Lights and Shadows Lang Syne
John H. Bocock
The following is the account of a mighty work of God’s Spirit about 1850, at Providence Presbyterian Church in Louisa County, Virginia. It was written by the pastor of the church, and was published in installments between 1861 and 1864. It contains an impressive depiction of the power and sovereignty which the Lord displays in a revival of religion. The narrative is also valuable for its consideration of a variety of individual cases which required different handling by the minister. Many of the individuals awakened during the revival were adolescents raised in the church, but who were impenitent and unbelieving until the general revival of religion began in the congregation. At the same time, Bocock is anxious for the reader to consider the invaluable preparation received by those young people whose parents gave them training in sound doctrine. Providence Presbyterian Church was the congregation in which Robert L. Dabney had grown up. Taken from Selections from the Religious and Literary Writings of John H. Bocock (Richmond, Va.: 1891).
An eminent preacher from a neighboring congregation was confidently expected to preach for me on both Saturday and Sunday of my October communion season, in the year of our Lord, 185–. There were to be three sermons delivered on the occasion, besides the sacramental addresses. I had not made any preparation for any of the three sermons. There was hardly a shot in the locker at all. If there was such a thing even as a wad which had been shot before, it was considerably scorched, as it appeared to my mental vision, and clearly enough would not do to use again. I had spent in literary luxury, in “the still air of delightful study,” those days of the week before the sacrament, during which preparation for the pulpit would have been made but for reliance on the other brother. It was a lovely morning, that Saturday before the first Sabbath in October. Looking back to it, it appears as if the sunshine had more glory in it that morning than common sunshine. I had been upon my knees with the early dawn, and had been almost unable to arise from them; when attempting to rise up, something almost like an invisible hand would seem to crush me down again to renewed prayer. It appeared to me as if my heart would break, if the man who was coming there to preach that day and the next did not come “in the fulness of the gospel of Christ.” In fact, as we rode to church that morning, with all the cloudless sky, the fresh and vivifying atmosphere, the golden sunshine, and the countenance of tranquil grandeur, which the fields of lower Virginia show at that delightful season of the year, I could not relish the playfulness, so pleasing at other times, with which one of the elders, one of the truest and most fraternal of men, spoke to me. He thought me displeased with him about something. The fact is, it just seemed to me that the veil between this world and the world of spirits around us and above us was become nothing but a mere gossamer, and we could almost see through it, and especially our souls could feel through it.
It is a plain country church, built of wood. There is nothing to distinguish it in its material circumstances from any other plain country church, except the magnificent grove of oak trees in which it stands. I never saw much finer trees anywhere, nor a much superior grove of them around any church. There ought to be a grove of trees, if possible, around every country church. “The groves were God’s first temples.” He exacted it of the old kings of Israel and Judah, very rigidly to cut down the groves and the high places when they were for idolatrous purposes, probably because they have naturally so much power over the soul when connected with falsehood, as when connected with truth to allure it to their bosoms. And those oak trees too, they are the very pride of the woods — the senators, the noblemen, the paladins of the forest.
There was a considerable congregation for a week-day assembled in the grove on our arrival. But a few minutes were wanted to twelve o’clock, the hour for public worship. The preacher from abroad had not arrived. Still, he was expected, as we stood, or quietly sauntered in the grove. But the hour of twelve came, and not the preacher. One of the elders came and informed me that the people were within the church, expecting public worship. It was a great nervous shock, but I told him: “Give me fifteen minutes for reflection here under the trees.” He said: “I do not know whether the people will quietly wait so long”; and re-entered the house, followed in a few moments by myself, creeping to the pulpit like a condemned criminal. I had not even a text until then. “Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread,” came to me in the pulpit, as if it had been pushed before my eyes over a velvet surface. It divided itself as easily as the enclosures of a long lane part to your view, and fall off to their respective sides, as you ride between them. Let a man examine himself as a citizen. Let a man examine himself as a member of a family, especially if he is the head of a family. Let a man examine himself as an individual member of the church of God on the earth. Looking the people fully in the face, with an awe in my heart hardly less than overwhelming, I talked for an hour on these points with a kind of ruthless and reckless fidelity. There were prayers and singing, and the people went silently out of the church. There was not probably a word of complimentary criticism of that poor, ragged, struggling, frightened sermon, uttered that day, in the whole retiring congregation. They retired as if from a funeral. They sought, speechless, their horses and carriages through the grove. I accepted an invitation to dine at a neighboring house. A bright boy of twelve years invited me to a seat in “grandmamma’s carriage.” “He would ride my horse.” By my side in the carriage sat his grandmamma. I see her grave yet cheerful, tried yet hopeful face before me now. I preached her funeral afterwards with noon-day hope in my heart, and noon-day declarations of hope on my lips. She is looking now, in all probability, upon the mediatorial throne in heaven. Opposite me sat the boy’s sister, one of three, a fair girl of sixteen, hitherto impenitent, unconcerned, gay, thoughtless and pleasure-loving. I had never spoken to her about her soul, except in the pulpit and the Bible class; and had no intention of doing so during this ride to dinner. Some casual question was asked. A cold, solemn monosyllable was the reply. Another question met the same response. Still another, and the same monosyllable. What was the matter? The conversation soon entirely ceased. The people who rode on horseback beside the carriage did not seem to be in conversation, but in thought. There was a widespread awe upon them. Almost as blind as Bartimeus, almost as slow of heart as Thomas Didymus, I was forced to see that God had come for some purpose or other. In a brief after-dinner walk with that gay girl, her buoyancy was all gone. She could not rally her spirits. She finally said she felt herself to be a guilty and wretched sinner against God, and knew not what to do. And then began that vain work of my lips, which many a minister as vainly does much of, the effort to make the plan of salvation plainer than the Scriptures themselves make it; the effort to use words more intelligible than those which the Holy Ghost has employed; to invent more simple and fundamental forms of expression than he has furnished; to make the way of salvation plain to the sinner’s intellect, before the sinner’s heart is willing to see it. Wearied at length with long, painstaking and repeated explanations of faith, and trust, and submission, and coming to Christ and receiving him, I told her I would pray for her, but could not save her; but if she did not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that too with the very heart, I had nothing but the ruin of her soul, and that too for eternity, to promise her, and rode away to another place.
