James Henley Thornwell models what it is to be a Christian father in this letter to his son, Gillespie. Less than two years after this letter was written, both father and son were dead. As B.M. Palmer notes, Thornwell’s letter “could scarcely have been more faithful in its appeal, had he known how soon they would both be together in eternity:”
Glenn Springs, June 19, 1861,
MY DEAR GILLESPIE: It has been on my heart for some time back to have a serious and solemn conversation with you, touching the great interests of the soul. During all my sickness, nothing has pressed upon my mind more than the condition and prospects of my boys, in relation to the salvation of the gospel. I have dedicated you and your brothers to God. I have prayed that He would call you all into His kingdom; and I once ventured to hope that I might see you all ministers of the gospel. There is nothing worth living for but the glory of God; and I do most devoutly wish that your eyes may be opened to see the transcendent importance of eternal things. You have but one soul; and if you lose that, all is gone; and once lost, it is lost for ever.
You may say that you acknowledge the truth of all this, but you do not feel it. My son, you must strive to feel it. You must think upon the matter seriously and earnestly; you must pray over it; you must confess and deplore your hardness of heart, and seek from the Lord a clean heart and a right spirit. Resolve never to give over, until you find that you are interested, and warmly interested, in the great salvation. You cannot imagine what a comfort it would be to me in my declining days to see you humbly and sincerely following the Lord Jesus Christ. And why not do it? Can you gain anything by carelessness and remissness? Are you happier when you do not know but that, at any moment, you may be summoned before God altogether unprepared? Is not the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom? and do they not exhibit the soundest understanding who keep God’s commandments? My son, you know not how much I love you, and cannot know how much I feel for your immortal interests. Do me, your father, the favour to give your mind to the matter at once, and decidedly. Seek to be a thorough-going, devoted Christian. Seek the Lord with your whole heart. Renounce all sin, and renounce it for ever; and betake yourself to the blood of Christ for pardon and acceptance. Do more; have an eye to the eternal good of your younger brothers. They look up to you; they respect you; they try to do as you do. Set them a good example. Go before them in the way of eternal life.
Religion cannot be maintained without regular prayer, and regular reading of the Scriptures, and regular attendance upon the ordinances. Never omit your morning and evening devotions, and try to be interested in them; think over what you pray for; think before you pray. When you read the Bible, read in order to get knowledge. Meditate on what you read; and beg God to seal it on your heart by the Holy Ghost. At church, try to be profited. Apply to yourself what you hear. Look upon preaching as God’s appointment, and expect His blessing in attending upon it. My dear boy, reflect upon what I have said to you; and gladden my heart, when I see you again, by your interest in all that concerns the glory of God, and the salvation of the soul. Pray over this letter; look upon it as your father’s legacy; and for his sake, as well as your own, awake to the importance of these high themes.
As to my health, I cannot say that there is any marked change yet. I think, upon the whole, I am improving. The atmosphere here at present is very cool and delightful. Our nights are charming; and I enjoy the magnificent forests about here very much. I can never gaze on these enough. And now, my boy, may God bless you. Be true to Him, and He will be faithful to you
Your affectionate father,