Reminiscences of a Long Life
By James M. Pendleton
As stated in the preceding chapter, a precious revival was enjoyed by the Bethel Church during the Spring and Summer of 1829. I was numbered among the earliest converts and took a deep interest in those whose conversion followed. It was a source of the sincerest pleasure to me to see my associates convicted of sin, and to hear them inquiring, “What must we do to be saved?” I had never seen a revival before and tried to do something in directing “inquirers” to Christ. The substance of what I said to them was that as Jesus had saved me, he could and would save them. I remember when first called on to pray in public for anxious souls. I was greatly embarrassed, and even alarmed. I trembled at the sound of my voice, and after a few petitions, incoherently expressed, I closed my prayer with the words, “O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me.” Some brother followed me in prayer, and when the meeting was over I was ashamed to look at those who had witnessed my poor attempt to pray.
As my young companions found peace with God by faith in Christ they united with the church and were baptized. Those were precious occasions when converts in the ardor of their earliest love went down into the baptismal waters, professing their death to sin and their resurrection to a new life. The countenances of many of them as they came up out of the water were radiant with smiles, and brethren and sisters, with extended hands, welcomed them to the joys of Christian service. The revival went on till the church received three score members. A feeling of sadness comes over me now when I remember that scarcely any of those sixty converts are in the land of the living. Nearly all of them have “finished their course;” and, I trust, their disembodied spirits are in the paradise of God. Why I have been spared till now to refer to them, I know not, but I hold them in loving remembrance.
There were no “protracted meetings” in those days and there was seldom preaching more than two days together, about every two weeks. Still the revival went on and results were certainly as favorable as those connected with “protracted meetings” at the present time.
During the greater part of the years 1829, 1830, and 1831 I was at work on the farm of my father, and manual labor did not interfere with my Christian enjoyment. I call up the fact that one of the happiest days I ever saw was spent in plowing “new ground.” The roots and stumps made it very difficult to hold the plow in its proper place, but my soul was full of joy. My thoughts were fixed on that supreme epitome of the gospel contained in John iii:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I wondered that God could love such a world and that the proof of His love was seen in the gift of His Son. I stopped my horse and plow and retired to a secret place that I might pour forth my soul in thanksgiving to God for love so amazing, so infinite. From that day to this I have known that religious joy does not depend on any bodily environment.
I was in the habit of attending prayer-meetings, and sometimes led them. Not having much to say, I read largely from the Scriptures, believing that this was the best thing I could do. Some of my friends were kind enough to say that they were interested in my way of conducting meetings. Time passed on till February, 1830, when, to my astonishment, the church licensed me to preach. I thought it quite uncalled for, and did not believe it possible for me to preach. Sometimes I reluctantly attempted to “exhort” at the close of a sermon, for it was the custom then for an “exhortation” to follow a sermon. Indeed, I often heard two sermons preached without intermission, and then came the exhortation. My exhortations were very short, consisting at times of only a few sentences, but when I had said all I could think of, I sought relief from my embarrassment in prayer. Strange to say, when I had done the best I could I had a tranquil conscience, not because I had. done my duty, but because I had attempted to do it.
Early in the year 1831 I began to teach a school in the western part of Christian County. It was a small school and I taught only three months. I learned that some of my patrons were dissatisfied because I did not teach longer than six or seven hours in a day, and I gave up the school. When I returned home with three dollars in pocket, which remained after my board was paid, my sisters were sad, and my father looked as if he thought I had been predestinated to fail at everything I undertook. But my mother, with a burdened heart, retired to her place of prayer, and while praying was impressed with this Scripture, “Ye are of more value than many sparrows.” Her countenance became cheerful and she afterward said that from that time she did not doubt that the Lord would provide for me. I shall never know how much I owe to the prayers of my mother. O, that I could pray as she did. Her prayers on earth have given place to praises in heaven.
Months passed away, and on the fourth Sunday in September, 1831, I made my first effort at preaching. It was at a church called West Union, about ten miles west of Hopkingville. The name of the church was afterward changed to Belle View. My text was Acts xvii:30, 31. “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent: Because he hath appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom He hath ordained.” I said something in a superficial way about repentance, and urged the people to repent in view of the judgment, that they might be prepared for the solemn day. To call what I said a “sermon” would be flagrant injustice to that term. The next time I attempted to preach the text was Hebrews ii:3, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?” I said a few things about the “great salvation” and the danger of neglecting it, but my performance was wretchedly imperfect. Then when I thought of preaching again it seemed clearly impossible; for I had exhausted my scanty store of theology and could think of no other subject on which I could say anything.
