A CIRCULAR LETTER OF VALEDICTION, ON LEAVING VIRGINIA, IN 1791.
Men, Brethren, and Fathers,
IN leaving the state, where I have contracted a large acquaint|ance—where I have spent fourteen years of the prime of my life, in which time I have baptized seven hundred persons (the chiefest of whom, God has graciously given me as seals of my ministry) it may reasonably be supposed that I feel an unusual perturbation of mind; especially when I consider the kind acceptance I have found among the people, as well as the confidence which the Baptist society have reposed in me. When all these endearing bonds present themselves before me, they strangely agitate my throbbing breast. A total divestiture of these sensations would render me an odious stoic, among men formed for friendship; but an excess of these tender emotions, would appear too effemi|nate for a man of business, and inadmissible for the hazardous voyage before me.
I cannot say that I had any particular call to come to Virginia, like Paul to go to Macedonia; but came voluntarily, of my own accord; and hope kind Providence has overruled it for the best. Now I meditate a return to my native land, upon a principle as voluntary as I came. May Heaven send me good speed, and prosper me in every lawful undertaking. The thoughts of death, in general, are not 〈◊〉 painful as the thoughts of living for nothing.
My friends in general, and those in particular who acknowledge my weak efforts as the means of their salvation, will receive this final valediction as a proof of my love; and as I cannot visit them all to take a formal parting, I hope this letter will be as pleasing and more profitable. When I came first into Virginia, I shared the common lot of strangers; many were afraid of me, that I was not sincere; and some better characters than myself, seemed to defame; but I always was prevented from retorting, by the words of David, "Who can stretch forth his hands against the Lord's anointed and be innocent:" and amidst all my troubles, these words were my support, "The Lord said, verily it shall be well with thy remnant (of days,) verily I will cause the enemy to entreat thee well in time of affliction and in time of evil." No man can conceive the difficulty that a stranger in a strange land has to endure, but those who have tried it. Thus I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by Page 2 night; my head has often been filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night. The love of my God, and the worth of immortal souls, has stimulated my heart and borne me up under all the pressures of mobs, tumults, reproaches, and con|tentions; and having obtained help of God, I remain until this very day.
The union that has taken place among the Baptists has been very pleasing to me, and a continuation of the same, is an object that engrosses my desire. For this desireable end, I have been willing to sacrifice a number of little peculiarities, and think myself a gainer in the bargain.
Ye are not strangers, my dear brethren and children, of the difference of opinions now subsisting among the Baptists in Vir|ginia; some pleading for predestination and others for universal provision, It is true, that the schemes of both parties cannot be right; and yet both parties may be right in their aims, each wishing to justify wisdom, and make God righteous when he judgeth. He cannot be wrong, whose heart and life are right— He cannot walk amiss who walks in love. I have generally ob|served, that when religion is lively among the people no alienation of affection arises from a difference of judgment; and whoever considers that the devil is orthodox in judgment, and that the Bible is not written in form of a system, will surely be moderate in dealing out hard speeches towards his heterodox brother. I conclude that the eternal purposes of God, and the freedom of the human will, are both truths; and it is a matter of fact, that the preaching that has been most blest of God, and most profitable to men, is the doctrine of sovereign grace in the salvation of souls, mixt with a little of what is called Arminianism. These two propo|sitions can be tolerably well reconciled together, but the modern misfortune is, that men often spend too much time in explaining away one or the other, or in fixing the lock-link to join the others together; and by such means, have but little time in a sermon to insist on those two great things which God blesses. I do not plead for implicit faith; let each man believe, speak, and act for himself; but when it is confessed that nine tenths of the scripture is best explained without descending to those cutting points, a man must appear contracted who spends all his time in disputing about them; and more malevolent when he finds it tends, not to promote love and union, but rather a rancorous spirit. Let us then follow after the things that make for peace, and the things whereby one may edify another, and strive who shall be the most humble and love over the greatest affronts.
My children, I am afraid that after my departure, you will forget the weak advice that I have given you; and (what is in|finitely more) the instruction of that gracious Redeemer who bought you with his blood. Wherefore watch, and remember that for the space of fourteen years I ceased not to warn you night and day, and taught you publickly, and from house to house. And now behold I go (with submission to Providence) Page 3 to New England, not knowing what things will befal me there. Perhaps the faithless seas may be my tomb, or I may live to ex|perience more severe trials than ever I have sustained.
