A STORY OF GRACE
Rev. T. S. Dickson, M.A.
Caroline Fry was born at Tunbridge Wells in December, 1787, being one of seven daughters, in a household of ten children. Her rents appear to have been in easy social circumstances, and so she received a superior education. The home life, however, was sadly lacking on the religious side. The father seems to have had much greater influence on her young spirit than the somewhat colourless and quiet mother; but neither of the parents was spiritually minded. There was, it is true, scrupulous conformity to the externals of religion. Regular church-going. Sabbath observance, conning of Collects and Church Catechism, Bible reading on Sundays Â— only of Old Testament narratives Â— followed by a sermon of Dr. Blair; and then religion was dismissed till next Sabbath, not being anybody’s business during the week. The only unseen world that occupied little Caroline’s attention was that of the classic poets. There was no one in the home to tell this eager and intense young soul of Jesus and His love. Her childish mind was never stored with Holy Writ. Young’s “Night Thoughts” was her Bible. It is pathetic to read her testimony, written at the age of 52, as to the practically godless character of her home training. The effect of Young’s high-flown and sentimental poetry upon her youthful mind was, of course, most unwholesome. Morbid dissatisfaction with life, a lowered opinion of human nature, and a desire to escape from earth’s unkindness and injustice by an early death Â— such was the melancholy outcome of the “delicious hours she passed in committing to memory Young’s deep-feeling and romantic poetry.”
Politics she heard much of, for her father was an ardent politician. His pride in the young girl was unbounded. He printed and published an edition of a “History of England in Verse,” of which she was the proud authoress, at the age of 14!
It was a great blow to be bereft of her father’s sympathy and encouragement when she was only 15, but among other changes it led to the household being liberated from the extreme seclusion in which he had brought them up.
The years of girlhood that followed she writes of as being marked by “happiness, freedom, mirth, hilarity, good humour with everyone, and delight in everything.” Literary pursuits came for the time to be abandoned in favour of her elder sisters’ occupations. “Walking, drawing, gardening, and work filled up her busy days.” A new and delightful experience was the pleasure of the ball-room. The vivacious maiden revelled in the “half-romping excitement of the English country dance.”
Next we find the large and happy family preparing to separate, and for a brief period the youngest girls were sent to a “first-rate” London school. But Caroline was too fond of the happy and hilarious home-life she had left to enjoy the restrictions of the boarding-school, and, when a little more than 18 years old, returned home “with some increased knowledge of the world, and a stirring desire to be better acquainted with it.”
But all seemed changed Â— herself most of all. After having seen London, and heard of London life, after having mixed with girls of other habits and of other tastes, the yearnings of vanity and ambition had become strong within her; “she wanted to see life Â— to be Â— to do Â— though she knew not what.” The sight of carriages filled with gaily dressed ball-goers, bound for the Assembly Room at Tunbridge Wells, made her thirst for “the gaiety, the dress, the splendid equipage, the expected pleasure.” As the lumbering family carriages rolled past her on the high road to London, the maiden yearned that she, too, might go Â— “somewhere, anywhere.” The home, the country life, had Â— like books and poetry somewhat earlier Â— lost all their charm.
It was given to her as she desired. She had her way, and more than seven years were to be permitted to her to try that world she
longed for so ardently, the world of fashion and gaiety, before she found her rest in God.
We find her next in London, under the roof of a relative of brilliant wit and polished manners. In her father’s house, if there had been no heart religion, there had been at least morality in speech and life. In her new home, nothing came amiss to point a jest, provided it were not coarse or low.
During the eighteen months of her boarding-school life, her restless intellect had led her to frequent various churches, if possible
to find a preacher who would give her “an intellectual treat.” “She liked to hear a good sermon better than a bad one, and the better it was the better she like it; for the same reason that she liked a good poem better than a bad one”; and so she had acquired a head-knowledge, full and correct, of evangelical doctrine. She understood the Gospel, as far as it could be learned of man, without the help of the Spirit and the Word. But in her new home at Bloomsbury there was no pretence of religion. The Sunday drive in the Park was a more frequent function than the visit to church. Ostensibly she was a member of this home circle, for the purpose of being companion and help to the lady of the house. Really, her heart’s desire was to get into “society,” and in due season make a suitable “match.” For long the Bible had been unopened, for long she had ceased to pray, for long she had felt and cared nothing about religion. Now and then, in her host’s absence, his wife and Caroline, for want of something more interesting, would go to church of a Sunday morning, “for no purpose or intent certainly, but to pass the time.”
