his efforts to establish the prayer-meeting, which, strange as it now appears, met with much opposition, even among professors of religion; but this young pastor knew the holy influence of communion with God, and that God favored a praying people, he therefore went forward, and, in connexion with Rev. Thomas Hunt, who was pastor of the Second church, they persisted, and though to avoid a collision with the people the meetings were not held in the church, a small room was used for that purpose, in which Mr. Hunt taught a day-school. The first meeting consisted of the two pastors, one man, and six women, and thus for eighteen months did this meeting continue without adding a single person to their number.
The chilling indifference of the people soon grew into downright hostility, and husbands and fathers prohibited their wives and daughters from attending, and, finally, when the continued efforts of these pious people could be no longer borne, they waited upon Mr. Herron and told him that it must be stopped, his reply was the turning point in the spiritual condition of that people. He said, “Gentlemen, these meetings will not stop, you are at liberty to do as you please; but I also have the liberty to worship God according to the dictates of my conscience, none daring to molest or make me afraid.” From that time a spirit of piety manifested itself among the members of the church, several gay and fashionable persons were hopefully converted, and an impression was made upon the whole community, at once hopeful and healthful.
Words to Live By:
Do not expect courage of conviction from men who have no convictions, from those who have no anchor in the Word of God. The Scriptures must be drilled down deep into our souls if we are to stand against temptations and testings. May God give us pastors who will set an example, who will faithfully stand against the assaults of the world, the flesh and the devil.