This is the forty-second return of my spiritual birthday, which gracious and blessed event was on the 25th of April, 1854; therefore, my mind is moved to begin a relation of my early religious life on this memorable anniversary of the happy day when my spirit first rejoiced in God my Savior, who then reconciled me to Himself in Jesus Christ, His beloved Son and my loving Redeemer.
The next day was my twenty-seventh natural birthday. Both events were in the state of Ohio, and near the beautiful Ohio River.
My beloved parents were Elder John P. and Charity Bartley, and I was their ninth child and sixth son, born unto them the 26th of April, 1827, in their farm-home, about eighty miles above the city of Cincinnati. My father was then, and until his departure, a highly esteemed Primitive Baptist Elder or minister, and my amiable mother a faithful member. When I was about three years old my parents moved, with their large family of children, to their new farm-home in central Indiana, where I grew up to man-hood.
My beloved mother, so much like her name (Charity), was taken home to her Father in heaven, after a lingering illness of six months, when I was a little lad. In her sickness I was her daily waiting-boy, as I was too small to work on the farm; and I remember how kind and gentle, affectionate and patient she was in it all.
In my early boyhood days my budding mind was often seriously impressed with thoughts of my future destiny, of God and eternity; and I was wont to look up into the starry heavens with wonder and awe; for even then I felt that I was a stranger, in a strange and mysterious world.
One harvest time, at about the age of ten, I fell very sick, and seemed to be gliding down a steep and black mountain, with nothing beneath my feet but moving gravel, carrying me slowly down – down into a yawning abyss as black as night. This would startle and alarm me, for I feared it was an omen of my death, and that I must sink down into the bottomless pit. But as I grew on in years, I regarded death as far in the distance, and flattered myself that I should prepare to meet it and make my peace with God when I grew up and had enjoyed the pleasures of life. My idea was that I was quite a good, moral boy, having a good heart, and only a few outward sins, of small moment, which I could and should leave off before I came up with death, and then God would be pleased with me. As time went on I became somewhat religious – yet let no one else know it. With some small exceptions, I really though that I was pleasing God. Being subject to occasional headaches, I thought it was a punishment for some little wrong; therefore, I would silently ask Him to let me know when I displeased Him by causing me to have a headache as a warning to me, so that I might do right.
Father taught us children to read the Bible of Sundays and nights, and he would read with us, when not away preaching. It was his wont, too, to read a chapter to the family and pray before retiring for the night. On those occasions he would talk reverently to us of God our Maker, of our accountability to Him, and of judgment. This deeply impressed my young mind, and imbued me with a feeling of awe and reverence for the Creator – a feeling of fear and dread, I may say, rather than of love. In this way, too, I became somewhat familiar with the letter of the Scriptures, for which I have ever felt grateful. I regarded my father as the best man on earth and I also had a reverential regard for his fellow-preachers, who often visited our home, and many of them preached there. I believed then, as now, that they were the servants of the Lord. Moreover, from my Scripture reading, as well as from hearing their conversation and preaching. I fully believed (as I though) the doctrine they held, as to the way of salvation – that it is of the Lord and by His grace.
In my early youth my eldest brother, Mordecai, left the parental roof and settled in Jasper county, Illinois, and after some time he came near dying with typhus fever, but was raised up to health again. He then wrote our father a long letter, giving his deep religious experience and telling of the sweet forgiveness of his sins and the peace and joy of his heart, at a time when his young wife and others were weeping around his bed, and thought he was dying – telling, too, that he was then so happy in the Lord that he longed to depart and be with his blessed Savior.
In this letter he said to father: "Tell Carleton and Sophia Universalism may do to live by, but it will not do to die by." (They were our eldest sister and her husband, Mr. Carleton Avery.) After receiving this letter dear father called all the family in at night and read it aloud with deep and joyful emotion, for we had all sorrowfully expected to hear of Mordecai's death.
After retiring that night I could not sleep for some time, for I knew that the Lord had saved and blessed dear Mordecai; but I knew just as well that I had no Christian experience, and that the Lord only could make me a Christian. O, how I wished I were saved, like Mordecai! But, alas! I then felt that I was only a natural boy.
Let me here speak of my sainted sister. With father and mother, she was a member of the dear old home church – Conn's Creek; also her husband. But he and his father's family had been carried off by the Universalists; and, after long persuasion, my sister also went with them. Still, she and her husband would attend father's meetings, and then go home with him. Mr. Avery was a quiet man; but she became a zealous advocate of Universalism, and this had gone on a few years, until father was so tired with her that he seldom visited their home, wishing to avoid any further controversy with her.
As was usual, they were both at our house at the Baptist meeting time, with quite a company of Baptists. On Sunday morning all were having a good religious conversation in the large sitting-room. The boy David was in the rear listening, and near me were Carleton and Sophia. She was turning the pages of Wilson Thompson's hymn book, and her anxiety to talk attracted my attention. As soon as there was a pause in the conversation she spoke to father, who sat near, and read to him a verse on free grace. She then said: "Free, indeed! If it was free, it would be for everybody." For some minutes she went on with her argument, but no one replied, and she ceased. Then father, his voice tremulous with deep feeling, said: "Sophia, we all used to believe you was a subject of grace. I remember how you told your experience to the church, and I baptized you, and how you used to encourage me to go on and preach the doctrine of grace, even stronger than I did, telling me that it was the truth. But now, you have opposed it so long, I have become discouraged, and fear that we were all deceived in you, Sophia, and that you are a stranger to grace. You know that I have almost quit going to your house, for I have been so tried with your opposition and contention that I have resolved to talk with you no more on the subject."
All were astonished at the touching effect of this, for she began and penitently said to father that she could not harden her heart and hold out against the truth any longer; for she loved them all as the Lord's people, envied them their happiness and wanted them to forgive her if they could. She said: "You know, papa, that I have gone to the meetings of the church all along, and have come home with you, for I could not resist the desire to go. And I have often told Mr. Avery that there is more love among the Old Baptists than any other people. It touches my heart to hear old father Jones there say: 'My dear brethren.' I have tried to believe Universalism, but I can't hold out any longer."
She was calm and tender while she made this good confession, but father and his dear brethren were in tears of joy. Although I was nothing more than a natural boy then, yet I shall never forget that very pathetic and touching scene. Mr. Avery sat mute and with a downcast look. He never returned to the church.
The church gladly restored my sister to fellowship, and she never again wavered in her faith, but was ever after a true and faithful member, until the God of all grace called her to the church on high, where I trust to see her again and with her wear the crown of life, which the Lord will give unto all that love Him.