SANDERSON AND LITTLE ALICE
King Street, or Packer Meadow, is considered by the inhabitants of Rochdale as anything but a respectable section of the town. One or two of the residents in the lower part are in moderate circumstances, but at the upper end the houses are of the most wretched description. Sanderson, the subject of this narrative, occupied one of the better houses, and my acquaintance with him began through the howling of his dog,Â—a dark, red, bushy-tailed animal, so like a fox, that he had got that marauder’s name.
In one part of the street a poor man lay dying. I was called in to read and pray with him, and had sat by his bed some time, when Fox came underneath the window, and set up a most dismal howl. Jane Moorhouse, a relative of the dying man, sprang up from her seat, exclaiming,Â—”It is all over with Richard. Fox is shouting, and when that dog shouts, death is sure to follow; it never misses when he howls in the night.”
“Does the dog belong to some one in the neighbourhood ?Â” I asked.
“Yes,” was her answer, “it belongs to Sanderson, a man that neither believes in heaven nor hell. God nor devil; and never is any person about to die in this street, but Fox howls, as the sure sign of death. He howled when Moss and Simpson died, and hastened their end; if he howled under my window I should expect to die in twelve hours. O, how I tremble!” On leaving the sick man’s chamber, and reaching the street. Fox was walking quickly up and down, still making his really fearful noise; but a touch from my walking-stick sent him speedily home.
It is no easy matter to divest ourselves of the superstitious, tormenting traditions imbibed in early years. The howling of dogs is considered a prelude of death by thousands. We know that dogs howl at the sound of music, or when the moon is rising on a clear, calm night,Â—”baying the moon,” as Shakespeare calls it. On hot, sultry nights they often howl to each other; and that some dogs can scent decaying animal matter at a great distance, and, smelling it, will give a howl indicating the discovery, is well known. Many contend that this is the true philosophy of their shouting when near the houses of the dying. But this does not apply in all cases, and, perhaps, in none; it cannot apply to the healthy, though Mrs. Moorhouse believed it did, and it is a pity that the sick should be frightened by any such foolish superstition. The shooting of cinders from the fire foretelling a coffinÂ—bad luck from light-haired persons “taking in” the new yearÂ—the crackling of furniture and the howling of dogs indicating death, belong to a day when Sunday-schools were unknown, when books were few, and witches and fortune-tellers plentiful.
The old lady’s description of Sanderson’s creed, or, rather no creed, I found to be correct. His hatred to “parsons” (as he called
ministers) was intense; the sight of one of them operated upon him like the sight of water to a mad dog, and made him howl almost as loud as his own old Fox. Sanderson was a machine card-maker by trade. He had several acquaintances of his own way of thinking, and on Sundays they were often found together, rambling through the fields, or reading their favourite books and newspapers, and hardening each other in their gloomy principles. He was about thirty-five years of age, when his neighbours began to talk of his altered looks; his stout form was giving way, severe coughing set in, and he was, in the opinion of many, a marked man. In misty or cold weather he kept his room, and ultimately became unable to walk up and down the stairs. An old shoemaker, named Philip Powles, became much concerned about the spiritual state of his dying infidel neighbour; he, however, durst not go to see him himself, but earnestly entreated Mr. Britton, a zealous Primitive Methodist minister, to undertake the hazardous task.
Mr. Britton went to see Sanderson, at the request of the anxious shoemaker. On entering the house, he informed Mrs. Sanderson of his wish to see her husband, adding, that he was informed he was an infidel, but he had come to talk with him about his soul, for he was sure he had one.
“I am very sorry you have called on such an errand, for I am sure my husband will not see you, and it would very much vex and disturb him if he knew you were in the house. I am pained that it is so,” observed Mrs. Sanderson.
“I am come purposely to disturb him; for he had better be disturbed here than damned hereafter. If God, in His mercy, does not disturb him, he will be lost for ever! Just go up stairs, if you please, and ask if I may see him.”
