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Experiences of a Backwoods Preacher
Chapter VI. Revival Meetings

IN writing on the subject of revivals I shall give more attention to similarity and contrast than to chronological order. Any one at all conversant with evangelistic work, will bear testimony to the statement that every revival of religion has some peculiarity about it that gives it a sort of individuality of its own. While in all genuine revivals there is a general aspect of unity, still there is a specific diversity in the case of each that makes it differ from all others of its kind. This may arise from a variety of causes. The person who conducts the services may adopt methods that will give a peculiar aspect to the work; or the habits and temperaments of the people may, and no doubt they do, affect the work both as regards its magnitude and character. Again, local circumstances and temporary conditions have a decided influence on this kind of work. And the season of the year, the state of the roads, and the severity or mildness of the weather all have more or less to do with the success or failure of revival efforts. Especially is this the case at the beginning of such meetings. Illustrations will be furnished in this chapter by giving instances that have come under my own observation in connection with services held by myself and others.

I have been acquainted with special services from early life. When but a young man I attended the first protracted meetings that were ever held in the township of Erin. They were held in a private house that belonged to a man named Nathaniel Russell, whose home was both a dwelling-house and meeting-house for a number of years. The results of these meetings held in that little frame house are felt and seen in that locality till the present day, though almost fifty years have passed away since then. Since that time I have been permitted to attend many of these blessed means of grace in different places. But I shall confine myself to my own experiences since I entered the ministry.

My first effort in revival work was a desperate struggle. It seems to me now as I look back to that effort, that it was the Waterloo of my life and .work as a minister. If that first effort had been a failure, as for three long and dreary weeks it threatened to be, what would have been my course I cannot tell; very likely I should have become disheartened and have gone no further. And what then ? Between six and seven hundred souls converted since then, in meetings that I have conducted, would have been left in their sins, so far as I am concerned, and I should have missed the opportunity of leading them to Jesus, and worse than all, many of them might have died in their sins and been lost for ever.

It was on my first circuit. I had been there from June till January. The people were kind, but the state of the Church was one of lamentable coldness and indifference. The members were respectable, and, in worldly things, enterprising and prosperous ; but they neither realized their duty nor appreciated their privileges as Christians. When I spoke to some of them about holding some revival services, they talked very discouragingly about it. In fact they said it would be of no use. And besides, it would bring us into disgrace among the Church of England people and the Presbyterians. “However,” they said, “if you think it advisable, you can try it for a week or two.”

With many misgivings I made an announcement to commence revival meetings in the old log church on the sixth line of Garafraxa. The people turned out extremely well, and all seemed quite willing to let the preacher have his way. But for three weeks not the first indication of revival could be seen in that congregation. Not one hearty amen was heard in all that time. There were three or four old brethren that would offer prayer, but their prayers were so cold that they seemed almost to glisten with frostiness. Who has not fairly shivered under such prayer at some time or other?

Well, during all this time the meeting dragged itself along despite a frigid membership and a weak, timid preacher. During these weeks I would preach and exhort and sing in the church; and at home I would lay awake at night, and think and pray and sometimes weep, until I got into an agony of soul for the conversion of the unsaved part of my congregation.

It was on the Friday night of the third week of the meetings. The house was filled with an orderly audience. As I went up the old pulpit stairs I seemed to catch an inspiration. I felt confident of success. Before reading my text that night, I told the people that one of three things would be done. “We must have a revival, or these meetings will be kept going till Conference, or I shall wear myself out and become a useless thing on your hands. So,” said I, “you may as well wake up and get to work in right good earnest. I mean just what I say.”

I think I preached that night as I had never done before, and there was an influence at work among the people that could hardly be resisted. When I commenced the prayer-meeting and repeated the invitation that had so often been given in vain, there was a general rushing toward the penitent bench, there being no altar in the church. The power of God was wonderfully manifested in the conviction of sinners and in quickening and energizing believers. We continued the meetings for three weeks longer, and between twenty and thirty were converted and united with the Church.

Cotton’s Appointment.

