Tragic circumstances often bring out the best and worst of our character. They stretch our endurance, build our discipline, and strengthen our resolve. They expose the godliness we have cultivated in our hearts. But tragic circumstances can also expose the sin that remains within us. They bring us to situations beyond our strength and control, and at such times we may react by being callous or overbearing toward others. They magnify our weaknesses and leave us humbled with our insufficiency.
So far in our series, we have looked at a number of men who had the privilege of being raised by both of their parents. Today, we turn to a mother who was forced by tragic circumstances to raise her sons on her own. Though this trial eventually brought out her weaknesses and sins, it was her steadfast devotion that shone most brightly through her life as a single mother. With godly determination and unfailing love, she brought up her sons in the discipline of the Lord and provided for their every need. It is little wonder, then, that many years later Charles Hodge would pay tribute to his mother as the one person in the world to whom he owed absolutely everything. In this entry in “Christian Men and Their Godly Moms,” we see power of a mother’s devotion.
Joy and Grief
Charles Hodge was one of five children born to Hugh and Mary Hodge. Mary was born in 1765. Historians know little of her younger years except that she was exceptionally beautiful and that at the age of 20, following the death of her parents, she moved to Philadelphia to live with her brother. It was here that she met Hugh, who experienced something like love at first sight. They courted for a number of years before marrying in 1790. Hugh was a member of a wealthy and influential family that had settled in Philadelphia in the early 1700s. Hugh’s father, Andrew Hodge, had made a fortune in international trading and had also been active in local and national politics. A pious Christian, Andrew was involved in building and promoting Presbyterianism in America. Hugh grew up in the midst of affluence, was educated at Princeton College, and then trained as a doctor. Though for a time he pursued a career as a merchant, he returned to medicine soon after his wedding and established himself as a respected Philadelphia physician. Both he and Mary were committed Christians who hailed from a long line of Presbyterians.
From the beginning, the Hodge’s marriage was marked by tragedy. Their first three children succumbed to disease one after the other, the eldest to yellow fever and the next two to measles. Their fourth child, Hugh Jr., was the first to survive infancy. Their fifth and final child, Charles, was born less than two years after his elder brother. The boys’ father would soon be gone as well. When Charles was just 7 months old, his father died of yellow fever, leaving his family with little more than a small piece of property that generated a meager and inconsistent income.
Parenting and Providing Alone
Thankfully, Mary was a determined and capable woman who resolved to care for her sons and to provide for them to the absolute best of her ability. To do this, she often had to rent out much of her home to boarders, sometimes leaving only a single room to herself and the boys. Circumstances forced her to move house often, usually to smaller quarters. Yet even while she bore such weighty responsibilities, she remained active in her church and community and even established a soup kitchen to serve impoverished women. She placed great emphasis on her sons’ education, working long hours and demeaning jobs to ensure they could attend good schools. She herself took the lead in their Christian education, tutoring them especially in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. She arranged for her sons to meet with their pastor to recite the Catechism’s questions and answers and, when they had mastered it, to participate in his Bible study. This early theological training laid a foundation that would mark the rest of Charles’s life.
By 1810, Mary’s limited means forced her to send her boys to live with relatives in Somerville, New Jersey. This was the only way they could gain a superior education at an affordable price. In the two years Charles was away from home, he and his mother remained in constant contact through letters, and her chief concern was his development in godly character. She emphasized the value of hard work and of living a deliberate, structured life. She also encouraged him to find older Christian men who might be able to take on a kind of paternal role. Much of what Charles would become and would accomplish can be traced to the foundation laid by his mother in catechizing him and inculcating in him Christian virtues. Charles showed his affection for Mary in the words that began his letters: “My Dear Mother,” “My Dearest Mother,” or “My Dear Mamma.” He might close with “I am ever, my dear mother, your affectionate Charles,” “I remain, dear mother, your son,” or “My dear mother’s affectionate son.”
The next step in the boys’ education was Princeton College. Though Mary moved to Princeton and was together again with her boys, these days proved to be especially difficult. The War of 1812 severely impacted Mary’s income from her property, and she was forced to welcome more boarders and to do laundry for her neighbors. But she persisted, and through humbling, hard work, she earned enough to support her family and to keep her children enrolled in school.
Charles began his studies at Princeton in 1812 and quickly distinguished himself as an able student. In his senior year, revival suddenly swept the school, and he was caught up in it. He began to question whether he was taking his faith seriously enough and whether he was a Christian at all. Through a time of soul-searching, he came to the conclusion that he was saved but that he must also formally join himself to the church. He made a public profession of faith at Princeton Presbyterian Church on January 15, 1815. He understood this profession to be a kind of culmination or completion of the childhood nurture and admonition he had received from his mother and pastor. A desire to pursue ministry soon began to stir within him. Mary was not thrilled with this decision, perhaps because his older brother was pursuing a respectable career in medicine (he would go on to become an expert and innovator in the field of obstetrics) or perhaps because of her low estimation of Charles’ abilities. It was some time before he convinced her to give her assent. He eventually returned to Princeton for this purpose.
Charles believed he might be called to frontier missions, but as soon as he graduated at 22, he was offered a faculty position at Princeton. He accepted and remained there for his entire career. He would go on to become a stalwart defender of Reformed theology and a leader within Presbyterianism. He would write notable commentaries on a number of key New Testament epistles. His magnum opus would be his three-volume systematic theology that remains in print today. But perhaps his greatest influence was in the thousands of seminarians he trained and dispatched into ministry across the United States and the world. For good reason, some began to call him “The Pope of Presbyterianism.”
Charles and Mary would always remain in close contact but, sadly, their relationship would experience times of strain and even begin to cool. It seems likely that Mary’s greatest strength in her steadfast devotion was also one of her greatest weaknesses. The determined oversight and influence she had exercised in Charles’ younger years became overbearing and meddlesome as he aged and gained his independence. Her inner drive for excellence also kept her from ever expressing satisfaction with Charles’s labors and accomplishments. He despaired of ever pleasing her. After Charles graduated, he began to pursue Sarah Bache, whom Mary harshly criticized as an unsuitable match. Though she would later retract her words, she had wounded her son and damaged their relationship. Mary may have been hurt by her diminishing influence over Charles, as he developed a deep friendship with his colleague, mentor, and father-figure Archibald Alexander. At one point, Charles would tell his brother that he did not even know how to get near to his mother anymore and lament that she “appeared to have lost a good deal of her feeling for me.”
Still, it came as a great shock and sorrow when, in 1832, Mary died. Her death came so suddenly that he was not able to be at her side. Though their relationship had cooled by the end, he gratefully acknowledged that she had the most significant and shaping influence on his life. In tribute to his mother, he would say, “To our mother, my brother and myself, under God, owe absolutely everything. To us she devoted her life. For us she prayed, labored, and suffered.”
You, too, may be raising your children in circumstances you did not expect and would not have chosen. You, too, may be solely responsible for instructing them in the Christian faith and providing for their needs. Learn from Mary that God will supply all that you need to carry out steadfast devotion until the end. Learn from Mary that he uses every bit of your faithful effort, even if that effort is mingled with sin. Learn from Mary that in your daily toil, you are not alone. Because even more than you are devoted to your children, God is devoted to your good in Christ Jesus.