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My Days and My Ways

An Autobiography

by Robert Roberts


CHAPTER  THIRTY:  After the American Civil War –Letter from Dr. Thomas.


AT the close of the American Civil War, which had nearly involved the brethren in that country in the toils of compulsory military service against which they had petitioned in the document published in the last chapter, Dr. Thomas visited the South, and, on his return, wrote me an account of his journey, under date June 28th, 1865.  I cannot better occupy the chapter than by transcribing the following extracts from his interesting narrative: --


                “I arrived in Richmond on Saturday, May 27th and next day spoke to a few who happened to meet in the Universalist House.  I sent no previous notice of my visit, so that I came upon them quite unexpectedly.  Ten righteous would have saved Sodom, but Sodom fell, and Richmond fell; but is this proof that there were not ten righteous in Richmond?  I cannot say.  This, however, may safely be affirmed, namely, that, taking the gospel of the kingdom of God as the rule or measure of the community, there are not many over ten righteous in Richmond; they certainly fall far short of the number originally suggested by Abraham, as the few brethren in the city are free to confess.


                “Richmond, in the business part of it, is a scene of desolation.  Viewed from the capital square is an open space of about eleven acres, filled with burnt bricks and tottering walls and chimneys.  There is but little business doing; for , though many goods have been brought in from the North, the people have no money to buy.


                “The citizens of Richmond say that the Federals have behaved very well since they entered the city.  They have been a protection to them against the negroes, whom they compel to behave orderly on pain of whipping or death.  This of course the negroes do not like; but they have to submit, for military law is the law of bowelless and inexorable brute force, which it is vain for unarmed weakness to resist.  It is well that the non-combatants of the South can at length find some protection from the Federals; for hitherto the have oppressed them cruelly.  An officer of the Federal army declared that the army of the United States was ‘an army of thieves’; and one of the New York regiments, to which one who was once in fellowship with the ecclesia here belongs, is styled, as he testifies, by its own men, ‘The New York


Thieves.’  The accounts  I heard from citizens in Richmond and Petersburg, and in Widdie, Lunenburg, King William, Goochland, and Louisa counties, all corroborate the thievishness both of officers and men.  Men in Federal uniform, rare exceptions to the general rule, have said they did not think human nature was capable of such villainy until they witnessed it in the Union army.   This is the saying of the men who are ignorant or infidel of the word which testifies that ‘in the flesh dwells no good thing.’  It is not necessary to go into the sectarian army of the Union to learn this.


                “Lust is the devil, and flesh the devil-nature; and when the truth has found no lodgment in a creature there is nothing in it to control its diabolism.  Hence an army of such sectarian creatures, whose ‘piety’ is the mere blind impulse of excited feeling, is an army of devils.  No wonder one of its officials should style it ‘an army of thieves.’  Only think of thousands of such lawless marauders being let loose against non-combatant old men, women, and children, as was the fact, and you can imagine results without exaggeration.  The fiends spared nothing they could carry off; and what they could not remove, they wantonly destroyed.  The only safety for meat, corn, flour, pickles, preserves, honey, watches, jewellery, raiment, miney, horses, mules, cattle, hogs, sheep, and so forth, was to hide them.


                “In Petersburg, I stayed a night with Captain Silvanus Johnson, who has lost about 700,000 dollars by the collapse of the Confederate Government.  On the entry of the Federals into the city, the mob broke into his mills, and stole all the flour and tobacco stored there.  Mr. Johnson is very friendly to our brethren, and no little interested in the truth.  He re-published copious extracts from Elpis Israel, at a cost of 400 dollars, and sent copies to the clergy, whom he invited to refute the doctrine taught, if they could.  But from those gentlemen he could elicit no response.  He requested me to address his family, which he had assembled, on the first principles of the doctrine of Christ.  There were eleven, including the Federal officer who boards with him.  I spoke to them about two-hours- and-a-half on man’s condition by nature, as a material and moral being; of the means appointed for his cure; of his destiny; of sacrifice in general; of the sacrifice of Jesus in particular; of faith, repentance, immersion, and so forth.  The teaching was sown in the ears of seemingly attentive listeners, but whether any of it will settle into their hearts and spring up thence to eternal life, is beyond my ability to say.  The Federal, who is an Episcopalian, said he had been much edified, and that is was ll new doctrine to him.  He asked several questions for explanation, which I endeavoured to answer.  At the  conclusion of our sitting, he remarked that such a social exhibition of Bible teaching, he thought, wold do more good than many years of such preaching as usually sounded from the pulpits.  Such was his opinion, which seemed to be endorsed by all the rest.


