A study of the world’s most influential people, while fascinating, is notable for its lack of the name Lord Timothy Dexter. Those few who have met with his acquaintance are left with the impression that Dexter was either a genius worthy of emulation or an eccentric fool worthy of avoidance. Despite the opinion that you may have, the fascinating life of this man who has been lost to history leaves a legacy that should cause us to incline our hearts more towards the truth.
Timothy Dexter was born to a family of farmers in Massachusetts in 1747 and from the time of his youth he fancied himself a great man. He was a man driven by the opinion of others. Seeking to be included with the ‘high and elegant’ class of society he sought to increase his wealth. However, all of society was usually turned off by his boastful attitude and a distinct lack of control over his tongue. So bizarre was he that his own neighbors and family rejected him, which made his behavior grow even more bizarre.
In an unexpected way Dexter became not just a well-known man, but a wealthy one. It was a series of senseless and even gullible decisions that set his path of wealth:
- As a leather craftsman in Boston, Dexter moved into the leather district when all others were moving out. After the Boston Tea Party the British had cut off the port and businesses could not survive, but Dexter opened up shop anyway. There he met and married Elizabeth Frothingham, a woman of great wealth.
- When the continental dollar began to lose confidence and value, some of the most noted men bought up a small fraction in order to raise public confidence. Seeing this, Dexter used his wife’s fortune to buy up all that he could. It was a stupid move, until the unexpected happened. The U.S. Government offered to buy them up at 1% of their face value. His wealth increased, and not by a little bit.
Still lacking respect, Dexter moved to Newburyport to start a new life that would garner attention from others. His massive and repulsive house brought as much disdain as his behavior. When Lord Timothy Dexter began buying and selling goods, neighbors saw an opportunity to get rid of Dexter once and for all. All they needed to do was bankrupt him with a coordinated attack of bad advice:
- One neighbor suggested that Dexter sell warming pans (meant to keep one’s bed warm) in the West Indies. Averaging high temperatures year round, there was no demand for warming pans. So Dexter remarketed them to molasses and sugar plants as ladles . . . after nearly doubling the price.
- Another told Dexter to sell coal in a nearby town. The town’s main industry? Coal from the mine that employed most of their people. Certainly this would be a changing moment in his wealth! It was. When he arrived the coal mine was on strike, so Dexter marked up the price of his coal and sold it to the residents at a handsome profit.
It seemed that no matter what Dexter did, he financially prospered.
Over time, Lord Timothy Dexter did gain a workable knowledge of the business world that was sufficient enough to work legitimately and not on the basis of fortunate circumstances, but at what cost? His integrity was in doubt because of the untruthful methods he employed (he once told people to avoid hell they must have a Bible, then marked up the price and sold one to every person in town). His pride had cost him the respect of his neighbors and contacts. Even his family had been embarrassed enough by his oddities that they left him. He died in 1806 alone and despised, to the point that Dexter was not allowed to be buried in his own tomb. Instead they placed him on the outskirts of town in a place that was quickly overtaken by the surrounding overgrowth. In life he never achieved the respect he wanted and in death his legacy has never been revered to the exaltation he wanted.
All Men’s Folly Revealed
Today the legacy of Lord Timothy Dexter is often surrounded by the sight of shaking heads and the sound of laughing voices. His story is captivating in many ways. Yet the life of Lord Timothy Dexter, while extreme in circumstances, is not so extreme in its character. In fact, it reveals the natural state of our hearts.
Cutting straight to the heart of all matters, Scripture does not soften the consequences of worldly gratification. While God’s Word tell us with great clarity why such enchantment is folly, the life of Lord Timothy Dexter serves as a truthful witness. Here we find four present results:
- Prudence Fades: Dexter saw himself as a knowledgeable and wise man, but if that were the case it was never activated in his life. He did indeed learn his trade, and became wise to the wisdom of wealth. Yet he also emulates the premise that both wisdom and folly end in the same way, and thus are vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:11-17).
