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Sketches of Virginia
Chapter XLIV. - Recollections - Sacrament at Monmouth

The Rev. Dr. Leyburn, of Philadelphia, being a native of Lexington, Virginia, and his father having been an elder in Dr. Baxter’s Church, enjoyed favorable opportunities in his youth for seeing something of the great men, of whom sketches have already been given. At the request of the author, he has furnished the following recollections.

“Philadelphia, August 30th, 1855.

“Rev. Dr. Foote,

“My Dear Sir: — You ask for my recollections of some of the great men of the Virginia Presbyterian Church, and particularly Turner, Mitchell, Speece, and Baxter. I have no doubt your ample researches have already enriched the pages of your forthcoming volume, with full illustrations of the characters and lives of these honored worthies ; and my narrow limits and scanty time, will permit only the most cursory notice.

“James Turner passed from the stage of life so long ago, that my memory retains but little in regard to him; I remember often to have seen him in my visits to Bedford County, in my childhood, and to have heard him preach in the old Peak Meeting-House. He never impressed me with the awe I had usually felt towards ministers of the gospel; there was something so genial, warm-hearted, and social in his manners, that he naturally won the esteem and confidence of all classes and conditions, even on the most casual acquaintance. All that I can recall as to his preaching at the Peak Meeting-House is, that he seemed to me somewhat odd, and that he shed tears, and was much in earnest. I was present at the meeting of the Synod of Virginia, in Lynchburg, when he preached on the occasion, since so often spoken of; but I was then too little interested in religious matters, to- receive and treasure up any intelligent impression of what he said. Sometimes a smile was raised at his downright and odd expressions, but oftener the cheeks of his auditors ran down with tears. Even this had almost passed from my memory, and the only thing which I can very distinctly recall, is the fact that the ministers and pious people talked a great deal about the sermon afterwards, and seemed to have thought it very remarkable.


“Of Mr. Mitchel, I saw much more than of Turner, as the former outlived by many years his eloquent colleague. The first time I ever saw Mr. Mitchel was at a meeting of Synod in Lexington. He was delicately formed, and diminutive in stature, wore the old-fashioned fair-topped boots; and particularly attracted my childish attention by a habit he had, of chewing all the while; arising I believe, from his having lost his teeth. I often heard him preach at the Peak Meeting-House. He was not, as you know, an eloquent man, but he was a sound and faithful expounder of the .Scriptures, and remarkable for his indefatigable industry in his Master’s work. It used to be said of him, that he had never declined to preach, when asked, in any instance in his whole life. Even when he seemed to be in extreme old age, he still continued to ride on horseback to fulfil appointments wherever the people would hear the gospel; and I have often heard apprehensions expressed lest something should befall him, when venturing on these excursions, frequently many miles from his home. Towards the close of his life, a venerable sister of his, as eminent for her extraordinary and almost romantic affection for her brother, as for her deep and fervent piety, accompanied him, probably for the double purpose of enjoying more of his society during the short remnant of their days, and to be near in case any evil should befall him. Few ministers have ever so diligently for a long time served their Master, as did James Mitchel.

“Dr. Speece.

“Dr. Speece was frequently in Lexington, my native place, during my boyhood. None who ever saw him could easily forget his personal appearance. His frame was almost gigantic ; his coat was cut in defiance of all tailors’ rules as to fitting — the only thing aimed at apparently in its construction, having been that it should hang securely on his shoulders, and cover as much of his person as possible. It was of vast width and length, with monstrous gaping pockets, and must have consumed an extraordinary amount of cloth. Imagine such a figure surmounted with a thick, brown wig, and speaking weighty sentences in an extremely heavy, coarse voice, and you have Dr. Speece. ,

“He was, as you know, an old bachelor, and had some odd ways about him. One of his habits, I remember, when sitting in the meetings of the Virginia Synod, and often before a crowded church, was, to seize his wig on the top between his thumb and finger, and take it off and shake it, probably with a view to ventilating and cooling his head. When attending meetings of Synod and Presbytery in Lexington, he was not unfrequently at my father’s house. On one of these occasions, when sitting at the dinner table, having been helped to tomatoes, his favorite vegetable, he said, in his slow, heavy voice, ‘ If tomatoes grew on trees, I should think they were the forbidden fruit.’

