During the latter part of 1803, William Wirt writes a series of letter for the Virginia Argus—under the guise of British Officer—commenting on the affairs of Virginia. In one, he uses a story about a friend of his—often republished—as a foundation for remarking on the shallowness of a popular religious scheme of the day.
From a life of inglorious indolence, by far too prevalent among the young men of this country, the transition is easy and natural to immorality and dissipation. … From such a gulf of complicated ruin, few have the energy ever to attempt an escape.
Letters of the British Spy.
Richmond, OCTOBER 10th.
I HAVE been, my dear S*******, on an excursion through the counties which lie along the eastern side of the Blue Ridge. A general description of that country and its inhabitants may form the subject of a future letter. For the present, I must entertain you with an account of a most singular and interesting adventure which I met with, in the course of the tour.
It was one Sunday, as I was traveling through the county of Orange, that my eye was caught by a cluster of horses tied near a ruinous, old, wooden house, in the forest, not far from the roadside. Having frequently seen such objects before, in traveling through these States, I had no difficulty in understanding that this was a place of religious worship. Devotion alone should have stopped me, to join in the duties of the congregation; but I must confess that curiosity to hear the preacher of such a wilderness was not the least of my motives. On entering, I was struck with his preternatural appearance. He was a tall and very spare old man; his head, which was covered with a white linen cap, his shriveled hands, and his voice, were all shaking under the influence of palsy; and a few moments ascertained to me that he was perfectly blind.
The first emotions which touched my breast were those of mingled pity and veneration. But how soon were all my feelings changed! The lips of Plato were never more worthy of a prognostic swarm of bees than were the lips of this holy man. It was a day of the administration of the sacrament; and his subject, of course, was the passion of our Saviour. I had heard the subject handled a thousand times; I had thought it exhausted long ago. Little did I suppose that, in the wild woods of America, I was to meet with a man whose eloquence would give to this topic a new and more sublime pathos than I had ever before witnessed.
As he descended from the pulpit, to distribute the mystic symbols, there was a peculiar, a more than human solemnity in his air and manner, which made my blood run cold and my whole frame shiver. He then drew a picture of the sufferings of our Saviour—his trial before Pilate—his ascent up Calvary—his crucifixion—and his death. I knew the whole history, but never, until then, had I heard the circumstances so selected, so arranged, so colored! It was all new, and I seemed to have heard it for the first time in my life. His enunciation was so deliberate, that his voice trembled on every syllable, and every heart in the assembly trembled in unison. His peculiar phrases had such force of description, that the original scene appeared to be at that moment acting before our eyes. We saw the very faces of the Jews—the staring, frightful distortions of malice and rage. We saw the buffet—my soul kindled with a flame of indignation, and my hands were involuntarily and convulsively clinched.
But when he came to touch on the patience, the forgiving meekness, of our Saviour—when he drew, to the life, his blessed eyes streaming in tears to heaven—his voice breathing to God a soft and gentle prayer of pardon for his enemies, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”—the voice of the preacher, which all along faltered, grew fainter and fainter, until, his utterance being entirely obstructed by the force of his feelings, he raised his handkerchief to his eyes, and burst into a loud and irrepressible flow of grief. The effect was inconceivable. The whole house resounded with the mingled groans and sobs and shrieks of the congregation.
It was some time before the tumult had subsided so far as to permit him to proceed. Indeed, judging by the usual but fallacious standard of my own weakness, I began to be very uneasy for the situation of the preacher. For I could not conceive how he would be able to let his audience down from the height to which he had wound them, without impairing the solemnity and dignity of his subject, or perhaps shocking them by the abruptness of the fall. But—no; the descent was as beautiful and sublime as the elevation had been rapid and enthusiastic. The first sentence with which he broke the awful silence was a quotation from Rousseau: “Socrates died like a philosopher; but Jesus Christ like a God!!!”
I despair of giving you any idea of the effect produced by this short sentence, unless you could perfectly conceive the whole manner of the man, as well as the peculiar crisis in the discourse. Never before did I completely understand what Demosthenes meant by laying such stress on delivery. You are to bring before you the venerable figure of the preacher—his blindness constantly recalling to your recollection old Homer, Ossian and Milton, and associating with his performance the melancholy grandeur of their genius—you are to imagine that you hear his slow, solemn, well accented enunciation, and his voice of affecting, trembling melody—you are to remember the pitch of passion and enthusiasm to which the congregation were raised—and then the few moments of portentous, death-like silence which reigned throughout the house—the preacher, removing his white handkerchief from his aged face (even yet wet from the recent torrent of his tears), and slowly stretching forth the palsied hand which holds it, begins the sentence—“Socrates died like a philosopher”—then pausing, raised his other hand, pressing them both, clasped together, with warmth and energy to his breast, lifting his “sightless balls” to heaven, and pouring his whole soul into his tremulous voice—“but Jesus Christ—like a God!” If he had been in truth an angel of light, the effect could scarcely have been more divine.
Whatever I had been able to conceive of the sublimity of Massillon, or the force of Bourdaloue, had fallen far short of the power which I felt from the delivery of this ample sentence. The blood, which just before had rushed in a hurricane upon my brain, and, in the violence and agony of my feelings, had held my whole system in suspense, now ran back into my heart with a sensation which I cannot describe—a kind of shuddering delicious horror! The paroxysm of blended pity and indignation to which I had been transported, subsided into the deepest self-abasement, humility, and adoration. I had just been lacerated and dissolved by sympathy for our Saviour as a fellow creature; but now, with fear and trembling, I adored him as—“a God!”
