Letters from Bishop Heber
Jan. 2nd, 1821.—My dear Charlotte, I have been for some time back desirous of writing to you, but have been deterred by the fear of intruding too soon on a grief which I was well aware must have its course, and which is necessarily proportionate to the love, strong as death and stronger than the most trying worldly misfortunes, which you have uniformly shown to your husband, and which, as was to be expected and as I have always seen reason to believe, was mutual. I could not help feeling, too, that your loss was too severe to admit of the ordinary topics of consolation ; that the possession of the love and confidence of a man like our poor William, could not in the natural course of things be surrendered without a very bitter pang, and that his abilities and his amiable temper and manners must be recollected by you with regret now that for a time you are separated from him.
You have already been long tried in the furnace of affliction, and God has enabled you during many years to endure the bitterness of separation from loved objects, and in sickness and in banishment to find comfort in that divine religion which it is necessary to be a mourner to know the full value of. I trust and believe that He has not forsaken you now, and that from the same source of resignation to His will and confidence in His mercy, you have been supported and strengthened under this last and severest trial.
I need not remind you, you have still much to live for; that you are favoured beyond most mothers in the disposition and promising talents of your children, and that if, as I trust will be the case, your health admits of your return to England, you will have more opportunity of watching over their education and promoting their best interests than, but for this heavy visitation, you were likely to have possessed.
There are other considerations, too, which must have their force in encouraging and enabling you to bear your affliction. That affliction was sooner or later to one or other of you inevitable. You must have mourned for Him, or he for you; and if this last had been the case, recollect how lonely and forlorn his exile must have been, and that your death would have had the effect in a great measure of depriving your children of both their parents.
Even in the circumstances of the fatal accident, there is much to alleviate its heaviness. An instantaneous death without pain, and while engaged in innocent amusement, is what poor William himself would perhaps have chosen above most others. It would have been far more afflicting both to himself and to you if you had had to watch over a long and painful illness, to witness suffering which you could not relieve, and to long for advice and assistance of a better kind than your place of residence could supply: above all, it may be a comfort to reflect that, before he was thus summoned to another state of existence, he had been purified, and that the chastisements of Heaven have thus been not only tempered, but directed in mercy.
There is one source of consolation more, which I cannot help mentioning, though from the difficulty and perplexed nature of the disputes to which it has given rise, and the abuses which have been grounded on it, I mention it with great diffidence even to you, and have never ventured to recommend it generally. Few persons, I believe, have lost a beloved object, more particularly by sudden death, without feeling an earnest desire to recommend them in their prayers to God's mercy, and a sort of instinctive impression that such devotions might still be serviceable to them in that intermediate state which we are taught by Scripture precedes the final judgment.
The Roman Catholics, by their interested doctrines of hired masses for the dead, and by their unwarranted and melancholy notion of a purgatory to which even the good are liable, have prejudiced the greater number of Protestants against this opinion; and it is, I confess, one which is not so clearly revealed or countenanced in Scripture, as to make the practice of praying for the dead obligatory on any Christian. Yet, having been led attentively to consider the question, my own opinion is on the whole favourable to the practice, which indeed is so natural and so comfortable, that this alone is a presumption that it is neither unpleasing to the Almighty nor unavailing with Him.
The Jews, so far back as their opinions and practices can be traced since the time of our Saviour, have uniformly recommended their deceased friends to mercy; and from a passage in the Second Book of Maccabees, it appears that (from whatever source they derived it) they had the same custom before His time. But if this were the case the practice can hardly be unlawful, or either Christ or His Apostles would, one should think, have in some of their writings or discourses condemned it. On the same side it may be observed, that the Greek Church and all the Eastern Churches, though they do not believe in purgatory, pray for the dead and that we know the practice to have been universal, or nearly so, among the Christians little more than 150 years after our Saviour. It is spoken of as the usual custom by Tertullian and Epiphanius. Augustine, in his Confessions, has given a beautiful prayer which he himself used for his deceased mother, Monica; and among Protestants, Luther and Dr. Johnson are eminent instances of the same conduct.
