SOME UNUSUAL CONVERSIONS
from The Days of the Father in Ross-shire by J. Kennedy
A Death-bed Scene
`Having got anxious about a sick neighbour,’ he writes, ‘whom I had been visiting, I went for the doctor to examine her, and he found that a deadly disease was making such rapid progress that she had only a short time to live. I deemed it my duty to tell her the doctor’s opinion. After doing so as gently, but as plainly, as I could, she seemed startled, the idea of death being near not having been previously before her mind. Shrinking from realising her danger, she referred to the opinion of another doctor, and to all that she regarded as favourable symptoms in her case. Having repeated my conviction of her case, I prayed with her, and left. Mentioning to those around what I had told her, she said she thought the doctor was wrong in his opinion, for she felt better. Observing the servant having a sad expression of face, she said, “Put away that gloomy face.” With a few visitors she entered into a light conversation, and she and they were laughing together just before my second visit. I then found it equally difficult as at first to make her realise that there was danger. A third time I visited her, and found her even still more averse than before to believe that her end was near. I came away in a very saddened state of feeling, but returned at a late hour that same night. On this occasion she began for the first time during her illness to look death in the face. During that night I was sent for, and found that in the interval she had passed through a wonderful revolution of feeling. She confessed that for a time she had been forgetting God, but that now she felt His calling to be, ‘Prepare to meet thy God.’ “It is a solemn thing to die; what do I require to prepare me for it?” I then
endeavoured to answer her question, and had a long conversation with her. Thinking her end was just at hand, she called the inmates one by one, and gave them seasonable advice, especially warning them to make use of their Sabbath opportunities. During her last day, looking out at the window, she said, “It is a solemn thing to be taking a last look of the sun; but in heaven there is no need of the sun, for the Lord Himself is the light thereof. I am resolved to cling to Jesus to the last; I have none else; and though I am the chief of sinners, His blood can cleanse from all sin.”
`Praying, she said, “Blessed Jesus, leave me not in this trying hour; I will not let Thee go except Thou bless me. Light up the dark valley for my soul.” Being able to take a little water, which the spasms prevented her doing for some time before, she said, “What a mercy to relieve the burning thirst!” I answered, “It is one of the last drops of mercy you need for your body.” “Yes,” she said, “but it cost Him dear to procure that for me. It is a solemn thing to feel death creeping up; it is now just above my knee; death has bound my feet so that I cannot move them!” Going back at four o’clock, Mr DÂ— asked me to pray with her. She joined distinctly in the petitions. She then repeated the words, “Into Thy hands I commit my spirit, for Thou bast redeemed me. Keep near me, blessed Jesus, in the swellings of Jordan. Lord, receive my spirit, but help me to wait with patience my appointed time. How could I have gone through this but for the light of His face? He has kept me in perfect peace, clinging to the promise and the blood which cleanseth from all sin.” ‘
The Drunken Soldier
After the peace of 1815, soldiers who had been engaged in the Peninsular War returned, as pensioners, to their native parishes. In general, they were no acquisition. Judging of them as they were on their return, Killearnan’s share of the pensioners formed no exception to the rule. But some of them had been preserved amidst all the dangers of campaigns and battles, and brought to Killearnan, that the Lord, in ‘his time of love,’ might meet with them there.
