I was born in Worcester County, Maryland, in the year 1836, on the 18th day of June. My parents were both Old School or Primitive Baptists before I was born, my father preaching the gospel before my memory commences, and likely before I was born. I have heard him say he was a bound boy in the State of Virginia, raised at hard work, with but a little to eat, and no education. When he was eighteen years old he came to Maryland and soon after married my mother, Mary Givin. He worked in pleasant weather and, when it was not fit to work, he went to school or studied reading and writing at home, until he could attend to almost any business and was elected to some prominent and important offices and entrusted with some very important business. He was of a bright, cheerful disposition and was an able, sound gospel preacher. He died in May 1854, being fifty-six years old. My mother was a quiet, unassuming woman. She lived twenty years after my father’s death and died in her eighty-fifth year.
My first thought of leaving this world and of an existence beyond and after this for those who lived in this world was and is the first thing of interest my mind goes back to, and perhaps as early in life as I was capable of retaining anything. My older brothers and sisters say I was not over three or four years old; at least, my eldest sister says she carried me in her arms. One of our neighbors was buried and my father preached the funeral discourse, or I suppose he did; but I remember nothing till we went to the grave and the coffin was lowered down into the grave. A strange, lonely, desolate feeling came over me and I wondered what would become of that man if they covered him up in the ground and left him there. I seemed to have some idea that the man would be very lonely and desolate there, covered in that dark cell and the people all going away to leave him. I wonderd how he would ever get out of there. Also, a verse of poetry that my father read or quoted at the grave made a lasting impression, indeed sufficient never to leave me. I did not see it or know it was in print for many years after. It was this, “Hark! from the tomb a doleful sound; mine ears attend the cry; Ye living men, come view the ground, Where you must shortly lie.”
I seemed to realize then and there that it was the way of all the earth and that there must be another world, another place of existence, somewhere, for human beings who left this world. Many, many times has my mind gone back to that time and place and I remember as well today how things appeared to me that day as how they appear to me today; the resurrection of the body is as great a mystery to me today as it was that day, although I do hope I have learned many things since then. I have learned in part to obey through the things I have suffered. My life since has been a mixture of joy and sorrow; of sorrow because of my wickedness; of joy because sometimes I am enabled by faith to believe that my eyes have been opened to see good from evil and to know that in me, that is, in my flesh, there dwells no good thing.
I have nothing special to say of many years of my life; only one continually wicked and seemingly careless, profane, thoughtless life; but, as I now look back in my mind, I know that there were many dark and sorrowful hours, even in my wildest and most thoughtless days and years; That I was constantly doing, saying, and thinking things that in themselves appeared hateful, which sometimes gives me the hope that in my youth I partook of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and became a sensible sinner or transgressor, and that I had a desire even then to do the things that I found I knew not how to perform.
You will see by the dates that I was not eighteen years old when my father died. Notwithstanding all my disobedience and wickedness as a child to my father, his death fell heavily upon me. I then knew that a great blessing to me was gone, never to return, a blessing which I did not appreciate rightly while he was living. I still lived with my mother and can recall many things in my wicked career that I am ashamed to speak of. Even then they gave me much trouble and I made resolutions that if I lived to be older and settled in life that I would reform and live differently; I even made calculations that a reformation would make me a different man, not only in the sight of man, but also in the sight of God; for I yet believed that Christians were good people, or at least they were not sinners transgressing the law of God daily, as I was. I wonder yet sometimes how the good Master above can be reconciled to, and with, such a sinner as I am, so unreconciled to Him and sometimes almost rebellious. It is indeed a great mystery, God made manifest in the flesh. I forget sometimes that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, and that He has only given us the word or spirit of reconciliation. We have received the spirit of adoption and, by that Spirit comes or springs the desire to be reconciled and to say “Thy will be done.” The Saviour, whilst here, had a mind or will which He says He did not come to do,but the will of Him that sent Him.
After living with my mother five years, giving her a great deal of trouble and, I must think, not much pleasure, my mind seemed settled to try and get a companion to share with me the sorrows and trials of life, and the joys if there should be any in store for me. In this I was wonderfully blessed in a true companion and helpmate in life. Her name was Louisa J. Tilghman, a true-hearted, noble woman. Her mother was a Methodist; her father made no profession, but seemed to have an understanding of the truth. Not long after a great event in my life, my wife began at intervals to tell me her experience, which I am now satisfied was the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing her a knowledge of the truth. She soon became in sentiment a Baptist, received them gladly, loved to see them and hear them preach and talk. It seems to me now that my nature was such that I could not be as kind to her as I should have been; but the longer we lived together the stronger the tie that bound us seemed to become. We struggled hard together for many years, being blessed with eight children, of which five still live. Our experience seemed to be almost the same as we journeyed in life for years; but we could say but little to each other about the things of the Spirit. For myself, I could say almost nothing to her of any trouble or sorrow on account of En, for I thought she would have no confidence in my sincerity.
