Lubbock’s List: The Original ‘Must-Read’ List

This post is a break from “our usual programming” to look at a surprisingly modern phenomenon in publishing: “must-read lists.” Included below is probably the most famous example, with links to free copies of over 100 books, mostly classics.

“The choice of books, like that of friends, is a serious duty.”
—Sir John Lubbock.

What Did People Read in Victorian Times?

I came across something in F. W. Boreham’s Ships of Pearl the other day, where he mentioned in passing that Sir John Lubbock had created a list of 100 books that anyone should read if they want to think of themselves as “well-read.” Out of pure curiosity, I found the list online, and I wanted to take a closer look at what’s there. Note: The list was partially reported in The Spectator on the day the speech was given in 1886, but it was  later published fully with comments (and a few changes) in a book by Sir John Lubbock (see chapter 4 of The Pleasures of Life).

F. W. Boreham, who informed me of the list, read many of the philosophers, historians, playwrights, and poets on this list. I would guess that he read close to half of the works on this list. The list, therefore, is a pretty strong indicator of what was popular then. It is interesting to think that a preacher in the 1910s and 1920s might be reading substantially the same literature as the layman, whereas today I would expect that I have almost no books in common with the library of non-churchgoers.

Three books on this list that were hugely influential, but are rarely explored today, would be: Boswell’s Life of Johnson (seminal in the field of biography), Keble’s Christian Year (popularized 365-day devotionals), and Smiles’ Self-Help (foundational to the modern genre of self-help).

The Widespread Influence of Lubbock’s List

Lubbock’s list was originally presented to the Working Men’s College in London, of which he was the principal from 1883 to 1899. Notably, the list set working-class men running for the Classics: Lubbock had high praise not just for Plato and Homer, but Plutarch, Xenophon, and Epictetus, names the mere mention of which would set most Americans yawning today. Lubbock also comments about omitting novels, modern historians (all “kings and queens . . . dates of battles and wars”), and modern science (“so rapidly progressive”).

This list also set off a chain reaction in English literary circles: first, of comments and criticisms; then, of scholars and academies creating their own lists; thirdly, of publishers creating series like Great Books, which were very successful into the first decades of the twentieth century.

The Purpose of the List

In a way, Lubbock’s list is the original ‘must-read’ list, but it is not by any means a list of his personal favorites. If you’re surprised by what’s there (a Victorian MP recommending the Qurʼān?), note Lubbock’s comment:

I drew up the list, not as that of the hundred best books, but, which is very different, of those which have been most frequently recommended as best worth reading.

On the Qurʼān, for instance, he writes:

The Koran, like the Analects of Confucius, will to most of us derive its principal interest from the effect it has exercised, and still exercises, on so many millions of our fellow-men. I doubt whether in any other respect it will seem to repay perusal, and to most persons probably certain extracts, not too numerous, would appear sufficient.

Nabeel Qureshi, though, would point out the cultural mismatch of making an analogy between Christians’ view of the Bible and Muslims’ views of the Qurʼān—especially noting the orality of many Muslim-majority cultures, and the recentness of widespread literacy.

More Like a Hundred-ish

The list is purported to be “a hundred,” but many of the “books” listed are either volume sets or series, and as listed it even exceeds 100 works, so that the actual number of “books” here is about 189 (!) by my count. (Some are very short, though, right?)

I’ve linked all of them to Project Gutenberg for reference. Out of all 100+ works, less than 10 were not on Project Gutenberg, which is a tribute to the enduring popularity of the books that Lubbock chose.

