THE BIRMINGHAM THIEF AT OLD HILL CHURCH
The usual weekly vestry meeting for prayer was held on Tuesday, March 13th, 1877, when the blessing of God the Spirit was desired on behalf of the forth-coming Sabbath meetings. While the prayer-meeting was being held at Old Hill, and God’s people were engaged in pleading for a blessing on their pastor and his ministry, the wonder-working Jehovah was dealing mysteriously with a young man many miles away, whose feet He had ordered should, on the following Sabbath, tread the courts of Old Hill Church, and whose conscience should then quail under the sound of the preached word.
At the very moment when the Divine mercy-seat was surrounded by the Lord’s remembrancers, imploring that the scattered sheep of Christ’s flock might be gathered into the fold of salvation, the hand of the Most High was guiding an erring soul along the perilous path into which, as a backslider from the narrow way of obedience, he had strayed.
An extensive robbery had been committed at Birmingham in the establishment of a well known watchmaker and jeweller. Amongst the staff employed was a young man. He had worked there for three years past, and had always borne a good character. Indeed, he was a professing Christian, a communicant, a Sabbath School teacher, and a member of the Young Men’s Christian Association.
For some time property was missed by the manager of the firm, but suspicion did not fall upon this youth. However, on Monday morning, the 12th of March, 1877, he suddenly disappeared. A sovereign, which had been placed in a box in the workroom, was taken, and other property also. The police were communicated with, and steps were promptly taken to prevent escape from the country. No doubt seemed now to exist that the youth in question had been robbing his masters, and diligent examination of the stock-in-trade was made in order to discover the amount of the loss, and with a view to tracing the articles stolen.
The following Sunday, March 18th, found the erring youth at Old Hill. Having suddenly left Birmingham, taking with him a watch and the sovereign before alluded to, he set off by rail into Gloucestershire, where a relation lived whom he much revered. To this aged Christian he confided the fact of his guilt. This done he started off to a place in Shropshire, hoping to elude the police authorities, who, he guessed, would be soon on his track. It should be mentioned, that in order to raise money for his flight he disposed of the watch which he had stolen. Thus two or three days passed, and he was still successful in his efforts to defeat the ends of justice.
As the close of the week approached it was laid on his mind with much force to write to a young person in Birmingham to whom he was deeply attached, and who, he feared, would be broken-hearted on hearing of his crime. He dreaded, however, that his hiding-place might be discovered if a letter were traced. The postmark might afford the police a clue.
What, then, must he do? He would disguise himself, and walk into Birmingham, steal an interview, and creep out again. It was a desperate venture. He therefore shaved himself closely, and set out on his perilous walk of twenty-four miles. Strange to say, he passed through the streets of Birmingham in open day, obtained the desired meeting, and left the town entirely unnoticed.
Thus brought back, by a forcible impulse, upon the scene of his guilt, it became a question of the first moment what step must be taken next. Whither should he now proceed? where could he hide himself? It was Saturday afternoon. He thought carefully and axiously for a while, when it was powerfully laid upon his mind that he should go to Old Hill. He parted with his friend without disclosing his movements. On the evening of that day (March 17th) the unhappy fugitive reached Old Hill, and sought a bed in Bank Street.
Sunday morning came with its hallowed associations. The summons to attend the worship of the Most High sounded forth from the tower of the Parish Church. As usual, hundreds of Sabbath scholars, attended by their kind teachers, wended their way through the village, and took their places with the assembled congregation. In the midst of that congregation was a young man Â— a stranger. But in so large a gathering as every Sabbath attended on the ministry of God’s Holy Word at Old Hill Church the stranger was not observed. Some mighty operation of the Divine purpose had led that youth to come into our midst.
Now, let the reader note well how the heart-searching God dealt with that young man’s soul on that Sabbath day. The text given out by the Vicar was one he had got after much waiting upon his Divine Master. It was taken from the first lesson for the morning’s service Â— Exodus 3, 2: “And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him (Moses) in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.” The preacher proceeded to open out the comforting teaching of this wonderful passage.
He pointed out how Moses had grown up in the palace of Pharaoh, and was now a learned man of about forty years of age. He was, moreover, a pious man. And the hardships of his brethren, the Jews, moved him to seek their deliverance. He went out, therefore, from the king’s palace, and by faith preferred to share the troubles of
his own people than enjoy the sinful luxuries of the Court, even with a prospect of one day sitting upon the throne of Egypt.
