William T. Brantly, D.D.
By Elder William Brantly, son of Dr. Brantly
Dr. Brantly was born in January, 1787, in Chatham county, in the state of North Carolina. Being one of a numerous family of children, but scantily provided with this world’s goods, he was deprived of the benefits of liberal instruction at that age when the mind is most docile, and when the most permanent impressions are produced. This deficiency was in part compensated by the tuition of his mother; a lady, who, though of very imperfect education, was remarkable for her piety and decision of character. Under her care, he conceived, at the tenderest age, an unusual fondness for reading; and though compelled to daily labor upon a farm, many a volume was digested, and much valuable information acquired, in those moments when he was relieved from more urgent avocations. When he had completed his fourteenth year, it pleased God to make him a new creature. He was brought to a knowledge of the truth during a very powerful and extensive revival of religion, which was enjoyed for several years, in the states south and west of Virginia, about the commencement of the present century. The peculiar characteristics of his mental exercises, in conversion, were pungent convictions of his sinfulness and danger. Before finding peace in Christ, he was the subject of most distressing apprehensions of the wrath of God. Pardon for such a sinner as he was, he thought impossible; his perdition seemed inevitable. His faith, at first, very feebly apprehended the Saviour; and, if he rejoiced at all, it was with great trembling. It was during his baptism, as he has been heard to say, that every doubt was dispelled, and that he was favored with a most luminous manifestation of the divine presence. He came up out of the water, and went on his way rejoicing. The mental agony which he suffered in the period just referred to, seems to have been permitted as one qualification for the important work to which he was subsequently called. It prepared him to appreciate the distress of souls burdened with sin. In his intercourse with such persons, we have never known one more sympathizing and tender. When he saw the anguish of the convicted sinner, it seemed to revive afresh the recollection of his own sorrows. With many tears of sympathy, we have seen him pointing hundreds of distressed ones to the Saviour, who had delivered his “feet feet from fading and his soul from death.” After his conversion, Dr. Brantly seemed to have no other thought or desire but that of devoting his life to the service of God. A profession of religion had hardly been made, before, with a zeal which some might deem indiscreet, but which, in him, was irrepressible, he commenced, publicly and privately, wherever a hearing could be secured, exhorting sinners to repentance. At this period, in the exuberance of his youthful zeal, when excited by the presence of a congregation, he would become so anxious to do good, that he has been
frequently known to rise, after the regular services were concluded, and ask permission to exhort the people farther. This he did is the most affecting manner. More than one sinner has dated his convictions to the appeals made by "that boy who spoke after the minister had done."
Shortly after professing Christ, a wealthy friend,* impressed with his talents, tendered him such assistance as might be requisite for him to prosecute his studies to the extent of preparation for college. The proposition was cheerfully accepted, and he became at once a very diligent student; not unmindful, at the same time, of the work which he had proposed as the great business of life. In a few years he entered South Carolina College. At this time, the institution was enjoying the presidential labors of Jonathan Maxey, whose valuable remains have recently been published, and who had previously been the distinguished president of Brown University and of Union College. Betwixt the pupil and the preceptor, an intimacy, far stronger than is ordinarily found between those sustaining such a relationship, soon grew up. The scholar was an enthusiastic admirer of the talents, learning and piety of the president. The latter, looking upon the student as a companion and friend, received him into a familiar intercourse which lasted through life. Dr. Brantly frequently reverted to the instructions and conversation of Maxey, as having been of inexpressible value to him.
Though compelled, while in college, to sustain himself mainly by his own exertions, Dr. Brantly took high rank as a scholar, and graduated with distinction in 1808.
