Brethren Archive

The Actor's Conversion

by E. H. Bennett


   

Part I

SEVERAL years ago I saw a crowd of people entering a large music hall in one of our sea-port towns. I listened to the sound proceeding from within, and found that it was not the usual class of music sung in such places to entertain those who are "lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God," but bright, happy strains of Christian praise. I followed them into the place, and found boxes, galleries, and pit filled with a motley audience, whose attention was concentrated upon an old man speaking from the stage.

In a moment one felt struck with the intense earnestness of his language and demeanour. Life, Death, and Judgment appeared to him terrible realities. Yet he was no mere ranting enthusiast, possessing zeal without knowledge, or uttering words without power; but there was an unction in his speech, and richness in his language, that commanded the attention of his hearers; who could not fail to be struck also with those furrowed lines on the brow of the speaker, which told their tale of suffering, and a wandering, wayward life, in the far off country, where prodigals spend their substance in riotous living, when they strike for independence of God. Although this scene was witnessed many years ago, I shall never forget the impression received in the music hall that evening, although I have often heard the old man since, telling out from his full heart, "the old, old story, of Jesus and His love."  A previous speaker having referred to God's wondrous providential dealings with him, to bring his stubborn will into subjection to the gospel; the old man followed him, in language similar to this:—

"It is not often that I feel led by God's Spirit to speak of the follies of my past life, when I did what seemed right in my own eyes, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and mind, and rioting in sinful pleasure. But my soul is stirred up by what our brother has said, to testify to 'the exceeding riches of His grace,' in having snatched me as a brand from the eternal burning. I only speak of myself, to magnify Him, whose kindness and love have been so manifestly shown, in sending Jesus to die for the ungodly (Rom. v. 6). My past history is more chequered than most of yours, and some of its pages are so blurred and blotted that I must of necessity pass them over. A person walking through the streets of Liverpool many years ago, might have noticed a lad of only fourteen summers, whose careless defiant air told its own tale of self-will, and rebellion from his parents' authority; and would lead the observer to conclude that he had sunk deeper in the mire of sin than boys of that age generally. That lad was the speaker you are listening to; and now I must tell my own story:

"It was not parental neglect that caused me to forsake the paths of virtue and morality, and plunge into dissipation and vice. The watchful care of a pious mother had early taught me the things that belonged to my peace. At her feet, I had learned to lisp the name of Jesus, and sing hymns of 'the better land.' She used to read to me out of her well-worn Bible, about Samuel and David, and the prophets of old; and placing her hand upon my head, she would talk kindly to me about Him who, though born in a manger, was a Prince and a Saviour, and visited this sinful world to bring peace and glad tidings, and purchase for all men the forgiveness of their sins. She sowed the incorruptible seed of God's Word in my youthful mind; but the thorns of bad society choked it, so that for many years it bore no fruit. I broke away early from every restraint, and launched out into the stream of iniquity and sin. The current bore me rapidly on, and the fascinations of sinful pleasure blinded my eyes to all danger. I thought of no future, and thus: Careless of my soul immortal; Heeding not the call of God, I hastened on in the broad road leading to destruction. From then up to my 30th year of age, I revelled in all the gaiety of theatrical life, and my history consisted only of one dark catalogue of sin, too black to be dwelt upon; and if I ever do refer to those days, it is only to say, in the words of the Apostle, 'What fruit have I in those things whereof I am now ashamed, for the end of those things is death?' And, oh! as I sometimes look back upon those years of misspent life—a vast gap in that life's existence—and see the fire from which, by God's mercy, I have been snatched, my soul is bowed in adoration of 'the exceeding riches of God's grace,' that saved such a degraded sinner, and treated me like Joshua in Zech. iii. 3. Here we see a man clothed with filthy garments—showing what the sinner is in God's sight, under the power of Satan, his adversary. Now, in this state of helplessness and despair, the representative sinner stands silent, admitting his guilt and corruption; whereupon God's grace delivers him, so that, in ver. 4, the filthy garments are taken away, and a fair mitre is put upon his head. Thus has God in mercy raised me up, and made me what I am.

