Culture

What David Rice’s Final Advice to His Children Can Teach Us

Sean McGowen

David Rice (1733–1816) was a Presbyterian minister who played a prominent role in the development of Presbyterianism in Kentucky. He was born in Virginia and converted under the preaching of Samuel Davies in the 1750s. After serving in Virginia for some time, Rice came to Kentucky in the 1780s and immediately felt the challenge of ministering to those living on the frontier. Despite the difficulties, Rice was able to aid in the organization and establishment of churches through his faithful gospel preaching. He also played a hand in establishing schools—including the Transylvania Seminary (now Transylvania University) which had its beginnings meeting in his home.

In 1792, the year that Kentucky was admitted to the Union, Rice played an important part in the State’s first Constitutional Convention. He argued for the insertion of an article allowing for a gradual emancipation of slaves. Although his speech, entitled “Slavery Inconsistent with Justice and Good Policy,” provided a passionate apologetic for the cause, it ultimately failed to pass. When the revivals of the Second Great Awakening came to the frontier at the turn of the century, Rice advocated for moderation. He was not anti-revival as some have claimed, but he was opposed to the excess and bodily agitations that accompanied many of the camp meetings. Like a good Presbyterian, he wanted all things to be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40).

Rice married Mary Blair, the daughter of prominent Presbyterian minister Samuel Blair, and together they had 11 children. By all indications, the Rices were faithful in raising their children in the instruction of the Lord. History testifies that all of their children had their own families and remained faithful to the church. Church historian Robert Davidson, writing in 1847, recorded that one of their children was converted from reading a Bible that was left on his clothes when he was leaving home for the first time!

One can see the love that Rice had for his children in some of the last words that he spoke to them. It is often the case when death is near, trivial and superficial matters lose their predominance. We are no longer preoccupied with them, and our attention no longer gravitates toward them. Instead, we become obsessively concerned with things that truly matter. We confront eternity face to face. David Rice’s advice to his children nine years before his death exemplifies this. As Rice grew older, he wrote some final words to his beloved children, which have come down to us in a work entitled The Rev. David Rice’s Last Advice to His Children, Whether His by Affinity or Consanguinity: Written in the Seventy-Fourth Year of His Age.

Rice began this work by sharing that he started to think about his final advice after the death of his wife. It was by this act of God’s providence he realized tomorrow may be his last day, and so he needed to share some parting words with his children. At the outset, Rice reminded them:

My dear children, frequently recollect and seriously realize that we must all appear at the dread tribunal of Jesus Christ; and that then you must give an account to him of the use, the improvement you have made of all the religious advantages and privileges you have enjoyed; and particularly those that you have enjoyed in the family in which you have been educated.

David Rice, “The Rev. David Rice’s Last Advice to His Children, Whether His By Affinity or Consanguinity: Written in the Seventy Fourth Year of His Age,” in The Virginia Evangelical and Literary Magazine 2/6 (June 1819), 246.

It was his purpose to exhort them to live with this in mind, and the remainder of the work was to help them practically live thankful to God for their advantages. The advice that followed was written under three broad headings: On the Doctrines of Christianity, On Christian Morality, and On Conduct in Civil Society. What follows are some prominent points, not an exhaustive study.

On Christian Doctrine

Stand firm in your convictions, show charity to Christians who disagree, and do not get weighed down in trivial matters or doctrine of secondary importance.

Rice urged his children to be fixed and well-established in the fundamental doctrines of religion, the government of the church, and the scriptural modes of worship. He desired that his children would be steadfast in their conviction. Rice had instructed them in the Presbyterian tradition, which, according to his testimony, was the best system of religion. They were to be unwavering in their beliefs, and not let anything move them from the foundation that they stood upon. Yet, simultaneously, where good Christians disagreed on secondary or tertiary issues, Rice exhorted his children to show charity. “At the same time,” he wrote, “extend your charity to others as far as reason and scripture will warrant you, treating Christians of every denomination as brethren…Men may differ widely as to the mode of worship, and yet be acceptable worshippers of God through Christ.”

While it is important for Christians to know secondary matters well, Rice did not want his children to get weighed down in these issues at the expense of Christian unity. He was also concerned about pride. He wanted his children to study those doctrines that produced holiness in the heart and life. Doctrines that carried a lot of speculation and did not produce a holiness of character could be hurtful. This is not to say they were not important, but that doctrinal hobby horses could easily open the door for pride and temptation to unpack and settle in our hearts. Rice warned his children to avoid religious controversy if it were possible, but if it wasn’t, he spurred them to faithfully defend the truth. They were to defend it with humility and meekness, not out of pride and vainglory. Further, they were to never “engage the enemy, until you are acquainted with the ground you occupy, your own force, and the forces of your antagonist.” Another warning Rice wrote was to avoid “religious novelties” which, generally speaking, were nothing better than seducing errors. In every century, religious fads and movements attempt to sway the people of God; Rice encouraged his children to resist.

