Biography of Rev. Hosea Ballou
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In a recent letter to the "Star in the West," Rev. George H. Emerson says: —
"The theological mission of Hosea Ballou was this: —to assert the benevolent and perfect sovereignty of Almighty God. I once said to him, 'Suppose the idea of God's sovereignty were taken out of you, how much would there be left of you?' His answer was significant, and comprised three words, – 'O my soul!' Of course, these three words, of themselves simply, convey no answer; but the tone with which they were uttered said, very distinctly, that, the idea of God's sovereignty taken away, there would be no Hosea Ballou. But this great man did not simply believe that God is a sovereign, but, further, that God is a benevolent sovereign; he not only believed that God ruled in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, but that he ruled them with the especial object of bestowing happiness; he not only believed that God worked all things after the counsels of his own will, but that it was God's will that all should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. Every one who has heard or read him will recollect how frequently he would illustrate his views of the divine government by the beautiful story of Joseph and his ten brethren: – 'But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass as it is this day, to save much people alive.' This verse contained volumes of meaning with Father Ballou."
Such was the sum and substance of his doctrine, his life-long mission, the creed he held forth to the people for more than sixty years.
Some of his religious opponents have frequently charged him with card-playing, an amusement which we conceive to be of no evil import in itself, but the charge was designed as a matter of reproach against him. Now, we happen to know, and can say for a certainty, that Mr. Ballou did not know one card from another, nor could he have named a dozen cards rightly, had his very life depended upon his doing so.
This may be thought, perhaps, a trifling matter to notice; but the truth is, his religious opponents, finding no evil in him that they might expose, invented this charge to prejudice the public mind, and one minister in New England more than once publicly declared it from his pulpit; though, when called upon by one who heard him, and who knew the subject of this biography, he was puzzled to produce the name of his informant. It is within our own recollection that these stories were rife, and that they were very generally talked of. It was also sneeringly said that he preached to the lowest classes of society, and that respectable or intelligent persons never attended his meetings; that some of the most wicked and sinful of the community were found listening to him, and that they were always welcome!
These declarations were often made as evidences, weighing not alone against him, but also against the truth and godly character of his doctrine; they were preferred by clergymen from their pulpits, and often in opposition religious papers; but, of course, this was more frequently the case during his early settlement in Boston than in subsequent years.The first part of the latter charge brought against him needs no refutation; an intelligent public can judge of its truth; but we cannot refrain from calling the attention of the reader to the spirit that prompted the last clause. How very like it is to that evinced by the Pharisees of old, who said reproachfully of their Divine Master, "This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them." And now mark the reply of Jesus to these grumblers: – "The whole," says he, "need not the physician, but they that are sick." "The most wicked and sinful of the community," said Mr. Ballou's revilers, "are found listening to him, and they are always welcome!"
The truth is, that Mr. Ballou made no distinction or selection among auditors; he as readily preached to the poor and humble, as to those "clad in purple and fine linen," who "fared sumptuously every day." He never withheld his services; it might be, perhaps, that he preached with more fervor to those who stood in the clearest need of consolation and good tidings, than to those who enjoyed every opportunity of mental and intellectual culture. But it is certain, that a preacher with the universality of Mr. Ballou's vocation neither can nor ought to draw distinctions; he is summoned to speak whenever and wherever his services are needed, and the preacher of the gospel who should refuse because the call came from the sinful would be as much to blame as he would be to disregard the call of the righteous. The true soldier of Christ and the gospel recognizes no distinction of rank; his consolations are as warmly given to the nameless sufferer, as when beside the couch of the millionaire.
Still less is the minister of the true religion to refuse to afford words of encouragement and advice to the unfortunate being who is struggling in the toils of sin. To such an one his mission is absolutely imperative; he must wrestle with the perturbed and darkened spirit, he must aid the awakening conscience, struggling to throw off the burthen of evil passions, he must point to the undying love of God to man, and bid the tears of the sinner be dried up in the effulgent smile of Omnipotence. If, therefore, sinners crowded to hear the discourses of Mr. Ballou, it was a tribute of which a preacher of the gospel might well be proud. "To comfort and help the weak-hearted, and to raise up those who fall," is essentially the province of the conscientious preacher; and no one, however hardened his heart, could have listened to the sincere and earnest words of the subject of these pages, without deriving some hope, some consolation, and some strength, from the glorious doctrine he preached so eloquently; and that there were very many who were thus ransomed from the thraldom of sin and consequent misery, there can be no reasonable doubt.
