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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
Passages in The Life of a Country Pastor
From The Baptist Magazine, 1858
There are few practical questions which perplex me more than whether a professed Christian may marry one who does not give evidence of conversion. Of course extreme cases may be decided without difficulty or hesitation. The believer who should take a partner of openly irreligious or immoral character would violate both Scripture and the instincts of the religious life. But these extreme cases seldom arise, and the question is more frequently raised in a modified form.
The cases which have commonly come before me and in whit I have felt difficulty, have been where a member of the church has had her affections engaged by a young man of unexceptionable moral character, and who, during the period of courtship at least, has paid respect to the outward observances of religion.
Those who take the strict and rigid view of the matter urge the express prohibition of Scripture; as, for instance, the passages in the first and second Epistles to the Corinthians. But this appeal has not struck me as quite decisive, for several reasons; the following among others. The state of society and the relationship between the Church and the world are very different now to those which existed in the Apostle's days. By "unbelievers" are meant not nominal Christians, but Jews or heathen. The language would still apply in all its force to converts from Hindooism or Mohammedanism, and to cases where one of the parties is utterly ungodly or immoral.
But I cannot see that the law quite applies with the exactly same stringency and universality in the instances I now speak of. Besides which, the passage generally insisted upon—"Be not unequally yoked"—has no special reference to marriage, but refers to partnership in business with as much force as to the conjugal relation. Marriage is, of course, included, but other relationships are not excluded, and it often happens that those who insist upon the observance of this law in one direction are living in violation of it in another.
I am quite aware that the inconsistency of one man is no excuse for the disobedience of another. I only wish to show that if the law is to apply strictly and rigidly to our state of society, it extends much more widely than is commonly supposed. Again, I feel that there is some force in what a quaint old deacon once said to me, "Why, Sir, if we are to carry that out, we must either have six out of seven members of the Church die old maids, or else, as the prophet says, 'seven women must take hold of the skirts of one man that is a Jew.'" The old man's view was not decisive of the question, yet they were not altogether without force. I am, however, bound to confess that for one marriage of the sort which turns out well, I have known a score the reverse.
My own observation has been decidedly unfavourable to the formation of such unions; and, without going the length of saying that they are in all cases sinful, I am sure that, as a rule, they are most undesirable. One instance may serve to illustrate this. I select it not because it contains anything remarkable, but for the very opposite reason; it is a history so commonplace and so often repeated, that it will be more universally applicable than one of a more romantic kind.
Jane Shafton was left a portionless orphan at an early age, with no near relative but an old aunt, Miss Priscilla Upshaw, who possessed a moderate competency arising from an annuity which ceased with her life. Jane was a fine, high-spirited girl, full of frolic, and with talents of no common order. Her aunt was a good and pious woman, but very prim, precise, and narrow. She tried to do her duty to the poor friendless orphan thus thrown upon her; but having lived alone for nearly twenty years, with no companions save a parrot and a cat, and reading little or nothing save the writings of Mrs. Rowe, Dr. Johnson, and Mrs. Hannah More, it may be easily conjectured that she was not the fittest person in the world to take charge of a young girl.
Her theory of education was to check any outburst of natural vivacity, and to make her charge as prim and precise as herself. The poor child used to stand for two or three hours a day in a constrained posture, in a back-board and stocks, (instruments of torture used in my young days, to turn the toes out and the shoulder-blades in) till ease and freedom of movement were almost destroyed, in order to produce that artificial deformity called beauty. Back-board and stocks were applied to the mind as rigorously as to the body. But all was vain; mind and body both had too much spring and elasticity to be permanently twisted out of shape, and Jane Shafton grew up a charming young woman. She was quite sufficiently conscious of her own merits, and her proud spirit could ill bear the constant reproofs which her aunt felt it her duty to administer. It was, therefore, a mutual relief when both parties agreed that she was old enough to take a situation.
It was soon after this that I first knew her. Some kind-hearted but purse-proud people in my congregation engaged her as governess for their children. They treated her kindly on the whole, but could not at all understand her sensitive feelings. They paid her well for her services, and she was their servant. That, in their view, was the whole of the relationship between them.
Sometimes they made her a present to mark their approval of her conduct; but it was done in so patronising a manner that she was wounded rather than cheered by it. Her proud spirit chafed at being thus made to feel her dependent position. At the same time the sense of her utter orphanage and loneliness was forced upon her. She saw the children clinging to their parents and to one another in mutual affection, whilst she must stand and look on from outside the charmed circle. No family enrolled her among its members, no heart throbbed with love for her, to no arms could she fly for refuge, upon no breast could she weep out her troubles. Her passionate yearning for affection and sympathy sometimes amounted almost to agony.
