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But those affairs were seldom, if ever, his own; he was to solicit for the poor, or in the business of some friend who wanted Mr. Firmin's interest, or he was to meet on some design relating to the public good. In these matters his friends, that were not quick in their dispatches, had reason oftentimes to complain of him as not giving them sufficient time to dispatch business with him, for he was nimble above most men, in apprehension, in speech, judgment, resolution, and action."
The poor debtors in prison, a class of men since become the care of a society, engaged his particular attention.
"He laboured with a particular zeal and activity in redeeming poor debtors out of prison; not only as it was charity to the persons, but out of regard to their, in the mean time, distressed and starved families: he would say, 'the release of one man out of prison is a relief bestowed on his whole family.' I have sure grounds to believe that it was himself of whom he spake in his Book of Proposals, p. 83. 'I know one man, who, in a few years last past, with the charity of some worthy persons, has delivered some hundreds of poor people out of prison; who lay there either only for jailor's fees or for very small debts: I have reason to believe that many more have been delivered by others, and yet one shall find the prisons very full of prisoners at this time."" "As he discharged great numbers of prisoners, he took care for the better and easier subsistence of others, while in prison, for he would examine the prisoners concerning their usage by their keepers; and sometimes persecuted jailors before the judges for extorting unlawful fees and other exorbitant practices. I remember one of the jailors prosecuted by Mr. Firmin, made a rope, and hanged himself before the matter was determined; a strong presumption that he was conscious to himself of great faultiness, and a demonstrative proof of the great need of such prosecutions and of the virtue of him that undertook 'em."
"He continued these endeavours for poor debtors from before the year 1681 to his last breath; but being grieved that he could do nothing for debtors laid up for great sums, therefore, on behalf of such he always vigorously promoted Acts of Grace by Parliament, whereby insolvent debtors were discharged. Tho' he never was a Parliament man he had a mighty interest in both houses; and was the cause that many bills were quashed, and others passed; insomuch, that once, when an Act of Grace for poor prisoners, that was liable to have and had an ill use made of it by unconscionable or knavish people, passed the houses and royal assent, he was upbraided with it by some of the creditors, and told that it was his Act."
The following extract is long, but contains many interesting details.
"Mr. Firmin was not insensible, that sometimes people come into prisons, or otherwise become poor, more by their own negligence, idleness, riot, and pride, than by mishap and misadventure; yet he could not join with those who say hereupon they hate the poor, and
that such well deserve the straits and miseries that they bring on themselves. He was wont to answer to such reasonings, taht 'It would be a miserable world indeed if the Divine Providence should act by that rule: if God should show no favour, grant no help or deliverance to us in those straits or calamities, that are the effects of our sins. If the universal Lord seeks to reclaim and better us by favours and graces, do we dare to argue against the example set by him, and against a method, without which no man living may ask anything of God?
"There is no place whatsoever, but of necessity it must have divers poor, more especially London: where every house having one or more servants, who are obliged to spend their whole wages in clothes; when these servants marry, every little mishap in the world reduces them to beggary; their small, or rather no beginnings are crushed, by every accident. Mr. Firmin had so full a sense of this, that (in some years of his life) he begged about £500 a year, which he distributed to the poor, at their houses, or at his own, by sums of 2s. 6d., or 5s., or 10s., or 15s. as he saw (or was well informed of) the necessities of the persons. The way he took, for the better effecting this charitable distribution, was, he would inquire of the most noted persons for honesty and charity, in the several parishes, who were the most necessitous and best deserving poor in that neighbourhood: he went then to their houses, that he might judge farther by their meagre looks, number of children, sorry furniture, and other circumstances, in what proportion it might be fit to assist them. He always took their names and numbers into a book, and sent a copy of so much of his book, to the persons who had intrusted him with charity, as answered to the money trusted to him by every such person that if he so minded, he might make enquiry, by himself, or any other, concerning the truth of the account given in. But Mr. Firmin's fidelity grew to be so well known, that after a few years, divers of his contributors would not receive his accounts. I know a certain person, whose hand was with Mr. Firmin in all his charities: I should not exceed, I believe, if I said, that in twenty-one years' time he hath given by Mr. Firmin's hand, or at his recommendation, five or six thousand pounds: this person hath himself told me, that Mr. Firmin was wont to bring him the accounts of his disbursments, till he was even weary of them; and (because he was so well assured of him) he desired him, not to bring him any more. Sometimes the sums brought, or sent in, to Mr. Firmin, for the poor, were such, as did enable him to spare some part to some whom he knew to be charitably disposed like himself: in that case, he would send small sums, such as 40s. or £3. sometimes more, to those his acquaintance, which sums they were to divide among the poor of their vicinage; whose names and case those friends were to return to him. He hath sent to me, and divers others that I know of, .many such sums; in Christmas time, in hard weather, and times of scarcity.