I know myself to be a feeble, sinful worm. A retrospective view of my past conduct is not altogether pleasing, and perhaps it is owing to your partiality that I have not been publickly ex|posed: for my own part, I have nothing to fly to for defence, but the blood and righteousness of the dear Redeemer: but if my conduct has been such as to escape the censure of those men, who know what it is to struggle with a body of death; any calumny that may be cast on me after my departure, will be unnoticed.
I have preached about three thousand sermons since I came to Virginia; all of which have been too flat, and many of them so cold, that the sentences would almost freeze between my lips; and yet, many times when I have attempted to instruct and com|fort others, I have found the same blessings for myself. And now, brethren, I commend you to God and the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified; hoping and praying that if we meet no more on earth; that we may meet in heaven among all the redeemed of the Lord: though the company is large, yet there is room—Many mansions—Places for you, my brethren, a place, I trust, for worthless me.
Before I close, I wish to add a word in behalf of the poor un|happy negroes, and speak a little for those who are not suffered to speak for themselves. I have generally been quiet on this head, for the following reasons. First, I have been a stranger among you, and therefore judged it indecent to meddle with the customs of the country. Second, I have had no slaves of my own, and so concluded that if I said any thing on that head, it would be construed to my disadvantage, without doing any good. Third, It has ever appeared to me difficult to form any plan (even in idea) for their manumission, and to expose the evil without pointing out the way of escape, would be doing as the witch did to Saul. Fourth, To say any thing about it would raise the passions of a certain class of citizens, and from that they would abuse them worse than before, and so eventually make those in misery more miserable. But as I am now about leaving the state, I can speak with more freedom.
I am heartily glad, that I can say that the spirit of masters has greatly abated since I have been in Virginia; it is now confessed by many, that negroes can feel injuries, hunger, pain, and weari|ness, and I hope this spark of good fire will be raised to a flame, in due time.
I confess, that I am not as much shocked to see them naked, gant, and trembling, as I was when I first came into the state; the distance that they are kept in, the abject subordination and things relative thereto do not affect me as they once did (so fatal are bad customs) but I can never be reconciled to the keeping of them; nor can I endure to see one man strip and whip another, (as free Page 4 by nature as himself) without the interference of a magistrate or any being or thing to check his turbulent will. And as I am well convinced that many of my dear brethren have the same feelings of myself, I can unbosom myself with confidence. It is not my intention to drop the ministerial vest, and assume the politician's garb to-day; but after adding, that slavery in its best appearance, is a violent deprivation of the rights of nature, incon|sistent with republican government, destructive of every humane benevolent passion of the soul, and subversive to that liberty (abso|lutely necessary to ennoble the human mind) let me ask whether Heaven has nothing in store for poor negroes better than these galling chains? If so, ye ministers of Jesus, and saints of the most High—ye wrestling Jacobs, who have power with God▪ and can prevail over the angel; let your prayers, your ardent prayers, as|cend to the throne of God incessantly, that he may pour the blessing of freedom upon the poor blacks. If public prayers of this kind would raise the anger of tyrants, or embolden the slaves in insolence, let the sable watches of the night, in lonely solitude, be witnesses to your sincere longings after the liberty of your fellow creatures.
How would every benevolent heart rejoice to see the halcyon day appear—the great jubilee usher in, when the poor slaves, with a Moses at their head, should hoist up the standard, and march out of bondage! Or, what would be still more elating, to see the power of the gospel so effectual that the lion and the lamb should lie together—all former insults and revenges forgotten —the names of master and slave be buried—every yoke broken, and the op|pressed go free—go free but not empty away.
And you, my black brethren, hear a word from your parting friend. It is not only a general complaint, but a general truth, that but very few of you will do your duty without a degree of severity. That your masters have right to chastise you (while you are their servants) is undoubted. You cannot conceive what pain, what distresses of soul your masters endure for your sake. How glad many of them would be if you would bear good usage. Their rest forsakes them at night, and their comforts by day, on account of your indolence and roguery. There is no way you can honour your profession, do a good part for yourselves, or move God to send you deliverance so effectually, as to obey those who have the rule over you in the fear of God. Though our skins are somewhat different in colour, yet I hope to meet many of you in heaven; where your melodious voices, that have often enchanted my ears and warmed my heart, will be incessantly em|ployed in the praise of our common Lord. In hope of this im|mortal joy, you may well be patient in your hardships, and wait till your change comes.
And now may the peace of God, that passeth all understanding, dwell richly in all your hearts.—Amen.