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A Pastor’s Sketches

Category Articles
Date June 1, 2001


A MEMBER of my congregation, a young man who was an apprentice, became attentive to the subject of religion; and, finally, his convictions became very distressing. I had many conversations with him. It all appeared to be in vain. He continued in his distress, without hope, and almost in despair.

One day he said to me, that he believed he never should obtain religion, if he did not quit work and devote his whole time and thought to the subject of his salvation. I told him that that would do him no good – that his duty was to work – that if he would not work he ought not to eat – that neglecting an earthly duty would not lead him to the discharge of a spiritual one. I argued the case with him strenuously on the ground of the Scriptures, ” Six days shalt thou labor.” I insisted upon it, that the Bible gave no such directions about work as he was inclined to follow – that if he expected to do his duty to God, he must not omit doing his duty to the world – that, at most, he ought not to do without working, any longer than he could do without eating, – for, ” if any would not work, neither should he eat’ – and that this want of time was only an excuse of a deceitful heart, to keep him from an instant duty, that is, fleeing to Christ in faith.

But I could not convince him. He said his mind was drawn off from religion by his daily employment; and in his opinion, if he had nothing to do, but to seek God, to read and pray, he should soon find salvation. I told him he would be more likely to find a delusion, and call it salvation. But I could not shake him from his purpose.

He did quit work. He went away over the river, beyond the reach of his companions, got a room alone in an obscure house, and shut himself up with his Bible. He remained there a week. At the end of that time he called himself to give an account, examining his heart, whether he had made any progress. It seemed to him that he had made none at all. He then determined to be more diligent in the study of his Bible, more anxious in prayer, and to compel his obstinate heart to yield. He often attended our religious meetings in the evenings, and then would return to his solitude.

He remained there three weeks; and, to his utter astonishment, he found his religious impressions almost entirely gone. He abandoned his retirement and came back to his work in self-defense. “I found,” said he, “my own heart was the worst companion I could have. If I cannot come to repentance in the workshop I am sure I never can alone. If I had stayed there much longer, I should have cared nothing about religion.” He went to work. His seriousness returned; and in about four weeks he entertained a hope in Christ. He united with the Church, and I knew him for years afterwards. He appeared to be a decided and happy Christian. The human heart will weave an excuse for impenitence out of anything. This want of time is a very common excuse. But it is a falsehood. The advice given to anxious inquirers so frequently in times of revival, to shut themselves up alone till they have found salvation, just misleads them. It makes them think they lack time for religion, while, in fact, they only lack heart. Let us obey the Bible.


As I was leaving the place of a morning prayer meeting, which was attended, in a time of revival, very early in the morning, a young man about sixteen years of age came to me, and asked permission to accompany me home, for “he wanted to talk with me.” “What do you wish to say to me?” said I. “Why, I want you to tell me what to do.” “I have told you again and again. I can tell you nothing different, nothing new. You must repent, if you would be saved. You must give up your self-righteousness and flee to Christ. The law condemns you. The sovereign grace of God only can save you. You must give up your miserable and long-continued attempts to save yourself. You must give God your heart, as he requires, and as I have explained to you already many times.”

“Yes, I know that, but I am so distressed! I cannot live so! I want you to tell me something else.” “I cannot relieve your distress. Christ alone can give you rest. I have nothing else to tell you. I have told you all the truth – all you need to know.” “I thought,” said he, “perhaps you could say something that would help me, if I went to your house.” ” So you have said to me more than once, and I have told you better. God only can help you. You must rely on him.”

” But I should like to talk with you again about my feelings, in your study.” “It would do you no good. You have nothing to say that you have not said before, and I have nothing new to say to you.” . ” Well, may I go home with you?” “No. Go home. Man cannot help you. The whole matter lies betwixt yourself and God.” He turned away, the most downcast creature I ever saw. It seemed as if his last prop was gone. He walked as if his limbs could scarcely carry him.

I had not been at home an hour before he came to tell me that his burden was gone. He said that after I ” had cast him off,” all hope forsook him, and he “had nowhere else to go but to God.” Before he reached his home, about a mile, he had given all into the hands of God, and he felt so much relieved of his burden of sin and fear, that he thought he “would turn right about, and come right back and tell me.” ” But,” said he, ” I do not believe I should have gone to God if you had not cast me off.”