In exhorting them to stand firm in their convictions while cultivating a heart of charity for those who disagreed, he was very clear that they were not to have communion with those who were nominal Christians. He wrote: “Treat all of your fellow creatures with kindness and with the respect due to their several characters; but have no religious communion with those nominal Christians, whose principles sap the foundation of the Christian religion, lest you thereby countenance their errors, and partake of their guilt and punishment.”

The world today is changing at a rapid pace. Our culture is in the midst of a moral revolution, the speed of which is unprecedented in history, and as a result, many Christians find themselves wrestling with how to approach culture. On top of this, there is an alarming number of professing Christians who are sliding into progressive ideologies and deconstructing their faith entirely. Consequently, these kinds of conditions create an environment where everyone is suspect. It is very tempting in this climate for Christians to fight with other Christians. If someone does not espouse a particular view or does not agree with this or that position, they are treated with suspicion. Indeed, today we slap labels on each other faster than green grass through a goose. In this type of atmosphere, let us remember the words of Rice. We are to stand firm on our convictions. All Christians ought to be willing to go to war together on the primary teachings of Scripture. We are to not give an inch to the prevailing humanistic ideology that is surrounding us, but faithfully, with one voice, prophetically proclaim the truth. Simultaneously, let us show love and charity to one another where we disagree. Let us not allow our hobby horses to bulldoze over other faithful Christians or treat them as suspect if they do not hold to the same theological convictions as us. Lest we find our Christian circle so small, and our standard so high that no one else would be able to enter the kingdom except us.

On Christian Morality

For our actions to be spiritually good, the principle must be love for God and man, the motive must for the glory of God and the good of man, and the standard must be God’s law contained in the Scripture.

Rice desired his children to reach a spiritual height that surpassed him. He did not want them to be content with low spirituality which he said was common among Christians in his day. Instead of a list of rules for them to check off, he provided a paradigm to measure every action taken. The principle of our actions first and foremost must be a high regard for God. A holy reverence for the Divine majesty and a thankfulness for the work of Christ on our behalf must dominate every decision. Indeed, without this sacred regard for God, Rice wrote, “none of our actions can properly be denominated religious actions.” The secondary operating principle is love for man. To show love to our fellow man for the sake of Christ will produce justice and lead to acts of charity. Rice wrote that this principle will, “happily guard against all those means of dishonest artifices, by which men are continually abusing each other.” All of our actions ought to be done for the glory of God and the good of man and we must seek to honor the law of God by obeying it. Rice understood that we were justified by grace through faith alone, and that our standing before God was not based upon our merit, but the merits of Christ. However, he also understood the importance of good works, and believed that the “inward genuine exercises of grace and a holy practice ought and always go together. True Christian experience will produce a life of obedience.”

In other words, faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Rice emphasized two things that he saw as important to society and his family in particular: Sabbath keeping and family worship. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” he wrote. “Not only refrain from common manual labour, but also from vain worldly conversation on that day.” He warned them that they would be tempted to violate the Sabbath and exhorted them to strongly guard against doing so. “How unhappy must be the state of our minds, if silent Sabbaths are weariness to us, and we under a kind of necessity to fly to worldly conversation…If a Sabbath of twenty-four hours is a weariness to us, how shall we bear an eternal Sabbath!” Family religion was another thing that he encouraged in his children. It was vital to their well-being as a family and crucial for the next generation. The aim of family religion was to instruct the children in the Christian faith (in Rice’s context, he also advocated for slaves to be instructed as well); for Rice, that was the principal goal of the institution of marriage and one of the most important duties of life. Indeed, the faithful execution of family worship according to Rice, “depend your own peace of conscience and the interests of civil and religious society.”

David Rice saw that the decay of society had to do with the disregard for Sabbath keeping in his day and the neglect of family religion. On both of these issues, Rice wanted his children to honor God’s word despite the capitulation of the culture, and prepare his grandchildren from a young age to know the Word of God. Christians today can learn much from Rice’s advice on these issues. Whether or not you are a Christian that believes that there is a Sabbath Day for New Covenant believers, the principle to take from Rice’s words is that we must not bow to the pressure of the culture but maintain faithfulness to the Word of God. Even if it hurts, which it may, soon. Even Rice could not have imagined the kind of American society that we as believers are living in. His advice, however, would have been much of the same. Stand fast on the word, live for the glory of God, and the good of man, and steadfastly teach your children the Word of God. How glorious would it be if every Christian home was maintaining a practice of family worship in the home?

Rice had much more to say to his children on the matters of morality. He instructed them on how they should conduct themselves in their vocations, how to support their families, and wisdom on leaving money for their children in the future. All things, however, were to be done according to God’s word, in humility, with the aim of glorifying God and loving our fellow man.

