Lanham, W. Va., 1901.
Dear Brethren: – By request I will try to write an account of my experience and call to the ministry.
First, I will speak of my nationality: on my father’s side I am Irish, and on my mother’s side Dutch, but both of my parents were American born, and I was their fourth child. At the age of ten years, it pleased God to take my mother away from me, to her long home, and although it was forty-two years ago, I have never forgotten her kind words and christian like looks. The night she died she called us children to her bedside and bid us farewell. It seemed to me that my best friend on earth was gone; I can never describe my feelings. I had no mother to speak to, and O, how lonely I felt, yet I thought my mother had gone to rest.
Now while feeling so serious about the death of my mother, I resolved that I would try to live the life of a christian, so I set about it with all my might; I would slip off from the other children and try to pray to God to fit and prepare me for heaven, so that when I died I would meet my mother there, and after a few weeks I thought that I was getting to be a pretty good boy. Then I thought that I would try to save my sisters that were older than I was. I approached them upon the subject of religion, and told them that they must quit their laughing and joking one another so much, and quit all their bad habits, and that I had done so, and that I felt a heap better. What a poor, deceived mortal I was, not knowing that I must have the life of Christ before I could live as a christian. But as young as I was, by my natural notions I was a complete Arminian. As time passed on my sorrow and care wore away. Now mark, it was not a godly sorrow which worketh repentance. Now I concluded that I would just lay my religion aside, and that I was too young to undertake to live such a particular life, and that it would be an easy matter to get religion again. I thought that a few prayers, and some good resolutions would put me in good shape again.
At the age of twenty, I was married to my first wife. During her life we were attending a meeting which was going on in the neighborhood held by the Missionary Baptists, and I was enjoying myself finely, playing pranks with the young fellows, and having a good time, as I called it. But one day, right in the midst of my sport, a fear took hold upon me which made me tremble, it appeared to me that hell was my doom, I slipped to the side of my wife and told her that I was going home. She said, “Wait till meeting closes.” When we got started for home she asked me what was the matter? I told her that I could not tell her, but that I felt that I was going to die, and that hell was my portion; I had sinned away the day of grace. This was the first time in my life that I ever felt to be a sinner in the sight of God. I was here in a sin-cursed world, without God, or any well grounded hope after death. I thought, “O, that I had died when I was young, then this trouble would have never been on me.”
Like many others, I fled then to the law, thinking to obtain righteousness by it, and feeling that I must work a work which would initiate me into God’s favor. I would slip away into some secret place, where I thought no one would see me, and there would try to pour out my soul in prayer to God for mercy. For four long years I labored to do right in order to be saved. I lived in a neighborhood where they were principally Missionary Baptists, and they invited me to attend their meetings, and I did so; they preached the do and live system. So, with her fair speeches and enticing words, I went the way to her house not knowing the dead was there. I went to their social meetings, and they would tell how well they were getting along, and how determined they were to make heaven their home. O, how I wished that I could feel as they claimed to feel, but instead, I felt that I was a poor sinner, and with every effort I made, I only got worse.
About this time my wife was taken sick and died, and I was left with two little children. She left a bright evidence of her acceptance with the Lord. About twelve months after, I was married again. I was now laboring hard, clearing up my land, and nights I would read my Bible, searching for comfort to my troubled son! In my wife’s sickness I had gotten in debt, and had sold the only horse that I had, so that season I was compelled to carry everything that we had to eat on my back, a distance of seven miles. One morning I started to go after some provisions; I had to go through the wood some two miles, and as I was walking along it appeared to me that I was the greatest sinner that had ever lived on the earth, and that I was bound for torment, which would only be just. In a moment a feeling took hold upon me so that I could stand upon my feet no longer, and
While prostrate on the ground I lay,
Not knowing help was near me,
A heavenly whisper seemed to say,
“Poor sinner I have saved thee.”
I sprang to my feet feeling that God for Christ’s sake had forgiven my sins; I praised my blessed Lord aloud; it seemed that out of the mouths of babes and sucklings he had perfected praise. Here I saw the church of Jesus Christ saved and complete in him, and washed with the washing of regeneration. The time had come when I could say, He hath taken my feet out of the miry clay, and hath placed them on a rock, and put a new song in my month, even praise to my God. It seemed to me that even the twigs on the trees were wafting their praises to God. After some time I went on my journey to secure my provisions. I hurried home so that I could tell my wife that my burden of sin was gone, and when I got to the door my little children met me, and then my wife came, and I began to tell her what great things the Lord had done for me, whereof I was glad. I went about my work feeling that I would have no more trouble. The next morning, however, I was in the yard cutting wood, when all at once, darkness seemed to shut me in. O, what oppressed feelings I had; I thought that I had grasped the shadow, and missed the substance. I stood there for a while with my head down studying about the peace which I had felt the day before. Just then a voice seemed to say to me, You must cry. I said, Lord, what shall I cry? The voice said, Cry unto Jerusalem. All at once light took place of the darkness. I began talking and crying. My wife and little children came to where I was. She wanted to know what was the matter with me. I told her the Spirit of the Lord was upon me, and that I could not help talking. She said, “You are going crazy, come and go with me to the house.” Here was my first impression with regard to preaching. Now I tried to beg the Lord to put this on some one else, for I could not preach. I was slow of speech, and of a stammering tongue, and had no learning. Then the inward voice would say, I have made your mouth, and I can fill it.
