The Death of J.W. Alexander

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In the spring of 1859, at the age of 55, the health of James Waddel Alexander began to decline. He made the decision to leave New York City, where he labored as pastor of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and head south to Virginia. It was thought that the curative effects of the western mountain springs could help to alleviate the chills he was experiencing. His long-time correspondent, John Hall, encouraged him to think about a trip out West, but Alexander determined to return to his home state (Alexander’s letter to Hall from Charlottesville, dated June 7, 1859).

Red Sweet Springs, as it appeared in 1867. Source:

Red Sweet Springs, as it appeared in 1867. Source:

In the mid-19th century, places such as Warm Springs in Bath County and Red Sweet Springs (also known Sweet Chalybeate Springs) in Allegheny County drew many visitors and patients seeking a return to good health. Alexander visited the Warm Springs Hotel first, arriving on July 13. His delight in seeing the mountains was evident during the days following. Dr. James L. Cabell, Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who accompanied him to the springs, reported that:

In his daily drives, his enjoyments of our mountain scenery, which is unsurpassed for its varied beauty and grandeur, was almost rapturous. It had never before, he said, been half so great. He would repeatedly say that he had no language of his own adequate to the expression of his feelings, and could only exclaim with the Psalmist: ‘Oh that men would praise the Lord for His goodness and for His wonderful works to the children of men.’

Dr. Cabell also reported that Alexander experienced an immediate boost in his health, but that he was also anxious to move on to Red Sweet Springs. On July 20, Alexander commenced the next leg of his trip, but had to stop for the night due to the onset of extreme physical pain while traveling on a hot Virginia road. Dysentery began to afflict him that night. The next day he made it to the Red Sweet Springs. But over the course of the following week, he battled a fever, and the dysentery took its toll on his body too. Although the proprietor of the cottage he stayed at, the doctor, and others, made every effort to provide comfort and aid, Alexander realized that he was coming to the end of his mortal journey. Before the end came, according to Cabell, Alexander said:

I have not been in the habit of talking much on the subject of my own spiritual states of feeling. With respect to my subjective religion, I have often disappointed people who look for manifestations of a certain kind. But I have frequently made known to Elizabeth [his wife] the grounds of my hope…Let me say one word more with respect to the solemn event to which you have called my attention. If the curtain were to drop now, and I were this moment ushered into the presence of my Maker, what would be my feelings? They would be these: first, I would prostrate myself in an unutterable sense of my nothingness and guilt; but, secondly, I would look upon my Redeemer with an inexpressible assurance of faith and love. A passage of Scripture which expresses my present feeling is this: “I KNOW WHOM” (with great emphasis) “I have believed, and am assured that he is able to keep that which I have committed to him against that day.

These words were uttered by Alexander about 20 hours before he breathed his last at around 5:00 am on the Lord’s Day, July 31, 1859. Thus did he, who had brought such consolation and comfort to many during his ministry, enter into the presence of the Lord whom he loved.

J.W. Alexander’s grave at Princeton Cemetery (photo by R. Andrew Myers).

J.W. Alexander’s grave at Princeton Cemetery (photo by R. Andrew Myers).

Alexander’s body was transported from Red Sweet Springs, Virginia and buried some days later at Princeton Cemetery, where his father Archibald Alexander, and later his brother Joseph A. Alexander, were also laid to rest. Last year, this writer paid a visit to his grave. Today, we remember a prince in Israel who died exactly 160 years ago.

God's Providence in the Deaths of Log College Press Saints

Henry A. Boardman once had occasion to preach a funeral sermon for several individuals who perished in a railroad accident. In his 1855 sermon titled "God’s Providence in Accidents,” he said:

That death is among the objects of his providence, is a necessary corollary from his sovereignty. It is one of his inalienable prerogatives to create life, and he alone can destroy it. “I kill; and I make alive." Such is the concatenation of events, that the death of an obscure individual, or of an infant, at a different time or place from that which he had prescribed, might disorganize the entire scheme of terrestrial things, and even spread confusion through the whole boundless domain of his administration. "Is there not an appointed time to man upon earth?" "Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with thee: thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass." "Thou turnest man to destruction, and sayest: 'Return, ye children of men.'“