Many a night did she sob herself to sleep as she thought of her utter loneliness and solitude. She told me that she has sometimes stretched out her arms into the darkness, and convulsively called on her never-forgotten mother to come and comfort her. In this utter darkness of the soul she began to turn towards the Saviour; for as yet she knew him not. Her aunt's teaching seemed so dry and cold that it had failed to attract her. But she remembered a deathbed, where a dying mother had told her of the sympathy of Jesus, and had solemnly besought her to take him as her friend. To these words she had hitherto attached little meaning, but now they spoke to her heart with strange power, and as she pondered them night after night her mother's voice seemed again to be heard, and when she fell asleep, revolving them in her mind, that beloved form would often seem to smile upon her in her dreams.
I noticed an alteration in her manner about this time, and was much struck with the intense and eager attention with which she began to listen, especially when I spoke of the sympathy of Christ. In an interview with her soon afterwards, I joyfully heard from her a narrative of the steps by which she had been led to Jesus, and after a brief interval she was "buried with him in baptism." From this time the change in her whole spirit and deportment was most marked. The proud, haughty reserve in which she had hitherto entrenched herself was broken down. Fits of deep depression or of sullen silence no longer annoyed and perplexed the family with which she lived, Her character, softened, refined, and elevated by religion, endeared her to them. They had always esteemed, and now began to love her. She, too, on her part discovered excellencies in them she had never dreamed of before, and what had previously been merely a situation now became a home.
Soon after this, the son of some members of the church returned from abroad. He was a fine, handsome young fellow; had been carefree, and had caused his parents much anxiety, but for some time had been more serious, and gave promise of settling down into a steady and respectable man. He met Miss Shafton at my house one evening. He was much struck with her, and in a few days it began to be whispered about that he was paying her marked election. His parents encouraged the suit; for though their son would have a good fortune, whilst the poor orphan was penniless, they felt that she would probably be the means of confirming his good resolutions, and leading him to the Saviour.
She was admirably suited for him. How far it would be for her happiness I was not so sure, but stood almost alone in having any doubt about it. Her aunt, and the family with whom she lived, were delighted at the prospect. She, however, gave him little encouragement, and when he made her a formal offer, she replied that she could not accept it at once, and begged a week before she gave him her answer.
He was passionately in love with her, and could not endure the suspense. But she was firm, and he had no alternative but to submit. She came to consult me, and I have rarely been placed in a position of greater difficulty. If I advised her to refuse him, I made myself responsible for inducing a homeless, friendless, portionless orphan to forego a devoted husband, and a most advantageous settlement in life. The hesitation she had already displayed had greatly annoyed her aunt and the family with whom she lived. If she declined his offer, it would be impossible for her to remain in her present situation, such was the intimacy between the families, and her aunt would be so incensed as to refuse her a home. She would thus deprive herself at one blow of the only friends she had in the world. In case her health should fail, what could she do under the circumstances? Then, too, the prospects of her suitor and the hopes of his parents seemed to hang trembling on her decision. If it should be adverse, would he not be consigned to irretrievable ruin? This, at least, was the feeling of his friends, who dreaded the result of a disappointment upon him.
How was I to advise in such a case? It is easy enough to say that if the thing is wrong in principle it ought to be opposed in all cases. Perhaps it was the weakness of my faith which prevented my saying this. Perhaps I ought to have remembered that "wrong never comes right"—that, whilst obeying God she was not friendless or portionless. And that a simple, unquestioning, unhesitating obedience to his commands would certainly prove in the end the wisest course. I am not sure whether I did not show a want of fidelity and courage in my interview with her. I fear I was in fault. But when I found that her affections were deeply engaged to him, I could not force myself to urge her to a refusal, and though I did not advise her to an acceptance of the offer, yet my bias in its favour was pretty evident.
I contented myself with beseeching her to be watchful of her own heart, to beware of declension in the divine life, and to make the conversion of her husband her great aim. As there were no reasons for delay, the marriage speedily took place, and Jane Shafton became Mrs. Henry Gerard.
For the first two or three months after marriage all went on as usual. They attended the services together, as they had been accustomed to do during their brief courtship, and no cloud cast its shadow over their happiness. She had been so unused to affection—the luxury of loving and being loved was so new to her, that she complained of being too happy. She cherished the hope, too, that her husband was seeking Christ. But his attendance at the week-night meetings grew less regular, and then ceased altogether. Soon after this he grew less observant of the Lord's Day.
