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Sketches of Virginia
Chapter XLIII. - George A. Baxter D.D. - Closing Scene of his Life


The closing scene of Dr. Baxter’s life, is given by a member of the family:

“Lexington, September 28th, 1853.

“My father’s health was apparently good, during the winter preceding his last illness, though he was rather more feeble than usual. It was his custom to leave his study at dark, and spend the remainder of the evening in the society of his family, conversing on various subjects with those around him. He was uniformly cheerful, and often recurred to the scenes of his childhood and youth. To these social hours, we owe nearly all we know of his early life. His labors were continued almost to the day of his death, which was 24th April, 1841. For six weeks before this time, he was confined to the house with a cold, but seemed to be recovering, and never once omitted hearing his classes recite, until the close of the session, the tenth of April.

“During his indisposition, he greatly enjoyed the company of his friends, numbers of whom visited him daily. His thoughts and , conversation were generally given to the church; and the subject of unfulfilled prophecy claimed a large share of his attention. Upon this, he conversed with his friends, Dr. Maxwrell and Mr. Ballentine, until his usual bed-time, the night before his death, discussing, with deep interest, the prospects of the church and the world, as revealed in the Scriptures.

“At nine o’clock, he retired to rest, as well as he had been for some weeks, and slept well through the night. He arose at his ordinary hour, which was always an early one. In a few minutes, my mother was startled by his falling, and, calling for assistance, had him laid on the bed. He only spoke once or twice, and that to request some change of air. He suffered intensely for fifteen minutes, but the pain ceased, he looked-round with great tenderness on his family, when suddenly he raised his eyes, his expression changed to one of rapture, and he fell asleep in Jesus, without a groan.

“The disease winch terminated his life was apoplexy of the lungs. Though his recovery was looked upon as almost certain, by those around him, and he did not himself apprehend immediate danger, he had, in sever. J conversations, endeavored to prepare his family for his removal, which he believed was not far distant, and to which he looked forward with the views natural to one who had for at least thirty years enjoyed the full assurance of hope.

“Very sincerely, your friend, L. P. B.”

The public were not prepared for the news of his death, by any of those previous notices of sickness, or the rumors that forbode calamity. The public papers gave the first announcement of his sickness, in making known his death. Dr. Rice lay lingering a long time, looking daily for his departure. Dr. Baxter, giving no alarming symptoms to his family, passed away in a few moments. The one pronounced the word “triumphant” as he departed; the other smiled, and fell asleep in rapture.

The Rev. Dr. Hendren, who had been a pupil of his, and an associate in Presbytery, says, in a letter: “As a preacher, he held a high rank in the estimation of all competent judges. His preaching was remarkable for the clearness and distinctness with which he always presented the subject before the minds of his hearers. His feelings were tender, and he was often much affected, in the delivery of his sermons. Several revivals, of considerable extent and duration, took place amongst the people of his charge, during the time of his ministry. A religious awakening had taken place in Bedford County, under the ministry of Messrs. Turner and Mitchell. Dr. Baxter, and I think one or two other ministers of the Valley, went over to that county, and took with them a number of young persons, several of whom, though very careless before, returned home deeply impressed with a sense of their lost estate, and their need of salvation. I went over at that time, at Dr. Baxter’s request. After his return, an awakening soon appeared in his own, and in some of the neighboring congregations, which continued to spread, until nearly all the congregations in Rockbridge and Augusta were more or less in a state of excitement and revival, and many were added to the communion of the church, a respectable portion of which showed by the fruits which afterwards appeared, that they had become new creatures in Christ Jesus. There were some instances of defection and backsliding, over which ministers and Christians were called to mourn; but such instances were as few as perhaps might be expected, in so extensive an awakening. About ten years before his death, Dr. Baxter was appointed Professor of Theology in the Union Theological Seminary, Prince Edward. This was an office congenial to his mind, for which he was admirably qualified. The clearness and distinctness of his own views, on any subject to which he applied his mind, or studied with care, enabled him to present it with great force and distinctness to the minds of others. He was a wise and judicious member of his Presbytery and other church courts. In general, his speeches were neither very long, nor very frequent; but, what he said was always to the point, and generally threw light upon the subject. He possessed strong and ardent feelings by nature, but they were evidently much under the control of divine grace, so that few could bear injurious or disrespectful treatment with more patience and meekness of temper. He had the power of exercising forbearance towards opponents in debate, when their freedoms with what he had advanced, were perhaps wholly unwarranted by the truth of the case. His opinions of others were charitable and indulgent. I never knew him to be a rigid critic of the pulpit performances of his brethren. He seemed to possess much of that charity which suffereth long, and is kind.”