The next day the text was, “Say to the righteous, it shall be well with them.” The house was again as still as a sepulchre. The sermon was “in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.” I felt as a soldier may feel when commanded to mount a breastwork, the dust of the surface of which is constantly thrown up into the air by a sheet of grape-shot. The discourse was poor enough, no doubt, but the text was a two-edged sword. It was in the hands of the Spirit of God, standing between the earth and the heaven. He was not visible, like the angel whom King David saw by the threshing-floor of the Jebusite. But we could feel his presence. The death-like awe of silence and solemnity sometimes seemed as if it was the hem of the robe of his glory waxing all but visible.
The first inquiry meeting was appointed for the ensuing Wednesday. Four persons remained in the church after dismission, deeply awakened. One was my vis-a-vis in the carriage. The next time I saw her, at the next inquiry meeting, her countenance had lost its cloud; hope was shining on it. The Savior had in all probability entered into her heart to dwell forever.
This was the commencement of a powerful revival of religion in that congregation. It was probably much like other revivals of religion. The reverse is not pretended. Nor is it likely to be so interesting, by much, to others as to my own soul. But oh! in these days of rebuke, and of the awe and terror of the sword, not of the Spirit of God, but of fierce, hostile, hating man, those golden scenes of the past, which are sacred in memory as scenes of the visits of the Spirit of the Lord to his earthly tabernacle, come back upon us ever and anon, bearing such a precious light, and in such celestial forms and hues, that it is hoped they may not be uninteresting or unprofitable to others. There may seem to be some appearance of egotism about my sketches. But I do not know how to avoid the appearance, without needless circumlocutions, in other way than to endeavor, by divine grace, to avoid the thing itself, and then to speak right on what I have felt and seen and known.
My next neighbor, and most intimate co-laborer, came to us eight days after that sacrament. He preached in the morning and I in the evening, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Those were three memorable days. I have since seen the efficacious grace of God poured out, on more occasions than one, upon a greater number of persons; but scenes which have since passed before me have not at all obliterated the memory of those sweet and solemn days. Quite the contrary. The assembling of the people in those quiet picturesque shades, in the tranquil, pure, pearly air of the first week of October, seems often now to pass before my eyes as a pageant of the inner world, of which the colors can never fade and the forms never dissolve. Political discussions are not heard among them. Crops and markets fail to interest the farmers. Gaieties and gallantries are not now the uppermost thoughts of the young. The people seem to be all thinking of eternal things. The church members have manifestly come from secret prayer. If, by the grace of God, we arrive at the abodes of the ransomed in the future world, may not visions of such scenes be frequently allowed to revisit us there and refresh our eye-sight and re-invigorate our souls even in heaven, just as we would now enjoy a good picture of a past home, a vivid vision of holy pleasure past, called up clearly to our mind, or a healthful quiet dream of the sunbeams and the orchard shades of childhood?
My brother minister and myself accepted an invitation to visit dear friends, seven miles from the church, that Tuesday night. We had anxiously discussed the character of our discourses for the next day. It was clear to us both that there ought to be an inquiry meeting appointed on Wednesday, if we continued to see and feel the presence of the Spirit of the Lord as powerfully as on Monday and Tuesday. That day was therefore to be the crisis of the work. We felt the importance of the first sermon on Wednesday morning quite as deeply, in our sphere, as a warrior feels the importance of a pitched battle. To my surprise my co-laborer informed me immediately after supper that he could not preach any discourse he had with him, on the next morning: “his feelings would not enter into any of them.” And calling for writing materials, he immediately withdrew from the delightful social circle to his chamber.
