John Calvin's Grave: A poem by Samuel J. Fisher

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Samuel Jackson Fisher (1847-1928) was a leading African-American Presbyterian minister in his day, who served as the pastor of the Swissvale Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for 35 years; served as a long-time member of the faculty of Chatham University (then known as the Pennsylvania College for Women; served as President of the Presbyterian Board of Missions to the Freedmen; and who authored many articles, as well as a volume of poetry dedicated to his deceased wife: The Romance of Pittsburgh or Under Three Flags, and Other Poems. We have extracted here one poem which is especially noteworthy; a tribute to the great Reformer who was buried in Geneva, Switzerland, in an unmarked grave.

John Calvin’s Grave

In fair Geneva, near the arrowy Rhone,
John Calvin sleeps,—his grave without a stone.
Unmarked, unknown, yet near the busy street
Which echoed often to his hurrying feet.
While far away he saw those peaks of snow,
The Alps, so radiant in the sunset glow.
And watched Mt. Blanc's upsoaring dome,
Like some huge billow with its crest of foam,
Fit type of him, whose vast majestic mind
In moral grandeur towers o'er mankind.
Around that peak the tempests whirl and lower
And crackling lightnings blaze in hateful power,
Yet pass, and leave it stainless, strong and pure.
So from his foes his fame emerged secure;
And tho' against his work fierce hatred ranged.
Unmoved he stood, in power and aim unchanged.
Frail was his body, and, though racked with pain.
On, on he toiled, ne'er pausing to complain.
Strong were his friendships, pure his love and home;
Christ filled his heart, and not foul passion's foam.
No fear of Pope, — no dread of earthly kings
Turned his calm eyes from truth and heavenly things.
Humbled he spoke of God's wide sovereignty.
Yet taught the lowliest peasant to be free;
And while he bowed before God's boundless plan.
To souls oppressed he taught the rights of man.

Oh, clear-eyed student of the Holy Word,
Thy plea for freedom tyrants trembling heard!
Oh, wide-browed thinker of God's lofty thought,
What growth of nations have thy strong words wrought!
Thine was the task to magnify God's laws.
And trace for each event its first and only cause,
Breaking man's pride by views of God's control,
Yet sure God's child was every human soul.
And he who knelt most humbly to his God,
Secure in faith could walk unblanched abroad.
Thy words made gentle women fear no shame,
They nerved the martyr to await the flame.
From heart to heart they passed around the world,
Till kings were faced, or from their thrones were hurled.
Rest, noble Calvin, take thy well-earned sleep.
Thy fame far time shall undiminished keep.
In that low grave thy fragile body lies,
But God has writ thy name across the skies!

A poem by William H. Sheppard: The Cross

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William Henry Sheppard (1865-1927) was among the earliest African American Presbyterian missionaries. His work in the Congo - in terms of his missionary labors, his exposé (the joint work of his co-laborer William McCutchan Morrison) of the cruel atrocities practiced by the Belgian government in Congo, and his collection of African art and artifacts - is legendary. And, it should be noted, he was also a poet.

For your Sabbath reading here is a poem of his worthy of meditation.

The Cross

God laid upon my back a grievous load,
A heavy cross to bear along the road;
I staggered on, till, lo! one weary day,
An angry lion leaped across my way.
I prayed to God, and swift at His command
The cross became a weapon in my hand;
It slew my raging enemy, and then
It leaped upon my back a cross again!
I faltered many a league, until at length,
Groaning, I fell and found no further strength.
I cried: “O God! I am so weak and lame,”
And swift the cross a winged staff became,
It swept me on until I retrieved my loss,
Then leaped upon my back again a cross.
I reached a desert; on its burning track
I still perceived the cross upon my back.
No shad was there, and in the burning sun
I sank me down and thought my day was done;
But God’s grace works many a sweet surprise,
The cross became a tree before mine eyes.
I slept, awoke, and had the strength of ten,
Then felt the cross upon my back again.
And thus through all my days, from that to this,
The cross, my burden, has become my bliss;
Nor shall I ever lay my burden down,
For God shall one day make my cross a crown.

B.B. Warfield on 'Trusting in the Dark'

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That flower that follows the sun, doth so even in cloudy days; when it doth not shine forth, yet it follows the hidden course and motion of it: so the soul that moves after God, keeps that course when he hides his face, is content, yea, is glad at his will in all estates, or conditions, or events. — Robert Leighton, Sermon XXII: The Confidence of Faith, in Whole Works, Vol. 3, p. 347

B.B. Warfield, in Four Hymns, and Some Religious Verses (1910), adapted this famous saying by Archbishop Leighton into a poem of his own.