                “In the  afternoon, my friend Silvanus, having obtained the loan of this Federal officer’s horse and buggy, drove me out some 16 miles to brother Joel M. Ragsdale’s.  Brother R. is cultivating one of Mr. Johnson’s plantations.  I never travelled a worse road than this same ‘Cox Road.’  Over fifty miles out from Peterdburg, the distance I travelled upon it with Captain Johnson and afterwards with brother Ragsdale, desolation reigns.  The wagon trains of the armies have made it in places almost impassable. The fences being all destroyed, the road and field are blended into a common wilderness.  Very many of the homesteads are burned, and the chimney stacks only remain to indicate their former position.  Brother R. and J. were twelve hours in going forty miles.  Travel of this kind (at three miles an hour) in an open vehicle and in the hot sun, is very fatiguing; and with so many unburied dead horses and mules, as lie along the road, very sickening.  I was seized with vomiting and diarrhea the second day after leaving Petersburg, which I could attribute to no other cause than the foul smell arising from putrefying animal matter.  I fear there will be much sickness among the people this autumn from this cause.  The dead are but superficially buried, so that much of their effluvia must exhale through the ground.


                “We arrived at brother Ragsdale’s at sunset.  He received us with a southern welcome, and treated us with all the hospitality that could be shown by one whom the Federal marauders had so thoroughly cleaned out as not to leave him ‘enough to feed a mouse.’  He was receiving rations from the military authorities in Petersburg; and Captain Johnson, taking thought of his necessities, and that we might be as little burdensome as possible, took with us some additional supplies from his own stores.  The Captain returned next day, and I remained.


                “At midnight brother R.’s son arrived from the North.  He had sojourned with me some three months in the previous winter, and had been immersed in New York City.  He was now re-untied to his family, and prepared for a common effort to repair their fortunes, broken and prostrated by the troubles of the times.  Five hours after his arrival brother R. and myself started at brother Maddux’s.  We were kindly and cordially welcomed here, as indeed in every place visited, and were glad to find that though the robbers had been here, they had not done as much damage as elsewhere.


                “On Sunday I spoke about three hours to an overflowing house at Good Hope, about eight miles from brother M.’s and some thirty miles from the North Carolina line.  My visit to the neighbourhood was only known a few hours before I arrived.  I found some of the brethren absent.  This ought to be a rare thing, because the only proper place for the faithful is around the Lord’s table on the first day of the week.  But all who pass for saint pro tempore are not faithful, and, therefore, do not act faithfully.  Some day the Lord’s angel will come upon them unexpectedly, as I did, and find them missing , when it will be no excuse that they were at home and engaged in entertaining some newly-hatched and newly-fledged acquaintances of the world.  ‘Cry aloud, spare not; lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression and the house of Jacob their sins.’  In the spirit of this testimony I addressed them, as I did in all the places I visited. They recognised the truth of what was said, and will, I trust, be stirred up to an earnest preparation to meet the Lord, whose coming must assuredly be very near.


                “The people in this country have suffered, but not so severely as in other places.  I heard of surplus meat and corn in the hands of some.  We stayed near the meeting-house with brother Smithson. His family is in deep affliction.  He is himself over three-score years and ten, and enfeebled by disease.  His two sons and son-in-law were forced into the Confederate army and made prisoners.  One of them died in prison; the other son was released, and died on his way home at Captain Johnson’s in Petersburg; the son-in-law also died.  Thus brother Smithson has left upon his hands his son’s wife with eight children, his own daughter with two, beside his own wife and two single daughters.  He has land and crops growing, but, in the present anarchy of lavour, no reliable aid to work and gather them.  What a condition is this to be in!  Surely there are states in this life worse than poverty.  On the morrow we departed, brother Ragsdale for home, and I for Petersburg, where I arrived by train in the evening.  And such railroading I had never experienced in America, where the railroad system is far superior to the British.  The car I rode in was as ‘demoralised’ as its inmates in uniform by whom it was chiefly occupied.  It had once been a respectable passenger car, with plush-cushioned seats with back to lean against, but it had fallen from this estate to the low level of a covered pen, such as Paddy is crowded into when returning from English harvest field to his miserable stye, in Emerald Erin, the first flower of the earth, the bright gem of the sea, with this difference, however, that ‘the finest pisantry of earth,’ stand upon their broganed pillars, while in ‘the United States Military R.R. Cars,’ we sit on hemlock boards fastened on uprights to the floor, defiled with tobacco-spit (technically styled ‘juice’, and ‘ambier’) and other abominations.  Had I known before what sort of place and company I was to be imprisoned in for four or five hours, I should certainly have contrived some other way to get to Petersburg than by the South Side Railroad, so renowned in the history of the war.  After this exceedingly unpleasant travel, I arrived at Captain Johnson’s in the evening, and stayed under the shadow of his hospitality until three o’clock the next day.


                “It was expected from Federal antecedents that when Grant’s fellows got into Petersburg, they would steal everything they could lay their hands on.  To prevent this wholesale appropriation, many sent their valuables to other places.  A lady living opposite to Captain Johnson’s, sent her plate to the Virginia bank in Richmond.  If she had kept it at home it would have been safe; but in the bank vault it was destroyed by the Richmond conflagration.  Captain Johnson was not more fortunate.  He collected the gold watches and jewellery of his family, and sent them by his son-in-law to the care of a professor of a female institute in Farmville, where one of his daughters was at school.  The professor says he hid them, with 2,500 dols. in gold and silver also committed to his care by his brother-in-law, between the floor and ceiling of his house.  The professoress also compelled Miss Johnson to give up her gold watch for safe keeping.  The Federals entered Farmville, but did not steal the treasure hidden by the professor; nevertheless, the watches, jewellery and coin all took to themselves wings and flew away from under the carpet, and between the ceiling and the floor.