“Dr. Speece’s omniverousness, as regards books, was notorious. He had the reputation of devouring whatever he could lay his hands on, and also of having a strong taste for light literature. The latter he may have resorted to, to some extent, by way of relieving the solitude of* his bachelor life. In common with most Virginia ministers, he was an extempore preacher; and there have lived few men whom a manuscript less became. Beyond all others whom I have, ever seen make the attempt, he was most superlatively awkward when he undertook to use a written discourse in the pulpit. I was once at a meeting of Lexington Presbytery when he was to preach a sermon on some important topic, by previous appointment. A large congregation had been drawn together, expecting that the great man would make an extra effort; but they were probably disappointed, as the effect of the discourse was greatly neutralized by his taking his manuscript up in his hand, and reading from his ‘copy-book,’ as he called it, in the most monotonous and almost ludicrous fashion.

“The last time I remember to have seen Dr. Speece, was at a meeting of the Synod of Virginia, at the College church, in Prince Edward. He took part in administering the Lord’s Supper to a very large body of communicants — the entire building, above and below, being occupied by them. He was then in advanced years, and declining health, and was much affected. He said it was probably the last time he would ever meet with his brethren of the Synod he loved so much. After reading the hymn beginning — ‘’Twas on that dark and doleful night,’ he paused and said — ‘My brethren, I’m an old-fashioned man, and love old-fashioned tunes. I would like to have this sung to Wind ham,* laying emphasis on the ‘ ham,’ according to his mode of pronunciation. Windham was accordingly sung, and right heartily; and the old Doctor seemed much edified. When addressing the table he alluded to the tenderness and compassion of our Saviour to the dying thief, and to the virtue of his blood in cleansing away the guilt of such a sinner. ‘But my brethren,’ said he, ‘we must not forget that our guilt may be greater than that of this poor outcast. I have sometimes thought that if I am so happy as to get to heaven, one of the first things I will do, after telling my Saviour the debt of love I owe him, will be to hunt for the dying thief, and compare my case with his, and see which of the two is the greater debtor to redeeming mercy.’ His appearance on that occasion, and the solemn and tremulous tones of his voice, will long be remembered by all who were present.


“What can I say of Dr. Baxter in a letter such as this? He was my pastor, and the pastor of my fathers before me. I was baptized by him, sat during my childhood and early youth under his ministry, was received by him to the membership of the church, and sat at his feet in the school of the prophets in Prince Edward. I was also a student of Washington College for a time, during his Presidency. In the latter department, Dr. Baxter was probably less himself than anywhere else. His guilelessness and want of knowledge of human nature in its minor developments, did not suit for the position of a teacher and disciplinarian over a company of bad boys and unruly young men. He was too unsuspicious and indulgent for such work. In the Theological Seminary, however, where he occupied the chair of Theology, he was eminently happy.

All the great topics he was called upon to handle, had been themes of reflection during almost all his life. They were imbedded, too, in his heart as well as in his understanding. In the discussions of the lecture-room, even when others might have been taken up with the mere intellectual aspects of the subject, his tear-filled eyes would give evidence that the truths he was examining had penetrated further than the. regions of the understanding. He was sometimes, however, full of humor. This was particularly manifested when he could get a student into a logical dilemma. In order to this, he would begin with questions remote from his ultimate purpose, and having elicited from the unsuspecting pupil one answer after another, would finally bring him, very much to his surprise, right up into a corner. This feat was always accompanied by our venerable professor’s shaking his great sides with good-natured laughter.

