The Last Testimony of A Departing Saint’s Spirit
by Glenn Conjurske
As we have read many Christian biographies, we have read the accounts of the last words and deaths of many of the godly. It has been a common thing for those gathered around the dying bed of one they loved to seek for some dying testimony, as to the state and feelings of the one dying. Many of them would arrange beforehand some sign, as the squeezing of the hand or the raising of a finger, that the dying saint might use to signify his happiness after the powers of speech had failed. Such signs were much valued by those left behind.
But there is another sign, more telling and more precious, and one entirely involuntary, left behind as the last testimony of the departed. We speak of the impress which the departing spirit leaves upon the abandoned body, its own happy state being imprinted upon the countenance of the house of clay, from which it has taken its flight. Many have been the saints who have left behind this last testimony to their triumph over death, and thus, though dead, they yet continued to speak, and that with a most telling eloquence. We regard these testimonies as pre-eminently edifying, and as it is always our delight to
”…gather up with pious care
What happy saints have left behind,”
in addition to “their writings,” “their sayings,” and “their works which traced them to the skies,” we have gathered up for the pleasure and profit of our readers a few of their dying smiles, left behind them when their spirits were gone to paradise.
The nature and the value of this testimony are recorded alike in Joseph Travis’s account of the death of his wife. “She was at this time sitting up in bed, but speedily lay down, carefully putting her head beyond the pillow, and off from the bed-clothes; and instantly the blood streamed out of her mouth in a current as large as my finger. I fell upon my knees at the bedside, but I could not pray, such was the agitation of my mind. I arose, and felt her pulse, and found that she was fast fleeing away; and in about five minutes the vital spark became extinct. But oh! the smile, the heavenly smile that rested on that death-stricken countenance, always to me beautiful; but now more abundantly so. …
“It would have afforded me much consolation could she have been able to leave a verbal testimony of her future hopes; but her unspotted and religious life, her heavenly looks after death, are sufficient evidence of her happy exit from this vale of tears to the paradise of God.”
And not only have surviving saints been comforted, but ungodly sinners converted also, by the spirit’s last testimony, left behind upon the lifeless clay. An excellent Methodist missionary writes of the death of a converted Indian in Canada, “Another son of this old saint was Samuel, the courageous guide and modest, unassuming Christian. He was the one who guided his well-loaded brigade up the mighty Saskatchewan river to the rescue of the whites there, and having safely and grandly done his work, ‘holding on to God,’ went up the shining way so triumphantly that there lingered behind on his once pallid face some radiance of the glory like that into which he had entered; and some seeing it were smitten with a longing to have it as their portion, and so, then and there, they gave themselves to God.”
Charles Wesley records several examples of these dying smiles on the lifeless clay. “We had prayed last night,” he says, “with joy full of glory for our departing brother, just while he gave up his spirit,
—-as I pray God I may give up mine. … We sang a song of victory for our deceased friend; then went to the house, and rejoiced, and gave thanks; and rejoiced again with singing over him. The spirit, at its departure, had left marks of its happiness on the clay. No sight upon earth, in my eyes, is half so lovely.”
Charles Wesley wrote many poems on the deaths of his friends, and many of these are most excellent. From one of them I cull the following:
She spake, and by her looks express’d
The glorious everlasting rest
To saints triumphant given;
Glided in ecstasies away,
And told us, through her smiling clay
My soul is fled to heaven!
Exempt from nature’s agonies,
Who now is able to conceive
What with her closing eyes she sees?
She cannot bear the sight and live:
In sweet communion with her God,
She glides insensibly away,
Quietly drops the smiling clod,
And mingles with eternal day!
Of John Wesley we read, “At the desire of many friends his corpse was placed in the New Chapel, and remained there the day before his interment. His face during that time had a heavenly smile upon it, and a beauty which was admired by all that saw it.”
Of the countenance of James H. Brookes after his death we are told, “Many were struck by the triumphant majesty and spiritual beauty of the face of the dead. To some it seemed as if thirty years had been rolled backward, and he was before them the Doctor Brookes they had known when in his splendid meridian of life.
