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By Thomas S. Sheardown
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For many years, there has been a strong desire, on the part of numerous friends of Elder Thomas Simpson Sheardown, that some records of his eventful life might be given to the public. Efforts made to secure the histories of Churches, and of Associations, in Southern New York and Northern Pennsylvania, increased that desire, for it was found that his history and theirs were to a great extent identical, as he had labored long and faithfully while planting and nourishing feeble churches in those regions.
To the Chemung River Baptist Association, belongs the honor of projecting this work. The Minutes of their annual meetings, for 1863 and 1864, contain cordial endorsements of the effort, accompanied by the appointment of Brethren T. O. Lincoln, P. Onley, T. Mitchell, and D. Garthwait, as a committee to aid in the preliminary measures. Brethren of the Bradford and other Associations co-operated with those of the Chemung River, and their united efforts have culminated in the present book.
I should be remembered, by the readers of the Autobiography, that although in earlier days its author wielded "the pen of a ready writer," yet, for many years, such has been the condition of his nervous system that he has been unable to write at all. It therefore became necessary that he should deliver his narrative in the presence of a stenographer, who was occupied forty-four days, first in jotting down in shorthand, and then writing out in full, the subsequent pages. The details were mainly from memory, Elder Sheardown having unfortunately lost most of his private papers in 1854. Let any reader who would be critical as to dates, &c., bear that important fact in mind, and remember also that this severe and long-continued tax upon his recollections of the past seventy years, was made when the narrator was in the seventy-fourth year of his age. For that reason, all errors will be generously overlooked.
The humble writer of this introductory notice, believes that the request of his former pastor, that he should undertake so pleasant a part in the work, originated in the conviction, on the part of Elder Sheardown, that the writer knew him better—had heard him preach more sermons—and had (in attending protracted meetings, associations, councils, &c.) traveled more miles with him—than any man now living. As a deacon in the first church of which Elder Sheardown was pastor, I was permitted to know him in all the intimacy which ever ought to exist between a pastor and the other officers of a church; and most cheerfully did I testify to his prudence and wisdom as a counselor, and to his fidelity as a laborer in the work of the ministry.
As an ordained minister, he commenced his career with a church gathered, by the Divine blessing upon his efforts, amid the privations of a new country, where he wrought with his own hands in clearing away the forest and providing for his rising family. Often did he preach three times on the Sabbath, requiring a walk of twenty miles, returning home the same day. He very seldom failed to meet his engagements, and was usually on the spot half an hour before the time of meeting. When asked if he never stopped on account of the weather, he would say, "Not often. I make the appointments and not the weather. It is my business to fill the appointments, and the Lord will take care of me and the weather."
In estimating the value of the labors of our brother in the ministry, it is well to take into consideration the difficulties he overcame. A friend who has had the charge of preparing this work for the hands of the printer, in a letter to the writer of this chapter, makes a few suggestions, which I take the liberty of quoting in this place:
"In reading portions of this narrative, we may be inclined to censure our Baptist fathers for the inflexible determination to make all claimants of Christian privileges produce evidence of their trust-worthiness. None were more friendly, generous, and unsuspecting, than were those hardy, orthodox pioneers, when satisfied of the merits of those desiring their confidence. Sixty, forty, and perhaps thirty years ago, the land was infested with unworthy strangers, claiming to be ministers of the Gospel. Associations annually warned their people against such characters—some of them immoral men; or of indolent habits, ‘sponging’ their living from kind, charitable families; and others, schismatic, and errorists of various sorts, dividing churches, and deceiving and misleading young and weakly members. Some of the early ministers of the Chemung Association were expelled from it, for grievous faults. In 1826, the Association advertise, by name, seven imposters, pretended Baptist ministers. In 1830, the same body "request our brethren not to invite a stranger to minister in holy thins, unless he exhibits credentials of recent date and unquestionable validity.’ It is related that when Eugenio Kincaid—then a young man—first called on father Thomas Smiley, of White Deer Valley, the latter could not invite the former to the full rites of Christian hospitality, until he had catechized him to ascertain if he were sound in the faith, and had the proper credentials; (and on both points he was satisfied)
"Of later years, religious periodicals, and more extended intercourse among members and ministers, have combined to diminish the danger from imposters, and to make Baptists more harmonious in sentiment and practice. Our fathers were strict, necessarily so; and although they may sometimes have been over-suspicious, and were always liable to err in the execution of such difficult and delicate tasks of discrimination, yet their jealousy for the purity of the ministry, and the safety of the flocks in their exposed condition, was defensible on the grounds alleged. Coming among such people, from England, after the war of 1812, without even the form a church letter, it is not singular that it took some time for Elder Sheardown to win the hold he did upon the entire confidence of the churches.
