Lawrenceburg, Ky., August 1, 1876.
Our family record shows that I was born in Culpepper Co., Va., on the 7th day of November, 1800, after which event my parents, John and Margaret Johnson, (formerly Margaret Sale,) resided in that and in Fauquier Co. for about three years, and then removed to Monongalia (now Marion) Co., W. Va. There were one brother and two sisters older, and two brothers and one sister younger than myself. Our names were consecutively Anthony S., Agnes A., Rebecca, John F., Nathaniel, Charles S. and Lucinda. All have passed away except myself and youngest brother, who now resides in Compton, California. The years of my minority were spent partly in labor and partly in acquiring an education and teaching school. When about twenty-one years old my father advised me to engage in the study of the medical science, which I did, and prosecuted it for about five years. On the first day of March, 1827, I was married to Catharine C. Mellett, and was principally engaged in building and preparing for a living until May. 18, 1828, when my first son, Joseph Alva Johnson, was born, who is now somewhat extensively known in the United States and Canada as an Old School Baptist minister. I was somewhat engaged in the practice of medicine until October, 1829, when we removed to Henry Co., Indiana. There I might have been called a pioneer, though the country was rapidly settled soon after my arrival there. The country was much addicted to chills, fevers and other maladies, and I was soon engaged in a heavy practice of medicine. Long before this I had given the subject of religion some attention, and thought I succeeded pretty well in laying in a stock of what the apostle calls "our religion," but subsequently had been frequently alarmed at the sight of my native sinfulness. But about this time my fears were fearfully intensified. In my first convictions, being unmarried, I was determined not to yield to this state of moodiness, but would drive it away. It would ruin my enjoyment with my youthful associates, which I highly appreciated, being naturally of a cheerful, lively temperament. In order to banish those forebodings, if possible, I became a worse man practically than I ever had been. I had been taught and my pride impelled me to maintain an honorable moral character, and perhaps had succeeded as well as the most of young men. But to let it be publicly known that I was becoming religious would never do, would dash with vinegar the cup of enjoyment with my young companions. I therefore attended frolics, dancing parties and other places of vain amusement, always endeavoring to evade the watchfulness of my parents, who were accused of making me a pet or favorite, and who I always wished to venerate. But now there was no way of shaking off this intolerable burden. I had vainly thought before, when conscious that the eye of God was upon me, that I could appease his wrath by doing better when I got ready; but now that subterfuge was gone. How clearly I now see that had the compassionate Lord been as ready to let me go as I was to wander from him, my doom would have been terrible indeed. But in the early part of the year 1830 he made me see, yes, feel that his arrows of conviction were not to be resisted.
"I felt the arrows of distress,
And found I had no hiding place."
The fearful catalogue of crimes that had polluted my whole former life was indeed a fearful sight to look upon. What I once thought to be little sins now appeared to be mountains. But what was I to do now? The Lord had warned me of my danger, but I had spurned his admonitions. A fearful cloud seemed to be gathering over my guilty head, ominous of a speedy and dreadful destruction. My wailing, my prayers, my entreaties were all unavailing. A wrathful and vindictive God had hidden himself behind the cloud that my prayers could not pass through. The lone desert seemed the most suitable place for me, for I desired not to see or converse with anyone. It was not the fear of hell that so terribly affrighted, but an awful view of my doleful, sinful nature. Sin indeed had become exceeding sinful, and God had forsaken, given me up, as I verily believed. Never can I forget one dreary, gloomy night, when restless, sleepless, mourning, despairing, I lay upon my bed, and thought that I could as well sleep upon a bed of thorns as there. My dear companion asked what was the matter. I told her that I was a poor, miserable, condemned sinner. She then asked me if I thought that the Lord would be just in condemning me. I told her that I could not see that he could be just in doing otherwise. Then she said she did not think I would feel so much longer. I then said I feared I should forever. She had passed through a similar scene not long before.
I lay thus restless until about one o'clock, when falling into a doze or stupor, (could not tell which; have often wished I had remained wide awake, perhaps I would then have known more about the matter,) all at once I was aroused by the sound of my name, not upon my natural organs of hearing, but upon my very heart. I was amazed, and wondered what it meant. One of my patients at the time was an elderly Baptist preacher. Had a messenger from him really called me? All this was momentary; but the voice went on, "The Master is come, and calleth for thee," in the same feeling sensation upon my heart. My trouble and distress were all gone, I knew not how or where. I felt calm and pleasant. I did not know the words were scripture language.
I asked my wife if there was a candle convenient. She asked what I wanted with it. I wanted to see the Bible. "O," said she, "lie still and go to sleep, 'twill not be long till day." I did remain, and had a refreshing sleep, for I had slept but little for several nights. Soon as it was light enough I arose, took the Bible, opened and read, but it was a new book to me. The seals appeared to be opened, and it spoke in the sweetest accents. The promises were to me, and every line was fraught with consolation, and I could not conjecture why it was so, but wondered why I had never seen it so before. I read it till perhaps half an hour by sun, when my wife asked me to drive up the cows. I went, and while driving them through a beautiful sugar grove, I saw my Savior; not with my natural eyes, for my head was down and he was above, it seemed, at an angle of about forty-five degrees, the loveliest object that mortal ever beheld, and I raised my head, expecting to see him with my natural eyes; but no. Yet the most beautiful scenery met my eyes that I had ever beheld. That beautiful grove through which the sun was brightly shining with all his morning glory, seeming to gild every leaf with a supernatural lustre. Had all the leaves been hung with the richest jewels they could not have been more beautiful. The very heavens seemed to declare the glory of God and the firmament to show his handiwork. Overwhelmed and overcome with the sublime and majestic scene, I fell upon my knees and poured out my petitions to my great Deliverer.
For a week or ten days all was bright; my mind was carried back into eternity, and there I saw the way of salvation complete in Jesus, and exactly suited to my case. I believed, too, that what he had done for me was his own work, and that he never would suffer it to be undone.
We went to the next church meeting, and five of us, including my wife and self, related our experiences to the church and were received and baptized on the fourth Sunday in June, 1830.
I think the glorious view of my dear Savior had engrossed my whole attention and diverted my mind entirely from my sinful self, causing me to think my sins were all gone and I should be troubled with them no more. But after continuing for awhile in that happy state of mind I was made to look back at my depraved nature, and there I saw to my sad surprise that I was still in my nature a polluted sinner. Now the startling question was propounded, Am I deceived? Is it all a delusion at last? This set me to searching the scriptures, and I was much relieved in finding that the ancient saints complained of their sinfulness. Paul said he was the chief of sinners near the end of his days. I soon found that my way was not pleasant as I had anticipated. Many times since I have found this verified. Still new trials awaited me. The church increased until another deacon was thought to be needed. This was named at one meeting to be taken under consideration, and choose a deacon at the next. Between the meetings I learned that it had been whispered that I would be a suitable one and was startled at the idea. I set my mind upon another, and busily went around among the members recommending him. While thus engaged an old brother observed that he thought brother Johnson would make a good deacon. I begged of him not to harbor such a thought, pleading the short time I had been a member and my unfitness. The church was convened, voted by ballot, and the Moderator reported me chosen. It was a severe shock. I plead to be excused, but all in vain. I yet think that the choice was premature. I tried to content myself by concluding that I belonged to the church and ought to be subject to her order.
But ere long a still heavier trial awaited me, and I have often feared that it originated in my own imagination. But be that as it may, the thought was impressed upon my mind that I must preach the gospel. But O, who was I? The most unfit, unworthy, unqualified in every respect. I tried to banish the thought from my mind, but in vain. There it lay like a dismal incubus. What a fool I was to harbor such thoughts. But there they were, a continual burden. But I determined not to let any one know that I ever indulged such thoughts, but would keep them to myself. I could not, however, at all times drive the gloom from my countenance, and from that circumstance, or some other cause, the brethren suspected and would sometimes question me about it; but still I resolved to keep it concealed. One brother unwittingly drew from me an answer to a question that he propounded, which I discovered; begged of him not to say anything about it to anyone, but it was all in vain; it went out and was a general subject of conversation in the neighborhood, and soon in everybody's mouth. I was sent a messenger to a corresponding association. The meeting commenced on Friday and continued until Sunday afternoon. I started home on Saturday after the business and preaching ended, and wending my way along the dismal and gloomy looking road, feeling very miserable indeed, I promised the Lord that if he would spare me until the church meeting I would lay my case before the church and abide her decision. But when the time came I could not take courage to do so. After the meeting was over I was shocked on reflecting that I had lied to God, and it was terrible to think of. On riding along the road with the pastor of the church, with trembling I ventured to ask him the question, "Is it not hard for a man to undertake to do a thing that he knows he cannot do?” He broke out into a hearty laugh. I cannot describe my feelings at that time, for I felt solemn as death. "Now," said he, "you are thinking about preaching." After some conversation on the subject he told me that he had said the day he baptized me that I would have to preach. I told him that I wanted him to advise me what to do. He replied, "I shan't do it, only to tell you to go before the church next Saturday, and tell them what you have told me and take their advice." Here I was in a fix again; could I presume to do so? The day arrived, and after preliminary business of the church was attended to the Moderator observed, "If anyone has anything to say to the church, say on." I sat behind him dumb, (was the Clerk of the church at the time,) but could not venture to speak. He turned to me, and speaking low, asked me if he should name my case to the church. I made no reply. He then told the church that he had had some conversation with me about preaching; and turning to me again, said, "Get up and tell the church how your mind has been exercised." I thought I had to obey, arose, and spoke perhaps ten minutes, so full that I could scarcely find utterance, and then resumed my seat. While speaking I cast my eye over the audience, and could not see one eye that was not shedding tears.
After talking the matter over, liberty was given me to exercise my gift, and then the question came up as to the bounds that should be allowed me. One named the church, another the association, when the old deacon arose and said, "Send it to the ends of the earth;" and so the church decided, giving me liberty to exercise my gift wherever God in his providence might cast my lot. This had not been customary with the churches, and still causes me to think the church reposed an undue confidence in me. After the business was done the pastor, without consulting me, made an appointment at the church that night for me, telling the brethren to come out and hear me.
Brethren, can you imagine what my feelings were at that time? I had never even attempted to utter a prayer in public. I had once tried to prepare myself for that emergency, for I expected to be called on. Being at home entirely alone one Sunday, I got my pen, ink and paper, with the view of writing out the nicest prayer that I could, then commit it to memory for use when needed. I went to work, and I think wrote four or five lines across the sheet, when I became so confused in my mind I could not think of another word to write, and the more I tried to collect my thoughts the more they seemed to be scattered, until I suppose that my mind was as much confounded as was the language of the Babel builders on the plains of Shinar. I tore off the slip of paper on which I had been writing, (for no one must see it) thinking I would walk out and commit it to memory, and then return and write more. But it is true that I never could, nor ever did commit those few lines to memory, and perhaps know as little to-day as to their contents as any who may read this. I could commit hymns, songs, scripture and other writings perhaps as readily as the most of persons, but this was too much for me.
Was I not in a pretty fix to get up before an audience, open meeting by singing and prayer, then preach? But I got through somehow, but the how I know not. An old brother remarked, "It can't be beat;" meaning, however, that it was true, and the truth could not be beat. After the church started me to work they kept me at it, would generally have appointments for me once, twice, and sometimes three times a week. I believe there were at one time five preachers in the church, (if I could be called one,) and yet I was sent to do nearly all the distant traveling, and sometimes to labor under serious difficulties. Having a numerous family of small children, it often required all my diligence to keep them along; but in the dispensation of a kind providence I was enabled to maintain, raise and educate them in a respectable manner, and have now nine living in Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky.
In the first few years of my ministerial labors I was in the habit of speaking entirely too fast, thereby exhausting my lungs considerably at times, especially when attending meetings for several consecutive days, speaking twice a day frequently, and sometimes even three times in a day. At times I would unconsciously place my hand to my breast as a support, and frequently on retiring to bed would suffer much from pain in my breast, so that some of my friends (not Baptists) advised me to quit preaching, telling me it would bring on consumption. My answer was, if it did, I could not die in a better cause. I determined, however, to overcome the habit if possible, convinced as I was, and still am, that fast, loud speaking is very injurious to the lungs; while I am as thoroughly convinced that public speaking, even if it be loud, will improve the lungs, provided time is given them to recuperate the air-cells to fill up between sentences.
I make these remarks for the benefit of young speakers, and even some older ones, and think I speak advisably when I say that I am a living witness of the benefit of this precaution, having tried and proved it to my entire satisfaction.
After overcoming the habit of speaking too fast, I recollect passing through Ohio, having appointments published for fifteen days, and in that time spoke twenty-nine times, and my lungs were as free and more clear than when I commenced, for I was a little hoarse at the commencement from a slight cold; but after speaking a few times it passed off, and I felt no more of it. But perhaps I have said enough on this subject, and will proceed with my narrative.
