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In the peculiar state of mind described in the foregoing chapter, young Redfield again left home, going about a hundred miles from where he was known. In less than a fortnight after his arrival at his new destination, however, he was questioned about the duty of preaching. This caused him to leave again. This time he chose a place where he felt sure he would not be annoyed by anything of that kind, but here he found old acquaintances who raised the question, within a week. Then he left again, resolved not to profess religion at the next place, nor to have anything to say on the subject, thinking in that way to avoid the annoyance. Soon after this he found himself beset with infidel notions; and at last his faith in Christianity utterly gave way. He could now get along comparatively well in the daytime, but his nights would be filled with dreams of preaching, and so overcome in his feelings would he be, that on waking he would find his pillow wet with tears. He now began to believe that he had been the dupe of deception through all his strange course. To end the matter once and for all he finally resolved to ask God to take away the conviction of duty, even if it was from him. He had heard of a man who did that, and who was instantly relieved, never to have the feeling come back. He now experienced the same relief. In after years, when looking back with horror upon this passage in his life, he could only account for the after return of the Spirit by referring it to the prayers and intercessions of his mother. He says:
“I felt the Holy Spirit leave me as plainly as I ever felt the taking off of my coat; and yet with no greater alarm than at the loss of a penny. To me, now, infidelity was a fact, and right in its wake came downright atheism. For as soon as I resolved to settle all theological questions by my external senses, a vague uncertainty came over everything. Nature’s laws were all the God I could find, and the mere notion that a given system of religion might be true was the utmost my reason could conjecture. It now seemed to me that all the phenomena of religious emotion, of mental and moral changes, were due to laws within us, and beyond our control. Now, the funeral pall of annihilation settled down upon me, and I could see nothing but darkness and desolation. Man and earth seemed orphaned. I sought in anatomy, physiology, and philosophy for testimony to clear this up, and, if possible, give me a single fact to settle my distracted mind. One favorite haunt of mine during this period was an ancient Indian burying ground. Some of the graves were entirely gone, washed away by the high waters of an adjoining stream; others were partly gone, the dark sands of which gave traces of the bodies which had been laid there to rest several hundred years before. A few seashells, flint arrowheads and hatchets, and beads were all that bore testimony that these bodies had ever lived. In contemplation of these things my whole soul would cry out, while the suffocation of death seemed to be upon me, “O God, if there be a God, send me to the hell of the Bible, but don’t annihilate me.” It seemed to me at such times that I could have died a hundred deaths if that would have made the Christian doctrines true, and have run my chances of heaven or hell.
I now commenced the systematic study of anatomy, for the purpose of ascertaining whether man had a conscious, thinking, acting, soul, independent of the body, or whether a fortuitous combination of matter in conjunction with material laws might not produce the phenomena we observe; and therefore these phenomena cease with the combination. Among other works, treating upon this subject, I met with Paley’s Natural Theology Illustrated, which gave a sober, commonsense, bias to my mode of reasoning. As a result of this I was cured of atheism and infidelity. I now saw the fogs of doubt all clear away, and the doctrine of the nature, operations, independence, and perpetuity, of the human soul, redeemed from all doubt, and established upon solid foundations.”
While he was passing through all this, his mother, hearing of his infidelity and abandonment of religion and all thought of entering the Christian ministry, became very sad and would not be comforted. Not only were her hopes, but her faith also was involved with his. In his failure, she saw all her hopes concerning him, from his infancy, dashed to the ground. She pined away, and nearly lost her mind in mourning over him. She became so weak, that she would stop strangers as they passed her door, and ask them in plaintive tones, “Have you seen my son, John? Where is he? and what is he about?” Only as a pious mother could, she kept his case before God, and quite likely it was in answer to her prayers that he was finally brought back not only to Christ, but into the work of soul-saving, for which he became so eminent.
He says, “During the period of my infidelity, I saw and believed that human nature needed some kind of religion to restrain it from injuring society. For this reason I would attend church, read prayers with the congregation, to cultivate a moral tone. I reasoned: If there be a God, and the Bible proves true, it is best to be fitted for any possible emergency that may arise, even if not contemplated by the Bible. If there is no God, or only such an one as the deranged condition of nature reveals; if we have nothing to hope beyond the grave, not even the guarantee of an abstract existence, the uncertainty is terrible.”
In after years, he would say, “Men may talk of annihilation as a possible fact, and regard the theory as a light affair; but let them stand where I have stood, by the graves of the long forgotten dead, and in imagination pass down the vista of coming time, and think: “With all my longing for life, I must lie down in the dust and darkness of the tomb, and let the rusty centuries fold over my head, till ages have passed and gone, and I sleep on still as these have slept, who now lie here in a common ruin, forgotten and forever gone! Poor nameless dust, who lived, hoped, feared; made as they thought ample provision for life in the spirit land; yet all in vain!” and they will cry out, as I have cried, “O God, spare me at least a bare existence.” No! I would know the truth, however unwelcome it may be.”
His study of anatomy, under the tutorship of an eminent physician, was continued after his return to faith, and laid the foundation for his future practice of medicine. This struggle with unbelief, and the various lines of investigation that it led him to undertake, in mental and moral philosophy, as well as in the physical sciences, was a valuable training for the especial work to which he was called. Every phase of unbelief, mental and moral difficulty seems to have been reviewed by him, not simply by reading, but by personal investigation, until it seemed that no obstacle of that kind could stand before him. “Questions of magnetism, clairvoyance, and much of what now passes for spiritualism,” were carefully studied by him at that early period (between 1830 and 1840). The perfect ease and simplicity with which, in the days of his power, he would remove the difficulties of doubt and solve the problems of conscience, was an astonishment to those who listened to him. From the foregoing account may be seen how these problems were worked out in the fierce struggles of his own early experience.
Concerning the period in which he was pursuing these studies he says: “During this period my former experience in the Christian life was not taken into account. It furnished me with no help whatever. And even after this struggle was over, and I began to seek my personal salvation again, at first it did not occur to me that I had once been a Christian. I commenced entirely anew. When I set about it in good earnest I purposed to do it among a people that I thought would not annoy me about preaching. But here I found myself mistaken again. Scarcely had I obtained a little light on experimental religion before the minister whose church I attended, met me in the street one day and made an appointment with me to meet him at his house at a certain time. When the time came, fearing it was the old subject that was coming up, I did not go. When I met him again, he expressed his disappointment at my failure to come, and set another time for me. When the time came I went, and my fears proved true. Said he: “I have little confidence in impressions, but I wish to know for my own satisfaction if you have ever been called of God to preach. I wish you to give me a direct answer.” In my soul I cried out, “My God! am I found out here also?’ I then frankly answered: “I have.” But I stated to him that there were barriers now in my way, the principal one of which was a promise to marry. This barrier I had placed in the way some time before. My object was to create an obligation that would prevent me from entering the ministry. This proved to be another great mistake of my life. I was soon made to know how surely God could confront me, how terribly he could chastise me, and how intensely I could be made to suffer.”
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