Alexander Macdonald, ‘a Waterloo man,’ came to reside in a village quite close to the church. Addicted to drink, and pestered by a fretful wife, the poor pensioner led but a miserable life. His home was often the scene of unseemly squabbles. This state of matters continued for some time after his return from the Continent. But, at last, the day of his salvation did come. While in church, on an ordinary Sabbath, the Lord applied the doctrine of the sermon with power to his soul. He was quietly, but effectually, drawn unto Christ by the cords of His love; and he, who entered church that day in all the indifference of a hardened transgressor, left it rejoicing in the Lord. This was a case in which we might have expected a more protracted and gainful preliminary work; but the Lord is sovereign and giveth no account of His ways. The pensioner was soon missed by his former companions. Neighbours observed that a calm had settled on his once restless home. He began to attend the prayer and the fellowship meetings, and many were wondering what had befallen the pensioner. They had not heard of any process of conviction of which he had been the subject; they only knew that he was not now what he used to be before. It was with no small wonder, then, that they saw him rise within a few months after this change to propose a question at the fellowship meeting. Still greater became their surprise when, instead of instantly refusing, the minister most gladly accepted it, expressing, at the same time, his assurance that it was proposed under the guidance of the Lord. The pensioner had not then spoken to the minister in private, and this being known by the people, their astonishment was all the greater, because of his manner of receiving the question. But the pensioner’s case had been on the minister’s heart, and the Lord had led him to expect that he would yet be a witness for Himself, and had prepared him to receive him as such. That day’s meeting was countenanced by the Lord, and was an occasion of gladness to minister and people.
The pensioner’s life from that day forth was a striking evidence of the power of grace. A more temperate man there was not in all the parish. His house was a very model of cleanliness and neatness within and without. His garden was always the neatest, the earliest, and the most productive. His wife continued the impersonation of fretfulness and discontent she ever was before, but never did she draw an angry retort from her husband; remembering his former unkindness, there was no self-denial he would not practise, no drudgery he would not submit to, no expense he would spare to add to the comfort of his wife. Never was a wife more tenderly treated than she now was, and though an approving smile or a grateful word would never be given in exchange for his kindness, the pensioner never wearied in his tender attention to her wants. His was, indeed, the path of the just, and it shone ‘more and more unto the perfect day.’ His Christian course was not long, but it was bright. He had his burden, but he found it light; he had his conflict, but it was short; and, leaving behind him the fragrant memory of the righteous, he passed into his rest in heaven.
Old Men Converted
It is not often that after threescore years and ten a sinner is turned `from darkness unto light,’ and whenever this is done the riches, power, and sovereignty of grace are gloriously displayed. On this account, other interesting cases of conversion are passed over, to make room for a sample of converts from among the aged.
Alexander M’Farquhar remembered ’45 quite distinctly. He had seen Prince Charlie, and had heard the guns on the day of Culloden. Often
did he tell to wondering groups of listeners his stories of those days, and filling up from his imagination the blanks in his memory, marvellous, indeed, were his tales of Charles and his exploits. The Prince, of M’Farquhar’s tales, was a Goliath in height; his horse could be mounted by ordinary men only by means of a ladder; and never was Eastern king, glittering all over with gold and jewels, one half so splendid in his attire as he, according to M’Farquhar’s description, who commanded the clans at Culloden. Only as a retailer of fabulous stories of the rebellion, and as a hardened, ignorant, worldly man was he known till he had passed fourscore years and ten. But then the Lord broke down the strong entrenchments of the kingdom of darkness in that hardened sinner’s soul by the almighty power of His Spirit, and won him, as a child is won, by the beauty and the love of Christ. He had passed into his dotage then, but he had not gone beyond the efficacy of the Lord’s own teaching. It was wonderful to hear that man, who had lived for ninety years ‘without God in the world,’ now describing, with a child’s simplicity, his first impressions of the Saviour’s love. It was through the preaching of the Gospel, under which he had sat so long a listless hearer, that the light first broke in on his long-benighted soul and he first ‘tasted that the Lord is gracious.’ He lived, thereafter, wondering at the change he felt, and at the grace that produced it, till he went in to join the choir who sing the praises of redeeming love in heaven. His new life was, indeed, a short one, but the light shone upon it, in which all around him saw that he was departing ‘from hell beneath.’