I have now been engaged in proclaiming the gospel of my Master's kingdom for about forty years, and at times found it to be the most comfortable employment that I ever pursued; and at other times the most trying, perplexing and humiliating.
How joy-inspiring to the church maintaining the "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," with love and fellowship abounding amongst them, and then to feel the presence of the dear Redeemer; the light beaming from his lovely countenance, opening the scriptures to our understanding; to feel the emotions of love to him, to his cause and to his people, and then to find him filling our mouth when we open it to proclaim the animating strains, the heart-soothing messages of the gospel of the blessed God, to be a partaker with the dear saints of the sustaining, refreshing and solacing fruit of the Spirit, consisting of that love that expands the heart with a fullness more than it can contain, and which "runneth over," and spreads like a shoreless ocean, and peace that flows like a river, meandering the streets of the New Jerusalem, and driving from her enchanted precincts the cruel god of war, disdaining all carnal weapons, beating swords into plow-shares and spears into pruning-hooks, with which to cultivate the garden of God; then follows long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance; driving from the residence of the family circle of the lowly saints the cruel demons of hatred, variance, wrath, strife, &c., leaving the family in the full possession of the above named fruit, to feast and rejoice in hope of the glory of God, while these beatitudes are participated among and reciprocated by the saints, and while faith feeds for the present, and anticipates the exhaustless fullness of the inheritance of the saints in light. How cheering and how delightful to publish the tidings of salvation under such circumstances.
But on the other hand, to have the sable curtains of night enshrouding us, and spreading a solemn, mournful gloominess over the entire household, no cheering ray to penetrate the doleful darkness, no pleasant fruit or cooling draught to reach the craving appetite, to cool the tongue or quench the thirst of the hungry, craving, thirsty sinner, while the lovely Lamb with his meat and drink and ample fullness seems to be hidden behind the cloud that our prayers cannot pass through; and withal, those demons of war, hatred, wrath, &c., lusting against the Spirit, and blasting like a withering mildew its precious fruit - no gladdening streams of love or charming strains of music to break the solemn gloominess; and if we attempt to raise a song our harps hang silent upon the willows, and should we attempt to strike a cord it sounds more like a formal requiem than an animating strain.
"In vain we tune our formal songs,
In vain we strive to rise;
Hosannas languish on our tongues,
And our devotion dies."
Under such circumstances, to attempt to preach the gospel is toilsome work indeed; and we can as soon bring up the sun at midnight, as we can command and cause one ray of light to rise out of and penetrate this chaos of darkness; of which I have had many testimonials, and will here name one or two instances, as samples of the many that have thronged my ministerial pathway.
Not long after my commencement in that solemn and momentous work, I think it was on Monday, a most lovely text of scripture occurred to my mind. It appeared to contain all that was necessary to fill out an ample and complete gospel sermon, and I commenced laying up a store for my appointment on the following Sunday, and continued to lay up all the week. On one occasion I started to get the Bible to read, but turned away, fearing I might see something that would divert my mind from my good text. On Sunday I reached the place of meeting and found the house well filled; my text, however, not looking quite so clear and full as it had done; nevertheless I thought to gather up my store as I passed along. After opening the services and reading my text a dark pall seemed to have fallen over me; I wearied along for perhaps five or ten minutes and sat down, covered with shame and blushing with confusion. Another minister had come to my meeting, and preached to the people. I think now, it was a necessary chastisement.
