EXPERIENCE OF ELDER RICHARD HENSLEE

(1775-1871)

Eatonton, Ga.
October 27, 1867

Dear Brother Beebe,

As many of my brethren and friends have often solicited me to give a sketch of my experience of Grace, and call to the Gospel Ministry, I have concluded to commit it to writing and send it to you for publication, if you think it worthy, hoping that it may be of bend fit to some of the children of Zion, in their pilgrimage in this world of sorrow. “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.”

I was born the 9th of January, 1775, in sin, as are all Adam’s race. In the year 1783 I learned to read, and from some cause it soon became a great pleasure to me to read the Scriptures; and while reading the Old and New Testaments, I became alarmed. In 1784, finding that the world had been destroyed by water, and that it should be destroyed once more by fire, I came to the conclusion that it would take place about day-break. I was so much alarmed that I was afraid to sleep for fear it would take place before I awoke again. About the end of the same year, my father seeing that I was distressed, called me to him and asked me if I was afraid that I was going to die. I told him yes; but that was not the case, I was afraid the world would be burned up, and that I, a poor sinner, would be forever lost. My distress continued off and on, until 1788. I went to meeting with the rest of the family, to hear Samuel Harris preach; and while he was preaching and telling what an awful situation the sinner was in, by reason of the fall, that they were in a state of condemnation, without hope and without God in the world – their hearts desperately wicked and deceitful above all things. Before he closed I began to examine myself, and from some cause, I was made to acknowledge the truth of what he said, and saw, for the first time in life, that I was a poor condemned sinner. I was so much alarmed that I could no longer hide it – I wept and trembled until he closed. My father seeing the condition I was in, came to me, and then asked the minister to come and pray for me. He then asked me something about my condition. I told him that I was a poor lost and ruined sinner, and if I died in that condition, I must be forever lost. He tried to pray for me; and when he closed his prayer he asked me some questions. I answered him in the best way I could. He then said to my father that the Lord was about to give him a preacher, but my thoughts were that the Lord was going to send me to hell. I went home in great distress, making many promises to the Lord, and solemn vows. I thought that if my soul was sent to hell, his righteous law approved it well. But I did not want to ever commit another sin while I lived.

So I went on from day to day, seeking rest, and found none. I was made to try many ways in order to ease my troubled mind. I would often go among merry company to get rid of my troubles, and would do and say many things to prevent any one from knowing what my troubles were; I was compelled to leave the company that I was in, to weep and mourn.

Thus I went on until 1792, when I was called to witness the death of one of my uncles. I stood by his bed and saw him breathe his last; and when they closed his eyes an awful thought occurred to my mind – if that had been my eyes closed in death, my soul would have now been in hell. My feeling at that time is more than tongue can express; but my life was still spared, and I roved still in darkness, and great dread continually on my mind, until June, 1794. While at my work one day there were thoughts occurred in my mind, as though someone had spoken to me: “Why are you thinking so much about the word of God? How come it the word of God? Did God come down to earth and give it to men? Or, did men go up to heaven and get it from God?” This being the devil’s trick, the world and flesh united to persuade me that there was no reality in religion, nor truth in the Bible; and they planted me firmly on the doctrine of Deism. Some time after this I had a very hard spell of sickness – my friends thought my recovery doubtful – but in all this my faith in Deism was unshaken, and I still went on in open rebellion.

