When Hunt1 and Cobbett2 were England’s heroes, almost worshipped by millions, and greatly feared by thousands; when “the cause for which Hampden3 died on the field, and Sidney4 on the scaffold,” was printed on our milk-cups, butter-plates, banners, and pocket-handkerchiefs; when white hats, turned up with green, constituted the patriot’s badge of allegiance to liberty and midnight meetings; when Tories believed that England’s death-knell was tolling, and Radicals that her sun of hope was just rising; then Wilkins, the subject of this Tale, was a strong and active man. The excitement of the times led all parties into the most ridiculous follies; the pulpits warned the people against politics and demagogues, and mob-meetings warned them against tyrants and parsons. Extremes always beget extremes, and Wilkins was one of the extreme men of that day. Had any one proposed that all parsons should be hanged, Wilkins would willingly have provided the rope.
The doings of any age can only be judged correctly by the light of that age. Wilkins, no doubt, believed he was doing what would secure his country’s freedom; but he fell into the snare that has entangled thousands,Â—he began reforming on the wrong side of the door; the world within was neglected for the world without. He could shout for a nation’s reform, while he neglected to reform himself. The stump orator could find in him a seconder, and he was always ready to take the chair for the infidel lecturer. He was one of a large circle of free-thinkers; and freely and bitterly did they both think and speak against any one who dared to think differently from themselves. Some of them declared it to be impossible that any man thinking the Bible true could be a freethinker; free-thinking consisted in thinking as they thought, and thinking nothing else.
One of these worthies once tauntingly held up a purse filled with silver, and sarcastically quoted part of one of Hart’s hymns,Â—
“This, this is the god I adore,
My faithful, unchangeable friend.”
Several years after, a friend informed me that this same man was in great poverty; he had never been married, lived alone, was in
very poor health, and in great destitution. I had considerable respect for him, and, on calling to see him, asked him if his god was still alive. He instantly remembered the purse and the two lines of the hymn, and smilingly replied, “No, no; he is dead long since;
I wish he was not; but I am not the first that has worshipped a money-bag.”
Another refused a book I wished to lend him, observing, that lie ‘wanted neither me, nor my books, nor churches, chapels, Bibles, parsons, nor cant.” It was about two o’clock, one Sunday afternoon; he was scraping a calf’s foot with a rusty knife; he had a week’s beard on his face, a week’s dirt on his shirt, clogs that seemed never cleaned, and trousers covered with various coloured patches. The house, the wife, the children, all indicated anything but domestic comfort.
“Well,” I replied, “I admire your frankness; you hoist your colours at once. I expect you are one of the men that want more pigs and fewer parsons’.”
“You have just hit the mark,” was his answer.
“Well, sir,” I said, “but observation convinces me that men of your creed, or rather no creed, have rarely either pigs or parsons;
and I have also observed that godliness, as a rule, gives a man the advantage and pleasures of this life; it has given to millions a comfortable home, a good character, a good suit of clothes, respectability, a place in God’s house, a happy mind, and glorious prospects.” Then, turning to the wife, I added, ‘Mrs. Â—Â—Â—, suppose that your husband was a religious man, that you were well dressed, as you see nearly all that go to church or chapel are, leaning on your husband’s arm, and your children, neatly attired, walking on before to the house of God, how would you like it?” With a good hearty laugh, she turned to her husband and said, “Harry, I should like to try.” Harry and I subsequently became good friends; he now reads my books, and has got new trousers.
Many such as the above were amongst Wilkins’ free-thinking acquaintances, when I first knew him. He had a sort of leadership amongst this class of men; he was superior to them in intellect, and in better circumstances; he was an extensive reader of infidel works and “ultra” newspapers; talked large, scoffed at religion, and boasted that for thirty years he had never entered either church or chapel. How it was that I became so anxious respecting this man’s salavation all at once is to me inexplicable, except on the Bible principle, that God’s Spirit moves human agency to effect His purposes.
On one occasion, when Wilkins was passing down the street, a co-worker in the school and church, Mr. Thomas Schofield, called my attention to him, observing that he supposed he was a strange character, and wondered if it was possible to get an interview between him and our mutual friend Mr. Molineux. I at once saw the possibilities and believed it was my duty to do what I could to get them together. Feeling considerable confidence in the result, I went at once to Mrs. SÂ—Â—, one of Mr. Wilkins’ married
daughters, and requested her to propose the matter to her father. She was amazed at the idea, and, in evident surprise, asked if I did not know her father’s principles.
“Yes,” I answered, “but if you propose the thing to him in as agreeable a way as you can, perhaps you may succeed better than you expect.”
“Well, but if he gets angry with me, as I am certain he will, I shall have to lay all the blame upon you.”
“Very well; I will cheerfully bear all consequences, whatever they may be,” was my reply.