In one of these freaks she heard that eminent man of God, Rev. Richard Cecil, then at the very zenith of his ministry at St. John’s, but her feelings were only those of absolute offence and disgust. Her mental pabulum was now supplied by the trashy novels of the circulating library. The only book of “Sunday reading” in this fashionable home was a stray volume of Cowper’s poems. The story of these three years in London forms, in her later view of it, “a sad, sad chapter.”
At her relative’s table there was a frequent guest of literary repute and venerable age, courtly and high-bred, whose wit spared nothing human or divine; friends, life, mortality, religion Â— nothing barred the jest. Caroline fell a ready victim to his atheistic views. She was too pure-minded and innocent for his immorality, but only too ready for his irreligion. This courtly but corrupt “man of the world” flattered and caressed the ingenuous maiden, and poured into her too receptive ear the poison of his unbelief. Only too successfully! for at the age of twenty she hated the very name of God. At other times, she persuaded herself that He was non-existent, and tried hard to believe her own heart’s lie. She revelled in the cultured old worldling’s profane wit, and delighted in every manifestation of contempt for religion in the circle around her.
In those days, so-called “religious people” were not met with in ordinary “society.” In fashionable circles, accordingly, such as those she now moved in, all mention of religion was casual and jocular;
ridicule and not argument. Nobody reasoned against the Christian faith, because “everybody” despised it; the majority professed to know nothing about it. “Christians” were not so much hated in these godless circles Â— they were not of sufficient importance for that Â— as ignored and scorned. “No,” writes Caroline, in later life, “it was
the Master then, and not His servants, on whom we poured our malice.” Is it not wonderful to think that the writer of “Christ our Example” was, at twenty to twenty-five years of age, an atheist in heart, and only not quite one in understanding? She wished that there should be no God, but because she could not entirely satisfy her own mind that there was none, she hated the very utterance of His name, except when it was used in jest.
Several of her brothers and sisters were by this time earnest Christians. That made no difference. When from decency or necessity she went to church, she made it a rule and a deliberate effort not to join in the service, or listen to the prayers! When a pious sister, during illness, asked Caroline to repeat to her some hymns, she confessed that she did not know any, but would make one for her! And within a day she composed a beautiful hymn, entitled “For what shall I praise Thee my God and my King?” of which, when she wrote it, she did not believe a word!
Some twelve years after, Caroline Fry Â— twenty-five years of age, and an atheist Â— had written, for her sick sister’s benefit, a beautiful hymn, containing such sentiments as these:Â—
“For my nights of anxiety, watching, and tears;
A present of pain; a perspective of fears;
I praise Thee, I bless Thee, my King and my God!
For the good and the evil Thy hand has bestowed.”Â—
a manuscript copy was shown to herself by a young Christian lady, who was ignorant of its authorship, but who regarded it as a great treasure. Caroline had great difficulty in persuading her young friend that she had written it! Standing aloof from every Christian Church, she, however, read, for intellectual stimulus, many religious books. One of these was Tomline’s “Refutation of Calvinism.” As a result, she concluded that, if there was anything in Christianity at all, the Calvinists had the best of the controversy!
Her brother. Rev. John Fry, was by this time a well-known clergyman, and author of various religious works. Occasionally Caroline heard him preach, and read his books, and held him in high esteem and sincere affection; but his religious views had not the slightest influence upon her, and he was reluctantly constrained to regard her as, from pride of intellect, the most hopeless of the family. The Bible was not only unread but cordially detested. But God
“Moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;”
and, after three years of London life, she found another home in Lincolnshire with a clergyman’s family, where, singularly enough, she writes that “everything was against the probability of her receiving religious impressions!” Is it any wonder that she describes herself at this time as “restless, unsatisfied, unhappy; weary and disgusted with the present, and hopeless of the future, without a
single sorrow, but the absence of all joy?” The Good Shepherd, however, had not lost sight of His stray sheep, wandering “away on the mountains, wild and bare,” and was on His way to intercept this restless spirit in her self-willed career. “Kindly treated, humoured, flattered, and indulged by everyone,” Â— admired and loved by all about her Â— she was utterly miserable and heart-sick.