  1. The Holy Bible (Latin) (Spanish) (Swedish)
  2. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (German)
  3. Epictetus
  4. Aristotle’s Ethics (Greek: NE vol 1, NE vol 2)
  5. The Analects of Confucius
  6. St Hilaire’s Le Bouddha et sa religion . . . is not on Project Gutenberg but it is available here and (in French) here
  7. Wake’s Apostolic Fathers . . . is not on Project Gutenberg but it is available here
  8. Thos. à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ (French)
  9. Confessions of St. Augustine (Dr. Pusey) (Latin)
  10. The Koran (portions of)
  11. Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
  12. Comte’s Catechism of Positive Philosophy . . . is not on Project Gutenberg but you can read it here
  13. Pascal’s Pensées [“Thoughts”]
  14. Butler’s Analogy of Religion
  15. Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying . . . is not on Project Gutenberg but you can read it here
  16. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (Finnish)
  17. Keble’s Christian Year
  18. Plato’s Dialogues; at any rate, the Apology (Greek), Phædo (Finnish) (Greek), and Republic (Greek)
  19. Xenophon’s Memorabilia [listed twice]
  20. Aristotle’s Politics
  21. Demosthenes’ De Corona [“On the Crown,” excerpt from The Public Orations of Demosthenes, vol. 1]
  22. Cicero’s De Officiis (Latin), De Amicitia [“On Friendship”], and De Senectute [“On Old Age”] (Latin) [the first two are available in English as Treatises on Friendship and Old Age; De Senectute is in English here]
  23. Plutarch’s Lives (Greek) (4 volumes)
  24. Berkeley’s Human Knowledge
  25. Descartes’s Discours sur la Méthode
  26. Locke’s On the Conduct of the Understanding . . . isn’t on Project Gutenberg but you can read it here and here and here 
  27. Homer’s Iliad (French) (Greek) (Latin) (Spanish) and Odyssey (Finnish) (French) (Greek) (Latin) (Spanish) (Swedish)
  28. Hesiod (Latin) (?)
  29. Virgil (Finnish) (Latin) (Scots) (?)
  30. Epitomized in Talboy Wheeler’s History of India, vols i and ii: Maha Bharata (5 volumes), Ramayana
  31. Firdusi’s Shahnameh [an excerpt from The Persian Literature, vol 1]
  32. The Nibelungenlied (only available in German)
  33. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur 
  34. The Sheking [The Shi King] . . . is not on Project Gutenberg but you can read it here
  35. Kalidasa’s Sakuntala or The Lost Ring
  36. Aeschylus’s Prometheus [excerpt of Tragedies and Fragments] (Greek)
  37. Aeschylus’s Trilogy (Greek) (Swedish)
  38. Sophocles’s Oedipus (Dutch)
  39. Euripides’s Medea
  40. Aristophanes’s The Knights and Clouds (Greek) [both are excerpts from Eleven Comedies vol 1]
  41. Horace
  42. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Italian) (“perhaps in Morris’ edition; or, if expurgated, in C. Clarke’s, or Mrs. Haweis'”)
  43. Shakespeare (8 volumes)
  44. Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lycidas, Comus, and minor poems [Lycidas and Comus are included with the minor poems]
  45. Dante’s Divina Commedia (Cary’s tr.) (Longfellow’s tr.) (Finnish) (Friulian) (German) (Italian) (Spanish)
  46. Spenser’s Fairie Queen (1?)
  47. Dryden’s Poems [vol 1 and vol 2] (2 volumes)
  48. Scott’s Poems [such as The Lady of the Lake, Marmion, ?]
  49. Wordsworth (Mr Arnold’s selection) [Wordsworth’s complete poetical works is in 8 volumes . . . presumably Lubbock means Selected Poems of William Wordsworth]
  50. Pope’s Essay on Criticism
  51. Essay on Man
  52. Rape of the Lock [portion from Rape of the Lock and Other Poems]
  53. Burns
  54. Byron’s Childe Harold
  55. Gray [largest selection seems to be in Poetical Works of Johnson, Parnell, Gray, and Smollett]
  56. Herodotus [vol 1 and vol 2] (Greek: vol 1 and vol 2)
  57. Xenophon’s Anabasis (Greek)
  58. Thucydides (Greek)
  59. Tacitus’s Germania (Finnish) (French) (German)
  60. Livy (4 volumes)
  61. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (6 volumes)
  62. Hume’s History of England (3 volumes)
  63. Grote’s History of Greece (12 volumes!)
  64. Carlyle’s French Revolution (3 volumes)
  65. Green’s Short History of England . . . is surprisingly not on Project Gutenberg but it is here [and Green’s 8-volume “long” history of England is on Gutenberg here]
  66. Lewes’s History of Philosophy . . . is not on Project Gutenberg but it is here: vol 1 and vol 2 
  67. Arabian Nights
  68. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (Dutch)  (Finnish) (French)
  69. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
  70. Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield
  71. Cervante’s Don Quixote (Finnish)
  72. Boswell’s Life of Johnson (2 volumes)
  73. Molière (?) [his complete works are 10 volumes in English]
  74. Schiller’s William Tell
  75. Sheridan’s The Critic, School for Scandal, and The Rivals
  76. Carlyle’s Past and Present
  77. Bacon’s Novum Organum
  78. Smith’s Wealth of Nations (part of)
  79. Mill’s Political Economy
  80. Cook’s Voyages
  81. Humboldt’s Travels [vol 1, vol 2, vol 3] (3 volumes)
  82. White’s Natural History of Selborne
  83. Darwin’s Origin of Species
  84. Naturalist’s Voyage [i.e. The Voyage of the Beagle]
  85. Mill’s Logic
  86. Bacon’s Essays
  87. Montaigne’s Essays (Finnish) (French)
  88. Hume’s Essays
  89. Macaulay’s Essays (6 volumes)
  90. Addison’s Essays
  91. Emerson’s Essays
  92. Burke’s Select Works
  93. Smiles’s Self-Help
  94. Voltaire’s Zadig (Finnish) (French) (Spanish) and Micromegas (Spanish)
  95. Goethe’s Faust (German),  and Autobiography (2 volumes)
  96. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair
  97. Thackeray’s Pendennis
  98. Dickens’ Pickwick
  99. Dickens’ David Copperfield
  100. Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii
  101. George Eliot’s Adam Bede
  102. Kingsley’s Westward Ho!
  103. Scott’s Novels [28 volumes!!]:  The Abbot; Anne of Geierstein [vol 1 and vol 2]; The AntiquaryThe Betrothed[Bizarro was not in print at the time that J. L. created his list]; The Black DwarfThe Bride of Lammermoor (Finnish) (Italian); Castle Dangerous [portion of Waverley Novels vol. 12]; Count Robert of Paris [portion of Waverley Novels vol. 12]; The Fair Maid of PerthThe Fortunes of NigelGuy ManneringThe Heart of MidlothianIvanhoe (Dutch); KenilworthA Legend of MontroseThe MonasteryOld MortalityPeveril of the PeakThe PirateQuentin DurwardRedgauntletRob Roy (French); Saint Ronan’s Well[The Siege of Malta had not been fully printed at the time J. L. created his list]; The Talisman (Dutch); Waverley (Finnish); Woodstock.
  104. [Selections from the Writings of Ruskin (added in 1930 edition)]
  105. [Ruskin’s Modern Painters (added in 1930 edition)] (5 volumes)