It was his design, upon graduation, to enter upon a field where he might devote his undivided energies to the ministry. But, at this period, there were probably not half a dozen churches in all South Carolina and Georgia which sustained a regular ministry. To secure a support, therefore, he took the rectorship of the Richmond Academy, in Augusta, Ga., an institution well endowed by the State. Here he remained for about two years, teaching during the week, and preaching every Sabbath to some of the destitute congregations in the city and vicinity. While residing in this place he was married to the sister of Governor McDonald. In the choice of his companion he was singularly fortunate. She was a help meet indeed. A competent judge, who was well acquainted with her, has said that she was a lady of such "talents, piety, and accomplishments, as are rarely combined in one person." To her efficient and affectionate tutorship, the writer has frequently heard the husband ascribe much of that success, which, under God, he was subsequently enabled to achieve, as a scholar and as a minister.
In 1811, Dr. Brantly was invited to the pastorship of the Baptist church, in Beaufort, S.C., now under the care of Dr. Fuller. In their call they said to him,
* William Warden, a Scotchman, that resided in Pittsborongh, Chatham county N.C. He was not a member of the church.
"If you will come and minister to us in spirituals, we will minister to you in temporals." This was the amount of salary tendered. Deeming it sufficient, and anxious to give his time entirely to the ministry of the word, he resigned his situation in Augusta, and removed to Beaufort. Here he remained for eight years, constantly growing in usefulness, and in the affectionate regard of his people. Sinners were converted, saints were edified, and thus Christ’s kingdom was built up through his instrumentality. In addition to his pastoral labors in this place, he was also president of the Beaufort College for several years While in this vocation, he numbered among his pupils the distinguished author of the sermon before us, and the Rev. Dr. Manly, his predecessor in Charleston. The latter gentleman, addressing his beloved preceptor and friend, during his last illness, says to him: "To you, more than to any other man, I owe, under God, whatever I am, or have done in the world."
During his residence in Beaufort, he was a frequent contributor to the American Baptist Magazine, then published in Boston. His earliest published effusions are found in this work. The surviving readers of the periodical at the time referred to, no doubt, well remember the interest excited by the communications of “Theophilus.” An eminent divine, speaking of these articles since the death of their author, remarks, that"they were read and reread, and laid up among the selectest treasures of memory. It will remain for the day that shall reveal hidden things, to show what multitudes of young persons in the United States received the tone of their intellectual and Christian character from these inspiring productions." After he had been settled for some time in Beaufort, it was thought that the preaching of Dr. Brantly had too much of the intellectual, and not enough of the spiritual, too much of the philosophy of Christianity, and not enough of the marrow of the gospel. Though characterized by much power and originality, it was not thought to possess that unction and tenderness for which it was afterward so remarkable. The zeal and ardor of the young exhorter had sobered off into the precise logician. He needed something to make him more effective in reaching the heart. This he received as the fruit of an affliction, which overwhelmed him with unutterable sorrow It was the death of his pious companion, which occurred in 1818.
In 1819, the trustees of the academy in Augusta invited Dr. Brantly to resume the rectorship. Augusta having increased considerably in size, and promising to become one of the most important towns of the state, he acceded to their request to return there, in the hope that he might also be able to establish a Baptist interest in that growing community. Upon his removal to Augusta., scarcely half a dozen Baptists could be found in the whole city. The few, however, were collected, and he preached to them, in the chapel of the
academy, on every Lord's day. The congregation increased rapidly, and in the course of a few years, be was permitted to see, mainly through his efforts, a substantial house of worship, which had cost $22,000, and a flourishing church, where the Baptist name had recently been comparatively unknown. For seven years he ministered to this flock "without money and without price," depending upon his daily labor for support.
At the dedication of the church, just referred to, he preached and published a discourse on the "Beauty and Stability of Gospel Institutions." It may be interesting to repeat the opinion expressed of this earliest effort of Dr. Brantly, by a judicious critic. Speaking of this sermon, the American Baptist Magazine, for March, 1822, a copy of which is now before us, says: "This sermon is evidently the production of a man of learning and genius. It is everywhere forcibly, and in many places, eloquently written. Although the subject is trite, yet the author displays, in the discussion of it, is vigor and originality of mind, which cannot fail to interest and instruct.
"We have seldom seen the progress of Christianity more eloquently sketched, than in the following paragraph:
"'In forming a scheme for the conversion of mankind, what mind could ever have devised one so improbable as the cross of Christ? To human wisdom, it would have appeared an idle frenzy to think of reducing a rebellious people to allegiance, by the unmixed scandal of an ignominious crucifixion. Of all improbable plans, this might have seemed the most unpromising. Yet, behold what wonders are accomplished by the unvarnished majesty of this simple fact. Without any of the aids of learning, of authority, or of eloquence; with none of the ingenious sophistries of the schools; without any elaborate discussions, or studied appeals to the passions, we see humble, unassuming men, carrying in triumph a religion obnoxious to the repulsive spirit of pride and ambition. They had the approving tokens of divine regard. Their gospel became the power of God, and the wisdom of God to them that believed; and their work, which, in itself, would have been the derision of every idler, when confirmed by the hand of the Lord, supplied to thousands the elements of a new life; struck terror into the opposing ranks of sin; subverted the rites which antiquity had consecrated, and organized communities for the worship of one God and one Mediator. Nor has their case been one of uncommon occurrence. The effects of that preaching, in which Christ crucified is the leading theme, are still stupendous. It contains the power of a mysterious attraction. The solemn echo from groaning Calvary is the eloquence which persuades men. Here shines the true morality; here virtue is improved into devotion; here the soul catches the fire of a holy inspiration, and rises to assert its kindred with the spirits of the just.'"
While a resident of Georgia, Dr. Brantly exerted an excellent influence upon the denomination throughout the State. He was active in organizing the Baptist
Convention of the State; was zealous in advocating the cause of missions and of ministerial education; and in every good work he was the efficient coadjutor of the Mercers and Armstrongs of the times. At the distance of a quarter of a century, the salutary impression of his labors is distinctly felt and gratefully acknowledged by large numbers.
In 1824, the pastorship of the first Baptist church in Philadelphia became vacant, by the death of the much lamented Henry Holcombe. We have understood that, in his last moments, Dr. Holcombe warmly recommended Dr. Brantly as one under whose ministrations he would be happy to leave the church. In accordance with this suggestion, Dr. Brantly was invited to visit them. The result of this visit was a unanimous call to be their pastor.
A large sphere of usefulness, as he deemed it, being thus presented, he removed to Philadelphia, in the spring of 1826. That success which had crowned his labors at the South, attended them at the North. He soon became known as one of the most eloquent preachers in the city. Under his ministry the congregation increased; there was a number of powerful revivals, and many who are now known as among the most efficient and liberal members of the denomination, were brought into the church.
In 1827, the publication, entitled "The Columbian Star," which, we believe, had previously been the property of the Baptist Triennial Convention, was removed to Philadelphia, and the editorial department was confided to his care. How this trust was discharged is well known, since several thousand copies of the paper were circulated in different parts of the Union. He continued to edit this paper for about eight years. In its columns, during this period, may be found, we think, some of his ablest writings. Valuable articles on church discipline, important points of Christian doctrine and practice, and essays on a great variety of subjects everywhere abound. Could they be collected and published, they would make a very useful, and, we doubt not, acceptable volume.
During his residence in Philadelphia, Dr. Brantly published a volume of sermons, being principally those which had been delivered to his people, in the regular course of pastoral labor. The interest with which this volume was received is evinced by the fact that the whole edition was soon disposed of, and followed by still further demands. Though lucid and forcible discourses, we do not think, as a whole, that they sustained the expectation which his oral performances had created. They were prepared for the press with much haste, at the urgent solicitation of his people. Others of his sermons, which were taken down by a stenographer, as he delivered them, extempore, and subsequently published, just as they were preached, we think decidedly better
illustrations of his preaching power, than many of the discourses in this volume.
During his residence in this city, the degree of D. D. was conferred upon him by Brown University. We presume that it was bestowed through the influence of the president of that institution, of whose talents he was a sincere admirer.
