Happy Birthday to Ashbel Green!

It was on July 6, 1762, that a "prince in Israel" was born. Ashbel Green lived a remarkable life (and wrote a fascinating autobiography) which is too much to sum up in blog post. But among the highlights: 

  • He served as a sergeant in the New Jersey Militia during the American War of Independence;
  • studied under John Witherspoon, and graduated valedictorian (1783) at the College of New Jersey; 
  • served as Tutor (1783-1785) and Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy (1785-1787) at the College of New Jersey;
  • served as associate pastor (1786-1793) and head pastor (1793-1812) of the Second Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia;
  • served as Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives (1792-1800);
  • advocated for the establishment of what became Princeton Theological Seminary, and served as President of its Board;
  • served as President of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) (1812-1822);
  • served as President of the Bible Society of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania Bible Society);
  • was President of the PCUSA Board of Missions; and
  • was the editor of The Christian Advocate.

When he preparing to assume the office of President of the College of New Jersey, he took time to pray and wrote down a set of personal resolutions that are worthy to consider as we remember his life (these are extracted from his autobiography, pp. 342-344). 

"November 16th, 1812. Having set apart this day for special prayer to God, in view of the duties on which I am entering as President of the College, I have thought it might be useful to me to commit some of my thoughts and resolutions to writing, that I may the more fully recollect and review them hereafter. I have entered on the station which I now occupy, with a deep sense of my insufficiency and unpreparedness for it. I have accepted of it (if I know myself) because I thought the call in providence was such that I should resist my duty if I refused it; and on the other hand, that if I accepted, I might hope that with all my incompetency, God might please to use me for some good. If he shall, all the glory will of course belong to himself; and I am at all times to guard my treacherous heart against taking any of it to myself: and if he shall not, I am resigned to his sovereign and holy appointment, knowing that his ways are sometimes inscrutable, but always right. The following resolutions appear to me proper at present, but I make them not as immutable, but only as my guide till I shall be deliberately convinced in regard to any of them that they are improper. The most of them I am perfectly satisfied that I never ought to change; and these may the God of all grace enable me to fulfil. 

Resolved, 1st. To consider myself as devoted to the service of the College for the remainder of my days, or till I shall leave the station which I now occupy. I am not to seek ease, or wealth, or fame, as my chief object. I am to endeavour to be a father to the institution. I am to endeavour to the utmost to promote all its interests as a father does, in what relates to his children and property. 

2d. To pray for the institution as I do for my family, that God may enable me to do my duty in it, prosper all its concerns, and especially that he may pour out his Spirit upon it, and make it what its pious founders intended it to be. 

3d. To watch against the declension of religion in my own soul, to which I may be more exposed than when I was the pastor of a congregation, and to which the pursuits of science themselves may prove a temptation. 

4th. To endeavour to acquire the true spirit of my station - a spirit of humble fortitude and firmness, of dignity and meekness, of decision and caution, of prudence and promptness, of courtesy and reserve, of piety unfeigned, with a suitable regard to the manners and opinions of the world. 

5th. To avoid anger and irritation. 

6th. To avoid the extremes of talkativeness and silence in company. 

7th. To endeavour to avoid all hurry, and to be always self-possessed. 

8th. Not to speak hastily on any subject - not on a subject of science before my pupils, lest a mistake should injure me or them. 

9th. To endeavour that my own family be exemplary in all things. 

10th. To view every officer of the College as a younger brother, and every pupil as a child. 

11th. To treat the officers of the College with great attention and respect. 

12th. To treat the students with tenderness and freedom, but yet as never to permit them to treat me with familiarity, or to lose their respect for me. 

13th. To be much employed in devising something for the improvement of the institution, or the advancement of its interests; but to avoid hasty and fanciful innovations of every kind. 

14th. In all cases of discipline to act with great coolness, caution, and deliberation; and having done this, to fear no consequences, nor to trouble myself much about them. 

15th. Having done my duty, to indulge no anxiety in regard to what may follow from it, at any time or in any way. This is to be left to God." 

Christ Most Precious

It was 170 years ago today that the 8th President of Princeton University, Ashbel Green (July 6, 1762 - May 19, 1848) passed on to glory. He wrote an autobiography of his fascinating life, which was edited and completed by his friend Joseph Huntington Jones (1797-1868)

The closing scenes of this remarkable life are worthy of remembrance on this day:

"The decline of Dr. Green was not attended with any positive disease which accelerated his death. Though every menacing symptom was watched by his most assiduous and skilful medical friend, who did much to retard his downward progress, yet the tendencies of more than four score years and five were not to be resisted by any power in the art of healing; and it was evident to all who saw him, that the time of his departure was at hand. How far the change from day to day was alarming to himself, or even perceptible, or what were his mental exercises, could be inferred only from the usual composure of his manner, and placid countenance, indicative of the movements of a mind engaged in meditations of interest and solemnity. To the questions often addressed to him on coming to his bedside, 'How do you feel?' 'what is the state of your mind?' his most frequent answer was, 'tolerable.' Indeed, this appeared to be almost the only word that he could speak, which was to some extent descriptive of his feelings. So long as he was able to articulate with so much distinctness as to be understood, he requested every clerical friend who entered the room to pray with him. To the remarks and quotations of the Scriptures by his brethren or others, he would usually give his assent by a motion of his lips or head, and sometimes by the utterance of a single word. When in one of these interviews, a brother remarked in the language of the apostle Peter, 'Unto you therefore, who believe, he is precious,' he promptly responded, 'Yes, precious Christ, precious Christ, precious Christ,' repeating it three times with the strongest emphasis. On another occasion, when we recited the well known hymn of Watts,

