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In the month of January, 1858, a rumor reached the neighborhood in which the writer lived, four miles west of Elgin, Illinois, that a remarkable preacher was holding revival meetings in the Methodist church in town. Their curiosity being greatly excited, a wagon load of young people, myself among the number, started out one evening for the place of meeting to hear the great preacher for themselves.
Though we arrived at an early hour, we found the house then partly filled, and long before the time for the service to begin, it was filled to its utmost capacity. Our company found seats well forward, and my own was where I could see every one who came in at the door. A few minutes before the appointed time of service, a man entered, whose personal appearance instantly commanded my attention. He was small of stature, with a massive head, pale, delicate countenance, and lustrous eyes. Softly and quietly he moved along the aisle toward the pulpit which he reverently entered. He laid aside his wraps, and as though shrinking from the gaze of the assembled multitude, he knelt for a few moments in silent prayer. His presence and manner thrilled me though he had not yet spoken a word. The congregation had been hushed into perfect silence by the same subtle influence. At this time I was unconverted, and I had not time, nor did I care, to analyze my impressions of the man; but from that moment, however, I was read y to listen to him with the profoundest attention.
He arose and gave out a hymn with clear and distinct enunciation. The reading of the hymn was peculiarly impressive. Though a familiar one, each line of it took on a fullness of meaning which it never seemed to me to have before. He expressed its meaning, not only by the intonations and modulations of a remarkably sweet voice, but by his countenance, which seemed quiet, but forcibly, utter the same sentiment.
The Prayer, which followed was more impressive still. The deep reverence with which he uttered the names of the divine Being, the clearness and simplicity of the language he used, the definite confidence of his manner, completely charmed me. The text for the occasion was Mark viii. 36: “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
At this point the preacher’s manner entirely changed. His style became abrupt, startling, and was characterized by great clearness and strength. He chose the most forceful and expressive words. His sentences were short and crisp. His dialect, that of the common people. His method, declarative and descriptive.
His first few sentences were the following:
“There are persons in this congregation who will sell their immortal souls for two-and-sixpence. Before they will lay aside a galvanized pewter ring they will run the risk of losing heaven. There are others who will sell their immortal souls for some picayunish office, and they’ll never get as high as constable.”
There seemed to be two general divisions to his discourse the value of the soul as estimated (1) by what it can be purchased for; (2) by what it cost. About half of the time was spent in elaborating each point. On the first he gradually rose higher and higher in the estimate; but when he reached the second, his eloquence became overwhelming. One of the closing passages in this part of his discourse was as follows:
“The angels of heaven were grouped together, endeavoring to estimate what would be the cost to redeem a human soul; but all in vain. The red-fingered lightning played around the rocks of Mt. Calvary, endeavoring to trace it in letters of fire there but all in vain. Only one thing could express it, and that was the dying groans of the Son of God.”
My most vivid recollections of the man are as he appeared in the pulpit that evening. In one of his most impassioned utterances, he stood with both hands raise above his head, his face shining as with a halo light, and his whole soul thrown into the eloquent thoughts that came like a torrent from his lips.
The preacher to whom I listened that evening, and whose eloquent words and impressive appearance I still recall as vividly as though what I have described occurred but yesterday was the
Rev. John Wesley Redfield,
whose biography is recorded in the following pages.
The impression produced upon me that evening made this man of God, to me, an interesting study during the few years of my personal acquaintance with him, and while preparing these pages for publication.
His mental characteristics were peculiar. The intuitive faculties predominated. He did not reason to conclusions like most men. He saw, instantly, what many strong minds would require much time to reason out. This, doubtless, was an element of his strength and success as an evangelist. Difficulties had not time to develop and ripen before he was prepared to meet them.
He read men. He knew what were the determining influences upon them. This gave character to his style of preaching. His first sermon in a place was with the confident positiveness of long acquaintanceship. This thrilled men. They knew that he knew them. When this is assumed by the weak, it is repulsive and disgusting, and men will not listen to it; but when one speaks from this intuitive knowledge, with the unction of the Holy One, their respect is challenged. This is because they recognize the message to be truth.