After having been settled in Philadelphia for nearly twelve years, Dr. Brantly's health began to fail. Apprehensive lest the severity of a Northern climate might entirely prostrate his already shattered constitution, at the same time, what he believed to be a promising field opening in Charleston, he resigned the charge of the church in Philadelphia, and entered upon that of the First Baptist church in the former city. For two or three years after his removal to Charleston, he did not enjoy that success which had attended his labors in all other places. Several members of the church, to whom he had particularly looked for countenance and aid, taking exception to some of his views and practices, declined cordial co-operation with their pastor. The consequences were, that he was for a time thrown into much discouragement and distress. In such a state of things there were but few conversions and many dissensions. The malcontents were finally dismissed to form a new church. Soon after their withdrawal, a better state of things began to appear. The church and congregation then became warmly united, and ardently attached to their spiritual guide. Their affection was reciprocated by the most indefatigable labors for their welfare. He had the happiness of rejoicing with many newborn souls, and with burying them with Christ in baptism. At the time that an inscrutable Providence smote him, with fatal disease, the church was enjoying a deep and extensive work of grace.
Dr. Brantly's labors, after his return to the South, were too arduous. Shortly after his removal to Charleston, he was elected president of the College of Charleston. Believing that he could perform the duties of both offices, and thus extend his usefulness, he accepted the appointment. Under his administration, the college was more prosperous than at any former period of its history. The number of students largely increased, and the institution constantly grew in popularity. In the meantime, unremitting labor had seriously undermined his constitution. While about to hear the recitation of the senior class, on the 13th of July, 1844, he was attacked with a paralysis, which after keeping him for some months in the most affecting, prostration and helplessness, terminated fatally.
The malady which prostrated his body, also afflicted him with mental imbecility. Although there were lucid intervals during his illness, in which he signified to his friends, as well as be was able, that he was perfectly aware of his situation, and fully resigned to the divine will, yet his intellect was
evidently sympathizing with his body. Though his prostration was sudden, it was not altogether unexpected. For two years prior to his death, he supposed himself to be affected with a disease of the heart, which, although it did not disqualify him for his public duties, might terminate fatally at any moment. On one occasion, he remarked to a friend: "I have had death constantly before me, for the last two years. I have been looking for it every day." Writing to a member of his family, a few weeks before his attack, he said: Were I to be seized with a paralysis of the arm or leg, I should at once become an object of wretchedness and pity." At another time he said: "I shall break off suddenly; and I think I had rather die in the harness."
It is evident from these expressions, that Providence afforded him a presentiment of what awaited him. The summons did not reach him unprepared. It found him with his armor on, doing with his might what his hands found to do in his Master's service. He had "oil in his vessel;" and with his lamp trimmed and burning, he promptly and cheerfully responded to the cry, "Go ye out to meet him." He departed this life in Augusta, Ga., in March, 1845, in the city which had been the scene of his early labors, and among the attached friends of his youthful years.
It has been justly said of Dr. Brantly, that his life was an uninterrupted scene of arduous labor. In addition to his ministerial labors, which were always abundant, he was constantly engaged in the instruction of youth. To him idleness was insupportably irksome. He had a love for labor. For several years, while residing in Philadelphia, besides being the pastor of one of the largest churches in that city, he taught a school, edited a religious newspaper, rendered much service to the Baptist Tract Society, of whose board he was the president, in the selection of tracts, and when the agent of that society, the beloved Davis, died, he discharged his duties for six months, in order that his destitute family might have the benefit of the salary for this period. His distinguished friend, the present president of the Alabama University, speaking of him, says: "He was always busy, and yet never confused or behind-hand; and he ever found time for all the innumerable and nameless demands which were made upon him, whenever God and his fellowmen were to be served. The principle of his success amid herculean labors was, first, that he attended to one thing at a time, never suffering interruption; and secondly, he devoted his whole energy, in the most concentrated and absorbing attention, to whatever was before him. His mind, by use, became like a prism catching the combined radiance of an intricate subject, and distributing it into its elements almost in an instant." His love for teaching amounted almost to a passion. He delighted in that which many look upon as a drudgery. As might be expected, he was eminently
successful in imparting knowledge. Many who now occupy important positions in the pulpit, in our national councils, and at the bar, received much of their intellectual training from him. Wherever he met with an indigent youth of promise, desiring instruction at his hands, he took him under his care without charge. He instructed gratuitously not a few, who are now useful servants of the Lord Jesus.
