Counsels for old age

John Pye Smith was a Congregationalist of the first half of the nineteenth century. He was theological tutor at the Dissenting academy known as Homerton College near Hackney, London, for forty-five years between 1805 and 1850. In addition he was minister of the Old Gravel Pit Chapel in Chatham Place, Hackney, for nearly as long, from 1811-50.

My father passed on some material he found in John Medway's Memoirs of the Life and Writings of John Pye Smith, D.D., LL.D. (London: Jackson & Walford, 1853, 507-508). In January 1847, at the age of seventy three, some four years before he died, Pye Smith preached two sermons on "Old age, its characteristics, obligations and adapted blessings," one from Psalm 71.9 and a second from John 21.18-19 on Christ's charge to Peter. He divided adult life into two main periods. Each, he maintained, had its own advantages, difficulties and trials. The first he called the period of sanctified activity, the second the period of sanctified decline which came with increasing age. This pattern he established as a general rule.

In unfolding Christ's charge to Peter, Pye Smith said that the first period should be marked by well-regulated and intense activity in every area of the life of a Christian (Rom 12.11, 17; Phil 4.8). In his sermon notes he described this period as one in which usually bodily strength was firm and capable of enduring fatigue; the mind was lively and energetic, ready to make acquisitions and able to retain them; the reasoning faculty was prompt; the deductions were clear; convictions were firmly held; the imagination was vivid; and, a Christian would be resolute in forming intentions and ardent in keeping them.

In the second period the general rule is one of sanctified decline. At this point in his life Pye Smith was profoundly deaf and had been for a number of years, but was still able to preach. His notes outline the following seven counsels which are valuable for every Christian facing advancing years:

  • Expect infirmities and other afflictions, which may increase.
  • Avoid the spirit of dissatisfaction, peevishness and fretfulness.
  • Cultivate patience, cheerfulness, benevolence, sweetness of feeling and manner.
  • Take advantage of any increasing opportunities for reflection and prayer.
  • Cherish patient submission to the will of God.
  • By example and word encourage young Christians.
  • Aim at glorifying God in all ways, including death. Peter's last sufferings would be a striking exhibition of faithfulness and love to his Lord. (Pye Smith's notes conclude with references to 2Pt 1.14-15, 2Tim 4.4-6, Gen 49.18, and Rev 7.14).

Perhaps he might have added the reminder that "even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day" (2Cor 4.16), but nevertheless these are wise and useful counsels for every Christian who is advancing in years.