On Civil Society

Treat proper authorities with respect, do not be a firebrand, epitomize the virtues that are worthy of Christ.

Good Christians differ on the proper amount of influence and time they should give to the political realm, and thus not all will agree with Rice’s advice here. Rice was involved in politics, particularly in Kentucky where he was a member of the convention to pass a State Constitution. Therefore, he clearly did not believe that Christians should avoid civil government. However, Rice viewed politics with a negative bent because he believed that politics were becoming more vicious and less virtuous. He confessed to his children:

Ever since the establishment of American independence, and even for some time before, I have very much doubted whether we had political virtue sufficient to support our happy, free, republican government. Our relationship with Europe, and intercourse with nations far advanced in the vices usually produced by opulence, had begun to contaminate our morals, and destroy that honesty and simplicity of manners, which are necessary in free states, especially in their infancy. I am now pretty thoroughly convinced that we have not a sufficiency of virtue. I expect that you, or at least your children, will live to see a miserable reverse of affairs.

David Rice, “The Rev. David Rice’s Last Advice to His Children, Whether His By Affinity or Consanguinity: Written in the Seventy Fourth Year of His Age,” in The Virginia Evangelical and Literary Magazine 2/6 (June 1819), 258.

Rice, with prophetic insight, did not see the country continuing “free and happy” without a reformation in its morals and manners. And the only way for that to occur, according to him, was a revival of religion since he saw nothing else that was able to truly improve moral character.

With this background, Rice offered a few words of advice. First, he encouraged his children to always treat officers of the government with respect. He did not want them to simply believe accusations against government officials without the clearest of evidence. The last thing he wanted them to do was trust a report from the “newspaper squibs” or the political candidates looking to replace them! Rice expected his children to give honor to whom honor was due, and to be faithful in assessing accusations. He wanted his children to lead quiet lives as much as possible and not to meddle in political affairs. However, he did not discourage his children from seeking office if they believed they were called. If that was to be their vocation, he simply didn’t want them to be a firebrand (“fire-hot Republican, nor a fire-hot Federalists”), or stoop to the level of the quintessential “greasy politician.” Instead, he wanted them to maintain the integrity that befits a follower of Jesus Christ.

Yet Rice did not believe that all of his children would be qualified to enter the political realm. Contrary to the egalitarian spirit that pervades today, Rice believed that certain roles were limited to men—including politics. “Women have but little to do with politicks,” he wrote. “Their sphere of action is more limited; but very important. A woman at home, diligently and prudently discharging the duties of her station, promoting industry and economy, training up children in piety and virtue, serves her country better, and merits more esteem than a blustering politician.” Rice held in high esteem the calling of a wife and mother. Since he believed that virtue was important to the life of a society, a mother’s duty was essential to teach and instill piety and virtue in the next generation. Naturally, Rice took some time to speak to his daughters on the importance of child-rearing for the glory of God.

There is a lot that Rice can teach us today about civil society. For one, it is easy to get “sucked in” to the game of politics. It is a ruthless business and most of the time people are only out for themselves. Understandably, votes are important, but often, they can become the be-all-end-all where people are willing to metaphorically cut throats, and violate their own moral principles in order to stay in office. While it may have an advantage in the immediate, Rice reminds us that we ought to always maintain Christian virtue—even if the proximate consequences are negative. God is still on the throne, and His decree will always come to pass; we are called to be faithful to His word no matter what it costs us. But Rice’s comments spoke more broadly than government service. He also spoke of duty. Duty used to be something that people understood. There was a time when people would look beyond themselves and knew there were things that needed to be done for the benefit of society and for the good of the next generation. However, we live in an age where most people cannot see past themselves, and do not think beyond their next meal, the next football game, or Netflix show. It is truly a sad state of affairs. Rice, however, reminds us that we have duties that we ought to fulfill. Christian husbands have a duty to love their wives, work hard, provide for their families, and teach them the Word of God. They also have a duty to be in corporate worship and serve with their gifts in the church. Christian wives have a duty to respect their husbands, love their children, and nurture them in true piety to God. These are not the only duties that a Christian has, but the point being made by Rice is that we have duties that go beyond ourselves; in a narcissistic culture like ours, even Christians need to be reminded to fulfill our obligations to our families, the church, and the civil society in which we live.

Conclusion

There is a running theme in all of Rice’s advice to his children, and that is, faithfulness to the Word of God. Whether it is faithfulness to the teaching of Scripture, faithfulness to the way that God calls us to live in Scripture, faithfulness to the way God’s Word commands us to treat others, or faithfulness to the way God calls us to raise our families. We are living in a day and age where many wonder how close they can get to the line of unfaithfulness without crossing it. Instead, let us gird up our loins, and commit ourselves to live unashamed of the Word of God, in belief, in practice, and in our teaching of the Word to the next generation.

“Thus teach your children to reverence the God of their fathers, and seek the great salvation.”
–David Rice

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