In 1795 I was engaged to marry, under promise to my intended wife that when I married I would reform my manner of life; but before the time came fox us to marry she died. I then thought that all my hopes for happiness in this life were gone. I then thought I would spend the balance of my life traveling through the world. In 1799 I took a trip to Georgia, and while there I got in possession of Oatne’s Age of Reason, which confirmed me more in Deism. In that year I had a hard spell of sickness, but all this did not shake my faith in Deism I then went back to North Carolina, and when I got there they told me that there was a revival of religion going on not far off, and that one of my cousins was very much interested. I thought that when I saw her I could put a stop to all of that. And in January there was a meeting coming off where I thought I would go and convince her of her folly; but to my utmost astonishment, there was a power that was ahold of her out of my reach or control. When I saw her fall as if dead, before me and all the people, I went up to her and for awhile I thought she was dead. I then took a seat near, and laying her head on my arm I saw her lips move. I placed my ear near her mouth and heard one of the most pleasant prayers that I ever heard in my life. I remained with her that night without much impression. The next morning as I went on thinking, these words came to my mind, “If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?” My answer was, if the Scriptures are the truth, I am forever gone. My troubles began to increase. I could not tell what to do to find rest, nor could I tell whether the Scriptures were the truth or not. I verily thought if the world was all, I would give it all to know whether the Scriptures were the word of God or not? I thought if the Lord would perform some miracle before me, I would believe; and, while I was standing gazing as though I was waiting for him to perform the miracle, this passage of Scripture occurred in my mind, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of law, to do them.” It seemed to remove every doubt from my mind, the reference to the word of God being the truth. All the reason of Tom Payne and the devil could no longer keep me from believing the Scriptures were the truth, and that my condemnation was sealed.

My trouble here was inexpressible – my tongue cannot tell it, my pen cannot write it. All of my former promises rushed to my mind, and the advantages of past life seemed to crowd around me as witnesses to the justice of my condemnation; and I a miserable creature had to unite with them all, and in language of the poet and say:

“If my soul is sent to hell,
Thy righteous law approves it well.”

I then was made to grieve that I ever could read the Scriptures, or ever had a praying father and mother, for her prayers and tears seemed only to aggravate my woe. Thus I went on for weeks and months, thinking often that when I went to sleep I should wake in hell. Thus I went on in great distress, until some time in February I was walking among a flock of sheep, looking at the little lambs jumping and playing: my thoughts were, Oh, if I were as happy as these lambs! But their happiness seemed to increase my distress. I thought I would go to a certain place and try to pray, but when I got to the place I was afraid to bow myself in prayer for fear the Lord would destroy me if I attempted to bow before him. In this distressed condition I went on until the 5th Sunday in March. Then I ventured to try to pray once more before I died. I bowed myself, and while trying to pray I thought someone would see me, I jumped up and ran to the house; then this thought came into my mind, What has kept you out of hell until now ? Nothing but the mercy of God, was the answer. At this my distress was so great, that I did not think I should live until morning; but life was still spared, and when at the breakfast table my mother helped my plate, and when I received it my thought was, This is the mercy of God, which has kept me out of torment all my days, and now shall only turn as curses on my head.

I left the table in great agony of soul. I could think of the happy state of father and mother, brother and sister, if called to die. All this seemed to distress my soul, and I could see no way how such a sinner could be saved. One Wednesday while plowing, my distress was so great I thought every hour would be the last. That very evening my father came out where I was plowing, and while I was facing him I looked at him and his eyes were flowing in tears. He then turned away from me, and I thought that he knew that I was dying, a ruined sinner, and was grieving about it. I could think of the conversion of my comrades, and think how they had found favor with God; but their case was not like mine, for I was the worst out of hell. “Lord save the soul condemned to die.”

At this time another thought occurred to my mind, Are you not willing to live in all this distress and trouble, even to old age, if you could find eternal life through Jesus Christ who died, that poor lost sinners might live? I was made to view the Son of Christ on the cross in the most dreadful agony of death, but in the very midst of them he could say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” At these words light and peace burst into my poor soul, and the burden of guilt that had so long pressed me down, now fled away, and a new song was put into my mouth, praising God with all my soul for the gift of such a Saviour. I felt at the moment as if my sins were all gone, and I had received a robe of righteousness, that was sufficient to appear before God in. I then had no doubts, no fears, but could sing, Grace, grace, free grace shall ever be my song. While I lived in this happy situation, my mind was drawn out after some of my young comrades that were still in sin, and I thought if I could see them, I could tell them all about the Saviour, and the plan of salvation.