On the tenth line of Garafaxa was the scene of my next revival. We had an appointment in a school-house here. The settlers were nearly all of one nationality. They were from the North of Ireland, and adherents of the Anglican Church. They had no religious services, only what were furnished them by the Methodists. They were a wild, thoughtless and daring lot of men. They were called by the inhabitants around them, “tenth line blazers.” In fact, their reputation for recklessness spread far beyond the limits of their own settlement. But for all this, a more warmhearted and generous class of men could not be found so long as they avoided the whiskey and did not get out of temper.

When I told one of our men on the sixth line that I was intending to try the tenth line with revival services, he said that to do anything with them a man would need to have strong faith and a ready tongue. “But,” said he, “they will not abuse you whether they agree with your methods or not. If you can get William Cotton you will succeed with the rest, as he is a sort of king; among; them.”

When I told the people at the schoolhouse that I was intending to start meetings there, they were completely taken by surprise. I told them that I wanted them to come every night for two weeks, and then if they wished it I would close up. They readily consented to this, and we concluded to commence the next night. After I came out of the house, two women who had once been Methodists said to me, “We are glad that you are going to try to do something for this place, for it is a fact that we are all going to the bad as fast as whiskey and bad surroundings can send us. We will do what we can to help you.” I said to them, “You can give yourselves fully to the Lord and do what you can for others.” They both promised that they would, and they faithfully kept their promise.

On Monday evening the schoolhouse was full, and we had the best of order. Tuesday evening was the same, only the interest seemed to be increasing. Wednesday evening the house was crowded. After talking to the people and offering prayer, I made arrangements to invite penitents forward. I think I never had a greater task to perform than I had that night, to place a penitent bench and explain to the people what it was for, and what I wanted them to do. But few of the audience had ever seen anything like this before, and it was a great novelty to them.

As I looked into the faces before me, I could see evidence of wonder and bewilderment, and anxiety and expectancy, but I could see no trace of anger. That night four married women came forward. Two of them were the women that had promised to do what they could ; the other two were Mrs. Cotton and Mrs. Smith. This gave the meeting a good start, and I was much encouraged. The next night a number more came forward, and among them was William Cotton, the man who had been represented to me as “king of the tenth line blazers.”

From that night the work went on with increasing power. In three weeks some sixty claimed to be converted, and united with the Church; and the most of them gave proof of the genuineness of their profession by a consistent walk and conversation. The neighbourhood was entirely changed in its habits and pursuits. During the progress of the work I had been somewhat worried about a leader to take charge of these new beginners. None of them had ever had any experience in Church work. But before the meeting closed the Lord provided a very efficient leader in the person of John Cowan, a man who just then came to live in that locality. He was connected with some of these people and acquainted with all of them. He had been a Methodist from his boyhood and a class-leader for some length of time. We got him to take charge of the newly formed class. He was an excellent leader, and he proved to be a great blessing to that locality for years after.

John Conn’s House.

During my second year on the Garafraxa Circuit a man named John Conn attended a camp-meeting at Orangeville and got converted. He lived on the eighth line. As soon as he got done praising the Lord for his salvation, he came to me on the camp-ground and said, “Now, mister, I am going to serve the Lord, and I want you to come and hold a revival meeting in my new house before the partitions are put up.” I told him I would gladly do so. We arranged to commence as soon as the hurry of harvest would be over.

The people in this neighbourhood were mostly of the same race and religion as those on the tenth line. Not more than two or three of them professed to be converted or made any attempt to live right. The services were commenced at the time appointed. The tenth line people came in large numbers to assist in the work. The Lord was with us, so that in three weeks nearly every grown-up person in the settlement claimed to be converted. We formed a class here and appointed John Conn as a provisional leader, with the understanding that John Cowan, who was brother to Conn’s wife, should take oversight for a while until there should be a leader developed from among themselves. Some of the best men that I have known among: our worthy laymen grew out of the little class that used to meet in that little private house.

Esson’s Schoolhouse.

At Esson’s schoolhouse we had an appointment, but we had no society. The congregation was a mixture both nationally and religiously. Scotch, Irish, English and Canadians were all represented here ; and the Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches each had adherents in the audience that met on Sabbath for religious worship in the somewhat commodious schoolroom. After much consideration and some misgivings, I resolved to try this place with a series of meetings. The trustees readily consented. The teacher at that time was a fine-spirited Englishman, and at once consented to assist in the singing and in looking after the fire and light. The people generally seemed to fall in with the idea of having a revival meeting. They were acquainted with many of the converts both at Cotton’s and Conn’s.

