A friend once described how she discovered her grandfather's will. The pastor of her former church (in a liberal, mainline denomination) had spoken dismissively of the will and the conservative restrictions her grandfather had placed on an endowment for the church. His comments led to her curiosity about the will, however, and my friend was delighted to learn about the Biblical and Reformed convictions of her ancestor, George Watson Marble.
A Christian Will
Marble (1870-1930) was a successful newspaper publisher in Fort Scott, Kansas. His will gives a clear testimony to his Christian faith: "Confessing my sinful nature, and constant transgressions, in the weakness of the flesh, of the Divine law, but confident of the love of God, and assured of forgiveness through the atoning blood of His Son, Jesus Christ, to all who sincerely accept Him as Savior and seek to put away their sins, I freely give to Him the glory for whatever of virtue may have been shown forth in my life…." Marble also thanked God for his material prosperity, noting that his own tithes and offerings seemed "a trifle" compared to God's "blessings, benefits and providential interventions."
The will also provided an endowment to help train Christian pastors and missionaries. Marble was acutely aware of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of his day; however, and he tried to guarantee that the endowment would only support the unadulterated gospel:
None of the revenue of this behest shall be expended in furtherance of any work in any field, of which the Gospel of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, and the scriptural declaration of the fact of the resurrection, and the supernatural power of God over the laws of nature, are not sincerely conceded and expounded, and made the central theme of the message to the unsaved. I will that none of the revenue of this bequest shall be expended to support any gospel or theory or scheme of social service as a source of the means of the soul's salvation, sufficient in itself, without repentance, confession and the exercise of faith.1
From what I can tell, Mr. Marble was a genuine believer who cared deeply for his church and the Christian faith. He also made a record of his convictions in the will. And three-quarters of a century after the recording that testament, it was rediscovered, providing spiritual encouragement for his granddaughter, his great-grandchildren, and his great-great-grandchildren.
A Covenantal Faith
Ours is a covenantal faith, and God deals with us as families as well as individually. God made covenant with Abraham and his children (Gen. 17:7), and specifically called Abraham so that he would train his children (Gen. 18:19). At the great covenant reaffirmation at Shechem in Joshua 24:15, Joshua declares, "As for me, and my house, we will serve the Lord."
The New Testament continues that familial theme. "The promise is for you and your children," Peter declares at Pentecost (Acts 2:39). Preaching the gospel to the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:31, Paul said "[B]elieve in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved, you and your household." (A young fellow from our congregation was assigned Acts 16:31 as a memory verse at Awanas — but with the last clause omitted. What should he do? "Remind them that the gospel has a covenantal angle," I helpfully suggested, "and note that Presbyterians want to follow all of the gospel!")
In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul notes the faith of Timothy's mother and grandmother. In fact, Paul was sure that Timothy was a man of sincere faith, because he had observed that faith in Timothy's forbearers. As one who has been influenced by a godly grandmother, the Apostle's comments have always meant much to me.
Scripture has a special role for grandfathers as well. (A sizeable portion of Genesis is reserved for the blessing Jacob gives to his sons and grandsons. And Hebrews 11:21 even says that Jacob's blessing to his grandsons was "by faith.") In Deuteronomy 4:9, the children of Israel are charged to remember God's gracious dealing and to "make them known to your sons and grandsons." While fathers are given a unique responsibility for teaching children the commandments of God (Dt. 6:4-9), grandfathers are to assist and to recall the history of God's redemptive workings (Ex. 10:2).
How can grandparents help raise the next generation and teach their grandchildren the things of God? It was probably easier to do in a day of family farms, extended families, and close-knit communities. On the other hand, with the modern blessing of longevity, older Christians have a unique opportunity to strengthen the faith of future generations. How, then, can grandparents leave a godly legacy?2
First, the older generation must pray for its children and grandchildren. I lived with my grandmother when I was a child, and I remember that she taught me to pray (the Lord's Prayer). Years later, I noticed the prayer list at the head of her bed and was surprised to see my name there (in the #1 spot). I was the pastor of a church at the time and was moved to think that Grandma was praying daily for me and my ministry.