Mrs. SÂ—Â—Â— went to her father’s house that night, and told him the strange request that I had made, and, as she expected, he was greatly offended. The following day he called at my shop, and demanded why I had presumed to speak to his daughter respecting him, and whether I supposed that he was incapable of judging for himself in matters relating to his own welfare.
I saw he was greatly irritated ,and knew that much depended on the next minute. I handed him a chair, requested him to be seated, offering, at the same time, to take his hat and walking-stick. He took the seat with evident reluctance, but refused to give his hat, and held the stick in a manner that indicated a wish on his part to use it.
I at once confessed that I had requested his daughter to speak to him; told him how the thought had arisen; that I had known him ever since he was chairman at a lecture given by the notorious infidel, Carlisle, of Sheffield, in the old playhouse; and that, having been a victim to the paralyzing influence of scepticism, I could feel for others carrying the same yoke. Here he interupted me by sharply asking if I “wished him to be pestered with some young upstart that would cram damnation down his throat?”
“No,” I replied, “the man I wish to introduce to you is both a gentleman and a scholar. You have read much, are acquainted with some of the sciences, and know something of speculative philosophy; and, religion apart, I think he is just the man to gain your highest esteem. If you wish to talk with him on geology, he will give you the strata from the primary, transition, secondary, tertiary, to the superficial; if on astronomy, he will dilate on that wonderful science from Mercury on to Uranus, with satellites, comets, &c.; if on botany, he will give you the names of flowers and plants, with their Latin names and English derivations, almost from the cedar on Lebanon to the hyssop on the wall. He has also travelled a little, and knows something of human nature; and if you want to have your book-knowledge well rubbed up, he is just the man for you.”
While I was speaking, Wilkins smiled, and observed, that he thought I was a painter in more respects than one; that he should like to see the man I had so eulogised, if only through a telescope;
and, if he would leave out his religious twaddle, he might call upon him when convenient, but only on that condition.
“Well, then, I will undertake to see the gentleman, and frankly tell him of your wish and terms. I have no doubt the compact will be honourably kept on his part, but I expect you will break it yourself; for you have been so long under the impression that you could prove all parsons fools, par excellence, that you will be trying your hand upon him.”
“Parsons! parsons! is the man you have been speaking of a parson?” exclaimed Wilkins, with evident astonishment.
“Yes, sir; he has long been in the ministry, but is now super annuated by reason of age; being, however, extensively known, he is still in great request as a preacher; and though he is sixty-seven years of age, I would have you be on your guard, for he is an adept in stenography, and will be able to take down your words as you speak them.”
This last sentence was spoken in a playful manner; nor could I help laughing outright on seeing Wilkins’ embarrassment, on discovering that the gentleman with whom he had promised to have the meeting was a minister; and seeing, also, that this fact appeared to him somewhat to alter the state of the case, I offered to liberate him from the contract, providing he wished it.
“No, no,” was his answer; “let him come, let him come; you know the termsÂ—no religious cant. If the bargain be kept, I shall be glad of his company; and if he breaks the compact, he will not catch an old bird with chaff.”
Those who know Mr. Molineux, will at once acquit me of having said too much respecting his general attainments. God in His word, and God in His works, were themes on which he could dwell to the instruction and edification of his hearers. I thought him just the man for the work in hand. The following day I made him acquainted with all the circumstances of the case, and was glad to find that he entirely agreed with the conditions. He promised to call upon Wilkins on the following Wednesday afternoon.
They met at the time appointed, and, by an agreement betwixt themselves, arranged for a weekly interview. Being two intelligent men, they had no lack of interesting subjects. For several weeks the conversation was on botany and politics, and, just as I expected, Wilkins was the first to break the agreement. He asked Mr. Molineux what he thought of the evidences of the existence of a great First Cause. This question opened up a subject, the collateral bearings of which would necessarily include internal, as well as external evidences. Their opinions respecting some of the evidences did not materially differ; but when Wilkins declared that he could not reconcile the many absurdities and contradictions found in the Bible with the belief that it emanated from an infinitely wise Being, such as God must be, Mr. Molineux replied,Â—
“Have you found the absurdities and contradictions in your own reading of the Bible, or in books written against it?”
“O, in books written against it. I have never read either the
Old or New Testament myself, thinking it a pure waste of time to do so,” replied Wilkins.
“Well, but if you refuse to read the Bible itself, in order to judge impartially, you should have read books in vindication of its truth and consistency,” observed Mr. Molineux.
“Yes, perhaps I ought; I have often boasted of thinking for myself; but in regard to the Bible and its teachings, I have allowed its acknowledged enemies to think for me. If, however, you have any books that profess to explain its absurdities and contradictions, that are worth reading, I should be obliged if you would lend them to me; and, as the New Testament is a small book, I will at once read it carefully through; but I have never been able to make anything of your Jesus, as you call Him, nor do I expect to do so.”