"My first awakening was at about the age of 30, in rather a striking manner. At the time, I was manager of my own theatre in the town of Geelong, Australia. Among the actors was a young man, born in Sydney, whose father had been in America, and had imbibed the teachings of Thomas Paine. This young man was one day mocking at the book called the Bible, and, quoting from the infidel text-book, was leading the minds of others to mock the Bible as an invention of crafty priests. They all seemed to agree with the infidel. But this time, I was moved by a higher power to rebuke those men. I had always felt a reverence and awe for that sacred book, which my mother had taught me to read at her knee; and with her it was no dead formality of a religious exercise; no mere theoretical knowledge of the letter of God's word; but Christianity with her was vital godliness, a living practical reality of daily life, manifesting the truth of God, just as He meant it to be with all His children. She lived out the grand principles of God's word; and when the sceptics' arguments were strong against the authenticity of the Scriptures, I could never refute that 'living epistle' which had consistently appeared before me in the years of my childhood. Oh! that Christian mothers and fathers would apply these truths to their hearts, and shine for Jesus in this dark world; 'commanding their children after them,' like Abraham; and 'training them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,' as Eph. vi. 4 exhorts them to do. It is true that the long course of sin I had pursued weakened its influence for good; but the early teaching of my mother was not quite obliterated, so that, when they abused her Bible, I turned fiercely upon them and said—'The Bible, sirs, is a book wrapped in a mystery beyond our comprehension.'

"We separated, they to their beds, but myself to the silent bush; for home thoughts of childhood had now filled my mind. I remember well that beautiful starlight night. Everything in nature around me possessed a charm peculiar to those tropical climes. Language fails to describe the beauty of such a landscape and sea-view as met my gaze that night, when God spoke to my hardened soul. As I lifted my eyes above, and saw the full moon shedding upon me its soft mellow light; and the clustering stars in the firmament above, which seemed to fix their tiny eyes upon me—the weary prodigal; a voice within seemed to enquire, 'Who made those planets you gaze upon? and what power organised and sustains all the sublime mechanism of the universe?' The tiniest blade of grass at my feet seemed to speak of an infinite Creator, and to defy the greatest human philosopher to make such a thing. The trees and plants around me seemed silently to ask, 'What, think you it is, which causes our branches to blossom and bear fruit in their season, and to supply the varied wants of mankind? What sends the rain and sunshine in their season, to promote our growth, and maintain our life?' Everything thus in nature seemed to ask for investigation, and convince me of the folly of doubting the existence of a supreme being. Occupied with these thoughts, I reached the beach, and paused again to admire the beauty of the scene. Before me was stretched the beautiful bay of Geelong, looking like a mirror in the silvery light. The waves rolled in over the strand, and fell in spray at my feet, so that a conviction entered my soul that God ruled supreme ever all His creation. But this was not the knowledge of the only true God, revealed to poor sinners through Jesus Christ our Lord, and which brings eternal life to every weary and heavy-laden soul that looks to Him, and trusts in Him, by simple faith. But it was one of those marvellous links in the chain of God's providence, that turned my feet from sin to Himself.

"At a late hour that night, I returned to the hotel, and retired to bed, longing for rest I could not find. Memories of home came thronging around me, as I turned from side to side on my restless pillow. Bitter recollections of all my mis-doings in the past were rushing through my mind with intense and burning imagery, and drove me almost to distraction. I thought of the kind mother and friends I had left far away on the shores of my native land; of the sinful pleasures I had indulged in, and for the gratification of which I had sacrificed all that was noble and good. At last I fell into a slumber, but 'God speaks once, yea twice; yet man perceiveth it not. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed. Then He openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction; that He may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man. Yea, He keepeth back his soul from the pit, and his life from perishing by the sword' (Job xxxiii. 14)."

Part II. The Dream.

SEATED upon a rostrum as an actor, in the kingly robes of Richard III. The scene: St. James' Street, Liverpool. My brother Isaac, who was taken away by the cholera which raged in Liverpool during the year 1832, seemed to be again alive, and dressed as 'Pan,' in heathen mythology as the 'god of Shepherds,' with a crook in his hand, and clothed in rags. He stood by St. James' Church-yard, myself seated upon the opposite side. He was instructing me in the mysteries of nature, showing that every complete thing, whether animal or vegetable, was, in its own sphere, a world in itself, with other insect worlds feeding upon it; and that everything was feeding upon everything, and as everything came out from the earth, so the earth itself was feeding upon all her offspring. I then asked him what was the soul of man. He showed me a man whose body fell and crumbled to dust, but the soul remained standing, an immortal thing, with all the parts possessing features as with the body, but nothing material could hurt or move it: like a pillar of smoke—you might pass a sword through the figure, but it could not touch it. Many other things where shown at an open grave, and intimations given of a life of faith, and a life of suffering for Christ and truth's sake. I then desired to see mother, and whether in the body or out of the body, I cannot tell, we were caught up, and the happiness of heaven would be impossible to describe. My mother was in the glory. I wanted to stay with her, but another curtain was drawn, and blackness of darkness was there. Myriads of lost souls writhing in agony could see the joy of the saved, but had lost that life; indescribable torment was their portion; they knew what they had lost, and eternally struggling to get the life back was hopeless despair. One of these appeared to swim in liquid agony toward me, and with intensified horror depicted upon the countenance of that lost soul, I awoke bathed in perspiration and affright.  For some time this dream had a restraining influence upon me, and kept me from outward sin; but I found no rest or peace, because I sought it not at the Cross of Christ; and my proud heart still refused to yield the obedience of faith to the blessed overtures of the Gospel of God's grace.