For the most part of the time, we kept going to Old Baptist meetings, and but little anywhere else; not knowing why we went or what we went for. I remember one morning we went twelve miles to meeting, when the forest was on fire and the smoke and sea fog were so thick it was necessary for me to walk ahead of the horse for miles, to feel the road, and my wife, sitting in the carriage, could not see me part of the time, although I had on a light coat. I have never seen so dark a time, before or since, day or night. When we got to the meeting, neither of us could tell any one why we were so anxious to go. We knew we loved to see them and to hear the preaching, but neither of us yet dared claim a hope in the mercy of God.
We continued to go to meeting and our interest seemed to get deeper and more heartfelt. I was looking forward to the time when we should be given a hope; for I did not once think of having a hope, only (as I would express it sometimes) a hope for a hope. I had a strong desire and a good hope that we should sometimes become Christians and fit subjects for baptism and make a profession of Christianity. I do not remember, in all these years, from 1840 to 1873, that I ever had a single doubt about who or where the church was, or of having a single suggestion to my mind as to joining any other persuasion or of making any profession, but having the hope of sometime being numbered with believers and, of course, was looking ahead with some anxiety as to when the time would come.
During these long, weary years we had many trials to endure, losses, crosses, and disappointments, losing two of our children in the time; but we enjoyed many blessings also. We had reasonable health, success in business, and had accumulated something of this world’s goods, for all of which we felt unworthy of and thankful for. It seemed to me that, of all men, I should be the most thankful, and never murmur again at disappointment or loss; but all at once it seemed that the greatest and saddest disappointment of all that ever had been or could come into my life was coming,or had already come. I had been hoping these many years that I should one day be a Christian and such an one as would be blessed with a name and place among them; but, instead of getting nearer the church, as I supposed I should, I was getting further away all the time and I had just now come to see it.
That was the way things appeared to me; for my idea was to get better by littler, until the fitness appeared for membership and I would make application for membership and be received; but to my astonishment, surprise, and disappointment, I had been, and was, going backward all the time, and here I seemed to lose all hope of ever being what I had hoped for so long; for I saw the perfect righteousness and holiness was required to see the Lord or to make a profession in His Name and, as I was all unrighteousness, even much worse than I ever imagined before this view of things; and my sad disappointments, as I remember them, seemed to destroy all hope either in this world or in eternity; yet the desire for holiness remained. If there could be any justification and forgiveness for such sins, I longed to know of it.
These exercises, I think were in the year 1871. About that time, I trust, the eyes of my understanding were opened more clearly to see how sinners could be and were saved, or how the sinner could be and was justified before God and still be a sinner, even such as I was. I thought then that God could be just and also the destroyer of the ungodly. His righteousness seemed perfect and perfected in us. It exceeded the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees; for they only obey in the letter, while He obeyed in the Spirit and became our Saviour. There was really hope for sinners, and it was a lively or living hope; for, because He lives, we hope.
About this time, my mind was more particularly directed to the Scrips lures; not so much to reading them as to meditating on what I had read, as they would come to my mind, so that I had read and did not understand and had uttered things too wonderful for me, although it seemed to me I could not make a profession, for I might be deceived; yet there was reason to hope for salvation from sin and for the vilest of the vile. “If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” My mind, for about two years, was almost constantly on the Scriptures, and my own duty concerning them and, whilst I was not ready or willing to make a profession, I found myself exhorting and advising others who seemed troubled as I was. I never shall be able to tell of my deep concern for two years, not only for myself, but also for others. The great moving cause of all things in the truth seemed dear to me and I was constantly trying to tell, in my blundering way, how things appeared to me. I frequently thought of preaching the gospel; not with any idea that I should ever be enabled to preach. Really, I do not think I had any idea what preaching was; but I kept thinking about it and of what a glorious calling to be called to comfort those that mourned, and to open the prison doors to them that were bound. Everything else seemed to lose its beauty and interest to me. In my zeal I corresponded with some of the preachers, asking questions about the Scrip tares until they would occasionally say something about my way of preaching, which made me think more seriously about what preaching really was. I soon began to think it was explaining the Scriptures and applying them in the promises to those who were in trouble and concerned about themselves and what the Scriptures contained, to speak comfortingly to anyone who was lost, was to speak of salvation for such; point them to the Lamb of God; tell them of the way I had found that sinners could be and were saved. I would have liked ever so much to do that, but I could not, for they seemed mysterious. I was constantly making inquiry myself and could not understand; certainly what seemed so mysterious to me, I could not explain to others. It seemed to me then that the ministers of the gospel understood perfectly all the Scriptures and that it was necessary that they should; but I fail to remember the questionings that were in my mind. Many of them have followed me until now, more perhaps than would be interesting in this narrative.