And this implies that the mode, and all the attending circumstances of death, are appointed in every instance. We may no more exempt one class of deaths from God's control, than another. The sword, the poison, the accident, are as much his instruments as the paralysis and the fever — the battle is no less his than the pestilence. The murder of Abel, and the tranquil death of Jacob; Joseph dying in Egypt, and Moses in Mount Nebo; Jonathan slain in battle and David peacefully expiring in the bosom of his family; John the Baptist beheaded, and Stephen stoned to death; all have a common place in the great scheme of Providence.

One of the features that makes Log College Press’ database of American Presbyterian writers so special is that — as often as possible — we have included photographs of these men, along with pictures of where they are laid to rest, as well as biographical information. Reviewing the lives and deaths of our Log College Press men, it is worth taking note of some of the unusual ways that some of them have finished their earthly course.

Maltbie Davenport Babcock — Composer of the famous hymn “This Is My Father’s World,” “Babcock died at age 42 in Naples, Italy, on May 18, 1901, returning from a trip to the Holy Land. According to a New York Times report of May 20, 1901, and widely carried by newspapers coast-to-coast, he committed suicide by slitting his wrist and ingesting ‘corrosive sublimate’ or mercuric chloride. He was being treated in the International Hospital in Naples for what was called ‘Mediterranean fever,’ an archaic term for brucellosis. Several of his travel companions suffered from this bacterial infection which causes fever, pain and depression. Babcock had been hospitalized for ‘nervous prostration’ (depression) in Danville, New York, ten years before his death.” — Wikipedia

Hezekiah James Balch — Presbyterian minister and one of the three primary authors of the 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, it is not known precisely how he died, merely that he died in early 1776, around the age of 30.

Elias Boudinot — After signing the Treaty of New Echota (1835), which ceded all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi to the U.S. federal government, Boudinot was assassinated at his Oklahoma home on June 22, 1839, by a group of Cherokees who were angry about his role in the removal of the tribe.

Ephraim Brevard - The reputed author of the 1775 Mecklenburg Resolutions and the scribe who penned the 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence spent time in British custody as a prisoner of war at Charleston, South Carolina, where the unwholesome air and diet crushed his health. After his release, he reached the home of his friend John McKnitt Alexander, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, only to breathe his last shortly thereafter in 1781.

William Jennings Bryan, Sr. — This Presbyterian statesman and lawyer is most famous today for his role in the 1925 Scopes Trial in Tennessee regarding the teaching of evolution. He won the case for the prosecution (contra evolution), which was decided on July 21, 1925, though he lost in the court of public opinion. However, he passed away in his sleep just five days later on July 26, 1925.

Aaron Burr, Sr. — Burr was the second president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton). Like the next two succeeding presidents (Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Davies), Burr preached a New Year’s sermon on Jeremiah 28:16 and died later that same year on September 24, 1757.

James Caldwell — The “Fighting Parson” of the American War of Independence, “Rev. Caldwell was picking up a traveler in his buggy. After carrying the baggage to the horse-drawn buggy, he went back to pick up a package. An American sentry ordered him to stop but distance precluded the command from being heard. With that, the sentry fired and killed Rev. Caldwell on November 24, 1781. At the trial and subsequent hanging of the sentry, there were rumors that he had been bribed by the British to kill the soldier parson. At any rate, he was buried beside his wife in the cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethtown, New Jersey. A monument was placed up honoring him in 1846. Three towns in New Jersey are named after him, including an educational facility.” — This Day in Presbyterian History

Samuel Davies — Davies was the fourth president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton). Like each of the prior two presidents (Aaron Burr, Sr. and Jonathan Edwards), Davies preached a New Year’s sermon on Jeremiah 28:16 (“This Very Year Thou Shalt Die!”), and by February 4, 1761, Davies had passed away from pneumonia.

