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Alexander Hamilton's Last Wish


By Ted Schroder

Ron Chernow, in his superb biography of Alexander Hamilton, recounts the final hours of the American founding father. After being fatally shot by vice president Aaron Burr in a duel, and transported back to Manhattan from Weehawken, N.J., he lay in an upstairs bedroom of William Bayard's mansion, slowly bleeding to death. When his wife and seven children (ranging in age from 2 to 20) had gathered around him, Chernow writes: "Hamilton was preoccupied with spiritual matters in a way that eliminates all doubt about the sincerity of his late-flowering religious interests... No sooner was he brought to the Bayard house than he made it a matter of urgent concern to receive last rites from the Episcopal Church. He asked to see the Reverend Benjamin Moore, who was the rector of Trinity Church, the Episcopal bishop of New York, and the president of Columbia College. The eminent Moore balked at giving Hamilton holy communion as he wrestled with two nagging reservations. He thought duelling an impious practice and did not wish to sanction the confrontation with Burr. He also knew that Hamilton had not been a regular churchgoer. As a result, Bishop Moore could not, in good conscience, comply with Hamilton's wishes."

Hamilton's wife, Eliza, was the member of Trinity Church and very devout. Hamilton himself read the daily service from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer to his family when they were at their country home on Sunday. He was a Christian believer but not a member of Trinity Church.

Chernow continues: "In desperation, Hamilton turned to a dear friend, the Reverend John M. Mason, the pastor of the Scotch Presbyterian Church, which stood near the Hamilton home on Cedar Street.... When Mason entered the chamber, he took Hamilton's hand, and the two men exchanged a 'melancholy salutation' before they studied each other in mournful silence. Hamilton asked if Mason would administer communion to him. The abashed pastor said that it gave him 'unutterable pain' to receive from Hamilton any request to which he could not accede, but in the present instance any compliance would be incompatible with his obligations. He explained that 'it is a principle in our churches never to administer the Lord's Supper privately to any person under any circumstances.' Hamilton respected Mason's candor and prodded him no further.

Mason tried to console Hamilton by saying that all men had sinned and were equal in God's sight. 'I perceive it to be so,' Hamilton said. 'I am a sinner. I look to His mercy.'... As Mason told how Christ's blood would wash away his sins, Hamilton grasped his hand, rolled his eyes heavenward, and exclaimed with fervor, 'I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.'

Rebuffed by Mason, Hamilton redirected his hopes of communion to the skittish Benjamin Moore. The bishop now faced considerable pressure to appease Hamilton, whose friends thought it heartless to refuse a dying man's last wish. 'This refusal was cruel and unjustifiable,' wrote David Ogden. 'Why deny a man the consolation and comforts of our holy religion in his last moments.'

Willing to reconsider, the stern prelate with the bald pate and the long, grave face returned to the scene at one o'clock that afternoon. As befits a great orator, Hamilton roused himself for one last burst of persuasion. 'My dear Sir,' he told Moore, 'you perceive my unfortunate situation and no doubt have been made acquainted with the circumstances which led to it. It is my desire to receive communion at your hands. I hope you will not conceive there is any impropriety in my request.' Then he added, 'It has for some time past been the wish of my heart and it was my intention to take an early opportunity of uniting myself to the church by the reception of that holy ordinance.'

Hamilton expressed faith in God's mercy." After renouncing dueling, he said that he had no ill will against Burr and he meant him no harm, and he forgave all that had happened. "At that point Moore relented and gave holy communion to Hamilton, who then lay back serenely and declared that he was happy." (706-708)

Why was receiving holy communion so important to Hamilton, and why should it be important to us?

In Luke 22 the account of the Last Supper indicates that it took place within the context of the Passover meal, which commemorated the deliverance of the people of Israel from judgment and slavery. The Passover lamb was sacrificed and eaten, as a reminder of God's salvation through the Red Sea, and his gift of the Promised Land. Jesus takes this imagery and provides in himself the sacrifice on the Cross, so that we might travel safely through death and resurrection into the kingdom of God. He inaugurated a new covenant in his blood, which is poured out for us in his death. The bread broken and the wine poured, stands for his sacrifice for our salvation.

The Bread and the cup is the outward part, or sign, eaten and drunk physically, that witnesses to us of the inward part, or thing signified, which is the body broken and the blood shed, taken spiritually by faith to remind us of the reality of our salvation. To a dying man it is the tangible witness that God loves him so much that he would give his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. I was taught in my Catechism that the benefits of receiving the elements of communion are the strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the Bread and Wine.

What is required to receive this assurance of salvation and eternal life? "To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lively faith in God's mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men."

Alexander Hamilton knew those words because they were part of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer which was used at Trinity Church and he used at home to instruct his children. Therefore he prepared himself to receive holy communion with that in mind. After he had received communion he would have said with Benjamin Moore, what all who received communion would say, that they are assured of God's favor and goodness, that they are truly members incorporate in the mystical body of Christ, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of God's everlasting kingdom, by the merits of the most precious death and passion of God's dear Son. Receiving holy communion provides assurance of the truths of the Gospel and acts to strengthen one's faith in time of need.

This is why Jesus said to the disciples in the upper room: "Do this in remembrance of me."

Jesus did this on the eve of his death. Alexander Hamilton did this on the eve of his death. This is why it is important to us.

The Rev. Ted Schroder is pastor of the chapel on Amelia Island Plantation in Florida. He is an ordained Episcopal priest.


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