Dying Well: One Woman’s Extraordinary Story
Margaret Magdalen Jasper (1752–1789) doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. Google her name and you’ll find almost nothing about her life. What she looked like is a mystery. She wasn’t famous in her day, and she’s still not famous in our day. Her ordinary life was filled with disappointments, the kind of life history tends to forget.
But her story is worth telling.
Margaret lived in England, and there she was acquainted with loss. Her father died when she was only two years old. Her only brother later died in war and was buried in foreign soil. And her mother died in Margaret’s 30th year, at which point she writes in her diary that she was “left an orphan in this perplexing world of sin and sorrow.” She had no husband.
When Margaret’s hopes for marriage failed to materialize by age 24, she resigned herself to employment as a household servant in an 18th century London home. In her diary at the time of her decision, she writes, “To go out in the capacity of a servant, is a trial.” For Margaret Jasper, this was just another trial in a long line of trials.
Even her embrace of Christ by faith was preceded by years of unbelief and self-inflicted pain. She humbly acknowledged her stubbornness toward Christ and her resistance to the gospel as a teenager. She looked to the world for her happiness. “If Jesus, the sinner’s only friend, had not interposed, the world, the vain, deceitful world, would have destroyed me,” she penned in her diary.
But God did interpose, and she was eventually converted as a young woman when, “I was enabled immediately to believe that the blood of Christ had sufficient efficacy to clean me, even me, from all my sin.”
The Story of a Diary
We don’t know a lot about Margaret’s life, and the only reason we know anything about her life is through her personal diary, and the only reason we have access to her diary today is due to the interest of John Newton.
After Margaret’s death, her personal writings were gathered up and sent to Newton, the eminent letter writer, autobiographer, and pastor. Out of personal courtesy, Newton agreed to take the papers and give them a read. His low expectations were soon banished. Margaret was a simple woman who used simple language to record her simple faith in Christ as she lived out her simple life. But what Newton read so deeply moved him that he volunteered to edit her papers, to write a preface, and to see the work to print. It was published in 1793 under the title: The Christian Character Exemplified, From the Papers of Mrs. Margaret Magdalen.
Partly, Margaret’s life story resonated with Newton’s: God had overcome her hardness to the gospel after many years. And her life story illustrated the importance of finding joy in Christ. Newton said this in the preface. Her story reinforced the fact that “God made us, and not we ourselves. That He has given us a capacity and thirst for happiness which, both experience and observation demonstrate, the world cannot satisfy.” She sought pleasure in the world and found only bitterness. She, like Newton, eventually found joy in Christ, a sovereign joy enabling her to endure a life of trials.
By age 30, Margaret’s entire family was gone, she was now a servant, and she faced ongoing health issues, some of them very serious. Her diary gives self-disclosing glimpses into her battle against her besetting sin of pride, her struggle to overcome her own anger, and her struggle to handle interpersonal conflict with the humility of Christ.
In spite of her weaknesses and her sins, Margaret continued to cling to the atoning blood of Christ. “The longer I live, the more I see of the wickedness of my heart. Ah, what would become of me, were it not for the atoning blood of Jesus, to cancel the enormous sum of my transgressions.” And in another place, “My salvation must be free. And I am sure if I reach heaven, as I believe I shall through the blood of the God-man, I shall testify to all the blessed abound the throne that free, unmerited grace has brought me here.”
As Newton discovered, Margaret Jasper’s story of faith is a story worth telling.
The End of One Affliction
Singleness was for her a “drinking the bitter waters of affliction.” But against some odds, Margaret was approached by a man, engaged, and was married in January of 1784. At age 31, Margaret Magdalen Jasper became Margaret Magdalen Athens, wife to a Christian man named Frederick, meaning she could also now leave the service of household servant to become a wife and a mother, a calling she wholeheartedly embraced.
The marriage flourished and she soon became a mother to a son, Andrew Henry. After losing their next child in childbirth, she and Frederick had two more boys, William and George, the final son born in Margaret’s 36th year.
But what makes her story especially moving, and and especially exemplary model to note, is the way she died.
The End of All Affliction
Margaret was aware of the sacrifice of mothering children at her age, especially in light of her history of serious health problems. Each child exerted tremendous strain on her body. And after the birth of George, her third and final son, her health turned for the worse.
As Margaret faced the prospect of death (not for the first time in her life) we read in her diary how she wrestled with her faith in God and his future grace for her family. At this point we pick up her story from her own personal diaries beginning in the weeks following the delivery of her third son.
March 18, 1789:
It is the general apprehension of my friends, that I am going, if not already gone, into a deep decline. The physician intimates the same: and a cough, a pain in my side, a low fever, and night sweats, admonish me, that they judge rightly of my case. So that my sweet babe is ordered to be taken from my breast, and sent to another nurse. This is a painful stoke for a tender mother to bear. But I trust the Lord will support me under it; and influence the heart of the nurse to treat the child with tenderness. …
But here lies my weakness, of which the enemy takes advantage: the thoughts of parting with my husband, and leaving my dear children without being able to cultivate their tender minds in the paths of religion and virtue. But is not my God able to take care of them without me? Yes, He is. I am myself a monument of his goodness, and why should I disturb him? Oh, He has been a good Lord to me, in all his characters, offices, and providences.
Courage, then, my soul!
May 16, 1789:
I had the advice of a physician who agrees with the rest, that my disorder is a consumption (tuberculosis), and that, without the greatest care, my life is in danger. Be it so. I shall appear in glory, with Christ, who is my life. I only wish my affections were more weaned from my husband and children. But when I see one who is so dear to me, tenderly sympathizing over me, weeping tears of love, and afraid to express his apprehension that our union must soon be dissolved — This is too much for mere flesh and blood. Nothing but grace can enable me to stand upon this ground.
And then her final entry on June 13, 1789:
I am still under the care of a physician, but he gives me no hope. Indeed, it would be both cruel, and in vain, to flatter me now, for my own weakness informs me, that I am going apace [quickly]. I bless my God, I can now say, Thy will be done! I can give up my dear husband and children, with every earthly connection, into his hands. He will take care of them.
My husband’s trial is great. I feel more for him than for myself. But Heaven will make amends for all! Oh, how I pant and thirst for the happy hour, when my Father will send his Angels to convey my spirit to rest!
There remains a rest for the people of God. I know that my Redeemer liveth. O Death, where is thy sting! Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of Righteousness! When I walk through the valley, I will fear no evil; thy rod, and thy staff comfort me. Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord!
I bless God, I have not one fear concerning dying. That Almighty Lord, who has so wonderfully preserved me to the present moment, will not forsake me in my last extremity. No, when flesh and heart fail, He will be the strength of my heart, and my portion forever!
In this state of peace and confidence of God’s future grace for her beloved husband and boys, Margaret passed peacefully out of this world on July 28th of 1789, just five days after her 37th birthday. Her story remains for us a faithful example of one simple woman who learned to entrust God with all the losses in the greatest trial to come for all of us — the day we die.
Previous biographical features by Tony Reinke: