Nathan Clark Burnham:
A Biographical Sketch.
Nathan Clark Burnham was born on January 11th, in the year 1813, at Woodville, in Jefferson County, of the State of New York. A New Church circulating library had been established in this village about the year 1827, and it was probably through this means that Mr. Burnham, when but seventeen years of age, began to read the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Jerusalem, of which he quickly became a thorough student and most affectionate receiver.
The New Church was at that time still young in this land, and societies and isolated receivers were few and far between. In the interior of the State of New York, however, considerable interest had been excited through the earnest activity of the Rev. Dr. Lewis Beers and the Rev. Holland Weeks, and little circles and societies of receivers had, in a short space of time, sprung up at South Danby, Plattekill, Spencer, Catlin, Henderson, and other places. Mr. Burnham soon identified himself with the Society at Henderson, and he thus came under the pastoral instruction of the Rev. Holland Weeks. Of this, the first doctrinal teacher of Mr. Burnham, a contemporary gives this testimony:
Add to this that Mr. Weeks ever evidenced the more essential qualifications of a deep insight into the Doctrines of the New Church, a humble reverence for their Divine origin, and a marked love of order in the government of the Church. He was the first to recommend a trinal order of the Priesthood to the New Church in America. It may thus be supposed that Mr. Burnham's mind, which was yet young and plastic, was from the beginning molded into those orderly forms of doctrinal reception and thought for which he has ever been distinguished in the Church.
At the time of his turning toward the New Church he was studying law, but he abandoned this pursuit after having received the Baptism of the New Church in the year 1833, and with the advice and approbation of his pastor he began instead to prepare himself for the sacred ministry of the New Church. As the first necessary step in this direction he turned his special attention to the study of language and of the natural sciences, continuing this course at the Union Academy in Bellville, N. Y., until the year 1838.
In the year 1835. Mr. Burnham for the first time attended the General Convention, then holding its seventeenth session in the City of New York. Among the resolutions passed at that meeting, the following, offered by Mr. Sampson Reed, of Boston, may be quoted as showing the trend of thought at Mat time prevailing in the Convention:
This, as Mr. de Charms observes, was "not merely another step, but a stride toward episcopacy," the institution of a Council of Bishops, in fact, for the government of all purely ecclesiastical matters of the Church. And this movement was made by the leaders of the Church in New England. Their descendants, at the present time, take quite a different view of Church government.
Mr. Burnham was introduced into the more general activity of the Church at a time of beginning troubles and incipient war. The peach and unanimity which had characterized the first Conventions had now begun to be disturbed by differences of opinion, jealousies of power, and formation of parties, leading finally to external, divisions. Before this time the centre of power in the Church in America had rested with the Church in Philadelphia, then containing many sound, strong and wealthy men. This Church, however, lost by an removal some of its most influential leaders, and, about the year 1827 was overtaken by financial disaster. The Boston Society, founded in the year 1818, had in the meantime grown so rapidly in numbers as to capture the Convention by its overbalancing delegation, making it to all purposes a New England Convention, the New England leaders dictating the policy of the whole Church. Great distrust and anxiety had been produced by the strange and revolting notion emanating from Boston, that there exists between a pastor and his society a "conjugial relation," involving "close communion," as corresponding to the conjunction of a husband with his wife, and making it "spiritual adultery" for a minister of one society to administer the Holy Supper to another society. The question of a trine in the Priesthood was much discussed and wide differences of opinion were manifested: the New England Churches inclining to an episcopal or rather papal form of government, with or without a trine in the Priesthood; the Church in the Middle States insisting upon a trinal order of the ministry, but rejecting the New England form of episcopacy; and a growing party in the Western States rejecting all ordination and distinctive Priesthood. Dissatisfied with the arbitrary spirit manifested by the leaders of the General Convention in requiring unreasoning obedience to its dictates, as to those of a "spiritual mother," Newchurchmen west of the Alleghenies had, in the year 1832, formed an independent Convention, the "Western Convention," and a movement was on foot in the Central States to break loose from the New England dominion by forming a Middle Convention.
While pursuing his course of studies at Bellville, Mr. Burnham was frequently employed in teaching school. In the year 1838 he removed to Ohio, teaching school in Seville, in Medina County, and in the following year he accepted an invitation from the Third Society of Cincinnati to become their leader. This society had been founded in the year 1838 by the Rev. Richard de Charms when resigning from the pastoral charge of the First Society of Cincinnati. Mr. Burnham thus became the teacher of Newchurchmen who, with Mr. de Charms, believed in the authority of the Writings and in a trine in the Ministry of the Church. He now also joined the Western Convention, which at that particular time recognized the trine in the Ministry (though at other times it held the opposite view), and on May 16th, 1840, he was ordained into the first degree of the Priesthood by the Rev. Messrs. Adam Hurdus and M. M. Carll. On May 29th of the following year, by the same authorities, he was ordained into the second degree of the Priesthood.
