On occasion I read a book that’s so humbling I just stop reading and pray for my own soul. And that’s exactly what happened Friday when I began reading Alexander Whyte’s 1909 book Thomas Shepard: Pilgrim Father and Founder of Harvard (reprinted in 2007 by Reformation Heritage Books).
Thomas Shepard (1605-1649) was a Puritan known for his experiential preaching and writing. Whyte (1836-1921) meditated on selections from Shepard’s life and writings. The meditations are very rich.
Shepard was a very influential Puritan, a very gifted evangelist and preacher. Yet he constantly saw his weaknesses and shows his dependence upon the power of God. Amidst his success, Shepard’s private writings capture a deep lament that his own influence impaired the spiritual growth of those around him. In one overstatement Shepard writes, “under the blighting shadow of my presence neither old nor young ever really prospered.” Shepard lamented that his children were born — at least to him. His sense of inherent failure and incapacitating sinfulness apart from God’s graciousness makes his thoughts and meditations very humbling.
In the following example Whyte uses the journal of Shepard to reveal the dangers of loving our books to the neglect of our families. This is an excellent lesson for all bibliophile/husband/fathers like myself.
“As I go over and over Thomas Shepard’s Meditations and Spiritual Experiences I find these four faults of his filling Shepard’s heart and conscience with a great remorse. First, his too great love for books and his too much time spent in his study. Had Shepard been a celibate priest instead of a Protestant and Puritan pastor, his love for his books and his long hours in his study would all have been to be commended. But with his family neglected, his pulpit and his class studies became his besting sin. He laments in one place his ‘ragged style’ in writing, as well he may. But far better write a ragged style than bring up and send out ragged children into the world. Shepard lived among his books before he was married, and he continued to live too much among them after he was a married man and father of a family. And that bad habit of his was very near being the ruin of his household life. Ministers, says Samuel Rutherford, of all men are made up of extremes. Some ministers ruin themselves and their families and their people, and all beyond redemption, by their sinful neglect of their sacred studies. And then there is one minister here and another there like Thomas Shepard, who imperil their own and their children’s souls by their intemperate and untimeous devotion to their books and to their desks. But the beauty of Thomas Shepard was that he discovered his mistake and set himself to rectify his mistake before it was too late. He continued to love his books and to labor at his sermons, but he gave more and more time and thought to make his children living epistles to be known and read of all men.”
– Alexander Whyte, Thomas Shepard: Pilgrim Father and Founder of Harvard (Reformation Heritage; Grand Rapids, MI) 1909/2007. Pp. 36-37.