Still older was ‘Colin of the peats,’ as the schoolboys called him, before the light of truth dawned on his darkened soul. One of my earliest memories is the visit of old Colin to the school with his little cart of peats. We then thought him to be a century old, and his pony’s age was reckoned at almost half its owner’s. Up to his hundredth year, he continued a dark earthworm, without a thought about his soul, or one care about his safety. His mind, never vigorous, was then in the weakness of a second childhood; and if there was one on earth that seemed quite beyond the reach of grace, it was old ‘Colin of the peats.’ Able yet to walk, he was regularly in church. After a Sabbath, on which he was observed to have a wakeful, earnest expression on his deeply furrowed face, he came to his minister. ‘I saw a most beautiful one last Sabbath,’ the old man said, as he sat down in the study. ‘Where did you see him?’ he was asked. ‘In the sermon,’ was Colin’s answer. ‘What was his appearance, Colin?’ ‘0h, he was fairer than the sons of men; I can’t tell what he was like, for he was altogether lovely.’ His minister then asked, ‘What effect had the sight of Him on your heart?’ ‘0h, he quite took my heart from me,’ was Colin’s simple and touching answer. This was all that he, then in his dotage, could tell about the change through which he passed. But, thereafter, old Colin thought and spoke of Christ, of whom he had never thought nor spoken before, and he cared now to think and speak of none and nothing else. The little exercise of intellect now left in Colin’s mind was bathed in Gospel light, and the old man’s broken heart gave forth, with all the freshness of a child’s affection, the savour of the love of Christ. A year of this new life was added to the century during which he lived ‘without God in the world,’ and then he quietly ‘fell asleep.’
More marked and evident was the conversion of old Sandy Dallas. Till he reached his seventieth year, there was not in all the parish a more worldly and insensate man than he. He regularly came to church, but he gave not even his ear to the Gospel; for no preacher and no sermon could keep Sandy awake. Busy, late and early, with his farm work all the week, and thinking of nothing else, Sabbath was to him a day of rest, just as he could make it a day of sleep. He chose to take his nap in his pew in church rather than on his bed at home, but this was all his concession to the claims of conscience. It was about six years before my father’s death that the long slumber of his soul was broken. The first indication of a change was his earnest attention to the Word preached. He, who used to sleep out the whole service in church, now fixed his eye Â— and he had but one Â— on the preacher, and with rivetted attention, and in tears, seemed to drink in with eagerness all that was spoken. On leaving the house of God, he was now observed to choose a retired path to walk in, apart from the crowd; and, though his house was only about a mile from the church, hours would pass before he reached it. The elder of his district, observing this, resolved to follow him, that he might ascertain how he employed his time by the way. He could easily conceal himself from Sandy, while only a short interval separated them. He approached him closely enough to hear his voice, as he repeated all he could remember of the sermon, and to notice that when his memory failed him he knelt to pray for help to recollect what he had lost; and that when any note particularly impressed him, he would again kneel to pray, asking now the Lord to preserve it in his memory, and to apply it effectually to his soul. This was, thereafter, his usual practice in retiring from the house of God. In course of the following year, he applied for admission to the table of the Lord, and was cordially received by both the minister and the elders. Among the many who came to look on my father’s remains after his death was Sandy Dallas; and, of them all, there was not a more heart-stricken mourner. Grasping convulsively the post of the bed on which the corpse was stretched, all his sobbing voice could utter were the words, ‘He there, and I here!’ He survived his minister a few years, during which he gave ample evidence of his affections being now ‘set on things above,’ All he now did about the farm was occasionally to herd the cattle, and even then he passed his time in reading and in prayer and praise: others complaining that the herding was spoiled by the praying, and he himself complaining that the praying was spoiled by the herding. The freshness of his spiritual feeling waned not with his
decaying intellect and strength, and, as an humble follower of the Lamb, he passed the remnant of his days on earth.