“A gray-haired minister, after gazing upon the form of his old friend, said, ‘Look at that, and then say there is nothing in Christianity!”’Similar were the impressions of a little grandchild. ‘It didn’t look like grandpa,’ he confided to his mother; ‘it looked just like an angel.”’
John W. Burgon saw the same on the countenance of his departed sister, and wrote,
O Sister, who ere yet my task is done
Art lying (my loved Sister!) in thy shroud
With a calm placid smile upon thy lips
As thou wert only “taking of rest in sleep.”
Charles G. Finney preached the funeral sermon of David Marks, in which he said, “O, it has been a luxury for me and many other friends to see him day after day triumphing over death, and showing how easy a man may die, if he has only lived right.” To which the widow of Mr. Marks adds, “the coffin was opened beneath the pulpit, and while the congregation was passing around to take the last look of his countenance, joyful even in death, it was said that Professor Finney gazed almost constantly upon it, and remarked to those standing near him: ‘Did you ever see such a corpse? What a countenance! How lovely! How smiling! How easy it is to die right, if we live right.”’
A pleasing example is seen in William Cowper, who suffered from mental derangement, which generally took the form of a settled despair. Others believed him a child of God, but he could not believe it himself. Approaching death, “Nothing could be gloomier than the state of his mind. Dr. Lubbock, of Norwich, who called upon him one day, inquired how he felt. ‘Feel!’ replied Cowper, ‘I feel unutterable despair!’ …
“On the 19th of April it was evident that death was near, and Mr. Johnson ventured to speak of his approaching dissolution as the signal for his deliverance from the miseries of both mind and body. Cowper making fewer objections than might have been supposed, Johnson proceeded to say, ‘that in the world to which he was hastening, a merciful Redeemer had prepared unspeakable happiness for all His children, and therefore for him.’ To the first part of this sentence he listened with composure, but upon hearing the concluding words he passionately entreated that no further observations might be made on the subject.”
Yet “From the time of his death till the coffin was closed, Mr. Johnson says, ‘the expression with which his countenance had settled was that of calmness and composure, mingled, as it were, with holy surprise.”’
Of the death of Leila Ada, a young Jewess converted to Christ, we read, “And there was the bed; enshrouded in purest white. The curtains were drawn, and disclosed a lovely figure which lay sleeping upon it
—-it was a beautiful sleep, for she smiled as though in a happy dream. Ah! it was the long sacred sleep which the believer sleeps in Jesus till on the glorious resurrection morn he awakes to immortal life.
“Yes, there lay Leila, draped in a robe of simple white muslin, as she desired. She looked so innocent, so pure, so beautiful. On her face there was no icy coldness, no ghastly impression; and the angelic smile with which she had passed away, still hovered over every lineament. … Her head was slightly raised upon pillows, and over her face was diffused an expression so celestial
—-such a mingling of clear, unclouded brightness, ‘the new-born day of bliss,’ with a fixed and holy repose, —-that it at once showed that silent form was sleeping the long peaceful slumber which ‘He giveth His beloved,’ till the last trumpet shall give the joyful signal, and sound in a voice that shall pierce the deep silence of their tranquil rest, ‘Arise, shine, for the light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.”’
Nor has it been only the great, the noble, and the known who have died so, but many also of the poor and the base and the despised. C. L. Wireman says of the death of his father, “I grasped his hand as he breathed his last and whispered the sweet name of Jesus in his ear, and his face lit up with a peculiar smile. We put him away with that smile on his face.”
A poor old woman who had lived alone and was now dying alone, was visited by a young Christian lady, who read and prayed with her. “As I parted from her,” she writes, “I expressed my surprise that she could be so full of peace and joy when dying alone!