I had a desire to tell it, and was telling it in my mind as fast as I could, when at once this thought came to my mind. Now you are thinking about preaching, and that only because some of the old preachers have said you would have to preach. Now you know it is all of men and not of God; and in a moment doubts and fears covered my mind, and sure enough it was all a delusion of mind, and I was deceived. This left me in great distress of mind, and my conviction was gone, and I could not get it again, and I had no hope that would do to depend on.

Thus I went on in error and great anguish of soul for twelve or fifteen months, while the tempter was busily engaged in throwing every temptation before me that he could, though he could not keep me from loving the cause of God, and Christians. My mind was constantly exercised on preaching, and I thought, if I was in the church and was to attempt to preach in my weakness, that I should dishonor the cause; and this I could never do. And here the tempter took hold again, and said, “Now you know that you are no Christian for if you were, you would do what God bids you do; so you had as well curse God and die.” This was continually in my mind for several days, and again the tempter would ask, “Do you not believe in the doctrine of election? Yes. Well if they are to be saved they will be saved anyhow.” This put me to reading the Scriptures, and I found this doctrine well established, that God had chosen his people in Christ, and blessed them with all spiritual blessings in Christ. But my fears were that I was deceived, and had not been chosen nor blessed in Christ; for surely no one that loved Christ could have so many doubts and fears, and sore temptations as I had. For it did seem that temptations in every shape were presented to me. A number of hard questions would be put in different ways, such as this: What will you take for Christ? I would not take the world, no, nor ten thousand such worlds as this. The tempter would then tell me, Now you know you are no Christian, or you would not think about selling Christ, for he is the chiefest object with Christians. So I could not pass one day without sore temptations and fear.

I was afraid that I soon should lose all my hopes and fears, and go back into sin as others had before me; and I feared it might be so, and in order that I would never bring a reproach on the cause of religion, I would leave my native land and go to a far country: and when I got there, I would never say a word about religion. I got ready and bid farewell to father and mother, brothers and sisters, and to my native land. And after a short stay in foreign land for some cause, I could not tell why, I became uneasy and restless, and said, I can not stay here. I will arise and go to my father’s house, and to my native land, and seek for pardon there. I reached my native land again in March, 1802, but could find no peace of mind there until June. I remained in darkness and distress of mind. The last Saturday of this month I went to visit one of my neighbors, and on my return home I went through a piece of woods. My distress was so great that I turned aside to try to pray again, that if I was deceived, to undeceive me; and if I were not deceived, to instruct me, and give me brighter evidences of my acceptance with him, and confirm my hope in Christ. While in this place I was made to pray aloud by his help, that I would try to preach or do anything else that was his will. On Friday night I went to hear Elder Sanders preach: his text was: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” And while he was speaking of the people of God and how they were comforted, I thought that I felt some gleam of comfort to my poor soul, and I went and shook hands with him and others, and thought if they would ask me the reason for my hope I would tell them; but they did not ask me, and I thought it was because they knew that I was a hypocrite, and would not tell the truth.