We commenced the services in the winter, when there was good sleighing, so that people could come from all parts of the circuit. The house would be crowded every night, and the best of order prevailed throughout the entire series. We kept at work for six weeks—every evening but Saturday nights—without one conversion of either old or young. Everybody was disappointed, and I was nearly heartbroken. Such a complete failure I had never seen. What was the cause of such a signal defeat ? These questions frequently forced themselves upon my attention, but no answer could be given that seemed to be a satisfactory one. But I found out, on examining inyself closely, that I needed just such a lesson. There are people to whom success is more dangerous than opposition, and 1 expect I am one of them. My former success had nearly spoiled me, for 1 had got to thinking that I was specially designed for evangelistic work. But this led me to see what a poor, useless thing 1 was. And another thing that I learned was this, that it is possible to become so fully absorbed for the salvation of others that you lose your own enjoyment. I think that I never came nearer backsliding in heart than at this time. And still another thing I learned, viz., that it is possible to be actuated by motives that we think are entirely pure, when in fact our motives are mixed. My ruling motive was to do the Lord’s work in the way that would most bring glory to Him ; but subordinate to this, and almost hidden behind it, I found also a desire to do it in such a way as to bring praise to myself.

I stayed at home and rested one week, and then I resolved to try again, and at once started again in the old log church, where I had the hard fight the year before. The work here commenced to move on from the first night, and this meeting furnished a complete contrast to the one at Esson’s schoolhouse. On the third night of these services I passed through an experience that was new to me, and it seemed to shed some light on the subject of my failure in my last efforts. While the prayer-meeting was going on, an impression was made on my mind just as distinctly as if an audible voice had addressed me. I was startled by its suddenness and vividness. The impression put into words was simply this, “Would you be willing to labour here for six weeks without results, as you did at the last place you tried, if God should will it to be so?” After a few moments of deep and prayerful thought, I said, “Yes, Lord, if it be Thy will that I must work on all my life from this night until I die and never see another soul converted, I am ready to do so. Anything that will honour and glorify Thee shall satisfy me.” Here I discovered that I had been too anxious about results. The question of success or failure had been more to me than an entire consecration to God as an essential qualification for eminent usefulness. As soon as this decision was made, a flood of glory swept over my soul, and I was unutterably happy.

From that night a mighty impulse was given to the work. The whole community seemed to be moved. The people came in from all directions. Some of them came ten or a dozen miles. The moon was in its grandeur, and the sleighing all that could be desired. Night after night the old church was packed with earnest listeners and happy worshippers. People were asking each other where this thing was going to end. Numbers had been brought into the new life, and many more were earnestly seeking for it. But how often men make mistakes in drawing their conclusions from appearances! While the people and their preacher were rejoicing together over the prospects of a sweeping revival such as our fathers had told of in their day, there came a change as sudden as it was unexpected. A strong south wind and rain set in, and in two days the snow was all gone and the roads became impassable or nearly so, and our meeting had to be closed, or rather it closed itself, before it was two weeks old.

Before dismissing this subject, I will note just two instances in connection with this meeting that I can never forget. One night during the prayer-meeting, I was standing on one of the seats trying to exhort sinners to repent. Presently, I saw a man rise up in the audience, and then another and another, until nine strong men all at once were crowding their way to the altar and weeping over their sins. Some of these men are still working in the Church. Others of them have gone to mingle in the joys of the Church triumphant.

An Old Sinner Saved.