“’Tsh!’ she said, ‘Christ is with me, and when you have known Him as long as I have known Him, and proved His love as long, you will not wonder. I’ve known Him more than twenty years, and I’ve lived much of that time alone with Him, and now I’ve been dying these six months past, alone with Him; for few come to see me, and there’s few I care to see, for I’ve Christ always with me, and there’s no solitude in that.”
‘…I saw this aged servant of Christ many times after this, and learned from her what I believe I have never forgotten. One day she told me she had asked the Lord, if it were His will, that some one might be with her when she breathed her last.
“’Why?’ I asked, thinking she was dreading to die alone.
“’Because, if no one saw me die, they would not know I was as happy to die as to live; for Christ is with me now, and will be with me then, and I shall be with Him for ever.”
‘Each day, as I left her, I saw she was passing quickly to her desired haven. She had few earthly comforts, save those the Lord privileged me to take her; yet she was full of joy, and thankfulness, and unclouded peace. One day I knocked as usual at the door, but got no answer. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘has she died alone?’ With breathless anxiety I opened the door; her hands were clasped, her lips moved in prayer. I stood in silence till her eyes opened, and she saw me. ‘You’ve come to see me die,’ she said: ‘sit down. If it was not for others, I would rather be alone with Christ, but you’ll stay till the end.’ Then in thoughtfulness for me, she said
—-‘O, but you are young, and you may not like to see any one die.”
”Yes,’ I said, ‘I should like to be with you.’ Pointing to her well-worn Bible, she said
—-‘Read for me once more the last verses of the eighth of Romans.”
”For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ As I closed the book, I was about to ask her if I should pray. I observed a slight movement of the eyelids, she gazed upward, a radiant smile lit up her features, and her happy spirit was with the Lord.”
Elizabeth Woodbridge, “the dairyman’s daughter,” is known the world over today, but at the time of her death she was as obscure and unknown as the poor woman spoken of above. Her biographer says, “I went to take my last look at the deceased.
“There was much written on her countenance. She had evidently died with a smile. It still remained, and spoke the tranquility of her departed soul.”
These all died quietly in their beds, but others who died a gruesome and bloody death have left the same testimony on the lifeless clay. Of the well known missionary martyrs, John and Betty Stam, Betty’s father writes, “We are greatly comforted in the definite testimony of Christian and other witnesses at Miaosheo (where they were slain), that when finally the blood was wiped from their faces and their severed heads prepared for their encoffinment, there was upon them a heavenly peace, and a beautiful, Stephen-like expression of holy triumph upon their countenances.”
We trust that all who read of these, the silent and lingering testimonies of departed saints, will wish to say, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like theirs!”
Such are the deaths of the righteous and the holy, and the silent testimonies which they have left behind them. But the innocent may sometimes leave such a testimony also. We have rehearsed above the heavenly countenance which Leila Ada displayed in death, and from her pen we give the following description of the dead yet speaking countenance of an infant. My readers will kindly pardon the blank verse
—-read it as prose if you please —-for the sake of its charming substance.
DEATH OF AN INFANT
I gazed upon that infant as it slept:
That sleep was strangely beautiful, and seemed
An ecstasy immortal. The curtaining lids
Had dropped their silken fringes o’er the soul,
And shut out all except the beams of Heaven.
A sacred glory rested on her brow,
And mantled o’er her cheek; a lovely smile
Sat like a cherub on her faded lips:
A solemn rapture was that dying scene:
Celestial spirits fanned it with their wings
It breathed the air of heaven. She oped her eyes
Those bright blue eyes still looked as they were wont,
The very soul of tenderness and joy.
They sought her mother’s face, again to feast
Upon its beauty! forth from them spoke a rest,
Such only as the innocent may feel.
The Angel of the Covenant had come
To wing her home. At his august command,
Death quick unbound his shaft, and touched her heart,
Curdling her hot life’s blood. With ruthless haste
He closed her snowy lids, and bound her brow
With ice. His spoils were done! He seized her breath,
The roses on her cheeks; but left that pure
And holy smile. He did not dare steal that;
For it belonged to Heaven!