Edward Payson Archive

The Works of Edward Payson

Volume 1 Memoirs and Selected Thoughts


Chapter 1

Uses of religious biography. Birth of Edward Payson. His early impressions; intellectual qualities; filial and fraternal conduct; moral character. His literary education; enters Harvard College; his reputation there.

Evangelical Virtue is best understood, when it is seen embodied, —operating, and yielding its appropriate fruits, in the person of a moral agent. Thus seen, it is also most influential for good. The living evidences of the truth and power of Christianity will sooner silence a caviler, than the best constructed and most labored argument: they are more thoroughly convincing, more practically efficacious. Moral phenomena are witnessed, unlike and infinitely superior to those which result from any other system. Qualities of character display themselves, hearing unequivocal marks of a heavenly origin, and of a heavenly tendency. Hence, the friends of the Redeemer have always esteemed it a no less useful than pleasant service, to preserve and hand down memorials of such as have been eminent for the savor and strength of their piety, the ardor and steadfastness of their devotion, and the abundance and success of their labors in the cause of Christ. Nor does the value of such a memorial depend upon the freedom from imperfection of him whom it commemorates, so much as upon the degree of resistance which he has overcome in his progress towards "the mark of our high calling." To secure the object contemplated by such a memorial, it is not necessary to hold up the character as faultless, nor even to magnify its excellencies, or extenuate its defects. A strict adherence to truth, and a just representation of facts, will not only be safest for man, but most effectually exalt the grace of God. That apostle, who labored more abundantly than his fellows, recognizes it as among the causes why he had obtained mercy, who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious, that he "might be a pattern to them who should hereafter believe." The heart, alive to its guilt and wretchedness, would sink in everlasting despondency, if it might not revert to the "chief of sinners," as among the number whom Christ came to save, and who have actually obtained salvation. The discouragement arising from inbred sin, in all its countless varieties of operation, would depress the Christian almost beyond recovery, but for the recorded experience of others, weighed down by the pressure of similar burdens, who finally came off conquerors, "through Him who loved them." From the "great fight of afflictions," which his elder brethren, who have preceded him in the weary pilgrimage, have "endured," and the terrible conflicts with passion and temptation which they have survived, he may learn, that his case is not singular; that, however fiery the trial to which he is subjected, still "no strange thing hath happened unto him." There is no unholy bias of the heart, no easily besetting sin, no violence of passion, no force of temptation, which has not been vanquished by faith in things unseen; and that, too, in circumstances as unfavorable to victory, as any in which men now are, or probably, ever will be placed. Enemies as virulent and formidable as any that lie in wait for our souls, have been successfully resisted, —trials as disheartening, and struggles as desperate, as any that await our faith, have been met, sustained, surmounted by men "of like passions with ourselves." Out the depths they cried unto the Lord, and were heard; they overcame through the blood of the Lamb."

Nor will the benefit be limited to the fervent believer, in his spiritual conflicts. These monumental records will meet the eye of him, who "has a name to live while he is dead;" and they are adapted, beyond most other means, to break his fatal slumber, to excite salutary apprehensions in his mind, and fasten there the unwelcome, but needful conviction, that he has "neither part nor lot" in the Christian’s inheritance. The marked contrast, which he cannot fail to observe, between the operations of a mind animated by the Spirit, and glowing with the love of God, and those of which he is himself conscious; between the moral achievements of a man, carried forward by the steady energies of a purifying faith, and the few and sluggish efforts, which fill up his own history, —can hardly fail to reveal him to himself, as one "weighed in the balance and found wanting." He reads of exertions, which he never put forth; of humiliation and self-denial, which he never practiced; of confessions, which his heart never dictated; of exercises, which he never experienced; of hopes and prospects, by which his own bosom was never gladdened. In the character of the determined Christian, he discerns a renunciation of self, and a godly jealousy over the workings of the heart, naturally deceitful above all things, which are totally at war with his own self-confidence. He learns, that under all varieties of outward condition, self-mortification is still an eminent characteristic of the follower of Christ; that no man, who warreth, entangleth himself with the affairs of this world; that the expectant of the crown of righteousness is no more exempted from the agonizing strife to obtain it, than he was in the days of primitive Christianity. In the modern believer, if his faith be not "dead," you identify the grand features of that religion, which sanctified, controlled, and supported apostles and martyrs.

