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THE CLOSE OF THE LIVES OF EMINENT
THE LATE MR. ASPLAND.
IT has been sometimes remarked by those who are not fully acquainted with the principles and doctrines of Unitarianism, that it is a system which may do to live by, but which will be found insufficient and unavailing in the hour of death. Experience, however, has repeatedly demonstrated the erroneousness of such an idea; an experience founded on the recorded deaths of many eminent Unitarians, as well as on those to which no remarkable publicity has been given. In general, it must be confessed, Unitarians do not judge of the character of men so much from their dying state-from a few words uttered by them when disease has enfeebled their mental and. bodily frames, as from their remarks in those days when their intellects were vigorous, and their physical constitutions in a sound and healthy state. They gather the future state of the individual, not so much from any momentary piety, as from the general tenor of the conduct and conversation. We intend, however, in the present paper, to submit to the attention of the candid reader, some account of the closing lives and "dying expressions" of a few remarkable men, who have made their earthly exit, firm in the Unitarian faith; and to conclude with some observations on the literary and pastoral character of a distinguished member of the Unitarian body, whose loss we have had to deplore since the issuing of our first number-we allude to the late lamented Mr. Aspland.
But, first, inasmuch as Christians of this denomination look upon death in a light in some respects different from that in which it is usually regarded by those who style
themselves orthodox, it may be as well to preface our proposed statements by a few remarks and suggestions on this important topic.
There is no one, perhaps, professing Christianity, but would allow, in words at least, that it was designed to introduce into the world new views and feelings concerning death; and yet, how few are there on whom this conviction seems to have visibly and effectually operated! How many are there by whom the termination of the present life is considered practically as the great calamity of human existence ! The great mass of mankind do not yet participate in the cheerfulness, tranquillity, and triumph of Him who "has abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel."
Assuredly this must mainly arise from a want of real, living, vital faith in the blessed promises of the Saviour. The general treatment indeed of the subject of death is scarcely in agreement with the spirit of the Christian religion. Reflections on this event, a dread of it, and a fearful activity thus awakened, constitute, with many, a principal part of the sum and evidence of their piety. But surely this is not the great object of religion; rather is it to prepare us for that world of spirits into which the gate of death is but the entrance. It may be safely said, that he who looks upon death as the greatest of calamities has not yet learned Christianity. Sin is worse, and to a good man there are many things in life that are more calamitous than death, which is the great course of nature, the wise and good appointment of God, that should be met with pious submission, calmness, and trust. And so it will be, if we thoroughly believe in Him who has destroyed "the power of death," who came to deliver us from the bondage of this fear that weighs so heavily upon the consciences of men, and who has unfolded to us the bright and exalting hope of an endless and blessed life.
The dread of this event has manifested, and still mani
fests itself in various ways. By many, if not the body of mankind, death is still regarded as "the king of terrors,' clothed with every terrific attribute. And probably the great poetical work of Milton may have contributed something to the support and countenance of this common feeling. But this, and some other popular
phraseologies applied to the last hour of mortal existence, will not, we are convinced, impose upon reflecting minds, who will agree with Dr. Dewey, that death, taking it in its natural and general course, "is the gradual extinction of our faculties, the sinking away of the powers of animal life, till they finally cease to act and to be. Now, this process may be hastened or retarded; may have its progress and its different stages; one power after another may yield: the faculty of speech, of hearing, of motion; but to fix on one particular moment rather than another, and to say that now the deceased person is struck with death, is to use language without any foundation in philosophy, or support from observation. There is no power; there may be precursors, indeed, which the experienced may descry with greater or less certainty; but there is no power, that, at any one moment, strikes a fatal blow; that fastens a hold upon its victim from which it may not be shaken; that sets its mark upon the diseased frame, as it were the mark of destiny: but 'while there is life there is hope,' and from any state of exhaustion the sinking faculties may rise to a briefer or longer continuance of life. It is not, in fine, by some mysterious harbinger, that death announces its coming. All decay is but dying; all disease is a progress towards death; every beating pulse is wearing away the channels of life; every breath of that heaving bosom is preparing for the time when it shall breathe no more.
