THE living will hear a warning voice from the example of the pious dead, while the tongue lies silent in the grave. Although our venerable father is gone, his voice is heard no more in his family, in the pulpit, in the social circle, yet, he speaks to the living, and happy shall that man be who attends to his solemn admonitions.
In addressing you on the present occasion, I shall--
I. Give a short history of the life of our much esteemed friend;
II. Speak of the means, or organs through which he speaks;
III. Of the subject of discourse.
It was the custom of our departed brother, often to urge on his congregations the duty of prayer, and I would to-day, in the commencement of my discourse, imitate this part of his example.--Pray brethren, that God may grant me divine aid, without which I cannot preach to profit.
The following brief account of the character of our deceased father in the ministry, that has been furnished by his brother, will probably be more satisfactory than any thing I could say on that subject.
"Dear Sir--Agreeably to your request, I have endeavored to recollect and write some of the most important circumstances, of which I had any knowledge, of the life and death of my brother, William M'Gee; but I have not our family records, and the length and ravages of time render dates altogether uncertain.
"Our father was by birth a member of the Church of England, and followed a mercantile course of life. In process of time he settled himself in Guilford county, North Carolina, then nearly a frontier. He married our mother, who was a professor of religion in the Presbyterian Church, and not having the advantages arising from his own order, neither minister nor congregation near him, he thought best with his wife, to unite themselves to a Presbyterian congregation, under the care of the Rev. David Caldwell, where he retained his seat while he lived.
"They had five children, of whom William as the youngest. He was born, I think, in the year 1768 or 9, and, according to the usage of the church, was early introduced into covenant relation with God, and into his general church by the holy ordinance of baptism, wherein also he received his christian name.
"His father died when he was quite young, which deprived him of the benefits of his example and instructions.
"His mother being an active woman, took care of his morals and education. He was kept at school from the time he was ten years old, till he was nearly twenty, at which time, he finished his education at Mr. Caldwell's school.
"From the pious instructions he received while at school, his mind had become considerably exercised about religion. About this time, an older brother obtained the pearl of great price, and had an interview with him. From this time, his intercessions with God were increased, and additional light was let into his soul, through which he discovered his wretched, guilty state. His distress was unspeakable under a conscious sense of the frowns of an angry God, which hung over him. It may seem strange to some, when they are informed of the manner of his life prior to this time. I do not believe he ever drank a pint of ardent spirits, or swore a profane oath in his life. He was the most moral youth I ever saw. It might truly be said of him, as St. Paul said of himself, as touching the law, he was blameless. But he now got a discovery of the pure and holy nature of God, and the spirituality of his law. He got a view of the impurity of his heart--his soul was contaminated by sin--his nature averse to the nature of God, which disqualified him for his service or kingdom. He now cried out in similar language to the apostle--O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death? Just then, in a time of great extremity, the son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, appeared to the eye of his mind: he believed in him; he ventured his soul upon him for salvation; felt the atoning blood applied; his guilt and burden were removed; peace and joy sprange up in his soul; the divine spirit bore witness with his spirit that he was justified freely; that he was born of God. He was filled with joy unspeakable and full of glory; leaped and praised a merciful and pardoning God. He now felt himself delivered from the spirit on bondage, through fear, into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.
"Now it was, that the spirit that had quickened him into life, moved him to feel for his fellow men who were in darkness and death; and in order to be useful to them, he turned his attention to the study of divinity, to qualify himself for the sacred ministry and service of the church, he joined the presbytery as a probationer for that holy office--preached his trial sermon with approbation, and was licensed according to order.
"He travelled and preached in Guilford, Orange and the adjacent counties, with approbation, for some time. He then removed to Holston and took charge of a congregation, whom he served for one or two years. From thence, he came to Cumberland, and was invited to take charge of a congregation in what was then called the Wilson settlement, on Station Camp creek. Here he labored, I think, two or three years. Some of the leading characters of the church objected to the strenuous manner in which he urged a change from nature to grace, the necessity of a spiritual birth, and the direct witness of the spirit of their adoption. They wished him to change his mode of preaching. He gave them to understand he could not with a good conscience. Ultimately he found the dissatisfaction was such, that he told the session if they would give him an honorable dismission, he would move some where else. They did so, and he moved with his family to Drake's creek, and took the watch care of a congregation there, and another on the Ridge. While he ministered to those people, he attended a sacramental meeting in the Rev. M'Gready's congregation on Red river. There were seven preachers present. The people had close and pointed preaching, and the power of God attended. There was an awful shaking among the dry bones: sinners cried for mercy--some felt the power of converting grace, and many went home deeply wounded in spirit. This work of God ran like fire in dry stubble; prejudice gave way before it; almost all ages of persons, from seven years and upwards, felt its influence. Here, at this meeting, camp-meetings commenced, that have been so universally blest on this continent.
