NIFF AND HIS DOGS
Amongst the notorious characters of our village, thirty years ago, the subject of this narrative stood the most prominent. He was then in the prime of life, of middle stature, with a strong constitution, and remarkable activity, and the whole energy of body and soul was daily employed in the service of Satan. His thin, tall wife, with her pale, sad face, and his ragged, wild-looking children, plainly told of a miserable home; while his blear-eyed, savage-looking bull-dog, his hungry-looking trail-hounds, and his naked, half-dead fighting-cocks told the cause of that misery. He had a powerful voice; and when in one of his terrible passions, or drunk (which was very often the case), his awful blaspheming might be heard over the whole village. When a boy there was no man I feared so much; for on all hands Niff was considered one of the worst of men, and he tried, in every possible way, to make all the men for miles around as bad as himself. He was a great encourager of bull-baiting, and bull-baits were held about once a fortnight;
he kept a number of fighting-cocks, trained for the degrading sport, besides the dogs he kept for gambling purposes.
All the wicked publicans in the neighbourhood kept on good terms with Niff. He would get up a cock-battle at the house of one, a bull-bait at another, a trail-hunt for a third, a dog-fight for a fourth, or a foot-race for a fifth; seldom did a week pass without hundreds upon hundreds of men and boys, and sometimes even women, coming rolling into the village from surrounding towns and districts, when scenes the most revolting took place. Dogs worried to death; cocks killed; the bull’s nose and face torn by the fierce dogs, making him bellow and roar in agony, and in his rage snap the strong rope that bound him, and dash into the dense mass of men, women, and children, amidst yells, shouts, screams, and cursing, as if hell itself had broken loose. Human beings, more brutal, savage, and degraded than either bulls or bulldogs,Â—furious as fiends, and maddened with drink, rushed upon each other in deadly strife, until midnight mercifully covered with darkness the revolting horrors, leaving us to wonder that the earth had not opened and swallowed up the guilty multitude.
A few men such as Niff, and his wicked confederates the publicans, planned and carried out these infernal gatherings, which resulted in the destruction of hundreds both body and soul. All the publicans and ringleaders yet alive are reduced to beggary and rags, unpitied and despised,Â—additional illustrations that “the wicked shall not go unpunished.”
Passing through the locality that had formerly been the scene of such abominations, I once again met Niff. He had the same dirty appearance and savage look as when I saw him twenty years before, with a short, filthy pipe in his mouth, and three gambling, or trail-dogs in leading chains;Â—he was again going to a dog-race.
The moment we met, I stood still right before him, and said,Â—
“Well, Niff, how are you?”
He, too, stood still, pulled the short pipe out of his mouth, and, rather gruffly, answered,Â—
“I do not know that it much matters how I am; just stand on one side, and let me and my dogs have room to pass.”
“But before you pass I should like to tell you what thought was passing through my mind the moment I saw you and your dogs.”
He looked defiant, made no reply, but stood still.
“I have been thinking you are the worst man out of hell, and I am amazed you have not gone there long since. You have been the ringleader of every description of wickedness for the last thirty years; you have led hundreds, if not thousands into sin and ruin, and I fear many of them are for ever lost; and yet you, the principal cause of their destruction, are permitted to live on in your wickedness; you are the greatest wonder of God’s mercy in all Lancashire.”
For a moment his eyes glared with rage; next moment he held down his head, and seemed confounded.
Believing that I had produced some impression, and feeling anxious to follow it up, I laid my hand on his shoulder, which caused his dogs to growl, and said,Â—
“Now, Niff, is not all I have said true? and is it not astonishing that God has so long spared you? O, I wish you had been converted in your youth, and then, instead of being a worker for the devilÂ—doing evil, you would have been a servant of GodÂ— doing good. Will you come to the outdoor service that we are going to hold on the Green on Sunday next? Who knows but it may lead to your salvation?”
“I am not going to promise anything of the sort, so stand out of my way.” He then pushed rudely past me, and he and his dogs went growling on their journey to that very notorious place called Belle Vue, near Manchester. I stood for a moment looking after him, and said to myself, that if there was a man in England beyond the reach of sovereign grace, that man was Niff.