But like all God’s people, Moses was frail, and liable to err. When therefore, he one day found an Egyptian striking one of his Jewish brethren, the sinful blood of his fallen nature was roused, and the fearful thought was by Satan put into the mind of God’s servant that he would murder that Egyptian. “And he looked this way and that way Â— ah! guilty conscience! Â— “and when he saw that there was no man” Â— he forgot the all-seeing eye of God! Â— “he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.”
Then, what followed? Could God use such an instrument for the holy work of delivering His enslaved people? Would He, could He, justify this fearful act of blood? Was that backsliding servant of the Lord in a frame of mind to enter upon the Divine service, at that time? But did the Lord cast off that unworthy follower of His? The answer to these questions was to be found in the dealings of the Lord with Moses during the next forty years.
Pharaoh heard of the murder. Moses fled. But the God of mercy and forgiveness led him. Yes. Moses was led by the Lord into the desert. Then for forty years the man of learning and wisdom, he who had lived a life of luxury in kings’ houses, had day by day to fulfil the duties of a shepherd, far from the society of man, and with the guilt of murder on his conscience! Yet that God who giveth no account of His matters was working out His own all wise purposes. Thus it was at the end of forty years hard discipline Â— for while God forgives the guilt of His penitent people’s sins for Christ’s sake, yet He often severely chastises His pardoned ones in this life Â— a marvellous token of the unchanged grace and purpose of the Lord was granted to the backsliding Moses. Then was fulfilled that blessed word, “I will heal their backsliding; I will love them freely; for mine anger is turned away from him” (Hosea 14, 4).
. . . Thus, then, let the backsliding ones present at Church that day be comforted and encouraged. Let such see how the Lord deals with them. He did not cut off. He pardoned the guilt, but He chastised afterwards. And it was while the pardoned sinner was under such painful discipline that he learned his most lasting lessons. In brief, then, the above was the line the preacher took on that eventful morning. There was one, unknown to him, to whom the words were personal, pointed, and piercing. The Holy Ghost was making the King’s arrows sharp in the poor sinner’s heart.
The congregation on the evening of that Sunday was very large, and power attended the preached word. The keynote was sounded when the Vicar gave out the familiar hymn,
“God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea.
And rides upon the storm.”
Amongst the assembled crowd that evening again appeared the youth of whom I have spoken. The above hymn, as we shall presently see, made a deep impression on his mind. But the mysterious dealings of the Lord became still more wonderful to him when the preacher resumed his subject Â— the history of Moses Â— taking his text from Exodus 5, 22, 23, and 6, 1: “And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said, Lord wherefore hast thou so evil entreated this people? why is it that thou hast sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in thy name, he hath done evil to this people, neither hast thou delivered thy people at all. Then the LORD said unto Moses. Now shalt thou see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand shall he let them go, and with a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land.”
The aim of the discourse was to show how, as Moses pleaded for Israel to be delivered out of the hand of the King of Egypt, so Christ prevailingly pleads for His people Â— how the Lord faithfully appears For His tried ones when they are “at their wits end” Â— and how it is His concern to put down all the enemies, troubles, and difficulties of His exercised Israel..
The service over the Vicar retired to the vestry. Mr. Samuel Mason then informed him that a young man, a stranger, wished to have an interview. There then entered the vestry a respectably dressed youth Â— probably about twenty years of age Â— who, in a soft, low voice, said, “You have spoken much today, Sir, about backsliding. I am a backslider. What you have said has made a deep impression on me, and I should like to tell you my trouble. It is a long story, but perhaps you will allow me to state it all.”
I remarked that I felt very thankful to my heavenly Master that He had been pleased to speak any word by me to the conscience of the stranger, and proceeded to dwell briefly on the precious encouragements held out to the repentant backslider, by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It would give me great pleasure, I added, to hear all his narrative of the way by which God had led him hitherto, and if I could be of use to him under the Divine blessing, I should indeed rejoice. By an arrangement mutually satisfactory it was finally determined that on the morrow morning my young friend should have an opportunity of stating his experience.
We met. I found in a short time that he had been fairly educated. His story was as follows. He had been brought up not by his parents (his father died early), but by a godly grandmother. The prayerful teaching of this aged person appears to have made some impression on him. He spoke in the most affectionate terms of her. But the hour at length came when he had to go out into the world to earn his bread. His taste led him to adopt the trade of a watchmaker.
