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Thomas Shepard


by Alexander Whyte, from Thirteen Appreciations
Puritan Sermons
1969


Jonathan Edwards, 'one of the greatest of the sons of men,' has given us his
Appreciation of Thomas Shepard in a most eloquent and impressive way. I know no
such complete and conclusive appreciation in all literature as when Jonathan
Edwards on every page underbuilds and establishes and illustrates his spiritual
masterpiece, the Religious Affections, with constant references to the Ten
Virgins, the Sound Convert and the Spiritual Experiences, and with no less than
innumerable quotations from those so experimental Puritan books. I know no
instance of the laudatur a laudato principle at all to compare with that of
Thomas Shepard and Jonathan Edwards. Now, though I cannot speak with an atom of the authority of Edwards, at the same time I am not on that account wholly shut
out from making my own humble acknowledgment of what I also owe to this great
Pilgrim Father. I am not debarred from laying my own loyal tribute at the feet
of the man on whose head Jonathan Edwards has set such a crown.
Thomas Shepard has been one of my favourite authors ever since the year 1861
when my honoured friend Dr. Williamson of Huntly wrote my name on his own copy
of the Parable of the Ten Virgins. I think I must have read Shepard quite as
often as Spurgeon had read Bunyan; quite as often at any rate as Jowett had read
Boswell. And I am still reading Shepard as if I had never read him before. As a
proof of that take this little confidence of mine. The week before one of my
holidays I had read Professor Churton Collins's delightful paper on The Tempest
that had appeared some time previously in the Contemporary Review. And so
impressed was I with the learned Professor's paper that I took to the country
with me Dr. Furness's variorum and monumental edition of that exquisite work,
promising myself a great revel over the great text and over the extraordinary
rich mass of explanatory and illustrative notes. But would you believe it? With
such a temptation lying on my table all the time I never once opened the
seductive volume. For, as God would have it, as John Bunyan was wont to say, I
had taken Thomas Shepard also with me, and I read the Ten Virgins, and the Sound
Believer, and the Sincere Convert, and the Saint's Jewel, and the Select Cases,
and the Spiritual Experiences over and over again; execrable English and all.

And instead of repenting myself for my neglect of Shakespeare and his monumental
editor, I came home thanking God again for His so notable and so exceptional
servant Shepard. And more than that, I came home more settled and resolved than
ever to do all I can to make you know something of Shepard's matchlessly pungent
lessons in spiritual and experimental religion. And to reassure me I took out of
my desk and read again a postcard bearing the Aberdeen postmark, which I
received some years ago and which runs thus: 'A thousand thanks for pressing
Thomas Shepard on our attention. After long looking for it, I have at last got a
copy of the Parable, and I can scarcely lay it down. It is proving itself a very
book of life to me. This is the preaching that our day needs. A Free Church
Minister.'

I dare say you will remember that I was always besieging you to buy and to read
and to read all your days, as also to distribute, the Pilgrim's Progress and the
Grace Abounding. But you will have perfect peace of mind concerning Thomas
Shepard and his works. For I shall never ask any of you to spend one penny on
Shepard, such is his atrocious English. Bunyan and Shepard are at one in the
deepest things, but they stand at opposite poles in the matter of their English
style. Shepard at his very best wrote an all but unrecognisable English. But
after the New England printers and then the Aberdeen printers had put Shepard's
best book through their hands, if hands they could be called, Shepard came forth
absolutely unreadable, unless to a few resolved and relentless and irresistible
readers, such as Mrs. Black of Dunnikier Manse, and Dr. Foote of Brechin, and
Dr. Williamson, and myself. Much as I respect William Greenhill's judgment, I
cannot follow him when he says of Shepard that 'here is a cornfield without
cockle or thorns or thistles.' I know quite well what Greenhill means when he
says all that, and I wholly subscribe to his deep meaning. But if I were to
repeat his words without some warning, you might be led into advertising for the
old book, which you would no sooner open than you would throw it down in disgust
and in indignation both at Shepard and at Greenhill and at me. 'Polybius,' says
Dr. Butcher, 'pays the penalty attaching to neglect of form; he is read by few.'
At the same time I will say this. As we find Principal Rendall quite frankly
acknowledging the heavy cramped vocabulary, and the deadness of expression, and
the formless monotony of clause that all combine to weigh down the First Book of
Marcus Aurelius: while at the same time he stands up against Matthew Arnold when
that critic says that the Emperor's style lacks distinction and physiognomy, so
will I stand up for Shepard's distinction and for his physiognomy. The truth is,
while repeating and exaggerating all the stoic Emperor's faults of style,
Shepard's mental countenance is even more unmistakable to me than is that of the
royal author of the immortal Thoughts. There is no possibility of our ever
mistaking a page or a paragraph or even a sentence of Thomas Shepard's. Not only
because of its unparalleled shapelessness, but much more because of its
Paul-like hands and feet. For Shepard, once he has got on your track, will
follow hard after you all your days. And once he gets a real hold of you, as
Luther said of Paul, you will never be able to shake him off again. But when all
is said that can be said about Shepard's sluggard's-garden of a style, if you
will go with me into the resolved study of this great Puritan I will promise you
many a sweet and fragrant flower out of his crannied and crumbling walls, and
many a medicinal herb out of his stoniest places, and many a cup of wine well
refined out of his most gnarled or crabbed vinestocks. Just gird up your loins
and come with me and see if it will not be so. And as the saintly David Brainerd
says, 'We shall see what passed for soul-saving religion with that so excellent
and so venerable Pilgrim Father Thomas Shepard, the author of the Sound Convert,
the Spiritual Experiences, and the Parable Unfolded.'