Several hours after, I again met him near the stone bridge in Rochdale; he was returning from Belle Vue dog-race. I saw he crossed the street to avoid me, but being very anxious to gain my point, I crossed over, and again met him face to face, determined to make another attempt to get him to the meeting.
“Well, Niff, you are returning from the race. I do not care whether your dogs have won or lost, but I do care about your precious soul, and I wish you would make me a promise.” “What do you want me to promise?” he sharply inquired. “That you will be shaved on Saturday night,” I replied. “What has my being shaved on Saturday night to do with it?” said he, bursting into a loud laugh.
“Well, say that you will be shaved and I’ll tell you.”
“Well, to get rid of you, I promise that I will; but it will be the first time for years; I have generally been scraped on Sunday morning.”
“Thank you for that promise; and now there is another little matter;Â—will you put on your clean shirt on Sunday morning?”
Again he laughed, saying, “That will be something new at our house if I do, for I have generally put it on on the Monday, if I had one; but I will see about it, and I think I will do it.”
“Well, now, you have promised to shave on the Saturday night, and to put on your clean shirt on Sunday morning; will you come to the Green, and be at the service?”
“Nay, nay, I shall go no further; I have promised more than am likely to perform, but the man that sees me at a preaching will have good eyes.”
“I hope my eyes will see you, and that God in His mercy will meet you. Good bye, Niff.”
Sunday morning came, and it was one of those sweet, calm, beautiful mornings, when earth, sea and sky are clothed in glory, and seem to say,Â—”This is the Lord’s day.” O, the blessed Sabbath! the soul’s market-day; the great field-day for the ambassadors of the Cross; the day when the shouts of the redeemed go up to God’s throne in one grand chorus, and the hearts of millions leap for joy; this day, spent in God’s service, and in God’s house, is worth a thousand. Happy is the man whose God is the Lord.
On arriving on the green we found the teachers, scholars, and the congregation of the neighbouring church already assembled;
also many people from the surrounding villages, some of whom had evidently come from curiosity. We opened the service by singingÂ—
“Sweet is the work, my God, my King,
To praise Thy name, give thanks, and sing.”
While the people were singing I looked around for Niff, but he was not amongst them. I then looked in the direction of his house, for he lived near the Green, and I saw him standing at the door;
I could see he had got his clean shirt on, and concluded he was probably shaved too. Before the hymn was finished, he stepped from the door and went away. I felt sad when he turned his back upon us, and mentally prayed that the Lord would make him miserable, and work mightily on his guilty conscience. While singing the second hymn I again looked around, and was glad to see the face of Niff peeping from under the boughs of a holly bush;
and there he remained during the whole of the morning service. While the people were dispersing, I quietly walked towards the place where he was hid, and, on reaching him, expressed my pleasure at finding that he had performed more than he promised, and earnestly entreated him to be present in the afternoon, and to come among the people, and not to hide himself.
“I shall see when the time comes; but I will make no promises,” was his reply.
“Before Jehovah’s awful throne,
Ye nations bow with sacred joy;”
was the opening hymn for the afternoon, and again Niff was beneath the boughs of the holly; but during prayer, and while singing the second hymn, he gradually drew nearer, till at last he stood amongst the people. His appearance created the greatest astonishment. Men, women, and children stared at him as if they doubted their own eyes; but there stood Niff without doubt, and when he saw who was going to preach he sat down on a low fence, and prepared for hearing.
The preacher took for his text, “Escape for thy life.” He spoke of the angel’s visit to Abraham, announcing to the good old patriarch God’s intention to destroy sinful Sodom, and the other wicked cities of the plain; how Abraham pleaded with the Almighty not to destroy the righteous with the wicked, intreating Him to save the cities if fifty good men were found there; how the Lord promised that if fifty, forty, thirty, twenty, or even ten righteous men were found in all the four cities. He would save them; how Abraham in sorrow returned to his tent, and the angels went on to Sodom to warn the good man Lot of the coming destruction, urging him immediately to “escape for his life,” declaring that they could do nothing until he was safe. Here the minister, warming with his subject, exclaimed, “What! what! must the pent-up elements of destruction be held back!Â—the fiery storm and flaming deluge be arrested!Â—must the uplifted hand of the Omnipotent God, which in just judgment was on the point of striking the terribly guilty cities, refuse to move, because one good man was in danger! O God, how precious in Thy sight is one of Thy servants! Great are Thy mercies towards them that fear Thee! To save from eternal destruction Christ left His throne in glory, took upon Himself the form of a man, wept, groaned, and died to save sinners. Yes,
He that distributes crowns and thrones,
Hangs on a tree, and bleeds, and groans;
The Lord of life resigns His breath,
The King of glory bows to death.