Moses Drury Hoge — “On Friday, November 4, 1898, Moses Drury Hoge was heading home after consoling a bereaved family when he suddenly heard the clanging bell of a trolley as it rammed into his buggy. He was thrown into the air and landed on his right side on the stone pavement and was severely injured. Dr. Hoge suffered with his injuries until he died on January 6, 1899.” — Presbyterians of the Past

George Howe — "In the case of George Howe, his fatal injury occurred after the Lord’s Day service. He was riding home when he was thrown from his carriage resulting in the breaking of one of his legs. He survived through two weeks of suffering before dying on April 15, 1883.” — Presbyterians of the Past

James Latta — An Irish-American Presbyterian who served as the third moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, “The circumstances of his death, as related by one of his daughters, were as follows: — Riding to church one Sabbath with his daughter Mary, he was thrown from the carriage, and falling on his head, he was somewhat stunned. He observed to her, — ‘I am killed; but do not tell your mother.’ He proceeded to church, preached with some difficulty, and returned home. He soon after fell into a sleepy, comatose state, until his daughter, the next day, alarmed, related to her mother what had happened. Help was immediately called in, but in vain. He continued a few days, almost insensible, and then died.” — This Day in Presbyterian History

John Greshem Machen — After traveling to North Dakota in December 1936, Machen developed an inflammation of the lungs, and then was hospitalized for pneumonia. Before he passed away on January 1, 1937, at the age of 55, he dictated a telegram to his friend and colleague John Murray in which he stated: “I'm so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it."

Nathaniel Smyth McFetridge — In 1881, McFetridge was seriously injured in a railroad accident, and never fully recovered. He passed away on December 3, 1886 at Minneapolis, Minnesota at the age of 44.

Benjamin Morgan Palmer — “Palmer was struck by a streetcar in New Orleans on May 5, 1902, and died twenty days later.” — Wikipedia

Charles Henry Parkhurst — Parkhurst died on September 8, 1933, by sleepwalking and walking off the porch roof of his Ventnor City, New Jersey, home.

David Ramsay — Famed Presbyterian historian David “Ramsay was appointed by a court to examine one William Linnen, a tailor known for serial litigation and nuisance suits, after Linnen had attempted to murder his attorney. Ramsay reported to the court that Linnen was ‘deranged’ and that it would be ‘dangerous to let him go at large.’ After apparently regaining his sanity, Linnen was released; though he threatened Ramsay, the latter did not take the threat seriously.

On May 6, 1815, at 1:00 p.m., Ramsay passed Linnen on Broad Street in Charleston. Linnen took out a ‘horseman's pistol’ that he had concealed in a handkerchief, and shot Ramsay twice, in the back and hip. According to a contemporary source:

Having been carried home, and being surrounded by a crowd of anxious citizens, after first calling their attention to what he was about to utter, he said ‘I know not if these wounds be mortal; I am not afraid to die; but should that be my fate, I call on all here present to bear witness, that I consider the unfortunate perpetrator of this deed a lunatic, and free from guilt.’

Ramsay died at 7 a.m. on May 8, 1815.” — Wikipedia

Robert Lodowick Stanton - “Stanton died en route to Europe and was buried at sea on May 28, 1885, at the age of seventy-six.” — Wikipedia

William Tennent III — “In 1777, upon the death of his minister father, he sought to bring his surviving mother to South Carolina. In that trip, he was seized with fever and died on the way. It was said that his mind was calm at the sudden turn of events and that he was willing to die. Thus, on this Day in August 11, 1777, he went into the presence of his heavenly Father.” — This Day in Presbyterian History

Samuel Hall Young — This pioneer missionary who survived an accident on an Alaskan glacier decades previously was hit and killed by a streetcar in Clarksburg, West Virginia on September 2, 1927.

October 22, 1880: William S. Plumer Entered Into Glory

It was at 3:20 am on Friday, October 22, 1880, that William Swan Plumer breathed his last in a hospital bed in Baltimore, Maryland after complications from kidney stone surgery.

His daughters wrote a memorial to their father describing his last days in which they recounted some of his last words: “‘When I first knew of the operation, my faith was as a mountain that could not be shaken. Then for awhile my thoughts were of man; but since I have been here I have never had in my life such clear manifestations of divine love.’ Again: ‘I did not want to die without giving my testimony on this bed that God is a faithful God.’”

