William Buell Sprague

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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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Today’s post is drawn from Alfred Nevin’s Encyclopedia of the Presbyterian Church (1884), p. 850:

The Long Pastorate of a Great Pastor and Biographer

SpragueWBWilliam Buell Sprague was born in Andover, Tolland county, Connecticut, on this day, October 16, 1795. He graduated at Yale College in 1815, and in 1816 entered Princeton Theological Seminary, just four years after the start of that institution. After studying there over two years, Sprague was licensed to preach by the Association of Ministers in the county of Tolland, on August 29th, 1818. As pastor of the Congregational Church of West Springfield, Massachusetts, he labored with great assiduity and success from August 25th, 1819, until July 21st, 1829, when he accepted a call to the Second Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York, over which he was installed on August 26th, 1829.

In Albany, he had a pastorate of forty years’ duration, 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. He has been well and truly described as “an illustrious man, a cultivated, elegant, voluminous, usefull 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, undertaken when he was fifty-seven years old, and finished in ten large octavo volumes.

On December 20th, 1869, Dr. Sprague was released at his own request, from his pastoral charge in Albany, and retired to Flushing, Long Island, where he passed his later years, which were a serene and beautiful evening to his industrious, useful and eminent life. Here he enjoyed the sunshine of the divine favor, and looked upon the approach of death with a strong and placid faith. He gently and peacefully passed away, May 7th, 1876, and his remains were taken to Albany for interment, the funeral services being held in the church of which he had been so long the beloved and honored pastor.

A number of Sprague’s works can be found in digital format, here.

If I may select one for you, The Claims of Past and Future Generations on Civil Leaders, looks interesting, judging by its title.

From Sprague’s Historical Introduction to The Annals of the Presbyterian Pulpit:
“…
The early history of the Presbyterian Church in this country is involved in no little obscurity,—owing principally to the fact that those who originally composed it, instead of forming a compact community, were widely scattered throughout the different Colonies. It is evident, however, that several churches were established some time before the close of the seventeenth century. In Maryland there were the Churches of Rehoboth, Snow Hill, Marlborough, Monokin, and Wicomin,—the first mentioned of which is commonly considered the oldest, and was probably formed several years before 1690. The Church on Elizabeth River, in Virginia, is supposed by some to date back to nearly the same period, but the exact time of its origin cannot be ascertained. The Churches in Freehold, and Woodbridge, New Jersey were constituted in 1692 [Note: there is good evidence that Fairfield Presbyterian Church, in Fairton, NJ, was established in 1680.]; and the First Church in Philadelphia, as nearly as can be ascertained, in 1698. In Newcastle, Delaware, in Charleston, South Carolina, and in some other places, Presbyterian Churches were planted at a very early period. In the latter part of 1705, or early in 1706, a Presbytery was formed under the title of the Presbytery of Philadelphia,—all whose members were from Scotland or Ireland, except the Rev. Jedediah Andrews, who was born and educated in New England.”

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Today’s post is drawn from Alfred Nevin’s Encyclopedia of the Presbyterian Church (1884), p. 850:

The Long Pastorate of a Great Pastor and Biographer

SpragueWBWilliam Buell Sprague was born in Andover, Tolland county, Connecticut, on October 16, 1795. He graduated at Yale College in 1815, and in 1816 entered Princeton Theological Seminary, just four years after the start of that institution. After studying there over two years, Sprague was licensed to preach by the Association of Ministers in the county of Tolland, on August 29th, 1818. As pastor of the Congregational Church of West Springfield, Massachusetts, he labored with great assiduity and success from August 25th, 1819, until July 21st, 1829, when he accepted a call to the Second Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York, over which he was installed on August 26th, 1829.

In Albany, he had a pastorate of forty years’ duration, 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. He has been well and truly described as “an illustrious man, a cultivated, elegant, voluminous, usefull 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 Pulpitundertaken when he was fifty-seven years old, and finished in ten large octavo volumes.

On December 20th, 1869, Dr. Sprague was released at his own request, from his pastoral charge in Albany, and retired to Flushing, Long Island, where he passed his later years, which were a serene and beautiful evening to his industrious, useful and eminent life. Here he enjoyed the sunshine of the divine favor, and looked upon the approach of death with a strong and placid faith. He gently and peacefully passed away, May 7th, 1876, and his remains were taken to Albany for interment, the funeral services being held in the church of which he had been so long the beloved and honored pastor.

A number of Sprague’s works can be found in digital format, here.

If I may select one for you, The Claims of Past and Future Generations on Civil Leaders, looks interesting, judging by its title.

From Sprague’s Historical Introduction to The Annals of the Presbyterian Pulpit:
“…
The early history of the Presbyterian Church in this country is involved in no little obscurity,—owing principally to the fact that those who originally composed it, instead of forming a compact community, were widely scattered throughout the different Colonies. It is evident, however, that several churches were established some time before the close of the seventeenth century. In Maryland there were the Churches of Rehoboth, Snow Hill, Marlborough, Monokin, and Wicomin,—the first mentioned of which is commonly considered the oldest, and was probably formed several years before 1690. The Church on Elizabeth River, in Virginia, is supposed by some to date back to nearly the same period, but the exact time of its origin cannot be ascertained. The Churches in Freehold, and Woodbridge, New Jersey were constituted in 1692 [Note: there is good evidence that Fairfield Presbyterian Church, in Fairton, NJ, was established in 1680.]; and the First Church in Philadelphia, as nearly as can be ascertained, in 1698. In Newcastle, Delaware, in Charleston, South Carolina, and in some other places, Presbyterian Churches were planted at a very early period. In the latter part of 1705, or early in 1706, a Presbytery was formed under the title of the Presbytery of Philadelphia,—all whose members were from Scotland or Ireland, except the Rev. Jedediah Andrews, who was born and educated in New England.”