Leaving his grandmother when he had reached his sixteenth year, he bade farewell to TÂ—Â—Â—Â—Â— in Gloucestershire, and sought
work in the busy and populous town of Birmingham. Employment having been found in the firm of an extensive watch and clock maker he entered upon his duties as a steady, well-educated, and promising young workman. Some uncertainty seems to have existed in his mind as to what place of worship to attend. Led, as alas! too many of the rising generation are in these sensuous days, by the outward show of ritualism, he cast in his lot at one of the unsatisfactory churches of the town, and found himself presently exposed to the false sacramental teaching of that place.
A curate connected with the church in question having on one occasion boldly stated the way of salvation to be sacramental, his mind, as grounded in the simple Bible truths which he had received from his godly grandmother, revolted, and he left the church. Providentially he was brought in contact with the ministry of an Evangelical clergyman in Birmingham, and was led, as stated, through deep heart-need to seek and to find the Lord Jesus.
The subject of our narrative then stated to me that under the Gospel teaching of his new minister he was led to become a teacher in the Sunday school connected with the church. He also joined the Young Men’s Christian Association, and took part in various public efforts made in the name of Christ in Birmingham. A communicant and a worker in the vineyard of the Lord Jesus, he was fully recognised by those who knew him as a true disciple of Christ.
But Satan had already desired to have this youth, and to sift him as wheat. Did ever the work of God’s grace in the heart of a poor sinner escape the fierce temptations of the devil? Alas! the quiver of the great enemy of souls is still well filled with poisoned arrows and fiery darts. He knows, too, where the weak joints are to be found in the armour of Christ’s followers.
The young man had become a total abstainer. He had faithfully kept his pledge thus far. His abstemious habits, too, had led him away from the company of the un-godly and the worldly. So he knew little of the exciting temptations of the gambling-table, and the terrible evils to which it rarely fails to lead its unhappy votaries. Upon this untried spot, then, Satan fixed his malignant eye. He would aim at the overthrow of this unsuspecting soul by means of an only too generally successful temptation.
It seems that circumstances arose which shifted the lodgings of my strange acquaintance, and he found himself under another roof. His new landlord was a man of the world, and one fond of its follies. On a certain evening, not long after my informant had taken up his abode in his new quarters, he returned home and found that his landlord had gathered together a number of worldly friends to celebrate his birthday. The company was engaged in playing cards. They invited the youth to join them. He at first firmly refused, and
revolted at the thought. Continued attempts to get him to alter his mind, followed by jeers and taunts, at last led him to waver.
He then consented to play Â— one game. He played Â— and won. The devil’s plot had succeeded. Success spurred on this poor erring one and he played again. The excitement was novel, and he threw himself into the temptation. The first wrong step was taken, the habit of playing cards soon grew upon him, and a love for the stimulant of drink trod closely on the heels of this new excitement. But drink had to be paid for, and frequent losses at the gambling-table made heavy charges on his slender wages. The train was fired, and more fuel had to be found somewhere, either honestly or otherwise. Honest means soon failed. Money had to be forthcoming. Whence could it be found? How could it be raised?
Meanwhile the Sunday school and the means of grace on the Lord’s day were less and less enjoyed. The backslider was not seen so frequently in his place at church and amongst the children of his Sabbath class. Those who had walked with him as a humble follower of Jesus missed his company. The clouds of darkness thickened round his soul. The first wrong steps had been taken, sin had been trifled with, and now there was pleasure found in the pursuit of it. He must therefore learn in bitterness of soul to know that “the way of transgressors is hard.”
The young man then continued his narrative by telling me that his heavy losses led him to think of raising money by dishonest means, and that he first began the career of a thief by taking watches which were privately placed in his hands for repair. These watches he pawned, fully intending at the time that he detained them to redeem and return them to their lawful owners.
Having once strayed from the narrow path, he found it easy to go on in the broad way of evil doing. For several months he pursued his perilous courses of theft, gambling, and kindred sins. The conscience seems to have become seared. Like David, the king of Israel who, when he fell continued upwards of nine months without conviction, so the unhappy youth was led captive by the devil until at last, in the merciful providence of God, the headlong race was suddenly stopped. It seems that, as has before been mentioned, the manager of the firm had missed several articles. The guilty one felt he must therefore flee the place, although no one suspected him to be capable of the crime of theft.
