[His Early Life - Religious Impressions - Disappointments in Business - Finds Direction what to do - Hears the Word - Spiritual Convictions and deliverance. 1773-1807.
IT is my desire in much humility to give some account of the teaching of the Spirit of God upon my heart.
I was born (in 1773) at a village called Dalby, near Spilsby, in Lincolnshire. My father was a country gentleman of considerable landed property. My mother's name was Fowler, of Boothby Hall in the same neighbourhood. She died when I was but eighteen months old; and whilst almost an infant I was sent daily to a school kept by a poor woman who had been servant in the family, and was often through neglect left there for days together. At the age of four and a half I was sent to Louth Grammar School.
My father's second marriage turned his affections from me until his death, which was very wounding to me. He died when I was fifteen, leaving the paternal estate to his eldest son, and a small legacy to the rest of his children by his first wife, of whom I was the youngest. The surviving son by the second wife inherited his mother's property. Thus were two of the family rendered independent, and placed in a very different situation from the rest.
At school it was easily seen that I was neglected at home, and therefore the same liberty was taken by the master. I was continually punished, disgraced, and disheartened, and never allowed to rise in the school. I must acknowledge that my natural disposition was volatile, and that I was a boy that had no mind for study; nor did the master attempt to correct this deficiency, but was always jeering and setting me at nought; so that at last I entreated my friends to let me go to another school in the same town. Here I made more progress in one year than in all the time before, greatly to the surprise of my new master, and regained my lost character, and was fitted by this short attention to my education to enter upon anything that might be eligible for me to pursue in life.
In the same town I had a brother articled to a solicitor, who during my absence in the holidays had joined himself to the Methodists. On my return he said much on the new profession of religion he had engaged in, and I was not long listening before I went with him to hear, and soon became his constant companion. I remember the first text I heard was 2 Kings iv. 26, "Is it well with thyself? is it well with thy husband? is it well with the child?" The last sentence lighted upon me. I replied in my heart, It is not well with the child - meaning myself. This I could not easily shake off; and from the impression it made on me, together with my brother's conversation, I became a professor of religion. Being a school-boy at a public school, I was presently noticed by all parties: flattered and admired by the poor professors, laughed at by others, and scorned by my school fellows, who used to set themselves in such places and positions in the chapel as to make me if possible ashamed of myself and of the despicable cause I had espoused. In a few weeks I was solicited to join the society, the nature of which I neither understood nor laid to heart. Being made tender through fear I only thought I must do as I was bid. So on the next public meeting my brother and myself appeared in full congregation to give some account of the work of God upon our souls, of which (as yet) I had no comprehension, yet after a few broken accents we were admitted.
All this time I had to endure much reproach in the boarding house from those around me, but this text continually followed me, "Whoso is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father's, and of the holy Angels" [Luke ix. 26.] This kept me patient and willing to bear, though I had no spiritual view or knowledge of Christ as my Saviour.
I was told to pray to obtain the justification of my soul as they called it; and after some weeks I found a great flow of comfort that I understood not, which they told me was the first blessing, and it produced something that looked like fruit. I remember that in consequence of the unkind treatment I received from the mistress of the boarding house, I had imbibed a great secret hatred to her, but after this change I told my brother that now I could love her dearly; he said that was right and was a proof that the work was genuine.
I continued some time at this place, with many changes in my mind, and found the profession I made was the cause of a great deal of unhappiness in many ways, both as to what I did, as well as what I denied myself.
At length the time came that I must leave school, and it was thought necessary that I should go to London, and that I might be trusted, though not quite sixteen, being what is termed serious. I spent a year and a half experiencing many vicissitudes, and being left to myself I did not so strictly adhere to the rules of the society I belonged to as before. I tried in various ways to seek for occupation, but was not a proper judge of what was likely to prove advantageous to me, nor had I as yet learnt that all things are sanctified by the word of God and prayer. I knew not the Lord as a God of Providence, and not asking counsel of Him nothing prospered. Yet I must say that though the many dangerous circumstances I fell into have proved the ruin of thousands, the impressions of tenderness I had received in my religious profession, did not entirely leave me, nor did the Lord give me up to a designing world. When I was sixteen and a half years old I was pressed to pray in the public chapel in West Street: though very painful to my feelings I yielded, and I think the admiration and praise I obtained on account of my youth, had a great influence on my outward conduct in keeping me from the common vices of the world.
Being so situated as to be unable to attend class regularly, my ticket was at length withheld, but in consequence of the interference of an influential friend who represented me as a gentleman's son, it was immediately restored. On mature reflection I wondered how such a circumstance could have any weight. There appeared even to my youthful mind, such a worldly spirit in the measure, that I never after this, felt any value for or attachment to that cause, but continued to attend with less and less cordiality, and less and less constancy, till at length I finally left it.