The Rev. J. H. Bocock was called upon to address the Society of Alumni of Union Theological Seminary, Prince Edward, Virginia, at the annual commencement, June 13th, 1848. In the progress of that address before the assembled alumni and the friends of the institution, in the hall of the seminary, adorned with the portraits of the first and second Professors of Theology, Rice and Baxter, the speaker, a pupil of Baxter in his theological course, having spoken of Dr. Rice from traditional knowledge, proceeds to say respecting the institution of which he had been a pupil, and the two presidents, in his peculiar terse and graphic sentences :

“Again, it seems impossible not to believe that the hope of providing sound religious instruction for our domestic heathen, the colored race, had something to do with the founding of this institution. The men of old Hanover Presbytery had on that subject a benevolence a thousand times deeper and purer and wiser than that of the Tappans and Garrisons of this day. Rice saw very early that both the Northern people of this Union, and the ministers of religion here at home, must let the subject entirely alone in its civil bearings, or else a very great, damage would occur in public opinion to the South, and a very great injury be inflicted on the negro race. Maxwell's Rice, p. 312. In a letter dated as early as April, 182T, he states with some clearness, the scriptural attitude of the church on the subject, now generally held by the Southern Christians. It is notorious that in terms which afterwards, when they were fulfilled, were remembered as ‘something like prophetic strains,’ he deprecated the effects upon their minds of ignorant instruction from their own "crisp-haired prophets.’ There was the Seminary at Andover, ip which he felt a deep interest, with Dr. Woods at its head, in whom he had confidence, and to whom he had a strong personal attachment. There was also our own Presbyterian Seminary at Princeton, towards which it was one of the afflictions of his first years here that he should be charged with, or suspected of a feeling of rivalry ;-and at the head of it a most-distinguished and venerated native of this State. But still he and his co-workers watched the current of events on that subject closely enough to see that the ripe field of labor among Southern servants was rapidly closing to any missionaries from Northern States, and must be otherwise provided for, or else left lying in waste and ruin.

“These are the chief topics connected with the times of the first president, which seem appropriate here. Those who knew him as their teacher doubtless remember how often short pithy sayings fell from his lips, well worthy of a place among the maxims of Rochefoucault, or the golden verses of Pythagoras; how deeply he had felt at heart what he regarded the true interests of his native land— how he cherished and grappled to his bosom, as with hooks of steel, those who were Zion’s friends and his — and how he struggled and prayed with a spirit too vivid to be held long in the frail house of an earthly tabernacle, that the kingdom of Christ might advance in the^ world. To you, his pupils and his friends — and all his pupils were his friends — who are yet among us, some of you with heads whitening with the frosts of gathering years, and who are our connecting links with him — to you we give the cordial salutation of the younger to the elder brethren ; we shall yet hope to meet you often here as brethren alumni. We trust that your white plumes shall always be honored and reverenced by us. We shall be apt to follow wherever we see them wave through the heat and burden of your day on earth. If we abide in the warfare longer than yourselves, we will weep with no feigned tears to be parted from you — and it shall satisfy our ambition to hope to rejoin you in higher assemblies in the day of rest, in clear view of the faces of all the just made perfect, and of the c throne and equipage of God’s Almightiness.’

