A Sermon of Rev. Dr. George Tucker Stainback
Delivered as part of the Funeral of GEN. NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST
on Oct. 31, 1877 at the Court St. Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN
========================================The text which I have selected, my hearers, as a foundation from which to pronounce to you at this hour the funeral oration of my deceased friend and brother, you will find in the fourth verse of the eleventh chapter of St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews - "He being dead, yet speaketh."
This language was spoken by the Apostle Paul in reference to Abel, who, four thousand years before his day, lived and acted his part among men. It has especial reference to his acts of devotion to God, and Paul intends to teach us that, although Abel had been dead and his bodily presence removed from the world for this long period of time, yet that by his deeds he was living and speaking, and teaching the generation in which Paul lived, four thousand years after.
The acts of men never die; they survive the death of the body and live on, and speak and affect others for good or evil ages after the actor has left the field of action. Our deeds make us immortal; and the immortality of our words and actions make our living at all a fearful thing. "No man liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself." He who uttered the text has ceased from his earthly toils more than eighteen centuries ago; yet by his acts of devotion to God, his sublime faith and courage, his unflagging zeal and energy in behalf of the cause of the Master, he is today speaking, and animating and encouraging the hearts of millions in the path of truth and holiness, and will speak as long as time shall last - ay, as long as eternity shall endure. So with all the noble, and pure and good in ages past.
The reverse of this is also true. All the moral monsters of the past are in their graves, but the influence of their deeds of violence and heaven-defying wickedness is still speaking and maturing its harvest of ruin and death among men.
The subject of this funeral oration forms no exception to the rule. Lieutenant-General Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, "though dead, yet speaketh." His acts have photographed themselves upon the hearts of thousands, and will speak there forever.
(1.) Though dead, he speaks to us in his noble acts of devotion and self-sacrifice for the happiness and welfare of his mother and brothers and sisters cast upon his care, when a boy, by the death of his father. Unlike thousands of young men of the present day, who, in similar trials, are a burden and a tax upon the already over-strained and over-worked nerves and muscles of a poor mother and her fatherless children, this man, when a boy, assumed the responsibilities and took upon himself nobly the task of caring for his mother and his helpless loved ones. It was in this school he learned the manly virtue of self-reliance which so distinguished him in after life.
(2.) Though dead, he yet speaks to us in the honor and integrity of his actions in all the business affairs of life. No man can say that Bedford Forrest intentionally wronged him out of a penny. He may, like all of us in our poverty-stricken south, not have been able to meet promptly his engagements, and he may now be involved, still, he has worked hard that his creditors should lose nothing by him. His conversations with me on that subject I shall never forget.
(3.) Though dead, he yet speaks to us in the kindness and benevolence and charity of his great heart. Though like an enraged tiger when aroused, yet when the occasion had passed that called into action his terrible passion, that caused him to say and to do things that seem utterly at variance with the above statement, he was as gentle as a woman, and withal, sorry too, for his rashness. The poor who shared his benefactions will long mourn (his passing.) The convicts he worked on his plantation, have lost, by his death, their best friend.
(4.) He speaks to us all in his grand and lofty and self-sacrificing patriotism, and devotion to what he believed to be for the best interest of the country. On her alter he sacrificed ease, comfort, the endearments of home, fortune, and was willing to sacrifice even life itself to vindicate what he thought to be the injured rights of his oppressed people; and how well and truly he did all, the historian on his brightest page will tell, and the poet in his loftiest strains will sing. His deeds of valor at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Fort Pillow, Athens, Franklin, Chickamauga, Brice's Cross-roads and Harrisburg will live and speak for his heroism until the latest period of recorded time. These deeds have built for him a monument in the hearts of his countrymen, that the wear and tear of all the ages to come cannot crumble.
The whole south is a mourner here, at his honored bier, to-day. Ah! I go further, and say that the whole country mourns with us to-day the death of this grandest of heroes. And our neighboring State of Mississippi, for whom he and his noble band of soldiers did more than for any other State in all the Confederacy - come along her citizens - come and bow down in sorrow at the death of Bedford Forrest. Did I say, my hearers, that the whole southern people were to-day mourners at his bier? Ah, I go further, and say that the whole country mourns with us to-day the death of this man - one of the grandest of earth's military captains. While he marshalled our men on the tented field of the south, and from the beginning to the end kept that saber unsheathed, and rode at the head of his conquering battalions a terror to his enemies - yet, when, the time came for surrender, with honor and manhood and everything that was noble and grand in his nature, he sheathed that sword; he surrendered it, and it was an honest surrender. And from that day to this he has sought to heal up and mollify the wounds and bruises of the war, and his enlarged patriotism and devotion took hold of the whole republic, and he was as true to it, and would have been as true to it, if his sword had been wanted, as he hindered it on one occasion; as true to the banner against which he lead his devastating cohorts as he was against it on that memorable field. Hence I say, among all true soldiers, whether the soldiers who wore the gray or the soldiers who wore the blue, the name of Bedford Forrest is loved and honored, and they mingle their sorrows and tears with us at his funeral to-day.
(5.) He speaks to us in his simple faith and trust in the world's Redeemer. On the fourteenth day November 1875 - it was a calm Sabbath evening - I saw General Forrest and his beloved wife enter my church quietly and take their seat in their pew. My text for the occasion was the parable of the two builders - the close of the Savior's sermon upon the mountain. The text is as follows:
"Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock; and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house; and it fell not; for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which shall build his house on the sand; and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it."