After a while, familiar passages of Scripture coming into my mind took some sort of shape, and I attempted to preach on them. But I did not believe I could ever be a preacher. I was sorely troubled. I desired the work of the ministry, but my sense of unfitness was appalling, and at times I dismissed the subject from my mind. I decided positively to give up the idea of preaching, but my decision was soon disturbed. Just as soon as it was made my mind would be shrouded in awful gloom, and I found that in giving up the thought of preaching I had to give up the hope of heaven. My refusal to preach was not compatible with a belief that I was a Christian. That was the predicament in which I was placed – utterly incompetent to preach, and compelled to give up my hope in Christ if I did not. The agony of those days and nights will never be known. “My soul has it in remembrance, and is humbled within me.”
After much thought and prayer, I resolved to transfer the responsibility resting on me to the church that had licensed me. I said within myself, I will try to preach, I will do the best I can, and when the brethren see that they have made a mistake, they will candidly tell me so, tell me that while they do not wish to hurt m-y feelings, they deem it their duty to say to me that I can never make a preacher. I thought if the church so decided I would be relieved of all sense of responsibility, and could with a clear conscience devote myself to agricultural pursuits. The church had monthly meetings for business, and I waited month after month to hear of their decision in my case; but the brethren failed to act. I was painfully tempted to doubt their fidelity because they did not stop my incipient ministerial career. They let me go on, and I have therefore preached for nearly sixty years.
During the years 1831 and 1832 I accompanied different ministers on their preaching excursions. Sometimes they gave me an encouraging word, and at other times what they said was not complimentary. One of them, in referring to my attempts to preach, said, “You certainly could do better if you would try.” Another said, “You are scarcely earning your salt.” The language of a third brother was, “You say some pretty good things, but your preaching is neither adapted to comfort the saint nor alarm the sinner.”
Of course those good men, now in heaven, did not know how depressing the effect of their words was, and how my spirit was crushed. I refer to this matter for the sake of expressing the opinion that old ministers should be careful as to what they say to young preachers.
But the most uncomplimentary and discouraging things were not said about me by ministers. It was a layman, of whom I heard afterward, that said, ” As God is omnipotent he of course can make a preacher of that young man.” This exhausted the language of depreciation; for it made the possibility of my becoming a preacher entirely contingent on the omnipotence of God.
In October, 1831, I went to Russellville, Ky., and became a pupil of Rev. Robert T. Anderson, who had charge of a school there. I began to study the Latin Grammar, but it was a wilderness to me. I did not understand why nouns had so many cases, why adjectives were declined, and the conjugation of verbs was so complicated. I read a few pages from “Historia Sacra,” beginning with extracts from the book of Genesis. It was not long before I was induced to take charge of a little school. I did this that I might make some money to meet necessary expenses. I had taught only a short time when Mr. Peebles, who had charge of a Female Academy, proposed to employ me as an assistant, agreeing to pay me fifteen dollars a month. I taught with him four months, and when in the Summer of 1832, at the close of the session, I received sixty dollars. I felt quite rich. While I remained in Russellville I was kindly treated and invited to board for a month with each of the following persons: Spencer Curd, George Brown, Thomas Grubbs, Edward Ragan, William Owens, and Hon. E. M. Ewing, whose wife was a Baptist. I have ever felt my obligations to these kind friends.
Having left Russellville in the Summer of 1832, I returned to my father’s in Christian County, and in October of the same year I went with Rev. John S. Willson to the Baptist State Convention at New Castle. There I saw Messrs. Silas M. Noel, Ryland T. Dillard, George W. Eaton, U. B. Chambers and other devoted men. Eaton was at that time Professor in Georgetown College, and he impressed me as being a very lovely man. We went from the Convention to Frankfort, where Dr. Noel was pastor. It was arranged of course for Willson to preach, and, strange to say, Dr. Noel had me to preach. He told me, after hearing me, that I “ought to put more life into my sermons.” He was no doubt correct in this view. We went to Lexington and there met, for the first time, Elder George Waller, who was one of our prominent ministers. While at Lexington we saw Henry Clay, at that time a candidate for the Presidency, and I trembled in approaching him, so deeply was I impressed with his greatness.
At Dr. Dillard’s invitation we rode a few miles in a horse-car on the railroad in process of construction from Lexington to Frankfort. This was a new thing, the first road of the kind in Kentucky, looked upon as a wonder marvelous to behold. We returned, Willson to his home in Todd County, and I to my father’s house, where I remained till the beginning of the next year.