"In this revival William M'Gee was instrumental, and particularly active and useful. He felt the spirit of it in the commencement, and went on; and there being a previous preparation by his plain and honest preaching, it was soon felt in the excellency of its power in his own congregation. All sects and orders of people felt its effects and benefits.
"This prosperous state of things it seems could not go on long without interruption. The Transylvania Presbytery, of which he was a member, thought proper to license several young men who were not College bred, to preach the gospel, for which conduct the Synod of Kentucky thought it their duty or prerogative to call them to account, and demanded the young men to be given up to them for re-examination. They knew very well that the young men could not stand such an examination as they would take them through, and, therefore, refused to give them up, and plead that the Presbytery had a right to judge of their qualifications for the work of the ministry, and that the book of discipline admitted of men of extraordinary gifts, &c. to be admitted to preach, and that, in their judgment, these men's talents and usefulness were extraordinary; but the Synod, I suppose, thought the cases too numerous, and dreading the consequences of admitting such a precedent, were determined that the Presbytery should bend or break. Three of them, seeing this determination, and despairing of a compromise, broke off and formed themselves into a separate Presbytery by the name of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. My bother having covenanted with the young men to live or die with them, and being unwilling to leave the old church, thought it best to make farther efforts for reconciliation; about this time he received a summons to appear before the Synod; he did so, but finding he was not likely to be retained amongst them, without acknowledgements, and not being conscious of any crime, came home, and joined the new-made Presbytery, and was an active and useful member while he lived.
He moved with his family from Drake's creek to the forks of Duck river, where he left his family and the church, and is gone to a better world.
He was an industrious and good provider for his family, a loving husband and parent, and experimental and practical christian, a useful and good preacher. He was plain, experimental and practical in his discourses; he seldom adorned them with borrowed flowers: one of his chief objects was to find and reform the heart: he had a strong voice, and generally delivered his message with life and power. He believed that to be cold and indifferent in a business of so much importance, was highly reprehensible. God owned and blessed his labors. Many in eternity will praise God that they ever heard him preach the unsearchable riches of Christ.
Of the particulars of his death I have not been informed, only that as he lived so he died, in peace. Reader, let us try to meet him in heaven. JOHN M'GEE."
In addition to this historical sketch, I would beg leave to notice one other circumstance which transpired, during the ministerial career of Mr. M'Gee.
When the first Cumberland Presbyterian Presbytery was constituted, he refused to join, and did not preach a sermon for several months. His principal difficulty grew out of the fact, that the newly organized Presbytery was without a system of doctrines, marking distinctly their own peculiarities. He was satisfied that the truth lay between the extremes of Calvinism and Arminianism, yet, his mind was not clear in relation to the dimensions of the "half way house." To be guided in this matter, was his fervent prayer for some time. At length he settled down on this conclusion, that as the nature of man, and other parts of God's creation were so dissimilar, the former must be governed by a law moral in its character, while the latter were governed entirely on sovereign principles. He immediately became satisfied, that, while some things were predestinated, others were not, and that the doctrine of predestination, or necessity was true, when applied to the irrational parts of God's creation, but not true, when applied to man.
From that moment he commenced arranging his new system, joined Presbytery, and entered again on the duties of his sacred office; and continued an able minister of the New Testament, till God called him from the field of labor to receive his reward.
But he being dead, yet speaketh.
II. I will in the next place, speak of the means, or organs through which he speaks.
He has no manuscripts that I know of to speak for him, but his religious example will speak, and long proclaim to all who knew him, the truth and excellency of our holy religion. He speaks by the light which he has shed on the great system of christianity; and by those living epistles that have been converted to God through his instrumentality. Will his spiritual children be backward to speak of Jesus? A crucified Christ was all his theme. He dwelt on this, as though nothing else was worth knowing. Have you nothing to say for that Saviour who has done so much for you? It is true, you are not all preachers of the gospel, yet, you can speak to your families and neighbors about their dangerous state, and the way of salvation through a Redeemer. You can also speak by your example--by living according to the religion you profess.--Some of you have not only been converted to God through the instrumentality of our departed brother, but have been called to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. He has left you to speak in his stead; can you be silent? When you enter the sacred desk, remember his humility, his plainness of speech, soundness of reasoning, and energy of spirit, and strive to imitate him. Some of you will be on the walls of Zion, when the bones of M'Gee are rotten in the grave; will the church and the world see his example shining in your deportment, and hear those sacred truths, preached by him, falling from your lips?