Anxious sinners are often kept from Christ by their reliances on men. A great amount of religious conversation often diminishes their impressions. It tends to blunt the edge of truth. It keeps the heart in a kind of reliance on men. Conversation with judicious Christians and judicious ministers is vastly important for inquiring sinners, but there is a point where it should cease. All that men can do is contained in two things – to make sinners understand God’s truth, and make its impression upon their hearts and consciences as deep as possible. If they aim at anything more, they are just trying to do the work of the Holy Spirit.

Visiting among inquirers one morning, I called on five different individuals, one after another, in the course of a single hour, and in each case was sorry I had called at all; for in each case, after a very few minutes of conversation, I was fully persuaded that God’s truth was deeply felt, and that anything which I could say would tend to diminish the impressions which the Holy Spirit was making on their hearts. I aimed to say just enough not to have them think I did not care for them; and got away as soon as I could, for fear of doing an injury. Every one of these individuals afterwards dated her religious hope from the same day.

No man can preach so powerfully as the Holy Spirit. It is vastly important to know when to stop. The divine writers understood this. They are perfect examples. Their silence is to be imitated, as well as their utterance.


As I was riding through a village, in which I was almost a stranger, I saw a number of young people entering a schoolhouse. The clergyman of the place was standing by the door. He beckoned to me to stop. He told me he had appointed a meeting for inquiry, and was surprised to find so many assembling. He wished me to go in, and have some conversation with those who were there. I asked to be excused, as I was on my way to fulfill an engagement, where I must be punctually at the time. He would not excuse me, I must stop, if “only for five minutes.” He conducted me into a room, where were fifteen young women. ” Say something,” said he, ” to every one of them.” I did, though I was not in the room ten minutes. At the same time, he was conversing with some young men in another apartment. As I passed from one to another, in this rapid conversation, I came to a young lady about twenty years of age, whose countenance indicated great agitation of feeling. Said I, “Do you feel that you are a sinner, unreconciled to God?”

“Yes, I do; I am a lost sinner!”

“Can you save yourself?”

“None but Christ can save me!”

“Why, then, don’t you come to him? He is willing to save you; he loves to save sinners like you.”

“Indeed I do not know! My heart is hard and wicked; and I am afraid I never shall be saved! ”

She burst into tears, which she seemed anxious to suppress, and buried her face in her handkerchief.”How long have you been in such deep trouble of mind?” “For three weeks,” said she, sobbing aloud. “Then, for three weeks you have done nothing but resist the Holy Spirit!” I left her and passed to the next individual. In a few minutes I left the room, and went on my way.

The next week, as I was riding in a carriage alone, a few miles from the same village, I saw before me a young gentleman and a young lady in a carriage, riding in an opposite direction, and I was just meeting them. She appeared to be trying to induce him to stop, and he did not seem to understand what she wanted. She finally took hold of the reins herself, stopped the horse, and motioning to me, I reined up also; and we sat in our carriages, face to face, and close together.

“That was true – that was true, sir,” said she.

“What was true?” said I. For I did not know who she was, though I recognized her face as one that I had seen.

“What you told me at the inquiry meeting that morning,- that I had done nothing for three weeks but resist the Holy Spirit. That expression pierced my very heart. I did not believe it. I thought I was yielding to the Holy Spirit, because I was anxious and had begun to seek the Lord; and I thought you was most cruel to speak to me so. I did not believe you, but I could not get the idea out of my mind. It clung to me night and day, “For three weeks you have done nothing but resist the Holy Spirit.” That expression opened my eyes. And I could not let you pass us here, without stopping to tell you how much I thank you for it. She said this very rapidly, her eyes swimming with tears, and her countenance beaming with joy. Her whole heart seemed to be embarked in what she was saying. By this time I fully recognized her, and recollected my former hurried interview with her. For a few minutes I conversed with her, as we sat in our carriages. She hoped that God had given her a new heart. She was at peace not only, but full of joy. “Oh, I am happy,” said she, “I am so happy. You opened my eyes. You told me just the truth. I thought you was a cruel man. I wanted you to explain yourself, but you would not stop to hear me. As I reflected on what you said, I hated you with all my heart.