David Munro’s Conversion
David Munro, till within two years of his death, was the most notorious drunkard in the parish. Seldom sober, and only so when he could not manage to get drink, he passed a beastly life, till he approached fourscore years of age. But all this time he was regularly in the house of God. This and his terror of the minister were the only evidences of his not being quite abandoned. His dread of my father had all the power of a passion. There was no effort he would not make to avoid encountering him. But an occasion occurred in which he was under the necessity of meeting him. One of his daughters was about to be married, and her father must, of course, come `to speak to the minister,’ for such was the stern custom of the parish. He could not avoid meeting the minister on the marriage day, at any rate, so he resolved to come to speak to him in the manse. He came, but in such a state of fear that it was with difficulty he could mount the stair to the study. He came out of it, after a short interview, bathed in tears. Meeting the minister’s wife, he said to her, ‘Oh, I expected to meet a lion in the study, but I found a lamb’; and, quite overcome by the kindness he had met with, he renewed his weeping. His case had been on her heart before, and on those of other praying people, and her feeling towards him was such that she could not refrain from saying, ‘Would that the power of grace transformed yourself, David, into a lamb.’ Who knows, who knows, but it may,’ he said, as he hurried off. Not long after he was laid low by sickness, and nothing would satisfy him now but a visit from the minister, whom he so dreaded to meet before. My father went to see him, and his visits were blessed to the poor drunkard. After a deep work of conviction, he was led to the only good foundation of a sinner’s hope, and lived long enough to give evidence, which assured the hearts of many who were not easily satisfied, that he was verily ‘a brand plucked from the fire.’
Another case is linked with David’s in the memories of those days, just because the convert had been a drunkard also. Returning home on a dark night after preaching in Dingwall, my father heard a moan by the wayside which arrested his attention, and on dismounting he found a poor wretch lying in the ditch, helplessly drunk, and almost strangled. Raising, he supported him, as he led his horse to a house at a little distance. There the poor man lay till he had the drunkard’s wretched waking next morning. The story of his rescue was told him next day, and it so wrought upon his mind that he resolved to go to thank the person who had so kindly taken care of him. He could not summon courage to pay his visit till that day had passed. Arriving at the manse of Killearnan a little after mid-day on the Thursday of the monthly lecture, he found that the minister had gone to church, and that there was public worship there that day. He went to the house of God, the Lord met with his soul, and he who had been the means so lately of extending his life on earth was now, besides, the means of leading him into the way of life eternal.
Even Poor Mary was Converted
A more interesting case than any yet given must now be added as the last in the sample of converts in Killearnan. Mary Macrae lived in Lochbroom till she was more than fifty years of age. She was regarded by all her acquaintances as a witless creature that could not be trusted, as she herself used afterwards to say, ‘even with the washing of a pot.’ The little intellect she had was in a state of utter torpor; nothing moved it into activity. Any attempt to educate her was regarded as quite hopeless. Her life was, indeed, a cheerless waste during her ‘years of ignorance.’ Regarded as a simpleton by her neighbours, and as a burden by her relatives, she was a stranger even to the happiness which human kindness gives; and no light or joy from heaven had yet reached her alienated soul. On a Saturday, as she sat by the fire in her bothy in Lochbroom, the idea of going to Killearnan came into her mind. Whence or how it came to her she could not tell, but she found it in her mind, and she could not shake it out. She rose from her seat, threw on her cloak, and started for Killearnan. She had never been there before, although she had often heard it spoken of. The journey was long and lonesome, but she kept on her way, and asking direction as she went on, she at last reached the old church at Killearnan as the people were assembling on the Sabbath morning. Following the people, she entered the church. During the sermon the voice of the Son of God was heard by Mary’s quickened soul. She saw His beauty as no child of darkness ever saw it, and with her heart she said, before she left the church that day, ‘I am the Lord’s.’