O, what wondrous love!Â—what wondrous love! And this for me! Yes, wicked sinner, and it was for theeÂ—for thee!”
Just at this point Niff sprang from the low fence on which he was sitting, and gazed on the minister with the most anxious look. He seemed to forget where he was, so deeply was he absorbed with the glorious truths now for the first time sounding in his ears. The arrow had pierced his soul; God’s word was breaking his heart, and during the remainder of the sermon he stood motionless. After the service I was again quietly walking by his side, and said,Â—
“Well, Niff, you have astonished the people today, and I expect you are surprised at yourself; and now I have one more request. We are going to hold the evening service in the chapel,Â— it will require more resolution for you to enter a place of worship
than to attend out-door meetings; now, my dear sir, promise me you will be there at six. Do not tell any one of your intentions, lest they try to dissuade you.”
Poor man; he seemed unable to say Yes, or No; but after a long and affectionate entreaty he promised to be there.
In the evening, before entering the pulpit, I told several of the friends that Niff was coming, and requested them to provide him a seat. They all seemed greatly astonished, and had I told them Beelzebub would be visibly present, they could not have been more surprised. But Niff came; and though the chapel was crowded, his entrance made quite a commotion. Some wept; others looked at him with wonder; and several rose to offer him their seat. 1 was much affected, and earnestly wished that he might find the Friend of sinners, and go down to his house justified.
There is in the calm, earnest worship of the sanctuary a hallowing, subduing influence, which melts the soul in tenderness and love. In the communion of saints there is a sublime grandeur, and the songs of the church militant and the church triumphant seem to be blending in one grand anthem to Him who washed us from our sins in His own blood. Such an influence was felt that evening. Amidst tears of joy the groans of the penitent were heard. During the prayer-meeting that followed the sermon I knelt beside Niff. But he could neither kneel, nor sit, nor stand; yet he did all these things without any regard to order,Â—taking out a ragged pocket handkerchief to wipe away the sweat which was streaming down his face. His chest heaved like a man in convulsions. He looked at me with the most imploring look, and groaned out, ‘What must I do? What must I do?
“Can you give up your dogs, Niff?” I asked in a low voice.
“Sell my dogs! sell my dogs! what has that to do with it?” he exclaimed.
“All must be given up for Christ. Your dogs are your gods;
can you part with them for salvation?”
“Give up my dogs! What harm have they done? No, no; I cannot give up such good runners as they are.”
Niff rose from his knees,Â—still wiping the tears and sweat from his face. Just then the benediction was pronounced, and the people all retired from the place.
Many persons may not approve of the above conversation being held during a prayer-meeting. As a rule it might be objectionable; in this case I think it was pardonable. The meeting was not disturbed, the poor penitent asked what he must do, and it was my duty to point him to Jesus.
On my way home I called at his house; he had got his coat off, and was still wiping his face and neck. His wife and children were looking at him in speechless wonder, and the three gambling-dogs lay growling on the floor. Addressing myself first to his wife, I said,Â—
“Mrs. Kershaw, I see you are astonished, and no wonder. Your husband has attended three religious services today; I think
a great change is coming over him. You know what a wicked life he has led, and how you and your children have suffered in consequence. His tongue, that has millions of times blasphemed the name of God, has this day cried for mercy; and the man who above all others, seemed to be beyond the reach of mercy, will, through faith in Christ, obtain salvation.” Then turning to Niff, I again repeated that the dogs must be given up.
“O, what must I do? Cannot I keep those dogs and get pardon too? the dogs are innocent enough, are they not?”
“Yes,” I replied, “the dogs are not to blame; but I am informed that you have three races yet to come off, and there is much betting on them; but dogs and wicked companions must all go.”
After kneeling with him and his family in prayer, I left him still weeping.