Thus my distress returned, and the next night I went to hear Elder Dorris preach, and after preaching they began to sing; and when they sang these words, “And when to the bright world I rise,” in a moment I forgot all my darkness of mind, and by faith was made to see the glories of that world above, and then began to tell it. On Sunday night I went to preaching, and while the meeting was going on my feelings were so much aroused, that I got up in the midst of the congregation and began to tell about the goodness of God and the plan of salvation in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. I spent the time in much comfort until the next Saturday. When I went forward to the church I told them the exercises of my mind, and was received into the fellowship of the church. The baptism was put off for two weeks. After I left the meeting, I began to think of what I had done, and thought I had deceived the church, and darkness soon covered my mind again. Doubts and fears filled my mind so much that I thought I would never be baptized. But before the time came, I was made willing to do anything the Lord wanted of me; so I was baptized on the fourth Sunday in July, 1802. I then found rest in that act that was nowhere else to be found. But to my astonishment my doubts and fears soon returned and it was continually in my mind that I ought to do something, and I knew not what. I therefore was crying out, Lord, what wilt thou have me do? Though it was continually in my mind to preach the gospel or “feed my sheep,” I could not think it was the Lord’s will for me to preach; but I could find no rest nor peace of mind day or night. After all the excuses I could give about my poverty and imperfections it was continually rushing in my mind, “feed the flock of God” or some such expressions. I will here mention that I came into the church about the close of a great revival, and it began to cool off; and there seemed to be some restless ones in the different churches, some soon making shipwreck of their professions which increased my trouble. My soul was drawn out after them, whitest at the same time it was continually sounding in my mind, to feed the sheep; and found all other things failed to give me peace of mind.

In September, 1803, I ventured to preach for the first time from Isaiah xxiii:13, “Hear ye that are far off what I have done; and ye that are near acknowledge my might.” This effort moved a burden off of my mind but brought on another which troubled me so I thought I would never try again; but I had to try it again and again. Thus I went on until about 1810, when a revival took place and I could preach day and night with pleasure. All seemed well for a while but after many bright days of sunshine the wintry season must again come, and many dear brothers and sisters turned back again to the world. Thus my fears increased that I would disgrace soon myself and bring a reproach on the cause of Christ; but Christ gave me grace to help my infirmities so that I retained a name and place among the people of God, as a poor feeble minister of the cross of Christ.

Thus I passed through mixtures of joys and sorrows for 15 or 20 years, when another revival took place throughout the country; this was one of the most delightful seasons I ever witnessed – this revival continued about two years and large numbers were added to the church – 142 members joined Willears Church at that time. But every sweet will have its hitter, for here was about the first introduction of Free Willism among the Baptists. A number of their preachers got the “big head” and then they could no longer wait for the Lord’s appointed time to do his pleasure but must lend him a helping hand, and thus brought into the church many strange women, calling themselves benevolent societies, and soon produced a number of strange children who could not understand the language of Canaan, and they began to mock and grovel and fight, and soon caused division in the church and associations, spreading their poison from land to land and from sea to sea. But by the grace of God I was made to stand in the defence of the gospel of the Son of God. Down to old age, I was determined to know nothing among men save Jesus and him crucified.

Thus I have spent a life in service of my God, poor as I have been.

I have given you my hope in Christ, and a few hints of my poor progress in the ministry, for the last fifty-five years. I am now in Georgia where I shall spend my few remaining days before my departure which is near at hand. I am now 83 years old.

Dear brethren in the ministry, you and your cause is still dear to me. Brethren live in peace, contend earnestly for the faith, watch over yourselves, shun every appearance of evil; and what I say to one, I say to all – WATCH.

And now may the God of all grace be with his children in every land to help them all their journey through, is the prayer of one near home. I have fought a good fight, I have kept the faith, henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge shall give to all at that day, and not unto me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing. (2 Tim. iv. 7, 8)

Now dear brethren and sisters, with whom I have taken sweet delight in days that are gone, we can never meet again on earth but I have a hope that I shall meet you and the blood washed throng in heaven: to see as we are seen, and know as we are known.

Yours in love, farewell,
Richard Henslee


(This is a footnote placed by the granddaughter of Richard, Martha Elizabeth Henslee Cochran: “Our grand-father, lived to be 96 years old.”)

(We believe that the above was published in the Signs in 1857, since it was addressed to Elder Beebe, but not having any copies of that date, we are not certain. We are glad to publish it again, for we feel that those who know the travels of the Lord’s people, will find they have much in common with Elder Henslee, and will find it good reading. – Editors)


Signs of the Times
Volume 134, No. 10
October, 1966