Never, from that day till her death, did Mary return to her former home. Where she had found the Lord there she resolved to cast her lot. But the joy of her espousals was soon rudely broken, and deep, for a season, was the agony of her soul thereafter. I used to know her then as `foolish Mary,’ and wondered what could move my father to admit her to his study, but the time came when I accounted it one of the highest privileges of my lot that I could admit her to my own. By degrees she was raised out of the depths of her sore distress. Marvellous was the minuteness with which Mary’s case was dealt with by the preacher Sabbath after Sabbath. Every fear was met, every difficulty solved, that distressed and troubled her; and she, whom ‘the wise and prudent’ would despise, seemed the special favourite of heaven among all the children of Zion who were fed in Killearnan. Her mind was opened up to understand the truth in a way quite peculiar, and she was led into a course of humble walking with her God.
Owing to the feebleness of her intellect, she could directly apprehend only a logical statement of the very simplest kind. The truth was first pictured in an allegory, in her imagination, and then holding the statement of it before her understanding and its symbol beside it, she examined and compared them both; able to receive, from the former into her understanding only what was made clear by the latter, and refusing to receive from the latter into her heart all that did not accord with the former. Regarding a merely imaginative as necessarily a merely carnal view of spiritual truths, one could not but be staggered at first before Mary’s habits of thought. But in course of time they would furnish to a wise observer a very distinct delineation of the proper offices of the various mental faculties in relation to ‘the things of God.’ Being all feeble, each required to do its utmost in its own peculiar place ere a truth presented to her mind could reach her heart. Because of this they could the more easily be seen at work in all her mental processes. Her imagination was employed in introducing the truth into her understanding, and this must always be its handmaid work about ‘the things of God.’ It must not convey the truth directly to the heart; it must only help its passage thither through the understanding. When it assumes a more lordly function the light which it furnishes cannot be safe nor the feeling which it produces healthful.
Like the sickly child in a family, Mary was all the more closely and tenderly dealt with owing to her very feebleness. Her imagination could not form the emblem required to assist her understanding, and the illustrations she employed seemed to have been the Lord’s own suggestions. She could not read, and in her feeble memory but little Bible truth was stored. The Word seemed, on that account, to have been directly given her by her heavenly Teacher. As she could not repair to her Bible to search for it, her daily bread for her soul came to her like the manna, always fresh from heaven, right down upon her case. Peculiarly near was thus her intercourse with God, just because of her very weakness.
Her way of telling any of her views or feelings would be quite startling to a listener at first. It was always easier for her to give the matter as she found it in the emblem than embodied in a formal statement. She seemed, on that account, to one who knew her not, to be telling of some dream or vision she had seen. It was only after she had told the allegory that she could attempt to state what it was intended to illustrate. The emblem was not constructed by her to make her meaning clear to another; it was presented to her by the Lord to make a truth clear to herself. She always felt that it was something given to her, and it was always as vivid as a scene before her eyes. She could not dispense with it, either in examining what she sought to know or in describing what she sought to tell. Meeting a young man once, who was on the eve of licence, and much cast down in prospect of the work before him, she said, ‘I saw you lately in a quagmire, with a fishing-rod in your hand, and you and it were sinking together, and you cried, as if you would never rise again; but I saw you again, on the bank of a broad river, and the joy of your heart was in the smile on your face, and you were returning home with your rod on your shoulder, and a basket full of fish in your hand;’ and then, in broken words, she spoke of his present fears, and of the joy awaiting him in the future.
Of all I ever knew, she was the one who seemed to enjoy the greatest nearness to God in prayer. The whole case of one, whom she carried on her spirit before the throne of grace, seemed to be uncovered before her. She could follow him with the closest sympathy in his cares and sorrows, during his course through life, with no information regarding him but such as was given her in her intercourse with God. A minister, to whom she was attached, having been sorely tempted during the week, and finding no relief on Sabbath morning, resolved not to go out to church at all that day. About an hour before the time for beginning public worship, Mary arrived at his house. As she came to the door, he was seated in a room just beside it, and overheard a conversation between Mary and the person who admitted her. ‘What is the matter with the minister?’ she asked. ‘I don’t know,’ was the reply; ‘but I never saw him in greater distress.’ I knew that,’ Mary said, ‘and he is tempted not to go out to church today, but he will go after all; the snare will be broken, and he will get on the wing in his work today.’ She then repeated a passage of Scripture, which was ‘a word in season’ to him, who listened out of sight, and a staff to help him on his way to ‘the gates of Zion.’