My now soul-troubled informant proceeded in his narrative to tell me that he had from time to time abstrated probably twenty watches, together with money and other valuables. And what would I, as a minister of the gospel, in whom he had entire confidence, advise him to do? He earnestly assured me that he would much rather go to prison and have Christ with him in the deeps, than be at
large as he then was, and continue in the mental misery which, since he had heard the Word, he had experienced.
I asked him to kneel down with me at the footstool of God’s mercy. We knelt together and pleaded that the Lord would decide for us. I could but entreat for wisdom on my own behalf, and for grace on his, that we might do that which was right in God’s sight. We rose from our knees. He said he was quite ready to abide by any consequences, in case the law of the land took its course. He deserved, he said, all that God might be pleased to bring upon him. He had already cast himself upon the tender mercies of Christ for the pardon of his sin, he was desirous of meeting those whom he had wronged, to assist in the recovery of the stolen property, and to bear any punishment that might be inflicted upon him.
I pointed out again how Moses, after he had slain the Egyptian, was sent into the wilderness for forty years, and yet the Lord did not cast him off, but at the end of the time appeared to him in the richest grace in the burning bush. Discipline might be hard, but it was wise, and right, and profitable. In all this the poor troubled one entirely acquiesced. I then suggested that I should go to Birmingham by the next train, see his employers, state fully the circumstances, and inform them that he was ready to surrender himself into their hands. We then prayerfully separated, having arranged that he should be at the Vicarage at eight o’clock the same evening without fail to hear the result of my interview.
On reaching Birmingham I soon found that his story was in every detail strictly true. A systematic robbery had been carried on at the address he gave, and the matter was in the hands of the police. The manager of the firm (which employed a large number of hands) spoke of the youth in terms most kind and sympathizing, and remarked that he had, from his knowledge of him, expressed his belief that he would return and confess his guilt. A consultation was then held by the heads of the establishment, and finally it was decided that the manager should go out to Old Hill in the evening and meet the youth at the Vicarage.
Shortly after the appointed hour the Vicar’s study found the thief and his late employer face to face. The greatest kindness was shown by the latter both in tone and manner, and the utmost openness and apparently sincere readiness to account for all the lost property, was forthcoming from the former. He was plainly told, however, that he must be lodged in Moor Street cells for several days whilst the fullest enquiries were being made, and that the future action of the firm would depend upon the completeness of his information.
To all this he humbly and promptly bowed. A few parting words were then spoken to him by me, and, as a further test of his genuine
penitence, he was asked if he had any objection to my making public use of all he had told me, as a warning to others to beware of the beginnings of backsliding. He replied that he was glad I should use the facts in any way for good. His employer and he then drove off to Birmingham, and for several months I saw his face no more.
The newspapers, however, reported that legal proceedings were taken against him. I waited from time to time on his employers, and used my influence in his behalf. The greatest leniency was shown by the firm in the matter of the prosecution. It was felt that with so many workmen on the place it would be misunderstood if the crime were passed over without any punishment; the charge, however, was reduced to that of stealing one watch instead of twenty-two, which in fact he had stolen.
A summary conviction, too, was obtained, and instead of his being sent for trial and being doomed to years of penal servitude, the sentence was one of six month’s imprisonment. Thus “goodness and mercy” followed the unhappy young man, and he was led away to the borough gaol to eat the fruit of his ways, bitter indeed, yet less bitter than might easily have been the case had not God overruled all his erring steps.
As the period of his six months’ imprisonment drew near its expiration, it was laid much upon my heart to visit the subject of our memoir. I had been the less disposed to call earlier upon him in order that I might test with greater satisfaction the effect of the severe discipline which God had seen well to impose upon the erring youth. Accordingly, on Saturday, the 25th of August 1877,I set out for the Birmingham Borough Gaol. I had previously called at the detective department in Moor Street to make enquiries as to my being admitted to see the prisoner at a time other than that allowed by the rules.
Having applied at the outer gates Â— those massive, repulsive gates in the walls of the huge building Â— I was admitted by the police porter upon producing my card and giving particulars of my visit. Led across the courtyard, the ponderous gate behind me being first securely closed, I was ushered into the main corridor of the prison through another door which the warder unlocked. In a few minutes I was in the presence of the Governor in his neatly furnished office in the centre of the building.
