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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Exquisite Charity of Master John Eliot

By Cotton Mather (1663–1728)

[From Magnalia Christi Americana. 1703.]

HE that will write of Eliot must write of charity, or say nothing. His charity was a star of the first magnitude in the bright constellation of his vertues, and the rays of it were wonderfully various and extensive.

His liberality to pious uses, whether publick or private, went much beyond the proportions of his little estate in the world. Many hundreds of pounds did he freely bestow upon the poor; and he would, with a very forcible importunity, press his neighbours to join with him in such beneficences. It was a marvellous alacrity with which he imbraced all opportunities of relieving any that were miserable; and the good people of Roxbury doubtless cannot remember (but the righteous God will!) how often, and with what ardors, with what arguments, he became a beggar to them for collections in their assemblies, to support such needy objects as had fallen under his observation. The poor counted him their father, and repaired still unto him with a filial confidence in their necessities; and they were more than seven or eight, or indeed than so many scores, who received their portions of his bounty. Like that worthy and famous English general, he could not perswade himself “that he had anything but what he gave away,” but he drove a mighty trade at such exercises as he thought would furnish him with bills of exchange, which he hoped “after many days” to find the comfort of; and yet, after all, he would say, like one of the most charitable souls that ever lived in the world, “that looking over his accounts he could nowhere find the God of heaven charged a debtor there.” He did not put off his charity to be put in his last will, as many who therein shew that their charity is against their will; but he was his own administrator; he made his own hands his executors, and his own eyes his overseers. It has been remarked that liberal men are often long-lived men; so do they after many days find the bread with which they have been willing to keep other men alive. The great age of our Eliot was but agreeable to this remark; and when his age had unfitted him for almost all employments, and bereaved him of those gifts and parts which once he had been accomplished with, being asked, “How he did?” he would sometimes answer, “Alas, I have lost everything; my understanding leaves me, my memory fails me, my utterance fails me; but, I thank God, my charity holds out still; I find that rather grows than fails!” And I make no question, that at his death his happy soul was received and welcomed into the “everlasting habitations,” by many scores got thither before him, of such as his charity had been liberal unto.

But besides these more substantial expressions of his charity, he made the odours of that grace yet more fragrant unto all that were about him, by that pitifulness and that peaceableness which rendered him yet further amiable. If any of his neighbourhood were in distress, he was like a “brother born for their adversity,” he would visit them, and comfort them with a most fraternal sympathy; yea, ’tis not easy to recount how many whole days of prayer and fasting he has got his neighbours to keep with him, on the behalf of those whose calamities he found himself touched withal. It was an extreme satisfaction to him that his wife had attained unto a considerable skill in physick and chirurgery, which enabled her to dispense many safe, good, and useful medicines unto the poor that had occasion for them; and some hundreds of sick and weak and maimed people owed praises to God for the benefit which therein they freely received of her. The good gentleman her husband would still be casting oil into the flame of that charity, wherein she was of her own accord abundantly forward thus to be doing of good unto all; and he would urge her to be serviceable unto the worst enemies that he had in the world. Never had any man fewer enemies than he! but once having delivered something in his ministry which displeased one of his hearers, the man did passionately abuse him for it, and this both with speeches and with writings that reviled him. Yet it happening not long after that this man gave himself a very dangerous wound, Mr. Eliot immediately sends his wife to cure him; who did accordingly. When the man was well, he came to thank her, but she took no rewards; and this good man made him stay and eat with him, taking no notice of all the calumnies with which he had loaded him; but by this carriage he mollified and conquered the stomach of his reviler.

He was also a great enemy to all contention, and would ring aloud courfeu bell wherever he saw the fires of animosity. When he heard any ministers complain that such and such in their flocks were too difficult for them, the strain of his answer still was, “Brother, compass them!” and “Brother, learn the meaning of those three little words, bear, forbear, forgive.” Yea, his inclinations for peace, indeed, sometimes almost made him to sacrifice right itself. When there was laid before an assembly of ministers a bundle of papers which contained certain matters of difference and contention between some people which our Eliot thought should rather unite, with an amnesty upon all their former quarrels, he (with some imitation of what Constantine did upon the like occasion) hastily threw the papers into the fire before them all, and, with a zeal for peace as hot as that fire, said immediately, “Brethren, wonder not at what I have done; I did it on my knees this morning before I came among you.” Such an excess (if it were one) flowed from his charitable inclinations to be found among those peace-makers which, by following the example of that Man who is our peace, come to be called “the children of God.” Very worthily might he be called an Irenæus, as being all for peace; and the commendation which Epiphanius gives unto the ancient of that name, did belong unto our Eliot; he was “a most blessed and a most holy man.” He disliked all sorts of bravery; but yet with an ingenious note upon the Greek word in Col. iii. 15, he propounded, “that peace might brave it among us.” In short, wherever he came, it was like another old John, with solemn and earnest persuasives to love; and when he could say little else he would give that charge, “My children, love one another!”

Finally, ’twas his charity which disposed him to continual apprecations for, and benedictions on those that he met withal; he had an heart full of good wishes and a mouth full of kind blessings for them. And he often made his expressions very wittily agreeable to the circumstances which he saw the persons in. Sometimes when he came into a family, he would call for all the young people in it, that so he might very distinctly lay his holy hands upon every one of them, and bespeak the mercies of heaven for them all.