The Sun Going Down While Yet Day
by John Newton
"She has given up the spirit; her sun is gone down while it was yet day" Jeremiah 15:9
Beautifully illustrative of the words of the weeping Prophet is the following account of the death of Miss Eliza Cunningham, written by her uncle, the Rev. John Newton, rector of St. Mary, Woolnoth, London. It has been slightly abridged — but no important matter has been omitted.
In May, 1782, my sister Eliza Cunningham was at Edinburgh, chiefly on account of her eldest daughter, then in the fourteenth year of her age, who was very ill of a consumption. She had already buried an only son, at the age of twelve; and while all a mother's care and feelings were engaged by the rapid decline of a second amiable child — she was unexpectedly and suddenly bereaved of an affectionate husband. Her trials were great — but the Lord had prepared her for them. She was a believer. Her faith was strong; her graces active; her conduct exemplary. She walked with God — and he supported her. And though she was a tender and sympathizing friend, she had a happy firmness of temper, so that her character as a Christian, and the
propriety of her behavior in every branch of life, appeared with peculiar advantage in the season of affliction. She returned to Anstruther a widow, with her sick child, who languished until October, and then died.
Though my sister had many valuable and pleasing connections in Scotland — yet her strongest tie being broken, she readily accepted my invitation to come and live with us. She was not only dear to me as my sister — but we had lived long in the habits of intimate friendship. I knew her worth, and she was partial to me. She had yet one child remaining, her dear Eliza. We already had a dear orphan niece, whom we had, about seven years before, adopted for our own daughter.
My active, fond imagination, anticipated the time of her arrival, and drew a pleasing picture of the addition the company of such a sister, such a friend, would make to the happiness of our family. The children likewise — there was no great disparity between them either in years or stature. From what I had heard of Eliza, I was prepared to love her before I saw her; though she came afterwards into my hands like a heap of untold gold, which, when counted over, proves to be a larger sum than was expected. My imagination paired and united these children; I hoped that the friendship between us and my sister would be perpetuated in them; I seemed to see them like twin sisters, of one heart and mind, habited nearly alike, always together, always with us. Such was my plan — but the Lord's plan was very different, and therefore mine failed.
It is happy for us poor short-sighted creatures, unable as we are to foresee the consequences of our own wishes, that if we know and trust him, he is often pleased to put a merciful negative upon our purposes; and condescends to choose better for us than we can for ourselves. What might have been the outcome of my plan, could it have taken place, I know not; but I can now praise and adore him for the gracious outcome of his plan. I praise his name, that I can cheerfully comply with his word, which says, "Be still, and know that I am God." I not only can bow (as it befits a creature and a sinner to do) to his sovereignty; but I admire his wisdom and goodness, and can say from my heart, "He has done all things well!"
My sister had settled her affairs previous to her removal, and nothing remained — but to take leave of her friends, of whom she had many in different parts of the country. In February, 1783, I received a letter from her, which before I opened, I expected was to inform me that she was upon the road in her way to London. But the information was, that in a little journey she had made to bid a friend farewell, she had caught a violent cold, which brought on a fever and a cough, with other symptoms, which though she described as gently as possible, that we might not be alarmed, obliged me to give up instantly the pleasing hope of seeing her. Following letters confirmed my apprehensions; her malady increased, and she was soon confined to her bed. Eliza was at school at Musselburgh. Until then she had enjoyed a perfect state of health; but while her dear mother was rapidly declining, she likewise caught a great cold, and her life was soon thought to be in danger.
On this occasion, that fortitude and resolution which so strongly marked my sister's character, was remarkably displayed. She knew that her own race was almost finished; she earnestly desired that Eliza might live or die with us. And the physicians advised a speedy removal to the South. Accordingly, to save time and to save Eliza from the impressions which the sight of a dying parent might probably make upon her spirits, and possibly apprehensive that the interview might make too great an impression upon her own, she sent this, her only beloved child, from Edinburgh directly to London, without letting her come home to take a last leave of her. She contented herself with committing and bequeathing her child to our care and love, in a letter, which I believe was the last she was able to write.