TRUSTING IN THE DARK

Said Robert Leighton, holy man,
Intent a flickering faith to fan
Into a steady blaze: —
"Behold yon floweret to the sun,
As he his daily course doth run,
Turn undeclining gaze.

"E'en when the clouds obscure his face,
And only faith discerns the place
Where in the heavens he soars,
This floweret still, with constant eye,
The secret places of the sky
Untiringly explores.

"Look up, my soul! What can this be
But Nature's parable to thee?
Look up, with courage bright!
The clouds press on thee, dense and black,
Thy Sun shines ever at their back —
Look up and see His light

The College Writings of B.B. Warfield

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B.B. Warfield studied at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) from 1868 to 1871. It was while he was a student that the man who would become so prolific a writer published his first material in The Nassau Literary Magazine.

In 1870 a poem appeared written by Warfield, based on 1 Maccabees 9:1-21, titled “The Jewish Thermopylae.”

During his senior year, various works by Warfield were published, both in The Nassau Literary Magazine and The Nassau Herald. In February 1871, in the former publication, he published a poem, “The Taking of the Suburbs,” as well as an essay titled “Milton’s Satan.”

In April 1871, he published 1) an essay on “Woman’s Mission,” 2) another essay about the “Poetic Genius of Poe” (this was signed N.E.D. - representing the last letter of the name Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield), 3) a brief poem beginning with the first line “Despise not the wrinkles of age,” and 4) an “Olla-podrida,” a “miscellany” or “literary bouquet,” which includes a poem called “A Serenade.”

An issue of The Nassau Herald, published on Class Day, June 26, 1871 by the graduating senior class of Princeton, includes an editorial by Warfield.

Each of these publications is identified as Warfield’s by John E. Meeter and Roger Nicole in A Bibliography of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, 1851-1921, p. 9. Together, it is believed that they constitute his earliest published writings, five of which are poems. As you read them remember that they are the works of a 19 or 20 year-old young man who would go on to become one of America’s greatest theologians. It noteworthy to ponder also that approximately four decades later, he published Four Hymns, and Some Religious Verse (1910). From his youth to his old age, Warfield was not only a student and then teacher of theology, but also a poet.

"Jubilee of days!" - Samuel J. Cassels on the Christian Sabbath

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Providence and Other Poems (1838), historically at least, is “a pioneer work in Georgia literature” (Lawrence Huff, “Samuel Jones Cassels: A Pioneer Georgia Poet,” in The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec. 1963), p. 412), one of the first books of poetry ever to be published in that state. In one section titled “The Church,” the Presbyterian minister-poet Cassels gives a special tribute to the Christian Sabbath that is worth reflecting upon as the Lord’s Day draws nigh.

The first was Sabbath Day — holiest of time.
For many ends did God this day appoint;
The first — to celebrate his glorious praise
For wise construction of the universe,
And living memory thereof transmit
To farthest sons of distant time unborn.
The man, who by the nerve of mighty arm —
By laboring long and hard with weighty care —
Has founded by his sword an Empire vast, —
And widely spread o'er all the rescued land,
The beauteous works of peace and happiness —
The massy stone erects on high and there
His own, his country's name he writes, and stamps
The date, when sheath'd his sword, the work was done.
But chief, this day now points to second birth
Of world and man — to Resurrection-morn —
When vanquished Hell, and Death are captive bound,
From rocky tomb the great Redeemer rose
And brought in triumph high the vict'ry forth.
Another end — to give to thoughtless men
A leisure time to fit their souls for Heaven —
In shadows substances to show — and thus
T' unlock their fast clenched arms, and cast away
The world, more lov'd by most than Book of God.

Loveliest of time! Jubilee of days!
In secret bower hid, the christian rais'd
His eye expecting long its dawn to hail:
And as upon the distant East it blush'd
He met with rolling tear of holy joy —
Felt through his soul diffus'd a richer light,
And bending low at holy feet divine,
His heart pour'd forth in drops of gratitude;
Then rais'd his eye, in faith he fervent ask'd,
For dawn of endless Sabbath on his soul
O'er all the land sweet stillness wide prevail'd;
And nature joyous seem'd in silent gaze
Upon her God — while ear of saint devout
The footsteps soft of angels walking hears,
And sweetest notes that from the world of light
Escaping fell from lips of Seraphim.
High Heaven and Earth seem'd join'd in union sweet,
And God with either hand encircling each
Did to his bosom bring the Archangel
And the saint that wept in penitence —
Them brothers call and Him their Father kind.