Second, the older generation can tell stories to preserve the heritage of the family and faith. My children enjoy stories of my childhood and growing up on the farm in Minnesota, but unfortunately I am usually too busy to remember them or put them in good narrative form. Immigrant historians often say that, "the third generation tries to remember what the second generation tries to forget." That is probably true in most families. The things we thought were mundane and commonplace, our grandchildren will probably find interesting and exotic. (Rotary phones and party lines? Cool!)
Third, the older generation can write family histories to be a guide for coming generations. The best example I know is my father-in-law's "From Pagan to Patriarch: The Life and Times of Charles Selander." Upon retirement, my father-in-law complied a comprehensive genealogical and family history. Over a hundred pages long and filled with pictures and narrative, it also includes reflections of God's providence, the story of my father-in-law's conversion, great thankfulness for God's grace, and a challenge for the future. The history is designed to tell a story, to encourage the grandchildren, and to guarantee a Christian legacy in the family.
We can preserve family history and stories very simply, to start with. Focus on the Family used to publish a father's memory book — a diary-style book with blank pages and leading questions. (What were your happiest memories? Your saddest? What church did you attend? Etc.) It was a great idea, designed to motivate people to write down memories from which coming generations would profit.
Fourth, a Last Will and Testament can leave a legacy. (We will have our descendents' full attention, at least for a few minutes.) Certainly George Marble testified in his will to his hope in Christ. A friend once described an unforgettable funeral in Bristol, Tennessee, about forty years ago. In accordance with the provisions of the will, the deceased man had an open Bible on his chest, with his finger pointing to John 6:39. The underlined text read: "And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day." Now there's a powerful Christian testimony.
If all else fails, even a gravestone can be a testimony. My children enjoyed walking through the historic cemetery in the mountain community where we used to live so that they could practice amateur demography. ("How long did people live?" and "How old were they when marrying?") We were especially encouraged by tombstones that recorded Scripture verses or Christian testimonies.
Markers of a Living Faith
The best gravestones I have seen were in Columbia, South Carolina, at an old cemetery where John Girardeau and James H. Thornwell are buried. Girardeau's grave was topped by a massive stone pulpit and an open Bible with this chiseled inscription: "After he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise." Most moving was the tombstone of Thornwell's daughter Nancy, who died in 1859, just before her wedding day, and was buried in her unused gown. Though we would consider her death untimely and sad, the inscription pointed to the believer's hope: "Her death was triumphant and glorious. She descended to the grave adorned as a bride to meet the bridegroom."3
We are called to train our children in the fear and nurture of the Lord. We must teach them the commandments of God and the way of salvation in Christ. As the Psalmist says, "One generation shall praise Thy works to another, and shall declare Thy mighty acts" (Ps. 145:4). We should also develop ways to leave a Christian legacy to our descendents, to inspire them to covenantal fidelity after we are gone. Following Joshua's challenge (Jos. 24:15), our desire to serve the Lord should extend to our entire family the whole house, for this day and for generations to come.
1. My thanks to Sara Emery for showing me George Marble's will and giving permission to share the story of her grandfather.
2. What kind of paper trail do we leave when we are gone? I spent a good part of my youth messing around in the attic of the abandoned "old house" on the family homestead, playing archeologist and looking to see what kind of junk was left behind. The only thing of real, albeit sentimental value, was my grandparents wedding license — and that discovery brought tears to my grandmother's eyes. At some point, the next generation will be hungry for information about us. What will we leave behind?
3. The stupidest tombstones I have seen were in a country cemetery in Minnesota. The tombstones had nothing religious, but were decorated with hunter motifs: deer, ducks, etc. I like the outdoors as much as the next guy but on resurrection day I want to be identified as more than a duck hunter! The most tragic cemetery I have visited was in rural Bavaria, where one grave after another was of young men who had died in the early 1940s. The constantly repeated inscription was "Tot in Russland" — killed in Russia!