Past eleven o’clock, I found him still absorbed in the unfinished skeleton of a sermon for the morrow, simply remarking that he had “had a terrible struggle.” The nature of the struggle, and the character of the new discourse, were things left for the morrow to show.
The text greatly surprised me. It was this: “We are not ignorant of his devices.” A sermon on Satan! at such a time as this! thought I, as I sat behind him in the pulpit, grieved, anxious, praying for the preacher, praying for the people. But I soon saw that it was an arrow shot from God. Never was there a much clearer case of it in common times. The preacher described in a more vivid and solemn manner than I remember to have heard it done before or since, the earnest and powerful agency of the fallen spirits to prevent sinners from coming to Jesus Christ. With deeper and deeper tones, with greater and greater earnestness, with clearer and clearer perceptions that he was bearing the audience along with him, and larger and larger liberty from God, he pressed that telling discourse to a conclusion. Earnestly praying that we might neither presumptuously go before the Spirit of the Lord, nor with treacherous timidity lag behind him, we took the decisive step. We solemnly called on those who would to remain in church after the congregation was dismissed. Four persons remained. We conversed and prayed with them, and went to our noon repast in the grove. Just as it was begun, a friend touched me on the sleeve, pointed to a group a little way off, around a carriage, and said, “You would better go to see that man.” I walked away; and on approaching his carriage, he said: “Sir, I am a lost sinner,” and wept aloud in fearful bitterness. “I know that,” said I, “but Christ is a mighty Savior.” He proceeded thus: “Last night I was urged by a friend to seek Christ. But I said, I believe the Bible to be true; is not that enough? My friend said that the devil sometimes tempted us to think such speculative faith sufficient; I denied that there was such a thing as a devil. I argued,” said he, “that it was merely the bad passions of men personified. But the preacher this morning has shown me that I did not believe the Bible, even speculatively. My foundations are swept away. I am a lost sinner! Is there any mercy for me? I have deceived myself so long with these false hopes.”
This man found peace in Christ. This was the rather singular manner of his awakening. Other things proved that discourse to have been “a message from God.”
After that Wednesday, there were very few of what used to be called “extraordinary means of grace.” There was preaching at the church at eleven o’clock on Sabbath morning, every other Sunday; and an inquiry meeting was held in the church immediately after service, at which the elders of the church and the most influential matrons were invited to remain along with the inquirers.
Then there was preaching in the neighborhood, at some private house, on Sunday afternoon or Monday afternoon, or on both, as seemed to be required. And there was frequently an inquiry meeting following the afternoon service in the parlor of the house at which such service had been held. This was the order of arrangements for something like three months. Steadily, quietly, powerfully, thus the work advanced for that time. Preaching ceased entirely to be a burden and a task. It became a positive luxury. There was always enough to say. Conversation with a single genuine, out-spoken inquirer after Christ would sometimes supply preaching material for a whole month. Sometimes a half page of my study Bible would appear as if inscribed on the blue sky before me as I rode along, as if legible from the zenith to the horizon; and the verses would begin to shine out in their characters, and clear up in their meaning, as if by the power of an unseen light on the eternal side. Then the method of a discourse would form itself among the eternal truths it contained, like the process of new crystallization among dissolved particles. Writing or arranging sermons became the mere process of recollecting these occasions of spiritual light on the pages of Scripture. Such are tranquil, happy, growing seasons to the soul of a minister of the word. One after another, the seals of the word are loosed. Flash after flash, irradiation after irradiation, the eyes of the humble see more and more of the world of the word. Sermons thus made are almost invariably instrumental in the conversion of souls. I have one on the parable of Dives and Lazarus, which came to me at this time, which was then the instrument of the conversion of souls; and the same effect has attended its delivery more than once since that time.