“But to others of us who came later here, there arises the vision of another face and form — a brow in whose massy proportions nature, had carved nobility — a countenance in which with the native beamings of a giant intellect, Divine Grace had blended a sacred tenderness, which adored and trembled, and loved and wept, like some holy and sweet spirited infant. We remember him in the pulpit — how the blood flushed his face, and the tears suffused his eyes, when his own or another’s tongue depicted the awful retributions which await unbelieving sinners. As some one passing Dr. Payson’s church after his decease, pointed over to it and said, ‘There Pay son prayed,’ so as we pass the neighboring church, the words paraphrase themselves to our thoughts, and we feel, ‘ There Baxter wept.’ We remember when sometimes he came to the prayer-room, late by a minute, and found us singing:

‘To hear the sorrows thou hast felt,
Dear Lord adamant would melt,’

or some such hymn of contrition, how the sentiment, especially if it savored deeply of the cross of Christ, would at once thrill into his heart, and send forth its witnesses, the crimson and the tears, even before he reached his seat. We remember, too, on occasions when his spirit was fairly awakened, how we watched the light which came from his many-sided mind, in the enthusiasm of its epic power of grandeur; and saw him as some Hercules, walking in the realms of reason and logic, hurl down pinnacle and battlement, and wall and foundation of some fortress of untruth, by successive blows, without any visible throes of exertion ; or sweep away the foundation of some castle of folly at a single trenchant stroke; and then proceed with the meekness of a child, to build in its place, a clear shining structure of truth, from which only the image of the Divine Saviour might be reflected; or we followed him as guide, into some region of thought which had seemed a dim and doubtful labyrinth before, and saw by the light which he carried, how it assumed the order and clearness of a Grecian city built for a day-light dwelling-place. And in those times of fiery trial, when brethren were unhappily alienated from brethren, and party contests rose around the very altar connected with the very glories of the temple, we watched him with a confidence rendered half prophetic by a recollection of the past, as he went through ordeal after ordeal; and we had already foretasted the result when he came out as gold of the seventh refining. Every one who ever enjoyed his instructions, probably remembers what visions he would sometimes present of the awful solemnities of eternity, and the glory of the exalted Saviour, and then take pains to hide himself behind the humblest question or remark of his humblest pupil. And we must all reflect with regret how the creations and achievements of his mighty mind — I take leave to say on this occasion, as mighty a mind as I can well conceive of, in the possession of a mere mortal — are in the main utterly lost to the Church, from his rooted aversion on all occasions to any show of self.

“On the times of the second president, only a single remark will be offered. It is, that under him the seminary was called on, as a denominational school, to make its election between fountains of wild bewildering waters on the one hand, and the ancient crystal wells of truth on the other; between a spirit of fancied improvement, which was indeed one of startling innovation on the one hand and the ancient and tried order of the Lord’s house on the other. And it is believed that almost every subsequent week and month has been demonstrating that he, and the worthy guardians of the institution who stood shoulder to shoulder with him, made their election wisely and well. There may have been things to regret in those days, because the storm was wild and loud and long ; and perfection is not an attribute of mortals even in times of quiet. But now that it is overpast, it is too plain to be doubted that there have come to us from it righteousness, and peace, and order, an example not deserving to be soon forgotten, of the heroic love of truth; an instance in which the spirit of God lifted up his flaming and zealous standard according to the ancient promise of his word ; and a new proof added to the many which were already found in the history of spiritual affairs in this world, that his hand will not desert those to whom anything is better than deranged order and corrupted truth.

“In the memory of others of you, brethren, there are on this occasion, living forms and faces around which your reverence and affections gather—faces of those who yet live to rekindle the memories of former days with their present kind greetings; and who need no spokesman but what they themselves were and are. May it not be until long future meetings of Alumni, that they shall be missed from their places hen,. But when, in their turn, those meetings shall come, we already have the proof that their sons shall cherish their memories with no common filial regard, and their gray hairs shall go down with deep reverence and honor to the grave. And the remark which shall be made by the looker-back on their times, we have some ground already to hope it will be, and may it be, that in those days, many accomplished and faithful laborers went into the waving harvest field, and gathered great multitudes of precious sheaves into the storehouse of eternal love. And as a remark founded on the whole of this retrospect, I presume no farther than just to suggest, as the end and aim of our efforts, that the Seminary may retain the features which have been given it—as a foundation of, 1, enlightened religion; 2, of spiritual religion; 3, of a religion caring for and adapting itself to the laboring class of the land—and of a liberal and peaceful, but of a steady and soundly orthodox religion. We shall not meet here in vain, if we meet to consult what we can do that these wise designs and high leadings of God’s Providence may be fulfilled. Let us inquire whether any part of the plan which we can appropriately touch, needs our hand—whether, for example, we cannot devise to put some new treasures from time to time among the silent teachers on the shelves of its library. Some new volumes of those voiceless speakers, which the great Puritan poet and statesman said, are not ‘absolutely dead things, but are the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect which bred them, the precious lifeblood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life’—or whether we can help in any other way, that God’s name may be a praise in the land.