But the words would come up, ‘For three weeks you have done nothing but resist the Holy Spirit.’ It seems to me now , that if you had said anything else, or made any explanation as I wanted you to, I should not have been led to Christ. I can never thank you enough for the words which showed me my very heart. I have not sen her since. I learned that a few weeks afterwards she made a public profession of religion. Her pastor told me that he esteemed her highly, as one of the most intelligent and accomplished of his flock. She belonged to a very excellent family. She possessed a discriminating mind; and did she err in thinking that for three weeks she had done nothing but resist the Holy Spirit?


Finding it impossible, on account of the number, to have much conversation with each individual at the inquiry meeting, I at one time abandoned the practice of conversation for a few weeks, and addressed them all together. I found this was unacceptable, and concluded, therefore, to return to the former custom. It was on one of those evenings, when about seventy persons were present, and I was passing rapidly from one to another, that I came to an individual who had never been there before. Said I: “What is the state of your feelings on the subject of your salvation?” “I feel,” said he, “that I have a very wicked heart.” “It is a great deal more wicked than you think it,” said I; and immediately left him, and addressed myself to the next person. I thought no more of it till a few days afterwards, when he came to me with a new song in his mouth. He had found peace with God, as he thought, through faith in Jesus Christ. Said he: “I want to tell you how much good you did me. When I told you that I had a very wicked heart, and you answered that it was a great deal more wicked than I thought, and then said nothing more to me, I thought it a most cruel thing. I expected something different. I thought you would say more, and my soul was wonderfully cast down.

I did not believe you. I was angry at your treatment. I thought you did not care whether I was ever saved or not; and I did not believe you knew anything about my feelings. But the words rung in my ears, ‘A great deal more wicked than you think.’ I could not get rid of them. They were in my mind the last thing when I went to sleep, and the first when I woke. And then I would be vexed at you for not saying something else. But that was the thing which drove me to Christ. I now know it was just what I needed. I thought, when I went to that meeting, my convictions were very deep. But I have found out they were very slight. You hit my case exactly. If you had talked to me, my burden would have been diminished. But you fastened one idea on my mind. You drove the arrow deeper, when I expected you to do just the contrary; and I could find no relief till I gave up all into the hands of Christ. I know you read my heart exactly.” After some few minutes’ conversation with him, he said to me, “I want to ask you a question. I have been thinking of it a great deal, and I cannot conceive how you know what to say to each one, where there are so many. We have been talking about it some of us, and we cannot understand how it is that you can know our thoughts and feelings, when nobody has told you. How can you know what to say to one after another, when there are so many, and some of them you have never seen before, and they say so little to you?”

“I have only one rule on that subject,” said I. “I aim to conspire with the Holy Spirit. If I perceive any one truth has impressed the mind, I aim to make its impression deeper; because the Holy Spirit has already made that impression, and I would not diminish it by leading the mind off to something else. If I perceive any error in the individual’s mind, I aim to remove it; for I know that the error is of sin, and not of the Holy Spirit.”

“But,” said he, “our impressions are so different.” “No matter. They are of the Holy Spirit if truth has made them; and he can choose the kind of truth which is appropriate to any sinner, better than I can. I just aim to conspire with the Holy Spirit.” Said he, “I am confident if you had said much to me, or anything, to turn my mind away from that one thing, it would have done me hurt. You have no idea how much you increased my trouble that night. I somehow wanted you to lighten my burden, – you made it heavier. Then I was soon led to see that none but God could help me. I had partly begun to think my heart was improving. I found out the contrary, and turned to God in despair. He gave me peace, through Jesus Christ.”


While God was pouring out his Spirit upon the congregation to which I ministered, and upon many other places around us, two individuals belonging to my parish went to a neighboring town to attend a “camp meeting.” One of them was a young man of about twenty years of age, whose mother and sisters were members of the Church. The other was a man of about twenty-six years, whose wife and wife’s sister were also communicants with us. Both of these men returned from that meeting professed converts to Christ. They had gone to it, as they told me, without any serious impressions, impelled by mere curiosity. While there, they became very much affected; so much so, that one or both of them fell to the ground, and remained prostrate for an hour, unable to stand. They earnestly besought the people to pray for them, and prayed for themselves. Their feelings became entirely changed. Instead of grief and fear, they were filled with joy and delight. And in this joyful frame of mind they returned home, having been absent only two or three days.