Thus powerfully recommended by the pathetic charge of a dying parent, the dearest friend we had upon earth, and by that plea for compassion, which her illness might have strongly urged even upon strangers, we received our dear Eliza as a trust, and as a treasure, on the fifteenth of March. My sister lived long enough to have the comfort of knowing, not only that she was safely arrived — but was perfectly pleased with her new situation. She was now freed from all earthly cares. She suffered much in the remaining part of her illness — but she knew in whom she believed; she possessed a peace past understanding, and a hope full of glory. She entered into the joy of her Lord on the tenth of May, 1783, respected and regretted by all who knew her.
I now perceived that the Lord had sent me a treasure indeed. Eliza's person was agreeable. There was an ease and elegance in her whole address, and a gracefulness, until long illness and great weakness bowed her down. Her disposition was lively, her genius quick and inventive, and if she had enjoyed health, she probably would have excelled in everything she attempted, that required ingenuity. Her understanding, particularly her judgment, and her sense of propriety, was far above her years. There was something in her appearance which usually procured her favor at first sight. She was honored by the notice of several people of distinction, which, though I thankfully attribute in part to their kindness to me, I believe was a good deal owing to something uncommon in her. But her principal endearing qualities, which could be only fully known to us, who lived with her, were the sweetness of her temper, and a heart formed for the exercise of affection, gratitude, and friendship.
Whether, when at school, she might have heard sorrowful tales from children, who, having lost their parents, met with a great difference, in point of tenderness, when they came under the direction of uncles and aunts, and might think that all uncles and aunts were alike, I know not; but I have understood since from herself, that she did not come to us with any highly raised expectations of the treatment she was to meet with. But as she found (the Lord in mercy to her and to us having opened our hearts to receive her) that it was hardly possible for her own parents to have treated her more tenderly, and that it was from that time the business and pleasure of our lives to study how to oblige her, and how to alleviate the afflictions we were unable to remove; so we likewise found, that the seeds of our kindness could hardly be sown in a more promising and fruitful soil.
I know not that either her aunt or I ever saw a cloud upon her countenance during the time she was with us. It is true we did not, we could not unnecessarily cross her; but if we thought it expedient to overrule any proposal she made, she acquiesced with a sweet smile: and we were certain that we would never hear of that proposal again. Her delicacy however was quicker than our observation; and she would sometimes say, when we could not perceive the least reason for it, "I am afraid I answered you peevishly; indeed I did; if I did, I ask your pardon. I would be very ungrateful, if I thought any pleasure equal to that of endeavoring to please you." It is no wonder that we dearly loved such a child.
Wonderful is the frame of the human heart. The Lord claims and deserves it all; yet there is still room for all the charities, of relative life, and scope for their full play; and they are capable of yielding the sincerest pleasures this world can afford, if held in subordination to what is supremely due to him.
The hectic fever, cough, and sweats, which Eliza brought with her from Scotland, were subdued in the course of the summer, and there appeared no reason to apprehend that she would die very suddenly. But still there was a worm preying upon the root of this pretty gourd. She had seldom any severe pain, until within the last two weeks of her life, and usually slept well; but when awake she was always ill. I believe she knew not an hour of perfect ease; and those who intimately knew her state, could not but wonder to see her so placid, cheerful, and attentive, when in company, as she generally was. Many times, when the tears have silently stolen down her cheeks, if she saw that her aunt or I observed her, she would wipe them away, come to us with a smile and a kiss; and say, "Do not be uneasy, I am not very ill, I can bear it, I shall be better presently;" or something to that effect.
Her case was thought beyond the reach of medicine, and, for a time, no medicine was used. She had air and exercise, as the weather and circumstances would permit. For the rest, she amused herself as she could with her guitar or harpsichord, with her needle, and with reading. She had a part likewise, when able, in such visits as we paid or received; and our visits were generally regulated by a regard to what she could bear. Her aunt, especially, seldom went abroad but at such times, and to such places, as we thought agreeable and convenient to her. For we could perceive that she loved home best, and best of all when we were at home with her.
In April, 1784, we put her under the care of my dear friend Dr. Benamor. To the blessing of the Lord on his skill and endeavors, I ascribe the pleasure of having her continued with us so long. But what can the most efficacious medicines, or the best physicians, avail to prolong life, when the hour approaches, in which the prayer of the Great Intercessor must be accomplished, "Father, I will that they whom you have given me may be with me where I am to behold my glory?" This was the proper cause of my dear Eliza's death. The Lord sent this child to me to be brought up for him; he owned my poor endeavors: and when her education was completed, and she was ripened for Heaven, he took her home to himself. He has richly paid me my wages, in the employment itself, and in the happy outcome.