Poor woman! she knew not what to do. She was afraid to offend her husband or the minister; but Mr. Britton persisted, and at last she went up stairs, and began quietly to arrange the various little things about the room, fearing to tell her real errand; but Sanderson had heard a strange voice in the house, and inquired who was below.
“A gentleman of the name of Britton, whom Philip Powles requested to call and see you; I think he is the minister of Philip’s church.”
“Tell him that I shall not see him, and when I need him or any other parson, I will let them know.” He spoke these words so sharply that Mrs. Sanderson quickly left the room, and closed the door after her.
“Well, what does he say?” asked Mr. B. “That he will not see you or any other minister,” was her reply.
“I have a good mind to kneel down at the bottom of the stairs and pray so loud that he will hear. The Lord have mercy upon him before it be too late!!’
Mr. Britton’s colleague, hearing of the matter, charged him with being “soft,” and determined to go himself and see the
infidel, whatever consequences might follow.
Sanderson had strictly ordered his wife not to allow any parson, or professor of religion by any means to enter the room. She knew his temper, and when the second Primitive minister came, she told him of her peremptory orders.
“Well, but I have come to see him, and I intend to see him,” was the answer; “and if you dare not ask permission, I will go up at once, and take all consequences.”
Fortunately, her husband heard all the conversation, and called from the top of the stairs, that “if any parson dared to enter his room, he would smash his brains out with the poker.” I give his own words, that the reader may better understand the morose, untamed character of the man. He also ordered his wife to fetch a policeman to turn him out immediately. This caused our good Primitive brother to beat a retreat, and rather altered his opinion of Mr. Britton’s “softness.”
Now, Sanderson was one of those characters whom circumvention would most readily overcome. He was an intelligent reader of one class of books, and always ready for an argument:
he was extreme in politics, entertaining republican notions: his collection of books was numerous for a man in his position; his knowledge of history was extensive, and he always maintained that all civil evils sprang from either king-craft, or priest-craft. Cobbet’s “Legacy to Parsons,” and Paine’s “Twopennyworth of Common Sense,” were his text books. All these things I learned respecting Sanderson, and the question was,Â—How shall this man be brought to see his deplorable condition?
A child was made the means of opening the way which the two Primitive Methodists could not force. She was one of our scholars, a nice reader for her age, and could repeat a few hymns with good effect.
The old shoemaker came to my house, and, with much feeling, desired me to try and see Sanderson. He told me how he had treated the ministers, but earnestly besought that I would make an effort. After reflecting for a day or two on the best plan to adopt, I fixed on the Sunday-school child to open the way. The little girl often went to see Sanderson, and I learned that he was very fond of her. I promised the child a present if she would learn well a short hymn, and afterwards go up to Mr. Sanderson’s room and say it to him. She very willingly undertook the task, and in two days was ready. She attended well to the directions I gave her, and about three in the afternoon went up to the sick infidel’s room.
“Well, Alice, you are come to see your sick friend,” observed Sanderson.
“Yes, I have learned a new piece, and am come to say it to you. Will you let me?”
Sanderson was quietly rocking himself in his arm-chair, with his feet on a small footstool, and his back towards the window. He took the child’s book, saying,Â—”Now, then, be very careful
and say it well; mind you do not miss one word.”
Alice stood before him, folded her hands, and in a full, clear voice, began:Â—
“When life’s tempestuous storms are o’er,
How calm he meets the friendly shore,
Who died on earth to sin!*
Such peace on piety attends,
That where the sinner’s pleasure ends,
The good man’s joys begin.
“See smiling patience smoothes his brow,
See the kind angels waiting now
To waft his soul on high;
While, eager for the blest abode,
He joins with them to praise the God
That taught him how to die.
“The horrors of the grave and hell,
Those sorrows which the wicked feel,
In vain their gloom display;
For He who bids the comets burn,
And makes the night descend, can turn
His darkness into day.