III. The subject of discourse.
Here I would observe, as near as I can, the style and language of the deceased. He was plain, and as I stand before this congregation to-day, as his organ, I must be plain.
His discourses were all comprehended in the two following points--law and gospel. The law he presented as the foundation of all obedience, the gospel as the foundation of faith.--These should be the grand topics of every minister of Christ, and to these I would now, in imitation of our departed brother, call your attention.
First; the law which was made known to Adam in the garden, and afterwards "entered that the offense might abound."
This I understand to be, what is generally called the moral law, because it is a copy of the moral perfections of God. God is holy, just and good, the law possesses the same qualities. It does not depend on the divine will for its rectitude, but is right in and of itself. It is comprehended in one word--love--this love has two objects--God and man.
A perfect conformity to this law, constitutes heaven, and if all Adam's family were like the law, in temper and practice, there would not be a jar on earth. A want of conformity to this law, constitutes hell, and creates all the misery of this world.
The moral perfections of God are right in and of themselves; and holiness may be considered as the aggregate of the whole, and the foundation of all obligation. Every desire, sovereign law, or positive command, is founded on this principle. Without holiness, God could neither be a self-existent nor perfect being; for if nothing be right in and of itself, he could neither decree nor execute any thing as God; and any thing which he might bring to pass, could not be right, because there would be no standard of moral rectitude. As it is impossible, therefore, for us to conceive of a first cause without holiness, so, it is equally impossible that a God of holiness can decree sin, because it is contrary to his nature. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? God's moral perfections must forever stand as the foundation of all obligation, unless it can be proved that power, or sovereign authority, can make that which is wrong, right--or that which is right, wrong. But this would prove too much, and render it consistent for power to wrest the criminal from the hand of justice.--It would also destroy all moral distinction, and render an atonement entirely unnecessary. If power can act without regard to justice, and holiness, in the introduction of moral evil, it can as easily be exerted to save sinners from the guilt of transgressing the moral law, without an atonement. It may be answered, that God may decree a partial evil to promote a general good. I acknowledge he can bring good out of evil--that is,he can extend mercy to sinners who really deserve to be damned, but this must be done by an honorable expedient. But to decree a moral evil, to effect his creation partially, and then save a part, to make his goodness known to the rest, is to me, a very strange idea of goodness. Where is the goodness manifested to those who are not saved? and where is the glory obtained by the author of this partial salvation? Will not those who are saved enjoy the general good, as it is called, say, our sovereign regarded not his moral perfections in the introduction of a partial evil; on the same principle, he may introduce a general evil, and we may be deprived of the good we enjoy.
I admit that all positive laws derive their existence from the will of God, but they are, and must be consistent with the moral law.
Man, in his primitive state, from the very constitution of his nature, was pure, and able to keep the law. But that moment he sinned, he became legally condemned. Hence, we are not to understand reprobation to mean a sovereign determination on God's part, to damn millions of rational beings regardless of their rebellion. But, the moment man sinned, he became legally reprobated, involved both in guilt and depravity. No subsequent obedience on man's part could ever have restored him to the divine favor. Hence, Paul tells us, that the law became weak through the flesh--not weak in its author--not weak in its nature--not yet, weak in its design,--but weak through man's fallen nature: that is, man in his fallen state, could not yield the obedience the law required, nor could the law admit of any modification to accommodate the deplorable condition of the transgressor. Therefore, by the deeds of the law, no flesh could be judged. Man's nature is dashed by the fall in every part,--the imaginations of his heart are only evil, and that continually--the whole head is sick, and the whole heart is faint: from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, there is nothing but wounds, bruises and putrifying sores. The heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked--who can know it?