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STUDIES IN THE WESTMINSTER SHORTER CATECHISM
by Rev. Leonard T. Van Horn

Q. 8. — How doth God execute his decrees?

A.
— God executeth his decrees in the works of creation and providence.

Scripture References: Rev. 4:11. Eph. 1:11. Isa. 46:10. Mark 13:31.

Questions:
1. To what can we compare the decrees of God to enable us to better understand them?

“We compare the decrees of God to the plans an architect draws for a great building. If most of us saw the blue-prints for this building we could not imagine what the building would look like . . . But when the building was all complete then we would see what was in the architect’s mind and what was the meaning of his blue-prints. So we cannot read God’s mind except by what He has said and done and by what He is doing.” (The Christian Faith According to the Shorter Catechism, by Dr. Wm. Childs Robinson, Pgs. 12-13).

2. What is the meaning of God executing His decrees?

The meaning is God bringing His will to pass, doing what He purposed from all eternity.

3. Is it possible for the decrees of God to fail?

It is not possible. No man can stay the hand of God or question what He is doing. (Dan. 4:35)

4. Where does redemption fit in the division of his decrees?

Redemption comes to pass in His providence as His majestic gift to some men through Jesus Christ.

5. What is the difference between His works of creation and providence?

Creation is His work of making all things out of nothing by the word of His power. Providence is His work of constant support and control of the universe and all that is in it.

6. What can be learned from the execution of God’s decrees?

Two verses are suggested to teach us great lessons: (1) Rev. 4:11 – the fact that He created all things for His own glory and therefore we should attribute to Him the glory, honor and power. (2) Heb. 1:3 – the fact that He is upholding all things by His power and therefore our complete sense of security is in Him.

SECURITY

According to some teachers of psychology, the child is not to be punished; the young person is to be allowed freedom; the older person must have everything going his way — all of this so that none will lose his sense of security.

The word “security” has rapidly become one of the most important words in our language. Adjustment, success, marriage and many other facets of life have all come to depend on security.

Is this matter of security so important for our lives? Does so much really depend on it? Is it possible to live without a sense of security? These questions, and others, are questions asked in our age.

Our Catechism Question gives the answer to many of these inquiries. Our Lord recognized that security is important — though it is not the security fashioned by the modern psychologist. The security that comes to the Christian is the recognition of Isaiah 46:10 – “Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.” This is the basis of a security that is lasting, a security that places its confidence in the God of the Scriptures.

In Hebrews 13:5 the writer states: “ … be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” Immediately following we find: “So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.” Certainly it is important for us to understand that we have this security. We are taught that we are not alone in the providences of life but that we have, in God, the One who is upholding us by His power. We are taught that His power is executed in His decrees and He is doing what He purposed from all eternity.

This type of security is important. This security is not lost on the basis of whether or not we are punished, or allowed freedom, or have everything going our way. It is based first on our having a saving know¬ledge of Jesus Christ, by His grace. Second, it is based on our keeping the commandments of God. At that point we recognize that God can uphold us and keep us — and we are secure.

Published By:
THE SHIELD and SWORD, INC.
Vol. 1 No. 8 (August 1961)
Rev. Leonard T. Van Horn, Editor

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In 2005, Solid Ground Christian Books did a great service in reprinting three volumes of William Buell Sprague’s Annals of the American Pulpit. The three volumes selected for reprinting were the Presbyterian portion of that set, and they have been a great help in preparing some of the posts that you have been reading. In the last of those three volumes, some coverage was given to pastors of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and today we look at the brief life of the Rev. Moses Kerr, quoting from Sprague’s work:

Moses Kerr, the third son of the Rev. Joseph Kerr, D.D., was born in St. Clair, Pennsylvania, on the 30th of June, 1811. Naturally of a serious and thoughtful cast of mind and manifesting in very early life decided piety, his education was directed, from the first, with a view to qualifying him for the sacred ministry. He was the first of the family to enter upon a classical course. But, in a short time, signs of failing health led to a suspension of his studies and thoughts of some other calling less trying to a feeble constitution. He was induced to devote himself, for a time, to preparation for mercantile life. For this he had no taste, and it soon proved as unfavourable to his health as his application to study had previously done. He then engaged in ordinary farm work, and in this he appeared to grow strong; and, feeling now that he had the prospect of comfortable health, he again turned his attention to the profession on which he had first set his heart. He now entered the Western University of Pennsylvania, in which he prosecuted his studies without interruption until he was honourably graduated in 1828. In the fall of the same year he began the study of Theology in the Seminary then under the care of his father. He had completed one session and entered upon a second, when his father died. He finished his theological course under the instruction of the Rev. Mungo Dick, a learned and excellent Minister, who consented to take charge of the students of the Synod of the West until a professor to succeed Dr. Kerr could be formally chosen.

He was licensed to preach as a probationer for the holy ministry by the Presbytery of Monongahela, on the 28th of April, 1831. The same year the First Congregation of Allegheny was organized, and he was chosen its first Pastor. He accepted this call on the 24th of April, 1832, and, from this date, preached to this congregation, until the fall of the same year, a short time before the meeting of Presbytery, at which it was expected he would be ordained and installed. But when the Presbytery met, he returned the call, on account of a hemorrhage of the lungs, which made it necessary for him to refrain from public speaking, he knew not how long. The Presbytery released him from his acceptance of the call to that particular congregation, but proceeded with his Ordination to the office of the ministry. This was on the 9th of October, 1832.

Regrettably, the remainder of Rev. Kerr’s short life seems to repeat that pattern. He found times of service to congregations and as a teacher, but they were short periods interrupted by poor health. The Rev. Moses Kerr died on January 26, 1840, at the age of 28 years and 6 months.

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