                “Thus all my friend’s prudence was circumvented; and by his losses a new admonition was afforded not to set the affections upon things below, but on things above; that when Christ, who is the life of his people shall appear, we also may appear with him in glory.  I reminded him the events of the post four year proved to this generation the vanity of riches; and that when a day of judgment comes they are only an embarrassment.  Men were not sent into life to labour for riches as the end of their being, but to use the world without abusing it, for all necessary purposes, while proving their moral fitness for a higher state of existence.


                “Having returned to Richmond, I departed the day after for King William County.  I spoke to the brethren and the public, on three successive days, on the moral aspects of this ‘day of the Lord’ upon the United States; the righteousness of the visitation, and the necessity of individual and national repentance, lest a worse condition of things come upon them.  Jehovah punished His own people, Israel, with terrible evils because they turned not from their iniquities, nor devoted themselves to understand the truth (Dan. 9:13).  How then is it to be expected that He will spare Gentiles ‘who are not His people,’ and guilty of the same crimes?  Nay; but if these repent not they must all likewise perish.  What is ‘the Church’ in America but a Body-Corporate of Blasphemy, or in Apocalyptic phrase, ‘a Name of Blasphemy.’  It is ignorant of the truth and a blasphemer of the Word, which has no more influence upon its creed and practice than upon Indians; so that the sentence falls upon it in full –‘whoso despiseth the Word shall be destroyed.’  This is the fate awaiting the thing called ‘Church’ in America, fruit which is solely of the flesh in all its abominations.  But the ecclesia is a different institution to the thing called the ‘Church’ in the vernacular of the multitude.  ‘The Church’ is a community of ungodly blasphemers –the world churchified, whose spirituals are ‘the spirituals of the wickedness in the heavenlies,’ who speak the things the world approves.  Not so the ‘ecclesia’.  This is a people called out by the gospel of the kingdom –called out of the world-church, a people who have accepted the invitation to God’s kingdom and glory, and are the pillars and support of the truth.  ‘The ecclesia’ is the light of the world and the salt of the earth; but if the light become dark, and the salt insipid, putrefaction reigns, and judgment must follow.  The brethren in King William are responsible for the truth there, for they have believed and accepted it.  It was for them to say whether they had been faithful to their trust, not for me.  God had visited them and judged them, and reduced them from affluence to comparative poverty.  Would they not turn over a new leaf, and for the future live less for themselves and more unselfishly for the truth, and for the widows and orphans and needy of the household of faith?  On leaving them they confessed their shortcomings with tears.  They thanked me for the honour of my visit, and that I had thought so much of them as to come so long a journey for their especial benefit.  They acknowledged the truth and justice of al I had said; and sent by me some money, bacon, fish and butter to a needy family of two adult sisters and their children in Richmond, with a promise of more.  God’s way of retributing men and nations, in the present state even, is remarkably effective.  He empties the rich, and makes the poor poorer.  This is the nature of the present situation here.  Men’s eyes stood out with fatness, and their hearts swelled with pride.  But all this is changed now.  Yet will not the people turn from their iniquities, and seek to understand the truth.  The words of Isaiah concerning Judah and Jerusalem, though spoken exclusively with reference to them, are highly descriptive of the situation of the South.  Ah, sinful (American ) nation, a  people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers, offspring that are corrupters.  The have turned their backs upon Jehovas, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel to anger, they are apostate.  Why should ye be stricken any more?  Ye will revolt more and more.  The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.  From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in the body politic; but  wounds and bruises and putrefying sores; they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment.  Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire; your land, strangers devour it I your presence, and it is desolate as overthrown by foreigners …. Except he who shall be hosts (Yahweh T’zvaoth) had left a very small remnant (the ecclesia), we should have been as Sodom, and like unto Gomorrah.


                “From King William, I returned to Richmond, where I radiated to Louisa County.  I met several brethren and friends here, from the surrounding country, at the meeting-house, called the Octagon.  A large congregation assembled here to hear what I had to say about the times; for the idea has taken possession of  many, thought not believers, that I can tell them more upon the subject than the preachers in general; well, if I could not, I would never open my mouth again; for I should be like them, a dumb dog that could not bark.  I spoke there two days.  On the first for three hours; and on the second for four.  I conclude that they must have been interested in the indictment found against them; as on the second day they sat so long on the hard benches without restlessness, and after I had finished, sat an hour longer to hear brother Albert Anderson, whose name you may had seen in the Herald.  Well, what would have been the use of me going four hundred miles to preach a sermon of the fashionable length of fifteen or twenty minutes?  No; I had their ears; and as I might never have a chance of speaking to them again, I was determined to hold on to them as long as I saw them attentive, and my own strength was not expended in expounding to them the principles on which God governed the world; and the premises, from which there is good reason to conclude, that the coming of the Ancient of Days must be exceedingly near.”

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