Reminiscences of a Long Life
By James M. Pendleton
From my childhood I received as true the fundamental facts of the Bible. I never doubted the existence of God, nor the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believed in an eternal heaven and an eternal hell. It was my purpose from my earliest years to become a Christian at sometime, but I thought length of days was before me and that I had ample time to prepare for eternity. My prominent conception of religion was that it is the means of escaping hell and getting to heaven. Of my obligation to love God and to serve him from the promptings of love, I seldom had a serious thought. My views were very selfish and very mercenary. My first impressions as to the importance of Christianity were made by my mother. She was more accessible than my father, who was somewhat stern and, whether intentionally or not, kept his children at a distance. I could approach my mother, and even when I had a request to make of my father, it was generally done through her. She talked to me about Christ and salvation, and expressed her desire for me to become a Christian. I always listened with respect to what she said, but there was no fixed determination to seek the salvation of my soul. The evil spirit of procrastination had possession of me, but my purpose to be a Christian at sometime in the future was an opiate to my conscience and silenced its clamors. When fifteen years of age I decided to give immediate attention to the subject of religion. The decision was brought about in a very strange way; I know of nothing stranger in connection with my life. I visited a boyish companion, older than myself, with whom I had enjoyed the pleasures of sin, expecting a renewal of those pleasures, but, to my astonishment, he told me that he wished to be a Christian. We talked on the subject of religion and as we talked, or rather as he talked to me, I made the decision referred to and adhered to it. Several years, after I met him, told him that I had made a public profession of my faith in Christ, and that my religious impressions bad continued from the time of our conversation. He said in reply, “You have been more fortunate than I,” and intimated that he was then a careless sinner. I have never heard of his becoming a Christian. How marvelous was all this. The sermons I had heard, the advice of Christian friends, the talks of my mother, and the reading of the Bible had failed to inspire the purpose to turn to God; but the conversation of one who, so far as I know, lived and died in sin, led me to a decision. I pretend not to explain this farther than to say that God’s thoughts are not as our thoughts.
I resolved to read the Bible regularly and to pray every day, and I expected to reach the point of conversion within three weeks. Why I fixed on this time I never knew, but I thought it would be sufficient to enable me to ingratiate myself into the favor of God. Never was there a Pharisee in Jerusalem more self-righteous. At the expiration of the three weeks I saw no improvement in my spiritual condition, and, indeed, I was much discouraged by my inability to control my heart and life as I had determined to do. Still I persevered in seeking salvation, or, I may say, in seeking to save myself; for self-salvation was the idea that occupied my mind. When the thought at times presented itself that I might not be able fully to save myself, my plan was for God to do what I could not do. I supposed it would be well for my defects to be divinely supplemented.
As time passed on I saw more and pnore of the wickedness of my heart. This wickedness showed itself in my rebellious murmurings that I was not saved. I thought God ought to save me, or rather let me save myself. I had been what was called a “moral boy,” had never used a profane expression; but now I cursed God in my heart and felt that I would be glad to annihilate Him. I wonder that He did not strike me with some thunderbolt of His wrath. I have that period of my life vividly in my memory and my soul is humbled within me. I was led gradually, month by month, to see myself a great sinner without a shadow of excuse for my sins. My outward sins appeared as nothing compared with the deep depravity of my heart. I saw myself justly condemned by God’s holy law and richly deserving His displeasure. I fully justified God in my condemnation and heartily approved the holiness of His law. I loved the righteousness of the divine government and wished to be saved if my salvation could be in accordance with law and justice; but how this could be I had no conception. I thought it impossible and concluded that I must be forever lost. I expected to go to hell and fully determined there to justify God and vindicate His proceedings. I thought I would say to the inhabitants of that lost world, “God is in the right and we are in the wrong, we deserve all that we suffer, we have no reason to complain, and let us think well of God.” I was resolved to say this, was never more resolved to do anything. Visionary purpose, it will be said; yes, but the purpose was fully formed. Meanwhile I felt what I may call the calmness of despair and the tranquility of hopelessness, and expected so to feel until I dropped into perdition. Weeks and months passed slowly away and not a ray of light shone on my path. There was no promise in the Bible that I could apply to my case. My prayer was, “God be merciful to me a sinner;” but I did not see how he could have mercy on such a sinner. I have intimated that I did not wish to be saved unless God could save me consistently with His glory and the claims of His righteous law. I thought it would be far better for me to be damned than for God to compromise the honor of His government in saving me. The union of justice and mercy in salvation was what I wished to be possible; but I despairingly said, this cannot be. While in this state of mind I read a sermon by Rev. Samuel Davies from I Corinthians i:22-24: “For the Jews require a sign and the Greeks seek after wisdom; But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” etc.