 

Note: Previous Lubbock lists had included:

  1. Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer, The Curse of Kehama (vol 1 and vol 2)
  2. Lucretius [“less generally suitable than most of the others in the list”]
  3. Miss Austen’s Emma, or Pride and Prejudice [Lubbock omitted them, commenting that English novelists were “somewhat over-represented”]
  4. Locke’s Human Understanding (vol 1 and vol 2) [apparently mistaken for Conduct of the Understanding in some lists, since the titles are so similar]
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Review: Topsy-Turvy Land

Authors: Amy E. Zwemer is the co-author of Topsy-Turvy Land and Zigzag Journeys in the Camel Country. A native Australian, she met Samuel M. Zwemer while she was serving as a pioneer missionary in Basra, present-day Iraq.

Samuel M. Zwemer

Full Title: Topsy-Turvy Land: Arabia Pictured for Children

Overview:

This is a book designed to introduce the Arab world to children in an off-kilter setting but with a missional mindset. For one characteristic example, the Kaaba in Mecca is called “The Square-House with the Black Overcoat.” After a description of Muslim practices around the Kaaba, readers are reminded:

For thirteen hundred years Moslems [Muslims] have come every year to Mecca, and gone away, with no one ever to tell them of the Son of God, the Saviour of the World. Thirteen hundred years! Don’t you think it is time to go and tell them?

It is rare to find materials that introduce cross-cultural missions to children, so that may be one of the most important things about this book.

Meat:

This little book that can be read in an hour or two presents numerous aspects of daily life in the Arabian Peninsula at the turn of the twentieth century. Although the book is dated, it is usually obvious when the authors’ accounts are no longer reliable.

I might not recommend it to people with no experience of the Arab world, because so many of the chapters—while they bear a relation to modern practices—no longer reflect the way daily life is. I don’t see Bedouin women grinding at the mill, Arabia no longer has coins that look like clothespins, slavery is no longer openly practiced, and, praise God, it is no longer true that “few can read and even those who can read, are able to read only the Koran and the Moslem traditions. ”

Bones:

Zwemer’s mode of introducing Arabia, as “topsy-turvy,” clearly would not pass muster in any modern anthropology class. The introduction presents several practices in Arabic culture and Muslim cultures as inherently negative, but modern missiologists would take issue with this mode of writing:

The women wear toe-rings and nose-rings as well as earrings and bracelets. Everything seems different from what it is in a Christian country.

In its worst sections, this book is patronizingly juvenile toward its audience; at its best, it shows the wealth of fascinating detail about the Arab world that was curated and represented in the lives of its authors.