His body was afterwards transported by train and laid to rest at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, next to his wife’s, where their earthly remains await the great Resurrection. His tombstone reads: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” Phil. i.21. A tablet erected to his memory in the First Presbyterian Church of Petersburg, Virginia, where he ministered for 4 years, also reads:

“Strengthened with might by His power.”

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day.”

Plumer once mused following a return visit to his old childhood home:

How short is life! It is a vapour, a shadow, a tale that is told. Fifty years have passed since I roamed over these fields, and bathed in these waters, and yet that whole time seems like a dream. All flesh is grass. Most of the companions of my early life have already gone beyond the bounds of time. Soon earth will know none of us any more forever.

How certain is death. None escape. The young and healthy may die; the old and sickly must. None can long withstand the assaults of disease. The grave-yard has filled up wonderfully.

What a Saviour we have in the Lord Jesus Christ! How wisdom and tenderness, power and love, grace and truth, shine out in him. “He is still in office for us; he pleads our cause before his Father; he rules the universe for our welfare; and he teaches us wisdom." Blessed one! how we ought to love him.

If we are in Christ, what a blessed meeting we shall soon have with all the redeemed in glory. Many of the best friends I ever had are gone before me. I sympathize with good old Richard Baxter when he says: "I must confess, as the experience of my own soul, that the expectation of loving my friends in heaven principally kindles my love to them while on earth. If I thought I should never know them, and consequently never love them after this life is ended, I should number them with temporal things, and love them as such; but I now converse with my pious friends in a firm persuasion that I shall converse with them forever; I take comfort in those that are dead or absent, believing that I shall shortly meet them in heaven, and love them with a heavenly love." It would be easy to make out a list of such old friends large enough to cover many pages. Their memory is precious. I hope soon to see them, and unite with them in singing the song of Moses and the Lamb (Words of Truth and Love [1867], pp. 51-52, 58-59).

Cortland Van Rensselaer on Numbering Our Days

In January of 1860, an article appeared in The Presbyterian Magazine by its editor, Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, Sr., and it was included posthumously in his Essays and Discourses, Practical and Historical (1861), edited by his son, Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, Jr.. Titled “On Numbering Our Days,” it was based on the text from Moses in Psalm 90:12: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

It is a meditation on the brevity of life and our need, consequently, to seek after wisdom. The time that is given to us is precious. He highlights especially the value of Sabbath-time, noting that 52 Sabbaths, or roughly seven weeks, each year amount to a special opportunity to glorify God. Are we making use of the time given to us? Are we improving the opportunities, temptations, afflictions and experiences of our lives consistent with our purpose on this earth as we look ahead to our permanent abode in heaven?

Our days indeed are numbered, but we do not know the number. Seven months after his meditation on numbering our days was published, Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, age 52, entered into his eternal rest. One does not know when that final numbered day will come, but Van Rensselaer’s meditation on the wisdom of Moses should ever be before our eyes. Take time to consider his counsel to number our days and apply our hearts unto wisdom.

”God has made our days long enough and short enough; certain enough and uncertain enough ; with joys enough and sorrows enough, to adapt life to the purposes of his grace and providence. May he, in his infinite mercy, so teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

An Upcoming Publication of Log College Press!

Here's a sneak peek at the cover of one of our upcoming publications, Lord willing: Aging in Grace: Letters to Those in the Autumn of Life, by Archibald Alexander. It will consist of five letters (originally styled "Letters to the Aged" by Alexander) that appeared in the third edition of Thoughts on Religious ExperiencesAnyone dealing with the infirmities of encroaching frailty and death (i.e., everyone) will be richly encouraged by Alexander's counsel. I hope that this booklet will be a blessing especially to the seniors in our congregations, who can sometimes be overlooked in pastoral ministry in favor of those younger. Alexander isn't afraid of speaking truth into difficult situations, so he names some of the sins peculiar to old age, and speaks frankly - yet hopefully - of death for the believer. We'll let you know once we've published it; and be on the lookout, it may even be a free ebook giveaway at some point!