"In these distributions, Mr. Firmin sometime considered others, besides the mere poor; particularly the poorer sort of ministers: I doubt not he hath made use of many hands besides mine; but by me he hath sent (of his own proper motion) divers times the sum of 40s.,
sometimes two guineas, to ministers that were good preachers, and exemplary, but their vicariage, curacy, or lecture, small. I have known that he has sent no less than £10 to a clergyman in debt, or oppressed with many children, when he hath been well assured, that the person was a man of probity and merit. He asked me once, concerning Mr. P. of Gr. Ch. what sort of man he was? I answered, his mind was much above his purse: he was charitable, curious, learned; a father among young scholars, who were promising men; but his living not above £80 or £90 a year. Mr. Firmin said, ' I have done considerable for that man: I answered, as I thought myself obliged; you may take it on my word, that your liberality was never better placed. Afterwards I met the widow of Mr. P. in London; I desired her to accept half a pint of wine, at the next tavern: while we were together, I asked her, whether there had not been some acquaintance between her husband and Mr. Firmin. She said, the acquaintance was not much, but the friendship great; she said, her husband was acquainted with many persons of quality, that he had experienced their liberality through the whole course of his life: because his address, as well as his merit, was so remarkable. She said, that of so many benefactors to Mr. P., Mr. Firmin had done most for him, both in life and death: when her husband died, his estate would not pay his debts; she was advised hereupon, by a clergyman, to propose a composition with the creditors: that seeing every one could not be fully paid, yet all of them might receive part of their debt. She consulted Mr. Firmin, by letter, about this; he approved the advice, and was one of the first that subscribed the composition: but withal, sent her a letter, wherein he remitted his whole debt; and desired to see her, when her affair was cleared, and she at quiet. When she came to him, he said, he had missed in his aim, in what he designed to procure for her, but he would do something himself: shortly after, he sent her a good Norwich stuff, that very well clothed her and her four children. She told me this, with many tears; to which I had the more regard, because I had long known her to be a virtuous and very prudent woman.'
We have no space for enumerating the various objects which, in the course of a most active life, engaged the attention of Mr. Firmin; neither can we further record more remarkable specimens of his charitable munificence. We refer our readers to the valuable little volume itself, both as a register of important facts, and as one of the most consolatory and satisfactory works of the kind we remember to have met with. He who wishes to learn how to look upon human nature in the most favourable light, should study the character of this virtuous shopkeeper. He who wishes to accumulate as much of pure and sincere happiness, in the brief space of life, as is possible, may learn from Thomas Firmin, that the surest plan he can pursue is, the cultivation of a large benevolence. The last scenes of his illness and the summary of his character, with an account of his per
sonal appearance, will leave a strong impression on the mind of the reader, and thus make a suitable conclusion to this paper.
"I return once more to our dear Firmin, to take leave of him for ever. He had very much weakened his otherwise strong and firm constitution, by his manifold charitable employments, &c. having been sometimes liable to jaundies, often afflicted with colics, and scarce ever without a cough; his lungs had long been ptysical. He would often return home so tired and depressed in his spirits, that his pulse was scarce to be felt, or very languid: he would then take a little rest in his chair, and start up out of it, and appear very vigorous in company, especially where any good was to be done. The more immediate cause of his death was a fever which seized his spirits, beginning with a chillness and shivering, and then a heat ensued. He was at the same time afflicted both in his lungs with a great shortness of breath, not having strength to expectorate, and also with such terrible pains in his bowels, that for many hours nothing could be made to pass him. He had for many years been troubled with a large rupture. All which made his sickness very short. He had wished in his lifetime, that he might not lie above two days on his last sick bed; God granted to him his desire; he lay not so long by eight hours: and December 20, about two of the clock in the morning, Anno 1697, he died.
"During his decumbiture, he was visited by his most dear friend, the Bishop of Gloucester: What passed between them his lordship hath made me to know, under his own hand, in these words. Mr. Firmin told me he was now going: 'and I trust,' said he,' God will not condemn me to worse company than I have loved, and used, in the present life.' I replied,' that he had been an extraordinary example of charity; the poor had a wonderful blessing in you: I doubt not, these works will follow you; if you have no expectation from the merit of them; but rely on the infinite goodness of God, and the merits of our Saviour.' Here he answered, I do so: and I say, in the words of my Saviour: when I have done all, I am but an unprofitable servant.' He was in such an agony of body, for want of breath, that I did not think fit to speak more to him, but only give him assurance of my earnest prayers for him, while he remained in this world. Then I took solemn and affectionate farewel of him; and he of me.
"It is usual to conclude lives with a character of the persons, both as to their bodies, and the qualities of their minds: therefore, I must further add, Mr. Firmin was of a lower stature, well proportioned; his complexion fair and bright; his eye and countenance lively; his aspect manly, and promising somewhat extraordinary; you would readily take him for a man of good sense, worth, and dignity. Walking or sitting, he appeared more comely than standing still; for his mien and action gave a gracefulness to his person.
"The endowments, inclinations, and qualities of his mind, may be best judged by the account we have given of his life. It appears, he was quick of apprehension, and dispatch, and yet almost indefatigably industrious; properties that very rarely meet in the same man.
He was, besides, inquisitive and very ingenious; that is, he had a thirst of knowing much; and his fine and mercurial wit enabled him to acquire a large knowledge, with little labour, but he was utterly against subtilties in Religion. He could not dissemble; on the contrary, you might easily perceive his love or anger, his liking or dislike: methoughts, in both these respects he was rather too open; but both are the effects of sincerity, and arguments of an honest mind. He never affected proudly the respects of others, whether above or below him with which I was the better satisfied, because it follows, that his charities proceeded not from any affectation of honour, or glory among men; but from the love of God and his afflicted brother. He was facetious enough, but without affecting it; for he valued, what indeed himself excelled in, judgment, rather than wit. He was neither presuming nor overbold, nor yet timorous; a little prone to anger, but never excessive in it, either as to measure or time: which acrasies, whether you say of the body or mind, occasion great uneasiness, and sometimes great calamities and mischiefs, to persons who are ridden by those passions. If the mind is turbulent by strong passions of any sort, the life is seldom serene and calm; but vexed with griefs and misadventure. His manner of conversing was agreeable; so that seldom any broke friendship with him. Being well assured in himself of his own integrity, he could even unconcernedly hear that this or that man spoke ill of him."
END OF PART I. VOL. XII.
VOL. XII. PART 1.