'How can I sink with such a prop
As my eternal God,'

the last two stanzas seemed to present a severe but faithful test of Christian attainment; but, said he, 'I try to say them.' At another time, when we repeated a favourite hymn by the same author, concluding with the stanza,

'A guilty, weak and helpless worm,
On thy kind arms I fall;
Be thou my strength and righteousness,
My Jesus and my all,'

he exclaimed, 'beautiful.' His wakeful hours at night, which were many, were spent in devotion. Several months before his decease, a member of the family was wakened at midnight by a noise in his room, like the sobbings of a person that was weeping. On going to the door and gently opening it, he was found with his eyes closed and lips moving, as if speaking in whispers with the greatest earnestness, while his cheeks and pillow were wet with his tears. When asked in the morning without any allusion to what we have mentioned, how he had slept, he answered, that 'he had had a precious night in communion with his Saviour.' One of the most interesting and impressive scenes of his last days occurred on the Sabbath but one before his death. After the family had returned from the morning service, it was observed on entering his room, that his mind was burdened with meditations, to which he wished to give utterance, and that his emotions were producing a restlessness and agitation that were inexplicable and alarming. To the inquiries of his ever watchful friend, what was the cause of his disquiet, and what she should do to relieve him, he appeared to be unable to give any verbal reply; when it occurred to her that she would suggest the reading of the Scriptures, to which he readily assented. The portion to which she turned was the first chapter of the Gospel of John, and finding that he became tranquil and attentive, she read deliberately to the close. The sixteenth verse, 'And of his fulness have we all received, and grace for grace,' was a passage of peculiar interest to him, and appeared to produce a flood of touching reminiscences. Several years ago, when confined to his chamber by sickness, he had composed three sermons on this text, which he afterwards preached to the edification of his whole congregation, and to the special benefit of several persons who received from them their permanent religious impressions. The reading of this chapter not only allayed that distressing nervous excitement which preceded it, but seemed to impart a sort of inspiration by which his faculties were for the time emancipated: his tongue was loosed, and he burst out into an ecstasy of joy and thanksgiving; 'blessing God for the gift of his Son and the gospel, which contained the record of his coming, life, crucifixion, resurrection, and intercession. That he had been permitted to preach this gospel, and had been honoured with any measure of success in his ministry. For the comforts which the gospel had imparted to him, and the ineffably glorious hopes it had inspired of a state of sinless perfection beyond the grave.' His voice was loud, his enunciation clear and distinct as it had been in the best days of his ministry; and this elevated strain of praise and holy exultation was continued until his strength was exhausted, and he sunk into a sweet and refreshing sleep. The scene was indescribably impressive and solemn. No person that did not see it, can imagine the majesty of the preacher and the power of his utterance, scarcely more unexpected than if he had spoken from the coffin, in which his dust was to be laid before the return of a second Sabbath. It seemed to be a momentary triumph of grace over the infirmities of expiring nature, a taking leave of mortality and the labours of his militant state, like the dying effort of Jacob; after which the Patriarch 'gathered up his feet into the bed and yielded up the ghost.' With this brief eucharistic service, his communion with earthly things ceased. From the time of this affecting occurrence his change was rapid and obvious to all. His difficulty in speaking was so great that he did not make the effort, but remained silent with his eyes closed, except when opened to signify to some inquirer his consciousness and understanding of the question, which he had not the power to answer. The occasional motion of his lips and lifting of his hands and clasping them upon his breast, were indications that his thoughts were absorbed in the exercises of meditation and prayer.

As his strength diminished there were intervals more and more prolonged of sleep, when these tokens of his thoughts were suspended. There seemed to be no bodily suffering nor mental disquiet, but a peaceful waiting for the release of his spirit, which at last was called away so gently, that the moment of its escape was not perceived even by those who were watching to see it. At the hour of six in the morning of the 19th of May, 1848, he was lying in his usual position, his face upward, arms extended, and hands clasped as if engaged in prayer, when one of his hands became detached from the other and fell at his side; the other remained elevated a moment or two longer, when it began to sink gradually until it nearly reached the body, when its muscular strength failed and it suddenly dropped. At the same instant the motion of his lips ceased, and it was discovered that he had ceased to breathe. Such were the closing scenes of his loner and useful life, and some of the circumstances that attended it. Had it been prolonged until the 6th of July, he would have completed his 88th year. Thus he came to his 'grave in a full aire, like as a shock of corn cometh in in his season'" (The Life of Ashbel Green, V.D.M., pp. 496-500).