Was it true that "sinners flocked to hear him," as has been said so often by his opponents in the way of reproach against his doctrine, as being conducive to the pleasure of such persons? Let us pause for one moment, and review what he used to say that was particularly pleasing to this class of hearers. The following, for instance, will suffice us, – it is from his own pen: – "The vile affections of sin will burn to the destruction of the sweetest harmonies of nature; the whitest robes of innocence are stained with its indelible crimson; the soul is drowned in the black waters of iniquity, and the whole mind, with every faculty, is plunged into the hell of moral death. Yet, listen to the worst of torments, in consequence of sin. 'A wounded conscience who can bear?' A fire that burns all the day long, a sword that continually pierceth the soul, a sting that cannot exhaust its poison, a fever that never turns till the patient dies. 'A dart struck through his liver.' What ails the sinner? – why his hand on his breast? There gnaws the worm that never dies, – there burns the fire that is never quenched. A consciousness of guilt destroys all the expected comforts and pleasures of sin. How strange it is that, after a thousand disappointments in succession, men are not discouraged! O sin! how you paint your face! how you flatter us, poor mortals, on to death! You never appear to the sinner in your true character; you make us fair promises, but you never fulfilled one; your tongue is smoother than oil, but the poison of asps is under your lips; you have impregnated all our passions with the venom of your poison; you have spread gloomy darkness over the whole region of the soul; you have endeavored, with your stupefactive poison, to blunt the sword in the hands of the cherubim, which, for your sake, keeps us from the tree of life. A mistaken idea has been entertained of sin, even by professors. I have often heard sincere ministers preach, in their reproofs to their hearers, that it was the greatest folly in the world for people to forego salvation, in a future state, for the comforts and pleasures of sin in this. Such exhortations really defeat their intentions. The wish of the honest preacher is, that the wicked should repent of their sins, and do better; but, at the same time, he indicates that sin, at present, is more productive of happiness than righteousness; but that the bad will come in another world, – that, although doing well is a hard way, yet its advantages will be great in another state. Just as much as any person thinks sin to be more happifying than righteousness, he is sinful; his heart esteems it; though in some possible cases, for fear of the loss of salvation in the world to come, he may abstain from some outward enormities, yet his heart is full of the desire of doing them. It is as much the nature of sin to torment the mind, as it is the nature of fire to burn our flesh. Sin deprives us of every rational enjoyment, so far as it captivates the mind. It was never able to furnish one drop of cordial for the soul; her tender mercies are cruelty, and her breasts of consolation are gall and wormwood."
Mr. Ballou's style of preaching was of a kind calculated to create regret in the hearer's heart at his own shortcoming, and to plant a contrite spirit there, rather than fear for the punishment of his sins. The object of his sermon was not to terrify the sinner, but rather to lead him into the ways of peace and pleasantness. His sermons were of the character referred to by Louis XIV., when he told that eminent preacher, Massillon, "Father, I have heard many great pulpit orators, and I have been much pleased with them, but every time I hear you I am exceedingly displeased with myself;" alluding to the sorrow for sin which Massillon's sermons created in him. This is the true and effectual style of preaching, such as will convert sinners from the error of their ways, by inducing a correct feeling in their own bosoms, not by frightening them out of their senses. Representing before men's eyes such oceans of wrath that they feel as though they were sinking to perdition, will undoubtedly lead them sometimes to profess religion, as a drowning man would catch at a straw; but their profession is made by instinct, not conviction, – by an undefined consciousness of necessity, not by any incentive of love.