At the close of the discourse, on reaching the door of the church, I found General Forrest awaiting me. We shook hands, and I locked my arm in his and descended to the pavement. I saw he was silent and seemed somewhat agitated. I did not suspicion the cause. Presently he stopped abruptly, and, fixing his piercing gaze upon me, said: "Sir, your sermon to-night has removed the last prop from me. I am the fool who has built his house upon the sand. I am a miserable, lost sinner." And with that this iron-hearted man reeled against that house there, and stood there trembling like an aspen leaf, while the great big tears ran down his cheeks. Said I: "General Forrest, thank God for this. When a man realizes the fact that he has been building his house on sand he is clearing the way to get it on the rock."
Yes, and the reason why so many of you to-day are poor, dying sinners, why you are building you house upon a foundation of sand, which shall be swept away when the storms and tempests come, is because you do not feel, you do not realize, your miserable condition as did this man.
He was calm. There was no excitement in the church that night. Finding him in this condition, I immediately commenced conversation with him. I brought to bear upon his mind some passages of God's word, especially the sixteenth verse of the third chapter of John. I quoted to him where it is an epitome of the whole gospel scheme: "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." I then directed him for prayer to the fifty-first Psalm, and told him to read and think about it, and said: "I will come to your rooms to-morrow night, General, and we will read the word of God, and I will pray with you, and we will talk over this whole matter."
At the appointed time I repaired to his room on Madison street, and he was waiting for me. We commenced reading the Word of God, and talked of this great question, and after a while engaged in prayer. At the close of prayer he raised his head and said, "I am satisfied. I feel that all is right. I accept Jesus. I put my trust in Him alone for salvation." He commenced next morning to hold his devotion, took up his cross, and went to God in prayer. This he kept up.
And now, my friends, since that time General Forrest has said a good many things that didn't look much like a Christian. He has done a great many things which didn't look like he was imitating the Master much. All that no man could have felt more keenly and deplored more sincerely than General Forrest himself. He told me so last Thursday. He acknowledged it all. He said he had not been living as he ought to have lived; that he had said and done a great many things in the presence of others which he sincerely regretted and deplored, as he feared he had thereby hurt the cause of his Master. "But," said he, "I want you to understand now that I feel that God has forgiven me for all;" and then, lifting up his emaciated hand, and pointing his finger to his breast, with a smile upon his face, said: "Just here I have an indescribable peace. All is peace within. I want you to know that between me and my God, between me and the face of my Heavenly Father, not a cloud intervenes." I am using his own language. "I have put my trust in my Lord and Savior." And, my friends, he discoursed upon that subject in such a way that I was overwhelmed. His emaciated hand was lying in mine, and I bowed my head upon that hand and wept - wept for joy. And I said, "It does my soul good, sir, to hear you speak thus for the Master, and testify to the power of God's grace in the conversion of sinners." He then gave me some messages to deliver to his friends in the church, and to his comrades, and to his irreligious friends. Said he, "Tell my brethren and sisters in the church that I have been lying upon my bed for more than six weeks, in communion with my God. Tell them to be encouraged to take up their cross and follow the Lord Jesus. Tell my comrades and my irreligious friends, from me, to seek and serve God; to give their hearts to Jesus; to live for another world."
Oh! ye men, ye comrades of his; you who have heretofore on many a battlefield hastened to obey the commands and orders of your honored chieftain, will you, oh, will you obey the dying command of Bedford Forrest? Will you to-day surrender your hearts, and obey the commands of the great captain-general of your souls? Will you to-day commit yourselves to God? Will you become soldiers of the cross, and follow your chieftain to his home on high? My friends, I have no doubt he is there. I have no doubt that that troubled spirit, which suffered long and suffered much, has been borne there on angels' wings, and is now within the presence of it's God. Yes, and I want the citizens of Memphis to know, and I want the citizens of this great Republic to know that Bedford Forrest bore this testimony to the power of God's grace to save sinners. And had I a voice as loud as seven thunders, and occupied a position as lofty as the Alps, I would sound it out, that the dying and sinful world may know it and come to God. Oh! my friends, will you - will you his brethren and sisters in the church, obey the dying request of the brother who has just passed from our midst? Will you who are near and dear to him? Will that honored son and that honored brother, and those who were dear to him - will they follow this man's advice? Will they seek Jesus and become servants of God? But, my beloved hearers, let us imitate him in this, the grandest aspect of his life.
Yes, he has folded his tent - folded his tent on earth, but on fame's eternal camping ground - up yonder, fast by the captain-general of our salvation - it is pitched to be struck no more forever. He has passed away. His deeds, his mighty acts belong to this and to coming generations. After the passions and prejudices of war have passed away, and the historian sits down in his study to write of the great men, of the military captains who have lived and flourished, high up among the very first will stand the name and will be recorded the deeds of Nathaniel Bedford Forrest. This last war, on our side of the house, produced three great men - three great military captains - Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Nathaniel Bedford Forrest; and I rank him to-day alongside of those grand men, and God has taken the three to his home.
My hearers, let us obey our dead brother's last request. Let us determine, by the grace of God, that we will acquit ourselves nobly of the duties and responsibilities resting upon us in reference to this world; but above all, that we will acquit ourselves of the responsibilities, the obligations and the duties we owe to God. If these are neglected, our life is a failure, however great it has been. And now, my sorrowing ones, in conclusion let me say to you, come along, bring all your sorrows with you, cast your burden upon God and he will sustain you. May God bless you and comfort your hearts, and bring you at last to a blessed reunion in Heaven, for Christ's sake. Amen.