After various unsuccessful attempts to engage in some line of business, I at last settled in Manchester. Here I addicted myself to visiting and public amusements, and by this means soon lost sight of my profession of religion, endeavouring to drive all care and despondency from my mind. Yet the Lord did not give me over to a reprobate mind. I could not quite forget the little understanding I had of divine things, and there were many vices I dared not enter into as others did. Thus the Lord kept still alive in my conscience that spark which he had put there, though balls, card parties, and the like occupied nearly the whole of my time, till my little patrimony began to sink, and conscience began to awaken at the same time, and to bring on terrible fears.
I remember one Sunday being invited by six or seven young persons to take a ride. This I shall not forget while I live. My friends were altogether of the world, but I had not totally forgotten the restraint I had formerly felt, yet I ventured. The heavens seemed to me covered with sackcloth. I felt as if hell were already begun. We at length arrived at the river Mersey which we must ford; here I faltered, not daring at first to cross, but said nothing. I let four or five pass and then spurred on my horse but exceedingly feared I should perish in the river. I could not for one moment raise my drooping spirits, but my heart kept saying, Is this the way to spend your Sundays? Will this bring a blessing? I could not answer, I felt so ashamed, only that if I should be spared to get safe home I would never do the like again. The company was vain and thoughtless, but as for me, though I knew not the Lord, his terrors made me greatly afraid. I shall never forget the black cloud that was upon my heart, as an evident mark of the wrath of God for my sin.
But notwithstanding this check, instead of religious society, I still sought what is called the best company in the place, and was intimately acquainted with many good families in the neighbourhood, whose houses frequently became my home; yet a throbbing heart would often tell me this would not last; and I devised in my mind many changes. I thought I would sink the little remains of my property, and go into the neighbourhood of the lakes, or some other very retired and cheap place, and never more be heard of by my friends. But the Lord had other purposes for me, and the times growing very heavy at Manchester I found no means of support; therefore, for fear of losing the wreck of my property, I left the place.
After I left Manchester I had the offer of a commission in the army, which I accepted because anything seemed better than an idle life. I also entered at St. John's College, Cambridge, but everything combined with my unsettled state of mind to stop all purposes but that to which the Lord soon led me. I wandered about not knowing what next to do; nor how I should be eventually provided for; and what was worse, full of sorrow and guilt, I new not how to call upon the Lord. For about two years I was thus tossed, being unsettled in my mind and unprovided for, and finding my finances very small I often feared I should come to utter disgrace and ruin.
One day I was so cast down and so ill-treated by some with whom I had resided a few weeks, that I felt myself filled with the utmost despondency and completely overwhelmed with grief. I went to my bed-room and fastened the door, and then fell on my knees, and with all my heart and soul cried to the Lord as nearly as I can remember in these words - O Lord, what shall I do to maintain myself? I cannot endure this miserable way of living. No sooner were these words out of my mouth, than it was impressed on my mind you must draw. I was quite surprised, and though as yet I knew not the Lord, yet I considered this a plain direction from him, and I at once gave up all other plans and began to occupy myself in the art of drawing, which has afforded me a liberal supply for many years, and enabled me to bring up a large family respectably.
I immediately went to a kind and wealthy relation, who gave me time and opportunity to practise drawing, until by a singular circumstance I had the opportunity of a journey to London, and with my little store of knowledge in the arts I called on an old schoolfellow and told him very frankly my history. He was immediately interested for me, and said if I would settle in London he would introduce me to the Countess of Sutherland and Lord Spencer who was then Lord of the Admiralty. My heart throbbed, knowing my deficiency, yet it seemed an opening I dared not set aside; but how I should stand my ground I knew not, neither did I know the Lord.
I had five guineas left with which I took lodgings, and found immediate employment in those families. I had many anxieties and fears, and laboured hard to make myself equal to my engagements.
Now London once more became my home; and having parted with all those friends with whom I had lived in dissipation and gaiety I began to think of the religious life I had formerly led and was now willing from many causes to hear the most noted preachers up and down London. This pacified my legal conscience, and I began to be cheerful and happy, though I was not able to discriminate between truth and error, not knowing anything of my own heart; and in this way I went on with very little variety for three or four years. In this space of time I had a dangerous fever which threatened my life. Some of my professing friends visited me and encouraged me to hope in the Lord, saying they had not a doubt I should die happy, though at that time I had not the least foundation for hope, knowing nothing but an empty profession. After it had pleased the Loreto restore me to health, these very friends endeavoured to entice me to wickedness; but my eyes were in some measure open to such iniquities, and I had become not only outwardly religious, but I believe in some measure sincere.
