A memorial Address Giving a Biographical
Sketch of His Life, by the Rev. Arthur Jarets,
Describing the Unsettled Times of His Early
Life – How He Came to Join the Clergy – Some
of His Last Words – His Funeral
Our obituary column announces the death of the Rev. Robert Harding on Friday last in his 89th year. He was a clergyman of the Old School, now too quickly disappearing, and an uncompromising churchman, yet respected by those with whom he differed, as much as he was beloved by those of his own faith. For some years Mr. Harding has been on the superannuated list, although whenever his health permitted he invariably took such ministerial duty as his strength enabled him to discharge.
Although in deference to his own express wish, no funeral decorations were placed in the church, the services on Sunday were arranged with a view to impressing the lessons of his life and death upon the congregation with which he had been of late identified. At evensong, instead of the usual sermon an address, was delivered by the Rector, a verbatim report of which we are enabled to present to our readers.
On Friday there passed away from our midst, one whose venerable presence has long been familiar to the members of this congregation and to our fellow townsmen generally. The Rev. Robert Harding, formerly rector of Adolphustown, and for the past nine years retired from the active ministry has gone to his reward, bowed down at last with the weight of nearly ninety years upon him, fifty-three of which were spent for his “Master as an “Ambassador of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God.” These last few years of patient waiting for the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ were spent with us in Napanee, whither he came that he might receive the rest and medical aid which his declining years and failing health required, and it seems but right that we should not let this day pass the first time we have met since he was taken away from us without some reference to him and his life and happy peaceful passage to the Paradise of God, where with all those that have departed this life in the faith of Christ he awaits the perfect consummation and bliss both in body and soul of the eternal and everlasting glory.
My personal knowledge of my venerable brother does not extend over many years. I was almost a stranger to him when two years ago I was sent here as your minister, and found that it was ordered in the providence of God that he should be a parishioner of this church.
The position of a retired clergyman is not an easy one to fill with honour and satisfaction. It is not easy for one who has led the soldiers of Christ and borne His standard for more than a generation to take his place quietly in the ranks and abdicated the place of leadership and the responsibility of direction and control. The trial must be especially difficult when there is little failure of mental and intellectual vigour when the eye is scarce dim nor the natural force abated, when the interest in the affairs of the church is as strong as ever. Mr. Harding played that part, with what dignity and honour you all can testify, but perhaps I am in a better position to understand and appreciate than any who are now listening to me. Whilst his great fund of experience and practical knowledge was always at my disposal, it was never officiously displayed or obtruded upon myself or the parish. He was ready to lend a hand in any enterprise in which we were engaged, and so long as his strength permitted, it was his delight to frequent the courts of the Lord’s house whenever these doors were open. Always diffident of his own abilities, he often seemed to shrink from taking part in the public service, lest his bodily weakness might in any way mar the efficiency of his ministrations. His great accuracy, clearness of enunciation, and pleasing intonation, rendered these fears groundless and it is gratifying for us to look back upon these voluntary services, so cheerfully rendered so acceptable to you, and so helpful to me, and to thank God that we should have been permitted to receive them, and to have had amongst us in his latter days so faithful a witness to the truth of God and the comfort of his grace.
Mr. Harding was born in Limerick, Ireland in A. D. 1804. His early life was spent amid those unhappy scenes of rebellion and outlawry, from which that unhappy Island seems never to be entirely free. His thrilling accounts of the ordinary life led by people of his class in those troublous times might furnish a chapter in a sensational novel. Each loyalist house was turned into a castle; at night every door must be barricaded and old and young retired to rest with arms ready at their side. Strict watch was kept and yet with all these precautions, murder and rapine were of frequent occurrence. It was not that the disaffected tenantry had aught of complaint, at least in the neighborhood of Mr. Harding’s home. When the political agitator, that noisome beast that escaped the exorcism of S. Patrick and who is still responsible for most of the troubles of Ireland when he was abroad, stirring up strife among the peasantry, such affection was there between the latter and their protestant landlords that when deeds of violence were ordered it was necessary to call in bloodthirsty agents from a distance to do the wickedness, and their design was often frustrated by the faithfulness of the cottagers themselves, who would give timely warning of the proposed attack. Nearly a century has gone by since that time and the Irish question has passed through many phases of existence. It has now reached a new crisis, perhaps a final one. The Empire has grown tired of the old story and, it seems, is willing to try, blindfold, any experiment for getting rid of the necessity of listening to it. Men of Mr. Harding’s type are not the kind to keep their wrongs and sufferings before the world, and it remains to be seen whether Ireland will be the better for the expulsion of such as he and the exaltation to power of persons of that class for whose political advancement a collection was made a short time ago by one (and only one) religious denomination in the land. This fact I think has a very significant bearing upon the ultimate intention regarding home rule of those who are in the back ground at present, but who will come obstrusively to the front when the movement has become an accomplished fact, if this day is at hand.
