A Pardoned Sinner
There were quite a number of unbelievers among the prisoners shut up with me, and While we had but little communication with each other, our new chaplain, the earnest man of whom I have spoken, visited and talked with us and got at our hearts secrets. This led him to preach a sermon against skepticism, not perhaps exactly that, but a sermon in which he laid down the grounds upon which the Christian could find a reasonable basis for his faith. I remember one morning he spoke especially of what he called the “Prophetic Method.” He pointed oat the fact that God had so arranged the plan of revelation that the honest man who gave the subject proper investigation could hardly evade believing. He showed how the prophets had foretold many centuries before, the things that did afterward come to pass, and he showed how these prophets were so many and minute that guesswork was out of the question. He proved that these prophecies were contained in old records that had stood the test of criticism, that critics and infidels themselves were bound to admit that the Old Testament Scriptures had existed long before the birth of Christ, and that in Christ’s life, ministry, and crucifixion these prophecies had been fulfilled in such exact detail, and that too in many instances by men who knew nothing of the prophecies and had no faith in Christ, that no honest man could conclude that these men had any purpose to fulfill the prophecies or any knowledge, or remote thought that they were doing so. For example; he referred to the prophecy of Christ being crucified between two thieves and being buried in a rich man’s grave. He also called attention to the fact that the prophet had said that “none of his bones should be broken” and quite a number of prophecies which I cannot recall just now, but made a very decided impression upon me at the time and were so very clear that it seems to me impossible to answer them.
My candid judgment is that the average infidel has not made anything like a careful and honest investigation of the evidences of Christianity and the many proofs in favor of the inspiration of the Scriptures. In many instances the skeptic is not seeking for proofs of the existence of God and the inspiration of the Bible. Generally the skeptic is a wicked man and like I had done for many years, he is so anxious to avoid the consequences of his sins that he would be only too glad if he could become fully convinced that there is no God and that the Scriptures are not inspired.
I became so interested in the subject that I was led to ask the chaplain several questions which resulted in his securing for me a number of books which I read with great interest. Among them was a large old volume called The Elements of Divinity.” He marked several chapters and paragraphs for me to read which very clearly settled all my questions, removed my doubts and left me fully persuaded that the Bible is an inspired book and that Jesus Christ is able to save all men, even the most unworthy, from all sin. This matter fully settled, the memory of my conversion as a boy loomed up before me in the clearest light imaginable, and along With it came trooping about me a harrowing memory of my many sins. There was one scripture that pierced me through as a sharp sword; that passage which says: “No murderer shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.” This seemed to shut the door effectually in my face. I called our chaplain’s attention to it one day and asked him if it would be interpreted to mean that the poor fellow in prison who had committed murder had no hope for salvation. He explained that a man who was a murderer at heart, whether he had killed his man or not, could not enter into the kingdom of heaven, that the scripture referred more to a murderous condition of heart than to any act a man might have committed, and that it was possible for even a murderers to so repent of his wicked deed and trust in Jesus that all malice and hatred would be removed from the heart, and also the stain of sin placed there by any murderous act, desire or intention of the past.
He convinced me that this scripture did not close the door of hope to my disturbed soul. I spent much time in prayer. Sometimes much of the night passed with me upon my knees at the side of my cot calling for mercy. My fountain of tears was well-nigh dried up. I often wished that I could weep but I had become so hardened by infidelity and sin that it seemed almost impossible for me to weep. The chaplain, and my Sabbath school teacher took a great interest in me and one Sabbath afternoon when they had called for those who desired salvation to remain in the chapel after the services were dismissed, several of the prisoners, myself among them, remained for prayer and instruction. We were called forward to kneel at a bench which was put out near the preacher’s stand and while the choir sang and the Christian friends instructed us we waited in prayer.