I shall now speak more particularly of my baptism and of the difficulties and trials after about the first of July 1873. While reading one evening in the hymn book, my mind seemed particularly drawn to the world:
“Dear Lord, the ardor of thy love
Reproves my cold delays.”
I was made willing then and there to ask a place with those that I fully believed to be His followers. The time was fixed, that the first opportunity should not pass; but I was disappointed in my first attempt, one of my children being so sick that it was imprudent to leave him. For two weeks the subject of baptism was on my mind and then I was privileged to go. I was received and baptized and became a member of a church that had no stated preaching, but which met once a month for prayer and praise.
Now came one of the most severe trials of my life, There seemed to be no gift in that church; at least, if there was, it was not manifest. Some of them would read a chapter; sing some hymns; then go home. Here my mind was directed to prayer. Many times have I prayed that my mouth might be opened to speak in prayer. I would have given anything and everything for strength to make the attempt, for I wanted to say something; but the meeting would be opened by prayer and that I could not do, for I felt sure that such an effort would prove such a failure as to mortify me and the brethren and tend to destroy their love and confidence in me, which love and confidence was very dear to me. Worst of all, it would be but mockery in the sight of God.
For about two years, I continued to go, hoping all the time to be strengthened to do what seemed my duty and a great privilege and relief. During this time some of the brethren in the ministry advised me to make the attempt, as the only source of relief. About this time, six members, including myself, organized, and a church was constituted in Snow Hill, Worcester County, Maryland; Some of them from Salisbury, where my membership was, and some from other churches. We immediately called Elder T. M. Poulson, of Virginia, as our pastor. He accepted the call and appointed to meet with us one Sunday in each month. He served us as faithfully as possible, but, living a distance of twenty miles, occasionally he failed to come. At such times, I generally read a chapter and talked a few minutes, but never attempted to speak in prayer until the church made an appointment for me and urged me to comply with their request.
When I consented to do so, it was with a vow, if permitted to do so, to open my mouth in prayer. Then came a very severe trial for a short time in reference to my duty. I could think of but little else until the time came, when my mouth was opened and one of the most sincere, heartfelt, earnest prayers I ever uttered was then, and I found such relief that I hoped the trial was over; but I was sadly mistaken. I have yet many misgivings and trials in speaking in prayer.
The church continued the appointments for me and proffered me liberty to go wherever and whenever called by other churches. This was in the spring of 1879; and during the following summer, by request, some days I attended three appointments, two in the daytime and one in the evening. During this entire year my family was more or less sick and, on the twelfth day of August, my dear companion in life was called home, which seemed for the time more than I could bear up under; but the Lord sustained me by His grace, for He had not yet called for me. I was very often sick through the week, but always able to go to meeting when Sunday came. As I remember, I did not miss an appointment on account of my own sickness.
In the fall of 1879 the Salisbury Association met with the church at Snow Hill, where my membership was, and I heeded a previous call from the church for my ordination. The presbytery was composed of a number of brethren and the following ministers; Elders Gilbert Beebe, William J. Purrington, S. H. Durand, A. B. Francis, E. Rittenhouse, and T. M. Poulson. I was then and there regularily set apart by prayer and laying on of hands to the work of the ministry and immediately called by the church at Fishing Creek (near Cambridge, Maryland) to serve them as pastor and to preach for them once in two months; which call I accepted and have served them as the Lord has been with me since.
In the Spring of 1880, the church near Newark, New Castle County, Delaware, called Welsh Tract, sent me an invitation to visit them once a month; also, the London Tract Church, Chester County, Pennsylvania, sent me the same invitation, both of which I accepted. I visited them several months, when both churches expressed a desire for me to move my family to Delaware and become pastor of those two churches. In the spring of 1881 myself and family moved to New Castle County, Delaware and settled on a little farm near Newark and I began serving those two churches regularly, in addition to serving the church at Fishing Creek, Dorchester County, Maryland.
During this time, or in the fall of 1880, the Lord blessed me with another companion in life, a good Christian woman and an established Old School Baptist, which has proved a helpmate indeed. I am at this writing, June 1, 1883, just forty-seven years old, with a family of six children and a second wife, the youngest child being hers. Three of my first wife’s children have passed away to be with their dear mother in the immediate presence of the great Judge of all things and the Giver of all good. I am yet serving the three churches from time to time as the Lord is pleased to be with me.
