Taken from, “Old Portraits and Modern Sketches.”
Written by John Greenleaf Whittier, 1858.
Edited for thought and sense.
…he chanced to see three or four poor old women sitting at a door, in the evening sun, and, drawing near them, heard them converse upon the things of God; of His work in their hearts; of their natural depravity; of the temptations of the Adversary; and of the joy of believing, and of the peace of reconciliation. The words of the aged women found a response in the soul of the listener.” He felt his heart shake,” to use his own words; he saw that he lacked the true tokens of a Christian.
At this time he was sadly troubled to ascertain whether or not he had that faith which the Scriptures spake of. Traveling one day from Elstow to Bedford, after a recent rain, which had left pools of water in the path, he felt a strong desire to settle the question by commanding the pools to become dry, and the dry places to become pools. Going under the hedge to pray for ability to work the miracle, he was struck with the thought, that if he failed he should know, indeed, that he was a cast away, and give himself up to despair. He dared not attempt the experiment, and went on his way, to use his own forcible language, “tossed up and down between the devil and his own ignorance.”
Soon after,he had one of those visions which foreshadowed the wonderful dream of his Pilgrim’s Progress. He saw some holy people of Bedford on the sunny side of an high mountain, refreshing themselves in the pleasant air and sunlight, while he was shivering in cold and darkness, amidst snows and never-melting ices, like the victims of the Scandinavian hell. A wall compassed the mountain, separating him from the blessed, with one small gap or doorway, through which, with great pain and effort, he was at last enabled to work his way into the sun shine, and sit down with the saints, in the light and warmth thereof.
But now a new trouble assailed him. Like Milton’s metaphysical spirits, who sat apart, “And reasoned of foreknowledge, will, and fate,” he grappled with one of those great questions which have always perplexed and baffled human inquiry; He was tortured with anxiety to know whether, according to the Westminster formula, he was elected to salvation or damnation. His old adversary vexed his soul with evil suggestions, and even quoted Scripture to enforce them. “It may be you are not elected,” said the Tempter, and the poor tinker thought the supposition altogether too probable. “Why, then,” said Satan, “you had as good leave off, and strive no farther; for if, indeed, you should not be elected and chosen of God, there is no hope of your being saved; for it is neither in him that willeth nor in him that runneth, but it is God who showeth mercy.” At length when, as he says, he was about giving up the ghost of all his hopes, this passage fell with weight upon his spirit; “Look at the generations of old, and see; did ever any trust in God, and were confounded?” Comforted by these words, he opened his Bible to note them, but the most diligent search and inquiry of his neighbors failed to discover them. At length,his eye fell upon them in the Apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus. This, he says, somewhat doubted him at first, as the book was not canonical; but in the end he took courage and comfort from the passage. “I bless God,” he says, “for that word; it was good for me. That word doth still oftentimes shine before my face.”
A long and weary struggle was now before him.
I cannot,” he says, “express with what longings and breathings of my soul I cried unto Christ to call me. Gold! could it have been gotten by gold, what would I have given for it. Had I a whole world, it had all gone ten thousand times over for this, that my soul might have been in a converted state. How lovely now was every one in my eyes, that I thought to be converted men and women. They shone, they walked like a people who carried the broad seal of Heaven with them.”
With what force and intensity of language does he portray, in the following passage, the reality and earnestness of his agonizing experience: “While I was thus afflicted with the fears of my own damnation, there were two things would make me wonder: the one was, when I saw old people hunting after the things of this life, as if they should live here always; the other was, when I found professing Christianhs much distressed and cast down, when they met with outward losses; as of husband, wife, or child. Lord, thought I, what a seeking after carnal things by some, and what grief in others for the loss of them! If they so much labor after and shed so many tears for the things of this present life, how am I to be bemoaned, pitied,and prayed for!
My soul is dying, my soul is damning. Were my soul but in a good condition, and were I but sure of it, ah, how rich should I esteem myself, though blessed but with bread and water! I should count these but small afflictions, and should bear them as little burdens.