Dr. Benamor advising a trial of the salt water, we passed the month of August, 1784, with her, partly at Mr. Walter Taylor's, at Southampton, and partly at Charles Etty's, of Priestlands, near Symington. While she was with these kind and generous friends, she had every accommodation and assistance that could be thought of or wished for. And the bathing was evidently useful, so far as to give some additional strength to her very weak and relaxed frame, which assisted her in going more comfortably through the last winter. We were, therefore, encouraged, and advised to repeat our visit to Southampton this autumn. But the success was not the same. Her feet and legs had already begun to swell, and the evening before she took cold, which brought on a return of the fever and cough; and though Dr. Allen was successful in removing these symptoms in about a two weeks, and she bathed a few times, she could not persevere. However, the advantages of situation, air, and exercise, being much greater than she could have in London, and as we were with friends whom she, as well as we, dearly loved, she continued at Southampton six weeks; but she was unable to proceed to Mr. Etty's, who was very desirous of repeating his former kindness. The Lord strengthened her to perform her journey home without inconvenience. She returned the sixteenth of September; then she entered our door for the last time, for she went out no more, until she was carried out to be put into the hearse.
I have thus put together, in one view, a brief account of what relates to her illness, until within the last three weeks of her pilgrimage. I now come to what is much more important and interesting. Her excellent parents had conscientiously endeavored to bring her up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and the principles of religion had been instilled into her from her infancy. Their labors were thus far attended with success, that no child could be more obedient or obliging, or more remote from evil habits or evil tempers; but I could not perceive, when she came to us, that she had any heart-affecting sense of divine things.
But being under my roof, she of course, when her health would permit, attended on my ministry, and was usually present when I prayed and expounded the Scriptures, morning and evening, in the family. Friends and ministers were likewise frequently with us, whose character and conversation were well suited to engage her notice, and to help her to form a right idea of the Christian principles and temper. Knowing that she was of a thinking turn, I left her to make her own reflections upon what she saw and heard, committing her to the Lord from whom I had received her, and entreating him to be her effectual teacher. When I did attempt to talk with her upon the concerns of her soul, she could give me no answer but with tears. But I soon had great encouragement to hope that the Lord had both enlightened her understanding, and had drawn the desires of her heart to himself. Great was her delight in the ordinances; exemplary her attention under the preaching. To be debarred from going to hear prayer at our stated times, was a trial which, though she patiently bore, seemed to affect her more than any other, and she did not greatly care what she endured in the remainder of the week, provided she was well enough to attend the public worship.
The judicious observations she sometimes made upon what had passed in conversation, upon incidents, books, and sermons — indicated a sound scriptural judgment, and a spiritual taste. And my hope was confirmed by her whole deportment, which was befitting the Gospel of Christ. So that had she died suddenly, on any day within about a year and a half past, I would have had no doubt that she had passed from death unto life. But I could seldom prevail with her to speak of herself: if she did, it was with the greatest self-distrust and caution.
Soon after her return from Southampton, she became acquainted with acute pain, to which she had, until then, been much a stranger. Her gentle spirit, which had borne up under a long and languishing illness, was not so capable of supporting pain. It did not occasion any improper temper or language — but it wore her away quickly. Friday the thirteenth of September, she was down stairs for the last time, and then she was brought down and carried up in arms.
It now became very desirable to hear from herself an explicit account of the hope that was in her; especially as, upon some symptoms of an approaching mortification, she appeared to be a little alarmed, and of course, not thoroughly reconciled to the thoughts of death. Her aunt waited for the first convenient opportunity of intimating to her the probability that the time of her departure was at hand. The next morning, Saturday the first of October, presented one. She found herself remarkably better; her pains were almost gone, her spirits revived; the favorable change was visible in her countenance. Her aunt began to break the subject to her by saying, "My dear, were you not extremely ill last night?" She replied, "Indeed I was." "Had you not been relieved, I think you could not have continued long." "I believe I could not." "My dear, I have been very anxiously concerned for your life." "But I hope, my dear aunt, you are not so now." She then opened her mind and spoke freely. I cannot repeat the whole; the substance was to this effect: "My views of things have been for some time very different from what they were when I came to you. I have seen and felt the vanity of childhood and youth." Her aunt said, "I believe you have long made a conscience of secret prayer." She answered, "Yes; I have long and earnestly sought the Lord, with reference to the change which is now approaching. I have not yet that full assurance which is so desirable; but I have a hope, I trust, a good hope, and I believe the Lord will give me whatever he sees necessary for me, before he takes me from hence. I have prayed to him to fit me for himself; and then, whether sooner or later, it signifies but little." Here was a comfortable point gained. We were satisfied that she had given up all expectation of living, and could speak of her departure without being distressed.