The uses of religions biography extend further still. It is the means, under God, of attaching to the cause of Zion, men of great energy and moral worth, —magnanimous in purpose, wise in counsel, vigorous and persevering in action. In how many, who have done valiantly for the truth, has the flame of holy zeal and enterprise been first kindled at the pages which record the religions experience and evangelical labors of Baxter, Brainerd, Edwards, Martyn, and others of a kindred spirit, who, but for these memorials, would have been lost to the Church of Christ, and perhaps have become her most determined foes! The "children of this world" understand the influence of such writings; and wisely preserve every thing that is memorable in their heroes, philosophers, poets, and artists, that youth may emulate their enthusiasm, and act over their achievements. And though it may be true, that "modern biography has been too busily and curiously employed in enrolling and blazoning names, which will scarcely outlive the records of the grave-stone," still "it is not easy to estimate the loss, which is sustained by the Christian community, when all example of eminent sanctity and heroic zeal is defrauded of its just honors, when a living epistle of apostolic piety is suffered to perish; or, to change the figure, when the lamp kindled by a holy life, which might have shone to posterity, is suffered to go out."

If Christians in the ordinary walks of life need the stimulus of such examples, much more does the minister of the cross. He has his full portion in the trials and discouragement, that are common to all believers; and his mind is also familiar with causes for "great heaviness and sorrow of heart," in which they can but feebly sympathize. In addition to his own personal security, he is in a manner responsible for that of his flock. Besides working out his own salvation, the care of others souls bears upon him with a pressure which none call conceive who has not felt its weight. And when he has toiled long and hard, with little or no visible success, and is tempted to exclaim, "It is a vain thing to serve the Lord!" or, when exhausted by continual labor, and racked by bodily infirmities, he is in danger of regarding himself as exempted from the obligation to make any further exertions; it may preserve him from sinking, and stimulate him to new action, to know that his fellow-laborers in the kingdom and patience of Jesus have then been most singularly blessed, when they thought themselves forsaken; have out of weakness been made strong, and, under the endurance of great physical debility, and the most exquisite mental anguish, gained the most splendid trophies under the Captain of Salvation. Can the "cloud of witnesses’’ of this description be too much increased for the "consideration" of those, who are "wearied and faint in their minds?" Can any, to whom God affords the opportunity, be excusable in neglecting to erect au additional monument in the "temple of Christianity," and to conduct thither the desponding, though uniformly faithful minister, where he may behold "the names, and the statues, and the recorded deeds, of the heroes of the church, and the spoils they have won in the battles of the Lord?"

It is with such views alone, that the present work is attempted. The hope, that good results will be realized, is not the less confident, because the materials to which access has been had, are of the least imposing pretensions. It promises little of incident or adventure, —qualities which, with many, constitute the principal attractions of a book. It is the history of a single mind, rather than of a community; of a pastor—whose sphere of labor was chiefly limited to his parochial charge—not a missionary, whose "field is the world," and who has traversed seas and continents, and associated his own history with that of different climates and governments, and opinions. The Christian hero will not here be presented in direct collision with the principalities and powers of this world, whether Pagan or Papal; but in an attitude not less generally instructive—that of one "whose warfare is within," and who successfully applied the results of his agonizing and joyful experience in training,

By every rule
Of holy discipline, to glorious war,
The sacramental host of God’s elect.

But he will shine, with the brightness of one who has turned many to righteousness, in that world where the judgment of character, and the estimate of services, are according to truth, and not affected by what is dazzling in the stations or circumstances in which men have acted.