"Far less to be justified was the former tendency, in England as well as in America, to discourage rather than to encourage young converts in the improvement of their gifts, ‘sermon-wise.’ The harvest field of the world being ripe, and thousands perishing in their sins, we are taught, ‘Pray ye, therefore, the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth laborers.’ If we pray in the spirit of true prayer, we should look for evidences of answers thereto. Elder Sheardown was baptized when only twenty-one years of age, and seems to have had at once mental, spiritual, and physical adaptations for the ministry, as well as a burning desire to engage in it. Yet he was thwarted and hindered, instead of being aided and encouraged, and had reached thirty-eight years before he was ordained. Those who have heard him preach, and who know the measure of grace and gifts given him, can never cease to lament that a dozen or fifteen of the best years of his life were comparatively wasted, before he entered fully upon the joyful and all-important work for which he was so peculiarly fitted, and in which he has been so much blessed."
The reader will very naturally be ready to inquire how it was possible for a man to succeed amid such discouragements and embarrassments as are hinted at in the foregoing extract, and revealed in the pages following. What was said of the lamented Dr. William Carey, may, (with a slight change of words,) be applied to Elder Sheardown:
"Yet, amidst all this, he ‘abated not a jot of heart of hope.’ Always serene, cheerful, and ready to benefit others, he pursued the plan which he had marked out, with the same unruffled calmness as though every one cheered and encouraged him. The secret of his success resided in the constraining love of Christ—in energy of will—in unconquerable resolution—and in indomitable perseverance."
From the beginning of the Slaveholders’ Rebellion, Elder Sheardown exhibited a most ardent and out-spoken patriotism. Thomas Mitchell, a neighboring pastor, well qualified to speak on this point, says:
"Troy, (Pa) being a military depot from the commencement of the war, Elder Sheardown has given much attention to the soldiers who gathered there, particularly in the year 1861, and while a provost guard, (composed of invalid soldiers) was kept in the place. He often preached to the volunteers, instructing them in the principles of religion, and inspiring them with patriotic ardor to go forth and battle for the right."
Many of the soldiers desired the venerable Elder should accompany them as chaplain, but his failing strength—having accomplished his three score years and ten—forbade him that pleasure. He, however, gave three of his sons to the service of his adopted country—John, one of Sheridan’s noble "fighting men", and Samuel and Almon as army surgeons. John and Samuel have returned safely. But Almon—the Benjamin of the family—fell a victim to the climate, and to over-exertions among the sick and wounded. The father’s heart was wrung with anguish as he laid his youngest child in his early grave, yet he was comforted with the assurance that he had given his life to a just and holy cause—a cause, thank God! Now triumphant.
The institution of Sabbath Schools, the promotion of Temperance, of Ministerial and Popular Education, of Domestic and Foreign Missions, and kindred efforts for the elevation of mankind—as well as the more direct work for the salvation of souls—always met a welcome in Elder Sheardown’s heart, and aid from his hands as he found opportunity. The present year, while the younger members of his congregation are engaged in Sabbath Schools, he retains their fathers and mothers for instruction as a Bible Class.
Although an inflexible Baptist, he has always secured and enjoyed the good will and frequent co-operation of members of other churches. Numerous revivals of religion in which he has participated, have swelled the ranks of Methodist, Presbyterian, and other denominations, as well as that of his choice and conviction as nearest the divine original in its doctrines and ordinances. The truly pious, of every name and condition, are his companions, and he loves to walk with them as far as they can agree.
Elder Sheardown descended from a long-lived family, and yet, considering the amount and the variety of both physical and mental labor he has performed, it seems a special mercy that he has been spared to a serene old age. In weakness and trembling, yet with much force and persuasiveness, he yet proclaims, usually twice upon the Sabbath, the "unsearchable riches of Christ," and thanks God for sustaining him under all his cares and responsibilities so long.
May his last, be indeed his best days!
And may these records of his protracted and toilsome pilgrimage, prove a source of consolation to his many friends, and inspire in every reader (and especially in the heralds of the everlasting Gospel) a desire to imitate his virtues, avoid his errors, and meet him in a better land!