Saturday Evening Retirement

Ashbel Green (1762-1848) in his Lectures on the [Westminster] Shorter Catechism, Vol. 2, p. 112, on the Fourth Commandment, after arguing in favor of midnight-to-midnight observance of the Christian Sabbath, or Lord's Day, offers this bit of wisdom regarding preparation for keeping the day holy: 

"As far as practicable, it will be well for you, my young friends, to adopt what I know has been the practice of some devout Christians; that is, to spend the evening of Saturday, as much as you conveniently can, in retirement from the world. The children of dissipation often spend it in parties of mirth and levity, or at theatres, or other places of carnal amusement; and they often add to their other sins, by an actual trespass on holy time. Take for yourselves an exactly opposite course. Whenever you can, so order your affairs that your worldly occupations on the evening preceding the Lord's day, may be of such a retired and peaceful kind, as to admit of serious meditation avoid promiscuous company altogether; let your associations at this time, be with the pious, and your conversation be on religious topics; or better still, if you can, spend a part at least of the evening, in religious reading and devout meditation. I am well aware that may are so circumstanced that a stated compliance with this advice will not be practicable; and I offer it, not as pointing out a prescribed duty, but as a matter of Christian prudence, with those who are favoured in providence to have their time in some degree at their voluntary disposal. Even our ordinary devotions, on secular days, will not usually be performed to the greatest advantage, unless they are preceded by a short space of recollected and serious thought. And it is highly desirable, with a view to the most profitable spending of holy time, to prepare for it, by getting our minds into a devoted frame. It is delightful in deed to the practical Christian, when the evening which precedes the Lord's day is so spent, that his very dreams become devout; and that he awakes in the morning on which his Saviour rose from the dead, with the aspirations of his mind going forth to Him, as he is now seated on his throne in the heavens, and with the whole soul attuned to the employments of the sacred hours of this blessed day." 

How did Presbyterians think about missions 100 and 200 years ago? Read these books.

The Presbyterian church has always been a missionary church, desiring to bring the gospel to the tribes, tongues, people and nations around the world. And over the past two hundred years, our leading scholars have thought hard and written well on this topic. Ashbel Green wrote Presbyterian Missions in 1838, and Thomas Cary Johnson wrote Introduction to Christian Missions in 1909. Even though you probably won't agree with everything you read in these books, I have no doubt that reading them will give you a fresh perspective on your own ministry. The discussion of first principles and missionary motivations, and the stories of God's work in America and around the globe, will strengthen your faith and spur you on to love and good deeds.

Ashbel Green on the moral nature of the Sabbath, & the right interpretation of Colossians 2:16

"Let us now consider this subject in the light of Holy Scripture: and here I remark that it would appear strange indeed, that in the midst of a code of moral laws, intended to be of perpetual obligation, we should find one, and but one, of a merely ceremonial and temporary nature; and this without the smallest intimation that it was of a character different from the rest. There was, moreover, a marked difference between the manner in which the ten commandments were given, and that which was adopted in instituting the temporary ritual of the Hebrews. The ten commandments were uttered by an audible voice of Jehovah from Mount Sinai; and were also engraved by the finger of God on two tables of stone, which were to be laid up in the ark, and preserved with it in the most holy place. Not a single ceremonial institution, unless the fourth commandment is one, was given in this manner—a manner clearly intended to denote that those laws possessed a dignity and perpetuity of character, which did not belong to the ceremonial rites. These rites were indeed given by divine inspiration to Moses, and till the advent of the Saviour, were doubtless as binding on the Jews, as the precepts of the Decalogue. But the different manner in which they were promulged and preserved, seems clearly to intimate the Divine appointment, that the latter should be temporary, and the former perpetual...

From these considerations, and some others of a similar nature, which I do not think necessary to specify, we conclude, that the fourth commandment ought, beyond a question, to be regarded as a part of the moral law—equally obligatory, and as perpetual in its nature and design, as any other precept of the decalogue.

We are aware that those who represent the Jewish Sabbath as a ceremonial institution, endeavour to support their hypothesis by what the apostle says, Coloss. ii. 16,17. "Let no man, therefore, judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ." But when we consider that the writer of these words was in the practice of observing a particular day of the week, for special religious exercises, as is apparent from his epistles, as well as from the Acts of the Apostles, we cannot believe that he meant to condemn this practice. He would, by so doing, have condemned himself. By the Sabbath days, which are a shadow of things to come, he plainly means the Jewish festivals, in which holy convocations were held; and which are often in the Old Testament denominated Sabbaths. Indeed, it seems evident at once, by the enumeration in this passage of rites confessedly ceremonial, that the apostle is speaking exclusively of them. And accordingly, this prohibition is directed to Sabbath days, in the plural number, and not to the weekly Sabbath, which would have been mentioned in the singular, if that had been his object."

-- From his Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, Volume 2

A 19th Century American Presbyterian Commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism

If I asked you for a list of commentaries on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, chances are this two volume set by Ashbel Green wouldn't be on it. But you can find it here, written for the youth of his day. He also published a history of Presbyterian mission work during the 19th century. There's more Ashbel Green material out there to be found, so check back again soon.