Soon after his first ordination he made a visit to Philadelphia, where he attended the first preparatory meeting for the formation of the "Middle Convention," afterward called the "Central Convention," and he also visited the meeting of the General (or rather Eastern) Convention, being held a few days later in the same city. While absent from Cincinnati he received an invitation to become the Pastor of the society to which he had been ministering as a leader.
After having thus been introduced into the active performance of his life's use, he soon also found the partner of his life in Miss Mary A. Pancoast, of Cincinnati, an intelligent and affectionate receiver of the Doctrines, and a Virginian by birth. He was betrothed to her in May, 1841, and was married on October the 25th the following year by the Rev. Richard de Charms, who had come from Philadelphia especially for this purpose.
In July, 1842, the acting committee of the Western Convention appointed Mr. Burnham editor of a proposed periodical, to be called The Western New Church Messenger. He declined, however, considering himself incompetent to fill this position, and being also much occupied with other engagements. In December of the same year he resigned the pastorate of the Third New Church Society of Cincinnati, and was for a short time afterward employed in general Church work in the West.
In June, 1843, Mr. Burnham accepted the charge of the Second New Church Society of Baltimore, which had been formed by Mr. de Charms out of such members of Mr. Hargrove's former society-then inactive and without a Pastor-as sympathized with the principles of the Central Convention. Here he remained until the following year, when he accepted an invitation to preach for the Second Society of New York City. This society belonged to the Central Convention and had been formed by the Rev. Charles J. Doughty in the year 1841, when he broke loose from the Boston influences and renounced the "conjugial" heresy.
Mr. Burnham now began to take a more active part in the work of the Central Convention, co-operating with the Rev. Messrs. de Charms and David Powell in holding that body to its distinctive principles. It may be of interest in this connection as illustrating Mr. Burnham principles of order in the Church to note in the Journal of the Central Convention for the year 1845, a report signed by him and Mr. de Charms in reply to a request of the Lancaster Society for the immediate ordination of Win. H. Benade, who had then lately come into the Church and had been licensed to preach a few months previous to the meeting. The signers of the report held that
While stationed in New York Mr. Burnham performed considerable evangelistic work in the adjoining regions of the States of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. While at Baltimore he had attended lectures on chemistry in the University of Maryland, and in the years 1844-1845 he continued this and other scientific studies at the University of New York. At this time also he first read Swedenborg's Animal Kingdom and Principia, which had then lately been published for the first time in the English tongue.
In July, 1845, after a visit to his native place, he returned to Cincinnati, preaching occasionally in that city and its vicinity, and removed the following year to Columbus, Miss., where after a time he began teaching a female seminary. In the year 1847, while still conducting his school, he entered on the study of medicine according to the principles of Homeopathy. The school closed in December, 1847, and he then removed to Cincinnati, practicing medicine in that city for two years, when, in the year 1850, he became the Pastor of the New Church Society at Peoria, Ill. In the year 1852 he removed to Philadelphia, entering there into partnership with Mr. H. M. Warren in the "composition roofing" business. He sold out his share in this in the year 1855, and after this taught school in Frankford, Pa., for a year, also preaching occasionally to the Frankford New Church Society. In the year 1857 he moved to Seville, Ohio, and subsequently to Chicago, where he remained until the year 1865.
In Chicago he practiced medicine the larger portion of the time, preaching occasionally, in the absence of the Rev. J. R. Hibbard, for the Chicago Society, and during the latter year or two doing evangelistic work in the State. Here, also, Dr. Burnham entered upon the great work of his life, devoting most of his spare time to the preparatory labor on his book on Discrete Degrees.
In the fall of the year 1865 Dr. Burnham removed to Lancaster, Pa., being invited to take pastoral charge of the languishing old society there. Here he continued the work on his book and also delivered occasional lectures to various New Church societies on the Doctrine of Degrees, illustrating these by diagrams.
About the year 1870 incipient cornetis was discovered in both of his eyes, and he very soon knew that total blindness would be the probable result. He accepted the fact without murmur or expressed regret, but worked the more industriously to finish the work he had undertaken. He retained some effective use of his eyes for six or seven years and continued to write by dictation for more than ten years later.
In the year 1867 Dr. Burnham began to take an active part in the work of the Pennsylvania Association, doing much effective evangelistic work throughout the State for a period of three years while employed as the Missionary of the Association. He was also a constant and interested attendant at the Association meetings, contributing much to the value and interest of the resolutions passed and the discussions held on these occasions. The subsequent development of the Pennsylvania Association into the wider body known as the General Church of Pennsylvania, and now as the General Church of the Advent of the Lord, was by no means a sudden one. The Journals of the Association from the year 1861 to 1883 show how one after another of the principles which now govern the General Church were very gradually recognized and adopted by the body. In this general movement Dr. Burnham took an important and progressive part.