“And for ourselves, dear brethren, let us rejoice in the opportunities which may be presented, to brighten the links which tend to bind us to each other—that we are'the sons of the same Alma Mater— that we have been put into the same ministry of reconciliation—that we are members of the same church, whose bulwarks, strong with salvation, and shining in the light and sovereignty of God, are fairer in our eyes than the glowing marble of the Grecian city of Minerva; and lastly—a link, which if it be sound, is locked fast to the throne of God,—that we are fellow Christians—heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ and all his saints, to an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away.”

Dr. Baxter published a pamphlet on the subject of slavery. He takes the position he and his friend Speece defended in the case of Bourne, which was twice before the Assembly. His facts and arguments are unanswerable. On that subject his pamphlet should be a tract for circulation. In his semicentenary sermon he recounts some of the beautiful facts of the revival in the Presbyterian Church, in which he and his compeers made profession of their faith and hope. There are in manuscript, three lectures on pastoral theology; one on the decrees, and an essay on original sin. Of his lectures on metaphysics, only the questions showing the outlines of his course, remain. He has left enough of his thoughts, committed to paper, to form an octavo of interest. Those who have heard him preach would call to mind his dignified person, and in reading the concise, short sentences, with scarce a long one, would hear the intonations of his voice, and feel a power in the sermons that other readers would be a stranger to, while they found much to admire. Without the least feeling of rivalry or jealousy of his brethren in the ministry, no man perhaps was more excited by an able sermon than Dr. Baxter. Gospel truth, sound reasoning, and deep feeling, stirred up his soul from the. lowest fountains. Said one of his pupils, now an eminent minister—“Dr. Baxter was the most unfair preacher to preach with I ever knew, without his intending it in the least. I have heard a great many good sermons in his pulpit from others; but no matter how good a sermon was preached for him in the morning, if he heard it, he would preach a better one at night, and not know it. The fire would begin to burn,—become visible in his flushed cheeks, and audible in the peculiar clearing of his throat, and find its vivid expression in the evening service. He would talk of his brother’s sermon, and never seem to think of his own.” He was like Dr. Rice in discouraging severe criticism of brethren, and refusing to hear slander. He would listen to nothing he might not believe, and in believing find some profit to mind or heart. Fiction had no charms for him who feasted on the grandeur and novelty of truth. Unsuspicious from his own love of truth, he was indignant when others threw around him the charms of sophistry, more particularly if he thought they were not full believers in their own errors and misstatements.

On the death of General Harrison, while some in his presence were passing their conjectures about the good or evil to follow, he observed that in his early life he had often been greatly distressed at political events that foreboded great evil to the church of Christ. But he had long ago found that those events that presaged the greatest calamities, had, in the providence of God, been made to subserve great interests. And then he turned to that favorite subject of meditation and conversation in the latter part of his life, those unfulfilled prophecies that speak of the glory of the Church in the latter days. While professor of theology, about one hundred and fifty young men, in the course of preparation for the ministry, came under his instructions.

“Bellevue, Sept. 30th, 1851.

“Rev. Wm. Henry Foote, D, D.,

“Dear Brother.—Several days since yours of the 19th was received. From the time of, my settlement here until their death, I was intimately acquainted with Drs. Baxter and Speece. Dr. Baxter and myself were located so near each other, that we often met; and in addition to our frequent meeting on other occasions, we interchanged our services in communion seasons. Dr. Speece sometimes assisted me on communion occasions, and often visited me at other times. Their kindness to me was great, and ended only with their lives. They were both great men, and yet differed much from each other; they were excellent preachers, and yet differed much in their manner of preaching. Dr. Baxter was always solemn, often very impressive, and sometimes eloquent, I think beyond any man I ever heard. Dr. Speece was always instructive, always interesting, sometimes solemn and impressive, but never eloquent. in the ordinary acceptation of the word. Dr. Baxter was always remarkable for his clear, correct, well arranged discourses. This was also the case with Dr. Speece, and yet his method was not on the whole so conspicuous as was that of Dr. Baxter. The sentences of Dr. Baxter were usually short: his words well selected to express his ideas, well arranged in his sentences. You never had any doubt of his meaning. He expressed his ideas with the clearness of a sunbeam. Happy in the choice and collocation of his words, his sentences were never complicated.

