Sermon Illustrations

John Pierpont died a failure. In 1866, ar the age of 81, he came to the end of his days as a government clerk in Washington, D.C., with a long string of personal defeats.

Things began well enough. He graduated from Yale, which his grandfather had helped found and chose education as his profession with some enthusiasm.

He was a failure at teaching because he was too easy on his students. And so he turned to the legal world for training.

He was a failure as a lawyer. He was too generous to his clients and too concerned about justice to take the cases that brought good fees. The next career he took up was that of a dry-goods merchant.

He was a failure as a businessman because he did not charge enough for his goods to make a profit, and was too liberal with credit. In the meantime he had been writing poetry, and thought it was published he didn¡¦t collect enough royalties to make a living.

And so he decided to become a minister. He went off to Harvard Divinity School, was ordained in a church in Boston. But his position for prohibition against slavery got him crosswinds with the influential members of his congregation and he was forced to resign. He failed as a minister.

Politics seemed a place where he could make some difference, and he was nominate as the Abolition Party candidate for governor of Massachusetts. He lost. Undaunted, Pierpont ran for Congress under the banner of the Free Soil Party. He lost.

The Civil War came along and he volunteered as a chaplain for the 22nd Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteers. Two weeks later he quit, having found the task too much of a strain on his health. He was 76 years old. He failed as a chaplain.

Someone found him an obscure job in the back offices of the Treasury Department in Washington, and he finished the last five years of his life as a menial file clerk. He wasn¡¦t very good at that either. His heart was not in it.

John Pierpont died a failure, or so some say. He had accomplished nothing significant in his lifetime¡Xnothing that he set out to do. There is a small memorial stone marking his grave in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. The words in the granite read: ¡§POET, PREACHER, PHILOSOPHER, PHILANTHROPIST.¡¨

From this distance in time, one might insist that he was not, in fact, a failure. His commitment to social justice, his desire to be a loving human being, his active engagement in the great issues of his times, and his faith in the power of the human min¡Xthese are not failures. And much of what he thought of as defeat, became success. Education was reformed, legal processes were improved, credit laws were changed, and above all, slavery was abolished once and for all.

This is not an uncommon story. Many 19th century reformers had similar lives, similar failures and...

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