I shall not undertake to tell the reader of the startling and awful sins which passed before me that afternoon. They stood out with huge deformity and blackness. The time I had wasted in school, my neglected opportunities, my disregard of the instructions and entreaties of my father, the waste and folly at gambling and drink, the profanity, dishonesty, and untruthfulness of my past, all crowded about me like so many devils and seemed to hiss and jeer and ridicule in my ears till it seemed the blood would almost congeal in my veins. The cold perspiration broke out on my body and my hands seemed to be as cold as if chilled with death. I fell into a state of blank despair. It seemed that I could neither weep nor pray nor trust. But the friends urged me, sang and prayed and insisted that I should utter certain prayers regardless of my doubts and feelings of despair. These exercises seemed to give me some relief for a time, but my hopes and better feelings were very temporary and there came to me a fearful conviction that I had sinned, away my day of grace. I had not only violated God’s divine law, but I had rejected his compassionate mercy, I had broken his commandments, and sneered at the Christ who had come to save me. I had denied his very existence, I had uttered most fearful and profane things with reference to his religion, his character and his death. Was it possible that he could forgive one like myself? I seemed to give up all hope and concluded that my eternal punishment was a fixed and awful fact, but there came into my mind a positive resolution to sin no more, and even if I should at last be shut up in the region of lost spirits, I determined to defend God, to say that my punishment was just, that there was no one to blame for my sad end except myself. If I should be lost, I determined to become a witness to the goodness and mercy and justice of God even in the midst of the profane and miserable souls in the depths of outer darkness. Despairing as I was, dead as seemed all hope to me, urged by my friends I continued to pray. All at once my burden vanished. Fear seemed to depart absolutely from my heart, I rose at once in triumphant laughter and praise and got the chaplain into my striped arms and held him to my heart. It seemed to me that I loved everybody in all the wide world.
Some of the guards and the prisoners came back into the chapel and as I finally passed out, they cast some taunting words at me, giving me to understand that there was no better scheme to undertake to secure a pardon or parole than that I should make much of religious matters. But I was so wonderfully blessed and for some days so graciously kept, that I felt comparatively indifferent to the taunts of the guards and prisoners.
The change that had come to me was marvelous beyond all of my power to describe. My cell seemed to be a little palace and I remembered in joy that I had heard my old father sing a song in which were these words: “Prisons would palaces prove if Jesus would dwell with me there.”
How real all things became to me. How clear, true and reasonable the Scriptures, how wicked and unreasonable it was to sin; profanity and all harsh and vulgar words became offensive, the finer sensibilities awakened in my nature. Old things had passed away and I was certainly in Christ a new creature. I felt no shame or hesitancy in telling every one that I was a Christian, that I had found in Jesus a Savior. The delight of our chaplain and my Sunday school teacher seemed to have no bounds. They rejoiced with me, so did all of the Christian prisoners, and not a few of those who were not converted seemed to be profoundly interested and genuinely pleased that I had found forgiveness.
I read the Scriptures with great delight and it was sweet to go into my little cell and betake myself to my knees. I availed myself of every opportunity to speak a kind word of exhortation to prisoners, guards, or visitors, and feel confident that my labors were not in vain in the Lord for not long after my conversion there were several others brought very consciously and very blessedly into a gracious relation with Christ, I think I may safely say as the fruit of my personal work.
I confessed my real name to the warden of the penitentiary and with the assistance of my chaplain wrote quite a number of letters to parties whom I had treated grossly, confessed my sin to them, begged their forgiveness, and told them that Christ had graciously saved me by his grace.
Having been skeptical, I now found real delight in reading the very best books I could get hold of whose authors were making war on unbelief of every kind. I enjoyed a little book called “The Man of Galilee” which was written by a Bishop Haygood, I think, of Georgia. It was a wonderful little volume.
I sought every opportunity to put books and tracts into the hands of prisoners whom I had found skeptical. I fully realize that I am suffering the just reward of my deeds and should not blame other people. At the same time it is perfectly clear to me that if I had gotten into some good, religious school, instead of the skeptical institution where I was robbed of my faith, I would no doubt have been a happy and useful citizen instead of having lived a miserably wicked life and being shut up here in prison through these weary years with but little probability of much usefulness in the time to come. If the words of a prisoner are worth anything, I would most earnestly urge parents and guardians to keep children under their care out of skeptical colleges. They will find it almost impossible to stem the tide of ridicule and unbelief that is so common among college professors and students, and so likely to spring up in the conditions surrounding the average institution of learning.