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When I was compiling the Book of “ Prayers of Eminent Persons,” shewing how they conversed with God in their closets, and by what spiritual means they prepared their minds for that awful change when this mortal shall put on immortality, it occurred to me that a companion work would be useful to present examples of the deaths of eminent Christians, calculated to impress the mind of every reader with the beneficial effects of a due preparation for a future state by such holy exercises of devotion. The connexion between the two works will be seen to consist in this,—that as man was separated from God by the fall, so communion with God since the fall has been kept up by the appointed means of Prayer, (how good men have used those means I have already shewn,) and that good men are to be again united to God by Death, the appointed means for that re-union. This work has, therefore, been composed, in order to shew how good men conduct themselves when that re-union is about to take place.
Upon examination into biography it will be ascertained that whatever narratives of last hours tend to clevate the mind and improve the heart, almost exclusively record the behaviour and advice of eminently pious Christians: from which the inference will be of no little importance, in a moral point of view, to the man desirous of making human nature under every circumstance the object of his study. One might almost be led to suspect that a secret of no little importance lies concealed under this extraordinary circumstance, and that many whom the world to this day celebrate for their deeds, whether in the study, the camp, or the forum, have at last found out how evanescent, delusive, and full of sickening disappointment are all human schemes and occupations, which have not kept in view, as their supreme good and ultimate object, the glory of God and the welfare of mankind. The praises of irreligion and sensuality, avarice and ambition, have been seldom found to proceed from the lips of man when lying on his bed of sickness. As time recedes and eternity advances, he begins to learn that the only desirable possession is the consciousness that he has been guided through this transitory state of existence by the soundest of moral and religious principles, that he has cultivated the habits of piety and the dispositions of benevolence, and that, through the mercies of his Redeemer, he entertains the well-grounded, though humble hope of a joyful resurrection. Almost it seems as though the exhaling breaths of the sepulchre, casting their blight and mildew on the vanities of this world, withered away the hopes of the earthly minded, just in proportion as they drew near the brink of the grave; and that religion, like her divine Author, then appeared immortal; her honours unfading in their nature, and her light as the light of the rising sun, increasing more and more unto the perfect day.
The chamber of sickness and death exhibits in one awful view the fragility of our nature, the precarious tenure of time, the realities of eternity, and the fearful eclipse of all sublunary grandeur. A death-bed scene excites in most minds those impressions of seriousness which are commonly the forerunners of a moral improvement and a religious sense: some there are who have no leisure, and too many the disinclination, to visit the apartments of lingering disease and approaching dissolution ; and even those to whom this school of wisdom would be most beneficial are commonly the most reluctant to enter it and receive instruction, while the sick man's domestic, the medical attendant, and the parochial clergy, are the only persons called in to behold spectacles of mortality that might soften the hardened heart of a sceptic, or shame the grovelling pursuits of the worthless libertine. Who so fallen among the sons of ambition and pride, vanity and avarice, sensuality and profaneness, as to return from the couch of an expiring fellow mortal without having some one of those moral sensibilities called into action, which had been lulled to sleep by habitual thoughtlessness, or paralysed by the force of sinful passions ? What sight in the universe has been deemed more awfully sublime than that of some disembodied spirit entering the world as a warning voice to the sons of men ? And yet is not the spectacle almost equally solemn, (perhaps more permanent in its impression) of a spirit quitting this world, its condition in eternity yet undetermined? If one risen from the dead were sent to persuade those men to repentance who have despised the means of salvation, we doubt if success would attend the mission; but if they be led to mark the tranquillity of the departing Christian in the one chamber, or to endure in the other the agonising shrieks of remorse and despair of a conscience overwhelmed with a sense of sin and shame, little doubt can be entertained from actual experience as to the effect of such scenes on the human mind
This work will have answered one of its purposes if it
• Let these observations and the perusal of whatever narratives concern the last hours of the righteous, induce men not to lose any opportunity that may be presented of witnessing a death-bed scene, as one of the most effectual means of moral and religious improvement.
move these scenes of mortality somewhat nearer the view of such characters, and of too many who in this age of fashion and polite literature, of commercial enterprise and general attainment in the sciences, are so commonly drawn aside from even an occasional consideration of subjects awfully important to all, mostly so to those who least think of them.
If to the thoughtless and dissipated this work may haply prove a timely monitor, for the aged, the infirm, and sick, it may be found a not unsuitable companion. From a reflection on the experience of ages, and the testimony of the wisest and most learned adduced in this book, let it be inferred that Divine Providence alone can safely conduct men through the dark valley of the shadow of death, that faith and hope are the only beacon fires in the midnight of affiction, and that religion is the sole rod and staff to support the faltering limbs.
Let the aged learn from the instances herein adduced, that when the feeble frame of a man comes bending down under the weight of threescore years and ten, drawing nearer and still nearer to the home of his fathers, the most desirable objects of human life will be found to centre in a preparedness to die the death of the righteous, and to enter upon a new and glorified state of existence.
Let the sick and infirm assuredly know from this cloud of witnesses, that in the last great conflict with the king of terrors, the Holy Spirit has alleviated the pangs of the pious, changed their sorrows into joy of heart, and their complainings into songs of triumph. If such have been the effects in the instances adduced, why may they not be so in others ? Let the same means be used: the same results