Basil Manly Sr.’s Funeral Sermon for a “Stranger”
By Adam Winters–
Today, when a young, formerly healthy person dies suddenly, it is a shocking tragedy that often compels us to ask the existential question, “Why?” In our fallen state, we often view premature death as an unfair and cruel slight of God’s providential hand.
For American Baptists in the nineteenth century, death was no less tragic than it is in our day, but it could never be considered unexpected. Contemporary mourners take for granted the expedient methods of transportation that allow us the simple privilege to attend the funeral services of deceased friends and family who lived a great distance away.
Basil Manly, Sr. knew the sting of death more intimately than most. While away at South Carolina’s 1830 Baptist State Convention, his son John died and received burial before Manly could even return home. Manly returned to his pulpit the following Sunday and preached on of his most significant sermons, “If I Be Bereaved of My Children, I Am Bereaved” (Genesis 43:14). The congregants who heard this sermon reported to have been especially blessed, and James P. Boyce’s own mother converted to the faith upon hearing it.[i]
For Manly, death was an ever-present consideration for all members of his community. His sermon repertoire included numerous funeral sermon manuscripts that he delivered over his career, some on the tragic occasions of a child’s burial. His funeral sermons reflected certain spiritual themes that paint a rich picture of the Christian pilgrimage.
In October of 1830, Manly preached a funeral sermon entitled “The Burial of a Stranger” for the passing of a “Mr. N.L. Fisher.”[ii] Manly himself did not have considerable personal knowledge of the deceased. A Connecticut-born man working in the mercantile business, Mr. Fisher had only resided in the Charleston area for about a year before contracting a serious illness that beset his mind with deliriousness. Fisher had preceded his wife and children into the Charleston area, but died anticipating their immanent arrival. His family was not even aware of his death, a sad fact which Manly lamented.
The depth of Fisher’s religious persuasion was unknown to Manly, and the preacher made no attempt to assume anything about the businessman’s eternal fate, being content to simply state the facts about his church attendance:
Of his religious opinions and state, nothing satisfactory is known. It is understood, however, that in other places where he had resided he always paid a decent respect to religious institutions, and regularly attended Christian worship. In this city he had not settled himself with any Christian congregation; though this was no doubt his purpose so soon as his family should arrive. Meanwhile he attended worship for the most part in this church but without being known to the pastor or church.
Manly was at least hopeful for the man’s soul on account of faithful Christian persons who had attended to him in his last days and interceded for his soul in prayer:
Some benevolent persons, however, who watched with him took advantage of lucid intervals during some of the last evenings of his painful life and prayed with him, by his consent, commending his soul to the grace of the Redeemer of mankind. With respect to him we are at least assured that “the Judge of all the Earth will do right.”
Manly chose Genesis 23:4 as his text, applying the theme of Abraham’s pilgrimage as a “sojourner and a stranger” to the Christian’s pilgrimage as a heavenly citizen living in the world. “The Lord also designed to make the Patriarchs feel themselves strangers and sojourners. . . . It has been the concern of the Lord to impress the same sentiment on the minds of men ever since.”
Manly gravely reminded the funeral attendees that just as Abraham made a transaction to purchase a sepulcher for the burial of his wife Sarah, so to must all earthly pilgrims remember that “business and possessions will not prevent us from coming to the grave.”
From his exposition of the text, Manly concluded that everyone ought to consider themselves as “strangers and pilgrims in the Earth,” a consideration that offers distinct advantages for heavenly thinking. Considering oneself a stranger in the world does not call the Christian to a monkish seclusion but rather promotes “the interests of piety in our souls.” It promotes piety in the soul because it “implies a practical belief in the immortality of the soul and a future state hereafter”; indeed, earthly pilgrims recognize that the home of their soul lies beyond this present existence. Living with a pilgrim mentality gives us an awareness of “our perishing condition, and of the unstable unsatisfactory nature of all earthly things as to live in continual expectation of departure.”
Some additional advantages of considering oneself a stranger in the world are that it will impart a sense of “watchfulness and preparation for this wondrous journey to the skies,” “wean us from the love of the world,” assist us in bearing “the ills of life,” encourage “spirituality and devotion,” and will “prepare us to meet death quietly, when he comes.” Whereas “worldly men” base their cheerfulness on banishing the thought of death and in keeping “as far from the grave as possible,” the Christian pilgrim is “cheered by the hope of immortality” and may die in peace. To the Christian, death itself should be “no stranger to his thoughts.”
The recently deceased Mr. Fisher had briefly been a stranger in Charleston whose death caught many in the community by surprise. Manly’s funeral sermon aimed to ensure that no earthly soul might be thrust into the hereafter unprepared for their eternal destination. Like Abraham, the Christian pilgrim must seek to make his home in the promised land.
Adam Winters is a Ph.D. candidate in historical theology and church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
This article was original published in Towers. The Basil Manly, Sr. sermons mentioned in this article are available to you at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Please visit the archives on the second floor of the library or on our website at archives.sbts.edu.
[i]John A. Broadus, Memoir of James Petigru Boyce (Louisville: Baptist Book Concern, 1893), 9.
[ii]All further sermon quotations are from Basil Manly, Sr. “The Burial of a Stranger,” (first preached October 10, 1830), Basil Manly, Sr. Collection, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Archives and Special Collections.