“His words were always dignified, yet he often mispronounced sadly. Dr. Speece was one of the most complete masters of the English language I ever knew, remarkable for the correctness of his pronunciation. In the selection of his words he was remarkably happy, choosing those that expressed clearly his ideas. You would often think, now it is impossible that our language can express the idea he intended better than he has done it, and yet he would often use uncommon words, or rather words that were undignified for the pulpit, and rather low; and yet even when he did this, you would be very apt to say, he could have used no other word so expressive as the one he did. He would often use expressions that you could not forget, and, often in conversation as well as in the pulpit, use uncommon words, as “befooled, bedabbled.” Both Drs. Baxter and Speece were very humble men. I never could find out that Dr. Baxter thought he was a great man; he had the meekness and simplicity of a little child. When I first came here I used to be very much afraid of him, and disliked exceedingly to preach where he was ; but I soon found he was a man of so much kindness of feeling, that I got to preach in his presence without the slightest embarassment. I knew well whatever criticism he might be disposed to make, he would keep it to himself, and make the most out of all that was good. I make the remark in reference to Dr. Speece. I recollect, however, one or two occasions when I thought I saw that Dr. Speece was somewhat conscious of his own powers, and yet even in this there was some qualifying remark indicative of modesty.

“In one thing in their preaching, Baxter and Speece were alike, they never preached themselves. I suppose no one ever heard either of them preach, when the idea ever entered his mind, that they wished to set themselves off, or play the great man. They preached Christ and him crucified. They both kept up the attention of their hearers. Dr. Baxter had great power over tbe feelings of his audience, was often in tears himself; Dr. Speece did not have much power in this way; he was solemn at times, but I think I never saw him shed a tear, or even have his eye moistened, and yet sometimes his audience was wonderfully melted under his preaching. Were you present at Prince Edward the time of Synod ? when he spoke of searching out for the thief on the cross, and enquiring if he was not a greater debtor to mercy than he —the whole crowded audience was melted. They were both very strong and decided Presbyterians, sound Calvinists; but neither of them high Calvinists, or what used to be called supra-lapsarians. In the great points, they were remarkable for their great similarity of views; in some minor matters they differed. Dr. Speece, for instance, never fully fell into the common sentiment, as to the necessity and utility of Theological Seminaries. He has talked to me on the subject, and spoke modestly, but in doubt. They were both remarkable for their punctuality in their attendance on Presbytery, seemed to take great satisfaction in meeting with their brethren on those occasions, and to enjoy those meetings wonderfully. Those meetings were delightful; no one ever thought of leaving until Monday, unless there was some clear providential call. In Presbytery they were attentive to business, but never forward or assuming; neither of them given to speech making. When they did speak it was to the purpose, and they were listened to. They treated their brethren, even the youngest, with great kindness, deference and respect. They were rarely divided in their opinion, and I can scarcely recollect any division on a subject of much importance. The Presbytery was very apt to go with them in their opinions. They both had great powers in debate ; and there was something of the same difference between them in debate as in their preaching. And yet I think it rather remarkable that to the best of my recollection, in speaking in Presbytery, Dr. Speece did not indulge himself in drollery, as he sometimes did in the pulpit. They were treated with great respect and deference by nearly all the members of Presbytery j and if in one or two instances this was not the case, they never appeared to notice it in the least. They were men of humility and meekness, and both knew that such was their standing in the public estimation that they could afford to bear a great deal.

"Dr. Speece was fond of books and a great reader. In general literature I think I have never known his equal. He once told me that he never permitted a book to remain in his library that would not bear to be read three times. Dr. Baxter was by no means so extensively read in general and light literature as Dr. Speece; he read much, but was rather a thinker than a reader.

“Sincerely and affectionately,

“James Morrison.”


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