After speaking somewhat of the churches I serve and of their present condition, I propose to go back in my mind and speak somewhat of my trials, difficulties and deliverances in the ministry.
The Welsh Tract Church is the first Baptist church organized in America, and at one time before the division and separation, I think it numbered two hundred members. Since then the church and congregation has been much smaller. When I came here there were fifty-seven members. Since then three have passed away and three have been baptized, leaving the number the same, but very much scattered, several old and infirmed. Our communicants at our quarterly meetings seldom exceed thirty-seven and the congregation from one hundred to one hundred and twenty-five.
The London Tract Church, also organized a great many years ago, has always been small, the present membership only seventeen, the congregation from seventy-five to one hundred. Many in each congregation seem to love the truth.
The Fishing Creek Church is very small, having since my recollection been sustained with from seven to twelve members and a congregation of seventy-five to one hundred, generally very attentive to the Word. The mercy of the Lord and the power of His grace have been wonderfully manifest in sustaining this church under many discouraging circumstances, for years at a time with no male member or deacon, one of the sisters acting as clerk; yet they never failed to correspond with the sister church and to keep up their regular church meetings.
One of my greatest conflicts through life has been with my own evil heart of unbelief. I have often thought if sufficient evidence was given me that I was qualified to preach the gospel of the grace of God, it would be a great privilege and I have often said to myself that I had rather be a gospel minister to the children of God than the chief magistrate of the United States. Indeed, I never have desired any office in the gift of the people. I have always felt incapable of serving them well in any important office and hence have had no desire for them. The same feeling of insufficiency to serve the church has made me all through life very timid and backward. Whilst I remember and know that our sufficiency is of God, my nature has seemed to forbid me to trust; hence, the conflicts, and slow to believe what I knew must really be so. There is to my mind a great mystery in this, that whilst we know that salvation is of the Lord, yet we are constantly looking for something in ourselves to recommend us to God, and can scarcely understand how a helpless sinner can be saved, when they are the only ones that can be saved, as others have nothing to be saved from.
Just so it has been with me in reference to preaching the gospel. While I know that the Lord must fill my mouth, if it is profitable to His redeemed, yet I am always wanting something on hand to say, for fear He will not give it to me when the time comes; but I think this all comes from that evil heart of unbelief and the doubt that remains in my mind as to whether the Lord has required this at my hands I have never felt to sensure poor old Jonah much for trying to get away. I guess he was honest and conscientious in what he did and needed that much more experience to prepare him to pay his vows. In short, I will say that the subject of prayer and praise to God has been a very solemn subject and I have had a great struggle with myself, both in commencing the work and in keeping it up. I have spent many sleepless hours and sweated many big drops, and yet self seems uppermost in the very best of my performances. I know that, unless obedience is in the heart, the act is but mere mockery in the sight of God.
On the 17th of this month the good Lord gave us the care of a very promising little boy for a while; we know not for how long. This is the second child by my second wife.
Since the last writing in this book, I have had many conflicts, many dark hours, and some very bright and pleasant ones. The mercy of the Lord still endureth and my unworthiness is still the same. The brethren seem to understand what J mean to say and do not expect anything of me, only as the good Master above is pleased to grant them through me. If He opens, no man can shut; truly, if He *huts, no man can open. The Lord is good to them who put their trust in Him; but alas, man is so prone to err.
All present there are eight regular appointments for me to meet in each month, to preach as the Lord may enable me, and it is a blessing to me that no more is expected of me by the brethren than what He is pleased to give. It is always a blessed privilege to me to deliver a message if I can feel that it comes from the Lord; otherwise, it is a hard, laborious task. The engagement in spiritual things, if indeed that engagement is mine, is more in feeling the power of the Spirit in my own soul than anything else. The company of the saints is very precious at such times, but sometimes the flesh so shuts out the light that I prefer to be alone.
Since the last writing, I have accepted the call of the Salem Church of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to meet with them every fifth Sunday, or four times a year.
There has been nothing of special note since the last writing. I am still serving the four churches at stated times, with such ability as the good Lord is pleased to give me. In these churches there is an ingathering, we believe, according as God is pleased to constrain by His almighty Grace.
Many days have passed since I wrote in this book. Very much of the time has been spent in dolitary idleness, seemingly for want of ambition. The congregations and churches I am serving have kept up the usual interest. There have been occasional additions to them, the one in Philadelphia of which I see the least manifests the most zeal of any, having the most additions to their number, assuring me more and more that the good Master above is adding to the church daily such as shall be saved; that it does not in any sense depend upon my feeble efforts.
Joseph L. Staton
Republished Signs of the Times
Volume 152, No. 1