He looked with envy, as he wandered through the country, upon the birds in the trees, the hares in the preserves, and the fishes in the streams. They were happy in their brief existence, and their death was but a sleep. He felt himself alienated from God, a discord in the harmonies of the universe. The very rooks which fluttered around the old church spire seemed more worthy of the Creator’s love and care than himself.
A vision of the infernal fire, like that glimpse of hell which was afforded to Christian by the Shepherds, was continually before him, with its “rumbling noise, and the cry of some tormented, and the scent of brimstone.”
Wherever he went, the glare of it scorched him, and its dreadful sound was in his ears. His vivid but disturbed imagination lent new terrors to the awful figures by which the sacred writers conveyed the idea of future retribution to the Oriental mind. Bunyan’s World of Woe, if it lacked the colossal architecture and solemn vastness of Milton’s Pandemonium, was more clearly defined; its agonies were within the pale of human comprehension; its victims were men and women, with the same keen sense of corporeal suffering which they possessed in life; and who, to use his own terrible description, had “all the loathed variety of hell to grapple with; fire unquenchable, a lake of choking brimstone, eternal chains, darkness more black than night,the everlasting gnawing of the worm, the sight of devils, and the yells and out cries of the damned.”
His mind at this period was evidently shaken in some degree from its balance. He was troubled with strange wicked thoughts, confused by doubts and blasphemous suggestions,for which he could only account by supposing himself possessed of the devil. He wanted to curse and swear, and had to clap his hands on his mouth to prevent it. In prayer, he felt, as he supposed, Satan behind him, pulling his clothes, and telling him to have done, and break off; suggesting that he had better pray to him, and calling up before his mind’s eye the figures of a bull, a tree, or some other object, instead of the awful idea of God.
But, ere long, other temptations assailed him. A strange suggestion haunted him, to sell or part with his Saviour. His own account of this hallucination is too painfully vivid to awaken any other feeling than that of sympathy and sadness. “I could neither eat my food, stoop for a pin, chop a stick,or cast mine eye to look on this or that, but still the temptation would come, Sell Christ for this, or sell Christ for that; sell him, sell him. “Sometimes it would run in my thoughts, not so little as a hundred times together, Sell him, sell him; against which, I may say, for whole hours together, I have been forced to stand as continually leaning and forcing my spirit against it,lest haply, before I were aware, some wicked thought might arise in my heart, that might consent thereto; and sometimes the tempter would make me believe I had consented to it; but then I should be as tortured upon a rack, for whole days together. “This temptation did put me to such scares, lest I should at sometimes, I say, consent thereto, and be overcome therewith, that, by the very force of my mind, my very body would be put into action or motion, by way of pushing or thrusting with my hands or elbows; still answering” as fast as the destroyer said, Sell him,” I will not, I will not, I will not; no, not for thousands, thousands, thousands of worlds; thus reckoning, lest I should set too low a value on him, even until I scarce well knew where I was, or how to be composed again.
“But to be brief: one morning, as I did lie in my bed, I was, as at other times, most fiercely assaulted with this temptation, to sell and part with Christ; the wicked suggestion still running in my mind, Sell him, sell him, sell him, sell him, sell him, as fast as a man could speak; against which, also, in my mind, as at other times, I answered, No, no, not for thousands, thousands, thousands ” at least twenty times together; but at last, after much striving, I felt this thought pass through my heart, Let him go if he will; and I thought also, that I felt my heart freely consent thereto. Oh, the diligence of Satan!
Oh, the desperateness of man’s heart! “Now was the battle lost, and down fell I, as a bird that is shot from the top of a tree, into great guilt, and fearful despair.
Thus getting out of my bed, I went moping into the field; but God knows, with as heavy a heart as mortal man, I think, could bear; where, for the space of two hours, I was like a man bereft of life; and, as now, past all recovery, and bound over to eternal punishment. “And withal, that Scripture did seize upon my soul: ‘Or profane person, as Esau, who, for one morsel of meat, sold his birthright; for ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected; for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.'”
For two years and a half, as he informs us, that awful Scripture sounded in his ears like the knell of a lost soul. He believed that he had committed the unpardonable sin. His mental anguish was united with bodily illness and suffering. His nervous system became fearfully deranged; his limbs trembled, and he supposed this visible tremulousness and agitation to be the mark of Cain.