* This sermon, delivered in 1759, which I have recently read, is an excellent one, and Mr. Davies was an admirable sermonizer. In the discourse now referred to I was specially impressed with his remarks on the union of mercy and justice in the salvation of sinners through “Christ crucified.” This is shown to be happily possible through the atoning death of Jesus, whose obedience and blood “magnified the law and made it honorable.” Having read this sermon I went into a forest to pray, and while kneeling by a tree I had new views of the way in which sinners could be saved. I saw that mercy could be exercised consistently with justice through Jesus Christ. I felt a lightness of heart to which I had been a stranger for about two years. Strange to say, the joy I felt was not on my personal account. I was glad that other sinners could be saved, but did not think of myself as a saved sinner. I knew faith in Christ was indispensable to salvation, but I ignorantly thought that to believe in Christ was to believe myself a Christian. The latter thing, with my views, I could not do, and, therefore, for some weeks considered myself out of “the pale of salvation.” I was amazed and at times alarmed at my peace of mind. I began to fear that my “conviction” was gone, and that I was worse off than ever. I tried to bring my conviction back. I wished to feel again my sense of guilt and condemnation. I indulged in soliloquy, though I knew not the meaning of the word: “Am I not a sinner? Yes, but Jesus is a Savior. Am I not a great sinner? Yes, but Jesus is a great Savior.” Thus there was something in Christ as the Savior which prevented the return of my conviction, kept off my sense of condemnation, and rendered impossible the anguish I had felt and was anxious to feel again.
A few weeks passed away and in the providence of God I had an opportunity of conversing with one of the prominent preachers of that day, Rev. John S. Willson. He explained the nature of faith in Christ, defining it as a personal and an exclusive reliance on Jesus for salvation. He asked me if my only reliance was on Christ and I was obliged to answer in the affimative. He told me and convinced me that I was a believer in the Lord Jesus. He also told me that to believe myself a Christian I must examine myself and see if I found a correspondence between my character and the Christian character as delineated in the New Testament. Thus I saw the difference between believing in Christ and believing one’s self to be a Christian, a difference I have never forgotten.
Very soon I was urged to make a public profession of my faith in Christ, and on the second Sunday of April, 1829, I went before the Bethel Church, Christian County, Kentucky, and related my “experience,” telling the brethren and sisters how I had been led to exercise “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” I was received as a candidate for baptism, and as the pastor, Rev. William Tandy, was in feeble health, I was baptized by Rev. John S. Willson on Tuesday, the 14th day of the month. The ordinance was administered in the creek not far from the meeting house, and the place is sacred to my memory. If my descendants pass that way at any time, I hope they will pause and think of the import of the solemn and beautiful ordinance of Baptism, which commemorates the burial and resurrection of Christ, symbolizes the believer’s death to sin and his rising to a new life, while it anticipates the resurrection of the Saints on the last day. I of course did not, as a boy, understand the rich significance of Baptism as I do now ; but I thought of my baptism as a profession of faith in Christ and a manifestation of my love for Him as shown in obeying one of His commandments. I remained for several years a member of Bethel Church. It no longer meets at the same place, but is now divided into two bands, the one worshipping at Pembroke and the other at Fairview, the latter retaining the name Bethel. The two places are about equi-distant from Hopkinsville, the former on the Nashville and the latter on the Russellville road. All the associations of my boyhood, as well as those of subsequent years, cause me to feel a special interest in the two churches.
It is proper to say that in the Spring and Summer of 1829 the old Bethel Church enjoyed a precious revival, so that the baptismal waters were frequently visited and the church received an addition of about sixty members.
* Davies’ Sermons, in three volumes, my father had taken with him from Virginia.