It might be said of Mr. Ballou's sermons as Thomas Fuller said of Perkins in his eulogy: "His sermons were not so plain but that the piously learned did admire them, nor so learned but that the plain did understand them. Unshelling theological controversies of their school terms, he made of them plain and wholesome meat for the people." "Children can understand him," was the constant remark of the ministering brethren, in relation to Mr. Ballou's sermons; and he has said often, "If I can make children understand me, then I am satisfied; for surely it must then be that older minds will comprehend my words." In this connection we are forcibly reminded of the true incident of the minister and the child. Forcible, simple as it is!
"Mother," said a little girl, seven years old, "I could not understand our minister to-day, he said so many hard words. I wish he would preach so that little girls could understand him; won't he, mother?"
"Yes, I think so, if we ask him."
It was not long after that the little girl's father saw her going over to the minister's, and calling her back to him, he asked: —
"Where are you going, Emma?"
"I am going over to Mr. – 's, father," was her innocent reply, "to ask him to preach small!"
A hint this that many might improve by.
To the place of his birth Mr. Ballou was fondly attached, and often visited it during the latter years of his life, in company with his children. He seemed thrice happy among those well-remembered hills and dales, where "the dreams of youth came back again." Aside from the fact of its being the home of his childhood, which in itself will strew with roses the bleakest spot in Christendom, the valley of his nativity had many picturesque and glowing natural beauties, of a character to impress the lover of nature with admiration. Here he had set his snares at the skirts of yonder wood, and here made his morning ablutions in the clear running brook. Adown the crevices of this huge old rock, when a little boy, surfeited with the abundance of wild strawberries, he had pressed out their juice, and adown the green crevices in the mossy stone the red liquid had made its way. These old stumps, now decayed, and like himself passing away, once bore the orchard fruit that he had watched with anxious eye to its ripening. And this mass of rocks, this ruined cellar, is the only remnant left of the cot where he was born. Not a stone nor a tree was forgotten, – not one but brought back its peculiar legend to his quickened heart. And here was the old burial-ground, on the hill-side, where the dust of his father and kindred reposed. With what awe had he ever looked upon that place when a boy! How many times strolled thoughtfully among the rank grass and moss-grown slabs, whose gray old forms, now bending hither and thither with age, gave faint and feeble token of names long, long since passed away, —
While on a visit to this spot, accompanied by his second son, Rev. Massena B. Ballou, in 1843, he lingered long and thoughtfully among the tomb-stones, and at last said: – "I believe I could sleep sweeter here, among the hills of Cheshire, by the side of my early home and kindred, than in the grounds of Mount Auburn." And this was in truth characteristic of him and of his feelings, as the reader will have gathered ere this. A retiring spirit governed him at all times, unmoved by one single prompting of ambition or a desire for fame, and only zealous in the service of his Lord and Master. His works he desired to leave behind him as perfect as might be, because he hoped that, even after he had himself ceased to live, they might be productive of good to his fellow-men; but it was the only memento he wished to leave behind. "I can hardly conceive of language," he says, "to express the flood of tender emotions that overflow my heart, when I look upon that valley and those well-remembered hills. I seem as if touched by some potent wand, and to be changed from age to youth again. It becomes impossible to realize the crowd of incidents and experiences that have thronged my pathway for more than half a century. I am once more in that frugal, happy home, where contentment ever smiled upon us, and the kind words of my brothers and the affection of my sisters, more than compensated for what by some would have been considered not an enviable lot. Though that cottage is now levelled by Time's ruthless hands, yet how prominent it stands before my mind's eye! That aged and beloved parent now rests on yonder hill-side. Those brothers and sisters, – how various the fortune of each! All, all have now passed that portal to which my own footsteps are steadily wending." He was often inspired to pour out his feelings in song, after visiting Richmond and the haunts of his youth, for his heart was full of the memories of those days that had endeared the spot to him. The following lines upon this subject were composed for his children to sing with instrumental accompaniment, and are written in the metre of one of his favorite songs, the air of "Dumbarton's Bonny Belle."
This is but one of a large number of pieces composed by Mr. Ballou while inspired by the same theme. It will serve to show the reader the hallowed and inspiring feelings that lived in the writer's heart, as his memory went back in freshness to the days and associations of his boyhood, as in retrospection he shook away the snow of time from the evergreen of memory.