Edward Payson was born at Rindge, New Hampshire, July 25th, 1783. His father was the Rev. Seth Payson, D. D., pastor of the church in Rindge, a man of piety and public spirit, distinguished as a clergyman, and favorably known as an author. His mother, Grata Payson, was a distant relative of her husband, their lineage, after being traced back a few generations, meeting in the same stock. To the Christian fidelity of these parents there is the fullest testimony in the subsequent and repeated acknowledgments of their son, who habitually attributed his religious hopes, as well as his usefulness in life, under God, to their instructions, example, and prayers—especially those of his mother. She appears to have admitted him to the most intimate, unreserved, and confiding intercourse, which was yet so wisely conducted, as to strengthen rather than diminish his filial reverence to have cherished a remarkable inquisitiveness of mind, which early discovered itself in him; and to have patiently heard and replied to the almost endless inquiries, which his early thirst for knowledge led him to propose. His father was not less really and sincerely interested for the welfare of his son; but, from the nature of the relation, and the calls of official duty, his attentions to the early training of the child must have been less frequent, and his instructions have partaken of a more set and formal character. With the mother, however, opportunities were always occurring, and she seems to have been blessed with the faculty and disposition to turn them to the best advantage. Edward’s recollections of her extended back to very early childhood; and he has been heard to say, that though she was very solicitous that he might be liberally educated, and receive every accomplishment, which would increase his respectability and influence in the world, yet he could distinctly see, that the supreme, the all-absorbing concern of her soul respecting him, was, that he might become a child of God. This manifested itself in her discipline, her counsels, expostulations, and prayers, which were followed up with a perseverance that nothing could check. And they were not in vain. From the first development of his moral powers, his mind was more or less affected by his condition and prospects as a sinner. It is among the accredited traditions of his family, that he was often known to weep under the preaching of the gospel, when only three years old. About this period, too, he would frequently call his mother to his bedside to converse on religion, and to answer numerous questions respecting his relations to God and the future world. How long this seriousness continued, or to what interruptions it was subjected, does not clearly appear; nor is much known as to the peculiar character of his exercises at that time. But that they were not mere transient impressions, seems highly probable from the fact, that, in subsequent years, his mother was inclined to the belief, that he was converted in childhood. There was some other cause than maternal partiality for this opinion, as she did not cherish it alone. Besides, his intimate friends have reason for believing, that he never neglected secret prayer while a resident in his father’s family. The evidences of his piety, however, were, at this period, far from being conclusive; he, at least, does not appear to have regarded them as such; neither were they so regarded by his father, who had earnestly desired to see him a decided follower of the Redeemer, before encountering the dangers to religions principle and pure morals, which are sometimes found within the walls of a college.

How far those mental qualities, which distinguished Dr. Payson’s maturity, were apparent in his early days, cannot now be known; for, though he died comparatively young, his parents had gone before him, and their surviving children were all younger than this son. Strictly speaking, therefore, no companion of his childhood survives. The very few incidents belonging to this period of his history, which have escaped oblivion, though not adequate to satisfy curiosity, are, on the whole, characteristic, and afford undoubted indications, that leis well-known decision, enterprise, and perseverance, had dawned even in childhood.

That he was a minute observer of nature, and highly susceptible of emotions from the grand and beautiful in the handy works of God, must be obvious to all who have listened to his conversation or his preaching. His taste for the sublime very early discovered itself. During a tempest, he might be seen exposed on the top of the fence, or some other eminence, while the lightnings played and the thunders rolled around him, sitting in delightful composure, and enjoying the sublimity of the scene.*


* Beattie’s MINSTREL, it seems, is not a mere creature of the imagination!

And oft the craggy cliff he loved to climb,
When all in mist the world below was lost.
What dreadful pleasure! there to stand sublime,
Like shipwrecked mariner on desert coast,

And view the enormous waste of vapor, tost
In billows, lengthening to the horizon round,
Now scooped in gulfs, with mountains now emboss’d!
And hear the voice of mirth and song rebound,

Flocks, herds, and waterfalls, along the hoar profound!
In truth, he was a strange and wayward wight,
Fond of each gentle, and each dreadful scene.
In darkness and in storm he found delight.


He is said to have manifested an early predilection for arithmetic; and was a tolerable proficient in the art of reading at the age of four years—an art, which no man ever employed to better advantage. The surprising quickness, with which he would transfer to his own mind the contents of a book, at a time wheel a new book was a greater rarity than it now is, threatened to exhaust his sources of information through this medium. All the books in his father’s collection, and the "Parish Library," which were of a character suited to his age and attainments, were read before he left the paternal home, and retained with such tenacity of memory, as to be ever after available for illustrating truths, or enlivening and embellishing discourse.