It will not be expected that a child at her age should speak systematically. Nor had she learned her religion from a system or form of words, however sound. The Lord himself was her teacher. But, from what little she had at different times said to me, I was well satisfied that she had received a true conviction of the evil of sin, and of her own state by nature as a sinner.
When she spoke of the Lord, she meant the Lord Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd, who gathers such lambs in his arms, and carries them in his bosom. She believed him to be God and man in one person; and that hope, of which she shall never be ashamed, was founded on his atonement, grace, and power. As I do not intend to put words into her mouth which she never spoke, I mention this lest any person should be disappointed at not finding a certain phraseology to which they may have been accustomed.
Her apparent revival was of short duration. In the evening of the same day, she began to complain of a sore throat, which became worse, and, before Sunday noon, threatened an absolute suffocation. When Dr. Benamor, who the day before had almost entertained hopes of her recovery, found her so suddenly and greatly altered, he could not at the moment prevent some signs of his concern from appearing in his countenance. She quickly perceived it, and desired he would plainly tell her his sentiments. When he had recovered himself he said, "You are not so well as when I saw you on Saturday." She answered, that she trusted all would be well soon. He replied, that whether she lived or died, it would be well and to the glory of God. He told me that he had much pleasing conversation with her that morning; some particulars of which he had committed to writing — but that he had lost the paper. From that time she may be said to have been dying, as we expected her departure from one hour to another.
When the doctor came on Wednesday, she entreated him to tell her how long he thought she might live. He said, "Are you in earnest, my dear?" She answered, "Indeed I am." At that time there were great appearances that a mortification had actually begun. He therefore told her, he thought it possible she might hold out until eight in the evening — but did not expect she could survive midnight at furthest. On hearing him say so, low as she was, her eyes seemed to sparkle with their former vivacity, and fixing them on him with an air of ineffable satisfaction, she said, "Oh, that is good news indeed!" And she repeated it as such to a person who came soon after into the room, and said with lively emotions of joy, "The doctor tells me I shall stay here but a few hours more." In the afternoon she noticed and counted the clock, I believe, every time it struck; and when it struck seven, she said, "Another hour, and then!" But it pleased the Lord to spare her to us another day.
She suffered much in the course of Wednesday night — but was quite resigned and patient. Our kind servants, who, from their love to her and to us, watched her night and day with a solicitude and tenderness which wealth is too poor to purchase — were the only witnesses of the affectionate and grateful manner in which she repeatedly thanked them for their services and attention to her.
I was surprised on Thursday morning to find her not only alive — but in some respects better. The tokens of mortification again disappeared. This was her last day, and it was a memorable day to us. When Dr. Benamor asked her how she was, she answered, "Truly happy, and if this be dying, it is a pleasant thing to die." She said to me about ten o'clock, "My dear uncle, I would not change conditions with any person upon earth. Oh, how gracious is the Lord to me! Oh, what a change is before me!" She was several times asked, if she could wish to live, provided the Lord should restore her to perfect health? Her answer was, "Not for all the world," and sometimes "Not for a thousand worlds! Do not weep for me, my dear aunt; but rather rejoice and praise on my account." The last time she was asked this question, she said, "I desire to have no choice." We asked her if she would choose a text for her own funeral sermon? She readily mentioned, "Whom the Lord loves, he chastens." "That," said she, "has been my experience; my afflictions have been many — but not too many; nor has the greatest of them been too great; I praise him for them all." But after a pause, she said, "Stay, I think there is another text which may do better; let it be Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. That is my experience now." She likewise chose a hymn to be sung after the sermon.