The attachment to one's birth-place, to the home of early youth, "be it ever so humble," is a beautiful trait of character, and is significant of a refined and noble spirit. It is in masses one of the first and most prolific fruits of civilization, distinguishing a stable community from a nomadic tribe; and, as another peculiarity of the trait, it is most touchingly exhibited in the least fortunate members of the human family. The Icelanders, dwelling in a hyperborean region, where for a large portion of the year they are deprived of the light of the sun, and depend upon the stars and the Aurora Borealis to guide their footsteps in the long, long winter midnight, are accustomed to say, with a spirit of unmistakable fondness and affection, Iceland is the fairest country of the globe! The poor Highlander regards the smoky hut where he was born with enthusiastic love. As life draws gradually towards its close, this feeling deepens in the human breast. Standing on the extreme verge of existence, and just about to leave the world forever, man, as he turns to survey the pathway he has travelled, overlooks its midway stations, and fixes his eyes upon the starting. The beginning and the end of the journey are then brought close together; from the earthly to the eternal home there is but one step; from the tenderest recollections of his earthly parent he passes into the presence of his Father in heaven. Love of home! what a theme for the essayist!
It would almost seem as if the deprivations and hardships of his youthful days must have thrown an unhappy spell about his early home, and as though the memories that came up to him from the long vista of years would be laden with recollections of want and severe trial, of personal endurance, of scanty food and more scanty clothing; in short, of all the stern realities of his childhood's home. But this was very far from being the case with him. He has often said to us, in relation to this subject, that he deemed his life at that time anything but unhappy, – that what now appeared to be so great hardships, by comparison, were then but trifling discomforts, and matters of course. He was never inclined to set up for a martyr, or to gather any credit for having endured patiently, and risen in time above the fortunes of his youth. He could only recall this period of his life with feelings of pleasure. Such feelings as these force upon us the conviction that there is ever about the place of one's birth a spell that hardship seems only the more closely to bind about the heart, – that deprivation and want but the more strongly cement. The cheerful allusion to the affectionate regard of his brothers and sisters, and the remark that contentment ever smiled upon his early home, show the true spirit of the man, and the natural trait which ever influenced him to make the best of everything.
"How I used to cherish a kind word from my father, when I was a boy!" says Mr. Ballou. "He was in some respects an austere man; and when I was born, being the youngest of our large family, he had got to be advanced in years, and looked with a more serious and practical eye on the events of life and all things about us. He was Puritanic, strictly religious, as he interpreted the meaning of that word, and his mind was ever engrossed upon serious matters. But when he put his hand sometimes upon my head, and told me I had done well, that the labor I had performed might have been more poorly done by older hands, or that I was a good and faithful boy, my heart was electrified beyond measure; and I remember his words and smile, even now, with delight."
How the simplicity and purity of the man shine forth in this little paragraph!
"It may be interesting to your readers to know how Father Ballou was regarded in the town of his nativity," says the Rev. Joshua Britton, Jr., of Richmond, N. H., in a communication addressed to the Christian Freeman. "He was accustomed to visit this place once in every few years, and always received a cordial and hearty greeting. It was my privilege and happiness to spend a few days with him on the occasion of his visit here in October last. I removed to this town in October, 1850, and soon learned that there was a general desire among our friends to see and hear their fellow-townsman again. The approach of cold weather prevented our taking any immediate steps to accomplish this object. In June, 1851, I saw him at the meeting of the State Convention in Chicopee. He had many affectionate inquiries to make respecting his friends in Richmond, but then he could not name any time when he would visit us. In July I wrote him, and he replied August 5, and said: – 'I want very much to visit Richmond, and will on one of the days you have named.' He suggested that we could complete the arrangement at the convention meeting in Boston. We did so, and fixed upon Sunday, October 12th, as the day when he would be with us. He was careful to have no appointment for the following Sunday, in order that he might remain in this vicinity. He was met at Fitzwilliam depot, by one of our friends, on Friday, October 10th, and conveyed to his residence. Sunday was a favorable day for meeting, and there was a large audience from this and the adjacent towns in this state and in Massachusetts. It was a happy day for us all; but I must not dwell here.
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