The second Sunday of November, 1844, was the seldom day of my awakening and conviction. As was my custom, I had gone to the old church. The old hewed-log meeting house stood on an eminence near the present town of Saint Paul. I had walked there with a light heart, and life was very bright and inviting to my view. While I respected religious worship, my motive in going was to see my young friends and pass away the day pleasantly.
Sitting there along in the front and middle tier of seats I was an indifferent listener to my father's sermon until near the close, when he quoted the words of Jesus: "The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner. Whosoever shall fall upon that stone shall be broken, but on whomsoever it shall fall it will grind him to powder." Father said that that stone was Christ, and the sinner that fell upon Him was broken-hearted and broken off from the law; but if we were not built on Christ we were yet in our sins and enemies to God. A silent voice echoed the words in my inmost being: "You are not built upon Christ; you are yet in your sins and an enemy to God." As by the vivid flash of the consuming lightning, I saw and felt and knew this awful truth, and wondered how I had been so blind that I had not seen it before. My sinful and guilty soul was fearfully exposed to my own view, and, as I thought, to the view of my father and all in the house. I sat there woefully smitten and blasted under the wrath of the just and holy law of God. My head sank upon my chest and the tears unbidden fell fast from my eyes. I wanted to arise and leave the house, but could not. My condemnation and the anguish of my spirit were fearful. I thought of the wicked company in the camp of the Israelites whom the earth swallowed up, and feared that I should thus sink down into perdition in the sight of all the congregation; for I felt that God was about to cut me off in my sins and that His just, vengeance was burning against me. But He has never been better than my fears.
The meeting ended and I went out with the rest, but could not raise my head nor speak to any one. As I stood there alone Miss Charlotte Avery laughingly said to a group of young friends: "Just look at David! I do believe he is trying to be religious." Many years afterward she told me that she remembered that event, and how she regretted speaking in jest.
That night I sought the woods, and for the first time in my young life knelt down in prayer, and with many tears implored God to have mercy upon me and pardon my sins. This was only the beginning of soul-trouble and sorrow; for many weeks and months slowly passed, until year after year was numbered, yet I was not pardoned and saved.
Not many days after the Lord thus opened my blind eyes I tried to persuade myself that it was all the work of Satan, and not the works of the Lord. Thus did I reason: "I am quite young and have not been a bad boy; therefore, why should I feel so deeply troubled and miserable? I will banish these gloomy forebodings, be cheerful and light-hearted, as before, and enjoy myself with my young associates again." For I thought that if this was the Lord's work of conversion, I should be made to feel better and that I was getting good instead of so wretched and bad. But I found it impossible for me to be as before that solemn Sunday; for I would forget my surroundings and my work, and would be aroused and startled by the involuntary outcry of my suffering heart: "Oh, my sins! my cruel sins!"
Finding that it was impossible for me to be mirthful and happy again, or to escape from my heavy burden of sin and guilt, I then besought the Lord more earnestly in prayer, going off to myself at every opportunity, both day and night, to pour out my sorrowful complaints in His ears, weepingly confess my sins, and implore His forgiveness and mercy. Yet all my efforts brought no relief. As time thus went mournfully on, and God seemed not to hear me nor answer my heart-breaking cries for mercy, it occurred to me, when in the woods and on my knees, that I had not abased myself sufficiently before Him, and that if I would prostrate my body upon the earth He might hear my prayer and forgive my sins. Then I cast myself on the leaves, wept and prayed in the bitter anguish of my soul, but this gave me no relief. I could not see that in all my efforts I was still trusting in something that I must do, and expecting the God of salvation to reward me for it. How ignorant I was of grace! At times there would be some abatement of my deep trouble and mourning for a season, but only to return, and then I would feel worse, because I had been careless about my lost condition.
My father took the Signs of the Times, in which I often read of others finding pardon and peace, after a short time of sorrow and mourning, and this led me to think there was no forgiveness for me, or God would have heard my cries. Still, I could not help going off alone to weep, lament and pray, for this was the only way that I could give vent to the oppressive burden and sorrow of my heart. Sometimes I would take the Testament with me in the lonely woods on Sundays, and in deep sympathy sit and read the life of the innocent Son of God, and weep over His cruel persecutions and death, and I wondered why it should have been so.
At last it was awfully certain to me that I was hopeless lost forever, and was a reprobate, for whom there was no salvation. So terrible was this conviction I would wander away to myself, walk to and fro, writing my hands and lament aloud under the anguish of despair, fearing reason would forsake me. It seemed to me that my time was short, and then to endless woe I must go. I would piteously plead with God to grant me a place there away from the wicked, where I should not hear His holy name blasphemed. For O, I was sick of sin, and loathed it and myself! I wished that I had never been born, or had died in infancy. But all my regrets were unavailing, and it was impossible for me to escape from myself, or change my state.
I wish to go back to the autumn of 1846 and speak of a dangerous attack of a malignant fever, which came near carrying me off. The terror of my mind was so intense that I could not conceal it, and my father noticed it and kindly chided me, saying: "David, if you have to die, meet death with fortitude." This only added to my alarm and dismay, for it convinced me that father despaired of my recovery; and to die unprepared, sinful, guilty and condemned as I was, overwhelmed my soul in horror, and I could have no fortitude to meet a doom so appalling, for the black despair of my soul was unutterable, and piteous my terror. Yet I could not bear the thought of telling my father or any one of the awful state I was in; for it seemed too horrible for any one to know of it.
One evening, during my convalescence, my older brother John and my step-sister Jane sat in the open door of my room and sang:
"Awaked by Sinai's awful sound,
My soul in guilt and thrall I found," etc.
This hymn seemed to seal my awful state, and I most keenly felt the fearful truth of the last lines of each stanza:
"The sinner must be born again,
Or sink to endless woe."
My soul shuddered at these solemn words, for I well knew that I was not born again, but my brother and sister knew nothing of the torture they innocently inflicted upon me.
My dear brother John peacefully departed in the triumphantly faith of Jesus years ago. It was my sadly sweet privilege to preach on the occasion of his funeral, by his request. Before he fell asleep in Jesus, the resurrection and the life, he told our brother Joseph of his abiding faith and hope in the precious Christ, and that he was peacefully reconciled and willing to depart, only he regretted that his feeling of great unworthiness had hindered him from following his Lord and Master in gospel baptism, which he had long desired to do.