On another occasion I set out early Sunday morning for meeting, where two of us, both rather new beginners, had an appointment at a private residence, and another good text occurred to me. I commenced preaching on it immediately, (in my mind) and was as merrily engaged at my work as were the birds that sang around me, and really thought that I was doing quite well, rather finely. A sentence entered my mind something like this: Now, if you could do as well when you get there as you do now, you might feel exalted. Well, I tried to pray earnestly to the Lord that I might never feel puffed up over anything that I had done. When I reached the place I found my brother preacher there, and he, generally preferring to speak first, went on. After he was through, I commenced, my text not looking quite so full as it had. I concluded, however, that I would not give it up as I had done before, knowing that there was much contained in the text, and I would find it if possible. I stammered, stumbled and blundered along for an hour, perhaps, or more, and finally quit, worse mortified than before, for I had more fully exposed my ignorance, disgraced myself and the cause that I hoped I loved, and had not only done nothing, but much that was worse than nothing. I went immediately to my horse to go home, and, as I then thought, to stay there. The lady of the house came to the door and asked me what I was doing. I replied, "Getting my horse." "Let that horse be, until he is fed, and come back and get your dinner," said she. "I don't want any dinner," I replied. "But you are not to go one step till you get your dinner." "I don't want any dinner, sister," I again said." She kept on, almost scolding, and ordering me to come back, but I paid no further attention to her, but mounted my horse and started for home, as miserable as a condemned criminal. I prayed to the Lord for a little relief until I could get home, determined never to make another appointment to preach; but I had not proceeded far until the latter clause of the fifth verse of the twelfth chapter of Hebrews, "My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord," &c., came to my relief. I quoted on to the close of the eighth verse, and when I was through felt perfectly satisfied and fully resigned. I thought then, and think yet, that if the Lord ever answered a prayer of mine, it was the one that I offered on my way to the meeting, not to be exalted. But it was not answered as I wished it to be, for I wanted to make a fine preach, and then not feel exalted; but the Lord knows best how to humble us. I was reminded of the language of the poet when he said,
" 'Twas he who taught me thus to pray,
And he, I trust, has answered prayer;
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair."
These cases are presented as specimens of the depressing trials that have besieged me along a large portion of my toilsome pathway, and that have been so discouraging at times that I think I must have given out long ago had I not "obtained help of God."
It has often been my lot to walk through darkness and have no light; still I have been enabled to hope that,
"He that hath helped me hitherto,
Will help me all my journey through."
I have at other times thought that the word of the Lord has been "a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path;" and then would be ready to "mount up on wings as eagles, to run and not be weary, to walk and not faint." At times I was disposed to complain of my lot. As before observed, I was sent to do most of the distant traveling, had given up the practice of medicine, did not like it, and did not think that a man could make a good doctor and a good Old School Baptist preacher at the same time, (am not yet certain that he can) besides, it kept me so much from my family and farm. We had settled in a new and heavily timbered country. In clearing out the farm and raising produce and stock for the support of the family, we were closely engaged. My labor was my principal dependence. I do not think that the churches helped me to the amount of ten dollars in the first five years of my labors, nor did I wish or expect it, for they, too, were in a new country, and had to encounter many hardships. I think that in those five years I was out on my professional work very nearly, if not quite, one-half of the laboring time; but we got along surprisingly. My sons were getting up so as to be considerable help. Joseph A. commenced plowing before he was eight years old, and the two next at about the same age. The land, though, was quite level, clear of rock, and very productive. After a few years we got our farm cleared of timber, and made our money principally by raising and selling hogs. I commenced in Indiana with a capital of two hundred and seventy dollars, and when we left that country for Kentucky, sold property to the amount of twelve thousand dollars; have always had enough to live upon, and such as was better than I deserved, and have no doubt but that I always shall have enough, hoping that I have the "promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come." But the goodness and mercy of the Lord have been truly wonderful to me, in view of all my unworthiness. Of later years my brethren have helped me more, and for the last twenty years I have traveled quite extensively, and in the last passed forty years I feel well assured that I have traveled a distance that would reach more than three, and perhaps four times around the globe on which we live; but with all my troubles, and what I thought to be hardships, I have had some delightful scenes, and, as I hoped, seasons of refreshing from the presence of the Lord, and have had satisfactory evidence that it takes but a short enjoyment of heaven's beatitudes, communicated directly from the Lord, to compensate for all the ills that flesh is heir to. To meet the saints in company to worship, to find them all keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, to hear them with melodious voices hymning the high praises of their God and Savior, then to hear the glorious gospel of the blessed God proclaimed in all its rich fullness, and joyfully received with all its divine benignity, the emotions of love swelling every heart and beaming in every feature, one hour in such employ inspires more real joy than all the world can give.
"To spend one day with thee on earth,
Exceeds a thousand days of mirth."
And "I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness." But it is,
"By glimmering hopes and gloomy fears,
We trace the sacred road;
Through dismal deeps and dangerous snares,
We make our way to God."
However, the toils and trials of this mortal life are but momentary, and its boasted wealth and honor visionary and evanescent, while the prospect of a "better country" bears up the depressed spirit of the way-worn pilgrim, and we are enabled to unite in the solemn ditty of the poet,
"Are darkness and distress my share,
Give me to trust thy guardian care;
Enough for me, if love divine,
At length through every cloud shall shine."
Your brother in hope of a better country,
J. F. JOHNSON.