Douglas Hooper’s Plan for East Africa

Douglas Hooper went to British East Africa in 1885, where he was appointed Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa. He was the second to hold that bishopric, his predecessor having been speared to death on his arrival in Uganda. Hooper went as a self-funded missionary, and also funded another missionary to come with him. He was also a close friend of Handley Moule, the prolific New Testament scholar, Keswick speaker, and supporter of evangelical missions. Hooper’s son, Handley,and his grandson, Cyril, both followed in his footsteps in serving in Kenya as missionaries.

Hooper was converted during Moody and Sankey’s Cambridge mission in 1882, an oft-forgotten watershed moment for the global evangelical movement. The revival atmosphere at Cambridge led to the commissioning of a host of new missionaries, such as the C. T. Studd and the “Cambridge Seven,” Douglas Thornton, and Ion Keith-Falconer (to name just a few!). With such an outpouring at one of the world’s top universities, and such a key moment for world missions, it should come as no surprise that Hooper’s four strategic concerns—team mentality, pre-field training, apostolic focus, and indigenous methods—have lost none of their relevance. Although, I would add to #2, that I am quite sure East Africa needed women just as sorely as “men.”

Douglas Hooper (an old Harrovian and Trinity Hall man) has come home, some months ago, from Africa, where he has been working under the Church Missionary Society for four years.

He has come back with a new plan of work on the East of Africa, which he has laid before the Church Missionary Society, and which they have accepted and promised to supply the necessaries for, if he can find the men. It is to take five or six Cambridge men and make a station on a new route to the Victoria Nyanza, between Frere Town and the Lake: on the  principle of living as simply and as much in native style as is possible. There are four points in his plan on which he lays stress:—

(1.) Not less than five or six men.—The deadening effect of heathendom is such that isolated men succumb to it.

(2.) Cambridge men.—Experience has convinced him that educated gentlemen are absolutely needed for Africa.

(3.) A new route.—Virgin soil—because, on the old routes, the natives are so habituated to the old system of buying the chiefs’ favour by innumerable presents, that those who go on another principle are not tolerated.

(4.) Native style.—As far cheaper and healthier—so he says by experience—and also as the right way of getting into touch with the natives.

Source: Letter of George L. Pilkington to his father. Dated November 3, 1889. Pilkington of Uganda.

Review: Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral

Rating: ★★★

Author: Phyllis Wheatley became the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry in 1773.

Overview: 

Wheatley’s book of poetry was quite at home in the 1770s, but time has not been as kind to them as to the works of Cowper or Watts. Many of them are devotional in content. The compilation includes several funeral poems—writing a poem for a funeral is an ancient custom no longer well kept in the West—including one written at the time of George Whitfield’s death, which is still highly regarded. The paraphrase of Isaiah 63 is also wonderful. But many of the more Classical poems will today induce yawning rather than fawning.

In the 1770s, Phyllis Wheatley’s poems made such a sensation, that Wheatley herself had to be attested by Boston’s illuminaries to prove that she was not a fraud—no one believed that a black woman could write such stirring, intelligent, and beautiful poetry. Wheatley wrote the following reminder to such people (“On Being Brought from Africa to America”):

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Wheatley was emancipated after their publication, and, from the age of 20, she was paraded around the highest social circles in Boston and London, meeting leaders like George Washington and the Lord Mayor of London among many others. The Countess of Huntingdon, benefactress of the early Methodist movement, was the patron of Wheatley’s book.

Meat:

The chief value of this little poetry compilation, in my opinion, is found in the personal poems dealing with grief. The poems themselves are of course beautiful to read, but most of them would bore modern taste.

Wheatley reminds her readers that the body of a dead saint is only “the cold shell of his great soul” (loc. 194). She always presses us toward a biblical view of dead saints: they are better off than us!

Bones:

The shortcomings of this collection include tedious Classical (mythological) references. As a whole, the theology here is not especially profound. Nevertheless, for devotional content and poetic value it rivals most of the great Christian poets I have read.

Quotes:

On grief:

“Let grief no longer damp devotion’s fire.” (loc. 385)

“She feeds on truth and uncreated things.” (loc. 581)

On other topics:

To him, whose works arry’d with mercy shine,
What songs should rise, how constant, how divine!

(“Thoughts on the Works of Providence.” loc. 355)

Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

(“To the Right Honourable William, etc.”, loc. 507)

Enlarg’d he sees unnumber’d systems roll,
Beneath him sees the universal whole,
Planets on planets run their destin’d round,
And circling wonders fill the vast profound.