The other instance that I wish to mention, is the case of an old man by the name of Trouten. He had been a Christian in his youth in Ireland ; but he had been a backslider for half a century, and he had gone very far in the ways of sin. His daughter, a very fine young lady, had been converted at the meetings in Cotton’s schoolhouse while she was visiting friends in that neighbourhood the year before. Through her the old man was influenced to come to the meetings. He was one of the nine men spoken of above. On the second night after he came forward in the prayer-meeting, we stood up to sing, and while we were singing the verse of one of our good old hymns, that begins with:

“But drops of grief can ne’er repay,
The debt of love we owe,”

the old gray-headed wanderer regained his long-lost faith, and hope, and joy, and love. He made the old house echo, while with his clear, ringing, manly voice he praised the Lord for the mercies that had followed him in all his sinful ways, and that now restored him to the blessed hope of the gospel. This old man lived a useful, happy life for a number of years after this.

A Whole Family Converted.

Time and distance are not essential qualities in the narration of isolated facts, and therefore I shall pass them by in this instance.

I was holding a series of meetings in the village of Trowbridge, in the township of Elma. The audience room was a little schoolhouse. The place was crowded every night. There was a very strong society of Wesleyan Methodists, and a small society of Episcopal Methodists. The former had a snug little frame church, and the latter worshipped in the schoolhouse. The two societies were on good terms, and ready to help each other in their work.

Our meetings had been going on about a week, and there had been some good done; but there seemed to be a little dulness and things were going rather slowly.

Perhaps the overcrowded state of the audience had a good deal to do with this. But one night a woman came forward to seek the Lord. She was very much in earnest, and was a woman of any amount of energy, and of more than average intelligence; she soon found peace, and was made very happy. After giving vent to her gladness of heart in words of praise to the sinner’s Friend, the feelings of her rejoicing soul ran out after others. She arose to her feet, and looking around over the audience, she said, as if speaking to herself, yet loud enough to be heard all through the room, “Where is Archy ? ” Now, Archy was her husband, who sat away in a corner of the house, and was wondering what had come over his wife. Presently, the object of her search was seen by the newly converted woman. She made her way to him, it seemed to me with the agility of a squirrel, and taking him by the hand, said, “Come, Archy, let us start together to serve the Lord.” With the docility of a child, he rose and followed her; and in less than ten minutes he too was praising the Lord for his salvation.

Again, the intrepid little woman stood on her feet, and this time the question was, “Where is Ben?” He was her brother who was boarding with her, and teaching the village school. In a few moments she had “Ben” kneeling at the penitent bench, and Archy and others praying for him, and in a little while he too was made happy.

Her next utterance was, “Now, I must have William.” This was another one of her brothers, who was also boarding at her house, and attending his brother’s school. William was hunted up, and he too was led forward by this energetic sister, and like the rest was soon rejoicing in a sense of pardon. The whole household went home in a happier frame of mind than they had ever enjoyed before.

A Bigoted Young Preacher.

At a place that shall be nameless at present, there was an occurrence that has caused many feelings of sadness to arise in my mind, as memory has carried my thoughts back to the time and place.

In one of the backwoods villages I had an appointment and a small society. We held our meetings in the schoolhouse. The country was new, the people were mostly in sympathy with Methodism in some one of its old-time divisions. The Wesleyans had a good church and a large society in the village. The congregations were made up of the villagers and their neighbours from the surrounding settlement.

The superintendent of the circuit at the time was a true Christian gentleman; but of the junior preacher I can only say that his Christianity seemed to be largely composed of self-importance and sectarian bigotry.

Revival meetings had been going on in the church for three or four weeks with fair success. They had been closed or adjourned on the Friday night before my appointment in tne schoolhouse. When I came to the place I found the house already full, and the people still coming. I commenced the services. When I was about to announce the second hymn one of the Wesleyan leaders came up to me and said, “There are more people outside than there are inside and they want to come in, but there is no room for them. We had intended to hold a prayer-meeting in the church, and it is lighted up. You had better go into the church and hold your meeting.” As we were going into the door, the class-leader said to me, “I want you to conduct a prayer-meeting after preaching.” My text was, “The simple pass on and are punished.” I tried to illustrate the subject by showing how sinners pass on from one period of life to another, from one degree of sin to another, from one means of grace to another, and from one interposition of Divine Providence to another. I spoke of the calls of mercy when God speaks to men with a voice more soft and tender than a mother’s lullaby. But men pass on. Then again, He speaks to them in tones more terrible than the crashing thunder. But still men pass on, until mercy no longer pleads, and forbearance no longer stays the lifted hand of Justice. Then the blow descends and the long delayed punishment comes as in a whirlwind of destruction.

