Handful of Stars


8. Michael Trevanion's Text


Michael Trevanion misunderstood Paul: that was the trouble. Michael, so Mark Rutherford tells us, was a Puritan of the Puritans, silent, stern, unbending. Between his wife and himself no sympathy existed. They had two children--a boy and a girl. The girl was in every way her mother's child: the boy was the image of his father. Michael made a companion of his son; took him into his own workshop; and promised himself that, come what might, Robert should grow up to walk in his father's footsteps. All went well until Robert Trevanion met Susan Shipton. Susan was one of the beauties of that Cornish village. She had--what were not common in Cornwall--light flaxen hair, blue eyes, and a rosy face, somewhat inclined to be plump. The Shiptons lay completely outside Michael's circle. They were mere formalists in religion, fond of pleasure; and Susan especially was much given to gaiety. She went to picnics and dances; rowed herself about the bay with her friends; and sauntered round the town with her father and mother on Sunday afternoons. She was fond of bathing, too, and was a good swimmer. Michael hardly knew how to put his objection in words, but he nevertheless had a horror of women who could swim. It seemed to him an ungodly accomplishment. He did not believe for a moment that Paul would have sanctioned it. That settled it for Michael. For Michael had unbounded faith in the judgment of Paul; and the tragedy of his life lay in the fact that, on one important occasion, he misunderstood his oracle.

One summer's morning, Robert saved Susan from drowning. She had forgotten the swirl of water caused by the rush of the river into the bay, and had swum into the danger zone. In three minutes Robert was at her side, had gripped her by the bathing dress at the back of her neck, and had brought her into safer water. From that moment the two were often together; and, one afternoon, Michael came suddenly upon them and guessed their secret. It nearly broke his heart. In Robert's attachment to Susan he saw--or thought he saw--the end of all his hopes. 'He remembered what his own married life had been; he always trusted that Robert would have a wife who would be a help to him, and he felt sure that this girl Shipton, with her pretty face and blue eyes, had no brains. To think that his boy should repeat the same inexplicable blunder, that he would never hear from his wife's lips one serious word! What would she be if trouble came upon him? She was not a child of God. He did not know that she ever sought the Lord. She went to church once a day and read her prayers, and that was all. She was not one of the chosen; she might corrupt Robert and he might fall away and so commit the sin against the Holy Ghost. He went to his room, and, shutting the door, wept bitter tears. 'O my son, Absalom,' he cried, 'my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!'

It was in these desperate straits that poor Michael consulted Paul--and misunderstood him. It was a Sunday night. Michael picked up the Bible and turned to the Epistle to the Romans. It was his favorite epistle. He read the ninth chapter. The third verse startled him. 'I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.' Nobody need wonder that the words strangely affected him. In his Table Talk, Coleridge says that when he read this passage to a friend of his, a Jew at Ramsgate, the old man burst into tears. 'Any Jew of sensibility,' the poet adds, 'must be deeply impressed by it.' Michael Trevanion read the throbbing words again. 'I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.'

He laid down the Book. 'What did Paul mean? What could he mean save that he was willing to be damned to save those whom he loved? And why not? Why should not a man be willing to be damned for others? Damnation! It is awful, horrible. Millions of years, with no relief, with no light from the Most High, and in subjection to His enemy! "And yet, if it is to save--if it is to save Robert," thought Michael, "God give me strength--I could endure it. Did not the Son Himself venture to risk the wrath of the Father that He might redeem man? What am I? What is my poor self?" And Michael determined that night that neither his life in this world nor in the next, if he could rescue his child, should be of any account.'

So far Michael and Paul were of one mind. Now for the divergence! Now for the misunderstanding! Michael questioned himself and his oracle further. 'What could Paul mean exactly? God could not curse him if he did no wrong. He could only mean that he was willing to sin, and be punished, provided Israel might live. It was lawful then to tell a lie or perpetrate any evil deed in order to protect his child.' Michael therefore took his resolution. He hinted to Robert that Susan's history was besmirched with shame. He left on his desk--where he knew Robert would see it--a fragment of an old letter referring to the downfall of another girl named Susan. Michael knew that he was telling and acting a lie, a terrible and unpardonable lie. He firmly believed that, in telling that dreadful lie, he was damning his soul to all eternity. But in damning his own soul--so he thought--he was saving his son's. And that, after all, was the lesson that Paul had taught him.

