FORSAKING THE WORLD
I also attended the regular prayer-meeting amongst the independents in the evening. Matthew 6 was read by a plain, simple, honest-hearted old Christian, who was asked to give his thoughts upon it.
When he began, it was as though he had said to me, “I am going to describe what thy religion is; to wit, the religion here spoken of, which is that of the scribes and pharisees, who make long prayers, use vain repetitions, and love to be heard for their much speaking. These were looking to their own goodness as the ground of their acceptance with God.”
This is where it cut me the most keenly, as I was for saving and helping myself.
In summing up, he said, “Christ pronounced more woes and curses against such characters than he did against the openly profane, such as whoremongers, adulterers, swearers, Sabbath-breakers, and the like; and that publicans and harlots were nearer he kingdom of heaven than these.”
This poor illiterate man’s commentary on the chapter did more to pull down my self-righteousness than all the preaching I had heard that week. Down fell my pretty Babel-building about my ears. My
refuge of lies was swept away. My countenance fell. I was ashamed and confounded, and could scarcely lift up my head.
As I went home I reasoned thus within myself: “Well, I have done the best I can; and if being good, and doing good, going to chapel, and serving the Lord, will not do, I cannot tell what will; and if, after all, I am no nearer heaven than the openly profane, it is of no use beginning again, for I can do no more than I have done; so I will even give it all up at once for lost, and if I am doomed to everlasting destruction, I will go like other folks, and just take my fling in sin.”
A visit to the races
In pursuance of this resolution, I got up next morning, and set off to Manchester races without my breakfast, and only four pence in my pocket, having more than twenty miles to travel there and back. But Oh what a day was this! Never shall I forget it while I live. I had not gone far before I met a school-fellow coming from Rochdale to
see me. I told him where I was going, and he said he would go with
me. I entreated him not to go, fearing his friends might blame me for it; but go he would. When we got to Middleton, which is half-way between Rochdale and Manchester, I began to be faint, and for the first time went into a public-house, “The Hare and Hounds,” and called for beer. I was so young that I felt ashamed, and no doubt
looked bashful enough as I did it.
As we sat in the room near the window, a coach came to the door. On the dickey sat Mr. Davis, Baptist minister at Byrom Street chapel, Liverpool. He had sat in the pulpit the day before during the time Stedman and Fawcett preached. The sight of him was like a dagger to my heart. As I looked at him I said to myself, “He is a good man; he is no hypocrite nor pharisee, but is in the right way to heaven. As for me, it is all over. My case is desperate. I am out of the secret. I have sought for the right way, but cannot find it.”
Such was the state of my mind, I was sorely put to it whether to go back or go forward. Hundreds of people were hurrying along to the race-ground, some on foot, others on horseback and in carriages, and I got hurried on amongst them I hardly know how. When we got upon the race-ground, my companion soon left me, and went to the soldiers, he being particularly fond of such company. This sorely grieved me, as I was afraid he might enlist, and I often wished I had never come. I could take no pleasure in anything I saw or heard. I had a guilty conscience, which spoiled all. When the horses were
running, hundreds rode from one side of the course to the other, in order to see more of the race. They galloped fast. I felt as if the earth trembled under us, and I was afraid lest it would open and swallow us up, as of old the camps of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. I became so alarmed and distressed that I could not stay amongst them any longer, but withdrew on one side out of the crowd, so miserable and wretched that I could not join them in their ungodly sports. I found I could not go back into the world; and as it respected religion, I had done the best I could, and that would not do, and what to do next, or .what would become of me, I could not tell.
Upon the race-ground, however, I could not stay; so before the
races were over, I was obliged to leave and make my way towards home. Before I entered into Rochdale, I met two men whom I had frequently seen at the Independent meeting-room, who were at the prayer-meeting the night before. One of these men had asked him who read the sixth chapter of Matthew to make a few comments upon it, which was done, and produced the effect I have above described. The sight of these godly men was a terror to me. They looked at me with grief and surprise, judging from my appearance where I had been, for I was covered with dust. They asked me if I had been to the races.
I said, “Yes,” and passed on as quickly as I could. When I got into
the town, I had to pass the door of a Mr. Books, grocer, who usually entertained the Independent ministers who came to supply. Before I got to the shop, I saw him standing at the door, and I felt as though I would rather have sunk into the ground than pass by him. He looked at me with surprise.