Troubled with pain and distressing sensations in his chest, he began to fear that his breast-bone would split open, and that he should perish like Judas Iscariot. He feared the tiles of the houses would fall upon him as he walked the streets. He was like his own Man in the Cage at the House of the Interpreter, shut out from the promises, and looking forward to certain judgment. “Methought,” he says,” the very sun that shineth in heaven did grudge to give me light.”
And still the dreadful words, “He found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears,” sounded in the depths of his soul. They were, he says, like fetters of brass to his legs, and their continual clanking followed him for months.
Regarding himself elected and predestined for damnation, he thought that all things worked for his damage and eternal overthrow, while all things wrought for the best, and to do good to the elect and called of God unto salvation. God and all His universe had, he thought,conspired against him; the green earth, the bright waters, the sky itself,were written over with his irrevocable curse.
Well was it said by Bunyan’s contemporary, the excellent Cudworth, in his eloquent sermon before the Long Parliament, that “we are nowhere commanded to pry into the secrets of God, but the wholesome advice given us is this: ‘To make our calling and election sure.’ We have no warrant We have no warrant from Scripture to peep into the hidden rolls of eternity,to spell out our names among the stars.” “Must we say that God sometimes, to exercise His uncontrollable dominion, delights rather in plunging wretched souls down into infernal night and ever lasting darkness? What, then, shall we make the God of the whole world? Nothing but a cruel and dreadful Errinys, with curled fiery snakes about His head, and firebrands in His hand; thus governing the world! Surely this will make us either secretly think there is no God in the world, if He must needs be such, or else to wish heartily there were none.”
It was thus at times with Bunyan. He was tempted, in this season of despair, to believe that there was no resurrection and no judgment. One day, he tells us, a sudden rushing sound, as of wind or the wings of angels,came to him through the window, wonderfully sweet and pleasant; and it was as if a voice spoke to him from heaven words of encouragement and hope, which, to use his language, commanded, for the time, “a silence in his heart to all those tumultuous thoughts that did use, like masterless hell-hounds, to roar and bellow and make a hideous noise within him.”
About this time, also, some comforting passages of Scripture were called to mind; but he remarks, that whenever he strove to apply them to his case, Satan would thrust the curse of Esau in his face, and wrest the good word from him. The blessed promise, “Him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out,” was the chief instrumentality in restoring his lost peace. He says of it: “If ever Satan and I did strive for any word of God in all my life, it was for this good word of Christ ; he at one end, and I at the other; oh, what work we made ! It was for this in John, I say, that we did so tug and strive; he pulled,and I pulled,but, God be praised! I overcame him; I got sweetness from it. Oh ! many a pull hath my heart had with Satan for this blessed sixth chapter of John!”
Who does not here call to mind the struggle between Christian and Apollyon in the valley! That was no fancy sketch ; it was the narrative of the author’s own grapple with the Spirit of Evil. Like his ideal Christian, he “conquered through Him that loved him.” Love wrought the victory: the Scripture of Forgiveness overcame that of Hatred.
He never afterward relapsed into that state of religious melancholy from which he so hardly escaped. He speaks of his deliverance, as the waking out of a troublesome dream. His painful experience was not lost upon him; for it gave him, ever after, a tender sympathy for the weak, the sinful,the ignorant, and desponding. In some measure, he had been “touched with the feeling of their infirmities.”
He could feel for those in the bonds of sin and despair,as bound with them. Hence his power as a preacher; hence the wonderful adaptation of his great allegory to all the variety of spiritual conditions. Like Fearing, he had lain a month in the Slough of Despond, and had played, like him, the long, melancholy bass of spiritual heaviness. With Feeble-mind, he had fallen into the hands of Slaygood, of the nature of Man-eaters; and had limped along his difficult way upon the crutches of Readyto-halt. Who better than himself could describe the condition of Despondency, and his daughter Much-afraid, in the dungeon of Doubting Castle?
Had he not also fallen among thieves, like Littlefaith?