Another element of his character was that of experimental conformity to the divine will. He utterly abandoned himself to the known will of God. There was no reserve in his consecration. Whether in the light or in the dark, favored or frowned upon by men, to his advantage or disadvantage, in peril or in safety, he aimed to do exactly what he thought God wanted him to do. One of his peculiar phrases was, “the exact right.” He dealt with men, from the pulpit, in the altar, and in private, on that principle. “Calling things by their right names,” was another of his peculiar phrases. He did not
“Smooth down the stubborn text to ears polite,
And snugly keep damnation out of sight.”
With him, there was no seeking for “honeyed phrase.” He used but few large words, and those such as were in common use. He aimed to be understood.
Whether naturally or acquired, he had all the elements of the orator. His imagination was fervid, quick, broad, and accurate; this made his mental pictures vivid and true to nature. He never lacked for the right word; this helped him to express himself clearly. His elocution was perfect. The framing of his sentences, the order of his thoughts, his gestures, the modulations of his voice, the expression of his face, and his manner, all, were in harmony. All these made it possible for him to transfer his thoughts to the minds of others with accuracy and power. So complete was this, that sometimes his audiences forgot themselves, the place and the speaker, in the vividness of the truths to which they were listening. This was the result of his naturalness. He felt what he thought, and expressed what he thought and felt.
It will be noticed where he is quoted in the following narrative, that he often says, “I felt,” where others would have said, “I thought.”
Another element in his character was his implicit faith in God. No doubts respecting God’s word made their appearance in his discourses. With him there was no apologizing for the facts or the truths of the Bible. Like Abraham of old he “believed God.” In his public addresses he seemed to take it for granted that all men believed God. Such faith begot faith; and the discouraged became hopeful, and the weak became strong in his presence. A minister, while severely criticizing his methods and labors, admitted that he would rather trust his own child under Mr. Redfield’s preaching than under that of any minister he knew.
Another element of his character was his great sympathy. Suffering in others he could not witness, unless he could assist in relieving it. When visiting among the farmers, the killing of animals, though for food, greatly distressed him. He would walk his room in agony until informed that it was over. He shrank from inflicting mental pain, and only from a sense of duty could he bring himself to do it.
One of the hardest things for him to do was to bid farewell to his friends. He has been known to take a night train to avoid this. This trait made him apparently a coward. It was only when convinced that duty demanded it, that he could do the severe and faithful work that he sometimes performed. This accounts for many strange passages in his life which are recorded in these pages. Those who knew him only as he appeared in public, supposed him brave to a fault.
Doctrinally he was in accord with the standards of Methodism. He often called upon his enemies in the church to show wherein he was unsound in the faith. Only once was this attempted, and the result was in his favor, and against his opposers. In his work as an evangelist, he recognized the office of the truth. He believed that men were, born again, by the word of God; that they were sanctified by the truth. He was careful as to his teachings, especially so with seekers for salvation. In altar services he often took more time to explain the way than he did for the season of prayer. He held his prayer services to definite work. The nature and fruits of repentance were kept clearly before the minds of those seeking pardon. The nature and the details of entire consecration were kept clearly before those seeking for perfect love. He believed in, and taught, an itemized dedication of all the seeker possessed, or hoped to have, to the service God. Before he attempted to present the way of faith, he would, in individual cases, carefully test the purposes, and motives, and desires of the seeker. All these he would bring to the standard of God’s word. That standard, he taught, is the absolute and unconditional surrender of the soul to God. He taught that there is no hope of reconciliation with God without perfect renunciation of sin, and acceptance of Christ. He taught that there is no hope of attaining perfect love while there is the least reserve in the aims, or desires, or affections from the will of God. This thoroughness with the seekers often caused them great mental suffering. There was no attempt to shield them from feelings of despair while there was rebellion existing in the heart, or any doubt of surrendering all to God. This was what made those who were saved through his instrumentality so definite and clear, and, consequently, strong. The transition from the agony of surrendering to the peace of believing, was usually so marked that it thrilled all who were looking on. This encouraged even the impenitent to believe that if they started to seek Christ they would succeed. It was not unusual for seekers to make that transition before they reached the altar of prayer. One result of this was that the many were saved soon, and but few came to the altar more than once. In his preaching, he was careful in his enunciation that every word and syllable should be heard and understood. If there, was the least disturbance in the congregation, by the moving of persons, the crying of children, or the shouts of the saints he would wait in silence until all was quiet before proceeding. He aimed to present the truth which the people mostly needed. He had no time to spend in idle speculations or fanciful interpretations of the word of God. He waited before the Lord, in prayer, until he felt satisfied that he knew the mind of the Lord. The consciousness that he had made a mistake in this gave him intense pain, and caused him to humble himself before the Lord. When duty became clear, whether the truth to be preached was popular or unpopular, acceptable or unacceptable, he went boldly forward, trusting God with the results. This was not unattended with suffering for his shrinking, sensitive nature was often put upon the rack by it. Coarse natures who have no care how they make others feel can have no appreciation of his feelings at such times.