“No sorrows drown his lifted eyes,
No horror wrests the struggling sighs,
As from the sinner’s breast;
His God, the God of peace and love,
Pours sweetest comforts from above,
Then takes his soul to rest.”
*Romans, 6.2, I Peter 2.24.
When the child had finished the hymn, Sanderson handed her back the book, and quietly said,Â—”That will do, you may go down and take Fox with you; I want to have no company for the present.”
I sought an early interview with the child. On asking what Sanderson said, her artless answer was,Â—”He put the book on his face, and I think he cried.”
The following day, while the sick man was pacing his room, he found a tract on one of the chairs: he took it up, read a few lines, sat down, and read it all. He knew a great part of it to be true; with most of the circumstances narrated he was acquainted. Some events connected with the death of a man in the same street were such, that it had been thought advisable to publish them. Sanderson knew the man, had heard much about him, and was anxious to know more. He called his wife up stairs, and asked her how the tract had got into his room. She answered that “Mr. Ashworth had been giving them out amongst the neighbours, that she had read it, and thought it would interest him.”
“Did John Ashworth request you to place the tract in my room?” he asked.
“He did; he often asks about you, and says he should like to come and talk politics with you.”
“Well, go and tell him that if he can come this evening, and
tell me who wrote the tract, and talk politics as you say, I shall be glad of his company.”
Mrs. Sanderson immediately made me acquainted with her husband’s request, and that evening I paid him my first visit. After satisfying him respecting the authorship of “Poor Joseph” (the title of the tract), he immediately asked what I thought of the
Catholic Emancipation Bill; “for,” said he, “I have been reading on the subject.”
Our conversation lasted until late, and I left without making any direct reference to religion.
Some may think that I was trifling,Â—may be disposed to blame me .and ask,Â—”What if he had died that night; died in his
sins; how could you have reconciled your conscience in neglecting a plain duty?”
My answer is, I did not think he was so far gone in consumption, but that he probably would linger still for many weeks or months; and, also, I thought I was taking the most lively measures to accomplish my object. For several nights I went to see him, and had long and interesting conversations on various subjects, but still left as at first.
On taking up my hat to leave, on the sixth evening, he was walking to and fro. He, as usual, put out his hand to bid me good night, but the grasp was firmer and much longer than before. He looked me full in the face, and said, with a trembling voice,Â—
“Mr. Ashworth, how is it that you never speak to me about my soul?”
“Why, Sanderson, have you got a soul?” I said. He let go my hand and began again to pace the room. I still stood with my hat in my hand, but under the most intense excitement. Now, I thought, the next word he speaks will reveal the inward workings of his mind. With his finger he pointed to the chair from which I had just risen, evidently wishing me to be re-seated. I obeyed in silence. Still walking about the room, he took out his handkerchief, and putting it to his face, he groaned out at last with a choking voice,Â—
“O, Mr. Ashworth! Mr. Ashworth! I am a miserable man. That child’s hymn, and ‘Poor Joseph,’ have crushed me to dust! I have held out as long as I can; whatever must I do?”
O, what joy sprang up from my soul in an instant! “Whatever must I do?” from the broken-hearted infidel, was music to me; yet I could not speak one word for several minutes. We wept together. At length I said,Â—”Thank God, Sanderson, that question has not come too late! there is an answer, and there is but one. O, my dear friend, if scepticism, if infidelity could make a man happy, I should have been happy at one period of my life; but it never did; it never can. It is a gloomy, blighting, blasting, withering curse, and makes its dupe a miserable living lie, and sinks him lower than the brute. The magnificent heavens, the earth bespangled with ten thousand tints of beauty, and the deep solemn ocean, speak with a voice that would almost impress the
solid rock. The very dust under the infidel’s feet mocks his incredulity; every atom has its purpose. The wonderful harmony and adaptation of the physical universe strikes the observer with awe. God’s material world displays His physical government,Â—God’s revealed Word unfolds His moral government; and there we find that reconciliation, union, and communion with God are absolutely necessary to secure the happiness of man. Man forsaking God lost peace; man must be brought back to God or remain miserable. Our redemption through Christ opens the way, and this is the answer to your question,Â—’Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shall be saved.’ ”
While I was speaking, the poor broken-hearted penitent covered his face with his hands; the tears dropt through his fingers, and, with the greatest earnestness, he requested me to pray with him.