There was preaching one Monday afternoon at the same house at which the awakening had occurred which is related in my first number. Two out of the three sisters were quietly and humbly hoping in Christ. Two or three young persons of the neighborhood, deeply awakened, were conversed with in the front porch and passage. I was to remain there for the night, as the weather was keen and wintry, and twilight was coming on before we got through the services. The young ladies resident there, two, as before mentioned, now indulging hope, the third as shy as a fawn, though she was the eldest of the three, had not yet been conversed with on their spiritual condition, as was the uniform rule of a visit in those days. For this I waited until the company who resided in the neighboring homes had departed. Then calmly taking a seat by the parlor fire, I sent for the first awakened, who was then under the broad beams of full hope, and with a few words of mingled congratulation and caution, asked her if she would please retire and send her sister, naming the second one, who was indulging a hope of conversion. She came promptly, and was full of peace. With a similar treatment to her, I asked her if she would retire and tell her other sister, naming the eldest, who had stayed at no inquiry meeting, permitted no approach, and confessed no interest in the subject whatever to any one that I knew of, that I would be obliged by the opportunity of a word with her also. After a long delay she crept cowering through the door, kept round next to the wall on the left, and came and sat down with her face half turned to the wall, not far from me and from the fire. Feeling the clear certainty of an issue of the life or death of a soul hanging on the conversation, in the most awful solemnity of feeling and circumstances, yet with a tranquil composure which surprised me at the time, I said: “Miss S., your sisters seem to be very happy. Your cousin, also,” naming one who was sojourning with them, “seems also to have found peace in Christ. Are you hereafter to be alone in the house?” She said, “I don’t know. I do not feel on the subject of religion.” I said, “Yes, I have heard it said in the congregation that you did not feel on the subject; that your heart was very hard.” She quickly replied, with a hissing voice, and a sharp turn of her eye full upon me, “Who says that? Who says that I am hard-hearted?” I replied, “I heard it said yesterday, not by an enemy, but by a friend, by one who, I know, loves your soul, and has been praying for you.” She said immediately, “Who is it? I wish to know who it is that says I am hard-hearted.” I replied, “Miss S., I cannot give you the name of the person who did say it. I can only inform you of one who does say it, who says it distinctly, in deep sorrow. I am myself that person. How can you have witnessed this opening of the door of the kingdom of heaven all around you; this entrance into it of so many of your youthful companions; these faces all around you everywhere with new peace and hope legibly written upon them; and the entrance into the kingdom of heaven of your cousin and your very sisters at your side; how can you live in this golden opportunity, fleeing from all influences which might lead you to Christ, and yet doubt for a moment that your heart is fearfully hard?”
There I stopped, positively resolving not to say another word. We sat in silence for some minutes. She had been sitting perfectly erect and stately. Slowly her head went upon one hand, which held a white handkerchief. Her countenance began apparently to wither and to wilt. Her proud, beautiful form actually appeared to break, and to be crushed down. With head bent nearly to her knees, she finally said, “My heart is hard, very hard. Can I be saved? I suppose not, with so hard a heart;” and the tears burst over the handkerchief. I said, half calmly, half carelessly, “Jesus Christ can save. I cannot. He says he will take the stony heart out of your flesh, and give a heart of flesh. All I can do is to direct you to him, and to pray for you. Let us pray.” Sliding her chair off to the side of the wall, she knelt, threw herself across it, and wept like the dew of an August night. I knelt, and made a short, simple prayer, telling the Almighty of her case precisely as it appeared to me. When the prayer was ended, there she lay, and wept, and trembled. I felt a strong temptation then — oh, it is the giant temptation of a minister in such circumstances! — to attempt to speak comfort to her. But instantly there came into my heart the felt veto of God. The blood of a soul forbade it. I stepped away to her chair, gave her my hand, and raised her to a seat, saying simply and firmly, “I can do nothing for you. Jesus Christ can do everything. Apply to him.”
Then she left the room, looking as if she had lived a life-time, and grown aged, withered and infirm in half an hour. She was not at the supper-table. Family prayers were held at nine o’clock. She came to the prayer-bell, and sat in the same place against the wall, in a kind of icy, inane, absent, statue-like solemnity, which looked sometimes almost frightful.
I did not see her any more on that visit, as it is now remembered. On riding away the next morning, I handed to a sister of hers a copy of Newman Hall’s Come to Jesus, with the request that it might go into her hands.
It was a fortnight before I saw her again. But the Spirit of the Lord and the precious little tract had meanwhile done their work. She had found peace with God. No one now charges her with hardness of heart, especially not the poor whom she can help, the sick whom she can serve, or the friends whom she can cheer.
One likewise indulging new-born hope entreated me, I think it was that same evening, to come to see her younger sister, a girl of seventeen, somewhat noted in the neighborhood as fond of the dance, highly intellectual, influential among young persons to carry them into worldly pleasures, on account of a certain calm, collected, determined cast of mind and manners. I should not have dreamed of speaking to her, for fear of a cool rebuff, but for being informed by her sister that she was deeply awakened. She was calmly sitting in the parlor, by the arrangement of her sister, when I entered. I said, “I have been informed that you sometimes feel unwilling to remain in your present impenitent condition.” “I do,” said she, “I wish to be a Christian”; calmly closing her lips as if in a severe struggle. I sat and simply spoke to her of Christ, and of the burden and darkness which come upon a sinner’s soul when the law is upon him, until he will turn his eye to Christ in an appeal against the curse of the law. I knelt and prayed. She remained sitting, with open eyes, perfectly upright, but with large tears marking their slow tracks down her cheeks. To this girl I said, when I next saw her, and she had deep peace, “You have enjoyed the dance! Tell me — I wish to know, and to tell others — how your present enjoyments, from acquaintance with Christ, compare with those pleasures to which you used to be so attached, those of the gay assembly.” She replied, with that same erect calmness, “I have more real happiness in one hour of what I now enjoy than I have had in my whole life before.” That was her deliberate testimony.