"Shortly after this, news arrived of the great discovery of gold-fields in California, and I joined that greedy crowd who packed up their things and started for San Francisco. Joining an American company there, we stayed some months in the Pandemon Inn of that place, and went on to the gold-fields of Coloma. We left that settlement, and journeyed still further to discover, if possible, more productive gold-fields to work in. Careless of fatigue, hunger, and disappointment, we pursued our way over wild and desolate tracts of country, where nothing met the eye but brushwood, trees, or prairie land. Still we heeded not the discomforts of the way; for our object was GOLD, and for it we were willing to suffer want or peril.

I often think now, that if men of the world, for the mere love of adventure, or for the acquirement of a perishable object, will endure such privations—Oh! how much self-denial and hardship should Christians be prepared to suffer who are 'constrained by the love of Christ!' Should we begrudge time, toil, or labour in 'laying up treasures in heaven?' If Mammon's cross is cheerfully borne, should not Christ's be? Oh, it may do us good to remember that self-denial is not confined to Christianity. To gain any coveted object, men renounce ease and pleasure; just as we were doing in our hazardous journeys over those dreary Californian plains. But my dissipated habits had been gradually undermining my health, so that disease began to prey into my limbs, and my strength to fail. One day, as we were travelling, I was so far exhausted that my companions halted, and helped me to the shelter of a tree, under which I was placed, and soon began to sink. For days they remained at my side, watching the sands ebb slowly out of the glass of my existence, and expecting each hour would be my last. So weak had I become, that the weight of a grasshopper was a burden; and all desire seemed to fail. So weak, that the pale horse, with DEATH for its rider, seemed to stand near, ready to trample me into the bottomless pit prepared for the wicked and those who, like me, had lived only for sinful pleasures, and had forgotten God. There I lay, without one ray of gospel hope to cheer my guilty soul; but only 'a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation.' There I lay, a wreck in the prime of life; and to all appearance, drifting fast from the shores of time to that vast ocean for whose dark expanse I had no chart or pilot to guide me. My comrades waited at my side, and, fancying my hours, perhaps moments, were numbered, they had dug my grave under the shadow of that same tree, ready to place my poor emaciated body in it when the spark of life had fled. As I lay there, on the eve of death, as I thought, my mind dwelt upon the value of my soul; and I began to think where would it go when my body was left in the cold tomb? and all the sins of my past life rushed with fearful imagery through my mind. The home I had left, the mother's heart I had broken, the talents I had abused, the grace I had despised and rejected; and then I thought of the just retribution for the wicked; and in the bitterness of despair, I gave myself up for lost, and in agony I cried for help and mercy to that One who is 'mighty to save.' My proud heart was bowed in penitence before Him. Wondrous grace! He heard my cry, and spared the tree yet a little longer; so that I was not cut off in my sins, but to the astonishment of my friends, I began shortly to recover, and ere long was so far restored as to be enabled to pursue our journey, after they had filled up the empty grave.