Living in absolute neglect of prayer, there were a few occasions when, not on her knees, but on her bed, she would mentally express her inmost feelings to this effect: “God, if Thou art a God! I do not love Thee, I do not want Thee, I do not believe in any happiness in Thee; but I am miserable as I am. Give me what I do not seek, do not like, do not want Â— if Thou can ‘st make me happy. I am tired of this world; if there is anything better, give it me!” This was the only prayer that Caroline ever offered before her conversion! Was it the first stirring of the Holy Spirit within her soul? Is it possible, in view of such an utterance, that the heart-searching God could have said:
“Behold! she prayeth”? Who can tell? But it was Miss Fry’s conviction, after the great change had been experienced, that “this was the moment when the Messenger of Peace appeared.”
In the destitution of her affections at this momentous juncture, she soon became devotedly attached to the daughter of a clergyman in a neighbouring parish, of the same age as herself, but a perfect contrast in character, “a lovely creature of great beauty, highly cultivated mind, and most endearing manners.” It was a case, too, of mutual admiration. “Fanny,” Caroline’s new friend, though calm, self-possessed, polite, and conciliatory, responded warmly to her overtures of friendship and affection. They corresponded daily. Each, indeed, regarded the other “as better than herself.”
Though not a Christian, in any true sense of the term. Fanny was sentimentally religious. An early disappointment in love had blighted her affections, and she talked much of the vanity of the world, and wished to leave it. “I do not remember,” writes Miss Fry, “that she ever spoke of Christ. She had no knowledge of true religion at all, and never pretended to have, and despised the Gospel of Christ to the full as much as I did. But she had a religion Â— a sentimental desire for a better world, such as comes simply of disappointment in this.” But at the time, Caroline thought that Fanny was not only religious, but spiritually enlightened, and her mistake, singularly enough, was made the instrument of Caroline’s conversion. Amidst their mutual confidences, Caroline never confessed her unbelief, nor acknowledged the total absence from her heart of religious feeling. But Fanny was calm, stoical, meek, philosophical, read her Bible, said her prayers, was punctilious in all her religious observances. Caroline was filled with shame at the contrast with herself, for she was wilful, excitable, hasty, unsatisfied. From time to time she
poured out her heart to her friend, bewailing her impetuosity, lack of self-control, and want of submission to circumstances.
This led Fanny, during a brief separation from Caroline, and unable to screw up courage to speak to her friend about her want of religion, to write Caroline a letter, in which she remonstrated with her on this lack of “religion,” and assured her that it was “religion” alone that gave the writer that advantage over Caroline, which the latter so much admired and coveted. The letter contained no mention of Christ, made no reference to the Spirit; might, indeed, have been written by a Socinian or a Deist. This well-meant endeavour was hotly resented. On two successive days two successive replies Â— indignant, sarcastic, contemptuous Â— were composed, but no one could be found to convey either of them to Fanny, who was some miles off. So they were burned. But the conflict was now turned Christ-ward. Caroline hated her friend for what she had written, but she hated still more the Blessed One who seemed, in this singular fashion, to be forcing on her proud, reluctant spirit the degradation of His name!
The struggle was sharp and severe, but not of long duration,Â—
“But O, what endless ages roll
In those brief moments o’er the soul!”
Before the third night arrived, “the storm was changed into a calm.” On the third day another letter was written, in which she made ample and humble acknowledgment of the charge contained in her friend’s letter, expressed her obligations, and avowed her altered purpose. Courage was lacking as yet to confess the Saviour in the clergyman’s home circle. Those around her, however, noticed that the Bible was no longer a neglected book. “But from that third day all was changed; I read, I prayed, I praised, I rejoiced with joy unspeakable; I had nothing to learn as to the nature and manner and meaning of the change; I knew all that before, as & fiction: it was now an experimental truth. From that time Jesus was mine, and I was His. The banner of Jesus waved over the subdued and prostrate spirit of the infidel despiser of His Word, the conscious hater of His most precious name. . . . ‘Lord! save me, or I perish!’ has been, and is, from first to last the sum of my religion, dated from that most wondrous night, the first in which I knelt before the Cross: in which I prayed: in which I rested and slept in Jesus.”
As an immediate result, peace with God restored her to peace with all else. The great quarrel having been made up, the zest of life returned, and there was no longer any distaste at its circumstances, or depressing ennui. The great revolution was as complete as it was sudden. The Saviour “drew her, and she followed on,” to something infinitely more satisfying than earnest and Pharisaic religiousness.
She “entered into peace,” into a simple-hearted trust in Jesus as “all her salvation.”