I then thought I would let no one know anything about my impression to preach, but it was forcibly pressed upon my mind, day and night, that I must preach. My Missionary friends soon found out that I had professed a hope, and that I was in opposition to them, that now I believed salvation was wholly of the Lord from first to last. They would gather up by the road, and wait for me, to attack me about my dangerous doctrine of election and predestination. They would say that Christ was the elect, and no one else. I would ask them if they believed that he was the head of the church? and they would confess that he was. “Well,” I would say, “if the head is elect, is not the body equally so, with him? Can they be separated?” The Lord says, “Because I live, ye shall live also.” His life is their life, and their life is hid with Christ in God.
Now I wanted to hear the people preach that I had once despised and hated; they were the old order of Baptists, but there were none in my neighborhood; I mean no members of the church. One man who lived about a mile from me was contending for that doctrine, his name was Melton, he was a son of Elder William Melton. I went often to his house to hear him talk, and he was much comfort to me.
The time of the Hopewell church meeting was the First Sunday in each month, and the Saturday before. I had by this time bought me a horse, and on Sunday I started to the meeting, a distance of ten miles. On my way I had to go by Elder Melton’s. He with his wife came to the road, just as I came up, and we went together. We had not gone far when Mrs. Melton asked me where I was going? I thought that she mistrusted something, but told her that I was going to the meeting. Elder Melton took for his text that day the words, “Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities.” O, how I was carried away in my feelings, and I went home rejoicing.
The next spring, brother Melton preached for a few members that lived at Melton Creek; I went, and at the close of his sermon he said, “ O that it would please God to call some young blue eyed person to the ministry, as I am old, and feel that my time is about out.” It appeared to me that he knew about my feelings, and I wondered why this was, as I had never told any one my feelings with regard to preaching. I went to dinner with a cousin who was a member of the church, and after dinner we were sitting talking of our hope in Christ, when his wife came in and joined in the conversation with us. All at once she turned to me and said, “Well, I think that the old man got close to you to-day.” My blood almost run cold, I knew that I had never said anything about my impressions to any one, and wondered why she singled me out. It appeared to me that she and my cousin knew my feelings, so I soon started for home, feeling that I would wear that impression out.
One night I dreamed that I was standing in the presence of a great congregation. All at once a man came to me and handed me a chain and an ax. I thought he was the loveliest person that I ever saw. I thought he said the chain is the gospel chain, and that the ax was to score to the line, no matter where the chips may fly. After this I felt impressed to go to the church and follow my blessed Lord down into the liquid grave, if the church could fellowship me; yet I felt too unworthy to be with them. I believed that the Primitive Baptists were the church of God, yet I stayed away eight years on account of my impression about having to preach. I thought in this way to wear out the impression, but finally I was made willing to go, and to relate a part of what I have here written, and was received, and baptized by Elder Wm. L. Melton. Now, I thought, perhaps this impression would leave me, but it was not so; the impression still remained. With Charley Melton, a son of the minister, I was on my way to the Friendship church to the meeting, when I concluded to tell him my troubles about this matter. I had the utmost confidence that he was as sound in doctrine as any Baptist that I ever knew. We had been together more or less all our lives. I said to him, “I have something that I want to tell you.” He said, “Well, tell it, I want to hear it; they all know it, it is not hidden from the church.” As I began to tell him my feelings, he burst into a flood of tears, and said, “You ought to confess it to the church, and not confer with flesh and blood.” He asked me if I had ever said anything to his father about it? I replied that I had not. We both went on our way crying. He had a rich experience, though he never went to the church. Shortly after this he was killed.
I went to brother Melton’s, and unbosomed myself to him. He said that he would attend to the matter at the next meeting. So he called the church together after preaching, and then told me to relate my call to the church. I did so, and they gave me license to exercise my gift in the bounds of the Pocatalico Association. This was done at the December meeting, and the next January I was ordained, and I have been trying to preach ever since. I travel over six or seven counties every season, and preach with the liberty that God gives me. I am now fifty-three years of age, and my health is not good. I often start away a distance of thirty or forty miles, leaving my wife and daughter by themselves. I have a feeling I cannot express; the call says, Go, while my mind says, Stay. I love to meet the dear children of God, and hear them tell what the blessed Lord has done for their souls. I love the doctrine of salvation by grace, and grace alone. It was grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.
From your brother,
J. W. McLANAHAN
Signs of the Times
Volume 70, No. 4
February 15, 1902