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The Aged Penitent by Gustavus Abeel

Charles Doe Gustavus Abeel

When I first saw Mr. L——, the principal subject of this narrative, his tall figure and venerable appearance indelibly impressed my mind. He was eighty years of age, and upwards of six feet in height, though his form was somewhat bent. His hair was as white as age could make it, and his limbs were yet firm and vigorous. In early life he had been a soldier of the Revolution; and afterwards, for many years, had followed the occupation of a miller; but he was now cultivating the farm of a widowed daughter, with whom he resided.

He was, however, so deaf that it was very difficult to converse with him beyond a few short sentences. The sight of but one eye remained, and that barely sufficient to enable him to read. His love of this world continued unabated; and he seemed almost inaccessible to divine truth. His deafness was his excuse for never attending public worship, and the defect in his vision afforded a ready apology for neglecting the written word. He was also quickly aroused to anger, and when thwarted, even in trifles, was very profane.

Often have I exclaimed concerning him, “How cruelly has that man used the immortal spirit that dwells within him! How dark its habitation now, how certain its doom hereafter! So old, so near the close of life, and so unconscious of his danger!” I have turned away, as we turn from some awful catastrophe which we cannot prevent, but the issue of which we shudder to witness.

But I did not then know how earnestly and perseveringly his pious daughter was wrestling alternately with her God and her aged parent for the salvation of his soul. The emotions of her heart can only be understood by those who, like her, have beheld an aged father upon the verge of eternity, without one solitary ray of hope to brighten his prospects.

That their beloved friends should live at enmity with the Redeemer, is, to the people of God, the bitterest draught of affliction they have to drink in this vale of tears. How painful the reflection, that many an eye that now beams upon us with tenderest affection, may be averted from us in the world to come, in all the shame of everlasting abandonment, or else turned towards us in all the anguish of despair! Feelings like these often lie concealed from common observation, and are only poured forth to Him who heareth prayer.

The tears, the prayers, the alternate hopes and fears of this believing daughter are only known to Him who, while he sees in secret, rewards openly. Her exertions, however were not limited to the closet. She used all that influence which affection best knows how to use with the objects of its solicitude. When, in some of Mr. L——’s gusts of passion, his aged form would tremble with the violence of excited temper, and his lips utter language which agonized her heart, she would still throw her arms around him, and with tears intreat him to consider his age and accountability; and then, too, she would pour into his ear such a strain of affectionate and pious eloquence, that before she left him he would become calm and abashed, if not convinced.

This conduct displayed much Christian heroism. There is a mysterious principle in the human heart, which renders it difficult to warn with faithfulness, and at the same time with tenderness, our near relatives, especially our superiors in age. The daughter of Mr. L—— might have pleaded, for neglect of duty, her father’s age, his insensibility, his deafness; but she sought no excuse. She opposed to his anger the mildness of a Christian; to his obduracy, the melting tenderness of filial love; to repeated discouragements, the strong confidence of an overcoming faith.

It was not until she had long hoped against hope, that any evidence was afforded that she had not labored in vain; and when that evidence was afforded, it seemed as if God would show, that in answering the prayers of his children he sometimes designs to take them by surprise.

On her return home rather late one evening from a religious meeting, she was obliged to go into the apartment of her aged parent to obtain a light. She found the room entirely dark, and supposed he had gone to rest. Having groped her way to the fireplace, and lighted a candle, on turning to leave the room, the first object that met her eye was her father, kneeling in prayer, and drowned in tears. The surprise was mutual, and mutual embarrassment ensued. What a sight for such a daughter! Her first impulse was to exclaim, “O my father!” The next was, to leave him at the throne of grace. She hurried out to unbosom her feelings, and to intercede at the same throne.

Whether this aged sinner had long stifled the convictions and strivings of the Spirit, or whether they reached him for the first time that night, I am not informed. Enough is known to testify to a mighty working of the power of God. In the stillness of night, rendered more silent and dark to Mr. L—— by his bodily infirmities, instead of finding that rest which age and labor so imperiously demand, we see him earnestly seeking a once despised and rejected Savior.

His daughter soon requested me to call and see him, merely mentioning that she believed he was more disposed than formerly to attend to the subject of religion. In complying with her request, I thought it most probable that I should find him endeavoring to patch up some miserable refuge of lies against the near approach of death. Indeed, so little did I expect satisfaction from my visit to him, that on the way to his dwelling I tried to prepare myself for disappointment.

On entering his room I found him so attentively engaged in reading his Bible that he did not perceive me until some one said to him in a very loud voice, “The minister has come to see you.” He arose immediately, and his whole appearance spoke volumes. I perceived at once that he was no longer the careless sinner I once had known him. The tears trickled fast down his furrowed cheeks, as he welcomed me, not only to his house, but to his heart. A deep sense of his unworthiness, both in the sight of God and man, was mingled with overflowing gratitude for my visit, I seated myself beside him, but such was his deafness, that the only way I could instruct him was to point out passages of Scripture suited to his case. In this I was often interrupted by his voice, tremulous with emotion, exclaiming,

“O sir, I have been such a great sinner—to think how long I have lived in neglect of God and eternity: and now I am so deaf that no one can talk to me without the greatest trouble. And my sight is failing me so fast, that I can only read a little at a time. I am afraid I shall never understand this book. I am not worthy of all this trouble.”