Mr. M. furnished Wilkins with Bishop Newton’s and Simpson’s Key to the Prophecies, and other works, such as he knew would answer; and, in the meantime, Wilkins, as he had promised, began to read carefully the New Testament, making notes as he proceeded. While seeking for contradictions and absurdities, he found what he was not seeking, and what he was not expecting to find. He found that the word of God is quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword; he saw that, if what he was reading was true, he was a lost man; he found the truth crowding on his soul with such telling power that he could not sleep in his bed; and he found himself on his knees in the dead of the night, bathed in tears, groaning for mercy, agonizing for pardon, beseeching God for Christ’s sake not to send him to hell, not to cut him off in his sins, not to turn a deaf ear to the broken-hearted sinner, but in mercy to spare him, in mercy to blot out his transgressions.
In this state of mind he came to my house, requesting a private interview. How different was this visit from the one he paid me about two months before? Memory and conscienceÂ—a guilty conscienceÂ—were working with a crushing power; the events of his past life distressed and appalled him. His confessions, then and afterwards, were such as prudence would cover over with a veil of charity; he was greatly troubled on account of having been the cause of others imbibing infidel principles. One case he mentioned as peculiarly distressing:Â—A dying acquaintance, whom he visited in his last hours, begged Wilkins to send for some good man to read the word of God and pray with him. Wilkins called him a fool; told him to die like a man; and refused either to send himself for a praying man, or allow others. “O Wilkins, Wilkins!” said this wretched, miserable being, “Christians do not die as I am dying; this will never do; I do not now believe that death is an eternal sleep; I wish I could believe it; we have often called it a leap in the dark, but now to me it is dreadfully dark. You have often quoted Pope: reverse his dying Christian’s address to his soul, and you have my wretched condition:Â—
“Hark! the fiends infernal say,
‘Come, lost spirit, come away.
‘ What is this absorbs me quite,
Steals my senses, shuts my sight,
Drowns my spirit, draws my breath?
O, ’tis death, eternal death!”
These words were amongst the last the dying man uttered, and the scene now passed afresh before the mind of Wilkins. With tears streaming down his face, he confessed that if he had read the Testament with candour thirty years sooner, he should have been a different man. On leaving, he took hold of my hand and said, “Mr.
Ashworth, I do believe God could pardon my sins, but He never will.”
At a subsequent interview he was more calm, but spoke with great force of the want of principle and virtue amongst infidel writers; greatly deploring his past life, and wishing he had earlier read the Bible and thought for himself. In this Wilkins was right:
if infidels could remember that God’s word enjoins upon all men to “prove all things, and hold fast that which is good,” and would compare the teachings of the Bible with the lives of those who have despised those teachings, many of them would be astonished at the company in which they are found. Voltaire and Rousseau both lived in open adultery; yet these are gods amongst infidels. Paine was a drunkard and swearer; Hobbes, Wharton, Shaftesbury, Woolaston, Chubbs, Bolingbroke, and Rochester lived strange lives, and were consistent with their own teachings. But an immoral teacher of Christianity would be condemned by his own creed. Voltaire confesses that “though the ministers of the Gospel oppose each other in their dogmas, in morality they are all agreed.”
The iron had entered into Wilkins’ soul; the crushing consequences of infidel principles came upon him with all their force;
and he now stood before me a miserable, broken-hearted man. I advised him still to read on as he had begun; to examine for himself; to get as much as possible into private, and pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, not doubting but he would find mercy.
“Yes,” he exclaimed, “but how am I either to read or pray with any hope of pardon? The thing seems to me impossible. O, sir, the fearful results of my teachings are more and more terrible as I now see them! I have already given great offence by allowing Mr. Molineux to come and see me. I have sown the dragon’s teeth in my family, and now they mock all my attempts to induce them to reconsider their position; they sneer at me for reading the Bible,
and declare their determination not to be frightened by religious bug-bears.”
And this was true. The family did all they could to prevent his intercourse with religious men. Mr. Todd, one of Wilkins’ neighbours, a good old Christian, hearing of this, offered Wilkins his sitting room, promising to read and pray with him fifty times a
day, if he wished it. Wilkins gladly embraced the offer, and spent a considerable portion of his time in Mr. Todd’s house; and there the venerable old Christian, and penitent weeping publican, together read God’s blessed word, and together bowed the knee at the throne of grace.