Mr. J. Guttridge having to preach at the same place,Â— BagslateÂ—the following week, he, at my request, called on Niff, and took him to the service. He greatly helped the poor penitent to grope his way to the Cross. The following Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were days of strong cries and many tears. On the Thursday he got rid of his dogs; and about two o’clock on the Friday morning he rose from a sleepless bed, fell on his knees, and cried out for mercy and pardon so loud that he alarmed the whole house;Â— “O, my Lord Jesus Christ! I have now given up all that I cared about for Thee; if there be anything else left, show me, and I will give it up too. Jesus save me! pardon my mountain of guilt, and speak my sins forgiven!” That prayer was heard, and Niff sprang from his knees, a sinner saved by grace; and so loud did he praise God that his wife and children thought him mad. But he went down on his knees again, and began to pray for their salvation,Â—a sure sign that he had obtained it himself.
He called on me a few days after, and related the above account of his conversion; he seemed unspeakably happy. With the most child-like simplicity, he asked me what he must do to keep from falling back into sin, and how to get rid of his cock-fighting, dog-racing, drinking. Sabbath-breaking companions; for they would be coming to his house as usual.
“Well, Niff, they must be utterly forsaken. My advice is, have a chapter of the Bible read, and kneel down with your family once a day. Begin right at home; and when your old wicked companions come to see you, ask them to sit down, and tell them all about your conversion; and if they come on Sunday, request them to go with you to the chapel. You will by these means soon rid yourself of them, and perhaps do some good.”
Niff resolutely followed the advice given, and fearlessly informed his old companions of the change wrought in his soul by Divine grace. He earnestly warned them, also, of the consequences attending their wicked ways. As might be expected, they were greatly astonished; in fact the whole country was amazed, for there were few blackguards within the sound of Rochdale church bells
but were personally acquainted with him. If the church steeple had fallen it would not have been more talked about. On passing through the village of Cutgate, where he resided, a woman, shod in old slippers, ran after me, exclaiming, “Now, John Ashworth, I suppose you have called to see Niff. We were never so astonished on Bagslate; the worst man in the world mended. He gets shaved on the Saturday, and puts on his clean shirt on the Sunday morning, and goes to the chapel; we could as soon have thought of old Nick going to chapel as Niff.”
“Yes,” I replied, “and Bagslate sinners may become saints;
the same God that has saved him can save you.” But she cut short my intended sermon by turning back, and running slip-shod into her house.
After Niff’s conversion he had great sorrow of heart, in consequence of the wickedness of his eldest son, a young man about twenty-six, who had too well copied his father’s example. After long persuasion, he one Sunday morning induced him to go with him to chapel, mentally praying all the way that God would have mercy on his child. Speaking to me about his son, he said, “If God will save my Jimmy, I will shout praises for ever.” And, wonderful to relate. Jimmy began to attend the Sunday school, became a new creature in Christ Jesus, joined the church, and about twelve months after died triumphantly. Niff, while he was wiping the sweat from the brow of his dying son, a few hours before he expired, said, “Jimmy, my lad, who sweat great drops of blood for thee?” Jimmy replied, “My dear, dear Saviour.” I saw Niff standing beside the bed of his dead child. He stretched both his hands toward heaven, exclaiming, “Glory to my God, I have now one son in the mansions above,Â—my Jimmy is now in heaven. Lord convert my whole family, and then we shall meet him in paradise.”
It is now upwards of nine years since Niff gave up his drunken, swearing. Sabbath-breaking, gambling life, and by the grace of God became a Christian. When he heard of the conversion of old Lawrence and Pinder, two of his companions in sin, he was quite overjoyed. He called to see Lawrence, and they both came to request me to go with them to see Pinder. What a meeting! They all wept over their past sins; and wept for joy over God’s goodness;
and all bowed together in prayer and thanksgiving at the throne of grace.
Last Sunday morning, March 22, 1863, I met Niff beside the sick-bed and, as it proved that day, the death-bed of a well-known character in the neighbourhood of BagslateÂ—the celebrated “Dolly.” He was urging the dying creature to look to Jesus for mercy. On leaving the cellar, where lay the poor expiring “Dolly.” Niff began to thank God that He had kept him in the way to heaven so long; and hoped that, when his last moments came, he might still be found in Christ Jesus. On shaking hands at parting, he said, “It is now near ten years since I gave up my dogs, and found mercy.”