The Very Foretaste of Heaven - James McGready

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Pioneer Presbyterian minister James McGready (1763-1817) is well-known as a frontier revivalist, one who is closely associated with the Great Revival of 1800. However, scholars Leigh Eric Schmidt (Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period, 1989) and Kimberly Bracken Long (The Eucharistic Theology of the American Holy Fairs, 2011) have identified a sacramental theme in much of his preaching.

McGready himself wrote that sacramental seasons were especially meaningful for him. Describing one memorable such occasion, he writes:

Three of these great days of the Son of Man I have witnessed. One, on the Monongahela [western Pennsylvania], where I first felt the all-conquering power of the love of Jesus, which to all eternity I shall never forget, was at a Sacrament on the morning of a Sabbath in 1786. The second in North Carolina, in 1789. The third in Kentucky, from 1797 to 1802. And may I ever lie the lowest, humblest creature in the dust, when I reflect that the Lord made use of me, mean and unworthy, to begin the glorious work in both these blessed seasons. I rejoice at the prospect. I expect to meet with many souls in heaven, who were my spiritual children in both these revivals.

Schmidt writes that “McGready’s participation in these early sacramental revivals in western Pennsylvania set the tone for his later career” (p. 61).

When reading McGready’s sermons one is struck with his “sacramental homiletic” (Long, p. 66). An example of this appears in a sermon that he preached “On the Divine Authority of the Christian Religion”:

How precious, then, is Jesus to them that believe. When a pardoned sinner beholds the glory, beauty and preciousness of Jesus, does not this sight communicate the very foretastes of heaven?

Turning to his “A Sacramental Meditation,” we read in closing a remarkable echo of that thought:

…when Christians are seated at a communion table, and are near Christ, they are at the gate of heaven, for Christ is that gate. Time and eternity, heaven and earth, meet in him, and he is the medium of communication between the eternal I AM and worthless sinners. In his face they behold the glory of God, and through him they obtain a Pisgah’s view of the promised land, and are blessed with foretastes of heaven.

In “The Believer Embracing Christ” we read that:

The believer sometimes meets with Christ and embraces him in the arms of faith when he is seated at a communion table, then by faith, he sees a mangled, bleeding, dying, rising, triumphant Jesus, heading his own table, and feasting his blood-bought children with the bread of life and the milk and honey of Canaan.

How similar is that thought to this from his “Sacramental Meditation”:

A sacramental table is a dreadful place; for here heaven is brought down to earth. The richest branches of the tree of life, that grows in the midst of the paradise of God, overhang this table, and believers may stretch forth the hand of faith and pluck the sweet fruits of the heavenly Canaan. The table of God is spread with the dainties of Paradise; the bread of life, the hidden manna, and the grapes of Eschol, with all the rich blessings purchased by the death of Jesus Christ.

Examples of such eloquent use of sacramental language could be multiplied in his sermons. It seems that he was most in heaven while on earth at the communion table. Read his sermons to discover for yourself the rich experimental and eucharistic theology of James McGready.