"You would have thought such a resurrection man would have sought now to live as a Christian, and know the forgiveness of sins; but no, that deceitful and desperately wicked heart had not yet learnt its own helplessness and depravity, and that 'salvation is of the Lord:' consequently, with restored health, I went back 'like the dog to his vomit, and the sow to her wallowing in the mire.' How this should teach us that God's Holy Spirit alone must regenerate the soul; and that, apart from the new creation in Christ Jesus, all attempts to reform unconverted men are useless; for until they are born again, they possess no sufficient motive power to do good even if they would, and, therefore, they are led in captivity by the flesh lusting within, and by the devil tempting them from without. Therefore, notwithstanding all God's goodness in restoring me, I continued to join my companions in all their sinful habits, and good thoughts soon departed from my mind. Being deeply injured by one, and deceived by another, Satan was tempting me to shoot the man. I went to my tent, and loaded my pistols. But as I thought of my errand, and that I might add murder to my other crimes, or, perhaps, be launched into eternity myself, with unforgiven sins, the horror of my situation terrified my soul, so that I drew the trigger, and discharged the contents of the pistol into the earth. But there was a power stronger than Satan's now working within; and feeling I could not do the evil deed, or risk my life, in agony, I flung myself upon my knees, and leant my head upon a chair. Lifting my eyes, a song book before me attracted my attention, and unconsciously I opened it. The first word that attracted my eye was FLY. That little book was the leading string in the order of God's providence in drawing me away from a place of certain death to the home of my childhood. When its work was done, it was taken out of the way, and a better book substituted—the Word of God.

"I took ship for England; but when I arrived in Liverpool, I found only my sister in the house, and learnt that my mother had gone home to be with the Lord several years before. Yes, gone to be with the Saviour whom, having not seen, she had, through the 55 years of her chequered life, loved. My sister told me that she had died happy; fully persuaded that her God would bring back her prodigal son, John, into the fold of Christ; and on her death-bed she said to my sister, 'Take a piece of paper and write down this: I am fully persuaded that God's grace will reach my wilful son, and save his precious soul, and that in Liverpool he will testify of the change;' and so she died in peace.  I was much impressed by this, and being sick of the world and its vain, empty pleasures, my heart was turned to the Sinner's Friend as my only way of escape from the wrath to come. There was now a real spiritual awakening in my soul, for I earnestly sought God's great salvation. I truly abhorred myself, and wondered only if Divine mercy could accept such a miserable sinner as I felt I was. For one month I passed through a terrible conflict of soul, listening to the follies of my deceitful heart, and then to the foul suggestions of the enemy of my soul; but not paying that attention I should have done to the words of love and mercy recorded in God's gospel, for sinners who have got to the end of their good and bad selves. I had not then learnt that God is really seeking for sinners bad enough to be saved; that is, those who are conscious of no merit, and feel themselves cast entirely upon 'God, who is rich in mercy, for the great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins'

"I floundered about in the slough of despond, with the arrow of conviction in my soul, until at last I was led to the place called 'Calvary,' and there at the feet of that Saviour who died, 'the just for the unjust,' and 'redeemed us from the curse of the law—being made a curse for us'—I saw the wondrous substitutional work He accomplished; the atonement He made, whereby 'God can be just, and the Justifier of him that believes in Jesus.' I saw that 'God was no respecter of persons,' and could save the 'dying thief,' or Nicodemus the Pharisee, provided they both came to Him as sinners, and accepted salvation as a free gift. I truly felt my helplessness; my need of Him; and that my only hope was in His mercy; and then and there, I realized 'the forgiveness of sins;' that I was 'justified from all things;' that I possessed eternal life; that God was my Father, Christ my Saviour, and heaven my home. For 'God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, had shone into my heart; giving me the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ.'

"Knowing that I was now a child of God, I turned to His Word for light and guidance, and sought to know His mind about my service for Him. Like Paul, I realized that I was His, and He was mine: therefore felt that truth, 'Whose I am, and whom I serve.' He soon gave me my commission, 'to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,' and assured me from Jer. i. 5 'that before I was born, He had sanctified me, and ordained me to be a prophet unto the nations.' And when I said, 'I cannot speak, for I am a child;' He answered, 'Thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak.' Therefore, I went into Liverpool streets thirty years ago, and 'preached through Jesus the forgiveness of sins; and that by Him all who believe are justified from all things.' And to the poor, degraded sinners around, I declared, on the authority of God's blessed word, that the blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son cleanseth from all sin;' and that 'He was able to save to the uttermost all who came unto God by Jesus.' Amidst much persecution from the flesh, I have sought to declare God's glad tidings through the cities, towns, and villages of the land; and learnt that 'my sufficiency is of God,' who has never failed to supply all my need. My hairs are now grey in His service, but whilst he spares me here, I am anxious only to testify for Him, and exalt Jesus only, as 'the way, the truth, and the life.'"

When in helplessness I wandered,

Lost and dead in sin and shame;

Life and health, and substance squandered,

None to save till Jesus came.

Precious Saviour,

Oh I that all could learn Thy name.






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