But I must check myself, and set down but a small part of the gracious words which the Lord enabled her to speak in the course of the day. Though she was frequently interrupted by pains and agonies, she had something to say, either in the way of admonition or consolation, as she thought most suitable, to every one she saw. To her most constant attendant she said, "Be sure you continue to call upon the Lord; and if you think he does not hear you now, he will at last, as he has heard me." She spoke a great deal to an intimate friend, who was with her every day, which I hope she will long remember as the testimony of her dying Eliza.
Among other things she said, "See how comfortable the Lord can make a dying bed! Do you think that you shall have such an assurance when you come to die?" Being answered, "I hope so, my dear," she replied, "But do you earnestly and with all your heart pray to the Lord for it? If you seek him — you shall surely find him." She then prayed affectionately and fervently for her friend, afterwards for her cousin, and then for another of our family, who was present. Her prayer was not long — but her every word was weighty, and her manner very affecting; the purpose was, that they might all be taught and comforted by the Lord.
About five in the afternoon, she desired me to pray with her once more. Surely I then prayed from my heart. When I had finished, she said. Amen. I said, "My dear child, have I expressed your meaning?"
She answered, "Oh, yes!" and then added, "I am ready to say, Why are his chariot wheels so long coming? But I hope he will enable me to wait his hour with patience." These were the last words I heard her speak.
Towards seven o'clock, I was walking in the garden, and earnestly engaged in prayer for her, when a servant came to me, and said, "She is gone." Lord, how great is your power! how great is your goodness! A few days before, had it been practicable and lawful, what would I not have given to procure her recovery! yet seldom in my life have I known a more heartfelt joy, than when these words, She is gone, sounded in my ears. I ran upstairs, and our whole little family were soon round her bed. Though her aunt and another person were sitting with their eyes fixed upon her, she was gone, perhaps, a few minutes before she was missed. She lay upon her left side, with her cheek gently reclining upon her hand as if in a sweet sleep. And I thought there was a smile on her countenance. Never, surely, did death appear in a more beautiful, inviting form! We fell upon our knees, and I returned my most sincere thanks to God and my Savior, for his abundant goodness to her, crowned in this last instance by giving her so gentle a dismissal.
Yes, I am satisfied, I am comforted. And if one of the tears involuntarily shed could have recalled her to life, to health, to an assemblage of all that this world could contribute to her happiness — I would have labored hard to suppress it. Now my largest desires for her are accomplished. The days of her mourning are ended. She is landed on that peaceful shore, where the storms of trouble never blow. She is forever out of the reach of sorrow, sin, temptation, and snares. Now she is before the throne! she sees him, whom not having seen, she loved! She drinks of the rivers of pleasure, which are at his right hand, and shall thirst no more.
She was born at St. Margaret's, Rochester, February 6, 1771. She breathed her spirit into her Redeemer's hands, a little before seven in the evening, on the 6th of October, 1785, aged fourteen years and eight months.
I shall be glad if this little narrative may prove an encouragement to my friends who have children. May we not conceive the Lord saying to us, as Pharaoh's daughter said to the mother of Moses, "Take this child and bring it up for me, and I will pay you your wages." How solemn the trust! how important and difficult the discharge of it! but how rich the reward if our endeavors are crowned with success! And we have everything to hope from his power and goodness, if, in dependence upon his blessing, we can fully and diligently aim at fulfilling his will. Happy they who will say at the last day, "Behold, here am I — and the children which you have given me."
The children of my friends will likewise see my narrative. May it convince them that it is practicable and good to seek the Lord early! My dear Eliza's state of languor prevented her from associating with young people of her own age, so frequently and freely as she might otherwise have done. But these papers will come into the hands of some such, whom she knew, and whom she loved. To them I particularly commend and dedicate this relation.
Oh! my dear young friends, had you seen with what dignity of spirit she filled up the last scene of her life, you must have been affected by it! Let not the liveliness of your spirits, and the gaiety of the prospects around you, prevent you from considering that to you likewise days will certainly come (unless you are suddenly snatched out of life), when you will say, and feel, that the world, and all in it, can afford you no pleasure. But there is a Savior, and a mighty One, always near, always gracious to those who seek him. May you, like her, be enabled to choose him, as the Guide of your youth, and the Lord of your hearts. Then, like her, you will find support and comfort under affliction, wisdom to direct your conduct, a good hope in death, and by death — a happy translation to everlasting life.
I have only to add my prayer, that a blessing from on high may descend upon the people and families of all my friends, and upon all into whose hands this paper may providentially come.