Our Mr. Valiant for Truth has crossed the river, and with all the trumpets sounding on the other side, the thoughts of our hearts and their vocal expression are but an echo of that approval that he has earned from our Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
I am honored to speak a word at his funeral, especially as relates to his service to the Church at large through his ministry in our own Presbytery. Many who knew him before I did, report the same feeling one sensed immediately in Dr. Stephens, the talent and the spiritual quality that was the man. Long before I met him face-to-face, I had heard from his friends and colleagues concerning the “stuff” that was in him. He never failed; anything that he undertook he carried through to conclusion. With the high quality of mental and spiritual achievement that were his, he knew how to coin in proper phrase or resolution or friendly word, and pass on, his own spirit. He was the embodiment of the law and the gospel; a rare combination. Always, at the expense of himself, he served his Lord and the Church.
He was the leading personality in a relatively small denomination. In the beginning of the century, all his efforts were bent in the direction of union of his Church (The Cumberland Presbyterian) with the mother Church. He stood to lose everything, and like those commended by our Lord, he threw away his life to find it in the joy of a larger service. Having served as the State Clerk of his own denomination he became a clerk in the larger group, and merged his own person ad his own work enthusiastically in perfecting the Digest of our General Assembly (having finished that of his own). To this he devoted days and months of tedious and painstaking and (always with him) joyous labor, a service of love.
We owe to him in this Presbytery and to his colleague, Dr. Parr, a great debt for the spiritual quality that they brought to us from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. With James H. Miller and James Clark, they brought into the U.S.A. church a great heritage of spiritual and intellectual quality that had repudiated one hundred years before some of the ultra strictness of the “second generation doctrines” that were never inherited from John Calvin. They brought back not “something new,” but something older than that which had become accepted tradition in certain sections of the U.S.A. church.
His work as a Stated Clerk in our Presbytery was a reflection of that larger and longer service that he rendered to his denomination in earlier years. When he felt himself slipping, on his own initiative he resigned (and possibly we were not too wise in accepting that resignation.)
He never lost the “spiritual glow” that comes from lasting and deep friendships. He carried on (beyond his physical abilities at times) a correspondence which is unusual as one grows older. You may remember your friends, but to include the younger generations—that is genius; the genius of real friendship!
There are few living today of his contemporaries and his “fellow soldiers” in other years. We have heard him tell on occasion of how, as a boy, he carried the brunt of family responsibility for his father who espoused the Union cause and went at Lincoln’s first call, and who, years afterwards, came back, not recognized by his own son when he met him at the gate.
It seems as one reviews this wonderful life, that from the first to the last, in every appointment, he has accepted it at the Hand of an always Beneficent Providence, trusting and unafraid. John Stephens was the faithful servant of his Lord Jesus Christ, who said, “It is better to minister than to be ministered unto.” Like his Master, “first he wrought and afterwards he taught.” In all things he adorned the doctrine of God, our Saviour.
This is not the time to recount, except in our own hearts, the debt of gratitude that we feel toward hi and toward God, in the gift of this life. Its blessing, its example, his contagious spirit, his thoroughness in his work that shamed us in our shabbiness; his deep purpose, his unfailing zeal, his enthusiasm, his words of good will and encouragement, and his meticulous care in the performance of every duty—for these we thank God.
We here echo, “Well done, good and faithful servant,”—with all the trumpets sounding for him on the other side!
Let us pray.
Almighty God our Father, in whose hand our breath is and whose are all our ways, we acknowledge Thy great goodness in this finished life. We desire to thank Thee for the friend whom Thou has now called from our earthly fellowship and we rejoice in the hope of immortality.
For this good man who, like his Master, went about doing good, the law of kindness on his tongue, we thank Thee. For his good counsel and brave testimony, for what he was and what he did; the things that he said; the texture of his mind and heart; the touch of his sympathy, his wise and ready help—for all we render our thanksgiving.
O Thou Whose best gifts come to us in human form, Whose love came to us incarnate in Christ, we thank Thee for Thy servant, John Stephens, and we ask that we, in our day and generation, may in some measure, in his spirit, adorn that same doctrine and follow the same Christ.
To God’s gracious mercy and protection we commit ourselves yet again, with the whole family of God in Heaven and on earth: The Lord preserve our going out and our coming in from this time forth and even forevermore. Amen.
Courtesy of The Jesse Halsey Manuscript Collection, Princeton Theological Seminary Libraries, Special Collections.