There was a case of awakening in the congregation which lingered strangely and painfully. It was a young girl of sixteen, the daughter of pious parents, well and faithfully instructed in the Catechism and the Scriptures, surrounded by about as good influences at home as any in the congregation, having been a regular and diligent member of the Bible-class, manifesting nothing whatever like a disagreeable shyness on the occasion of pastoral visits, frankly conversing on the subject of practical religion whenever spoken to, always speaking on the subject with dignity, with profound respect, and with the confession, in every becoming manner, of a personal interest in it. Her elder sister, indulged, among the earliest fruits of the revival, a quiet, intelligent, settled hope in Christ. She herself appeared even to manifest something like pleasure in every new case of conversion which was reported. There was a daily expectation of her whole circle of acquaintance to hear of her conversion. The expectation met with a steady disappointment. Frequently, on leaving that neighborhood and going to the other part of my charge, to be gone over one Sabbath, I would expect that the report of her conversion might meet me promptly on my return. But the hope was vain. What could it mean? Again I would call at her home; again see her resolutely and calmly remain in the inquiry meetings at church; again assent to everything; again agree that she was deeply concerned. But his was all. There was some dangerous mystery in the case. Not many years afterwards, I saw a similar case, in which the mystery was not solved at all, until long after the departure of the Spirit of God from the congregation. Happily it was not so in this case. Communicating my anxiety and alarm to her parents, in which, by the way, I found them beginning seriously to share, they called her from the school-room to the parlor, and themselves retired, requesting that, in a patient interview, faithful and strict effort might be made to discover what her difficulty was, if possible. Charging her to be honest with herself, as she cared for eternal things, I began to ask questions:
“You believe the Scriptures to be the word of God?”
“Of course I do. I entertain no doubt on that point — have never entertained any.”
“You are truly and heartily concerned to secure the salvation of your soul?”
“I am; I care for nothing in comparison.”
“Do you know what you must do to be saved?”
“I think I do: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ; come to him, trust in him, receive him, and rest upon him for salvation as he is offered in the Scriptures.”
“Why do you not do this, then, as you know so well what you ought to do?”
“I do try, in every way that I can think of, to come to Christ and believe on him.”
“You know what is said about his willingness to give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him. Do you ask him for the enlightening and converting power of his Holy Spirit?”
“I do ask him constantly, repeatedly, earnestly.”
I may not record the precise language. This was the substance of this conversation. Earnest prayer for God’s presence in the interview was not unheard. The case began to clear up. There was in the tones of her voice, her whole bearing and manner and spirit, the air of one persecuted of God. Evidently she thought the Spirit of God dealt severely with her — not to say unjustly. With great natural sweetness of manner, she tried to prevail with her pastor, with deep seriousness, to take sides with her against God — to admit that he dealt hardly with her. She believed his word; was willing to trust in Christ; was willing to give up all things for Christ — what more could she do? What lacked she yet? Why would not God have mercy on her? Why would not Christ accept her heart?
As soon as the features of the case became distinctly clear, I said: “My duty to your soul is done. I now leave you in the hands of God. Depend upon it, if your soul is lost, eternity will show that the guilt was yours. It is hidden from your eyes. It is not hidden from God. It is not entirely hidden even from me. It is in your spirit. You are relying on your parents and your pastor, and blaming the Lord that died for you. I will have no share in it. I shall not come again until I hear that you have made peace with God, unless I am sent for for some other purpose.” Not staying to take leave of any other member of the family, I rode directly away.
Thank God! on returning to the neighborhood ten days afterwards, I heard of her joyous, full hope in Christ, long before coming near her father’s house.
At the inquiry meeting held about this time, some forty or fifty persons remained to be conversed with. We had the presence in the pulpit of a solemn, earnest, able, faithful man from the Valley of Virginia. It was now the first of December. The same awful, breathless silence still reigned in the congregation. Still the word of God was quick and powerful. New cases of awakening occurred steadily, which afterwards proved to be genuine. But the kingdom of heaven was becoming “like unto a net which was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind.” The cases of awakening now lost that clear type which they bore while they were confined to the trained children of the church. Several influential men of the neighborhood professed to have found peace in Christ at home. A noted infidel came occasionally to church, and went weeping home. A buzz on the subject of immersion, as the only mode of baptism, sprang up all around simultaneously.
A gay, cultivated lady, who had been reared in the Roman Catholic faith, remained in church at the inquiry meeting. Being spoken to individually, she admitted a deep concern on the subject of practical religion, but requested an interview at the parlor of one of the elders with whom she was sojourning, on the next day. At the appointed time and place, I found her among other persons, who soon retired. The conversation was about this: “I am glad that you have become interested in the great subject of personal religion. Will you be kind enough to tell me how the subject presents itself to your mind? I suppose, of course, that you know and feel yourself a great sinner in the sight of God?”
“Indeed, sir, I do not feel myself to be a great sinner; I may have committed little peccadilloes, have fallen into little faults and foibles; but a great sinner! certainly not!”
“From what, then, do you wish to be saved? Religion is salvation — salvation from sin?”