Again, the heart of man is represented by the similitude of a cage of unclean birds.--It is also said, that fallen man is like the wild ass colt--blockish, refractory, impatient under restraint, and will not be tamed, neither by the law of God nor man. But, to complete the melancholy description of man's character, the apostle tells us, that his heart is enmity against God, &c. This view of man's character is applicable to the whole human race.--All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. The Lord looked down from heaven to see if there were any that did good, and after taking a minute survey of the whole family of Adam, he declared that all had gone out of the way. Oh! what a wretched being is man! He is compared by one, to a helpless infant, cast into the open field--the most helpless of all God's creation;--in the open field--no defense from the beasts of prey--no shelter to shield it from the damps of night, the showers of rain, and the winter's snow. Yet this helpless infant is filled with enmity towards God--bitterly opposed to the hand that would minister to its necessities--not able to help itself, and unwilling to be helped. What is to be done in this case? These guilty and depraved beings are subjects of moral government. They can never be saved by a sovereign act--the law must be first satisfied and made honorable.--Man is the sinner, and of course, human nature must meet the claims of the law. But who is sufficient for this? Must Man sink into hell forever without hope? No, glory to God! Jesus undertook in his behalf. The Mediator between God and man, able to lay his hands on both parties, and thereby reconcile an offended God and offending, guilty sinners. Being God as well as man, he had authority to act, and had somewhat to offer. He was made of a woman; made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law. He was made sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. He became guilty by impution. God laid on him the iniquity of us all--imputing to him what was due to man. And now, by the obedient life and death of the Lord Jesus Christ, there is a foundation laid broad enough, and strong enough, to sustain the hopes of all Adam's family, for heave. This glorious remedy is purely sovereign and free. "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting."
The gospel, which is glad tidings to a lost world, is founded on the merits of the Saviour. His merits or righteousness, answers the demands of the law, and on that account, God proposes to save every sinner that will believe in Jesus. But man, fallen man, is unwilling to accept of pardon on that account; therefore, the necessity for the third person in the adorable Trinity, to convince of sin; for the sinner never would apply to Christ for salvation, without first feeling his lost condition. By the divine spirit, the law is brought home with power to the heart, the sinner discovers a holy God, a pure law, against which he has sinned; and he is called by the Word and Spirit to fly to Jesus. God leaves him without excuse--life and death are set before him--now he must choose. If death be his choice, God is clear in sending him to hell, as a gospel slighter. God not only proposed to pardon, but to give the aid of his spirit; but, by neglecting the offer of pardon, and grieving the Holy Ghost, he becomes doubly guilty, and there remaineth no more sacrifice for sin; for God has done every thing that he could do, in the gift of Christ to save sinners: What more could I have done, &c.
But he that yields to divine influence and gives up his heart to Christ by faith, obtains salvation. That moment he is justified, and a change is wrought in his heart which prepares him for the enjoyment of God above.
Let us now review this doctrine for a moment. God is holy, and, as a sovereign, he acts in accordance with holiness. He made man upright--man was free, and voluntarily sinned, consequently became reprobated. God, as a sovereign, provided a remedy by giving his son, who was both God and man--"made under the law"--our guilt was imputed to him--and having wrought out a complete salvation adequate to the demands of the law, through which man was appointed a dispensation of mercy, and the way prepared for the spirit to remove his depravity. The sinner is now convinced of his danger, and influenced to fly to Christ by faith, and whenever he becomes willing to part with all for Christ, the spirit reveals and applies the righteousness of the Saviour to the soul, and God reckons, accounts or imputes this righteousness to the believing penitent. On this account, the believer is justified, and the Spirit then seals that soul till the day of redemption. You know the nature of a seal when applied to the wax; it leaves its own image. So, when the Holy Spirit seals a soul, he leaves his image thereon, which is holy. He also bears witness, and is the agent that carries on the work of sanctification. But this work is carried on by means. A particular attention to the law, which is the foundation of obedience,--and the gospel, which is the foundation of faith is necessary. "Shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works." Again, for as the body without the spirit is dead, even so, faith without works is dead. The gospel is designed to bring us up to the law; therefore, a christian must attend to the law--not to obtain justification by it--but as a rule of life, that he may grow up into the likeness of God. But, inasmuch as he is weak in himself, and his strength is in Christ, he must go to him by faith, for strength to live up to the law. It is impossible for an individual, or the church, to make progress in the divine life, unless faith and works go hand in hand. To illustrate this subject, suppose a vessel to be launched with a design to move up stream to a certain point, and those who have charge of her were to place all the power on one side. Thus you see the vessel would turn round, and the current would beat her down. But, suppose they change the power to the other side--they will turn the vessel the other way; but still the current will beat her down the stream. But, suppose they place a balance of power on both sides--you will soon see the vessel making headway and reaching the destined port. Just so it is with the people of God in this world. Whenever any church has engaged in faith and good works, then the work of God revives; but, when she becomes weak in faith, or negligent in duty, the work declines. Then, let individuals, and let churches trust in God, and be careful to maintain good works, and the cause of God will prosper.