Take these, then, as some specimen and characteristic headings, sometimes of
short entries, and sometimes of whole chapters, in Shepard's Spiritual
Experiences: 'No one who ever came under my shadow prospered.' 'The more I do
the worse I am.' 'My idle words in my preaching, in my praise, and in my
prayer.' 'The sins of one day I forget the next day.' 'I come to see that God is
having His whole Name in Exodus 34 fulfilled and adorned in me.' 'For His sake I
am killed all the day long.' 'I keep a private fast for the conquest of my
pride.' 'My sins are sometimes crucified, but they are never mortified.' 'I am
salted with suffering.' 'Fiat experimentum in corpore vili.' 'I abhor myself.'
'You ask me what cured me of being an infidel.' 'Some remorses of an old
ministry.' 'Surely I have always laid my pipe far short of the Fountain,' and so
on, through the whole unique book. Now, I will appeal to all readers of the best
literature to say if they ever came upon more penetrating and more pungent
titles and topics than these. At any rate, the immortal author of the Freedom of
the Will, and the True Virtue, and the Religious Affections never did; and his
splendid appreciation of Thomas Shepard runs accordingly.

When matters were not going well with Shepard himself in his family life, in his
pain and remorse he would sometimes say that he thought the Pope had the right
way of it with his preachers and pastors. At any rate, he would sometimes say, I
wish I had remained a celibate along with my own soul all my days. Other men, he
was wont to say, might not always manage their family life with the most perfect
success; but a minister's breakdown at home was to Shepard the greatest of all
domestic tragedies. He had known many ministers, both in Old England and in New
England, whose family life was a great success in every way. But not his own. As
for himself, neither wife, nor child, nor servant, nor visitor prospered
spiritually under his baleful shadow. So he enters it, again and again, on
occasions, in his secret journal which he kept alone with God. Nobody but
himself thought such things about Thomas Shepard. All the same, never was there
more sincerity or more poignancy in any private journal than there was in his.
Thales was so fond of children that nothing would persuade him to become a
father. And though Thomas Shepard became the father of more children than one,
he both loved and pitied his children so much that he would sometimes wish they
had never been born, at any rate to him.

Altogether, substitute Thomas Shepard, the New England Puritan, for Santa
Teresa, the Spanish Superior, and you will have his exact case in his home life,
as he so often saw and felt it to be. Thomas Shepard could not express himself
nearly so well as Santa Teresa could; but in substance and in essence they both
said exactly the same thing. 'My children,' said the saint on her death-bed,
'you must pardon me much. You must pardon me most of all the bad example I have
given you. Do not imitate me. Do not live as I have lived. I have been the
greatest sinner in all Spain. I have not kept the laws that I laid down for
other people. But, then, is not this written in David expressly for me, The
sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart God will not
despise? Thomas Shepard and Teresa of Jesus would not have spoken to one another
on earth. But they are now praising God together in glory; and for their family
shame they are now having the double, as they sing together before the throne,
and say: By Thy great grace to us, O God, here are we ourselves, and all the
children that Thou didst give us.

When Dr. Chalmers was out at Skirling on one occasion he went to the village
school and gave the children an elementary lesson in optical science. Taking the
blackboard and a piece of chalk he drew a long diameter on the board, and then
he ran a large circumference around the diameter. And then turning to the
wondering children he said to them in his own imaginative and eloquent way, 'You
must all see that the longer the diameter of light the larger is the surrounding
circumference of darkness. And in like manner the shorter the diameter of light
the smaller is the circumference of the surrounding darkness.' Now, all we have
to do in order to explain and illustrate one of Thomas Shepard's most startling
self-accusations is to carry over Dr. Chalmers's mathematical and optical
blackboard into the region of moral and spiritual things. 'The more I do,' says
Shepard oftener than once, 'the worse I am.' That is to say, the longer the
diameter of Shepard's duty done the larger is the circumference of duty he has
still to do. And the holier and holier his heart and life become the more sinful
the remaining corruption of his heart and life becomes to him, till he is
constrained to cry out with the holiest of men, O wretched man that I am!
And then, carrying up all his own experience of the spiritual life therewith to
deepen and strengthen and enrich his pulpit work, the great preacher would say:
'There is no difference. I am as you are, and you are as I am. Just try the
thing yourselves. Just begin to love God with all your heart, and you will soon
see that the more you try to do that the less will you feel satisfied that you
succeed. And, in like manner, when you begin to love your neighbour as yourself
you will begin to get a lesson with a vengeance in the spiritual life. Just try
to rejoice in all your neighbour's well-being as much as you rejoice in your
own. Just try to relish and enjoy all other men's praises of your neighbour as
you relish and enjoy all other men's praises of yourself. Just try to take
delight in all your neighbour's rewards, promotions, prosperities as you take
delight in your own. And go on trying to do that toward all men around you,
friend and foe, and you will get a lesson in the infinite and exquisite holiness
and spirituality of God's law of love, and at the same time a lesson in the
abominable and unspeakable corruptions of your own heart that will make you
wiser in all these matters than all your teachers.' In such homecoming homiletic
as that Shepard made pulpit and pastoral application of his own experiences in
the spiritual life. Till he became a foremost master in all these holy matters,
and till men like Edwards and Brainerd sat as his scholars at his feet in New
England, and till his name became a tower of truth and power in the old England
from which he had been exiled.

[While this does not seem to be the end of his lecture, the text ends here.]





 

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