It is natural to inquire, whether there was anything in the circumstances of his early youth, which will account for his mental habits, and especially the rapidity of his intellectual operations. A partial answer may be found in the fact, that his time was divided between labor and study. His father, like most ministers of country parishes, derived the means of supporting his family, in part, from a farm, which his sons assisted in cultivating. From his share in these agricultural labors the subject of this Memoir was not exempted, particularly in the "busy seasons" of the year. But, whatever were his employment, though he appears to have engaged in it with cheerfulness, and to have prosecuted it with fidelity, his thirst for knowledge was the ruling passion of his soul. This he sought to quench, or rather to cherish, by resorting to his book at every interval from toil, however short, when he tasked his mind to the utmost of its power, intent on making the greatest possible acquisitions in a given time. His mind, though strung up to the highest pitch of exertion at these seasons, suffered no injury thereby, as it was so soon diverted from its employment by a call to the field; and every repetition of the process extended its capability and power. The acquisitions, in this way obtained, furnished materials on which to employ his thoughts while engaged in manual labor, which he would not fail to digest and lay up in store for future use, a voluntary discipline of most auspicious influence, as it respects the facility of acquiring knowledge, and the power of retaining it.

His early literary, as well as moral and religious education, is believed to have been conducted principally by his parents, except the studies preparatory to college, which were pursued, in part at least, at the Academy in New Ipswich. His preparatory course was completed before the long and fondly-cherished desires of his father respecting his personal piety were realized. Still the good man could hardly cherish the thought of conferring on his son the advantages of a public education, without an assurance, grounded on evidences of experimental religion, that he would employ his attainments for the best good of his fellow men, and the glory of his Maker. With reference to this essential requisite, he used much earnest expostulation, and even went so far as to say to him, "To give you a liberal education, while destitute of religion, would be like putting a sword into the hands of a mad man."

Whether the father was led to adopt such strong language, from having observed in his son the existence of those properties, which, in their future development, were to give him such power over his species, or whether it proceeded merely from anxiety to transfer his own feelings and convictions to the mind of his son, —there does not appear to have been, in either the disposition or conduct of the latter, any particular cause for unusual apprehensions respecting him. His filial affection and conduct had been, and ever continued to be, most exemplary, as manifested by his letters when absent, and by his reverence for his parents and cheerful obedience when at home. His fraternal feelings were kind, and his conduct towards his brothers and sisters faithful and affectionate. By them he was greatly beloved, and his vacations, when he should visit home, and mingle again in the domestic circle, were anticipated with delightful interest as the halcyon days of their lives. His moral character comes down to us, even from the first, without a blemish; and, by consent of all, he sustained the reputation of a magnanimous, honorable, generous youth.

His father, as is obvious from the event, had formed no peremptory and unalterable purpose to wait for the certain fruits of personal religion, before sending him to college; and the real cause of hesitancy was, probably, the tender age and inexperience of the son. The interval of his detention was a favorable season for the application of religions motives. As such it was improved by this solicitous parent, and not in vain; for his faithful suggestions and appeals were afterwards recalled by the object of his solicitude, with most grateful and impressive interest. Young Payson, though detained from college, was permitted to pursue his studies, —but whether exclusively, or in connection with other employments, does not appear, till he was fitted to join the Sophomore class; when, all objections being waived, he entered Harvard College, at an advanced standing, at the Commencement in 1800, about the time he completed his seventeenth year.

He had now a new ordeal to pass a severe test for both his talents and character. Many a youth, who was regarded as a prodigy of genius in his native parish, or in a country village, and who anticipated the same eminence at the seat of science, has found himself sadly disappointed, in being obliged to take his rank below mediocrity. Thus it had nearly fared with Payson during the first months of his residence at college—not that he was destitute of real worth; but there were circumstances, which prevented that worth from being appreciated. The first impressions respecting him did him injustice. "You would leave taken him," says a classmate, "for an unpolished country lad; exceedingly modest, unassuming, and reserved in his manners. And, as we generally look for a long time at the words and actions of a character through the same medium by which he was first presented to us, his merit was for a long time unknown." This judging from appearances is, perhaps, unavoidable, though often very injurious. In the greenness of his youth, Mr. Payson’s modesty might easily be mistaken for bashfulness; as through life he had much of a downcast look, holding his eyes inclined to the earth, except when warmly engaged in conversation; then they would beam most expressively; and when addressing an audience from the pulpit, they would "pry through the portals of the head," and give a thrilling emphasis to the language of his lips.