(“A Funeral Poem on the Death of C. E. an Infant of Twelve Months.” loc. 469)

Why thus enrob’d delights he to appear
In the dread image of the Pow’r of war? . . .

When all forsook I trod the press alone,
And conquer’d by omnipotence my own;
His eye the ample field of battle round
Survey’d, but no created succours found;
His own omnipotence sustain’d the right,
His vengeance sunk the haughty foes in night.

(“Isaiah lxiii. 1-8.”)

New Biographies!

In the past two months we have published eight new biography editions on the Kindle store.

Margaret Morley Clough: The Letters and Journal of a Pioneer Missionary by Adam Clarke (1761?-1832) (ed.)
Margaret Clough left England on April 11, 1825 at the age of 22. She arrived at her mission field in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) on September 6, 1825, and died in childbirth less than 2 years later. Although her time on the mission field was short, she wrote numerous letters and journal entries that describe her desire for total consecration to the call of missions.

Pilkington of Uganda by C. F. Harford (1864-1925)
George Pilkington was swept up in the evangelical revival that overtook Cambridge after Moody and Sankey visited in 1882. Despite every prospect of a great career in the United Kingdom, he left for East Africa with a group led by Douglas Hooper, eventually settling in Uganda. There, Pilkington was key to the first Luganda Bible translation and was also involved in surveying that area of Africa, which had only opened up to missions efforts since the work of David Livingstone.

Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Harvard Late of the Wesleyan Mission to Ceylon and India with Extracts from Her Diary and Correspondence by William Martin Harvard (1790?-1857)
Elizabeth Harvard was an early modern missionary in Sri Lanka and India, known to us through the compilation 16 Pioneer Women.

The Life of Robert Laws of Livingstonia by William Pringle Livingstone (1864-1950)
Dr. Robert Laws was the energetic leader of the Livingstonia mission in present-day Malawi, founded by a group of Scottish missionaries in memory of David Livingstone. Dr. Laws worked tirelessly to bring technological advantages to the people around Lake Malawi, both to serve the people and to facilitate the longevity of the mission. For many years he was an important figure in leading exploration as well as language documentation in the area.

Two Years in Upper India by John Cameron Lowrie (1808-1900)
John Cameron Lowrie was the first American Presbyterian missionary to go to India. This book was written in the early part of his very long career, describing his early life there.

Seven Years in Sierra Leone: The Story of the Work of William A. B. Johnson, Missionary of the Church Missionary Society from 1816 to 1823 in Regent’s Town, Sierra Leone, Africa by A. T. Pierson (1837-1911)
William Johnson was a quiet but passionate missionary in the colonial era of Sierra Leone.

Philip Jacob Spener and His Work by Marie E. Richard (1851-1920)
August Hermann Francke and His Work by Marie E. Richard (1851-1920)
Philip Jacob Spener and August Hermann Francke were, in some ways, among the founders of evangelicalism as we know it. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, they were instrumental in a revival among German Lutheran university students, who eventually became known as Pietists. Francke’s orphanage presaged that of George Müller in almost every distinctive; and Francke personally selected the first Lutheran missionaries for the Tranquebar mission.

Free Complete Works of Jonathan Edwards

A friend recently asked about a readable edition of Jonathan Edwards’ complete works.

You can download his complete works in PDF format for FREE from archive.org, using the following links—WARNING: the full volumes will have VERY LARGE file sizes:


vol 1vol 2vol 3vol 4
These links are all to the 1879 edition of ‘The Works of President Edwards,’ which is the most recent complete edition available online.


Arranged by topic:

BIOGRAPHICAL WORKS:

  1. Memoirs of President Edwards
  2. An Account of the Life of the Rev. David Brainerd
  3. Narrative of Surprising Conversions

SERMONS:

  1. A Farewell Sermon
  2. Six Occasional Sermons
  3. Sermons on Various Important Subjects

WORKS DEFENDING OR PROMOTING CALVINISM:

  1. A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will
  2. Miscellaneous Observations concerning the Divine Decree in General and Election in Particular
  3. Concerning the Perseverance of the Saints

OTHER THEOLOGICAL DOCTRINES:

  1. The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended
  2. A History of the Work of Redemption (originally sermons)
  3. Miscellaneous Observations on Important Doctrines
  4. Mysteries of Scripture
  5. Observations upon Particular Passages of Scripture
  6. Theological Questions

CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY:

  1. Dissertation on the Nature of True Virtue
  2. Dissertation on the End for which God Created the World

PRACTICAL THEOLOGY:

  1. The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God
  2. Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England, 1740
  3. Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion
  4. A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections
  5. A Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer

POLEMICAL WORK:

  1. Misrepresentations Corrected and Truth Vindicated, in Reply to the Rev. Solomon Williams
  2. Reasons Against Dr. Watts’ Notion of the Pre-Existence of Christ’s Human Soul

Arranged by volume:

Volume 1:

  1. Memoirs of President Edwards
  2. A Farewell Sermon
  3. Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion
  4. Misrepresentations Corrected and Truth Vindicated, in Reply to the Rev. Solomon Williams
  5. A History of the Work of Redemption
  6. The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God
  7. Miscellaneous Observations on Important Doctrines
  8. An Account of the Life of the Rev. David Brainerd

Volume 2:

  1. A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will
  2. Dissertation on the End for which God Created the World
  3. Dissertation on the Nature of True Virtue
  4. The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended
  5. Miscellaneous Observations concerning the Divine Decree in General and Election in Particular

Volume 3:

  1. A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections
  2. Narrative of Surprising Conversions
  3. Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England, 1740
  4. A Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer
  5. Concerning the Perseverance of the Saints
  6. Reasons Against Dr. Watts’ Notion of the Pre-Existence of Christ’s Human Soul
  7. Mysteries of Scripture
  8. Observations upon Particular Passages of Scripture
  9. Theological Questions
  10. Six Occasional Sermons

Volume 4:

  1. Sermons on Various Important Subjects

The Order of Melchizedek

I

Never again!’ exclaimed Nettie Campbell, with the air of one who, by the skin of her teeth, has escaped with her life. On coming down to hard facts it turned out that, in a weak moment, Nettie had invited the boys in her Sunday-school class to ask questions concerning points that seemed to them obscure. She was astonished at the complexity of the problems that were immediately raised. Like the brave little woman that she is, Nettie grappled valiantly with these profound and ponderous enigmas, and was, as she fancied, approaching firm ground on the other side of the quagmire into which she had inadvertently plunged, when Ted Pringle, who had been relieving the tedium of these abstruse discussions by turning the pages of the epistle to the Hebrews, raised a new spectre with which to paralyse poor Nettie’s powers.

‘What,’ he demanded, ‘is the order of Melchisedek?’

Sparring for time, Nettie suggested that they should look up the passages in which the cryptic phrase occurs. ‘Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchisedek.’ ‘Another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedek and not be called after the order of Aaron.’ And so on. The expression is used ten times within the compass of a couple of pages, and it was probably this frequent repetition that had caught Ted Pringle’s restless eye.

‘What,’ he blurted out, ‘is the order of Melchisedek?’

Nettie, to show that her discretion was at least equal to her valor, diplomatically replied that she would have to compare the various passages carefully before venturing upon a complete explanation, and, soothing Ted’s troubled mind with a winning and characteristic smile, she promised to deal with the point on the following Sunday. This accounts for her presence at the Manse on the Monday evening.

II

This, of course, is an experience of long ago. But, in the years that have followed, it has often recurred to my mind. I recalled it, for example, in Canada. On the train between Toronto and Montreal, we noticed opposite us a young man and woman, making such strenuous efforts not to look self-conscious that they made us feel how terribly self-conscious they really were. My companion, whose verdicts in such matters I never dispute, explained to me that they were a honeymoon couple; and, seeing that such an elucidation would have never occurred to me, I thanked her for information that made clear much that would otherwise have remained incomprehensible.

From that moment I felt irresistibly drawn to these young people. He was a dapper little fellow, of pleasant countenance and quick nervous movement, nattily dressed, everything about him being brand new. Her apparel was also new; but, somehow, in her case, that factor seemed less pronounced. She was a pretty little thing with very fair hair and pale blue eyes. She tried, almost frantically, to give us the impression that she was completely mistress of herself; and it was no fault of hers that she so pitifully failed. After all, the best of us can only try. In the bustle incidental to the train’s arrival at Montreal, they vanished; and, in their case at least, to be out of sight was to be out of mind. We were ships that had passed in the night, and we never expected to cross each other’s paths again.

In continuing our journey next day, however, we alighted at Quebec to post some letters, and to enjoy a few minutes in the open air, when, whom should we see, similarly employed, but our honeymoon couple of the day before! We fancied that they were a little more at their ease this time, and they even summoned up courage to favor us with a faint smile of recognition. At Sackville, New Brunswick, we left the express and took the local train that conveys those so destined to the ferry that crosses to Prince Edward Island. On this local train we found ourselves again sharing a carriage with the young people. On the boat from Cape Tormentine to Borden we met them several times on deck and in the saloon. On the train from Borden to Charlottetown we were thrown together once more; and, that evening, when we went down to dinner at our hotel at Charlottetown, we found our near friends seated at a table within a few feet of us!

