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Sketches of Virginia
Chapter XXXIV. - Last Illness of Dr. Rice


The active services of Dr. Rice were brought to a close on the 15th of December, 1830, the Wednesday after his last sermon. The pains that had followed the cold that came upon him in New York, returned this day with prostrating violence. He was never more a convalescing man. Drs. Farrar and Mettaux attended upon him carefully ; his brother-in-law, Dr. Morton, was assiduous in his attentions; and his old instructor, Dr. Wilson, said encouragingly — “He will come out with the butterflies;” all were trusting that his constitution would, with careful nursing, throw off the disease, and also recover from the over action, mental and physical, to which the zeal of Dr. Rice had prompted. He had commenced the work of the Seminary when not yet recovered from the effects of a long and wasting fever ; had tasked himself with labors equal to his strength in his best days; stimulated by success, he had put forth greater and still greater efforts of mind and body; and now, when final success was crowning his gigantic exertions — the Boston house completed had been his residence for a year, — the North Carolina house was finished and occupied by Mr. Goodrich, — the Seminary building on a scale ample for the accommodation of a hundred students, hastening to its completion, — some forty-eight students assembled for instruction on subjects preparatory to the ministry of the gospel,.—just then the machinery, while raising the top stone of the beloved fabric, gave way. Uncheered by the frost and snow of winter, that give renewed life to the fevered, — unaided by the genial warmth of Spring that brought out “the butterflies,”— more languid from the heat of summer—the autumn beheld him like a withered leaf dropping in the stillness, of evening, to be seen in its place no more.

Unable to use his pen, he occasionally dictated to some of the students, who cheerfully became his amanuenses. The labor of planning and scheming for the foundation of a Seminary, worthy of the cause, being over, his mind turned with energy, quickened by the approach of death, to the great subjects of benevolence that had cheered and "busied him while pastor in Richmond, and had not been lost sight of at the Union Theological Seminary. To his friend Maxwell, a member of the Senate of Virginia, he writes, urging on his attention tl\e subject of public education, from the example of the great deficiency in Prince Edward. The latter part of January, 1831, a correspondent of the Telegraph writes, “three days ago we thought him nearly well; he was able to ride. Since that he has been much worse again. He’ is now confined to his bed, and was worse last night than he has been before.” In the same paper it was announced that the Letters to Mr. Madison would be continued. By the assistance of Dr. Morton two letters were prepared for the press, and appeared in the Telegraph; and then increasing pains with overpowering sickness cut short the series.

A few weeks preceding his last violent attack, in a long and most interesting letter to Dr. Wisner of Boston, Dr. Rice, among other things says, “I made a vow to the Lord, that in my poor way I would do what I could, to have next spring such a General Assembly as never before met on earth. I know this looks like presumption in me. But I hope many will aid in prayer and mighty effort, in this thing. I want some of my beloved New England friends to come to Philadelphia, just to try to get good and do good; to come without feeling they belong to New England, but that they belong to Christ and his Church; not to say one word about any matter of dispute among Christians; but determined to know nothing but Christ and him crucified. And I wish that this meeting may be a subject of much prayer, and previous preparation. We must fight fire with fire, and kindle such a flame of divine love, that it will burn up every material for unhallowed fire to work on. I wish too that some plan might be devised for kindling up in the Presbyterian Church the true spirit of missions, and rousing this great sluggish body from its sleep. Here is a subject of delicacy and difficulty. The Presbyterian spirit has been so awakened up, that I began to apprehend that no power of man will ever bring the whole body to unite under a Congregational board. What can be done? Here we want wisdom. I never will do any thing to injure the wisest and best missionary society in the world, the American Board. But can no ingenuity devise a scheme of a Presbyterian branch of the American Board ?” Convinced that he should not attend that General Assembly, which he had hoped would be the best that ever met, he proceeded to adjust his. thoughts and commit them to paper, by his amanuensis, and sent them to Dr. Hodge, of Princeton, for his perusal, and that of the other professors.