May your Lord’s Day be blessed, dear reader.

A Conventicle in Snow Time: David McAllister

A Conventicle in Snow Time

A DEEP-TONED, bitter, sullen wind was sweeping,
Across the upland waste;
Each living thing its covert close was keeping,
Or sought it in its haste.

Yet, when the swirling, drifted snow was filling
Each cave and sheltered nook,
A solemn, plaintive strain of praise came thrilling
Up from an ice-bound brook.

A remnant, sore-bested, had come together,
To mourn, and watch, and pray,
Unmindful of the wind and dreary weather
Of that wild, wrathful day.

A valiant and a famous standard-bearer
Was lately done to death; —
One, who of many perils was a sharer,
Had spent his latest breath.

It was a time of sorrow, dread, and grieving,
To those heart-stricken men;
And they had met, their burdened souls relieving,
Up in that stormy glen.

A youth of comely form and mien arising,
The gospel message told.
In fervour nought withholding, nought disguising,
Like faithful seer of old.

All in the wintry wind and snow-drift standing,
With cold and frost distrest,
His earnest voice, the heart and ear commanding,
Moved every captive breast.

For higher gifts of hope and faith he pleaded —
For greater love and zeal;
Not vainly uttered; not unfelt, unheeded,
Passed the sublime appeal!

On him and all around the snow was falling,
Yet there they held their place.
Though, overhead, the winter-blast appalling
Pursued its rapid chase.

From morn to darkling eve they clung together,
Unwilling to depart;
The saintly love they bore to one another
Had bound them heart to heart.

And yet, a higher sentiment withheld them
From courting selfish rest;
The love of Him whose friendly eye beheld them
Unworthy thought represt.

Oh, boast not men whose heartless, cruel mission
Was tracking such as these,
To gratify a tyrant’s wrong ambition —
His bigot whims to please!

And, tell us not of chivalry and daring,
Or deeds of valour done;
When, at the price of cruelty unsparing,
The palm of fame was won!

Swift come the season, when the deep devotion
Of those who braved the rage
Of banded furies, roused to fell commotion,
Shall every heart engage!

Be not far hence, bright day, when holier feeling
The world wide shall control,
And love unstinted, to the heart appealing,
Shall mould each kindred soul.

For, wheresoever PIETY is cherished,
And loved by young and old,
The grand old memories of martyrs perished
Are treasured and extolled!

David McAllister, Poets and Poetry of the Covenant, pp. 212-214

Lays of the Cross: Charles Washington Baird

One of the great Huguenot historians, Charles Washington Baird, like so many of our Presbyterian ministers, was also a poet. Posthumously published, his Lays of the Cross constitute a series of seven poems relating to Christ on the cross, followed by one additional poem titled “Domine, Quo Vadis?” These are found in the Memorials of the Rev. Charles W. Baird, D.D. (1888). Take time to peruse his poetry because he used his gifts to point his readers to the cross. One sample:

BEARING THE CROSS

I saw the Lord with painful steps and slow
To Calvary’s height His weary course begin;
His bending shoulders bore the Cross of sin;
His fainting spirit carried all our woe;
I saw the priests in cruel triumph go;
The careless soldiers hemmed their prisoner in,
Whose pallid brow, whose visage marred and thin,
The curious crowds with sorrowing pity know.
”My suffering Lord!” with trembling voice I cried,
When first that wounded form I chanced to see:
”To me, to me, Thy shameful load confide;
Be mine the bliss to bear the Cross for Thee!”
”Nay, zealous child,” my gracious Lord replied,
”Bear thou thy cross, and come and follow Me.”

He Shines in All That's Fair - Maltbie D. Babcock

Presbyterian minister Maltbie Davenport Babcock (1858-1901) lived a short life on this earth, all of his works were published posthumously, but what a treasure one can find in reading them.