He inquired, “Have you been to the races?”
I trembled as I answered, “Yes,” and on I went as fast as I could. As I got nearer home I was quite worn down with fatigue. I had a hungry belly, a tired body, and a guilty conscience to cope with; and how to face my father, who had begun to think better things of me, I could not tell. I shall never forget my feelings as I entered the house and met his frown. It was indeed a painful meeting to both of us; nor can I describe the anguish of his mind at my sudden drawing back into sin, bidding, as it were, defiance both to Divine and parental authority. He threatened to chastise me sorely, and would have put his threat into immediate execution, had not my eldest brother stood between us.
Said he, “Let him alone; for by his looks he seems to have had enough of it.”
I was ready to cry like a child, and was so full I could scarcely speak. My looks, however, spoke more eloquently than my tongue:
“O my brother, if you knew the agony of my soul, you would indeed say, ‘I have had enough of it.’ ”
I crept away to bed in a very distressed state, both of body and mind. Trembling and anguish had taken hold upon me, and I was almost on the borders of despair.
Since this circumstance took place, often, as I have passed through Middleton on my Master’s business, have I looked at the “Hare and Hounds” public-house, and the window where I sat when the coach came to the door, and thought of the terrible struggle in my mind, and have thanked and blessed the Lord that though He suffered me to go forward. He would not let me stay in the camp of the ungodly.
My schoolfellow whom I left with the soldiers did not enlist at that time, but as he grew up he became increasingly fond of them. His father died, and his mother married again. The executors then bought him a commission in the army. Many years rolled round, and I never heard a word respecting him; until one day, in company with one of the executors, I inquired what had become of their young charge.
“Ah,” said he, “the lad might have done well had he not become dissipated, and brought himself into great trouble and disgrace. He same to an awful end, blowing out his brains with a pistol in his own bedroom.”
The words of Nehemiah came to my mind: “But so did not I,
because of the fear of the Lord,” which is
“A fence against evil, by which we resist
The world, flesh, and the devil, and imitate Christ.”
When I have thought of my elder brother standing between my father and me to ward off the blows, and entreating him to let me alone, I have been led to think of Christ, my spiritual “Elder Brother” that stood between an angry God in His broken law and me a law-breaker. The hand of Divine justice was upon “the man of his right hand, and upon the Son of Man, whom he hath made strong for himself.” “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.” It has often filled my soul with holy wonder and astonishment to think that it should please the Lord to bruise His beloved Son, that had done no sin, to put Him to grief, to make His soul an offering for the sins of such a rebel as I, who did evil in His sight even as I could. This is one of the great mysteries of godliness which will be the wonder and admiration of the redeemed of the Lord for ever and ever.
But to return. I got up next morning stiff and sore, and, if possible, more miserable than ever. It was a fine day, and being holiday time I went into the fields and lay down. What to do I could not tell. I felt I could not go back into the world and join my old companions in sin, and to have no better religion than the scribes and pharisees, and be nothing but a hypocrite after all, was, according to Christ’s own words, even more offensive in his sight. I was at a complete stand. Which way to move I could not tell; so I began to beg the Lord not only to have mercy upon me, a guilty, miserable, dark, ignorant sinner, but also that he would teach me the right way, and keep me in it. Thus I lay pondering over my fearful condition, sighing and groaning like a man bound in fetters.
Several weeks afterwards, I was in a very unsettled state of mind, hanging, as it were, between the world and the people of God. The immortal principle of grace which, I trust, was implanted in my soul, would not let me be happy as formerly in the ways of sin, when my whole heart and soul delighted in joining the multitude to do evil. Like Noah’s dove, that could find no rest for the sole of her foot, nor could my poor weary soul find rest in the follies and vanities of this sinful world, though I felt the flesh at times longing after them, like the children of Israel at the Red Sea, when they could see no way of escape, wishing themselves again among the flesh-pots in Egypt. To go forward in religion upon old covenant ground I began
to see would avail nothing. I was ashamed to go again amongst the people of God, yet when Sunday came I could not be easy at staying at home; I was therefore obliged, as it were, to go again to Hall Fold Chapel, though nothing that I heard preached had any effect upon my mind, either to condemn or encourage me; so to get a little comfort to my soul, I went at nights to Rochdale, amongst the Independents, where a few that I have every reason to believe loved and feared the Lord met together.
