My Days and My Ways
Although the terrors of conscience were not very powerful at that early age, I was miserable enough, notwithstanding; and when my mother took me to hear the excitable preacher referred to in the last chapter, I was fairly overcome by his glowing representations of the Divine mercy for miserable sinners. I was in tears during his entire discourse, and went home in a state of mind that lasted some time.
My mother considered me “converted,” and her religious acquaintances rejoiced with her in the change, and encouraged me in the new views of my state. I tried to respond to their ideas as earnestly as possible, and became as absorbingly religious as was possible with me. I conformed to the recognised ideal of religiousness according to the standard in vogue among the Calvinistic Baptists of Scotland. I had six months of tormented “experience,” with occasional gleams of satisfaction – as to which I adopted the view that God and the Devil were thus struggling for mastery in my “soul”. I found great comfort in the reading of the sensational religious tracts which inculcated this view, and was especially solaced and encouraged by James Angell James’s “Young Man’s Anxious Enquirer.” In the reading of the Bible, I found very little satisfaction, and that only in a very few selected parts.
When I had got through the stock of religious reading within my immediate reach, I searched among a collection of old books and pamphlets which lay neglected on some shelves in the house, in the hope of finding a further supply. There was very little of a suitable character is the pile. But I made one discovery of great moment. I came across a copy of the Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, which was being published monthly by Dr. Thomas. I had not the least idea of its character. I had never heard of it before that I know of. The one thing I perceived was that it was a religious magazine; and in my state of mind I withdrew it from its place with a feeling of satisfaction, and sat down to read.
The experience was extraordinary. I expected the usual sort of religious reading – dealing with the “experiences of the soul,” in the light and shade of depressed and joyful feeling. But lo! Here was a religious book that denied straight away in the first article that there was such a thing as an immortal soul in man at all, and then denounced the whole religious system built upon such an idea as a superstition, and an imposture for which the Bible was not responsible. I was startled. I was awakened. I was filled with a new joy. The power of the article lay in its argument. Mere assertion would, of course, have filled me with aversion: but the Scriptures were quoted in disproof of the immortality of the suld in a way that literally carried me away.
I began to make inquiries which alarmed my mother, but filled my sister with satisfaction. I ascertained that this Hearld of the Kingdom came to the house every month to my sister. How it came to do so I also learnt. This was in the year 1852. Dr. Thomas had visited Aberdeen, and lectured in 1849. My grandmother (my father’s mother, a descendant of the Clan MacBeth, a tribe of barbarians as I now see, but who at the time figured in my eyes as glorious ancestors), and my sister had attended his lectures, and had become deeply interested in the things presented concerning the Kingdom of God, and the signs of the times; and learning that he published a monthly magazine, they became between them subscribers for one copy, which first went to my grandmother, and then came to my sister before going elsewhere. The copy I had stumbled across was on its monthly visit to my sister.
I was delighted to know that the magazine would come regularly every month. I looked forward to its arrival with intense eagerness. I became a voracious, and even excited, reader of it and the Bible. I discovered from letters published in the Herald, Dr. Thomas had written a large book called Elpis Israel. This was a joyful discovery. I felt a strong desire to read it, but I could not get at it. My mother would not help me, but much the reverse if she could have done so. My sister had no copy, and did not know where to get one. An old woman, Miss Isabel Smith, that lived in the same tall house of flats (in Castle Lane), heard of my desire, and told me she would get a read of Elpis Israel for me. In due time she brought it to me. She could not have made me happier. I was overjoyed. I never experienced a purer pleasure than when I commenced with the majestic opening sentences: --
“Revolving upon its own axis, and describing an ample circuit through the boundless
fields of space, is a planet of the solar system, bearing upon its surface a population
of nearly a thousand millions subject to sin, disease, and death.”
I never ceased the reading (at my leisure intervals) until I got through. I rose early in the morning to have more time. My mother, who was grieved and angered beyond measure at the change that had come over me, said I would not get up so soon to read my Bible: but in this she was mistaken, for the effect of Dr. Thomas’s writing, while causing me to lose all taste for the religious literature which had for six months been my sustenance, was to impart a keen interest in the Bible, which before had been uninteresting to me, and to lead me to its daily and early, and persevering perusal. My mother afterwards (15 years afterwards) changed her mind, and herself joyfully and thoroughly embraced what at first she condemned, and became, as she now is, in the 84th year of her age (1890), the most enthusiastic and admiring reader of Dr. Thomas’s works that I know.
When I had completed the perusal of Elpis Israel, my mind was made up. The concurrent reading of the Bible with it, had enabled me to arrive at the conclusion (never since disturbed) that popular theology was a hideous caricature of divine truth, and that the system of things contended for by Dr. Thomas was according to a full and correct understanding of the who Scriptures of Moses, the prophets and the apostles. In this conviction, I resolved to have nothing more to do with church or chapel; but how to give effect to my resolution was a matter of difficulty. I was only twelve, and in the habit of going regularly to chapel with my mother and brothers, from whose authority and example it seemed no more possible to liberate myself, than for a soldier to absent himself from drill without the permission of his commanding officer. As time went on my determination grew, and I resolved to act at all hazards.
I had meanwhile discovered through the same old lady that got me Elpis Israel, that there was a small meeting of believers in the things taught by Dr. Thomas. I got her to take me to their place one Sunday afternoon. It was in a curious corner, and in a curious building. I forget the name of the street. It was a narrow back street, with a steep descent at the lower end, which passed by a bridge or tunnel under St. Nicholas Street or Union Street, near their junction. At this point there was an old castle, that at one time would stand by itself, but was now built in among the houses, forming the north side of Union Street. The meeting place was an upper room in this castle, up a spiral staircase, entered by a door not far from the dark deserted end of the road. It was a room about 10 or 12 feet square, and about the same height. There was a table in the centre, and benches round the sides. About twenty people were assembled – all plain, unpretending people of the working class. My satisfaction in attending was out of all proportion to the nature and surrounding of the assembly. It was not in reality due to them. It was derived from the great and glorious things I had learned from Dr. Thomas’s writings with which this insignificant assembly was associated in my mind. I supposed every one composing it would be aglow with the love I felt for these things, and therefore felt purely glad – as I did not often feel afterwards.
I attended this afternoon meeting regularly for a time. A meeting was held in the forenoon, but this I could not attend on account of having to go to chapel under the iron law in force at home. From this I finally determined to break away, as already indicated. Accordingly, one Sunday morning, I left the house an hour before the usual time, and made a long detour outside the town, avoiding on my return the road where I would be likely to meet my mother and brothers going to chapel, and coming in by a road that led me to the neighbourhood of the brethren’s meeting place. Attendance at chapel had become a pain to me, and therefore it was with an unspeakable sense of relief that I found myself in the small room among the brethren, instead of among the pews in a large congregation. I do not remember what passed at the meeting. I know I enjoyed it. It was the going home that was the anxiety.
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