Here the story ends! We never once spoke to them nor they to us. We smiled—they to us and we to them—whenever we met: how could we help it? We got to know their Christian names, for had we not frequently heard them address each other? We felt the deepest interest in them, for, on long journeys, the mind readily concentrates on anything that attracts interest or awakens curiosity. We felt a kind of possessive concern for them. We caught ourselves speaking of them as our honeymoon couple, and, long after we had left the Gulf of St. Lawrence behind us, we would hazard speculation as to how the bride and bridegroom were getting on.

That tour through Eastern Canada was full of fascination and wonder: the views of green hills, blue waters and forest of maple are indelibly imprinted upon our minds. Yet whenever those enchanting scenes rush back upon our memories, we invariably descry our timid little honeymoon couple moving up and down among them. Their romance is our romance. And yet how little we know! And how much there is that we should dearly like to know! How did they meet, and where? How long have they known each other? Is he in a good position, or have they to awaken from their rainbow-tinted dream to face a grim and patient struggle? What led up to this courtship and marriage? And again—where are they now? Has it all turned out as happily as we could wish? Are they both well—and happy—and happy in each other? Has the hand of a little child yet led them into an even deeper and richer felicity? The answers to these questions would be as captivating—at least to us—as the pages of any novel. But these questions can never be answered. The fond pair emerged from the everywhere and vanished into the everywhere again. Like meteors flashing across the evening sky, they shot out of the Vast and into the Vast returned. For us their sweet romance had no beginning and no ending. We cannot trace it back to its source nor pursue it to its climax. It stands there, birthless, deathless. It is a love story after the order of Melchisedek.

III

I remember an afternoon, years ago, in which it fell to my lot to entertain a group of children. It was a birthday, but its joys had been clouded. There were to have been guests, but a variety of reasons had prevented their appearance. Moreover, the day was wet and dreary; and out-of-door frolics were impossible. Suddenly we were startled by a naive suggestion. ‘Take us to the picture!’ cried one of the disappointed youngsters. Straightway they began to tell of the wonderful film that was to be exhibited. Had they not stood open-mouthed before the thrilling and highly-colored portrayals on the hoardings?

The film was entitled The Song of the Circus. Seeing that they had set their hearts upon it, and unwilling to add still further to their disappointments, I feebly took the line of least resistance, and we set out. In the darkened hall, amidst the felicities of chocolates and ice creams, the bleak drizzle and the absent guests were soon forgotten, and, after a comedy or two, The Song of the Circus made its appearance.

The first thing that struck me was that the producer appeared to be taking a good deal for granted. I found it difficult to grasp the relationships in which the various characters stood to one another. Much of the movement completely mystified me, and I could see that my young companions were similarly bewildered.

The second thing that struck me was that our perplexity was evidently not shared by the audience as a whole. Lots of people round about us were applauding excitedly incidents that we were at a loss to understand.

After a while, however, we began to pick up the threads of the story, and were just beginning to feel the thrill of things, when the characters all vanished from the screen, and, in their place, we read a legend to this effect: ‘The Fourth Installment of The Song of the Circuswill appear on Thursday’

It was a serial! We could not return on the Thursday. And so, for us, the story had no beginning and no end. The spice of pathos and humor and tragedy that we had that afternoon tasted was but a part of a larger whole. In our perplexity we attempted to conceive of the instalments that we had not witnessed, and of the instalments yet to come; but it was an utter failure. Our little spoonful of romance had emerged from the Vast and vanished into the Vast again. It was a picture after the order of Melchisedek.

IV

Sitting at the fireside the other evening I picked up a religious journal that my bookseller had just delivered. After glancing over the articles and the news, I found my attention engrossed by the correspondence columns. Two vigorous controversies were in progress. One concerned the matter of Evolution: the other related to the Second Coming of Christ. One of these controversies, that is to say, had to do with the stupendous Programme of the Past; the other had to do with the no less impressive Programme of the Future. As I glanced over the letters that these excellent people had addressed to the editor, I was amazed at the assurance with which many of them tabulated and detailed the things that happened millions of years ago and the things that are to happen in eras yet unborn.