While I speak for the venerable father, I must tell you, that he was firm in the belief of a free salvation--free in two respects for all Adam's family--without money and without price. And sensible religion was his religion, and the religion he preached. O! my brethren, can I cease to speak for the man who has so often spoken from his own heart to us. But time will not permit me to dwell longer on this part of the subject.
I have given you a concise history of the life of our venerable father. You who were acquainted with him, know that I have not exaggerated. Many of you have attended his ministry.--I appeal to your consciences--have not many of you been awakened to a sense of your danger by his preaching? How plain his manner--how solemn his address. With what soundness of judgment, and energy of spirit--with what warmth has he made his appeals to your hearts. Have not many of you felt the application like Nathan's to David--thou art the man? Has not the voice of M'Gee followed you while riding on the road, or in the various circles of life, or in your retired moments. Many of you, I fear, are yet strangers to religion; but I must call on your consciences to speak to day for the good and great man who has fallen in Israel.
My unconverted friends, I think you have undoubted evidence that the man whose death we remember to-day was called of God to preach the gospel. Oh, will he be the savor of death unto death to any of you! If so, will he not be a witness against you in the last day? Do not many of you dread to meet M'Gee at the Judgment Bar? And if you are found there Christless, will you not tremble to hear his voice louder than you ever heard it before, when the sentence is passed on you by the Judge, exclaim, Amen--Amen, to your damnation! Oh sinners! his sermons outlive him, and by them, he being dead, yet speaketh.--Conscience bear witness!
If our departed brother were to appear in this congregation today, wrapped in his winding sheet, and brake the silence of death, and call on you to repent, would you not obey? Nay, more--If the Lord Jesus Christ were to present himself before you, with his garments stained with blood, and relate the mournful story of his dying agony, which he endured to save you from hell, could you resist the melting influence of such a scene? Well, my friends, neither the presence of M'Gee nor of Jesus Christ to-day, could add any thing to the reality of eternal things. It is certain there is a heaven, and it is certain there is a hell, and it is certain that you are about to lose the former and sink into the latter. Then, as an ambassador of Christ, and the representative of M'Gee, I call on you to awake and work while it is day, for the night cometh when no man can work.
But I see a goodly number in this congregation who have not only been awakened by his faithful ministry, but who have been brought to the knowledge of the truth. He has not only taught you that you were sinners, but he has also taught you the way of salvation. You are seals to his ministry: when he spoke, you felt: and his voice was the voice of the shepherd. How often have your hearts been enlightened and warmed when he spoke? Has not his very presence cheered you when he ascended the sacred stage?
Seldom did he preach without effect. Some of you who now have to fill the stage in his absence, can bear witness to the truth of what he spoke. O! can you be silent witnesses? Speak, my brethren, the same things, if possible, with the same plainness--with the same reasoning--with the same energy. Do not pay so much attention to ornament in your discourses, as to plainness, soundness, energy &c. Let us always try to make our people understand the subject, and feel it; let us not darken counsel by words without knowledge--by making plain things mysterious; but let it be our object to make mysterious things plain: let us follow our aged father as he followed Christ, not seeking to please men, but God, who searcheth our hearts. Let us never try by our discourses, to induce men to admire us, instead of our master who is in heaven. O! my brethren in the ministry, let us be more diligent.--Much devolved on us before, but is not our labor increased? Let us not then fold our hands in view of Zion's desolations, and say, we can do nothing; no, let us be instant in season, out of season, &c. and although we have lost a brother in the ministry, yet Jesus lives, who is the Great Head of the Church, and has said, Lo I am with you alway, even to the end of the word: and again, I will never leave thee nor forsake thee. It is the Lord--let him do what seemeth to him good; and while the venerable father sleeps in Jesus, let us be diligent. He has finished his work, and has gone to receive his crown--let us be faithful to death, and we shall wear a crown with him in glory.
[Source: Cumberland Presbyterian Pulpit. A Series of Original Sermons, by Clergymen of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Volume I, No. 4, April, 1833, pages 45-56]