Indisposition, or fatigue, or the state of the weather, often prevented his attendance at more than one of the services; and business, which I suspected to be arranged for the purpose, frequently occasioned his absence from home on the Sabbath. It became only too evident that the interest in religion, which love to his wife had caused him to feel or to affect, was rapidly passing away, and that its very forms were growing irksome to him. Though she never spoke of this to any one, she deeply felt it. A look of sadness crept over her, and as, time after time, she came to chapel alone, it was easy to see that she had been weeping.
It is inevitable that a process of assimilation should go on, for better or worse, between the husband and the wife. The nobler nature of the two either elevates the baser, or is dragged down by it. The doctrine of the mesmerists, that a balance of the vital forces is established between those who are placed en rapport with one another, is, to a certain extent, true in spiritual affairs. So the young wife, having failed to lift up her husband to her own level, began to sink towards his. Her attendance became less regular, her interest less deep. Having convinced myself that this was not merely fancy on my part, I spoke with her.
In reply, she urged the increasing claims of home on her attention, and pleaded the impossibility of fulfilling her duties as wife and mistress if she were constantly engaged in religious services. I continued the conversation a little longer, and at last she burst into tears, and confessed that her husband could not bear her leaving him in the evening to take part in any religious engagement, and that in order to remove his dissatisfaction she had promised to be less frequently absent from him. I afterwards found that he had taunted her with her fondness for spending her evenings from home, had charged her with neglecting him and her household duties, and had imputed the blame to religion. Was she right or wrong in yielding to his wishes, and in endeavouring to remove the stumbling-block out of his way? I hardly know. It is one of those insoluble difficulties--one of those painful compromises which are inevitable to those who are "unequally yoked."
The habit of regular attendance on the means of grace having been broken through, she became less and less constant. From being present at only one service in the week, she gradually came to attend neither. Some trifling hindrance, which might easily have been brushed aside, was allowed to intervene, and at last the weekly services were altogether forgotten. Of course, a corresponding declension of the divine life was the result. When the whole week is spent in forgetfulness of God, the Sabbath must lose much of its power to bless, My words of affectionate warning and reproof began to be taken in a less kindly spirit, and at last they were so resented that I judged it better to discontinue them.
About a year and a half after marriage she became a mother. I had great hopes that this event might recall her to her "first love." It seemed for a while to have this result, but the influence of her husband counteracted it, and after a time she relapsed into her former state of declension. Soon another child was born; and I wrote her an earnest, affectionate letter, pointing out the sad and dangerous course upon which she had entered. I warned her of the inevitable result of this career of apostasy in heart, and implored her, for the sake of her children, to remember from whence she had fallen, and to repent, and do her first works. To this letter I received no answer, but the next time we met her eyes filled with tears, and she was unable to speak, and turned away. For some months I watched, with intense anxiety the struggle which was evidently going on within, but little thought of the mode in which it was to be brought to an issue.
One cold, cheerless November morning I received a message, requesting me to go to Mrs. Gerard's as soon after breakfast as I could. Of course I did not lose a moment. On reaching the house I was startled to see the blinds down, and learned from the servant who admitted me that the eldest child had died of croup in the night, and that baby was so ill that it could scarcely live through the day. "Missis is in an awful way," added the girl, "We are afraid she'll go out of her mind. She says it's God's curse upon her."
After waiting a short time, the physician in attendance came to me, and said that he had just succeeded in drawing the poor mother from the room in which the youngest child lay at the point of death. He thought that a few words of prayer might tend to soothe and tranquillize her, and thus prepare her to receive the second blow, which, he said, must fall in the course of an hour or two. I at once went to her. The storm of grief had for the time exhausted itself. She refused at first, however, to kneel in prayer, saying that prayer was not for her, but a life of hopeless remorse and despair. At length she yielded, and I prayed with intense earnestness that God, the all-merciful Father, would have pity upon her. She rose from her knees, calmed and strengthened to bear what still awaited her. Oh, blessed consolation to the sore and troubled heart! What solace prayer can give! Without it we were "of all men most miserable."
Though warned of the dangerous condition of her youngest child, she had not admitted the possibility of it, too, being taken from her, till it lay at the very last gasp. Her grief then became frightful. As the conviction that her husband was not worthy of her love had been slowly forcing itself upon her mind, her whole being had seemed to concentrate itself in her two babes. I had sometimes trembled for her, as I noticed her idolatrous attachment to them. And within twelve hours both were taken from her!