It was quite extraordinary how her mind would be led to take an interest in the cause of Christ, in places and in countries of which she knew not even the names. Instances of this might be given so remarkable that I cannot venture to risk my credibility by recording them. One only will be given. Coming to me once, with an anxious expression on her face, she asked if there was any minister, in a certain district, which she could only indicate by telling that it was not far from a place of which she knew the name. I told her there was; ‘but why do you wish to know?’ I asked. ‘I saw him lately,’ was the answer, ‘fixing a wing to each of his sides, and rising on these wings into the air till he was very high; and then, suddenly, he fell, and was dashed to pieces on the ground;’ and, she added, ‘I think if there is such a minister, that he has but a borrowed godliness, and that his end is near.’ There was just such a minister, and his end was near, for, before a week had passed, I received the tidings of his death.
Symptoms of cancer in her breast having appeared, and medical advice having been taken, she was told that nothing could be done for her, but the removal of the affected part. She was then about sixty years of age, and it seemed to all her friends that she would be running a great
risk by submitting to the operation. But Mary had asked counsel of Him to whom she went with all her cares, and, with an assurance of recovery, she resolved to have the cancerous tumour removed. The operation was performed. A few days thereafter she was in the Burn of Ferintosh hearing the Gospel, and never suffered again from the same cause till her death.
Sweet to all who knew her and who saw in her the working of the grace of God is the memory of that simple, loving, holy woman. She is now at her rest in her Father’s house; and those who loved her best cannot wish that she still were here. But since she has passed from the earth they often sadly miss the cheering streak of light her presence used to cast across their dark and lonesome path in this vale of tears.
Darkness Changed to Light
Among those who came to Killearnan from Knockbain was a young man whose case was peculiarly interesting. John Gilmour, while a tradesman in Aberdeen, was awakened under the preaching of Mr Grant, then minister of the Gaelic Chapel in that city. His convictions were unusually deep and protracted, and, being utterly unfitted for any active employment, he was compelled to return to his native parish. For several years he walked on the very borders of despair. It was in the study of the old manse of Killearnan the light of the Gospel first shone into his soul. He had come to speak to the minister, but could only tell him of the misery of a soul lying ‘without hope’ on the very brink of destruction. In course of conversation, and to illustrate the state of his soul in relation to the Gospel, the minister rose and closed the shutters of the window. When the room was thus darkened he said, ‘Such is the state of your soul, John; this room is dark, not because it is not daytime without, and the light not ready to enter, but because the light that shineth so brightly upon it is excluded by something within. It is so with you in relation to Him who is ‘the light of the world.’ Then, while gradually opening the shutters, he preached Christ to his disconsolate hearer, and just as the light of day was entering into and filling the room, the ‘marvellous light’ of the Gospel was penetrating into the broken heart of John Gilmour, till the desperate misery of that heart gave place to an ecstacy of joy. The liberty then attained continued with but little intermission till he died; but so overpowering was his gladness that he himself declared his bodily strength was more reduced by three weeks of his happiness than by three years of the misery which he had previously endured. Rapidly growing in grace, and distinguished for the clearness of his views, as well as for the depth of his experience, he seemed one eminently fitted for serving the Lord in the church on earth. But while yet in his youth he was suddenly removed to his place in the church in heaven. On the Sabbath after his death, my father’s text was Psalm 46.10. Having announced it, he said, ‘I have searched the Bible throughout for a reason why the Lord should suddenly, and, as we would think, prematurely remove one of the church on earth one who had given rich promise of usefulness there, but the Lord gave me no account of this dealing, and has only answered my inquiries in the words: “Be still, and know that I am God.”‘