I have accordingly been myself in the habit for some years of recommending on some occasions, as after receiving the Sacrament, &c. &c., my lost friends by name to God's goodness and compassion through His Son, as what can do them no harm, and may, and I hope will, be of service to them. Only this caution I always endeavour to observe—that I beg His forgiveness at the same time for myself if unknowingly I am too presumptuous, and His grace lest I, who am thus solicitous for others, should neglect the appointed means of my own salvation.
But I intended to write a letter of consolation and am got into theological controversy, and I fear I may already have written too much in my small handwriting for your eyes. God bless, God comfort you, my dearest Charlotte! God make your children through their future lives a source of comfort to you in this world, and bring you and them to be with your William in one family in Heaven, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
…. I have long owed you my thanks for your letter, and the kindness with which you received my attempts at consolation under a low which, alas! admits little effectual comfort, except from the secret support and blessing of the same divine Being who only afflicts us for our good, and who, if we place our hopes in Him, will never lay more on us than He at the same time enables us to bear. But I felt myself at the same time bound to answer the very interesting and very difficult question which you had suggested to me concerning the state of the dea, and their acquaintance with what passes on earth, and I have really had no leisure to give a subject the attention which it deserves and requires, nor even to satisfy myself, much more another, with the conjectures (for they deserve no other name) which I have formed.
That the intermediate state between death and judgment is not one of insensibility, or (as the Socinians fancy) a perfect suspension and interruption of existence, is plain I think from very many passages of Scripture. Thus, when Christ uses the argument taken from the Almighty calling himself the God of Abraham &c. to prove the life after death, he uses it in a manner which implies that the life of which he speaks is uninterrupted, since to make it answer his purpose, Abraham must have been alive when God thus spoke, not merely destined to live again at the general resurrection.
In like manner, St Paul speaks of his desire to depart from the world, to be immediately with Christ, which he could not have been if after death he were to sleep perhaps 3,000 years till the day of judgment. But, above all, the penitent thief was proised by our Saviour, that he should that very day be with Him in Paradise, a passage which will not bear any other meaning than that generally assigned to it, and which in that meaning is conclusive.
As to the condition of the dead, it has been always believed by the Christian world that the souls of men are in situations of happiness or misery – the one not so perfect, and other not so intense, as will be their doom at the day of judgment; and it has been even supposed, and seems likely from all that we know of our spiritual nature, that till that time their happiness or misery must rather consist in hope or hear and the approval or disapproval of conscience, than in any actual enjoyment or punishment; and the early Christians most of them believed that, by the prayer of surviving friends, the condition of such persons might be made better, and a milder sentence obtained for their errors and infirmities from their Almighty Judge, when the doom of all creatures shall be finally settled.
This is, as you well know, a disputed point, but it is one which the wisest and most learned divines have always spoken of with doubt, without venturing to blame those who, with becoming humility, recommend the souls of those they have loved to mercy. But the notion of a purgatory fire which all, or almost all, Christians were to pass through as a necessary preparation for heaven, was never dreamt of in the Church till the ninth or tenth centuries; and the Eastern Churches to this day have never received it. It is, in fact, a strange and dismal detraction from the efficacy of Christ's blood, since the Church of Rome does not admit those who die impenitent to any share in its advantages, but sends them to hell immediately; so that it only throws a fresh obstacle in the way to heaven, in the case of those whose sins all sides suppose to be already washed out by the work of redemption.
A more difficult question remains—Whether the dead know anything of what is passing among men. On this point I can arrive at no satisfactory conclusion, any further than that there are some passages in Scripture which seem very like it. As where St. Paul
encourages us, in Heb. xii. 1, to run with patience our race,, from the consideration that we are encompassed with so great a cloud of witnesses, which witnesses, you will see in the former chapter, are the good and great men of former times. But I must defer these deep discussions till I have the pleasure of seeing you. In the meantime accept of my best wishes, my sincere affection, and permit me to add, my prayers.