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Religion. On occasion of the death of Mr. Hall, “a preacher," said Foster, “ whose like or equal will come no more," instead of preaching the funeral sermon, which he declined by medical interdict, he published, in 1832, his Observations on Mr. Hall as a preacher in connection with Dr. Gregory's Memoir of his life.
In a letter to Mr. Fawcett, in 1830, he says, “Pray, do you often preach ?. I have suffered an almost entire deposition from that office, by physical organic debility as the primary cause, and as an occasional one by choice, from having felt the great inconvenience and laboriousness of doing occasionally what I have been so long out of the practice of; so that for a long time past I have declined wholly our city pulpits, and never go higher than an easy unstudied discourse, now and then, in one or two of the neighboring country villages, where there is a stated ministry. Mr. Hall is in high physical vigor for the age of 66, while often suffering severely the inexplicable pain in his back, of which he has been the subject from his childhood. His imagination, and therefore the splendor of his eloquence, has considerably abated, as compared with his earlier and his meridian pitch, but his intellect is in the highest vigor; and the character of his preaching is that of the most emphatically evangelical piety.”'
Of Foster's own last discourse in the series of fortnight lectures, he announces the subject thus : “ I had a splendid subject—the three Methodists of Babylon, in the fiery furnace; and perhaps I thought, and perhaps some of the auditors thought, that I did it tolerable justice.” What would we not have given to have heard that sermon!
In 1832 Mr. Foster's estimable and beloved wife was taken from him, and thenceforward the ten years of favor, added to his threescore, were to be passed in great loneliness. His “old and most excellent friend Hughes" was also taken in 1833. 6. But for having looked to see the day of the month,” says he, “in order to date this letter, the day would have passed off without my being aware that it is the day that completes my sixty-third year, what is denominated the grand climacteric. I deeply deplore not having lived to worthier purpose, both for myself and others; and earnestly hope and pray that whatever of life remains may be employed much more faithfully to the great end of existence. But with this self-condemning review, and with nothing but an uncertain, and possibly small remainder of life in prospect, how emphatically oppressive would be the conscious situation, if there were not that great propitiation, that redeeming sacrifice, to rest upon for pardon and final safety."
We have spoken of Foster's constitutional and habitual horror of the labor of writing. It could not have been imagined, till the publication of these volumes of letters, what an amazing amount of time and labor he spent in the work of revision, remoulding and condensing, and sometimes amplifying his sentences. The new edition of his Essays on Popular Ignorance was in effect rewritten ; he made a new work of it ; and the revision occupied him several months. For weeks he says he was at it, “ without intermission or leisure to read a newspaper, review or anything else,” having never undergone the same quantity of hard 'labor within the same number of weeks together in his whole life. "My principle of proceeding was to treat no page, sentence or word with the smallest ceremony ; but to hack, split, twist, prune, pull up by the roots, or practise any other severity on whatever I did not like. The consequence has been alterations to the amount, very likely of several thousands.” “ It is a sweet luxury, this bookmaking ; for I dare say I could point out scores of sentences, each one of which has cost me several hours of the utmost exertion of my mind to put it in the state in which it now stands, after putting it in several other forms, to each one of which I saw some precise objection, which I could at the time have very distinctly assigned. And in truth there are hundreds of them to which Í could make objections as they now stand, but I did not know how to hammer them into a better form.” We must confess we wish that instead of so much of this revising work, Mr. Foster had spent the same amount of labor on some additional production.
This kind of labor, so much of it, was not necessary for the perfection of his work, as is manifest from the consideration of his greatest production, the Essays, which do not seem to have been thus labored, and are in fact in a more perfect style. The Essay Introductory to Doddridge's work was written by Mr. Foster, according to his own account, as a mere task, a piece of hard, unwilling, compulsory labor, throughout ; a perfect fag. He had made the contract for it with the bookseller; it was so long unfulfilled, that the whole edition of Doddridge lay upon the shelves of the warehouse for years, unbound, waiting for the promised Essay, much to the damage of the publishers. He had himself a very poor opinion of the work, to which he was actually driven by dint of expostulations and remonstrances, and he says “it was almost all labored under a miserable feeling of contraction and sterility.” And yet it is one of the most powerful Essays in the language, and it sparkles with illustrations, which are the result of profound thought and a Miltonic imagination wrestling together, while it is pervaded, more than any other of Foster's writings, by the solemnity of the Retributions of Eternity. A man who could write thus on compulsion ought to have written more abundantly of his own free will.
But perhaps the happiest example of Foster's fineness, originality,
and affluence of suggestive thought in connection with a powerful imagination, are to be found in what is called in the biography, his Journal. This is a series of striking reflections, observations and analogies, extended over a number of years,
and marked to the amount of some eight or nine hundred. They are not all given by his biographer ; some hundreds seem to be omitted; for what reason we cannot tell. Certainly, articles which had been prepared and left on record by Mr. Foster himself, with great care, must have been far more worthy of publication than so strange and inconsistent a letter as the one to a young minister, which the writer himself, could he have been questioned as to its publication, would probably have condemned to the flames. On what principle any part of the Journal is kept back, while the letter is published, we cannot imagine. The pages occupied with this Journal are among the most intensely interesting, vivid, and suggestive portions of the volume. The observations seem often to be the result of a whole day's experience, or study, or self reflection, or inspection of others, or meditation on the processes of nature, in a single sentence ; reminding us of a remark once made by Dr. Chalmers in answer to a question put to him by a foreigner, "What is John Foster now about? “Why, sir, he is thinking as intensely as ever he can, at the rate of about a sentence a week.” The analogies and illustrations are like flashes of light, in their suddenness, with the illumination remaining as the steady light of day.