“You have, doubtless, incorporated in your volume, a full and just estimate of Dr. Baxter as a preacher. In this highest work of the ministry, was his chief delight. He loved to proclaim the messages of glad tidings to his fellow-men; and in doing it was eminently evangelical. He preached Christ Jesus, and him crucified; and he did it with infinite sincerity and tenderness. I have never known any minister of the gospel who so often shed tears in the pulpit. It was very common for his voice to falter, and become tremulous from the swelling tide of his strong emotions, especially when speaking of the suffering of Christ, or when warning sinners to flee from the wrath to come. By the way, he was peculiar in his pronounciation of a few words, for instance, he always called ‘ wrath’ wroth. There was a sublime and majestic roll in his sentences, when he was in his best preaching mood, that brought out his well-digested thoughts with great power and effect. He was, uniformly, an extempore preacher, but was accustomed to put his sermons into language, often audibly, before he came into the pulpit. I have frequently overheard him, as he was walking from his house to the College and back, engaged in this audible preparation. In common with all truly great men, he was a model of the unassuming. Modesty was one of his prominent characteristics. I never saw the slightest indication in Dr. Baxter, that he had the remotest idea, that he was anything more than an ordinary man. He was willing to learn from a child. He was a sincere lover of revivals of religion, and had the happiness to witness some of great power in his congregation at Lexington. His sermons were never long. I think I have seldom, if ever, heard him exceed three-quarters of an hour. It used to be told of him, when he first removed to Prince Edward, where the congregation of the College church, on account of their being much scattered, were not accustomed to hear but one sermon on the Sabbath, that the session of the church formally waited on him, and requested that he would give them longer sermons. They had to come so far, and make one discourse last so long, that they wished to have good measure. :

“In personal appearance, Dr. Baxter was fleshy and plethoric.

His head was a, model; I have scarcely ever seen a more massive one on human shoulders. It seemed the appropriate dome for great thoughts. One limb being slightly shorter than the other, he had a scarcely perceptible limp in his gait. His peculiar manner of clearing his throat was familiar to every body, and often heralded his approach before he came within view.

“As your printer is waiting, I must bring to a close these extremely inadequate tracings of men whose names are worthy of everlasting remembrance. I have written currente calamo, and if I have not furnished what was desired, I have at least given you this slight additional evidence, that I am,

"Your friend and brother in Christ,

“John Leyburn.”

The following is also from the pen of Dr. Leyburn, having appeared in a series of sketches in the Presbyterian. The name, as is intimated, is fictitious; the place alluded to having been New Monmouth, in the neighbourhood of Lexington, at one time a joint pastoral charge with the Lexington church. Dr. Baxter is the person spoken of as having preached the morning sermon. In addition to the interest of the sketch, as an illustration of the country sacraments, the particular occasion here described, was one probably never surpassed in interest in any of the churches of the Valley.

“Weymouth Sacrament Days.

“Emblem and earnest of eternal rest,
A festival with fruits celestial crowned,
A jubilee releasing him from earth,
This day delights and animates the saint.
It gives new vigor to the languid pulse,
Of life divine.’

“Three miles from our village was an old church, which I shall call Weymouth, though that was not its name — a favorite and memorable resort of the villagers on special occasions. Built of blue limestone, blackened by the pencil of time, with a steep stair-way to the gallery outside on the front, crowning the summit of a beautiful knoll, and peering out from a dense grove of majestic old oaks, it was the very beau ideal of an ancient rural house of God. For many years it was under the same pastoral charge with our village congregation; and after this connection was severed, it was customary for our minister to assist the pastor on ‘Sacrament days,’ and for many of his people to resort thither. Great was the joy amongst us young folks, when one of these days arrived; much the bustle and stir in the village — horses saddled and ready for mounting at various front doors; groups of children in their best Sunday clothes, bright as a new pin, eager for the time to set off; and baskets laden with the wherewithal for cold dinners. Most of the older people went on horseback, but the younger ones were afoot; and as the sacraments were usually in the spring and autumn, it Was a beautiful walk over the hills, through the well-tilled fields, and amid the noble forests. Some of those bright autumn Sabbaths have left their pictures clear and strong in my memory; the delicious inspiring October air, the very atmosphere seeming to sparkle as with diamonds; the deep blue of the fathomless heavens, with fleets of white clouds floating lazily on its ocean bosom, and here and there one aground upon a mountain top : the grand old mountains in particolored livery of black, green, red, and yellow; the forests waving their lofty pennants of crimson and gold, with now and then a chestnut-tree holding out its ripened nuts, and tempting little folks to break the Sabbath by gathering a pocket-full; yellow fields, thick with stubble, from which had been garnered spacious barnfulls of wheat, rye, and oats, or covered with crowded stalks of Indian corn, rustling their dry leaves in the breezes, and showing a proud array of massive teeth from out the parted lips of broken husks; melancholy cows, or pondrous oxen, feeding in pastures of clover, with sheep-bells tinkling from the flock on the distant hill; birds carolling their morning hymns, and children’s voices prattling with the exuberance of the young life within them, more intense from the excitement of the day. Bright, beautiful, glorious, long to be remembered Sabbaths! '