What wonder, that for some days, reason tottered upon its throne, and that she trembled upon the verge of insanity. Her husband, who was from home at the time, hastened to return, and I only do, him justice in saying that he did all in his power be mitigate her grief, and lavished upon her the most affectionate attention. But this terrible trial rendered the gulf between them the more obvious. He felt the blow very painfully, for he was an affectionate father; but, as a voice from God, he could not understand it. With his purely human feelings no divine element blended. With her, however, the case was altogether different.
She regarded it as a direct judgment of God upon her. She felt that she had sinned, first, in marrying an unconverted person, and secondly, in neglecting religion in conformity with his wishes. It was this which made the cup so bitter, and yet he not only could not assuage its bitterness, but she could not even tell him of its existence. I draw a veil over my interviews with her. They were most painful, for nothing could shake her conviction that the death of her children was the immediate punishment of her sins. Failing to "pluck from her heart this rooted sorrow," I endeavoured somewhat more successfully to turn her affliction to some useful purpose. By slow degrees she found peace in believing. Humbled by experience of her own feebleness, chastened by sorrow, and drawn nearer to heaven by the belief that her two little ones were awaiting her there, she became one of the most eminent Christians it has ever been my privilege to know.
Her earthly trials, however, were not yet at an end. Her husband's distaste for religion grew only more and more confirmed. And as his gentle, loving wife, so ready to yield in everything else, was now firm and uncompromising where Christian principle was involved, his home grew wearisome to him, and he began to seek his pleasures elsewhere. Not that he was ever unkind to her, but the gulf between them widened as their habits of feeling and of life receded farther and farther from one another. In a few years three more children were born to them. It was very touching to see the wistful tenderness with which she watched over them, and to hear her speak to them of their brother and sister in heaven, which she did so constantly and familiarly, that they were still regarded as members of the family for a little while absent from the rest. I never felt the full force of Wordsworth's exquisite ballad, "We are Seven," till in reply to an inquiry as to how many children she had living, I once heard her answer, "Five—three on earth, two in heaven."
For some time we had noticed a growing spirituality and heavenliness of temper about her; an indefinable something which occasionally precedes the death of a Christian, as though the feelings of heaven were already anticipated on earth. It was thus with her: there was a sweetness, a tranquil happiness, a deep and perfect peace about her which forced itself on the notice of the most unobservant.
It therefore excited no surprise when the physician, whom I had met there on that mournful morning, said to me one day, that he had been called in to see Mrs. Gerard, and that he thought she would sink fast. So it proved. I had very shortly afterwards to stand by her dying bed. Across her peaceful countenance there would now and then pass an expression of pain almost amounting to agony. Her husband was rocking to and fro at the foot of the bed, convulsed with grief; the eldest girl, just old enough to understand the loss she was about to undergo, was sobbing as if her heart would break; the two younger ones were looking on with silent wonder at the scene. I had just offered prayer on her behalf, when she seemed suddenly endowed with supernatural strength.
For slightly raising her head from the pillow, she beckoned her husband to her, and said with a firm, clear voice, though every word was tremulous with emotion, "Henry, love, we are about to part. Only one thought embitters my joy in the hope of speedily meeting our two dear ones in heaven. Perhaps our parting is a final and eternal one. Perhaps, too, you will fail to train up our children to follow me to immortal life. Promise me, before I die, that my Bible shall always lie on your dressing-table, and that every morning you will read a few verses, Promise me, too, that you will try to pray for help to seek salvation. And for these dear children, remember my dying prayer to you is that you will only entrust them into the hands of those who will make their salvation the first and principal thing."
That these promises were given with intense feeling I need not say. I wish I could add that they sufficed to dissipate the painful expression which still lingered upon her face. It was hard to leave an unconverted husband and three young children behind. She had prayed for them often and long, in hope, yet without confidence, of their salvation. She must now depart. And so she fell asleep in Jesus, her last words being prayer on their behalf.
Since then, several years have passed. Already some of her supplications have borne fruit. The two elder children have grown up in the fear of the Lord, and are now members of the Church. The youngest is a lovely girl of great promise. The husband, still a widower, cherishes most fondly the memory of his departed wife; mourns his own want of appreciation of her whilst she lived; and though I cannot speak of him as a converted man, I believe I shall do so before he dies. May her repeated prayers on his behalf find a speedy answer!
In this "ow'er true tale" I have so altered the names and circumstances to prevent the recognition of the individuals; but I believe that I have accurately and truthfully delineated the experience of one who was "unequally yoked."