But while he gave the truth its proper place, in his work, he did not ignore the offices of the Holy Spirit. He believed it the work of the Spirit to make the truth effectual. He believed the Christian minister might have his immediate presence and aid. He gave him free course in his meetings. He would not labor, nor dared he to try, where this was not allowed. He was more particular about that preparation for his pulpit efforts than he was about the sermon. The Spirit’s dispensation was illustrated in his labors. Many and varied were the manifestations of this. There were often mixed with these that which was merely human, springing from the weakness of human nature, and which called forth the tenderest sympathy for the subjects of them, and the most careful dealing with them. There were often, also, those which seemed to be Satanic. He believed in a personal, intelligent, powerful devil. He expected every possible resistance to the truth and the Spirit of God. But he believed himself too weak to contend against the devil. When such manifestations appeared, instead of warring against them, he prayed for more of the Holy Spirit’s presence. He believed in the all-conquering power of the truth and the Spirit; that where victory for Jesus is complete, poor human, nature will act properly, and Satan’s power is broken.
Because of this recognition of the Holy Spirit, the spiritual among God’s people were greatly enlightened, strengthened, and often wonderfully moved under his preaching. Such people understood him when others did not, and were among his best and firmest friends. His enemies were among the worldly and time-serving. He was accused of dividing the church in his later years, but it was because he left no middle ground. The spiritual became more so, and they who would not yield wholly to the Lord went to the other extreme. No matter what the opposition or prejudice in the way, where the church authorities gave him freedom; almost invariably, he was victorious; for the truth and the Holy Spirit conquered all.
He was developed by the circumstances and experiences of his life. The rebellion of his early days, the providential difficulties which grew out of this, and the mental struggles through which he passed, were used by God to prepare him for his great work. In the following narrative it will be interesting to trace the process by which this was effected.
The most of the matter for this volume is from his own recollections, as penned by himself, in the last days of his life, after having been disabled for active labor by the palsy. He knew he was rapidly approaching eternity. With the most solemn feelings, he carefully reviewed his life and labors. It would have been pleasing to have given these recollections in his own words; but whether it was natural with him, or caused by the paralysis from which he was suffering, his style of writing was so unlike that of his preaching, that his friends would have doubted the genuineness of them, if they had been published as he left them. Again, for some reason, he omitted dates, and all but the initials of proper names. It has, for this reason, been very difficult to verify some of the most interesting details of his labors. I have been greatly assisted in this by his friends, who have contributed much that is valuable, which had been overlooked by Mr. Redfield, and who have also loaned me the use of many letters written by himself during the later years of his active ministry. This has made it necessary to change the style from the autobiographical to the biographical. I am much indebted to the assistance of these friends, and especially to Mrs. M. F. La Due, for valuable recollections of her own, and to Rev. W. T. Hogg for his assistance in the finishing touches to the work.
The beautiful steel engraving which faces the title-page is contributed by Rev. B. T. Roberts, editor of the Earnest Christian, and senior general superintendent of the Free Methodist Church. The engraving represents Mr. Redfield as he appeared in the days of his strength.
In hope that the following narrative may perpetuate the influence of this remarkable man of God and that through it, though dead, he may still speak, I send it forth upon its mission, commending it to the kind recognition and, devout, perusal of the Christian public.
Joseph Goodwin Terrill
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