Mr. Harding studied for the law and took the regular course for entering that profession. The life, however, was distasteful to him, and feeling that this was not his vocation he came to Canada in 1825 and settled at Weston, near Toronto, in the then far west of our land. Like all the early settlers he literally hewed out a home for himself in the back woods. It is a great pity we have not more biographical sketches of these, the forefathers of our country. We, their children, might learn much from them that would help build up that stalwart manliness and indomitable perseverance and independence that Canadians need, but do not I trust altogether lack, at this stage of our national development. When Mr. Harding was in the vein for such narration, it was a pleasure to listen to the quaint and stirring details of that pioneer life which his unfailing memory conjured up. His early struggle with the unknown dangers and difficulties of a new land and all that train of accident and incident to be expected but impossible of guarding against, the pathetically ludicrous results of inexperience lost nothing of interest by his telling. But whilst building up a home for himself in the wilderness, he had not forgotten the claims upon him of that, other and dearer home, the household of faith. Like the exiled Jew, his soul went out towards the spiritual Jerusalem, and his ambition was to build an house for God, and welcome the ministrations of His priest. After much labor he succeeded with the assistance of his neighbours in bringing about this result and a church was built at Weston which was destroyed by fire, only about two years ago. The first rector was the Rev. Dr. Phillips, a relative of my own, who had little difficulty in persuading Mr. Harding that, having given so much to the church, he might best complete the gift by offering himself for her service as a ministering servant of her Lord. With him, to feel a certain course to be his duty, was to ensure its accomplishment, and at the age of 35 years he began those studies which should fit him for his life’s work. The completeness of his early education rendered this a comparatively easy task, and after reading for a time with Dr. Phillips and completing his course at the theological seminary at Cobourg, under Archdeacon (afterwards Bishop) Bethune, he was admitted to Holy Orders by Bishop Strachan, the first Bishop of Toronto. His natural modesty and constant self-effacement stood in the way of his temporal advancement, and in the eyes of many, not well acquainted with him, obscured the ripe scholarship and wide reading with which he had stored his intellect. He had been urged again and again to present himself at the university for examination with a view to obtaining degrees in arts and divinity, to which his scholarship entitled him, but he invariably put the idea from him, thinking that scholastic honours would be, for him at least, a temptation to spiritual pride.
His first appointment was that of travelling missionary, a title (in those days) almost equivalent to that of free latice in the church’s border warfare. His labours extended from the Carrying place on the east to near Cobourg on the west, and as far north as he chose to go, and many a thriving town almost verging now on the dignity of city proportions, knew no ministrations in its cradle days, but the faithful, if necessarily infrequent services of this earnest missionary. It was during this period that he met with an accident in pursuing his labours, which, without lessening his activity, left its mark upon him for life. After two years of this peripatetic service, he was offered and accepted the more settled mission of Omamee, where he remained for twelve years, laying the foundation of what is now a prosperous church centre. From this he removed in 1858 to Adolphustown and remained its rector for 26 years. Of his work there it is not necessary for me to speak. The proximity of that parish and the close communication between it and our own renders any such reference unnecessary. The last nine years of his life were spent in Napanee, and to-morrow e’en he is laid in his last earthly resting place among his people at Adolphustown, we shall bring him here to rest awhile in the sanctuary where his willing feet were wont to tread, whilst we hold communion with god, with one another, and with his soul, freed now from all trammels of the flesh, yet not divided from us and from all those who are joined together in the blessed Communion of Saints.
Of Mr. Harding’s character it is superfluous for me to speak. He wore no mask and his mind and soul were reflected in his face. If I were asked what was his leading characteristic I should say it was his downrightness and singleness of heart. But it would be in very bad taste for me or anyone else to eulogise in public one who had in his lifetime such an aversion to notoriety and display.