Project of an overture to be submitted to the next General ^4s-sembly. “The Presbyterian Church in the United States of North America, in organizing their forms of government, and in repeated declarations made through their representatives in after times, have solemnly recognized the importance of the missionary cause, and their obligation as Christians, to promote it by all the means in their power. But these various acknowledgements have not gone to the full extent of the obligation imposed by the head of the Church, nor have they produced exertions at all corresponding thereto. Indeed, in the judgment of the General Assembly, one primary and principal object of the institution of the Church by Jesus Christ was, not so much the salvation of individual Christians, — for, c he that believeth in the Lord Jesus Christ shall be saved,’ but the communicating of the blessing of the gospel to the destitute with the efficiency of united effort. The entire histories of the Christian societies organized by the apostles, affords abundant evidence that they so understood the design of their Master. They received from him a command, to preach the gospel to every creature,’ and from the Churches planted by them, the word of the Lord was sounded out through all parts of the civilized world. Nor did the missionary spirit of the primitive Churches expire, until they had become secularized and corrupted by another spirit. And it is the decided belief of this General Assembly that a true revival of religion in any denomination of Christians, will generally, if not universally, be marked by an increased sense of obligation to execute the commission which Christ gave the apostles. The General Assembly would, therefore, in the most public and solemn manner, express their shame and sorrow that the Church represented by them has done comparatively so little to make known the saving health of the gospel to all nations. At the same time, they would express their grateful sense of the goodness of the Lord, in employing the instrumentality of others to send salvation to the heathen. Particularly would they rejoice at the Divine favor manifested to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, whose perseverance, whose prudence, whose skill, in conducting this most important interest, merit the praise and excite the joy of all the churches. With an earnest desire, therefore, to co-operate with this noble institution; to fulfil in some part at least, their own obligations ; and to answer the just expectations of the friends of Christ in other denominations, and in other countries; in obedience also to what is believed to be the command of Christ,

“Be it Resolved, 1st, That the Presbyterian Church in the United States is a missionary society; the object of which is to aid in the conversion of the world; and that every member of the church is a member for life of said society, and bound, in maintenance of his Christian character, to do all in his power for the accomplishment of this object. 2d, That the ministers of the gospel in connection with the Presbyterian Church, are hereby most solemnly required to present this subject to the members of their respective congregations, using every effort to make them feel their obligations, and to induce them to contribute according to their ability. 3d, That a Committee of — be appointed from year to year by the General Assembly, to be designated ‘The Committee of the Presbyterian Church of the United States for Foreign Missions,’ to whose management this whole concern shall be confided, with directions to report all their transactions to the churches. 4th, The Committee shall have power to appoint a Chairman, Corresponding Secretary, Treasurer, and other necessary officers. 5th, The Committee shall, as far as the nature of the case will admit, he co-ordinate with the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions, and shall correspond and co-operate with that association in every possible way, for the accomplishment of the great objects which it has in view. 6th, Inasmuch as members belonging to the Presbyterian Church have already, to some extent, acknowledged their obligations, and have been accustomed, from year to year, to contribute to the funds of the American Board, and others may hereafter prefer to give that destination to their contributions; and inasmuch as the General Assembly, so far from wishing to limit, or impede the operation of that Board, is earnestly desirous that they may be enlarged to the greatest possible extent; it is, therefore, to be distinctly understood that all individuals, congregations, or missionary associations, are at liberty to send their contributions either to the American Board, or to the Committee of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church, as to the contributors may appear most likely to advance the great object of the conversion of the world. 7th, That every church session be authorized to receive contributions; and be directed to state in their annual reports to the Presbytery, distinctly, the amount contributed by their respective churches for Foreign Missions ; and that it be earnestly recommended to all church sessions, in hereafter admitting new members to the churches, distinctly to state to candidates for admission, that they join a community, the object of which is the conversion of the heathen world, and to impress on their minds a deep sense of their obligations as redeemed sinners, to co-operate in the accomplishment of the great object of Christ’s mission to the world.”

The foregoing was sent to Dr. Hodge, with the following note:

“Union Seminary, March 4th, 1831.

“Dear Sir — The Rev. Dr. Rice had the above overture, which he indicated while lying on a sick-bed, copied on a large sheet, intending, when Providence should restore his health, to occupy the blank space in laying before you more at large his views and feelings on the subject which the overture presents. But there is no prospect of his being soon at least able to write, and the time of the Assembly draws near. He is, therefore, compelled to send you the article as it is. He wishes you to. submit it also to the other Professors of your Seminary, and desires a communication of your views with regard to it. His health does not sensibly improve. He is confined entirely to his bed. The physicians do not appear, however, to anticipate a fatal result. Respectfully,

