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Sketches of Virginia
Chapter XXXVIII. - Dr. Speece - The Close of Life


Dr. Speece never exhibited any enthusiasm in his approbation of Theological Seminaries. He approved such as the Virginia Synod had appointed at Lexington, Canonsburg, and in Kentucky, having the president of the literary institution, professor of theology, after the type of the Log College and the school at New London, and New Jersey College in its infancy. He was a calm friend of the efforts made by Hanover Presbytery for a theological school at Hampden Sidney; and approved the arrangement by which the president of that college became professor of theology. And as years increased upon Dr. Hoge, Dr. Speece was convinced of the necessity of separating the two offices of president and professor. He had doubts about the ultimate success and advantage of the movements made by the Assembly at Princeton; but thought his friend Alexander would accomplish it if it could be wrought out by discretion and talent and perseverance. The appointment of Dr. Miller to cooperate with Dr. Alexander was involved in some doubtfulness, but was a good selection if the thing sought were desirable, and if desirable, its excellence would be seen under the labors of Dr. Miller. That a school in Virginia should equal the institution at Princeton in its appointments and allurements to students, he did not think practicable, if desirable. When it was decided after the death of Dr. Hoge that Dr. Alexander could not be prevailed upon to return to Virginia, Dr. Speece, with others, did not see the way clear for successful action by the Synod of Virginia in carrying on a Theological Seminary. One difficulty they had to surmount was the selection of a professor. Baxter, Rice, Speece, Hill and Lyle looked round upon each other, not able to decide, with that determined harmony in the churches they wished, who should be professor. Dr. Speece, as chairman of the committee to consider the condition of things, reported in favor of committing the whole matter of the seminary to Hanover Presbytery, by whose efforts the most that was accomplished had been done. He admired the boldness and grandeur of Dr. Rice’s plans more than their prudence or wisdom. Unwilling to oppose his friend Rice openly, he never vigorously or cordially seconded his efforts. And this coldness towards the seminary kept back the brethren from doing what otherwise they would cheerfully have done, making him a professor, because they would not act upon the supposition that the gift of an honorable post would inspire ardor in his breast.

Dr. Speece was not prepared to go to the extent of his brother Rice in efforts to bring forward young men to the ministry. He differed about the kind and measure of aid to be afforded. He thought it better for the young men desirous of the gospel ministry to enter that office through difficulties, and after multiplied efforts of their own, than to be allured, as it were, by the enticements of an education afforded to them by the donations of the church. lie remembered with deep feeling the encouragement given him by the kind words of Brown, and the opportunity afforded him twice by his friend Graham, to work his way through his classical course ; and he knew how his friend Rice had got into the ministry, and Baxter to the ministry and rectorship; and he thought this kind of preparation for the ministry was not harmful, perhaps equally as beneficial in the good effects of the self-denial and perseverance in preparing useful ministers as the training at colleges and seminaries through a full course of study, with less personal effort and persevering frugality. On this principle he acted in his intercourse with the children of his friends Brown and Blain. He encouraged the mothers and the children by precept, and reference to example, to make efforts. But any pecuniary assistance was afforded too privately to become known. Youth were stimulated by what Speece had done for himself, rather than by what he was willing to do for them. Referring to the past, his example said “ That is the way.”

He frequently addressed his fellow-citizens on the subject of temperance. In Augusta it was a great practical question, not so much of drinking or not drinking, as of income. The region of country all around him was most productive in grain. The distance to market was great, the roads bad, and the demand for breadstuffs but limited. The farmers found it more profitable, with less labor, to have a portion of their grain distilled into whiskey, and in that form sent to market. In adopting the temperance principles the farmer would lessen his income, and must change his arrangements in managing his farm. The discussion of the principles that led to decline drinking, or making intoxicating liquors, or any way trafficking in them, involved the political and religious economy of the valley. Dr. Speece was a host. His weight of character was now used for the welfare of his fellow-citizens. His own excellent financial abilities were universally known, and gave influence to his arguments, persuading the citizens of the valley to change the manner of sending their crops to market — because “ the making, vending and using of ardent spirits as a drink are morally wrong.” The last sermon he delivered was on Saturday, February 17th, 1836, at a temperance society meeting at Young’s Chapel, on 2 Samuel, 16:17, “ Is this thy kindness to thy friend?” “The powers of his mind,” says a hearer, “were probably seldom more vivedly displayed in delineating the existing want of kindness which those who manufactured ardent spirits, and those who sell it for common use, knowing its destructive consequences, manifest towards their fellow-men.”