Some of its present principles the General Church has had to learn by unpleasant experience. At the meeting of the Pennsylvania Association, held at Pittsburgh in the year 1871, the whole Constitution-which contained a distinct recognition of the Divine Authority of the Writings and of the trine in the Priesthood-was abrogated with the view of extending the usefulness of the its adoption of some general platform upon which all nominal Newchurchmen in the State could be brought together for the more efficient performance of the uses of Church extension. Dr. Burnham was then elected temporary President of the Association, and a committee was appointed to confer with the various other New Church organizations then existing in the State. This attempt at union of all, irrespective of genuine soundness of doctrine and of genuine charity formed according to it, proved futile, as have so many other similar attempts, and in the year 1873 the Association returned to its usual line of work. The Rev. Wm. H. Benade was then elected President. Dr. Burnham, it only remains to be stated, continued as a member of the Pennsylvania Association, and subsequently of the General Church of Pennsylvania and of the General Church of the Advent of the LORD up to the time of his departure from this world.
While connected with the General Convention, through his membership in the Pennsylvania Association, Dr. Burnham took a very active and interested part in the proceedings of the "General Conference of New Church Ministers," as may be evident from the journals of that body, which abound with important subjects for discussion proposed by him.
Dr. Burnham was one of the twelve men who, in the year 1876, instituted the Academy of the New Church, and he was subsequently appointed Professor of Systematic Theology at the Theological School of the Academy. He also became one of the Associate Editors of the Words for the New Church, published by the Academy, and contributed to its pages the important monographs on "The Advent of the LORD" and on "The State of the Christian World," the latter of which aroused so much opposition throughout the Church.
In the course of two or three years, increasing physical weakness made it necessary for the Doctor to give up all actual teaching in the School, and he confined himself during his last years in Philadelphia to the completion of his work on the Doctrine of Degrees, which was finally published by the Academy in the year 1887, under the editorship of one of his former students in the Academy School. He continued to take a sympathetic interest in the School and its young students, and for several years took a lively part in the interesting discussions of the "Conference of Ministers" of the General Church, which at the time used to meet monthly in Philadelphia.
In the year 1884 Dr. Burnham removed from Philadelphia to the West, where three of his sons resided. He spent a portion of his time with them in Chicago, and a later portion with another son in Pardee, Kansas, also paying a visit to the little circle in Concordia. In the year 1888, he again went to housekeeping in Chicago, having been joined there by his wife, who for some years had been engaged as a teacher in the primary departments of the Schools of the Academy in Philadelphia. While attending the annual meeting of the Illinois Association, in the year 1889. Dr. Burnham was attacked by a stroke of paralysis. He was brought back to Chicago, but he never recovered his health. While on his sick-bed he received a visit, last Christmas, from his life-long friend and co-worker in the Church, Bishop Benade. During his last years he much enjoyed the intimate friendship of the Rev. L. P. Mercer who greatly prized his instruction and counsel. During these last years he also found great delight in communing with those who loved to talk or learn of the LORD and of His heavenly kingdom. The young and novitiate sought his instruction and encouragement; and the more advanced found help and pleasure in communing with him upon higher and more interior Divine things. He passed away quietly on July 22d, this year.
Dr. Burnham, among other personal characteristics, possessed a remarkably exact memory of passages in the Letter of the Word and in the Writings, a faculty of great service to him after he lost the use of his eyes. The many young amanuenses whom he enlisted in the work on his book were often amused as well as astonished at the correctness with which he would direct them to a certain line on a certain page of some one of the Writings. In his literary work he displayed the most minute exactness and an untiring patience, far greater, often, than that possessed by his young assistants. His love and reverence for the spiritual truths of the Word were intense, causing him, in doctrinal discussions, to laugh aloud at times for very joy at the beauty of some Heavenly Truth.
He was a specialist in doctrinal study, and as such be has earned the lasting gratitude of the Church for the important work he has left behind him, the work on Discrete Degrees in Successive and Simultaneous Order. Above the mass of ephemeral and watery collateral literature which of late years has been published by the Church, this work stands as a monument of genuine doctrinal thought and learning. And in yet another special doctrine did Dr. Burnham excel, which he most earnestly labored to bring to the recognition of the Church: the teachings of the Writings concerning the utterly devastated and hopeless state of the Old Christian Church in all its planes of life. Without the acknowledgment of these teachings there can be no recognition of the necessity of the Second Coming for the SALVATION of the human race; without it there is no progress possible in the establishment of the New Church in general or in the individual, for without it there is no self knowledge and self-examination, and hence shunning of the evils and falses besetting the natural man of every member of the Church. Of this highly unpopular and generally rejected doctrine Dr. Burnham was a fearless champion. A faithful watchman on the walls of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, "when seeing the sword coming upon the land," he has "blown the trumpet and warned the people."
From 'New Church Life', September 1891.