ABOVE: “The Return,” lithographed frontispiece to A Wreath for the Tomb (1839), with Orra Hitchcock and all six of their surviving children lined up to receive him. This is Orra’s adaptation of an oil painting (attributed to Robert Peckham) that appeared in a previous column. The caption to this version adds a far deeper meaning: “As the father on his return from long exile is met at his door by his affectionate and joyful family so the Christian’s friends who have gone before him to glory will issue from the portals of heaven to welcome him to his everlasting home.” Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
The Sting of Death
As I noted before, ever since recovering from a dangerous encounter with the mumps in his twenty-first year, Hitchcock lived in constant awareness of his own mortality, and that of everyone else. For many of us in the Western world today, with mostly stable governments and the widespread availability of modern medicine, death is not our first thought upon rising each morning. A very different world it was then. Death and disease were ubiquitous, even in devotional literature, which scientists often read and sometimes wrote themselves (for example, Robert Boyle). Hitchcock was no exception.
In March 1824, after just three years of marriage, Hitchcock and his dear wife Orra lost their first child, just shy of his second birthday. Here is how he broke the terrible news to his mentor, Benjamin Silliman:
“It becomes painfully necessary for me to begin this letter by informing you that it has pleased the Most High after a very distressing sickness of fourteen days to remove from us our dear & only son. We yesterday committed his remains to their cold bed where they must sleep till the resurrection and although we hope that we bow submissively to the kind hand that has connected us yet as you well know from repeated experience the heart must bleed for a season… We ask sincerely and earnestly also that we may have an interest in your prayers that the good intended by God to be effected [sic] by this affliction may not be lost.”
As implied by Hitchcock’s allusion to “repeated experience,” Silliman had also lost children—his firstborn son (like Hitchcock) and three others. Ever mindful of the justice and inscrutability of the sovereign God, Silliman did his best to comfort his fellow sufferer and believer in a heartfelt reply:
“I most cordially and feelingly condole with you on the late afflicted bereavement in your family. I know indeed, from early experience every pang you have suffered… The death of infants & of other very young children is always attended (in my view) with so much consolation, that I can look upon the calm, sweet expression of their little bodies sleeping in death (now excepting even my own children) with a degree of pleasure which has little alloy. For I consider the declarations of our Saviour, as deciding the point that his sacrifice will cancel their original taint, and neither scripture nor reason will justify us in believing that there will hereafter be a penal retribution awarded to any thing but actual transgression.
“The death of half mankind within the age to which I allude, I consider as evincive of the mercy of God to our fallen world, in removing so large a part of its population, before they have become, in any responsible sense, moral agents.”
Grim reflections on hard facts: there are no easy answers here.
Sickness, Divine Action, and the God of the Gaps
Fifteen years later, in the winter of 1838-39, “after a season of unusual sickness” at Amherst College, Hitchcock delivered a 35-page “Sermon on the Lessons Taught by Sickness” to the students, reflecting on a text from Psalm 119 (“It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes”). Listen carefully to the pious scientist, himself a survivor of serious illness, deep in thought.
“Now I would not be thought to deny that sickness is always an act of God’s Providence and in strict accordance with his sovereign will. But I maintain that in general, He exercises that Providence and that sovereignty, as he does in respect to almost everything else, according to fixed laws: so that when disease assails us, we may be sure that there is a natural cause for it. God has ordained certain statutes which must be observed or health cannot be maintained.”
Wholly unable to bar his analytical mind from coming through the door into his soul, he urged the student body to care more carefully for their bodies, for “a large proportion of our sicknesses are the result of criminal negligence or temerity. But so long as we can make ourselves believe that they are brought upon us by fate, or chance, or the Providence of God acting without law, we shall be insensible to the personal guilt that attaches to us.” With great prescience, Hitchcock went on to decry what would later be called the “god of the gaps,” the belief that divine agency can be assigned only to things that cannot be explained in some other way.
“It was reserved for the speculative spirit of modern times, to draw a broad line of distinction between miraculous and common agency, and then to make the inference, as unphilosophical [i.e., unscientific] as it is hostile to vital piety—that God does not really bring about any events that are not miraculous; but that all others are to be regarded only as the result of the laws of nature. Much of the unholy leaven of this false principle deeply affects the experience of most Christians. A good cure for it is to be thrown helpless upon the bed of sickness. If a man is not then brought to feel himself absolutely at God’s disposal, he never will feel it.” (A Wreath for the Tomb, pp. 78-79 and 82)
No easy answers here, either, but Hitchcock didn’t flinch from facing the implications of his Calvinist theology, leavened with a full measure of Christian devotion.
I close with an aphorism from one of Hitchcock’s favorite authors, the seventeenth-century English cleric Jeremy Taylor: “He that would die well must always look for death, every day knocking at the gates of the grave; and then the gates of the grave shall never prevail upon him to do mischief” (The Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying, chapter 2, section 1).
Detail from a portrait of Jeremy Taylor by an unknown artist, Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge, Public Domain (image source). One of the most popular devotional writers of all time, Taylor’s works are still in print. Hitchcock printed several long excerpts from Taylor in A Wreath for the Tomb and, in his geology textbook, he quoted Taylor’s observation that the death “which God threatened to Adam, and which passed upon his posterity, is not the going out of this world, but the manner of going” (Elementary Geology, 1840, p. 275).
Next time, we’ll see how Hitchcock applied the same theology to the problem of animal suffering, in light of his acceptance of the evidence for an ancient earth. Today, this is often called “death before the Fall,” a phrase that Hitchcock himself was among the first to use. What does it mean theologically, if animals died long before the Fall of Adam and Eve? Come back next time to see his answer.