I soon visited them both, and conversed with them freely. At my first interview I had great confidence in their conversion. They seemed to me to be renewed men, so far as I could judge from their exercises of mind. They appeared humble, solemn, grateful, and happy. In future conversations with them, my mind was led to some distrust of the reality of their conversion. They did not seem to me to have an experimental knowledge of the truth, to such an extent as I believed a regenerated sinner would have. I could get no satisfactory answers when I asked.”What made you fall? How did you feel? What were you thinking of? What made you afterwards so happy? What makes you so happy now? What makes you think God has given you a new heart? What makes you think you will not return to the world and love it as well as ever?” They had ready answers to all such questions, but they did not seem to me to be right answers.

They appeared to have no clear and full ideas of the exceeding sinfulness of the heart, of remaining sin, or the danger of self-delusion. And yet these men were prayerful, thoughtful, serious, and happy. They studied their Bibles, forsook their old companions, and appeared to value and relish all the appointed means of grace. In this way of life they continued for months, I took pains to see and converse with them often; and though they did not appear to me to blend very happily in feeling with other young Christians, or to enjoy our religious services as if they were quite satisfied, yet my mind pologized for them, on the ground of the peculiar way in which their religion commenced. And with the exception of their imperfect views and feelings about the great doctrines of religion, I saw nothing in either of them to make me think them unfit for connection with the Church.

Some months after their professed conversion, I mentioned to them, separately, the subject of making a public profession of their faith. Each appeared to think this his duty, but each of them was rather reserved. I could not very definitely ascertain their feelings, though I aimed carefully and kindly, and repeatedly to do so. One season of communion after another passed by, and neither of them united with the Church. Their particular friends, who had made such frequent mention of their conversion, as if it were more worthy of mention than the conversion of scores of sinners around them, and who had so much rejoiced in their conversion, and had been so confident of its reality, began to be very silent about them. I found that their confidence in them was shaken, Within a year from the time when they professed to have turned to Christ, the younger man had become entirely careless of religion; and, so far as I know, continues so to this day. The other was a little more steadfast. But within three years he had become an intemperate man, and a shame and a torment to his family; and the last I heard of him, he was a drunkard! He had ceased to attend divine worship on the Sabbath; family prayer was abandoned; his children were neglected; and his broken- hearted wife, with prayer for him still on her lips, but almost without hope that God would hear, was fast bending downward towards the grave, the only remaining spot of an earthly rest!

Mere excitements of mind on the subject of religion, however powerful, unless they arise from the known truth of God, are never safe. Excitement, however sudden or great, is not to be feared or deprecated, if it is originated simply by the truth, and will be guided by the truth. All other excitements are pernicious. It is easy to produce them, but their consequences are sad. A true history of spurious revivals would be one of the most melancholy books ever written. The great leading doctrines of Christianity are the truths which the Holy Spirit employs when he regenerates souls. If young converts are really ignorant on such points, not having experimentally learnt them, they are only converts to error and deception. It is not to be expected, perhaps not to be desired, that young Christians should understand doctrines scholastically, or theologically, or metaphysically; but if they are Christians indeed, it is probable that their mind will be substantially right on such doctrines as human sinfulness, divine sovereignty, atonement, justification by faith in Jesus Christ, regeneration by the special power of the Holy Spirit, and the constant need of divine aid.

God’s children all have the same image, and same superscription – the family mark. Heaven has but one mould. “Beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, we are changed into the same image.”

The above are taken from “A Pastor’s Sketches” by Ichabod Spencer soon to be published by Solid Ground Books. Ichabod Spencer was a very close friend of Gardiner Spring. In fact, Spring preached his funeral sermon with thousands in attendance, and thousands unable to enter the church. When Spring came to the close of the sermon and was struck with the finality of Spencer’s death (he was just 57 at the time of his death) he came undone. Ichabod Spencer left behind him a Life and Sermons, as well as his volume “Sacramental Discourses” in which Spring wrote the Preface. In that Preface he said, “The productions, already in print, from the pen of the late Dr. Spencer, are a sufficient earnest of the value of the present volume. All who knew and loved him will readily recognize him in this hallowed dress. They will remember how he spake, and prayed, and felt; and, if we mistake not, they will be delightful memories… His character as a preacher and as a pastor was an uncommon union of qualities, – vigorous in his thoughts, tender in his emotions, faithful and courageous in his exhibition of God’s truth, and combining poetic beauty with reasoning powers of a higher order.”

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