But the nervous strain of these three days had been very great, and there followed a physical breakdown. Alarming pulmonary symptoms necessitated her return home. She concluded that her
conversion was the merciful preparation for her departure;
considered that her end was nigh, and, knowing whom she had trusted, was well content. But though freed from the guilt of sin, it was in a long disciplinary process that the dross of such a heart had to be burned out, by the sanctifying influences of the Spirit of God.
He “whose precious gem she had become, had no intention to take her from the fire, with all the base admixture of earthliness and corruption, infixed and indurated in a manner the most difficult to eradicate Â— by habit, by character, by circumstances, and by wilful opposition to the Word, so long indulged.”
Her brother and three sisters, who were “in Christ before her,” were very glad recipients of the good news. But her autobiography, unfortunately, ceases with the story of her conversion. Writing 30 years later, on the question whether early or adult conversion were preferable, she makes these striking observations, coloured, it is clear, by her own experience: “Thank you, very very much for the brief recital of your spiritual life. Whatever may be the advantage Â— and there is much Â— of early religious habits and impressions, by parentage and education, there is the advantage on the side of adult and more sudden conversions, that they give an experimental witness to the doctrines of the Gospel, much more difficult to shake than opinions otherwise imbibed. The ‘I know that I have passed from death unto life,’ is seldom in these cases assailable by human doubts and difficulties; or the mode and manner of the purpose likely to become obscured by the confusion of human disputation. furthermore, such conversions do and must enhance our knowledge of the preciousness of Christ. Their subjects ‘love much, for they have been much forgiven.'”
As to Fanny, the unconscious instrument of Caroline’s conversion, she refused to believe in the reality of the great change, and, when constrained to admit its truth, laughed the whole matter to scorn, and lived and died, so far as is known, an utter worldling.
It had been Miss Fry’s intention to continue her Autobiography beyond the point of her conversion, but, unfortunately, that intention was never fulfilled, and so there occurs a gap of twelve or thirteen years of which no memorials have been preserved. She never kept a diary, or any kind of memoranda of even the most important occurrences of her life, and the only biographical material extant, from 1825 to her death in 1846, is a collection of letters to various correspondents. There are 82 of these, and for the most part they deal with that which she felt was “the only thing that was worth recording Â— the history of her mental and spiritual existence.”
Writing from Hastings, in 1825, to her clerical brother, who had
despaired of her conversion, she says: “How am I to sketch for you the features of ‘the religious world’? Whoever used that expression first did not suspect that he describes the thing it stands for more exactly than if he had written volumes. The last term (‘world’) is that which our Lord has chosen to designate His enemies: the first (‘religious’) is that which distinguishes His friends; both together (‘religious world’) is that strange admixture which is the distinguishing character of the present day.”
Some interesting pen portraits of the preachers of the day Â— Edward Irving, William Howels, Bishop Sumner, Dr. Caesar Malan, and other less known divines Â— are scattered through her letters, and most interesting sidelights are cast on the Tractarian movement, and the “speaking with tongues” which Edward Irving’s name is permanently associated with. By such singular manifestations the strong-minded Caroline was not at all carried away. “As for the tongues, I can imagine nothing easier for man or woman than to utter what neither themselves nor anyone else can understand. I must wait the interpretation of these tongues, and the use to be made of them, before I treat this element as anything but a gross absurdity, calculated to discredit all the rest.”
To a young Christian lady she tenders the following admirable counsel; “till you are forty, dear child Â— which I believe will be some days yet Â— I entreat you to have nothing to do with these things (the ‘speaking with tongues’). Believe that the Lord is at hand. Love His appearing; watch and pray that you enter not into temptation; whether He come at the second watch, or the third, be you ready; be sure that you have oil in your lamp, and then wait in quietness till the footsteps of our Lord Himself arouse you; but if anyone say to you ‘Lo, here! Lo, there!’ go not after them.”
In 1831, at the age of 44, Caroline Fry became Caroline Wilson. There are no particulars as to the Christian gentleman who married her; but, that her new relationship introduced a great joy into her life, is evident from a letter written from Paris in the early days of her married estate: “I am quite happy, too happy almost for this passing world. But it is God who has given me all, and what He gives is blessed, is safe, and may be taken fearlessly. … I am doing nothing but enjoying myself and giving thanks Â— wondering thanks, to Him who fills my cup so full, and gives me so much capability of tasting its sweetness.”
To the year 1832 belongs the publication of the book, “Christ our Example,” by which she is best remembered. She had already issued, anonymously, “The Listener,” and “The Scripture Reader’s Guide,” and it was her preference to publish all her works under this impersonal veil. “Christ our Example” may be termed a pioneer work in a line of study in which Miss Fry has had not a few successors.
