Religion without Learning;
or, The History of Susan Ward
IT is very common to hear poor people say, when you talk to them upon Religion, “We are no scholars;” and we have reason to fear that many of them consider their ignorance as a complete excuse for their not being true Christians. Most certainly they who enjoy the advantages of education, particularly if their minds are naturally strong, have an important talent committed to them: and for the use they make of it, they must give a solemn account at the day of judgment. But the truths necessary to be known, in order that the soul may be saved, are so few, and the way of obtaining a knowledge of them is so clearly revealed in the Bible, that the “wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein.” The reason why so much ignorance prevails among the poor, is this; they are indifferent about their immortal souls: their bodies have wants, and they work hard to supply those wants; but they do not give themselves time to examine what are the wants of their souls. No care is taken of that which must live for ever; while that which may any day, or hour, or moment, become a breathless corpse, is labored for with unceasing care. Let me ask you who are reading this little Tract, Is not this the case with you? Do you not labour with more diligence and with more earnestness, “for the meat that perisheth,” than you do “for that which endureth unto everlasting life?” Do you not bestow more anxious thoughts about earning a maintenance for yourself, or your family, than you do for the pardon of your sins, and the salvation of your souls? You have taken pains to learn a trade, or you are constantly busy in managing your family; but have you taken pains to learn the way of salvation? If not, can you wonder that you should know nothing about it? And can you suppose that willful ignorance, on such an all-important concern, will be allowed as an excuse by an all-wise God? Allow me to point out those truths, which all must learn before they are made “wise unto salvation.”
The first thing which I am anxious to teach you, is, that you are a sinner; a transgressor of God’s holy law, without any worthiness in yourself, and altogether unable to accomplish your own deliverance.—I would then, with unspeakable joy, inform you, that Jesus Christ is appointed to save you from that ruin, to which your sinful nature and your sinful practice have made you liable. Dependance on Him, without vainly trusting to any thing which you can do, is necessary, whether you consider the pardon of your sins, the change of your hearts, or the eternal enjoyment of God in heaven.—I would, thirdly, direct you to the great duty of prayer. He has graciously promised to instruct those who ask him for wisdom; but if we are too proud or too slothful to ask, it is a just punishment that we should continue in ignorance.
Do you understand what you have just read? Do you acknowledge that you are a sinner, deserving of eternal misery, and exposed to it; that you may escape by applying seriously and frankly to Jesus Christ for salvation; and that this sense of your need of mercy and faith in Christ can be obtained only by praying for the assistance of the Holy Spirit? If you have properly learnt these three important things, you have knowledge sufficient to guide you into the paths of peace, and the fullness of joy. This you will the more clearly perceive, when you have read the following story.
In the parish of L—n, in Leicestershire, there lived a very poor woman, named Susan Ward. She had been neglected by her parents in her youth, (as, alas! many are;) so that she was not taught even to read. Where there was this neglect, it is easy to suppose, that she had never had any religious instruction given her. Though she possessed an immortal soul, she had never been told it; and she knew not that there was either a heaven or a hell; she had neither been exhorted to seek the one, or warned to escape the other. In this sad state of ignorance, she lived, and was married to one with but little more understanding of spiritual things than herself. Some time after, her health declined, and a consumption threatened speedily to convey her from time into eternity. How melancholy was her prospect! She was a sinner, and God has said, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” The Bible no where tells us that people who are ignorant, when they might have known better, will, by pleading this ignorance, be saved from everlasting punishment. Happily for Susan, though she had lived, she did not die in ignorance. A Clergyman taking a morning walk, saw this poor woman sitting under a hedge, near to a sheep-fold; for she had been told that the breath of sheep was good for her complaint. Little did she think, when she sat down there, that she was about to be numbered with the “little flock” of Christ; to be gathered unto that happy fold, which is constantly watched and defended by the gracious Shepherd of Israel; that his rod and his staff would be her defence and support, when passing through the valley of the shadow of death, upon which she was soon to enter. The Clergyman, feeling for a fellow-creature, bowed down by disease, and concluding, from her sickly appearance, that “her spirit” would shortly “return to God who gave it,” began to talk to her respecting her soul; but she was so very ignorant, that she did not know that she had a soul; and therefore could know nothing of its dangerous state, or of the way of salvation. What a wretched case did this appear! She suffered so much from disease, that it was difficult for her to bear a part in conversation, and the hope therefore of doing her any good was very slender. “But with God all things are possible.” Under this conviction, the Minister earnestly intreated her to pray that God would teach her, and pointed out to her that very encouraging promise in the first chapter of St. James, and the fifth verse, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not.” He also told her not to be discouraged at finding herself so ignorant: for that no one could be made truly wise but by Divine teaching, and that God could as easily teach her as the wisest man in the world. Poor Susan listened with great attention to all that she heard, and was enabled to pray for the aid of that Teacher to whom the Clergyman directed her. Her petitions were answered. She discovered all she wanted. The Lord appears to have enlightened her mind in an unusual degree; compassionating her as she lay on the borders of the world to come.