On his way to the old Stone church the next morning, Sabbath, 14th, he was prostrated by a violent affection of the heart, from an attack of which he had but just recovered. Resting at the house of Mrs. Read till Monday evening, he was conveyed to the house of Dr. Allen, on his way to Major Nelson’s. Between the hours of nine and ten at night the family retired, supposing his symptoms altogether favorable. Mrs. Allen delaying a little, and going again to see her friend, gave Dr. Allen the alarm that Dr. Speece was singularly affected. The agonies of death were upon him. “We spoke to him, but he did not answer. We called to him, but he seemed insensible. With anxious looks we stood by his bed for a few minutes, and the scene was closed. He spoke not. He died without a sigh, without a struggle.” On Wednesday the corpse was taken to the church, and laid before the pulpit in which he had preached for more than twenty-two years. Mr. James C. Willson gave a discourse on the fight of faith and the crown, from 2 Tim. 4: 7, 8. Messrs. Hendren and Paul, each made a short address, and the body was carried to the old grave-yard, whither on the 2d of the preceding December, he had followed his predecessor William Wilson, crushed by the weight of eighty-four winters.

“When I first knew Dr. Speece,” says Dr. Baxter, in a sermon prepared upon the occasion of his death, “he was just commencing the course of a liberal education. He had been incited to this by the advice of the Rev. Samuel Brown, who was perhaps the first man who discovered his merits, and made an effort to draw him from obscurity. In the beginning of his literary career, he gave evidence of his uncommon powers. Such was the clearness and comprehension of judgment, the retentiveness of his memory, and the strength of his mental faculties, that his progress was surprising in every branch of study to which -he turned his attention, and all eyes were fixed upon him. In the circle were he was known, it was a common remark in conversation, that a star of the first magnitude was about to rise, and it was believed that whatever department of learning he might cultivate, or whatever profession he might pursue, he would appear as a shining light in our country. At the time of which I speak, Mr. Speece was not the subject of religion. He had, indeed, enjoyed in a high degree the benefits of a religious education through the instrumentality of a pious mother. I have often heard hiin express his attachment to that mother, and his gratitude to God for giving him such a parent.' He sometimes said, that when he got to heaven, he believed that after viewing the glories of his Redeemer, the second object would be to search out and find that mother in her glorified state.”

After giving at length the exercises of his mind on the subject of infidelity of the French school, Dr. Baxter goes on to say, “ When he had rejected that system, he did not humbly submit himself at once to the teachings of divine revelation. In the native pride of the human intellect, he reasoned on the attributes and government of God. He soon came to the conclusion that God must be infinitely wise and powerful, and his decrees irreversible, that nothing can take place contrary to foreknowledge and permission. God in making the world must have had a plan, and no being could defeat the plans of infinite wisdom, backed by Almighty power. But then the world is full of sin and misery, and how can this be accounted for under the government of infinite perfection ? Why did not God exert his omnipotence to prevent the existence of sin? He was perplexed by various unjustifiable questions of this kind until his rebellion arose almost to agony. God permits sin, but does not force any creature to the perpetration of it; and the reasons of the permission are, no doubt, worthy of himself, but they lie beyond our comprehension. For some years Mr. Speece puzzled himself in these presumptuous speculations, but at last he was brought to contemplate this subject in the light of the gospel. In other words, he beheld the dispensation and character of God in the face of Jesus Christ. He saw that whatever misery and darkness might rest on the world in general, the gospel opens a new living way, by which the humble and penitent might find the favor of God; that where sin had abounded, grace had much more abounded, and that no man was excluded from mercy and happiness who did not exclude himself. The all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ, and his willingness to save, was the truth which brought peace and joy to his mind, and silenced all his complaints.