“E. Ballantine, Amanuensis

The overture was favorably received at Princeton; and came before the Assembly on the third day of its sessions, Saturday, May 21st, 1831, and was committed to Rev. Messrs. Armstrong, of North River, Calvert, of West Tennessee, Goodrich, of Orange, Dr. J. M’Dowell, of Elizabethtown, and Dr. Agnew, elder from Carlisle. On Tuesday, 31st, a Committee was appointed “to attend the next annual meeting of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions, and confer with that body in respect to measures to be adopted for enlisting the energies of the Presbyterian Church more extensively in the cause of missions to the heathen; and that said Committee report the results of this conference, and their views on the whole subject, to the next Assembly.” The gentlemen chosen by ballot on nomination, were — Rev. Messrs. John M’Dowell, of Elizabethtown, Thomas M’Auley, of Philadelphia, James Richards, of Newark, as principals; and Rev. Messrs. A. Alexander, John Breckenridge, and Elisha Swift, alternates. When Dr. Rice heard the names of the Committee, he said, smilingly, “that some of the alternates, he thought, understood his views better than some of the principals.”

The Rev. Benjamin F. Staunton, suffering from the severity of the New England winters, and hoping for relief from the more genial climate of Virginia, removed to Prince Edward in the spring of 1830; and became the minister of the church embracing the Union Theological Seminary, and Hampden Sidney College, in its bounds. In the early stages of Dr. Rice’s illness, Mr. Staunton assisted in the instruction of the classes, in expectation of the Doctor’s speedy recovery. In the spring of 1831, the Board* of Directors finding that the Professor’s health did not improve, cordially invited Mr. Staunton to supply his place in the recitation room as far as convenient, during the summer. The able manner in which he performed the duties, was gratefully acknowledged by the students and the Directors. In the month of March, 1831, Mr. Staunton held a four days’ meeting at the College church, assisted by Messrs. J. S. Armistead and William S. White. There were many hopeful conversions to God; and of these a goodly number were traced in their incipient steps to instruction received from Dr. Rice. In this Mr. Staunton, with characteristic feeling, rejoiced greatly. The seed faithfully sown by another he gathered in. As the news of these hopeful conversions, and their attendant circumstances, was brought to Dr. Rice, his spirits revived. “Oh!” said he, “that I could aid the triumph with my voice. But the Lord’s will be done.” Two j of his attending physicians, and some of his relatives were among \ the converts. This animated him, and under the excitement he » sometimes hoped he should get well. These hopes, however, speedily ‘ yielded to the deep conviction that this could never be. “ I feel an iron hand upon me that is crushing me to death. I cannot escape from it. I have a secret malady that my physicians, with all their skill and kindness, cannot find out, and it must carry me off at last.”

As the months slowly revolved, his nervous system became excited to a painful degree, and deprived him of the pleasure his friends were very cheerfully affording him, by reading to him letters, pieces of news, and interesting passages. One after another lost its pleasure, and became painful, and was abandoned. His sickness came upon him in the southwest corner of the second story of the Boston House, now used by Dr. Wilson as his study. After the frosts of spring were passed, he was removed to the room directly below, that ho might have the advantage of some exercise in the open air. A small hand-carriage was constructed, under the direction of Dr. Morton, in which he was occasionally drawn out in the garden by his brother-in-law, or Mr. Ballentine; Mrs. Rice walking by his side, with a mug of water, to moisten his parched mouth. But, in a little time, the sight even of his choice fruit trees and flowers became too exciting, and he was carried out no more. Mr. Ballentine read to him from a newspaper, the death of Jeremiah Evarts, Secretary of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. “Alas!” he exclaimed, “ God is taking away the stay and the staff from Israel! The few that are left will not be regarded, and the many will carry all before them. Numbers will overwhelm us at last referring to the sentiments of his last sermon, that a fierce and dreadful contest was approaching, involving the church and the conflicting powers of wickedness. A letter from Rev. Elias Cornelius, Secretary of the American Education Society, impressing the sentiment, “Man is immortal, till his work is done,” was read to him only in part; it caused too great excitement. His friend, William Wirt, Esq., sent a charming epistle, a specimen of an afflicted Christian’s sympathy. It was not read to him. He could scarcely hear a passage from the Bible. The sight of books became distressing. His nervous sensibility could not bear the noise of a pen, or the sight of a flower.

About the beginning of July, a change took place in his disease, and he became subject to a wasting diarrhoea. Weak and emaciated. Dr. Morton carried him, in his arms, to the parlor in the Second story, from which he went out no more a living man.