“Oh! I do not seek religion as salvation from sin! Whenever I have been conscious of sin (as I have been sometimes, in small matters), I have been conscious of a sorrow for my sin and a repentance for it immediately afterwards. But I see the religious people, especially the young converts, at present so frequent, around me, enjoying a happiness with which I am not acquainted. It is to obtain that happiness that I am seeking religion.”
“But do you not admit the fallen condition of your own spiritual nature? Do you not admit original sin, and the loss of God’s image in original righteousness and holiness, without the restoration of which, by the Spirit of God, we cannot see the kingdom of God?”
“I do not take those dark and puritanical views of human nature. I do not think it so lost and fallen as those views represent it to be. There is much that is good and kind and amiable in human nature.”
“There was no doubt much that was good and kind about Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, who came to Jesus by night; but our Savior distinctly announced to Nicodemus that except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
“Ah! that new birth is at our baptism. It is there that we are thus born again. I have been baptized in infancy.”
“But you admit that you have not the comfort of the new converts around you. We must be born of water and of the Spirit also. Your inward nature is fallen and guilty, and must be renewed in the image of Christ and by the Spirit of God.”
“I would not on any account adopt those gloomy views of human nature.”
I do not know that this case was managed correctly. It was managed according to the measure of grace given me. It was unsuccessful — sadly so. I never heard that her religious impressions proceeded any farther, or that the attitude of her mind changed at all on the subject. Thus, in human probability, she will go, if she is not already gone, into eternity. It was the case of a mind fully and sincerely swayed by religious opinions not derived from the word of God, and, indeed, directly at variance with that word. There must always be many such cases, where the religious training of children is not faithfully attended to. May the Lord God pour out, in rich and prevailing effusion, upon the hearts of Christian parents, the spirit of faithfulness to their covenanted offspring, that their minds may be suitably formed for the exercise within them of the converting power of the Spirit of Christ.
Through these solemn weeks it was my habit to say a word, if possible, on the subject of a personal interest in Christ, cautiously and humbly, but faithfully, to every one who was thrown into my way. During the mild open weather in the early spring there was to be a funeral at a private house in the congregation. One of the most precious of the children of God had passed away, confessed to be among the few righteous chosen ones by all who knew her, her task on earth accomplished, ripe for heaven, and at a full age thus to be gathered. The morning was fair, but there was that peculiar hue and shade and tint about the sky, often observed on such occasions, which makes one feel as if it was, in its whole blue circle, the face of God, wearing a mild, benignant, tender smile of sympathy and love. Of all the many expressions of the face of the sky, this is one of the deepest and most unearthly in meaning to a serious soul.
The coffin was delayed, and the friends and neighbors began to drop in a good deal in advance of the hour of public worship. Among the early arrivals was a near neighbor, a man whose residence I knew only from the distant view obtained of it from the public road, whom I had never seen at church, but with whom my acquaintance was very kindly for so slight an acquaintance. We sat solemnly waiting together in the porch, thinking and occasionally speaking of the deceased. With the most studied respectfulness in my manner of approaching the subject, and with the most cautiously kind tones of voice, I asked this man if he was himself ready to meet God when his own time came? He replied:
“I endeavor to discharge my duties to my fellow men. That is all I do.”
“But have you not a soul? and is there not also a God above, to whom we owe duties, as well as to our fellow men around us?”
“There may be a God or there may not be, and I may have a soul or I may not have; these are things too deep for me.”
“You do not feel sure, then, whether there is a God or not, or whether you have a soul or not?”
“No, I do not feel certain. How do we know that it is anything more when a man dies than when a horse dies?”
“We see many things die in the winter and come to life again in the spring. Every blade of grass that springs up from a seed which has been buried in the winter, every butterfly that springs from a worm, every new robing of the trees and fields in green, is an eloquent argument for the immortality of the soul.”
“That may all be so; but those are too deep waters for me to fish in. I cannot understand the immortality of the soul and the existence of God; and until I can comprehend them in some way or other, there is nothing which stirs me to prepare for another world.”
“Do you comprehend how the corn grows in your fields, or the grass in your pastures, or the young fruit in your orchards? You admit that you do not?”
He did admit that.
“Why, then, do you not take the same ground concerning your corn and your cattle and your fruit, which you take concerning your soul; that as you do not comprehend how these things grow and ripen, you find nothing stirring you to provide for your family.”
“I do endeavor to provide for my family, to pay my just debts and perform my duties to my fellow men; that is all that I can understand.”
I saw immediately that I had unskillfully employed one of his hobbies as an illustration, and he speedily leaped from the argument to the back of the hobby. I said:
“But you cannot understand how the cultivation of corn will provide for your family. You admit that you do not comprehend the growth of the stalk and the blade and the ear; yet you do cultivate it, and it does become a provision for your family. Why not cultivate the garden of your soul on the same principles upon which you work your corn?”
“I can see the effects of the working of my corn.”
“So also you can see the effects of the soul. Motion, voice, smile, speech, are all the effects of the soul. And you may just as well believe in the existence of an immaterial and immortal soul, because you can see its effects, as to believe in the existence of the inward life and sap of the corn, because you can see its growth.”