From the time when Mr. Speece found peace in believing, he determined at once to serve God in the gospel ministry. This, in his case, was a noble sacrifice. The prospects of the ministry were more discouraging in a temporal view at that time than at present. Our churches were more feeble and perhaps less liberal than they now are; and, on the other hand, the lucrative professions were not crowded; they stood open before him, holding out the almost certain prospect of immediate wealth and distinction, yet with all these allurements in view, Mr. Speece at once resolved to serve God in that course of self-denial in which his services promised to be most efficient. When he entered the ministry, our church seems to have been pervaded by a better spirit than it possesses at present. Many young men at that day made the same sacrifice which he made. They turned their backs on the allurements of worldly distinction, and devoted themselves to the self-denying work of the ministry. The world was astonished at their choice, and I have heard the reverend fathers of the church express their grateful wonder with tears, at determinations which could only proceed from the grace of God, and which seemed to promise that the grace of God would uphold the cause of religion. And on this subject I have often made another remark with pleasing wonder. Those young men, who gave themselves to the cause of the church when her prospects were confessedly lower than they have ever been either before or since, were generally led through life by a kind Providence which never forsook them; and they often enjoyed even more of temporal comfort than other young men of the same day, who forsook the church that they might pursue the world. I am convinced the hand of the Lord was in the thing. It confirms the promise, 4 Trust in the Lord and do good, so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed — your Heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things.’ After witnessing these things, I have become satisfied that in the common movements of divine Providence, sacrifices made in his cause with pious prudence, will not bring his children to want.”

While “new measures,” by their novelty and apparent success, were gaining attention and popularity, Dr. Speece called the attention of the Synod at Harrisonburg to the whole subject. Dr. Baxter said of them, “that without having any virtue in themselves, he thought they might be advantageous; that their efficiency depended on the manner of their use; and their final advantage depended on the prudence of those who used them; and, therefore, Synod was not called to pass any sentence upon them, particularly as ill-effects had not yet been seen in the Synod.” Dr. Speece, without going into an argument, expressed an opinion decisively against them all, individually and collectively, as things uncalled for, and therefore useless, if not positively harmful. “I wish to go along with my old friends and brethren, in all things pertaining to the ministry. I want to hear the strong reasons for these measures. I wish to be convinced if possible. I dislike being left alone by my old friends.” A modified use was adopted by his brethren around; and to gratify his people who wished a trial to be made, and, if possible, to agree with those who believed in their advantage, he held a protracted meeting on the improved plan. The success was apparently complete. More than one hundred were added to the church. The Doctor was silent about “new measures.” After a time some ill-effects began to appear; and the Doctor returned to his original position, and found his congregation ready to stand by him. Everything objectionable in the “new measures” speedily disappeared from any part of the Valley in which they may have found a partial and temporary welcome. The thing that most deranged the gospel order of the churches, was the hasty admission of members — that is — allowing people to make profession of religion, and hold church membership on profession of religious exercises, in a short space of time — their first apparent attention to the subject — and that, too, by persons not instructed in the doctrines of the gospel. This in its consequences was found so great an evil, that all that led to it became suspicious, and was ultimately discarded. Dr. Speece reiterated his opinion, “that the ordinary means of grace in the church were, with God's blessing, sufficient for the conversion of sinners ; and that in extraordinary eases, extraordinary means should be used with exemplary prudence; and that the greater the excitement on religious things, the greater the plainness and precision with which the doctrines of grace should be preached; and that time should be given for due reflection before a profession of faith involving church membership should be encouraged.”

