His Religious Experience. Tries to be a Methodist. Hopes to become a Preacher. Boy Preaching. Attends a Sunday-school. |Chaws| Tobacco. Goes to Love Feast. Mourners' Bench Experience. Is Puzzled and Disgusted.
My parents were Methodists, as were their ancestors on both sides. My mother was uniformly religious, but not fussy about it. I have seen her intensely happy, but never heard her shout. Her religion was a deep, smooth, current without fluctuation. My father was religious more by spells, but still he never went to extremes, and could never |get religion| at the altar, in the Methodist fashion. This lifelong failure of his discouraged him, causing him at times to become somewhat skeptical and indifferent. But he died, rejoicing in the faith of Christ as held by the Methodist Church.
When about ten years of age I joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. A great revival was in progress at La Grange, and over one hundred persons united with the church. I enjoyed the services, and continued to do so for a number of years. Often in those early times I rode to meeting at surrounding churches and private dwellings on horseback behind my mother. I still remember, as vividly as if it were but yesterday, the texts and treatment of many of the sermons I heard. In later years I have frequently thought of the fallacies the preachers imposed upon us, and, I charitably believe, upon themselves, in these sermons, but which neither we nor they could detect for want of correct scriptural knowledge. The thought that I should one day become a preacher impressed me, and it clung to me for years. When afterwards I grew wild and wicked, this impression possessed me, and many a time, when my good wife would rebuke me for my wickedness, I would say, |Never mind, dear; I'll be a preacher yet.| I had a high regard for preachers, and from early life was fond of their company; and since I have become one myself, the society of good, faithful men of God brings me as near heaven as I shall ever be in the flesh.
It was a common thing with me, when I came home from meeting, to get up one of my own by gathering the children together and preaching to them the sermons I had heard; and while these were not verbally correct, there was in them the substance of what the preachers had delivered. I would sing and pray, and go through the whole performance. I improvised a little pulpit, and had a church after my own notion; I was a great plagiarist, and in this, too, I copied after some others.
I attended the first Sunday-school I ever heard of; it was conducted by Floyd Wellman, a gentleman who afterwards became a prominent and honored citizen of Louisville. Sunday-schools were then poor things, as I fear many of them are yet. Little question-books, with the answers supplied, and reading-books, mostly about angelic boys and girls who died of early piety, furnished the staple of our reading, while but little of the Scriptures was taught, or thought about.
To chew tobacco seemed to me to be manly; so to let the people see I was thus far developed, I prepared me a rough twist of |long green;| this I stuck in my pantaloons pocket, for the occasion, and when everything was propitious in the Sunday-school, I drew out the twist and bit off a |chaw.| It raised quite a laugh, in which the superintendent himself joined; and this ended for life my chewing tobacco to be seen of men.
I often went with my parents to |love feast.| At the first of these which I attended I had an experience of my own. The light-bread was cut into slips about two inches long and a half an inch wide and thick. Some of these were then divided into small pieces. On the plate which was passed around were two long pieces, and I concluded that if there was any virtue in the thing it would be enhanced by my taking a long one; but when I discovered that all the rest had taken but a bite my philosophy failed, and I hid the remainder where Rachel hid the gods of her father Laban.
When about fifteen years of age the Methodists had a big revival at Mount Tabor, a neighboring country church. In this meeting a great many of my friends and companions were |getting religion| at the altar of prayer. I became intensely desirous of the same blessing, and in great anxiety and hopefulness I went to the altar. Day after day did I go, but only to be disappointed. Every time some would |get through,| and there would be great rejoicing, till only one young man and myself were left. The whole power of the church was then concentrated on us, but to no purpose. In this extremity I began to reason about it as I had not done before. I had been taught that |God was no respecter of persons; but that in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.| My soul ever recoiled from the idea of His decreeing some men to salvation and others to damnation, irrespective of their own will and conduct. Here, now, I was as helpless as a stone till God should do this work of grace for me. Why would he send down the Holy Spirit and convert one on my right, another on my left, till the |bench| was vacant, and not convert me? The preachers were praying for Him to do it; my father and mother were praying earnestly for it; the whole church were pleading with Him, and yet He would not do it. I knew I was a sinner; that I wanted salvation; that I was sincere, earnest as the others could be: but all this availed nothing. The preachers tried to explain the failure on the ground that I was still clinging to the world and my own righteousness; that I had not given my heart wholly to God, etc. This I knew to be false. I concluded that if a poor, penitent, agonizing sinner with all his prayers and pleadings, with the whole church earnestly cooperating, could not induce God to save him, he might just as well be decreed to damnation from all eternity. With these reflections I left the mourners' bench in disgust, and ever since I have had for it an inexpressible contempt. Time and observation have confirmed me in this feeling; and while I cherish a sincere respect for those who in ignorance think it is a divine arrangement, and that in resorting to it they are obeying a command of God, I have none for those who, knowing better, still use it as a means of conversion. As often employed by professional evangelists, there is so much of clap-trap that it must bring the whole subject of religion into contempt with sensible people. It is amazing to me that, in view of its entire lack of Scripture precept or example, the light and knowledge of this day, and its frequent failures, it, and the whole system of which it is an essential part, are not laid aside.
Having been taught that Methodism and Christianity were identical, and having completely lost faith in the former, it was natural enough that I should become skeptical as to the latter. Only a lingering suspicion that after all they might be different, saved me from hopeless infidelity; and had I not in after years learned such to be the case, I should have lived and died in rebellion against God.