“I do not comprehend all that, and there is nothing to stir me up to think of such things or to take any concern about my soul.”
“Yet you do not reason in the same way about your crops as about your soul. The soul, like the soil, must be deeply plowed to produce a crop.”
But now the hearse entered the yard, that solemn black-waving thing whose curtains cast a gloom over the whole sky, and we entered the house for the funeral services. Outward scenery sometimes connects itself with the thoughts and experiences of our souls in ways which seem fortuitous at the time, but which afterwards have a strange and mysterious depth and likeness to destiny, and the touch of the hand of the unseen intelligences above us. With a sinking heart I record that case as one terminated by the entrance of a hearse and coffin. He came to church once or twice after this, and then subsided again to dark settled atheism, in the oldest of the States of the Union and in a neighborhood thick with churches! There had been, as I learned, deep and dreadful defects in his education. His faith still indubitably suffices to cultivate corn, but not to admit the unseen things of religion.
There was a case of religious interest not far off, just about the antipodes of this. There had appeared regularly in the inquiry meetings a young woman, of some of the most excellent of intellectual gifts, whose parents had been of the most cultivated and faithfully pious and godly people in the whole community, and whose life was of that tranquil, sequestered purity, met with more eminently, to say the least, nowhere that I know of than in that excellent type of country-house society in the Southern States in the olden time, which one fears is now passing away, or is failing of a just and due appreciation, even from those who owe it a large and generous revenue of love and gratitude.
In frequent interviews she admitted to me that she felt a deep concern for her salvation; that a faithful and godly brother would not leave her to security in sin; that his letters kept her mind directed to the subject; that she read the Scriptures with an earnest spirit of inquiry; that she prayed frequently for direction; that she gave very close attention to preaching; that she earnestly desired to feel deep contrition for sin, but could not do so. With the exception of a vein of sarcasm which occasionally showed itself, her life was admitted by all to have been so pure as to put that of many professors of religion to the blush. I tried all the Scriptures about the carnal mind and the natural man. She admitted them all to be true; admitted them fully and cheerfully; said she had always admitted them and endeavored to profit by their teachings. She knew she was a great sinner by nature, and earnestly desired to feel deeply that horror of great darkness from the clear conviction of sin, which she believed to be a necessary part of saving repentance, but could not feel it, and all her prayers for grace and light would not induce the Almighty to send her that gift. There was not a single spark of implication that God was dealing unjustly, unequally or severely with her. On the contrary, she appeared to think that there was some hidden cause which rendered it entirely just and righteous, and consistent with the Scriptures and the plan of salvation revealed in them, that she should not be saved; some destiny of woe, independently of God’s promises as revealed in the Scriptures, on account of which he would not hear her particular prayers for a contrite heart. She did not think, either, that she had committed the fearful sin unto death, the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost; but only that on some other ground, and for some less glaring reason, God would not hear her prayers and had no mercy for her. It was a lingering and distressing case. I studied it as closely as I could for weeks and months. It finally became my conclusion that nothing could be done, but just to tell her to look entirely away from herself to Christ; not any longer to spend her time on those Scriptures which analyze and cut up guilty human nature, but on those which present the Lord Jesus Christ; and to hang upon the visions of him wherever they occurred, with constant prayer for grace to perform the act of faith. This was the touch of the right string. It had been an attempt at a Christless godliness before, bearing about the same relation to true godliness, in its power to cheer the heart and life, which the starry skies in July do in their power to warm the earth, to the sun in his solstitial beams. In many cases, it appears to me that sinners must be commanded to look at once to Jesus Christ and live, entirely irrespective of their own consciousness of the state of their own hearts. And moreover, a heart experiencing the darkness and gloom of daily sorrow that it is not contrite is in fact often indeed the most contrite of hearts. In an interview soon afterwards she simply said, “I am resolved to trust.” And she has, I think, heartily trusted and believed, and loved and served Christ ever since.
One day I was informed that the wife of one of the elders of the church was extremely ill — that she was so ill that her recovery was regarded very doubtful, and that they were all anxious to see the pastor of the church. It is an act of cheap and easy kindness to your pastor to let him know when there are circumstances in your family which require a visit from him. It is an act which not every one, however, will perform. There are persons who will keep perfectly still under such circumstances, without ever taking the least pains to see that the pastor knows the state of things, and say, Let be, let us see if he will come to see us as promptly as if we were his favorites! Such persons will most generally be a little dissatisfied with their pastor. Looking back over many laborious and delightful years with harness on, my testimony is, that the worst method in the world to make your house a favorite resort of the pastor is to be always reminding him that he does not take pleasure in coming to see you; always holding him to account for not doing so; always exacting duty of him in duty’s name, and for duty’s sake. It is a wonder that he visits you at all, if such is your habit. He needs to be cheered. He will naturally prefer cheerful, hopeful spirits, and associate with them, as far as he can control his own associates. And then, in fact, your pastor will find a constant difficulty in performing his duty towards you, when it is exacted as a duty for another reason: he will think your exaction selfish and not unselfish; jealous and not liberal; embarrassing to him, as it is your duty not to be, instead of helpful, as it is your duty to be.