Rev. John Hendren, D. D., long a near neighbor and intimate friend of Dr. Speece, says of him — “The mind of Dr. Speece was one of the first order. He excelled in soundness of judgment, and had a most ready discernment of right and wrong in human actions. His intellectual faculties were highly cultivated. Few had read more or digested it better than he. His taste for literary pursuits did not diminish with the increase of his years. Only a few years before his death he purchased Malte Brun’s Geography, and was highly entertained with it, and remarked that his taste for such reading was unabated, and he seemed to regard it as a fact affording some surprise to himself. Of systematic writers on theology, I think he gave the preference decidedly to Turretine. He also esteemed Dwight’s Theology. Knapp’s Lectures on Christian Theology, translated by Leonard Woods, Jr., he did not value highly. He was an admirer of most of Sir Walter Scott’s works, when they first appeared, and I know not that his relish for such reading had at all declined. He valued Henry as a commentator; yet I believe he preferred Scott, and regarded him as a commentator of a very sound judgment, and as a safe guide to the student of the Scriptures. Writers of genius, such as Robert Hall and Foster, who deal but little in common-place remarks, had his decided approbation.” Somehow the idea got abroad that Dr. Speece had made a will, and that, his valuable library was a bequest to the Union Theological Seminary, in Prince Edward. After his death no evidence of a will appeared, and his large collection of books was disposed of at auction. Being such as became a minister’s study, particularly the more valuable, the volumes found their way, for a moderate price, into the libraries of his brethren in the ministry, and are doing their work, perhaps, more effectually than in the alcoves of any literary or theological institution.

Dr. Speece was never married. Ever an admirer of the female sex, and once on the brink of matrimony, he passed his years locking up in his breast the reason of his celibacy, and of his estrangement from the joys and perplexities of housekeeping, “the sunny and the shady side” of a pastor’s life. In Powhatan he was an inmate of the family of Mr. Josiah Smith, and in Augusta he made his home with Major Nelson. The kindness and comfort- of these families made him insensible of the natural loneliness of his single state. His sudden death, while as yet his congregations were unconscious of any waning of his powers, relieved him from that step he contemplated with pain, and believed was inevitably near, the asking to be dismissed from his charge on account of bodily infirmity. It also rendered unnecessary the careful preparation he had made by his economy and frugality for the wants of age. He died a beloved minister, to whom every act of kindness flowed spontaneously from his extensive charge, and was spared the decrepitude of increasing years.

“The last time I saw him,” says Dr. Hendren, “was at a called meeting of Presbytery (Staunton, Jan. 22d, 1836). He looked very pale. I heard him pray, and though I had often heard him pray before, there was something, both in the prayer and in his manner, which struck me very much, especially the great humility, the simplicity, and the tender devotional feelings which he manifested. I have often thought of that prayer since. It reminds me of what the biographer of Robert Hall says of his prayers. No person who heard him could fail of being persuaded that he was really engaged in prayer, was holding communion with his God and father in Christ Jesus. He seemed to throw himself at the feet of the great Eternal, conscious that he could present no claim for a single blessing but the blood of atonement, yet animated with the cheering hope that that blood would prevail.”

The latest of his poetic pieces bears date July 81st, 1835, about six months before his death : -

Friendships of Ancient Date.
I love to reflect on my earlier time,
When social affections all bloomed in their prime,
When no cold suspicion had place in my breast,
And heaven gave friendships, the dearest and best.
I love to remember old friends far away,
With whom I would gladly converse every day;
Their features and smiles, which no longer I see,
Yet pictured by fancy, are precious to me.
I love to sit down with a friend of my youth,
Long tried and found steadfast in kindness and truth;
To talk while we heed not the march of the sun,
Of what we have seen, and have felt and have done.
I love more than all to look up to the sky,
And think of the friendships that never shall die;
Which here give us pleasure still mingled with pain,
But there in perfection for ever shall reign.


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