As an intellectual man, Dr. Fuller says of him, "He had not many superiors in this country." His mind was remarkable for its grand and comprehensive views. He seemed to grasp a subject in all its bearings; and, resolving it into its elements, could hold it up in a very perspicuous light to others. His avocation as a teacher kept his naturally vigorous mind in healthy exercise. He delighted in the Latin and Greek classics, and was constantly in the habit of reading them. His exquisite taste readily detected their beauties; and no one could be long in his company without perceiving that his lips were "wet with Castalian dews."
In almost every department of learning he had attained respectable proficiency. It was, however, in the languages and in the metaphysics that he excelled. He was one of the most critical linguists and profound metaphysicians which this country has ever produced. The already too protracted length of this article will not permit us to record evidences of his excellence as a scholar, which might be interesting and instructive.
It may be said, however, that preaching was the forte of Dr. Brantly. This was ever his delightful employment. His noble person and fine voice conferred upon him great natural advantages as an orator. He never appeared so well as when proclaiming the gospel to perishing sinners. It was impossible for any one to hear him, without being convinced that he was thoroughly in earnest. He seemed to say, “I believe, therefore I speak.” Some of the discourses which he preached were attended with extraordinary success. From twenty to thirty persons have been known to ascribe their conviction to a single sermon.
His appeals to the backslider were frequently irresistible. He would assail such persons with the most melting rhetoric to which we have ever listened. It required a stout heart, indeed, to withstand the tears and entreaties with which he would beseech them to return to their deserted Lord.
Although the crowds that attended his ministry attest their general acceptance of his labors, and the fruits of his efforts attest his usefulness, yet there were occasions when he was not equal to himself. At such times he seemed to preach with considerable difficulty, and not to enter much into the spirit of his subject. At other times, he was too abstract to be understood by plain people. His premises and deductions were not readily seen and appreciated. But if he
was not always forcible and eloquent, he was always sensible, and preached, not for the purpose of saying something, but because he had something to say. His inequalities were chiefly owing to the fact that he was an extempore preacher. His numerous labors did not allow him time to write his discourses; and he was frequently constrained to depend upon very imperfect preparation.
The author of the sketch before us says, that“Dr. Brantly possessed a facility, both in writing and speaking, such as I never knew it in any other person; yet so severely had he trained and castigated his mind, that this did not hinder him from attaining great excellence.” Frequently, when we have supposed him to be wholly unprepared, he would come out upon his congregation with discourses possessing all the beauty and force of studied compositions. In illustration of this remark, we subjoin an extract from a. sermon preached extemore, and subsequently written out, as nearly as could be recollected. It is an appeal to the unconverted portion of the congregation: "Sinners, it is precisely thus that matters stand betwixt you and your eternal Judge. Your earth-born hearts will not relinquish their attachments. Your lovers you have, and after them you will go That God who takes no pleasure in your death, is the witness and opposer of your desperation. Not much longer will he resist your madness; not much longer will he endure the insulting infidelity of your hearts. Of one thing, however, you cannot suppress the conviction: every step you take in your journey is contrary to the will of God. Understand and appreciate this truth now, and do not travel all the way to hell, to find it out. when once you are locked up in eternal darkness, are consigned to the imprisonment of eternal despair, and tortured with the raging fires of avenging justice, you will feel, when too late, that you are indebted solely to yourselves for the sad doom. So long as forms of horror shall haunt and terrify your spirits, and fierce passions shall prey upon them, and inexorable despair shall hold them with its tyrant grasp, and tormenting fiends, nurtured in your own bosoms, shall exult and raven amid the weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, in the horrible pit, so long will remain fastened upon your hearts the conviction that your perdition is of yourselves. You mean to remain unjust, ungodly, unreconciled to your own happiness and salvation. Yourselves, then, are planting the fangs of the viper in your own bosom. Show some mercy to yourselves, and desist from the had enterprise of self-immolation to the prince of hell. "Look forward a little, and see yourselves in eternity, with unrepented sins. Light and peace have disappeared; time's beguiling pleasures and recurring enjoyments have ceased for ever; friendship's softening sympathies, and society's cheering smile, and humanity's mitigating touch, have all vanished from the dismal scene; the voice of mercy has ceased, and love's redeeming work has been completed. You are then sad expectants of hopeless
wretchedness; abandoned to your sins, left with your tormentors within you; capable of misery, and incapable of comfort, you are prepared for all the complex sufferings of a ruined soul. The hell is one of your own seeking; the bed on which you are writhing, but not reposing, is made by your own hands. All hell resounds with the justice of God. All heaven proclaims his righteousness."