The scene as we gained the summit of the last hill, bringing us in view of the Church, was most inspiring. From every country road, old men and matrons, young men and maidens, in long processions, two abreast, came pouring in on horseback, emerging from the thick forests, and clattering across the limpid brook that murmured through the intervening vale; hundreds of impatient steeds tied under the trees of the grove, neighing salutations to newcomers, groups sitting upon rude benches, or on the moss-covered rocks, clustered around the sparkling spring; the sound of sacred song floating from the old Church doors, mellowed and harmonized by the distance; friends meeting and greeting, and the crowd growing too great to be contained within doors. In the “Session House" adjoining the Church in the rear, the ministers and elders assembled at an early hour to exchange fraternal salutations, to spend a season in prayer, examine candidates for communion, and make arrangements for the day. Here baskets and napkins filled with provision, were deposited till the “interval” between the public services, the stated time for taking refreshments; and here rustic mothers, who could not leave their babes at home, brought their infant charges, and sometimes remained during the sermons, listening with eager ears to the minister’s words, as they fell through the open door over head, adjoining the pulpit.

The interior of the meeting-house wore an antique and time-worn aspect. The pulpit, unlike our primeval octagon box in the old Church at home, was long, and capable of accommodating a goodly number of ministers, and the sounding-board over head, suspended by a rusty iron rod, sufficiently extended to have shut them all in, had it come do/^n from its fastenings; the pews were extravagantly tall, and the aisles depressed, so that when persons were in tjie latter, nothing hut their heads and shoulders could be seen—the benches and backs, as you sat in them, being the perfection of discomfort, and to the young folks the most serious draw-back to the favorite Weymouth sacrament days. Not a speck of paint had ever touched pulpit, pew, or gallery; the yellow pine, grown tawny by the lapse of years, stood up in its native nudity. But when village, farmhouse, and mountain glen had poured their quotas into the old sanctuary, until every nook and crevice was filled, below and above stairs, leaving crowds at the doors and on the benches without, it was a congregation which might have fired the heart of any minister.

One sacrament day at Weymouth, which occurred in my childhood, will be remembered as long as one of those blackened stones stands upon another — as long, indeed, as lasts that sanctuary not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For some time previous there had been an extraordinary degree of religious interest in the village and surrounding country. Many had been inquiring the way of salvation, and not a few had found the pearl of great price. Frayer-meetings and special services had been held night after night. Religion was the great theme of conversation in the streets and in domestic circles. Hardly was there a house where one or more of its inmates had not been wrought upon by the Spirit’s power. Spiritual songs, lively and stirring, or plaintive and heart-touching, were sung with zest and soul, and a pamphlet, containing a selection of them, was published for this special use. A dire and fatal epidemic which had prevailed, carrying off numbers to their graves, and filling almost every home in the village with sorrow, had brought death and eternity near, and prepared the way for the impressions of the gracious work. Not a few of the subjects of the revival were awaiting the Weymouth sacrament, publicly to profess their new-born love. The session-house and the adjoining grove, on the morning of that memorable day, presented a scene over which angels might have rejoiced. Here is a fond-hearted mother, giving words of counsel to a daughter convulsed With grief because of the burden of sin; here is a venerable father, with a favorite son beside him under that great old oak, to whom he is making solemn appeals, not to let this favored season and this affecting day pass without making his peace with God; and here on the rude bench against the wall, sits our venerable pastor, with weeping eyes, listening to the delightful narrative of what God had just been doing for one of his flock, for whom he had so often prayed. Not a careless face was seen in all the throng which to-day has been drawn together in unusual numbers, by the tidings of the revival.