In this way he usually expressed himself. His views of sin at this time were uncommonly clear. He seemed to feel deeply its odiousness in the sight of God, and its desolating influence upon his own heart. He considered himself the chief of sinners, because he knew of none that had spent so many years in sin. The retrospect of that life was painful beyond expression. His long service of sin and the world overwhelmed him with remorse and shame; and his obduracy and hardness of heart appeared marked with peculiar aggravation. How bitterly did he deplore the folly of his early neglect of religion. What would he not give for the happiness of looking back upon a life devoted to God. His distress was aggravated by his increasing infirmities. The fear of total blindness was dreadful to him, who saw that his only hope lay in the volume of eternal truth. So anxious was he at this time to seek there, as for hid treasures, that he never closed that book without a sigh, and rarely laid it aside without tears.

As I closed this visit, I could not but fear lest he should descend to his grave without any clear evidence of peace with God; for he seemed to obtain no distinct idea of the plan of salvation through a crucified Redeemer. He knew he had no righteousness of his own, but how he could be saved without it he did not apprehend. For many years he had excluded himself from the means of grace; and now, how could one who had been so long naturally and spiritually deaf to the voice of mercy, ever be taught to realize the joy of sins forgiven? But God’s thoughts are not as our thoughts. It would seem as if he had selected one whose case appeared so hopeless, expressly to manifest the riches of his grace.

I visited Mr. L—— during the succeeding year as often as circumstances would permit, but in all that time his soul found no substantial peace. He did not doubt the ability of Christ to save all that come unto God by him, but his willingness to save such a sinner as he had been, he could not realize.

One reason, probably, why he so long continued without the consolations which are in Christ, was his difficulty in obtaining evidences of the sincerity of his faith. The convert in early or in active life finds daily evidences of his faith in the frequent trials to which it is exposed. At one time he has open dangers to shun; at another, he is called upon to engage in active duties. From his watchfulness in the one case, and his zeal in the other, he derives testimonies to his faith in God. Not so with him whom age or bodily infirmities preclude from laboring in his Master’s vineyard. He must derive his evidences alone from the exercises of his heart—a heart which he knows is deceitful above all things. Here was Mr. L——’s difficulty. He had lived long without God; he had spent the ardor of his youth and the energy of his manhood in working for the wages of sin; and now that he had grown old, and could no longer engage in active pursuits, how could he discover, from any obvious fruits of repentance, whether he had really passed from death unto life? How could he hope that God would receive the miserable remnant of a worn-out life?

From the time of my first visit to Mr. L—— after his mind became serious, he appeared entirely occupied with the great concerns of salvation. It was a common remark of those who called on him, “We always find him reading his Bible.” He would pore over the sacred volume with such intense interest, that it required an effort to divert his attention to other things as occasion required. I have no doubt, from his manner, that he was often engaged in prayer when his eyes appeared fixed on the sacred page. In fact, he received very little instruction from any source except his Bible and the teachings of the Holy Spirit. The method which I generally pursued with him was, as I have already stated, to point to such portions of Scripture as I thought suited his case, but his deafness precluded my commenting upon the text. While I watched that he might not fall into error, I was gratified to observe how far he might, in that manner, be guided into all truth. The result was, in my view, a triumphant proof that the Spirit of God is the best interpreter. His dangerous state as a sinner, the holiness and justice of the divine law, the necessity of a new heart, and of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and the duty of a total and unreserved submission to the will and sovereignty of God, were confessed by him, without any other guidance than His who has promised to give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him.

He removed to the distance of some miles, but several times came to see me; and was much pleased with the opportunity of religious intercourse afforded him, in conversation, by an ear-trumpet he had procured. His visits were always spiritual, and deeply interesting; and he gradually obtained clearer views of the nature of faith, and of his own personal interest in Christ.

I afterwards visited him at his new residence. It was my last visit; and the impression it left upon my mind will not be soon erased. On inquiring for him, I was pointed to the room he occupied, at the door of which I knocked several times; and upon receiving no answer, I opened it and entered. Mr. L—— was seated in a chair, which he had drawn near the window—he was alone, and his back was towards the door. I was immediately struck with the motionless appearance of his figure, and the singularity of his attitude. His head was bowed down in such a manner as to appear, at first, as if it reclined upon his knees. I hesitated a moment before I approached him, but could not perceive the slightest movement. It seemed, at first, as if the vital spark was extinguished. I was soon relieved; for, looking over him, I saw the large Bible open on his aged arms, supported by his knees, and its pages wet with his tears. I paused to contemplate the scene, unwilling to destroy its interest. That form bending under the weight of fourscore years, those whitened locks, those secret tears, that precious Bible, are all still vividly before me. How long he would have remained in this position I cannot say. He showed no disposition to move, until I attracted his attention by laying my hand upon his shoulder. Now, for the first time, he told me of his “peace and joy in believing.” Jesus was now precious to him; he could now say, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

Let not the reader suppose that he felt less of his unworthiness, nor of the indwelling corruptions of his nature, On the contrary, he felt that he had cause constantly to exclaim, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” but he saw, at the same time, more clearly than ever, the fullness and freeness of the redemption purchased by Christ Jesus. He spoke, also, of the duty of a public profession of his faith, and of the Lord’s supper. Shortly afterwards his health declined so rapidly that he returned to his daughter’s house, where he died, about two years after that daughter first found him engaged in prayer.

His extreme deafness prevented any connected conversation in his last hours; but his end was peace, and his dying testimony was, that he “had a trembling hope, hanging on the merits of his Redeemer.” His remains are now moldering in the retired churchyard at —— ——, in New Jersey; but long may his memory live, to tell to youth the preciousness of an early acquaintance with God, and to age, that there is pardon and peace through penitence and faith in Christ.

And may this happy result of a pious daughter’s faithfulness deeply impress upon Christians the duty of earnestly caring for those who have no care for themselves.

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