Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
Explaining Away the Gospel
By Samuel Irenæus Prime (1812–1885)
 
[Born in Ballston, N. Y., 1812. Died at Manchester, Vt., 1885. Irenæus Letters. Second Series. 1885.]

MRS. PARTINGTON being asked where she went to church, replied, “To any church where the gospel is dispensed with.”
  1
  The late Rev. Dr. Cox, of wonderful memory, was remarkable as an expounder of the Scriptures. In his Owego congregation—and speaking of Owego reminds me of the speech he made in the Synod of New York when he took leave of it to go to his new charge; he said, “Owego must not be confounded with Oswego or Otsego or any other of the many names having O initial and terminal.”  2
  His facility for using large words was remarkable. It was attributed to a slight impediment in his speech, which led him to take a word that he could utter without difficulty in preference to a smaller one on which he was inclined to stumble. But that was not the reason: in writing he had the same habit, and if possible he made use of longer words than he did in public speech. Nor was there any affectation or pedantry in his style. He was as natural as he was brilliant. And he was the most brilliant clergyman of his generation. As flashes of lightning vanish in an instant, so the coruscations of his splendid genius were transient, beautiful, magnificent for the moment, but gone as suddenly as they came. There is melancholy in the thought that the best and brightest things he ever said are not on record, and with his contemporaries will pass forever from the memory of man. They passed from his own memory, most of them, as soon as they were spoken.  3
  An instance of this occurs to me. He was opening the General Assembly with prayer when he was Moderator, and he introduced ascriptions of praise in three Latin phrases, familiar quotations. I was reporting the meeting, and jotted down those words just as he used them. But when he came to see them in print many years after they were uttered, he had forgotten that he ever made use of them, and thought they were the fruit of the reporter’s too lively imagination. Yet Dr. Duffield, who was present, wrote down the words from the Doctor’s lips, and Dr. Hatfield, a year or two before he joined Dr. Cox in the General Assembly above, assured me that he heard the words, which were as just and true as they were extraordinary in a public prayer.  4
  He was always ready, or, as he would say, semper paratus, and was never taken at a disadvantage. The best illustration of his readiness is his famous address before the Bible Society in London, which I will not repeat, it is so familiar. But it is hardly probable that a more splendid example of brilliant extempore rhetoric can be found in the whole range of English literature. In the later years of his life, when his powers were not at their best and brightest, he went into St. Paul’s Methodist Church in this city to worship there as a stranger. He was recognized by a gentleman, who went to the pulpit and informed the preacher that Dr. Cox was in the congregation. He was invited to preach, and taking a text, which he gave in two or three languages, he preached two hours with such variety of learning, copiousness of illustration, and felicity of diction as to entertain, delight, instruct, and move the assembly. This habit of preaching long sermons grew upon him, and he became tedious in his old age. Many others do likewise. It is the last infirmity of great preachers. Especially is it true of those who, like Dr. Cox, are fond of preaching expository sermons. There is no convenient stopping-place for a man who takes a chapter and attempts a little sermon on each clause or word. Dr. Cox rarely approved of the translation in the Bible before him. His Greek Testament was always at hand, and after a severe, sometimes a fierce denunciation of the text in the received version, he would give his own rendering, and enforce that with the ardor of genius and the power of Christian eloquence. As long ago as when he was pastor in Laight Street one of his parishioners, a prominent and wealthy merchant, tired of hearing his sermons, went over to Brooklyn to spend the Sabbath with a friend. They attended church, and lo! Dr. Cox had exchanged pulpits with the pastor, and now the parishioner was compelled to hear the preacher from whom he was running away. I have been told that the gentleman was converted by this discourse which he heard against his will, and he lived to be one of the most useful and distinguished among the merchant-princes of New York. But I am wandering.  5
  I began this letter with the intent of telling you another Mrs. Partington remark which the Rev. Dr. S. H. Hall mentioned to me this summer when I met him in the Catskill Mountains. Dr. Hall was pastor of the church in Owego after Dr. Cox—whether his immediate successor or not, I am unable to say. In his congregation was a venerable lady who was never tired of sounding the praises of her former pastor, whose explanatory preaching had been her spiritual food for many years. “Oh,” said she to Dr. Hall, “you should have heard him explain away the gospel!”  6
  This was just what Dr. Cox did not. It was his forte to get the gist of the true meaning of the word, the mind of the Spirit, to explain the gospel; and the modern Mrs. Partington, like the more ancient dame, had the ill-luck to twist her own words so as to make them convey a sense quite the reverse of what she meant. But it is very certain that the remarks of the two ladies have a very decided application to the preaching in which some of our modern teachers indulge, to the confusion of their hearers. The Bible is a much simpler book than many preachers would have the people believe. There are some things in it hard to be understood, undoubtedly. But these are not the things they attempt to explain or explain away. They find the words of the inspired penman in the way of their views, and they go at the words, tooth and nail, hammer and tongs, and manage to give an interpretation to them which will bolster or at least not oppose their favorite theories. The Bible is the simplest book in the world, and there is no work of its size treating so great a variety of subjects which is more intelligible to the common mind. Errors, heresies and corruptions in doctrine and practice do not arise from the misconceptions which the “common people” get from reading the Bible, with the Spirit of God alone to guide them. The fundamental truths which all evangelical Christians love to believe are on the surface as well as in the depths of holy scripture. He who runs may read. The Bible is a revelation. The author did not employ language to conceal his thoughts. The entrance of his words gives light. They make wise the simple. And that preacher is the best who is the most scriptural, bringing the truth as therein revealed directly to the conscience and the heart.  7
 
 
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