Our minister preached the morning sermon. He was always evangelical, solemn, and impressive, and at times there was a sublime and majestic roll in his utterances, which marked him the great man all acknowledged him to be. But to-day there is a power, a vivid spreading out of eternal things — a directness and earnestness altogether peculiar. At times his voice would falter, as he almost choked with the swelling emotion. A divine afflatus had breathed upon his heart, and from its profound depths he spoke as a dying man to dying men. To this day that discourse is remembered-by many who heard it, as one of the most remarkable efforts of a man whose ordinary sermons would have honored any pulpit. The scenes in which he had recently mingled, and the stories of broken hearts, troubled consciences, and heavenly hopes, which had been poured into his ear, had unsealed the great fountains of his soul.

The sermon well prepared the way for the communion; and when the invitation was given to the young converts to assemble around the table spread before the pulpit in the cross aisle, there was a spectacle which moved every heart, and drew tears of joy from many an eye. Fathers, mothers, ministers, Christian friends at last saw the answer to their prayers. Those who had been dedicated to God in infancy, and re-dedicated a thousand times since in the closet, at the family altar, and at this very sacramental table, had now, after tedious years of waiting, which had almost sickened the heart with hope deferred, come forward to avouch Jesus as their new Lord and Master. The village beauty, the ere-while careless and wild young man, the sturdy bronze-faced mountain farmer, and the old veteran with the weight of years upon him, together left their several pews, and made their way through the crowded aisles for the first time to sit at this affecting festival. The scene was too much for some of them. Hearts would overflow, tears would fall, and, in the midst of the minister’s address, as he spoke to them in touching terms, well suited to their present case, reminding them of what they had been by nature, of what grace had done for them in snatching them as brands from the burning, and of the debt of gratitude and love they owed to Him who had shed his blood to save them, one young man. sobbed aloud, overcome by his emotions. This touched a sympathetic cord in all hearts, and the old meeting-house became a Eochim — a place of tears — sweet tears of penitence, and a peace passing all understanding. The unconverted, who sat wondering spectators, felt the power of the eloquent appeal; they were. cut to the heart, and resolved that they too must seek the Lord; and many a pious saint, feeling that his cup of joy was full, was ready to say with old Simeon, “Now, Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

One of the ministers, either on this" or a similar occasion, at the same period, held up the sacramental cup, and asked, in language that went to every unconverted heart, “Can you, will you longer reject and trample on this precious blood, poured from the wounds of a dying Saviour?” “I call God and this great assembly to witness,” said he, “that it is offered you afresh this day. Again dare to spurn it from your lips, and the record will be written against you on high, which, in the terrible day of God’s coming judgment, will flame out to your astonishment and dismay in letters of fire.” Not a few, who felt the power of that appeal, were soon after drink-mg of that cup. in memory of Him who had washed them from their sins, and given them a hope, through grace, of drinking it with him hereafter in his heavenly kingdom.

The many hours of the services, protracted by the numerous successive tables of communicants, and the afternoon sermon, passed swiftly on, no one heeding the lapse of time, until at last, when the great festival was ended, and the crowds turned into the various roads and by-ways to their several homes, the long shadows of approaching evening were already spreading their sable mantle over mountain, field, and forest.

In all the history of old Weymouth meeting-house, that Sabbath and that sacrament day stand alone. Time and eternity must conspire to do honour to a scene so hallowed by the presence and power of God’s gracious Spirit. Years have passed since that memorable day. Some of those who shared its blessings have long since become ministers of the gospel, and valued officers and members in the household of faith. Some soon tired of the service upon which they had prematurely professed to enter, and turned back to the world, their last state being worse than the first; and others have died in the glorious hopes of the gospel, and are now in the company of the just made perfect, around the throne on high, blessing God and the Lamb for that old sacrament day at Weymouth.

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