It was my privilege to be with him much in his latter hours. On Monday he received his last communion, following the service from beginning to end with heartfelt response that showed how truly comfortable a thing it was when earthly comfort was past: It will not I trust, be lifting the veil of privacy too much if I relate a little incident which shows how deep a sentiment underlay the somewhat prim and formal semblance that many had not the eyes to see below. Whilst I was saying the office at his bedside and my hand was extended over him in absolution, he seized it with his and pressed it to his brow as if eager to appropriate and realize in all its fullness the message of pardon which he felt was sent him from his Lord. The action seemed to reverse our positions, as if the dying priest were invoking a benediction upon him whose official act it was to bestow it and I trust his parting words, “God bless you and prosper all your work for Him in this parish” may be abundantly fulfilled to our mutual advance in holiness and in the fear of God. And now one or two reflections upon his life and example may not be amiss.
His example is of special value from this circumstance, that so much of his life was passed as a layman, and therefore laymen can best appreciate the lessons it has for us. For 18 years after reaching man’s estate he led the life of an honest, God fearing, hard working churchman. But when God called him to “go up higher and do other work in the vineyard which required him to give up his home and all its comforts, immediately he “conferred not with flesh and blood, but as soon as he recognized the call he forsook all and followed where the hand of God should lead him.
It is not often that those who are engaged in the business of life are thus summoned like S. Matthew from the receipt of custom and bidden to assume the duties of the ministry of the word and sacraments. How many are there who would be prepared for such a sacrifice? But certain it is that sooner or later some call shall come to each of us (if it has not come already and been upheeded), some call of a special personal character to take some definite and particular step in the spiritual life. If yours has been a life of sin the call will be to “cease to do evil and learn to do well.” If you have already begun to serve God it will be a call to serve Him in some higher or holier vocation, and the voice will be unmistakeable. It may be to take some particular step which it is plainly your duty to take. It may be to go forward in some way of personal holiness hitherto, untrod. It may be to make some real, perhaps costly sacrifice of that which you hold dear – God knows what it may not be. Only take heed how ye hear when God calls to you.
Again, Mr. Harding was a grand example to us of a man come to patriarchal years, nearly 20 years beyond the “days of our age,” and yet he was an old man that did not fossilize. He was to the last young in spirit and fresh in thought. You never heard from his lips querulous complaint when any advance was proposed. You never heard him say, “the old ways were good enough when I was a young man, and they ought to be good enough still.” He loved the old paths, he was a conservative churchman, but he did not think that the church “just reached perfection” when he was in his prime, and every advance since then was an advance in the wrong direction. He recognized that every age has its peculiar needs, and whilst the church has a certain definite deposit of faith, the Catholic faith, which is unchanged and unchangeable so long as faith shall last, yet he knew there is room for things new as well as old in the affairs of the church, at least in those affairs which do not touch the Catholic faith to alter it. An old fossil must be respected for its age. A young fossil is intolerable. Mr. Harding neither the one nor the other. May God give us grace of spiritual growth that we may ever assimilate whatever there may be of spiritual life and energy in the ever developing body of the church.
I wish it had fallen to other hands than mine, to some one who had better knowledge that I of that loveable childlike Christlike life that has gone to be with Christ. I wish some one could have been here to tell you and me of the many other traits and excellencies of character that shone within our departed brother. His light is now merged in the great effulgence that the gates of sin and of death alone hide from our dull eyes. In that light of life he is at rest and we can but re echo the words of the aged Symeon, which were among the last he uttered: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.”
May he, with all the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon the. Amen.
The funeral took place on Monday at the church of S. Alban the Martyr, Adolphustown. Before leaving Napanee a memorial service was held in S. Mary Magdalene’s church in order that the congregation and citizens generally might have an opportunity of shewing a last mark of respect to the deceased. It being Monday morning only a few of the clergy were able to be present. These acted as pall-bearers, the casket being born by old friends of the deceased. The body was received at the west door by the Rector and officiating clergymen, and the procession moved up the centre aisle, the clergy meanwhile reciting the comfortable words of the xxiii Psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing.” “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”&c. Then followed the celebration of the Holy Communion, Rural Dean Baker and Rev. F.D. woodcock acting as gospeller and epistoler respectively. During the service the body rested in the choir, the clergy watching on either side. After the blessing the procession reformed and moved toward the door whilst the “Nuno Dimittis” was chanted.
At Adolphustown, the Rev. R. S. Forneri, Rector, and several other clergymen who had assembled there, were in readiness to receive the funeral procession which was augmented by a large number of Mr. Harding’s old parishioners. The full burial service was said in the church and was very impressive. At Mr. Harding’s own request, no word of eulogy or funeral address was permitted to mar the grand simplicity of the Anglican rite, the only departure from the regular form being the insertion of the prayer for the “church militant” in commemoration of the faithful departed. At the grave the prayer of committal was said by the Rector, the concluding portion of the service being taken by the Rev. A. Jarvis, of Napanee.