An equally valuable, though less known book, is “Christ our Law”Â— a sequel to “Christ our Example,” and published six years later (1838). I would also mention here a posthumous work (1847), The Great Commandment.” In these three volumes will be found the substance of Caroline Fry’s message to her generation. All through the rest of her life it was matter of devout thankfulness to God, that she had been withheld from the public exercise of her ‘talent for scribbling” till the truth of God had taken full possession of her mind, and thus she had escaped “the guilt and misery of its unhallowed use, and all the regrets that might have been helplessly suffered, in seeing my own foolish words remain in action on the minds of others. I think often, with mixed gratitude and horror, on what I would have written, had I written once.”
Her consecrated pen, in spite of her persistent ill-health, was in constant employment, partly in magazine articles, partly in letters of spiritual counsel to friends and inquirers. At the age of 56, she writes: “My life has been peculiar, in nothing so much as in my conversion; as unsought as Saul’s of Tarsus, and far more resistent:
for of religion I had none. … It was hard work that Jesus undertook with me, hard at first, and has been hard to the last. I have dishonoured Him, denied Him practically Â— never professedly Â— a thousand thousand times; but from the hour of my conversion to this I have never doubted Him. How could I? Had Paul himself more evidence than I had? No, for he had never been what I was; and he made no resistance.”
Manifold journeys and changes of abode in search of health proved disappointing and fruitless, but, in the midst of all, she was kept in perfect peace. “My constant and abiding prayer is to have less of the world, and more of Him and His.” Writing in 1844 of the religious condition of England, she observes: “Our Church is not, in her present form, the church of the people, but of the upper half of them; and so it will remain while the supposed remedy for our need is church building instead of Gospel preaching.”
In May, 1846, within four months of her end, she writes: “If this exquisite creation be the place accursed of our captivity, what will be the beauty Â— call it earth or heaven Â— of our royal dwelling place, when we reign with Christ? These two last words comprise all I know, and all I care about it.”
Just a month before she went in to see the King, she writes:
‘Our Father lets us approach the golden gates and peep through the keyhole. I see only brightness, what do you see?” She bears heartfelt testimony to the universal kindness of all whom she and her ‘precious husband” met. “Everybody is so good to the little suffering woman Â— strangers send her beautiful fruit, and the very waiters are careful of her. Then why with all am I not better? Perhaps God does not mean I should be. Be it so, even as He will.”
Careful medical examination finally pronounced the distressing symptoms to be a result of a consolidated lung. “Should His chariot wheels be slow in coming, a mild, dry nook that would allow me to take the air and feel the sun would greatly ease the yet remaining way. For my husband’s sake I would do all to prolong what for me cannot be too short.” These last weeks of existence were made agonizing by convulsive fits of breathlessness. Her one concern was for her husband, whose devotion to his dying wife was such that the thought of losing her was nothing short of agony. “I would I could take him with me!” is her fond cry. For herself: “Never, never can it be sad to me to stand still and watch for the parting of the waters of Jordan to let me pass. From my lips no cry can come for a little more time to suffer and to sin, to wait and long for Him whom my soul desires. Tonight, tomorrow, if it be His pleasure!”
From Hastings the final removal was made to Tunbridge Wells, her native place, and there drew nigh “the bright, the blessed hour for which I have toiled and waited so many years.” On the last morning she exclaimed: “This is my bridal day, the beginning of my life. . . I have written a book to testify that God is Love. I now testify that He is Faithfulness and Truth. I never asked a petition of God that sooner or later I did not obtain.” And when “the Master came and called” for her, she said: “I am sinking so fast!” and with her countenance glowing with heavenly joy, without a struggle, on September 17th, 1846, this remarkable woman obtained her heart’s desire, and passed to be “for ever with the Lord.” And so the words she had written, years before, were fulfilled in her own experience:Â—
“She sees the Saviour stand with hand outstretched
To wipe the tears of sorrow from the eye;
She hears the Father from His lofty throne,
Invite her to His mansion in the sky.
Behind her she beholds earth’s thousand ills.
With all the folly of its mad pursuits;
And sin disrobed of passion’s artful guise,
Stands forth confessed with all its bitter fruits.
Before Â— what mortal accents may not tell
Something, life’s grosser vision cannot see.
The bright beginning of eternal bliss,
The gleam of coming immortality!”