A Sympathetic Friend
At the close of my last chapter I was telling the readers of the new interest in life which had sprung up within me, because of the acquaintance and friendship I had formed for the little daughter, whose parents came for religious service on the Sabbath afternoons in our prison chapel. This friendship deepened into a genuine love on my part and, strange as it may seem, I had every reason to believe the little child had a genuine love for me. She reminded me very much of the beautiful creature who had given me the rosebud on the steamboat of which I had spoken before, and somehow the hardness in me melted under her influence and almost unconsciously, I found myself having a more kindly feeling toward everybody and in me there were rising up hopes that even yet there might be for me some victory and usefulness in the world.
Meanwhile I had joined a Sabbath school class, and had for my teacher a quiet, little widow, who was well advanced in years and certainly one of the most kind-hearted and earnest Christian women I have ever met. She seemed to be full of faith and love for everybody. I learned afterward that her father, though a member of a very respectable family, when she was a little girl, had been sentenced to prison because of an unfortunate appropriation of funds which had been intrusted to him. He had died in prison and this tenderhearted woman who had loved and stood by him faithfully through the years of his disgrace and suffering, had formed a great, deep Christian love and solicitude for all the men who wore stripes in the prison in which her father had been incarcerated, and from which he had been taken forth and buried in a grave of shame.
She soon found out that I was a skeptic and labored faithfully to rid me of my doubts and lead me to faith in the Christ. My faith faculty seemed to be almost paralyzed or destroyed. Her solicitude was so great, her motives evidently so unselfish that I could not account for her attitude toward me in any other way than that she possessed a love and sympathy for us poor prisoners that did not belong naturally to human nature. I figured that it must be something that had come into her heart through acquaintance with the Man of Galilee.
I remember one day she brought me a little book, the title of which I cannot exactly remember. It had been written by a Catholic priest, and was an answer to some lecture or article from the celebrated infidel, Robert Ingersoll. It was the most scathing piece of sarcasm I ever saw in print. The priest had handled the skeptic without gloves. He had punctured the windbags of his opposer, laid bare the falsehoods contained in his statements, and held him up to public ridicule in a most remarkable way. One could not read the book without being profoundly impressed with the remarkable skill of the priest.
Ingersoll had been something of a champion of mine before, but time and again while reading this book I was forced to laugh heartily at my hero. The priest certainly placed him in a very unenviable light and swept away many of the false notions under which I had been taking refuge. I remember one paragraph in the book read almost like the following:
Mr. Ingersoll’s friends, to prove that he was a man of infinite jest, liked to tell of his war record, which consisted in marching down south and marching home again. Mr. Ingersoll was captured by some southern soldiers in a hog pen, and Gen. Forrest, whose sarcasm was as keen as his sword, exchanged him for a mule, and Col. Ingersoll hastened back to the north where he found more money, and less danger in ridiculing the Bible, than in meeting a brave rebel soldier with a gun in his hand. If Gen. Grant, and the boys in blue who followed him to war, had have had as little fear of God, and as much fear of rebel soldiers as Col. Ingersoll had, there would now be six million slaves in the United States.”
This put me to thinking about the leading infidels in whom I had been interested, and whom I had believed were such great men, and I asked myself what good these men had done with their teachings, which had destroyed the faith of multitudes of people. Who had been made better, or more hopeful and happy by giving up his faith in Jesus Christ, the immortality of the soul, and a happy hereafter? Who in the wide world could say that he was a better and happier man because of the writings of Hume, Voltaire, Tom Paine, or Robert Ingersoll?
As I lay awake at night on my little bed these thoughts rambled through my mind for many hours. I asked myself What skeptic, from the college professor who had first shaken my faith in the Bible, and genuineness of the Christian religion, down to the poorest, most degraded sot I had ever heard swearing over a glass of whiskey in a bar-room, who of all these doubters had brought any help or strength or light into my life. Not one of them and as I thought over the matter I was forced to believe that not one of these men was himself a happy man.
Come to think of it, happiness rises more out of our hopes for the future, than out of our enjoyment of things past or present, and the Christian always has a hopeful future. When every thing else fails, he can take Job’s view of the situation and rejoice because of what he expects in time to come. He carries in his heart the hope of a resurrection and a life with his Lord on the other side which shall be free from all temptation, disease, sorrowful separation, or sin, and this hope is an anchorage to him in all of the vicissitudes of life.