During this period I was one night at the theatre. What the performance was I cannot nor do I desire to recollect, but on a sudden the fear of death seized me, and my guilty conscience sunk under the alarm; and no doubt others could have perceived the dismay and trouble I felt. This increased till I was obliged to leave the theatre in the midst of the performance, and I went home and cried and groaned, and confessed my wretchedness; but not knowing the Lord I knew not how to carry my trouble to him, but soon stifled it with other amusements. How often have I, since then, blessed his holy Name for that mercy, light, and truth, that has discovered to me the snare of the fowler, and brought me out of all my troubles!
One night as I returned to my lodgings my landlord said to me, As you are so fond of hearing preachers, I wonder you do not go and hear Mr. Huntington. I replied, I never thought of him, I go chiefly to church and have not heard much about him; but I will go in a few days to hear him. I remember the first time I heard him, I thought him the most agreeable preacher I had ever heard, and was not in the least tired. I continued for two years to frequent his chapel together with the established church. I now grew very anxious and much in earnest respecting the salvation of my soul, but had no understanding what spiritual life meant, or what secret communion with God was. I used to pray, as I thought, but never waited for any answer; I supposed that I should get that in heaven, not now; and though I found nothing in my heart to forbid the spirit of the world, or anything which was not openly flagitious, yet I believed without doubt that all was right within.
About this time I met with Mr. Huntington's book called The Barber, which I was told was very scurrilous; but I ventured to read it alone, and the Lord was pleased by this book to discover the nature of my profession, that it was altogether vain, and would by no means stand when the rain began to beat and the winds to blow, but would certainly fall, because founded on the sand. This by the power of God swept away every refuge of lies I had been hid under, and left me without a hope, and yet not without a cry. This led me to hear more attentively the author of the book. It made religion of importance to me, and I could no longer be a trifling professor, for I was in earnest to seek salvation, but found I had lost my way. It was by very slow degrees that I could at all understand the word though so faithfully preached, yet now and then I had a little hope that the Lord would not utterly cast me off. Especially once from these words - "The vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie; though it tarry wait for it, because it will surely come, it will not tarry" [Hab. ii. 3]. This made me patiently wait and look out for a further and clearer token than I had ever yet found of my interest in Christ. I could give very little account all this time of the doctrines of the Gospel, only I felt I was a lost sinner, and the minister told me how such were to be saved, and the Lord made me very much in earnest to seek in the way I was directed by the Word.
My business was subjected to many changes, but upon the whole very prosperous, and lest this should share too great a portion of my heart the Lord was pleased to lay upon me a long and grievous affliction. This was the cause of many sighs and bitter groans, which were every now and then accompanied by some encouraging hope. While I write this I feel a measure of sweetness at the recollection of the kind help often afforded me in my extremity, and which has been continued up to the present day.
My custom was to spend my summers in the country with families of rank, in the way of business. And as the time drew near for my leaving town I began to feel many fears, for I had laboured long in darkness, and had not as yet attained to the comfortable knowledge of God's favour toward me in Christ Jesus; and I felt afraid lest being deprived of the public worship, and also debarred from spiritual intercourse with the people of God, I should defer that which my heart was now set upon - for I understood in some measure by the ministry that I must come to a knowledge of Christ by the remission of sins. Under these apprehensions I was engaged to go into the country with a young gentleman of the Temple, and thinking all hopes of finding the happiness I sought were about to be far removed, I laid it greatly to heart. After performing our journey we parted, and I went to the house of a friend, where I found the family were absent from home, but had requested me to stay as long as I liked. I went to bed fatigued and full of fears; but when I awoke in the morning I felt something I did not quite understand. I was particularly cheerful; all the darkness in which I had so long been involved was gone. Something seemed to say, You had better get up. So I arose; and the happiness greatly increased. I found the burden of all my sins, which had so sore oppressed me, was gone, and I could do nothing but bless and praise God's holy Name. I had never heard any one speak of this happiness, but I felt it was what the minister had set forth by the Word as the revelation of Jesus Christ to the soul, and I knew now that I was a sinner saved by grace, and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One eternal God, was my Friend. I could now only tell of my joy, as before I could only tell of my misery. I knew the voice, according to that scripture - "Therefore my people shall know my Name; therefore they shall know in that day that I am He that doth speak; behold it is I" [Isa. lii. 6]. I was now as sure of eternal life as of my existence, nor had I the shadow of a fear about it. The Sun of righteousness had arisen with healing in his wings, and my soul could do nothing but rejoice. These things confirmed the many seasons in which I had found a distant hope, and though after this I had many changes, yet did it effectually show me that the Lord had given me spiritual life.