One of his most famous compositions was originally written as a poem (“My Father’s World”), but was later, in 1915, set to music as a hymn (“This Is My Father’s World”) by his friend Franklin L. Sheppard. First published in Thoughts For Every-Day Living from the Spoken and Written Words of Maltbie Davenport Babcock (1901), it is a beautiful expression of the wonder of God’s creation and a reminder that God is on the throne over this world. It was inspired in part by the view from his regular hikes along the Niagara Escarpment. Before leaving on such hikes he would often tell his secretary, “I’m going to see my Father’s world.”

The original poem is comprised of sixteen stanzas of four verses each. Sheppard’s hymn-version contains three stanzas of six verses each. Sheppard’s version is given below, but take time to peruse the original poem in Thoughts For Every-Day Living, which is a remarkable collection of devotional thoughts filled with many other precious gems. One line from Babcock’s poem is also highlighted in 2001 book by Richard Mouw, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace.

1 This is my Father’s world,
and to my listening ears
all nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world;
I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
his hand the wonders wrought.

2 This is my Father’s world;
the birds their carols raise;
the morning light, the lily white,
declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world;
he shines in all that’s fair.
In the rustling grass I hear him pass;
he speaks to me everywhere.

3 This is my Father’s world;
oh, let me not forget
that, though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world;
why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King, let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad.

The Storm Is in His Hand

William Cowper once famously wrote:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

Samuel Jones Cassels, whose pastorates ranged from Norfolk, Virginia to Savannah, Georgia, was a 19th century Presbyterian minister and poet who was acquainted with coastal storms. The imagery of tempests figures often in his poetry. In fact, his gravestone in Midway, Georgia was badly damaged by a storm in 2012.

Like Cowper, he knew who was sovereign over the wind and the waves. In Providence he wrote:

Himself an ocean wide of purest bliss

O’er Ocean’s face He drives the storm along,
And at his bottom deep He counts his pearls;


The storm that raged He held in firmest grasp,
And to it gave its power, and course, and end.

It's Never Night in Heaven

Louis FitzGerald Benson was not only, as a scholar and an historian, "America's foremost hymnologist," he was also a poet in his own right. This composition is from his 1897 volume titled Hymns and Verses. It is a sweet meditation on Revelation 22:5. 

"And There Shall Be No Night There"

THERE'S a red burst of dawn, and a white light of noon,
[And the hues of the rainbow are seven;]
But the best thing of all, when the dark comes so soon,
Is to know that it's ne'er night in Heaven.

There's a break in the clouds, and a sheen on the rain,
[And the hues of the rainbow are seven;]
But the sweetest of lights that can brighten our pain
Is to know that it's ne'er night in Heaven.

There's a calm' of the heart through the long after- noon,
[And the gifts of the Spirit are seven,]
When there floats on the dusk, like a leaf-whispered tune,
"Did you know that it's ne'er night in Heaven?"

There's a gleam through the night of a throne set afar,
[And the hues of its rainbow are seven;]
But it stands not so sure as God's promises are. Who has said,
"There is no night in Heaven."

The Prodigal Returning to His Fathers

In his brief life Irving Spence (1799-1836) most famously left behind his Letters on the Early History of the Presbyterian Church in America, addressed to Robert M. Laird and published posthumously. 

Spence was not only a Presbyterian ruling elder, an attorney, a correspondent and an historian - he was also a poet. Among the handful of poems that we have from his pen recorded in this volume, one particular composition by Spence is given here for your devotional consideration. 

THE PRODIGAL RETURNING TO HIS FATHER.

I will arise, and go to my Father, and will say unto him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.—Luke xiv. 18, 19.

Long the ways of sin I've trod.
Long have walked the downward road,
Long rebelled against my God,
And sovereign grace have spurn'd,
Mercy's calls I've all withstood,
Trampled on redeeming blood,
Fearless of that fiery flood,
Where all the tares are burned.

Hating God, his word, his cause,
People, government, and laws.
My dear Redeemer, and his cross.
My guilt how great its load!
Loving sin, I scorned to pray;
Harder made my heart each day;
Wandering farther from the way
To glory and to God.

Light now bursts upon my eyes:
Now I see with sad surprise.
How vile I am, and w^ill arise.
And to my Father go;
"Father, I'm a wretch undone!
For my sins can ne'er atone;
But the merits of thy Son,
Can save from endless wo.''

I for Christ my Saviour pant,
Jesus, thou art all I want;
Be thou mine, and to me grant.
To sit at thy dear feet:
I thy yoke no longer fear,
I will all thy burden bear,
Wage with sin unceasing war,
Dear Saviour, I submit.