Clement Read Vaughan – a Faithful Friend

Clement Read Vaughan – a Faithful Friend

            Today, Clement Read Vaughan (1827-1911) is remembered only occasionally for his comparison of faith to a bridge – an illustration used by many pastors. Not much is known about his life – mostly what Thomas Cary Johnson (1859-1936) recorded in his biography of the more famed Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898). In mentioning Vaughan, Johnson focuses almost exclusively on the warm and honest friendship between the two men. But there is enough in those brief glimpses to give a picture of who Vaughan was and what he believed.

            Vaughan was born on July 15, 1827 in Charlotte County, Virginia, and studied at Hampden Sydney College, in the same state. There, he became an avid reader of the sermons of Moses Hoge, a Scott-Irish preacher who upheld historical Reformed Protestantism against the frequent abuses and misinterpretations of frontier revivals.

            Impressed by Hoge’s example, in 1845 Vaughan entered Union Seminary with the intention of becoming a minister of the gospel. Union was considered “old school,” committed to the inerrancy and sufficiency to Scripture and to its clear exposition in the Reformed Confessions.

A Lasting Friendship

            It was at Union that Vaughan met Dabney, who became a close and lasting friend. The comradery between the two is evident in one of their epistolary exchanges, when Vaughan chastised Dabney for sending him a letter empty of news about his life and focused on what seemed like topographical information. “Blast ye, ye beast!” Vaughan wrote. “Why didn’t you tell me something, my dear old crony Bob Dabney, instead of gabberin’ about bad roads, cross-country routes, etc.? Your sheet was just like a surveyor’s chart – minus the diagram.”[1]

            Vaughan’s letters to Dabney – some amusing, most moving – chart the course of the two men’s life and friendship. Vaughan was there when Dabney became discouraged by frequent bouts of poor health and by the slow progress of the congregation under his care. In both cases, Vaughan could relate. His health had been equally poor, so much that he had to take an eleven-year leave from his pastorate in Lynchburg, Virginia. And his excessive zeal as young pastor had left him similarly frustrated and exhausted.

             “My great mistake was in having too many meetings,” he told Dabney, “and I expect the cause of it was nothing but unbelief: an unwillingness to let Christ do his own work, and a desire to do too much myself.”[2]

            He encouraged Dabney to fight depression “as much as possible, because I know, by a sad experience, how bad the effects are upon the mind, the body and the heart. It starves and clogs the energies of all these, prevents close and accurate thinking by dissipating the mind in wild and dreary reveries, sours the temper, makes one careless of health and the means of preserving it, and, in fine, is the very worst state of mind in its practical influence on a man's usefulness of anything I know.”[3]

            He knew this was easier said than done, and that Dabney would smile at this advice, since it was given by a “blue-devilishly disposed friend,” but he still had to say it, and Dabney eventually recovered.

            Vaughan’s most touching letters were written in 1855, when two of Dabney’s children – Jimmy and Bobby – died within a week, probably from diphtheria. “I have tried to conceive how I could feel if one of mine were dead,” Vaughan wrote after Jimmy’s death, “that I might be prepared to sympathize truly with you, but the conception, feeble as it must be by the side of the fact, is painful beyond thought and expression.”

            “What a world!” he continued. “It looks like the anti-chamber of hell, under certain of its aspects! How can any man of ordinary sense grasp the obvious facts of human life and combine them together, and look at them as a whole, conceive them justly, and yet question whether the world is under a curse or not! But there is consolation in the gospel, rich, sustaining, sufficient.

            “It is a grand and awful, yet glorious, phase of consciousness, to feel the power of those precious truths triumphing over a real sense of the woe of life, the blended masses of cloud and sunlight struggling until the spreading radiance is the victor. May your consolations be as vivid as your grief, and your solid profit in the sanctification of your nature be richer than

both. … Your loss is very great, but the grace of your Master is very, very great.”[4]

From Pastor to Professor

            Later in life, both Vaughan and Dabney held positions as professors at Union Seminary. Dabney taught there from 1859 to 1883, when he became professor of mental and moral philosophy in the University of Texas. Vaughan was called at Union as Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology in 1893, after 15 years of full-time pastoral ministry in Rockbridge County, Virginia.

            At Union, he worked on editing the volumes now known as the Collected Discussions of Dr Dabney. He also published a few volumes of his own, including a collection of sermons entitled The Gifts of the Holy Spirit to Unbelievers and Believers. One of the main reasons for this publication, as he stated in the preface, was a prevalent lack of joy and comfort in Christ.

            “One of the most marked defects in the Christian character and experience of the present era is the want of legitimate and obligatory Christian joy,” he wrote. A defeated attitude was, in his view, a disobedience of God’s commandment to “rejoice always,” a denial to the world of a gospel we claim to be “tidings of great joy,” and a detriment to Christian usefulness. He wanted his readers to trust in the Spirit’s work to bring to completion God’s work of salvation and to give comfort, joy, assurance, and stability to the soul.

            This emphasis on trust and assurance is evident in his letter that is most frequently quoted, both online and from pulpits. In 1890, when Dabney was on his deathbed, afflicted by both physical pain and spiritual fears, Vaughan was again quick to dispense some advice - “a morsel of honey out of one of my dead lions,” as he called it, “though, in fact, there is a large herd of them still living, and they roar on me often till I am sick with fears.”[5]

            He told Dabney to avoid misguided introspection. “Self-examination is all right,” he said, “but not when it practically substitutes faith for our Lord, grace and righteousness.”[6]

            “Now, suppose a traveler comes to a bridge,” he continued, “and he is in doubt about trusting himself to it. What does he do to breed confidence in the bridge? He looks at the bridge; he gets down and examines it. He doesn't stand at the bridge-head and turn his thoughts curiously in on his own mind to see if he has confidence in the bridge. If his examination of the bridge gives him a certain amount of confidence, and yet he wants more, how does he make his faith grow? Why, in the same way; he still continues to examine the bridge. Now, my dear old man, let your faith take care of itself for awhile, and you just think of what you are allowed to trust in. Think of the Master’s power, think of his love; think how he is interested in the soul that searches for him, and will not be comforted until he finds him. Think of what he has done, his work. That blood of his is mightier than all the sins of all the sinners that ever lived. Don't you think it will master yours?”[7]

Last Days and Legacy

            Vaughan retired in 1896, and moved to Roanoke, Virginia. Dabney died in 1898, while Vaughan continued to write until his death in 1911. Sadly, we don’t know anything about his personal and family life. Two portraits are left, one of his younger years, and one of a stern, mature man with a white bushy beard.[8]

            The extent of Vaughan’s memory today is limited to his connection to Dabney (who has been increasingly deleted from Christian memory because of his unashamedly racist views). Vaughan’s views on this sensitive topic are not as clear, but he is worthy to be remembered for his outstanding writing and pastoral skills and his faithfulness in pointing friends, listeners, and readers to Christ’s finished work and the solid hope we have in Him.


[1] Thomas Cary Johnson, The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, Volume 3, Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1903, p. 101.

[2] Ibid., p. 111-112.

[3] Ibid., p. 103.

[4] Ibid., pp. 175-176, emphasis in the original.

[5] Ibid., p. 479

[6] Ibid., p. 480. For the full version of this letter, see the free ebook

[7] Ibid.


Simonetta Carr