I thought over the people who had been of any value to me, who had wakened anything good in me, and without an exception they were “Christians. There was my devout old father, faithful and patient and true now no doubt in heaven; and there was my brother John; all the while, in the days of my unbelief and sin, I could see John as a white saint, no stains on him, no selfishness in him, no blot of unbelief, and I never could feel as if John were dead. Somehow in the midst of my infidelity I had a profound feeling that John was living conscious and happy, somewhere. Then there was the sweet angel of the rosebud. How firm was her faith! How spotless her life! How radiant her hope! It could not be that she had been blotted out of existence. No, No! Somewhere in God’s universe she and John were together and if, in the other world, people remember, and if they love those whom they loved on earth, doubtless they feel for them genuine solicitude, and if they are with the compassionate Christ who never turned away a penitent heart on earth, they were evidently praying for me.
I shuddered at the thought that they should know anything of the life I had been living, and my present humiliation and disgrace and yet there was within me a hope that they did know and that they did pray for me. And thus the weeks passed by, my mind and thought throughout the busy day at the table, in my cell at night, turning again and again to this subject.
My Sunday school teacher had brought me a Bible with many texts marked in red and blue pencil, and I was reading this with an interest I had never known before. Many times it seemed to me as if the type almost spoke with a tongue. It thrilled and startled me. Nothing struck me more than the words in John’s gospel: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” This fastened my attention. Could it be possible that God loved me? Then why this checkered life of mine, and this miserable failure? But I reasoned that notwithstanding God’s love I was a free agent, it had been my own choice, the things in my history and life which had brought sorrow and shame had come because of disobedience to God’s commands, and sins against his righteous laws. The ruin which had come to me was no proof that God did not love me. The scriptures themselves had plainly said “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap,” and I had sown with a liberal hand, and now my harvest time had come and with blistered, weary hands I struggled in a vast harvest field that swept far beyond the horizon, and promised me nothing but failure and disappointment and shame, not only in this life but also in the life which was to come if the old book was true, and if the only people that I had ever known who were really happy and who had been of any value to me, were not fearfully deluded in their faith and hopes. In the midst of all these thoughts passing again and again through my mind, there rose very clearly the memory of my own conversion. It stood out with a freshness and reality which I had not known for years. Without doubt in that old Methodist Church one night at the altar I had really met with Jesus. He had blotted out my sins, lifted up my burdens, and brought a strange restful peacefulness into my heart. The days following this remarkable experience were some of the happiest days I had ever known. There could be no doubt about it.
I had been metamorphosed at the college, my professors had led me on step by step into the dark regions of unbelief, they had robbed me of my childhood faith, and then leaving me bruised and wounded they bad passed on the other side. Now, in my misfortune no infidel came to me with a prattling babe to take into my arms, or beautiful flower to cheer me for a little while a good book with which to wear away the time, or kindly word of encouragement and promise of forgiveness of my sins and happiness and rest in the days to come. This, the Christians had done, the followers of Jesus were eager to help me and never seemed so happy as when I gave any sort of evidence of repentance, or of turning for salvation and hope to the Savior of Whom they spoke so much and with such confident assurance.
I was now devoting almost all my spare time to the reading of good books. I lost all taste for skeptical works or trashy novels, and found myself interested in religious literature _ tracts, religious papers, the biographies of Christians, missionaries, ministers. How absolutely different they were from myself, and the people with whom I had associated. No doubt they had their weaknesses, made their mistakes, and had their sorrows, but in spite of all this they lived in an entirely different world from that in which I had my miserable existence.
My little Sunday school teacher was radiant with happiness over the change that had come to me, and urged me to give my heart to Jesus, and I found myself wishing that I could do this thing which seemed so impossible; and in the sighs and groans which came involuntarily from my lips, there were words of prayer, and I was surprised and startled to hear myself saying: “Have mercy on me, help me, forgive me.” The reader may be sure that I was very far from happiness. I had no hopes or rest, day or night, but there was this change that had come to me, I scarcely knew how or when my profanity was all gone, my skepticism had about withered; I had no sort of pleasure any more in any sort of rough talk or ridicule of religion and there came to me a flash of hopefulness and at last a dream of the possibility of pardon and peace somewhere in the future.