From the commencement of his confinement, until about the succeeding May, reading, singing, and pleasant conversation had cheered his watchers, as well as himself; and the students gladly, in succession, sat up as much of the night as was required, with their beloved teacher, and ministered to his wants. When these exercises, losing all their power to please, became sources of distress; when quietness and stillness, and great gentleness were required in his attendants; when caution in avoiding all that might distress, was even more indispensable than care, that all should be done that could contribute positively to the sick man’s comfort, there was found one admirably adapted to the necessities of the case. Mr. Elisha Ballentine, introduced to the attention of Dr. Rice by Mr. Nettleton, had joined the seminary the latter part of the year 1828. From his retiring habits, little was known of him, except by reports from the class-room, where his correctness and enteprising scholarship won universal admiration. He entered into the Doctor’s plans and views with great facility, and made himself very agreeable to his instructor. The sick man’s situation requiring aid suited to the young man’s habits, he now came forward, and for the first time in his seminary life, offered his unsought services for the vocation, and became his constant attendant and unwearied nurse till the end of his life. On the proposition of Mr. Ballentine, all other watchers were dispensed with; and, drawing a sofa near one side of the bed, he assumed the entire care; Mrs. Rice placed a small bed for herself, near her husband, on the other side. Thus, from the spring vacation till the closing scene of life, the wife and the student nursed the dying man.

The Synods of North Carolina and Virginia, and the Board of directors of the seminary, were not remiss in their efforts to obtain a Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Polity. On the 12th of April, 1831, the Rev. Thomas M’Auley, D. D. was chosen to that office. His appointment gave great satisfaction to Dr. Rice, who anticipated much good to the seminary from his co-operation. Dr. M’Auley’s refusal to serve the seminary, came too late to affect Dr. Rice, as the doors of his sick room were closed against all news, and almost all visitors. At the meeting of the Board of directors, of the 27th of September, the Rev. John M’Dowell, of Elizabethtown, was, according to the expressed will of the two Synods, appointed to the office declined by Dr. M’Auley. This appointment was consummated after the death of Dr. Rice. The preparatory step attracted little of his attention; though fond of Dr. M’Dowell, he had come down into the Jordan of death, and all earthly things were passing from his sight. Dr. M’Dowell accepted the appointment, and his Presbytery agreed to his dismission, against the wishes of the congregation; an appeal was taken to Synod. The conclusion was, Dr. M’Dowell was not permitted by Synod to remove.

Yielding to their own wishes, many expressed the hope that Dr. Rice might yet be restored to sufficient health and soundness to continue his labors as professor. His own deliberate judgment that he should never recover, was too well founded. In August, his brother Benjamin came from New York, bringing his wife and a daughter, for a last interview with a brother who had been to him a brother indeed, now evidently passing the river of death. The first meeting was in the silence of deep emotion: taking each by the hand with affection, he said: “It is too much for me; they must leave me soon.” A fortnight passed noiselessly, in the kindness and affectionate attentions of fraternal love and gratitude. Few words were employed to express the communion between the hearts of the living and the dying. The farewell was simply a look of unutterable kindness from the dying man, with “God bless you,” on his lips, and a burst of uncontrollable grief from the living brother, as he hurried from the apartment. The nervous suffering increased the latter part of August. Frequent spasms distorted his limbs, and almost constant friction was required to give him any sleep.

On Saturday morning, Sept. 3d, at the breaking of the day, Mrs. Rice, in attempting to give him some medicine, saw manifest evidence that his last day had come. He could not be roused from the stupor that was on him; his face was haggard in the paleness of death. Leaning her head upon the bedside, his wife earnestly prayed he might once more know and speak to her. After an interval of some length, he seemed to rouse from his sleep, and calling her, said in a soft voice—“I wish to tell you I never loved you more than at this hour.” He then expressed his sorrow that he could not leave her in possession of a house. To her reply that she could not live alone, and that God would take care of her, he said — “I know it, but the best of friends would feel differently if you had a house of your own. Then turning to the young man that was attending upon him, whom he had often addressed as his son, he said—“I know Ballantine will be a son to you.” The young man bowed his head to the side of the couch in solemn acquiescence. He then spake a few words of farewell to his niece, Mary Morton, and his sister Sally. The news spread that Dr. Rice was dying. Many sought admission, especially the students. In glancing around upon his young friends, he saw one in the attitude of taking notes, and said—“I have no set speech for this occasion.” The paper and pencil disappeared. Often during the day he turned to his wife and said — “I expect you to sustain me by your cheerful submission to the last moment.” To Dr. Morton he said — “ I wish all the world to know how much I love you.” Hearing weeping in his room he said, “Don’t weep so, you distress me.” His wife said “You see I don’t weep.” Gazing on her with unutterable tenderness he replied, “No — I see you do not, and I hope you will be sustained to the end.” President Cushing came in and was recognized with great kindness; in a little time he handed a cup of tea to Mrs. Rice, who did not leave her husband’s sight for a moment, and insisted on her drinking it. This act drew from the dying man a sweet smile of approbation.