At the close of the address an invitation was given to all who did not wish to pass on in sin any longer,to come to the altar. In a short time the altar was crowded from end to end with weeping, praying penitents. The power of the Highest seemed to rest on the entire assembly and tin; glory of the Shechina seemed to lill the house. Between thirty and forty came forward that night to seek the Lord.

Before the close of the meeting the leading officials said to me, “Our ministers are away from home. One is at the District Meeting, and the other is visiting at the farthest point of the circuit. Can you come and help us till they come home?” I told them I would do as they wished, and announced for meeting on the next night. On Monday night the house was full again, and there were a number of conversions. During the evening the junior preacher came home, and in passing the church he heard the noise and looked in at the door. But instead of coming in he went off to his boarding place in a pet. After he found out how it came about that I was working in connection with his people, he wrote a very tart and stinging letter to the old class-leader who was the chief offender.

Next night when I came I found the house full and a stranger in the pulpit. A young man who was canvassing in the neighbourhood, and who was a local preacher, had been invited, and had consented to preach. The old leader was not there, and the other officials seemed to be confused and afraid to act. Everybody felt that something was wrong. Only a few knew what it was. The young man in the pulpit did the best he could, but a bishop could not have preached successfully to that congregation. People were asking one another, “How is it that the man who was invited to lead the meetings is pushed aside, and an entire stranger put in the place?” The tide of bad feeling rose higher and higher as the discourse went on. One after another left the house. By the time the sermon was through, nearly half of the congregation were outside; some were angry and others grieved at what had taken place. It came out afterwards that the junior preacher had that day been around among the officials, and by threats and intimidations had caused them to take the course they did. After some discussion it was decided to go on with the meeting as if nothing had happened. But it was no use. The work was killed as effectually as fire is put out by water. It was chilled to death by the cold wet blanket of bigotry thrown over it by the hand of a young clerical compound of self-importance and sectarian exclusiveness.

The young man in question had a fine personal appearance, a very high order of intellect, a fair education, and he was a fluent and eloquent speaker. But his want of Christian courtesy and brotherly kindness disqualified him to a great extent for the work of a successful minister. He remained in the itinerant ranks for a few years, and then, I think, went to the Pacific coast.

But before he left the country, and two years after the event above described, I met him again, and under entirely different circumstances.

During my second term on the Garafraxa Circuit we had a camp-meeting. The Wesleyan minister on the adjoining circuit, and whose work overlapped mine, was invited to attend the meetings and help us as he could. He was a fine, genial, warm-hearted man, but circumstances forbade his attending in person, so he did the next best thing—he sent his colleague, who was no other than the peppery young gentleman who had shown so much bitterness towards me and my work. When he came on the camp-ground I received him as courteously as I knew how and treated him as kindly as I could. I introduced him to our people and to the ministers present. I also went to the tent-holders and instructed them to give special attention to Mr. McR., and make him feel at home as much as possible while he stayed with us. They did as I told them. He was made welcome to their tents and their tables.

He accepted an invitation to preach. The people were delighted with the sermon. In the pulpit he was clear, logical, and forcible. But he was not of much use to lead a prayer-meeting. But in this he was by no means singular.

Things went on smoothly for a day or two. Then he began to make disparaging remarks to the people about the preachers and their work. This got to the ears of the preachers. There were a couple of high-strung men among them, and the feeling of displeasure began to run high, and there was some danger of an explosion among the clerics. My attention was called to the matter by the late William Woodward, who was the presiding elder at the time. He was a man of gentle spirit and calm deportment. I persuaded Mr. Woodward to take the young critic in hand, and advise him to cease his uncalled-for and ill-timed strictures.

The two went aside, inviting me to go with them.

They talked the matter over in a friendly way, after which the young man thanked Mr. Woodward for his fatherly admonitions ; he also apologized for his unkind and unbrotherly sayings. He soon after bid us goodbye and went away, and I never saw him again.

The unification of our common Methodism has removed the cause of a great deal of the friction that so frequently made things unpleasant in its divided state. This is cause of thankfulness at least.

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