Personally, I have to confess that I simply do not know. I see the remote Past only in shadowy outline; and I see the remote Future through a golden haze. I find a vague hint here and a vague hint there; and, whether looking Backwards or Forwards, I find the study exceedingly captivating. But I swiftly lose myself in infinity. I cannot see at all clearly what happened in the dawn of Time: I cannot see at all distinctly what will happen when Time’s twilight gathers. I see the universe as it now is: I cannot see how it came to be or how at last it will reach its climax and its close. It issues from an obscurity so immense that my little mind staggers in the attempt to comprehend it: it moves towards a destiny so august and so dazzling that I am blinded by excess of light. It is a universe after the order of Melchisedek.

V

In point of fact, I belong to the same order myself. Here I am! There can be no doubt about that. But what of my origin? And what of my destiny? It is as clear as clear can be that my birth was not the beginning of me; and it is no less clear that my death will not be the end of me.

In the course of our stay in Canada, I found myself one afternoon in conversation with an elderly missionary, away in the depths of the great forests. The wine-colored tints of the maples were imparting to the woods their most gorgeous autumn splendor. After watching for a while the antics of the coal-black squirrels gambolling around us, my old friend began to tell of his work, years ago, among the Indians. Nothing had impressed him more, he said, than the fact that the red man always felt, in some vague way, that he had come from Somewhere and was going Somewhere. Out of what immensity had he sprung? Into what infinity was he about to plunge?

‘I remember,’ my companion continued, after directing my attention to the behavior of a chipmunk at the foot of a neighboring hemlock and of a skunk some little distance along the track, ‘I remember being called to an old chief who was dying in his wigwam on the shores of Lake Huron. As I bent over his strangely wrinkled, strangely tattooed and strangely scarred visage, he asked me to repeat to him all that I had said at different times about the human spirit—the real self—the soul that is so much more than the body. He listened with strained attention as I attempted to unfold the mystery.

‘“Yes,” he murmured, “it must be so; it must be so! But where does it come from? Tell me that! Where does it come from? And where does it go to?” He lay perfectly still for a moment, his fine eyes closed and his bronzed countenance looking puzzled but passive. Then suddenly he startled me in a way that I shall never forget. To my astonishment he sat bolt upright, glared at me with eyes that flamed with intensity—almost with anger —and demanded once more, with ten times his former passion, “Where does it come from? And where is it going to?”

‘In the consciousness of his imminent departure, the problem had assumed in the old warrior’s mind, not merely an academic, but a sternly practical, interest. To this day I am often haunted in my sleep by the fire that flashed from his piercing eyes as, in the very act of death, he hurled at me his burning questions.

The red men in their wigwams felt, as we each feel, that we are pilgrims of eternity. Out of the Vast we come: into the Vast we go. By the ordination of a divine will, and by the act of a divine hand, we are made members of the order of Melchisedek.

VI

And He, my Saviour and my Lord, is—so these passages declare—a priest forever after the order of Melchisedek. I see now the meaning of the phrase. It means that I am to take all that I know of Him and project that knowledge into infinity. The order is named after Melchisedek because of the meagreness of our knowledge, and the spaciousness of our ignorance, concerning that royal priest of Salem. He flashes upon our sight in connexion with a single episode. Whence came he? Whither went he? What manner of man was he? What of his parents? What of his children? Who were his predecessors? Who were his successors? Who were his colleagues? It is all hidden from us.

What we know is as nothing when compared with what we do not know. That is the point. What we see of the moth, as it flutters through the shaft of sunlight that streams across the dimly-lighted room, is as nothing in comparison with the entire life-history of the tiny creature. What we saw of the honeymoon couple in Canada was as nothing in comparison with their entire experience and romance. What I know of the universe is as nothing in comparison with the long drama of its age-long progress and development. And, in the same way, what I know of Christ, amazing though it be, is as nothing in comparison with the wealth of revelation that yet awaits my wondering and adoring eyes. All that my Bible, my experience, my teachers, and the testimonies of those who have loved and trusted Him, have unfolded to me of His love and grace and power must be multiplied a million-million-fold; it must be projected back into the eternal Past and forward into the eternal Future.

The revealed is but a drop in the ocean as compared with the unrevealed. We miss the glory of the whole scheme of revelation when we fancy that the sweetest story ever told begins at Bethlehem and ends at Calvary. Like the flight of the tiny moth across the shaft of light, that was merely a sudden and fitful emergence into visibility. He Himself is the kingly head of that most mysterious and most splendid of all ancient orders—the royal and priestly Order of Melchisedek.

Source: F. W. Boreham. When the Swans Fly High. Part I, Chapter I. Public domain in the United States.