The rest of the story does not immediately concern us. Robert, on seeing the documentary proof of Susan's shame, ran away from home. Michael, overwhelmed with wretchedness, attempted to drown himself in the swirl at the mouth of the river. Of what value was life to him, now that his soul was everlastingly lost? He awoke to find himself on the bank, with Susan bending over him and kissing him. He soon discovered that there was more sense in Susan's head, and more grace in her heart, than he had for one moment imagined. He set out after his son; found him; and died in making his great and humiliating confession. He had meant well, but he had misunderstood. He had misunderstood Paul.


Michael made two mistakes, and they were grave and tragic and fatal mistakes.

He thought that good fruit could be produced from an evil tree. There are times when it looks possible. But it is always an illusion. When I see Michael Trevanion in the hour of his great temptation, I wish I could introduce him to Jeanie Deans. For, in The Heart of Midlothian, Sir Walter Scott has outlined a very similar situation. Poor Jeanie was tempted to save her wayward sister by a lie. It was a very little lie, a mere glossing over of the truth. The slightest deviation from actual veracity, and her sister's life, which was dearer to her than her own, would be saved from the scaffold, and her family honor would be vindicated. But Jeanie could not, and would not, believe that there could be salvation in a lie. With her gentle heart reproaching her, but with her conscience applauding her, she told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And then she set out for London. Along the great white road she trudged, until her feet were bleeding and her exhausted form could scarcely drag itself along the dreadful miles. But on she pressed, until she saw the lights of London town; and still on, overcoming every barrier, until she stood before the Queen. And then she pleaded, as no mere advocate could plead, for Effie. With what passion, what entreaties, what tears did she besiege the throne! And, before the tempest of her grief and eloquence, the Queen yielded completely and gave her her sister's life. To Jeanie Deans and to Michael Trevanion there came the same terrible ordeal; but Jeanie stood where Michael fell. That was the first of his two mistakes.

The second was that he thought that spiritual results could be engineered. He fancied that souls could be saved by wire-pulling.

'Robert,' he said, on the day of his death and of his bitter confession, 'Robert, I have sinned, although it was for the Lord's sake, and He has rebuked me. I thought to take upon myself the direction of His affairs; but He is wiser than I. I believed I was sure of His will, but I was mistaken. He knows that what I did, I did for the love of your soul, my child; but I was grievously wrong.'

'The father,' says Mark Rutherford, 'humbled himself before the son, but in his humiliation became majestic; and, in after years, when he was dead and gone, there was no scene in the long intercourse with him which lived with a brighter and fairer light in the son's memory.'


And so Michael Trevanion sinned and suffered for his sin! For my part, I have no stones to cast at him. I would rather sit at his feet and learn the golden lesson of his life. For love--and especially the love of an earnest man for another's soul--covers a multitude of sins. There come to all of us mountain moments, moments in which we stand on the higher altitudes and catch a glimpse of the unutterable preciousness of a human soul. But we are disobedient to the heavenly vision. We are like Augustine Saint Clare in Uncle Tom's Cabin. He could never forget, he said, the words with which his mother impressed upon him the dignity and worth of the souls of the slaves. Those passionate sentences of hers seemed to have burnt themselves into his brain. 'I have looked into her face with solemn awe,' he told Miss Ophelia, 'when she pointed to the stars in the evening and said to me, "See there, Auguste! the poorest, meanest soul on our place will be living when all those stars are gone for ever--will live as long as God lives!"'

'Then why don't you free your slaves?' asked Miss Ophelia, with a woman's practical and incisive logic.

'I'm not equal to that!' Saint Clare replied; and he confessed that, through having proved recreant to the ideals that had once so clearly presented themselves, he was not the man that he might have been.

'I'm not equal to that!' said Augustine Saint Clare.

But Michael Trevanion was equal to that--and to a great deal more. He saw the value of his son's soul, and he was willing to be shut out of heaven for ever and ever if only Robert could be eternally saved! 'My witness is above,' says Samuel Rutherford, in his Second Letter to his Parishioners, 'my witness is above that your heaven would be two heavens to me, and the salvation of you all as two salvations to me. I would agree to a suspension and a postponement of my heaven for many hundreds of years if ye could so be assured of a lodging in the Father's house.' Michael Trevanion's behavior--mistaken as it was--proved that he was willing to make an even greater sacrifice if, by so doing, he could compass the salvation of his son.