- Physical Wealth Fades: Dexter’s massive estate was a showcase of his wealth. In death though it perished. He never received the burial in his self-contained shrined as desired and his estate fell into disarray. As an example, the statues that Dexter bought for nearly $2000 each were sold off following his death for as little as fifty cents each. Do not be shocked by this. The Lord Jesus Christ warns that the treasures on earth will be meaningless (Matthew 6:19).
- Pleasure Fades: Even pleasure sought by Dexter is declared to be vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3). With his money he financed a lavish lifestyle that advanced his personal pleasure. His estate was the ‘party house’ of the day. Functioning more like a brothel than a sophisticated villa, he allowed much to take place. It was to his liking, but it also came with the loss of intimate and meaningful relationships.
- Pride Fades: Lord was never a given title for Lord Timothy Dexter; instead it was one that he bestowed upon himself. He was great in his own eyes, to the point that he even declared, “I am the first in the east, the first in the west, and the greatest philosopher in the western world.” But pride is the undoing of men (Proverbs 11:2) and it was certainly the undoing of Dexter.
The ways of the Lord Timothy Dexter were certainly extreme, but behind them were a motivation that is no different than the motives that capture the heart of any sinful human.
Any Man’s Folly Reversed
It is with great caution that we laugh at Dexter, because in a like manner without great care over our own soul, we could be laughed at like Dexter. While his life serves as a witness to the truthfulness of Scripture about the heart of man, we must not stop there. Instead, we go further to look at the hope we have been given against those four present results and in their place we find four productive responses:
- Wisdom Fears: True wisdom is a noteworthy feature and while worldly wisdom passes away, godly wisdom will continue on. However, true wisdom only comes when one fears the Lord (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10).
- Heavenly Wealthy Restores: In the same passage in which Christ decries earthly wealth and declares it to be futile, he also declares that the treasures of heaven should be what dictate our mindset. Those treasures are more precious than any because they not only exist, but they continue on in a lasting manner (Matthew 6:20).
- Joy Endures: Pleasure is fast fleeing and gives only a temporary emotion. Joy though provides a lasting comfort (Proverbs 10:28; Matthew 5:3; 1 Peter 1:8-9).
- Humility Flourishes: It is the humble who will be exalted; it is the humble who recognize a dependence upon someone greater than themselves and thus theirs will be an eternal existence in the presence of the very one who sustains them now (Matthew 5:3; James 4:6-10).
Thus we see in Scripture not only man’s heart darkened by sin, but we also see it illuminated by Christ.
Why is it that Dexter never achieved the success and respect that he desired? The difference between who he was and who he could have been was more than a simple change from being prideful to being humble. Dexter declared himself to be a great philosopher, so he bought enough books to have his own library. He considered himself to be a man well-versed in many disciplines, so he filled his mansion with paintings that museums would envy. He declared himself a man of great character, charm, and consideration so he hired a poet laureate like the king of England who would write with finesse who he was. None of these things ever brought him greatness. Books did not lead to being the greatest philosopher, while art and poetry did not make him of great character. In them are outward coverings that lacked an inward attitude.
There is but one thing, one person, that can reverse the folly of any man. The gospel. Specifically the gospel as brought about by the Lord Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, resurrection on the third day, and ascension into heaven. Wisdom, wealth, joy, and humility find their value not in and of themselves, but are only valued as much as Jesus Christ is valued within them.
It is easy to laugh at the folly of Timothy Dexter. It is also easy to lament the folly of Timothy Dexter. In like manner it is easy to laugh and lament the folly of all people. If we do so, we must also laugh and lament our own folly. What we see are people who need nothing less than an inward transformation that comes with salvation, justification, and sanctification. It is the same thing we should see in ourselves.
There is only one response we can have then. Proclaim the gospel. Everyday proclaim the gospel to yourself and to others. Remind yourself of your personal need so that you may remind yourself of other’s need. None of the virtuous responses we find targeting our heart can come into being within the expression of our lives if Jesus Christ is not the expression of our lives.
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