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SKETCH OF THE LIFE AND CHARACTER OF REV. JOHN ERSKINE,D.D.. Extracted from a Sermon delivered on his death, by Rev. Dr. Kemp.
DR. ERSKINE was born June 2d, 1721. He descended from one of the most respectable families in Scotland. His father, eminent for talents as a Lawyer and Professor of Law, became still more eminent by his valuable publications, which are universally regarded in our Courts of Justice, as of the highest authority.
By birthright Dr. Erskine was entitled to a very considerable patrimonial estate. His bodily constitution was, from the beginning, delicate, and his stature small and slender; but his mind was strong and vigorous, acute and active: his thirst for knowledge insatiable, and his memory singularly retentive.
His mind, impressed with a deep sense of piety, was early turned to Theology, as his favorite study; but law was the profession for which he was intended by his family. Accord. ingly at the close of his collegi. ate course, he entered upon the study of law, in which he made very considerable progress. To his proficiency in this science has been justly ascribed much of that subtilty of discrimina. VOL. II. New Series.
tion, and accuracy of reasoning, for which he was distinguished. But, notwithstanding his fair prospects of eminence in a profession, which was deemed by his friends best suited to his rank in society, as well as to the advancement of his fortune, his mind was still fondly turned to Divinity, and he at length obtained the reluctant consent of his family, to attend exclusively to that profession. After spend. ing the usual number of years in diligent preparatory studies he obtained a license to preach the gospel, from the Presbytery of Edinburgh.
Among his first appearances in the pulpit, he preached from a text, which was thought peculiarly applicable to his own character and circumstances-'I had rather be a door keeper in the house of my God, than dwell in the tents of wickedness.'
In May, 1744, at the age of twenty-three, he was ordained Minister of Kirkintillock, a country parish in the Presbytery of Glasgow; thence he was removed, in 1753, to the collegiate Church of Culross; thence, in 1758, he was called to be one of 26
the ministers of Edinburgh, first of the New-Gray, Friars,' afterwards, in 1767, of the collegiate Church of the Old-Gray, Friars,' where, with much fidel. ity and acceptance, he continued regularly to officiate, till the increasing infirmities of old age obliged him, reluctantly, to retire from the duties of the pulpit.
As a preacher, no man ev. er spoke with more earnestness and fervor, nor conveyed to his hearers a stronger impression of the deep-felt power upon his own mind, of the sacred truths which he delivered to others. His manner was not graceful, nor was his pronunciation governed by modern rules; he spoke with unaffected simplicity, in the accent and manner to which he had been accustomed from his youth. But the good sense with which he never failed to speak upon all subjects; the solidity and acuteness of his expositions of Scripture; the poignancy of his remarks upon life and manners; and the general importance and interesting nature of the doctrines which he delivered commanded the attention and reached the hearts of his numerous hearers. For many years no preacher was ever more admired, or attended with more crowded audiences.
hearers of Dr. Erskine forgot his trifling defects, forgot even the preacher himself, and attended only to the sacred truths which flowed from his lips.
In an intimate and extensive acquaintance with Scripture, few if any, of his brethren of the present age could compare with him; and as a lecturer he eminently excelled,
Thoroughly acquainted with the whole system of evangelical doctrine, in all its harmony of parts, his sermons on the grand subjects of faith were explicit and perspicuous. His object never was to exhibit himself, to excite admiration, or extort applause; but, in all the simplicity of plain, though ardent and energetic, language, to convey instruction to the understand. ings, and deeply to impress the hearts, of his hearers. In the application of the doctrines, facts and precepts of Scripture to the widely diversified charac ters of mankind, and the regula. tion of human conduct, he was exceeded by none. He was deeply versed in that science which has the heart of man for its object. He could pursue it into its intricate mazes and windings, and address himself with the happiest effect to all the diversities of character and conduct.
In conducting the devotional parts of worship, whether in public, or private social meetings for religious purposes, the earnestness of his manner and tone of voice, the felicity of his expressions, and particularly his happy adaptation of those of Scripture to the occasion, rendered him in this, as in many other respects, a model to all his brethren in office. Of what he was both as a divine and a preacher, the world is able to form some judgment from the few of his compositions which he was persuaded to publish. Unfortunate it was that his extreme modesty, and his disposition ever to prefer others to himself, prevented his giving more of them to the press. Whether another
volume of his sermons, on practical subjects, which he intended, can now be prepared for publication, cannot yet be ascertain. ed.* But from those sermons which have already appeared, men of taste and discernment will perceive, amidst great neglect of ornament, much sound sense, and much interesting and important truth, conveyed in a plain, perspicuous, manly style.
In the private duties of the pastoral office, no man was ever more faithful and laborious, than the good man of whom we are speaking. In visiting the sick, especially, he was most assiduous; and in this branch of duty he eminently excelled. The uncommon tenderness and sensibility of his heart; his extensive experience of personal and domestic distress; his intimate knowledge of the human heart, and of the topics best adapted to sooth and direct its feelings in affliction; and the singular delicacy of his manner and address; all concurred to render his visits a much valued cordial in every house of mourning.
As a member of the ecclesiastical courts, though he had not very often the good fortune to side with the majority, yet upon all occasions he failed not to deliver his own sentiments with manly freedom, and generally spoke with so much good sense, and acuteness of argument, as failed not to command the at tention and respect of all who heard him.
Shall we speak of Dr. Erskine as a scholar? When you
* Another volume has since been published.
reflect upon the original quick. ness of his powers of perception, and the strength of his memory, and are informed that during the whole course of a long life he was an indefatigable student, you may well believe that his erudition was various, extensive, and profound. Such was his constant thirst for knowledge, that even in old age it suffered no abatement; and till within a very few hours of his death, his studies were continued.