There are periods when the most eloquent language is a very feeble representative of the soul’s workings, emotions too deep for words choke the utterance. Such was the moment when Sanderson and I knelt down to pray. But if prayer be the soul’s sincere desire, we prayed; if it be the simplest form of speech, we prayed;
Â—prayed for the stricken, sorrowing, agonizing, groaning sinner, pleading the invitations and promises, pleading the shed blood of a crucified Saviour as all sufficient. The arrow of conviction was deep in the penitent’s soul, but his new-born faith was yet too feeble to reach the only hand that could extract it.
For several days Sanderson remained under the lashings of a terrified, guilty conscience, still wrestling for pardon and peace. But the moment of deliverance came. Sanderson was on his knees;
the earnest cry,Â—”O God, for Christ’s sake, blot out mine iniquities, and save my poor guilty soul,” burst from a heart of anguish. Those words were the sublime strain that reached the Majesty on High; the swift-winged messenger of reconciliation, with the still small voice, whispered,Â—”Thy sins, which are many, are all forgiven. Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.”
Sanderson rose from his knees a new man; he was now unspeakably happy. Heaven had supplanted hell; his enraptured soul burst forth in praises and thanksgiving. The change made a noise in the neighbourhood; his old acquaintances reported that he was wrong in his head; and, if they were right, he was wrong, for now they were wide as the poles asunder. He sent an apology to the two ministers he had insulted, shook hands with old Philip the shoemaker, and for several months tried to undo the injury he had done, by speaking to old and young of the power of saving grace. Reading the Bible was his delight, and many passages in the New Testament he committed to memory. He was now a happy man.
Sanderson’s change of heart had such an influence on his health, that great hopes were entertained he would entirely recover. He often expressed his conviction that “if anything could give a sick man a chance of being restored to health, peace with God
through Jesus Christ would; for a happy soul would do much towards strengthening a sickly body.” His recovered strength enabled him to attend the house of God, and no man in Rochdale more enjoyed the means of grace. The songs and prayers of the sanctuary, and the glad tidings of salvation through a preached gospel, filled his soul with deep emotion. He sought the company of religious men, and spent many pleasant hours with the old Christian shoemaker. The Bible was his constant companion, and he committed to memory the hymn he first heard repeated by little Alice. He often wished he had been converted when young, that he might have had the pleasures and labours of a godly life. All fear of death was gone, and he felt a desire to live chiefly that he might do some good in the cause of God and the Church. But it was otherwise determined; for, being caught in a heavy shower of rain, he took a severe cold, and soon became unable to leave his bed.
I was much with him during his last sickness. Early one fine Sabbath morning, just before leaving the town to fulfil my engagements at Littleborough, I called to make what I believed would be a farewell visit. He was raised high in bed, with several pillows behind to support his now sinking frame. He smiled feebly, reached out his thin clammy hand, and, in a whisper, quoted three lines from the child’s piece,Â—
“See smiling patience smoothes my brow,
See the kind angels waiting now,
To waft my soul on high,”
and then asked if I was going to preach somewhere.
“Yes,” I answered, “morning and afternoon at Littleborough.”
“Will you let me find you a text, and if you do not preach from it today, preach from it as soon as you can?”
Hear, ye ministers of the cross, what sort of texts dying men wish us to preach from:Â—”This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” This was dying Sanderson’s choice, and he specially wished me not to leave out the last words, “Of whom I am chief.”
In a few hours, the soul of this chief of sinners, saved by grace, took its fight across the borderland, to join a Magdalene and a Saul of Tarsus in singing the praises of redeeming love.
J. Ashworth (1865).