One evening, Mr. Todd, at Wilkins’ request, came to ask me to spend the evening with him, if I could possibly spare time. It was a memorable evening: he had copied from the Bible many passages that seemed to destroy all hope that a man such as he was could ever expect to have forgiveness, and read them to me with a trembling voice. I met all his objections by one answer,Â— “He is able to save to the uttermost them that come unto God by Him.” I held him fast to that one point,Â—”able to save to the uttermost.” He begged me to kneel down and pray for him; we, all weeping, fell down before our Maker; but how different the cause of our tears! Mr. Todd, the hoary-headed saint, wept for joy at the prodigal’s return; Wilkins wept tears of sorrow and contrition, and before I could utter one word, he exclaimed, “O Jesus, Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on me! O Jesus, Jesus, how I have scorned and despised Thy very name, scorned and insulted Thy servants, mocked at Thy sufferings and death! O Jesus, Jesus, Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world, have mercy on me! Lord! I would believe; help Thou my unbelief. I know I have sinned in heart and life millions of times; but is there not mercy? Is there not mercy? O Lamb of God, have mercy on a poor guilty man!”
That night was to Wilkins a night of great bitterness. He spent the most of it in strong cries and prayers. He wept and sought, and at last found the grace of God through a crucified Redeemer. And, O, the joy that sprang up in his heart when he found that his deeply-stained, guilty soul was washed in the blood of the Lamb! For days he was in ecstasies. Praise, nothing but praise night and dayÂ—”Praise the Lord!” was his continual theme.
On our first interview after his conversion, Wilkins took hold of my hand, and, with an earnestness that astonished me, exclaimed,Â—”O how happy I am; the blood of Christ can save! He has saved me, the chief of sinners. By faith I saw Him nailed on the cross for me; in my heart I believed He died for meÂ—that His blood was shed for me; and now I am a sinner saved by grace;
and if Christ could save me. He can save any man out of hell! I have had more real peace since I became a child of God than I ever possessed in all my days of sin.”
At a subsequent interview, he told me that he had been troubled on reading the passage, “We must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, to give an account of the deeds done in the body, whether they be good or bad.” “If,” said he, “this be true, what must I do? My life has been spent in the service of Satan; I am now getting old, and I cannot do much for God in the
time that remains. If we must be judged by works, what must I do, for I shall have nothing to show?”
I replied, that of all God’s doings, redeeming grace was the most amazing;Â—that a life of iniquity could, through faith in Christ, be pardoned;Â—that a conscience laden with guilt, and wretched as hell, could be made the home of peace and joy;Â—that grey-headed sinners could be made saints,Â—this far transcended all human conceptions.
“No doubt we are judged by works, but we are saved by faith. I know you will have little time left to show your faith by your works. You have been saved by the skin of your teeth;Â—you are a brand plucked from the burning;Â—you have been brought into the vineyard at the eleventh hour, but you will have your penny, and for such great mercies you must wonder and adore.”
Some time after the preceding events, Wilkins expressed his conviction that he should die suddenly. He thought an affection of the heart had set in, and he desired that, if it were possible, either I or Mr. Molineux should be present at his death. His earnest wish was, that the last words he might speak in his life should be, “Blessed Jesus;”Â—and God, in His goodness, granted him his request. On entering his room on the last day of his life, he smilingly took my hand, and asked me to lift him a little higher. I complied with his request. He then turned his face to the wall, and, in a faint whisper, said, “Blessed Jesus! Blessed Jesus!” While this faint whisper was yet trembling on his lips, the spirit of the converted infidel entered the pearly gates of paradise, and might there vie with the thief saved on the cross which of the two should loudest shout the praises of redeeming love.
J. Ashworth, 1865.
1 LEIGH HUNT. 1784-1859. Radical poet and essayist. Imprisoned 1813 for penning sarcasms on the Prince Regent. In Italy 1821 with Byron and Shelley, but quarrelled with Byron and returned to England 1825.
2 WILLIAM COBBETT. 1762-1835. First a Tory, then a Radical political writer. Became a popular leader on social, economic and political questions. M.P. for Oldham 1832-35.
3 JOHN BAMPDEN. 1594-1643. Statesman and patriot. M.P. during Charles 1st’s reign for Grampound, Wendover and Buckinghamshire. Maintained a noble stand against royal tyranny, and when civil war was declared he displayed high military skill. Received his death-wound at Chalgrove Field, 18th June, 1643, dying six days later.
4 ALGERNON SIDNEY. 1622-83. Son of the Earl of Leicester. First fighting In Ireland under his father with the Royalist forces, he soon espoused the Republican cause. Fought and was wounded at Marston Moor (1644), Lieutenant-General o( the Horse in Ireland (1646). M.P. for Cardiff and one of Charles 1st’s judges. At the Restoration, Sidney went into exile for 17 years (Germany, France, Italy) until a Royal Pardon allowed his return in 1677. He joined the Duke of Monmouth’s conspiracy (to exclude the Duke of York from the succession, and to remedy many grievances), but the plot became known, and the conspirators were betrayed by one of their members (Lord Howard), and Sidney was one of those sentenced by Judge Jeffries to the scaffold.