Mr. Payson’s classmate, just quoted, and who also occupied the same rooms with him during the whole period of his residence at college, bears decided testimony to the purity of his morals, and the regularity of his habits, as well as other estimable qualities. With his intimate friends, he was social, communicative, and peculiarly interesting and improving, and by those who best knew him, was much beloved. He was distinguished for his industry; his first care always was to get his lessen, which engaged him but a short time, and then he would resume his reading. He was invariably prepared to meet his instructor, prompt in reciting, and seldom committed a mistake. His manner of rehearsing was rapid, his tone of voice low, with a kind of instinctive shrinking from everything which had the appearance of display. Hence, for a full year, his talents and scholarship were underrated by his associates and teachers generally at college; but "after having been with him a few months, I was convinced that he possessed uncommon mental powers. Others knew not this, because they knew not the man. During the latter part of his collegiate course, as he became more known, he rose rapidly in the estimation of both the government and his classmates, as a young man of correct morals, amiable disposition, and respectable talents."

The testimony of another classmate agrees with this as to the general character of the man, but is more discriminating and positive in reference to his merits as a scholar. "The circumstance of joining his class at an advanced standing, combined with his naturally retiring and unobtrusive manners, contributed, probably, to his being so little known to a large portion of his college contemporaries, who seemed scarcely aware that his talents were of that high order, by which he was soon afterwards so eminently distinguished. Yet, even at that early period, he manifested an energy, hardihood, and perseverance of character, which were sure indications of success, in whatever course he might eventually direct his professional pursuits. In the regular course of college studies, pursued at the time of his residence at Cambridge, he maintained the reputation of a respectable scholar in every branch. Intellectual and moral philosophy were more to his taste than physical science; yet he sustained a distinguished rank in the higher branches of the mathematics, as well as natural philosophy and astronomy, at that time so unpopular, and so little understood by a large proportion of the students." This account of his standing as a scholar was the best which could be constructed from the information in the compiler’s possession at the time of preparing the first edition of this work; and the account closed with the following remark: "It is not remembered, that there was any public recognition of distinguished merit in him, at the time he commenced Bachelor of Arts." For this there was a very good reason, for which the writer is indebted to the kindness of the late Rev. Joseph Emerson, himself a distinguished scholar, and eminent teacher, and who was actually the Tutor of Mr. Payson’s class, during their Junior and Senior years. Mr. E. without any hesitation assigned Mr. Payson’s rank among the first quarter of his class, and sustained his own judgment, by quoting that of another clergyman, whose competency to give an opinion on the question is beyond all dispute. This clergyman, who was also a classmate of Payson; is confident that a forensic disputation, a very honorable part, was assigned to the latter for performance at Commencement, which failed in consequence of the indisposition of his much respected associate, since the Rev. Dr.——

Mr. E., moreover, thought it injurious to the cause of literary improvement, that the pupilage of such a man as Dr. Payson should be represented as manifesting no more than ordinary scholarship; and not being accordant with fact, the representation is equally injurious to his memory. As far as a pretty extensive observation has enabled me to judge, continues Mr. E., the college-standing of students is, in general, a good index of their respectability the rest of their days.

The reputation of being "a great reader," as the phrase is often applied, is a very undesirable distinction; it is one, however, which Mr. Payson bore in common with thousands, who are not the wiser for their reading. His frequent resort to the college library was a theme of raillery with his fellow students, who, at one time, represented him as having "—a machine to turn over the leaves;" and at another, as "having left off taking out books, because he had read all the thousands in the alcoves of old Harvard." Ridicule, in his case, was egregiously misapplied; for, says his constant companion in the study and in the dormitory, "every thing he read, he made his own. He had the strongest and most tenacious memory I ever knew. It is truly astonishing with what rapidity he could read; how soon he could devour a large volume, and yet give the most particular and accurate account of its contents." Testimonies of the same kind might be multiplied, and confirmed by many anecdotes, which to a stranger would appear incredible, illustrating the power of this faculty, and the severity of those tests to which it was subjected.

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