Rochdale races came on a few weeks afterwards. The Sunday night previously I was at the place of meeting in Rochdale, when the minister spoke from these words: “And when they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage; and the door was shut.” This sermon had a great effect upon my mind, especially the latter part, when he described the awful state of those against whom the door was for ever shut. He spoke largely upon the sufferings of the damned in hell, and exhorted all who were not ready to begin that night, and turn and repent, and never rest till they got into a state of readiness for death, that they, like the wise virgins, might enter into heaven, and not, as the foolish virgins, against whom the door of mercy, as he called it, was for ever shut, be cast into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This discourse, being very much in a legal strain, suited my working spirit. I was always for doing something towards my own salvation, and therefore it appeared according to the tenor of this discourse there was something to be done by me, as the ground of my acceptance with God, and I must begin and get it done immediately, in order that I might be ready when the midnight cry was made: “Behold, the bridegroom cometh.”
As I went home that night I reasoned thus with myself: “I must begin again and repent, and get ready, for as the minister says I have not a day nor an hour to call my own, I may die before tomorrow;
and what an awful thing should the door of heaven be for ever shut against me, and I be cast into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone.”
An Awful Vow
As I was pondering these things over, it came into my mind that it was Rochdale race week, and I felt a great jealousy in my spirit lest I should be tempted to go. My natural fondness for such carnal amusements and my weakness in the hour of temptation made me to fear and tremble lest I should fall. It was a fine summer’s evening, all still and quiet.
When I reached Shaw Clough, I stood still upon the footpath under a large thorn that grew in the hedge, and said, “I will not go to
the races this week, but will make a more firm resolution than I have ever yet made, one that will deter me from going.”
I stood thinking what would be the most solemn and binding vow, and such as would be strong enough to prevent me from running headlong to destruction; because I had made so many vows and broken them that I must (as I then thought) make another more firm and binding than any I had yet discovered.
Studying earnestly what it should be, a sudden idea crossed my mind, and I spoke the words audibly as though the Lord was with me in the road: “Well, Lord, if I go to the races this week, thou shalt damn my soul and send me to hell.”
Solemn, awful and presumptuous words they were! My soul and body shudder while I write them. Nevertheless I went on pleased at the idea, and quite buoyed up in my mind, believing that it would keep me, that I should never dare to go in the face of such an awful imprecation.
On the Monday and Tuesday following, the publicans began to set up their huts or tents; and as the race-day drew near, the whole village where I lived was in motion. I could not move out of the house but I heard the races in almost every person’s mouth. This gentleman’s horse and the other was coming to run for so much money. The betting was in favour of such and such a horse, and there were shows of various kinds in which wonders were to be seen. My mind began to be entangled. The race-day came, and there was a general move, professors and profane, young and old; the village was almost drained of its inhabitants. My father and I were left alone in the house, my mother having gone away to see a friend. I went into a field adjoining the village, where I could see the race-ground covered with a multitude of people. The temptation became stronger than ever.
The enemy said, “Go. Such and such a one have gone, and they are church and chapel-goers. There can surely be no great harm in seeing the horses run.”
Thus, as the apostle James has it, “I was tempted and drawn away of my own lusts, and enticed.” Off I set through the fields as fast as I could, and soon got amongst the crowd. I would fain have taken pleasure as formerly amongst the thousands that were around me;
but I could not do so. I was so wretched and miserable I was obliged to leave long before the races were over, as I could not stay and take delight in such sports, like many professors of religion I saw upon the ground; and I wondered how it could be, for I tried to be cheerful like them; but in vain. My spirit sank within me, my countenance fell, and like Bunyan’s “pilgrim,” I was obliged to turn my back upon the City of Destruction.
Returning home through the fields, I turned round and made a
stand, and looked at the vast multitude before me. There were the cries of the beggars by the wayside, the cursing and shouting of the people, the sound of the drum and fifes as the soldiers were beating up for recruitsÂ—I saw and felt the folly and vanity of all. I beheld, and was so distressed I thought my very heart would break, and I could not refrain from tears. (While I now write, the remembrance if it affects me so deeply that my heart is full and my eyes filled with tears.) I felt in my inmost soul that I had for ever done with such ungodly sports, and bade them a final adieu,Â—so weaned from them that I could say with Dr. Watts:
“My soul forsakes her vain delight,
And bids the world farewell,
Base as the dirt beneath my feet,
And mischievous as hell.
