Somewhere along the way I read something that told me that Barton Warren Stone, one of the “Founders” of my spiritual tradition, had “died like a Christian.” I was either in Christian College or in seminary when I came across this statement, and I remember thinking to myself when I saw it, “what a curious thing to say.” You see, Barton Warren Stone “lived like a Christian” too, and that seemed to me to be so much more important to say. In fact, while I have some rather substantial issues with Stone’s theology – particularly his view of the nature of Christ and His saving work on the cross, I have no issues whatsoever with Stone’s life of Christian devotion and discipleship. Everything I know about Barton Warren Stone only bolsters my opinion that he was the most compellingly Christian man among our Founders. And in my early 20’s, the proof of this was the way that he had lived his life so generously, so justly, so righteously… so, well, Christianly! When I was twenty-something, the fact that Barton Stone had “lived like a Christian” was so much more important to me than the observation that he had “died like a Christian.” But now I’m in my 60’s, and as I recently told the church I’m serving in a sermon on the second Beatitude – “Blessed are those who morn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4) –
Death is no longer an abstraction for me. I’ve buried my mother and my father, my mother-in-law and my father-in-law, a nephew, some ministerial colleagues, lots of church members, a number of strangers, and some of my very best friends. And I know that one day I am going to die too. I’ve entered the zone when this ordinarily happens to people. There will be no escaping it.
Right now, as I write this, I’m nearly as old as Barton Warren Stone was when he “died like a Christian,” and rather than the curiosity that this statement was to me in my early 20’s when I first read it, I now hear it as a comforting thought, and a timely challenge.
I am preaching through the Beatitudes right now at the church I am serving as an Interim Minister. I don’t believe that the Beatitudes are prescriptions for our behavior, a list of moral and spiritual things that we must work on in order to get God’s blessing. No, what I believe is that the Beatitudes are descriptions of our actual present condition as human beings. They are the “cracks that let the light in.” And the reason why I’m taking eight weeks to work through them with this church is because I believe that the Beatitudes map out the terrain of the human heart that needs the Gospel. For a church like this one that’s looking to renew its Gospel ministry, there are few ways of getting at the core needs of human beings, or at the ways that God heals those wounds more directly, or helpfully, than by an understanding of the Beatitudes. To be a Church of the Beatitudes (which I believe that every church in the 21st century is going to have to become) is to be a church that deliberately positions itself in compassionate proximity to these human hurts and hopes where it can specifically and concretely extend the kind of help that the Gospel of Jesus Christ offers. The crack that the second Beatitude opens up in us is death, and comfort is the way that the Gospel goes about healing this most grievous of all wounds.
It was as I was processing this idea last week in preparation for preaching that the old claim that Barton Stone had “died like a Christian” flitted across the screen of my memory, and I knew that I needed to know what it mean to say such a thing about somebody. I found the answer in “The Biography of Elder Barton Warren Stone, Written by Himself – With Additions and Reflections by Elder John Rogers” (1847) in Chapter XIII – “Notice of the death and Character of B. W. Stone.” Jacob Creath, an early preacher in our Movement, was actually with Barton Stone in his dying hours, and he gave this report of what he saw –
Being confined to bed through indisposition, I did not see him till the 9th. He suffered much without murmuring. He was quite rational, though evidently dying, when I saw him. After prayer and singing a hymn, I asked him if he felt any fear at the approach of death. ” O, no, brother Creath,” said he, ‘ I know in whom I have believed, and in whom I have trusted ; and I am persuaded he is able to keep that I have committed to him. I know that my Redeemer lives. All my dependence is in God, and in his Son Jesus Christ.” He quoted sundry passages and commented on them. But, said he, ” my strength fails, but God is my strength and portion forever.”
…He exhorted his friends and the family to live like Christians—to obey the Savior, and prepare to meet him in eternity. I observed that I almost envied his situation, and desired that my last end should be like his. “Brother Creath,” said he, “if so great and so holy a man as Paul was afraid that he might be a cast-away, may not so frail and poor a man as I fear too? But my God is good and merciful, and my Savior is strong and mighty to save me.” He continued in the same strain till his strength failed, and I had to leave. Bidding him farewell, he said, ” God bless you, my brother. I hope to meet you in heaven.” Kindly and faithfully attended by his relatives, friends, and physicians, he continued to converse with them
…In a little time after I left, he requested to be placed in an arm chair, where, after smoking his pipe, and conversing on the love of God, on reclining his head on the shoulder of his son Barton, he fell asleep in the Lord.
…Thus expired, as he had lived, this decided, intelligent and devout Christian, who had for forty years professed the Christian faith. He was interred in his own locust grove, where repose his remains till the morning of the resurrection.” [https://archive.org /stream/biographyofeldba01ston/biographyofeldba01ston_djvu.txt]
In I Timothy 4:6 Paul said that “the time of my departure has come.” The Greek word for “departure” here was a nautical term that was used in the ancient world to describe a ship setting sail. It was also used by the military to describe the breaking of camp. For a Christian, Paul said, death would be like “setting sail,” like “breaking camp.” It meant being freed. It meant going home [Bible.org]. This is certainly how Jacob Creath described the way that Barton Stone approached his dying. To “die like a Christian” is to face it with the firm assurance that death is not the end of things, but merely a change in things.
While searching last week for more information on Barton Warren Stone’s “death as a Christian,” I came across a fascinating little booklet written by D.P. Kidder in 1854 – 10 years after Barton Stone’s death – for the Carlton & Phillips Sunday-School Union of New York in 1854 called “The Dying Hours of Good and Bad Men Contrasted” in which the description of someone “dying like a Christian” appears on almost every page. “Dying like a Christian” was apparently a 19th century Christian “thing.” As D.P. Kidder put it, “Religion makes people die well.”
Perhaps in no instance is the value of religion more fully exhibited, than it is in the final departure of the saints… The dying hour is said to be an honest hour. It is a period in which we view things in their proper light… When everything else fails… we see can see more clearly the value of the Christian religion. …Then Christianity appears in its true glory in the comfort, support, and triumph, it affords its votaries in a dying hour. There it shines forth in its peculiar brightness. There it enables its subjects to exclaim, “O death, where is thy sting!” [www.swcs.com.au/uploads/dying_hours_of _good_and_bad_men_contrasted_by_d_p_kidder.pdf]
It was said of the early Christians in the age of martyrdom that they “out-lived” and “out-died” their rivals, and that that’s what helps to explain the emergence of Christianity as the big winner in the marketplace of ideas that was the ancient world in the first century. But this isn’t just ancient history. Barton Warren Stone “died like a Christian,” as have countless other believers, the famous and the obscure, across the ages. In my ministry I have been with people who have died like Christians, men and women who “like aged Simeon in Luke 2:29-32 declared himself ready to go… who looked death in the face cheerfully without terror… and who rested his hopes in that salvation which God has prepared before the face of all people” (Kidder). I’m thinking of my pastor in Houston, Bob Beaman of blessed memory. When I asked Bob on his deathbed while holding his hand if he was afraid to die, he told me, “Doug, I’m not afraid, I’m excited. After a lifetime of assuring other people at their bedsides and gravesides that Jesus Christ is truly the Resurrection and the Life, the One in whom we never die, it’s now my turn to trust that promise. And I do. Soon my faith will be sight, and I can hardly wait!” He died like a Christian, and when it’s my turn, I intend to as well. DBS+