Besides what are usually called the learned languages, in each of which he excelled, he read most of the modern ones, which contained books of char acter in science, particularly in Theology. The German he ac quired with astonishing celerity, at an advanced period of life, for the sake of the various and important literary information, which a multitude of books in that language contain. One thing remarkable in Dr. Erskine was, the uncommon rapidity with which he read. As his ac quaintance with many subjects of literature was extensive and intimate, he seemed to catch the sense of an author almost intuitively while he turned over the pages of a book; yet such was the comprehensiveness of his mind, and the tenaciousness of his memory, that all that was new and important in it, he could compendize and rehearse with astonishing readiness and fluency, for the information of others. In the exercise of this uncommon and invaluable talent he was most useful and entertaining, particularly to his younger brethren. Often they applied to him for information concerning new books (for his reading was
exceedingly various) and they seldom failed of receiving instruction and delight.
Time would fail were to attempt, a rehearsal of what we knew and are happy to recollect of Dr. Erskine, as a Christian, a friend, and a companion. Deep, heartfelt, uniform piety was the reigning characteristical feature of his mind. It appeared, not in loud, ostentatious displays, nor in the solemn services of religion merely; it was manifested in the whole tenor of his uniformly sensible, nay, ev. en in his most cheerful, conversations. So great was the universal persuasion of this, and such was the veneration in which he was held in all companies, that the man would have been deem. ed brutish, and would have been tolerated in no society, however licentious in principle or practice, who would have dared to utter an unbecoming expression in his presence.
But while he thus command. ed respect by the known piety and purity of his mind, no man was more remote from a forbidding formality or austerity of manners; he was ever cheerful, social, and often facetious. various and extensive reading, his ample knowledge of facts and characters, and his accurate recollection of them, furnished him with anecdotes and observations suited to every occasion, and which with equal precision and vivacity he communicated.
His speech was always seasoned with salt, ministering
grace to the hearers.' No man ever more completely united the piety of the divine, and the erudi. tion of the scholar, to the politeness and urbanity of the gen
tleman. But what in a peculiar manner endeared this amiable man to those who intimately knew him, was, the generous warmth and sensibility of his heart. With the tenderest concern he took part in whatever interested his friends, and sympathized in all their feelings. He literally wept when they were in affliction, and with heartfelt satisfaction rejoiced in all their prosperity.
So feelingly alive was he to acts of kindness shewed to him. self, that he was at loss for terms by which to express his gratitude, when he discovered even a disposition in any one to oblige him. His attachment to his friends was unalterable, and nothing but proof of unworthiness could detach his regard from those on whom he had once bestowed it. After this it is unnecessary to add, that he was the tenderest of husbands, of parents, and masters.
Few men ever endured more frequent or more severe domestic afflictions. Of many chil. dren whom he buried, some were cut off at an early age, but some were grown to full maturity, and were the comfort of his life and the staff of his old age. It was impossible that any man could feel more acutely under these severe trials; yet no man ever exhibited a more striking display of patience and christian fortitude in bearing them.
If we were to begin to speak of Dr. Erskine's enlarged be. nevolence and his unwearied zeal to promote the best interests of his fellow creatures, we should not know when to have done, His ample fortune he seemed no otherwise to enjoy, than as he
employed it in doing good. His liberality to the indigent flowed in an unceasing stream. But the most prominent feature of his benevolence was, his concern for the interest of religion among his fellow men, and his active zeal, to promote its advancement both at home and abroad. This was a flame which burned in his bosom, with unceasing vigor, to the end of his days. For many years he acted with uncommon diligence and exertion as one of the Directors of "the Society in Scotland for propagating christian knowledge;' and when no longer able to attend their meetings, he still took a peculiar concern in their affairs. To the end of his life he was consulted in that branch of their business which related to America. His correspondence with learned and eminent divines in the United States of America, Holland, and Germany, was extensive and frequent. Few, of course, among his contemporaries were possessed of so accurate a knowledge of the state of religion in different parts of the world. Many books from his ever well furnished library he sent to his correspondents abroad; many he purchased for that end; and not a few he sent, from time to time, to clergymen in remote parts of his own country, whose libraries were but scantily supplied, and who had little access to books elsewhere. To hear of the labors and success of faithful min. isters of Christ, was his peculiar delight.
But though thus eminent for talents, literature, and usefulness, and though no man ever enjoyed more universal and unqualified
respect from the public, yet no man was ever more humble in mind, or unassuming in manners, than Dr. Erskine. His great aim was, to be a follower of Him, who was meek and lowly in heart.
We have given but a few traits of the character of the amiable and excellent man whose death we now deplore; but from these few may be formed some idea of his superior worth, and of the loss which his family, his friends, and the church have sustained by his removal. But let us not forget the thanks we owe to the Supreme Disposer of all events for having spared him so long, to exhibit a bright pattern of virtue to a degenerate age. Let us bless GOD on his own ac count, that, notwithstanding much bodily weakness, his mind retained to the last the full, unclouded use of all its powers, and that the peace of his last days was interrupted by no long continued sickness or acute bodily pain. Never did a good man, prepared for heaven, take his departure from earth in circumstances
more devoutly to be wished. At nine o'clock in the evening he read and studied in a book of Theology in the German language; at the usual hour he retired to rest. Before four o'clock next morning, without one convulsive pang or groan, he fell asleep, to awake only in those blessed realms where 'they that be wise, shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness, as the stars for ever and ever. 'Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright, for the end of that man is peace.'
N.B. Dr. Erskine died Jan. 19, 1803, in the 82d year of his age.