The elder in this case, like a true friend as he was, had quickly contrived me word of the desirableness of a visit, and accordingly the visit was paid forthwith. I found the patient under typhoid fever, and becoming prostrate rapidly. She had joined the church on examination about two years before this time. I felt satisfied, as I saw her from time to time, that she was living the life of the Christian, and patiently making her way to final glory. But her husband, a settled, quiet, decided Christian, informed me, immediately on my arrival there at sundown, that she was in a fearful religious gloom. I approached the bedside with this communication in mind. It is not mentioned here to extol the skill of the instrument, but to show the methods of the Spirit in such cases. She was requested to state, as exactly as might be, the causes of her gloom. She said she had been looking back, from what might be her dying bed, over her past life, and was dismayed, and all but overwhelmed, to find how dark it appeared. She had been a mistress and head of a family, she said, and had endeavored to perform her whole duty in that most important and responsible relationship. She did not know but, in a few days or even hours, she might have to look upon her past life as mistress and head of a family, drawn out in vivid pictures, before the eyes of her soul in eternity, and before God. And now it appeared so dark! In the same manner she said she had been trying also to look at her life as a mother and wife, and as a Sabbath-school teacher, and as a church member, and as an individual soul in the sight of God. All was dark! Could I give her any comfort? Did any comfort properly belong to her? Did her case admit of any comfort?
Humbly lifting my heart to heaven for guidance, I gave her answer about as follows: It is very natural, at such a time as this, that you should be examining your past life. You have also skillfully distributed it under the various heads or departments of life under which it may be most conveniently contemplated. It is also entirely natural that you should desire to find your obedience complete and perfect as you look back upon it; for nothing less than complete and perfect obedience will satisfy divine justice at the judgment bar of God. But the complete and perfect obedience in which we are to appear in the eternal world is not our own. It is the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. When you were first brought to Christ you had — did you not? — a view of sin as appallingly dark and aggravated.
Then came the gospel of Christ to you, saying, from the Redeemer, “Look unto me and be ye saved.” You found that the plan was, that you should look away from dark and aggravated sin, look away from weak and helpless self, look away from vain and ineffectual earthly help, look away from every earthly refuge, to the atoning Son of God. And it was not while looking at your sins, but while looking at the Lord Jesus Christ, that comfort came. That was the plan of salvation while you were seeking to be justified; that is the plan while you are seeking to be so sanctified as to be prepared for eternity. It is well that you have been talking with your past hours, and asking them what report they bore to heaven. It is well that you have been endeavoring to look closely and honestly upon the scenes of past life. But every man’s life, even the life of the most eminent saints that ever lived, must appear spotted and imperfect under such circumstances, because it is spotted and imperfect in fact. And these spotted and imperfect righteousnesses can never appear before the holy eyes of God in heaven. When, therefore, your imperfections as mistress and head of a family rise to your view, your privilege and duty as a Christian is to look away from your own spotted and imperfect righteousness, to the spotless and perfect righteousness of Christ, and to appeal to the bleeding Redeemer upon the cross, and say, “It is God that justifieth; who is he that condemneth?” So also, when your imperfections as wife and mother arise to view, appeal to the righteousness of Christ. So, when your shortcomings as a Sabbath-school teacher arise, appeal also boldly to the Lamb of God, to the righteousness of another, to Jehovah our righteousness, to him who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption. So also, when Satan accuses you, or memory accuses, or truth and fact accuse you, of imperfections as a church member, or as an individual and responsible soul in the sight of God, or in any other respect which a faithful conscience can bring up, the peculiar act of Christian faith is to appeal from these condemning voices to the righteousness of the Great High Priest of God’s appointment, wrought out in the wilderness, in Gethsemane, and on the bloody cross, presented on our behalf by the divine High Priest himself in the holy place in heaven, humbly received by faith, and rested upon in love and confidence. This appeal to Christ from the accusings of sin and Satan was illustrated by reference to an event in Sir Walter Scott’s account of the night before the battle of Flodden at the market cross in Edinburgh. A voice is heard, as is related, summoning the nobility of Scotland to their doom on the approaching bloody field, and fearfully calling their names aloud. But two of those whose names were called were there present and heard, and arose and defied the dark voice of doom, and appealed against it to the living God. So our souls appeal from sin and Satan and memory, to the great historical and glaring and blazing fact that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and that they are not to appear in heaven in their own righteousness, but in his.
Then we all knelt to pray. When we arose from our knees, the calm tears of peace and satisfaction were streaming down the cheeks of our sick friend. “I have been so comforted in prayer” were her only words. That was the turning-point of her disease. There was rapid recovery. Her mental gloom had been a great part of her disease.