Throughout his whole sickness he had times of much mental depression, which was attributed in a great measure to his disease. Under its influence he sometimes expressed himself as having been too prodigal of his life in his efforts to serve the visible church; and then he mourned that he had not served his God as he had the church. “When I get well,” he would say, “I shall have a new lesson to give my pupils; at least I shall give them an old one with new emphasis, and it is this : that they must never let their zeal for active service run away with their private devotions.” With the many evidences of God’s favor around he seemed to himself to have been ungrateful and unworthy. Always stirring up others to that purity for which he strove, he seemed to himself a most undeserving sinner. His being cut off in the very meridian of usefulness, often appeared to him as an expression of divine displeasure, under whicii all his success in the ministry and the professorship gave him no comfort.

On the very last day of his life there was a cloud and melancholy upon him on this account. To the inquiry by his wife, if his hope brightened—he replied, “When I have light, or hope, you shall know it.” All the afternoon he gave evidence of great bodily suffering and weakness. About nine o’clock, making a greater exertion than he had been seen to do for a long time, as if summoning all his powers for a last effort, he threw his arms around the neck of his wife and said with a countenance of joy, “Mercy is”—His sudden movement startled Mrs. Rice and she did not hear the closing word, which was faint. Upon her saying so, Mrs. Goodrich said, “Was it great?” “No,” said Mrs. Rice, “it was a longer word.” After a little pause she called to him — “Husband, what is it?” Her voice seemed to call him back from the banks of the river; and with another effort, he pronounced “Tri—um—phant;” and his head declined. Dr. Morton unfolded his arms, laid him upon the bed — there was a gasp or two, and mortal life was gone. Amid the sorrow and pain of breaking the tender cords that bound the beholders to the dying man, a glance of joy brightened every face, and an involutary burst of thanksgiving from every heart went up to God that the beloved friend had passed the river “triumphant.” The beloved wife retired to her little chamber to weep, and to praise, and to rejoice.

The gentlemen present, his relatives, and the officers of college and the seminary, and some students, emulated, as in waiting upon his sick hours, the office of preparing the lifeless remains for the grave. No strange hands touched his mortal body. At the special request of Dr. Rice the attending physicians made examinations to discover any peculiarity in his disease. He had often complained that his throat seemed clasped by an iron band, close almost to strangling. The physicians found strictures in his bowels, which preventing the natural circulation, must have produced the uneasiness and pain of which he complained, and which were beyond the reach of medicine. He often said a malady was 011 him which his friends could not find out. The true cause was probably stated by him to his friends, Drs. Woods and Alexander, and others— “I am overworked.” Mental and physical exertion broke down the constitution which had given evidence in its long endurance of its original excellence. Those who knew his labors and success will be slow in condemning him for those exertions that consumed his body with pains no medicine could reach; while they will mourn both the necessity and the event.

The body of Dr. Rice was interred at Willington, the residence of his father-in-law, among the kindred of his wife. The students of the Seminary and College formed part of the procession that followed the relations : they conveyed the corpse to the place of burial. At the grave Mr. Staunton pronounced a short oration, a masterpiece of funereal eloquence, which the hearers greatly desired to see in print, a memorial of the speaker and the departed Professor. The hymn—“Why do we mourn departing friends”—was sung by the students, to the tune of China. The music sounded from the little hill like an echo from the world of glory.

The old major, Morton, who had seen service in the Revolution, and from his stout frame and imperturbable spirit, was called “ solid column” by bis companions, who had borne the changes and bereavements of life with calm self-possession,—when the procession drew near his house, bearing that son-in-law whose approach till that hour had been gladness,—started to meet the company—sunk down, and cried out, with flowing tears—“I had thought that Mr. Rice would be the glory and comfort of my age—and at last bury me.” Like an old oak, uptorn by the tempest, he lay prostrate. In a few days hi3 mortal frame had undergone years of age and infirmity. He talked, and smiled, and went about a broken-hearted old man, searching for his last resting-place; glad when called to lay down his body, despoiled by years and infirmity.

The visitor may read, at Willington, epitaphs to be remembered. Among the rest—near Mr. Morton and Young Taylor—

JOHN HOLT RICE,

First Professor of Christian Theology in the
Union Theological Seminary,
Was born in the County of Bedford,
On the 28th of November, 1777,
And died on the 3d of September, 1831.
To his Memory
This Stone is raised
By her whom he loved.


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