"It is thought that this final event passes with some dreadful visitation of unknown agony over the departing sufferer. It is imagined that there is some strange and mysterious reluctance in the spirit to leave the body: that it struggles long to retain its hold, and is, at last, torn with violence from its mortal tenement; and, in fine, that this conflict between the soul and the body, greatly adds to the pangs of dissolution. But it may be justly presumed, from what usually appears, that there is no particular nor acute suffering; not more than is often experienced in life; nay, rather, that there is less, because the very powers of suffering are enfeebled, the very capacities of pain are nearly exhausted. Death is to be regarded rather as a sleep than an acute sensation-as a suspension rather than à conflict of our faculties. Our Saviour once said, in relation to this event, Our friend
Lazarus sleepeth.' The martyr Stephen, we are told, fell asleep, though he died amidst the blows and shouts of murderers. And the Scriptures denominate the pious dead, 'those who sleep in Jesus.' Death is the sleep of the weary. It is repose, the body's repose, after the busy and toilsome day of life."
But is this the general conviction-the general feeling even in a Christian land? We apprehend, we may say, far from it. And yet our Saviour says, "He that liveth and believeth in me shall never die;" and adds, "believest thou this?" Do Christians of the present day believe it? Notwithstanding what our theology teaches us, it would seem that the impression on most minds is, that death is the severance of all the ties that bound us to our former existence; that by it a transformation takes place not only of our state but of our nature; that the spirit, in departing hence, in winging its way from "this visible, diurnal sphere," was parting with all that was most valuable and cherishable here below. That this, however, is an error, has been satisfactorily proved (as far at least as proof can be made available from Scripture) by many Unitarian writers. We have not space to dwell on this point, and, therefore must refer the inquiring reader to those able authors who have published their views on this interesting subject. It may be sufficient to observe, that the evils of making this wide distinction, this violent disruption of the present from the future life are not few, nor unimportant, inasmuch as Jesus Christ has instructed us that what we witness is the death of the corporeal part only; that the good man, the spirit of goodness which is in him, the intrinsic and intellectual being, "shall never die." Our departure from the land of the living, simply considered, is not to be looked upon as an ordination of the wrath of God, as we are sometimes told, but rather of his infinite goodness; for that which is inevitable, must be regarded as of beneficent appointment. Besides, this departure results from the very nature and necessity of things. Our frames are not adapted or formed for perennial residence "in this terrene abode;" nor could the earth support the accumulating generations of mankind. Moreover, the mind of man itself would not be able to sustain the burden of perpetual duration in the present sphere of existence;
ere long it would desire to be released and to be at rest. "It would ask for other scenes, for other regions, for other sources of knowledge, for other fountains of joy."
Still, it cannot for a moment be denied that the hour of mortality is a solemn and a serious hour, for "after death is the judgment; that is, a trial of conscience in the presence of the Most High-a time of retribution, when every evil propensity, every unwarrantable gratification, every unjust deed shall be laid bare, and become a piercing arrow of conviction; in other words, when passion, indulgence, and sin shall give place to the manifested and no longer mistaken judgment of Heaven. And, to carry out this view of the solemn responsibilities of the soul, in the words of the above eminent writer, " every future moment-not that of death only, nor that of the judgment which is immediately to follow, but every future moment of our being is to answer for every present moment." This great law of retribution belongs to our moral nature, and is not only applicable to the future, but likewise to the present life; to the former, however, it is made to apply with greater intensity and clearness. "It is not death, then, that we should fear, but the eternal retribution of conscience. It is not at the moment of death that we should tremble, but at every moment of the future that is to answer for the neglects, and errors, and offences of the mis-spent past."
Such being the view which we take of death, it will be imagined with what cordiality we subscribe to the following remarks of the Rev. Dr. Dewey :
"We must venture to question the propriety of much that often passes around the beds of the dying. The last scene should be as far as possible calm and quiet. The infirmity of human nature, the agonies of friendship in such an hour, we would speak of with indulgence; but it should be remembered, that it is our duty, as far as possible, by our resignation and fortitude, to sustain the sufferer, that we should not add to the last solemn trial of the sinking spirit the disturbing influence of violent agitation or clamorous grief. He who walks with his friend down that valley of shadows, has need to do it with a sustained demeanour-with a calm aspect, with a firm step, with a sympathy full of all human gentleness, with a purity full of divine and immortal hope. Above all,