This gentleman received me most courteously, and showed a sincere interest in the narrative of the career of the inmate of the gaol whom I hoped to see. In the course of our conversation I particularly asked if the conduct of the young man had been good since his imprisonment. “Excellent,” was the prompt reply. “By which I understand. Sir, that he has conducted himself to your entire satisfaction?” I added. “Yes, certainly,” replied the Governor.
After our further conversing upon the past, present, and future of the young man, a bell was rung, and a warder speedily appeared, to receive orders to bring in the subject of my visit. Great indeed was his astonishment when upon entering the Governor’s room he found me there. Although he looked pale, and more delicate than when we parted at the Vicarage gate nearly six months previously, there was a
calm, peaceful look resting upon his features which at once struck me.
The prison dress Â— a grey cloth suit Â— perhaps added to the interest of the first glance I got of him, but his replies to my questions affected me most. He proceeded to say that he had every reason to thank God that he had ever been brought into that place! He had, he said, fully proved the truth of what he had observed to me at Old Hill, namely, that he would rather be in prison and have Christ with him than be at large with the fearful pressure upon his mind of the wrong he had done. He, moreover, remarked upon the subject, “You will remember, Sir, what I said to you?” To which I replied, “Well, I am not sure (although I thought I knew to what he referred) when he quoted his own words given above, and then observed, “These last six months have been the happiest in my life!” “Indeed,” said I, “how so?” “Because,”he thoughtfully answered, “I have had more real communion here with Christ than I ever had.” I then reminded him of the sermons he heard at Old Hill Church, and of how the Lord never casts off His own people, but deals with them in loving, severe chastisement for their profit, humiliation, and edification.
The kind Governor listened to the entire conversation, which lasted for ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, and from time to time joined in with weighty and sympathizing remarks. In the course of the interview the young man observed that he had for some time resolved to spend his first Sabbath at Old Hill after being set free.
He was much gratified on hearing that his case had called forth constant prayer amongst several in our parish, and especially that two or three little children had daily pleaded with Jesus for him. In taking my farewell of the poor prisoner, I blessed God for so graciously dealing with the soul of one whom Satan had beset with such terrible success. It seemed like another proof that dust is and must be the serpent’s meat, and that Christ in all things is able to wrest the victory for Himself.
A short time after the expiration of his six months’ imprisonment, the young man came over from Birmingham to the Vicarage at Old Hill to have an interview with me. He was looking rather unwell, but his spirit was bright, and his heart full of humble hope for the future. It was a joyous, yet solemn moment when the now liberated one knelt down with his friend and the little children
who had daily pleaded for him with the Lord, and returned thanks for the many and special mercies granted to him in the prison.
Earnestly too it was asked that a life of usefulness might now begin, that the painful lessons which the past had taught might never be forgotten, and that Divine grace might be given to enable him to walk watchfully and consistently all his days. In the course of the interview he remarked, “I have learnt one lesson since I went to prison, the want of which I now see to have been the cause of my fall. I have learnt that there is no good whatever in me, and that I dare not therefore depend on any strength or resolution of my own.”
This observation led to a very interesting and practical conversation as to his experience while undergoing the sentence. He laid great stress on the goodness of God in bringing him into contact frequently with a warder who was a true Christian, and with whom he had refreshing communion from time to time.
He was pleased to know that I had fulfilled my promise to use his sad history in our little Parish Magazine as a warning to other young people to beware of trifling with sin, and he gratefully accepted a copy of each number containing “The story of the Birmingham Thief at Old Hill Church.” The Governor of the gaol, it appears, acted very kindly on his discharge by assisting him with a small sum of money.
The gracious Lord also opened up a way whereby he could earn an honourable livelihood immediately upon his obtaining his liberty;
and within the past few days, at another interview, he assured me that he was being prospered in his labours. He continued to show a humble and chastened dispostion, and evinces real gratitude for the Christian interest which has been shown in his sad case.
Let all who know the value of prayer still remember at the throne of grace such poor tempted ones. Let us all alike walk with a soft step day by day, for is it not written, “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall”? Is it not also written, “If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ”?
May all who read the story of how, step by step, this youth was led by Satan from the narrow way into the paths of sin and misery, tremble to touch that which God has lovingly forbidden, and flee the very appearance of evil. Then good will have been brought out of this evil, and the wrath of the great enemy of souls will be made to praise the God of wisdom and power Â— for the Lord Jesus Christ is able to subdue all things unto himself.
First printed in the Gospel Magazine, June, 1914.