“No longer will I ask your love,
Nor seek your friendship more;
The happiness that I approve
Is not within your power.”
It is nearly fifty years since this took place, and by such dispensations the Lord has up to this time put an end to two things. The first is, making fleshly resolutions; for I found that the most solemn and awful that I could make, would not keep me from sin. I was so weak and helpless that by my own strength I could not stand in the trying hour, and that the Lord must hold me up. Ever since, therefore, instead of making resolutions, if it be something that I wish to be preserved from, the cry of my soul has been hundreds of times, “Lord, keep me and preserve me. Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe.” How sweet and precious have the words of Hannah been to my soul: “He will keep the feet of his saints.” The prayer of Jabez is often upon my mind: “Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, O that thou wouldest bless me indeed, and enlarge my coast, and that thine hand might be with me, and that thou wouldest keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me. And God granted him that which he requested.” (1 Chron. 4.10.) That clause, “And that thou wouldest keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me,” has been a great blessing to my soul, and often my prayer before the Lord. After Peter’s fall, we do not hear him say, “Though all the world deny thee, yet will not I.” This great “I” had fallen; and henceforth the theme of his soul was: “Kept by the power of God through faith into salvation.” In like manner I have proved that making resolutions in my own strength would not keep me from falling. The Lord has kept me growingly sensible of my own weakness, as Paul says: “For when I am weak, then am I strong.”Â—strong in the Lord and the power of his might.
The second thing these trying dispensations put an end to, was going to races and all other places of carnal amusements. Up to this day the Lord has kept and preserved me unspotted from the world, for which I bless and praise His dear and precious name. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have seen many fall away from their profession, some into outward sin, and others into error, and I have many times trembled for fear, and thought of Paul’s words: “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” These words also are, and have been, very much upon my mind: “Having, therefore, obtained help of God, I continue unto this day.” I have reason to believe, from the conduct of my friends towards me, both at home, and in many parts of this island, that I am, far more than I deserve, esteemed by them for my work’s sake. Left to myself, and exposed to temptation, I might, in some unguarded hour, fall so fearfully into sin as would cause my friends to be ashamed even to own my name, in place of its being, as I trust it is to them, better than precious ointment. It is my daily prayer that I may finish my course with joy, leaving no stain upon my character, nor upon the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus to testify the gospel of the grace of God.
The awful resolution I made not to visit the races was overruled by the Lord to humble me before Him, and to make me thankful for his mercy and long-suffering to such a daring and presumptuous wretch. Long after this resolution was made, as I returned from the prayer meeting, I had to pass the spot where I made the vow, and I have stood under the thorn many times, thanking, blessing, and praising the Lord that He had not dealt with me after my own
covenant, and sent me down to the regions of despair.
I have said within myself, “I stand here a monument of God’s mercy and grace; for had He marked my iniquity, and dealt with me according to my sin, I should have been cut down as a cumberer of the ground. Instead of this, I am spared, and raised up by the Lord to stand upon the walls of Zion, to blow the silver trumpet of the everlasting Gospel, with a good hope, through grace, that the Lord will guide me by His counsel through this wilderness, and afterwards receive me to glory.”
Since the Lord has put me into the ministry, the people commonly called the “Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion” have built a chapel at the place where I made the awful vow. I have several times preached their Sabbath School Anniversary sermons to large and attentive congregations. On these occasions I have been greatly humbled when I have thought where I was, and have rejoiced in the Lord’s determination “that I should not perish, but come to
repentance,” and preach the unsearchable riches of Christ at this very place. The word of life the Lord has enabled me to preach on
these occasions has been made a blessing to persons who have appeared before our church to declare what God hath done for their souls, especially one sermon from the following words: “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Christ Jesus.”
“Wonders of grace to God belong;
Repeat His mercies in your song.”
Professors of religion going to races, theatres, balls, etc., has a very bad effect. It opens a door for sin, as others take liberty by their example. “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” “His servants ye are to whom ye obey, whether of sin unto death or of obedience unto righteousness.”