It is at this point that Michael Trevanion falls into line with the great masters. Since the apostolic days we have had two conspicuously successful evangelists--John Wesley and Mr. Spurgeon. The secret of their success is so obvious that he who runs may read. I turn to my edition of John Wesley's Journal, and at the end I find a tribute like this: 'The great purpose of his life was doing good. For this he relinquished all honor and preferment; to this he dedicated all his powers of body and mind; at all times and in all places, in season and out of season, by gentleness, by terror, by argument, by persuasion, by reason, by interest, by every motive and every inducement, he strove, with unwearied assiduity, to turn men from the error of their ways and awaken them to virtue and religion. To the bed of sickness or the couch of prosperity; to the prison or the hospital; to the house of mourning or the house of feasting, wherever there was a friend to serve or a soul to save, he readily repaired. He thought no office too humiliating, no condescension too low, no undertaking too arduous, to reclaim the meanest of God's offspring. The souls of all men were equally precious in his sight and the value of an immortal creature beyond all estimation.'

In relation to Mr. Spurgeon, we cannot do better than place ourselves under Mr. W. Y. Fullerton's direction. Mr. Fullerton knew Mr. Spurgeon intimately, and the standard biography of the great preacher is from his pen. Mr. Fullerton devotes a good deal of his space to an inquiry as to the sources of Mr. Spurgeon's power and authority. It is an elusive and difficult question. It is admitted that there is scarcely one respect in which Mr. Spurgeon's powers were really transcendent. He had a fine voice; but others had finer ones. He was eloquent; but others were no less so. He used to say that his success was due, not to his preaching of the Gospel, but to the Gospel that he preached. Obviously, however, this is beside the mark, for he himself would not have been so uncharitable as to deny that others preached the same Gospel and yet met with no corresponding success. The truth probably is that, although he attained to super-excellence at no point, he was really great at many. And, behind this extraordinary combination of remarkable, though not transcendent, powers was an intense conviction, a deadly earnestness, a consuming passion, that made second-rate qualities sublime. The most revealing paragraph in the book occurs towards the end. It is a quotation from Mr. Spurgeon himself. 'Leaving home early in the morning,' he says, 'I went to the vestry and sat there all day long, seeing those who had been brought to Christ by the preaching of the Word. Their stories were so interesting to me that the hours flew by without my noticing how fast they were going. I had seen numbers of persons during the day, one after the other; and I was so delighted with the tales of divine mercy they had to tell me, and the wonders of grace God wrought in them, that I did not notice how the time passed. At seven o'clock we had our prayer meeting. I went in to it. After that came the church meeting. A little before ten I felt faint, and I began to think at what hour I had eaten my dinner, and I then for the first time remembered that I had not had any; I never thought of it. I never even felt hungry, because God had made me so glad!' Mr. Spurgeon lived that he might save men. He thought of nothing else. From his first sermon at Waterbeach to his last at Mentone, the conversion of sinners was the dream of all his days. That master-passion glorified the whole man, and threw a grandeur about the common details of every day. He would cheerfully have thrown away his soul to save the souls of others.

It is along this road that the Church has always marched to her most splendid triumphs. Why did the Roman Empire so swiftly capitulate to the claims of Christ? Lecky discusses that question in his History of European Morals. And he answers it by saying that the conquest was achieved by the new spirit which Christ had introduced. The idea of a Saviour who could weep at the sepulcher of His friend; and be touched by a sense of His people's infirmities, was a novelty to that old pagan world. And when the early Christians showed themselves willing to endure any suffering, or bear any loss, if, by so doing, they might win their friends, their sincerity and devotion proved irresistible.


But Michael Trevanion must lead us higher yet. For what Michael Trevanion learned from Paul, Paul himself had learned from an infinitely greater. Let us trace it back!

'Let me be damned to all eternity that my boy may be saved!' cries Michael Trevanion, sitting at the feet of Paul, but misunderstanding his teacher.

'I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh,' exclaims Paul, sitting at the feet of One who not only wished to be accursed, but entered into the impenetrable darkness of that dreadful anathema.

'My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?' He cried from that depth of dereliction. 'In that awful hour,' said Rabbi Duncan, addressing his students, 'in that awful hour He took our damnation, and He took it lovingly!' When, with reverent hearts and bated breath, we peer down into the fathomless deeps that such a saying opens to us, we catch a glimpse of the inexpressible value which heaven sets upon the souls of men. And, when Michael Trevanion has led us to such inaccessible heights and to such unutterable depths as these, we can very well afford to say Good-bye to him.