Dr. Brantly had the faculty of securing the strongest attachment of those for whom he labored. His tender and sympathizing heart, identifying him with all the vicissitudes of his people, weeping with those that wept, and rejoicing with those that rejoiced, won their confidence and riveted their attention. As a pastor, it has been truly said of him, that he "grew steadily in the admiration and love of his flock." The tears and tenacity with which his beloved people in Philadelphia clung to him, when he announced his resignation, evinced that they were far more decided and earnest in their unanimity than when they had called him twelve years before. The distress of the church and congregation in Charleston, when he was smitten down, evinced the continued strength and sincerity of their affection, after an acquaintance of seven years. In his intercourse with his people, he was remarkable for his candor. He was in the habit of speaking the truth in love, in a very plain way. This trait of his character excited the indignation of some who did not know him. They took him to be uncharitable and overbearing; but when they understood him, their attachment and respect were increased.
Amidst his various engagements, Dr. Brantly did not neglect the keeping of the heart. He walked daily with God. Those who were most intimately acquainted with him, know that his piety was a uniform flame. He ever cherished the most humbling views of himself; and the most exalted views of Christ. He was always the consistent Christian, thoroughly conscientious in everything which he undertook, seeming to keep ever before him the day of final account.
It may be thought that this sketch will be incomplete, if we are silent as to the imperfections of him of whom we have been speaking. We do not deny that there were defects in his character. He was a fallen creature, and therefore sinful. If it could be of any benefit, we might fill many pages with a recital of his frailties. But we think that the good which grace accomplished through him so immeasurably exceeded any evil which he may have done, that we may be pardoned for dwelling upon the former to the omission of the latter. In addition to this, it is true, -- and with these words, uttered by the ever to be loved and lamented man whose life we have attempted to sketch, we close, -- that"Death applies the finishing touch to the character of a good man. This may be regarded as a reason why his remembered history is clothed with a peculiar majesty and charm. That spirit which once delighted us with the communications of affection and wisdom, now wears the vestments of
[p. 215]perfection. It is enrolled among the spirits of the just made perfect. Its graces, once lovely on earth, are now resplendent in heaven. Its pensive groans, once heaved from an aching heart, are succeeded by the softest harmonies of heavenly music. The languor and the sickness have fled for ever, and to their place have succeeded the health and vigor of immortality. The erring judgment has acquired those attributes of truth and certainty, which will for ever preclude future mistake and deception. It is not wonderful, then, that our associations should draw down from the bright empyreal, whither they have ascended, a portion of that perfection with which good men are now arrayed, in their supernal blessedness, and place the same to the credit of their earthly history."
"This sun has set,
Oh when shall other such arise?"
Read Brantly's Georgia Baptist Association Circular Letter, 1822
[From Elder George W. Purefoy, A History of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association, 1859, pp. 205-215. — jrd]
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