If this description give you the impression that this incomparable minister had any thing of shallow, theatrical trick in his manner, it does him great injustice. I have never seen, in any other orator, such a union of simplicity and majesty. He has not a gesture, an attitude, or an accent, to which he does not seem forced by the sentiment which he is expressing. His mind is too serious, too earnest, too solicitous, and, at the same time, too dignified, to stoop to artifice. Although as far removed from ostentation as a man can be, yet it is clear from the train, the style, and substance of his thoughts, that he is not only a very polite scholar, but a man of extensive and profound erudition. I was forcibly struck with a short, yet beautiful character which he drew of our learned and amiable countryman, Sir Robert Boyle. He spoke of him as if “his noble mind had, even before death, divested herself of all influence from his frail tabernacle of flesh;” and called him, in his peculiarly emphatic and impressive manner, “a pure intelligence—the link between men and angels.”
This man has been before my imagination almost ever since. A thousand times, as I rode along, I dropped the reins of my bridle, stretched forth my hand, and tried to imitate his quotation from Rousseau; a thousand times I abandoned the attempt in despair, and felt persuaded that his peculiar manner and power arose from an energy of soul which nature could give, but which no human being could justly copy. In short, he seems to be altogether a being of a former age, or of a totally different nature from the rest of men. As I recall, at this moment, several of his awfully striking attitudes, the chilling tide, with which my blood begins to pour along my arteries, reminds me of the emotions produced by the first sight of Gray’s introductory picture of his bard:
“On a rock, whose haughty brow,
Frowns o’er old Conway’s foaming flood,
Rob’d in the sable garb of woe,
With haggard eyes the poet stood;
(Loose his beard and hoary hair
Streamed, like a meteor, to the troubled air:)
And with a poet’s hand and prophet’s fire,
Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre.”
Guess my surprise, when, on my arrival at Richmond, and mentioning the name of this man, I found not one person who had ever before heard of JAMES WADDELL!
IS IT NOT strange that such a genius as this, so accomplished a scholar, so divine an orator, should be permitted to languish and die in obscurity within eighty miles of the metropolis of Virginia! To me it is a conclusive argument, either that the Virginians have no taste, for the highest strains of the most sublime oratory, or that they are destitute of a much more important quality, the love of genuine and exalted religion. Indeed it is too clear, my friend, that this soil abounds more in weeds of foreign birth, than in good and salubrious ruits.
Among others the noxious weed of infidelity has struck a deep, a fatal root and spread its pestilential branches far around. I fear that our excentric and fanciful countryman, Godwin, has contributed not a little to water and cherish this pernicious exotic. There is a novelty, a splendor, a boldness in his scheme of morals peculiarly fitted to captivate a youthful and as ardent mind. A young man feels his delicacy flattered, in the idea of being emancipated from the old, obsolete and vulgar motives of moral conduct; and acting correctly from motives quite new, refined and sublimated in the crucible of pure, abstracted reason. Unfortunately, however, in this attempt to change the motives of his conduct, he loses the old ones, while the new, either from being too etherial and sublime, or from some other want of congeniality, refuse to mix and lay hold of the gross materials of his nature. Thus he becomes emancipated, indeed; discharged not only from ancient and vulgar shackles; but also, from the modern, fine-spun, tinsel’d restraints of his divine Godwin.
Having imbibed the high spirit of literary adventure, he disdains the limits of the moral world; and advancing boldly, to the throne of God, he questions him on, his dispensations and demands the reasons, of his laws. But the counsels of Heaven are above, the ken, not contrary to the voice of human reason; and the unfortunate youth, unable to reach and measure them, recoils from the attempt, with melancholy rashness, into infidelity and deism. Godwin’s glittering theories are on his lips. Utopia or Mezorania boast not of a purer moralist in words, than the young Godwinian. But the unbridled licentiousness of his conduct makes it manifest, that if Godwin’s principles are true in the abstract, they are not fit for this system of things, whatever they might be in the republic of Plato.
From a life of inglorious indolence, by far too prevalent among the young men of this country, the transition is easy and natural to immorality and dissipation. It is at this giddy period of life, when a series of dissolute courses have debauched the purity and innocence of the heart, shaken the pillars of the understanding, and convened her sound and wholesome operations, into little more than a set of feverish starts, and incoherent and delirious dreams, it is in such a situation that a new-fangled theory is welcomed us an amusing guest, and deism is embraced as a balmy comforter against the pangs of an offended conscience. This coalition once formed and habitually consolidated, “farewell, a long farewell” to honor, genius and glory!
From such a gulf of complicated ruin, few have the energy ever to attempt an escape. The moment of cool reflection, which should save them, is too big with horror to be endured. Every plunge is deeper and deeper, until the tragedy is finally wound up by a pistol or a halter. Do not believe that I am drawing from fancy; the picture is unfortunately true. Few dramas, indeed, have yet reached their catastrophe; but, too many, are in a rapid progress towards it. These thoughts are affecting and oppressive.
I am glad to retreat from them by bidding you adieu; and offering my prayers to Heaven that you may never lose the pure, the genial consolations of unshaken faith and an approving conscience.
Once more, my dear S*******, adieu!