The massive hardihood and sternness of thought distinguishing all Mr. Foster's writings is owing in great measure to the gloomy depth and accuracy with which he had gauged the boundlessness of human depravity. If there was one fact that had the mastery over his mind, and colored all its delineations, it was that of the desperate and black corruption of our nature. No man saw more clearly, or painted more strongly and impressively, the native predominant evils of the heart and of society. Instinctively he stripped off all disguises, and at a touch what was fair to the outside appeared full of rottenness. There reigned in his soul an indignant contempt of all forms of pride and hypocrisy, and of all cajoling of the race into a complacent sense of goodness, conveyed sometimes in sentences of withering sarcasm, sometimes in instances, as points, from which the malignity and intensity of supreme evil seem to hiss off, as it were, into the atmosphere. He keeps up in his delineations with the furrow of fiery ruin laid open by the Apostle to the Gentiles. He was the first to unveil to the English nation the frightfulness of an education in such depravity; to bring out into notice the hideous features of a race of children, who “ know no good that it is to have been endowed with a rational rather than a brute nature, excepting that they thus have the privilege of tormenting brutes with impunity,
The work on the Evils of Popular Ignorance is in many respects the greatest of Foster's works ; it shows to best advantage the comprehensiveness of his views, the prodigious strength of his mind, and the intense energy with which it worked, on a subject that possessed his soul with a sense of its importance. For its burning, impetuous, cataractical, yet grave , and steadfast tide of description; for the concentration and continuity of an impression gloomy as night ; for the overwhelming power with which it takes the convictions as by storm ; for the strength and almost ferocious energy of its blows, blow after blow, as if you saw a giant sweating at his anvil, as if it were Vulcan forging the armor of Achilles, it has no instance to be brought in comparison. For the manner in which the strength of the English language is tasked in its combinations to express the conceptions of the writer, there is nothing but some pages in the Paradise Lost to be placed before it. There are passages in it, which make the same impression on the mind as Milton's description of hell, or of the Messiah driving the rebellious angels out of heaven. In all English literature it were vain to look for passages of greater power, than the author's delineations of the abominations of Popery, and of Pagan depravity and misery. And there are other passages of equal sublimity and power of imagination in more captivating exercise.
The paragraph on the effect of a conscience darkened in ignorance, or almost gone out as the inward light and law of the being, is one of the most striking instances of the grand part which Foster's imagination was made to play in the exhibition of his subjects.
“ As the man moves hither and thither on the scene, he has his perception of what is existing and passing on it; there are continually meeting his senses numberless moving and stationary objects; and among the latter there are many forms of limitation and interdiction; there are high walls and gates and fences, and brinks of torrents and precipices; in short, an order of things on all sides signifying to him, with more or less of menace,—Thus far and no farther. And he is in a general way obsequious to this arrangement. We do not ordinarily expect to see him carelessly violating the most decided of the artificial lines of warning-off, nor darting across those dreadful ones of nature. But the while, as he is nearly destitute of that faculty of the soul which would perceive (analogously to the effect of coming in contact with something charged with that element which causes the lightning), the awful interceptive lines of that other arrangement, which he is in the midst of as a subject of the laws of God, we see with what insensibility he can transgress those prohibitory significations of the Almighty will, which are to devout men as lines streaming with an infinitely more formidable than material fire. And if we look towards his future course of life, the natural sequel foreseen is, that those lines of divine interdiction, which he has not conscience to perceive as meant to deter him, he will seem nevertheless
to have, through his corruptions, a strong recognition of, but in another quality,-as temptations to attract him."
From about the period of his sixtieth year, Mr. Foster prepared little or nothing for the press. His last article in the Eclectic Review was published in 1839. From the year 1806 to that period he had written one hundred and eighty-five articles; sixtyone of these were collected and published in two volumes by Dr. Price, the Editor of the Eclectic, only twenty of which have been republished in this country. From the year 1830, we see the mind of this great writer mainly in his letters. They are filled with profound, solemn, interesting feeling and thought. He took great interest in political affairs, though necessarily a gloomy view. He had a most profound sense of the desperate depravity and selfishness of political intrigues, and an intense hatred of the domineering perniciousness of the Establishment.
In what manner the shades of solemnity were folding and deepening over his soul in the prospect of the eternal world, and what was the ground of his hope for pardon and blessedness, in “the grand Futurity,” a few short extracts from his letters will strikingly show. They reveal a solemn anxiety inconsistent with that dismissal of the doctrine of eternal punishment, of which we are to speak. “Whatever may be our appointed remaining time on earth," says he, in a letter in 1836, “we are sure it is little enough for a due preparation to go safely and happily forward into that eternal hereafter.” In 1837, speaking of the death of a friend, “I have regretted to understand that she was a confirmed Socinian; greatly regretted it; for it does appear to me a tremendous hazard to go into the other world in that character. The exclusion from Christianity of that which a Socinian rejects, would reduce me instantly to black despair.” “It is fearful to think what the final account must be at the award of infallible Justice, for the immense multitude of accountable creatures.”
In a letter of retrospection, to a dear friend, in 1840, he says, “The pain of a more austere kind than that of pensiveness is from the reflection to how little purpose, of the highest order, the long years here, and subsequently elsewhere, have been consumed awayhow little sedulous and earnest cultivation of internal piety-how little even mental improvement-how little of zealous devotement to God and Christ, and the best cause. Oh, it is a grievous and sad reflection, and drives me to the great and only resource, say, God be merciful to me a sinner! I also most earnestly implore that in one way or another what may remain of
may be better, far better, than the long protracted past. PAST! What a solemn and almost tremendous word it is, when pronounced in the reference in which I am repeating it!”
In 1841, confined with illness, he says, “ The review of life has been solemnly condemnatory--such a sad deficiency of the vitality