It should be recollected, for the encouragement of all who plead before the throne of grace, that God has promised to give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him. The Clergyman, having learnt from her where she lived, took an early opportunity of going to see her: when he was much surprised to find the state of her mind totally changed from what it was when he first saw her. The stupidity which she had before manifested, was now entirely removed, and she was all anxiety to know something more from his lips, respecting her immortal soul, and the means of saving it from ruin. O bow pleasant was now his work, to point her to the Saviour, and say, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world!” God was pleased to give her an understanding heart, so that, in a very short time, she knew the things which belonged to her peace. In about six weeks after she first began to pray, her complaint so much increased, that she was confined to her bed, that bed from which she was never more to rise. But how shall I describe her happiness! She spoke on religious subjects like one that had been acquainted with them for years; and I have often heard the Clergyman say, that he was glad at the last to visit her, for the sake of the instruction he received from her faultering tongue. She had such bright prospects before her, in consequence of putting all her trust in the Saviour, that her joy astonished every beholder. The evening before her departure, she said to one standing by her bed-side, “Give my love to Mr. ——,” (the Clergyman who had been the happy means of directing her thoughts to God,) “and tell him, I shall meet him in heaven O – thank him for what he has done for me.” Shortly after, she seemed to have breathed her last; but, having lain to all appearance dead for a considerable time, she revived, and begged the neighbours who were sitting by her, not to be alarmed, at the same time desiring that her husband might be called, and her little child brought to her. When they were come, she thus addressed the former: “Husband, I hope you will attend to the words of a dying wife; in a very short time I shall be with my Saviour; but you will be left in a wicked world. O pray to the Lord to teach you your undone state without a Saviour; pray that you may have an interest in the salvation of Christ. You can read a little; O be diligent in reading your Bible, and go to hear the gospel preached; it has made me happy in death, and it can make you happy both in life and death. Attend to these things, and the Lord will bless you, and we shall meet in heaven. Bring my dear child up in the fear of God; let her go to school both on the week-days, and on Sundays – O set her a good example in all things; and then, I trust I shall meet my child with you in glory.” She then blessed them both in a most solemn manner, and resigned them to the Lord. After she had done speaking, she desired them to go to bed. But her tender concern for immortal souls was not confined to those who were dear to her by nature; she wished to benefit her neighbours also. As soon, therefore, as she was a little recovered from the fatigue and pain of parting from her husband and child, she earnestly exhorted those that were sitting up with her, to seek the Lord while they were in health, by praying to him for his teaching, by reading their Bibles, and by hearing the Word where it was preached with faithfulness; and assured them that by so doing, they would obtain a blessing from the Lord. Her strength at length became exhausted, nevermore to be renewed; her lips were sealed in silence for nearly an hour; but her enlivened countenance continued to express the triumph of her mind, till her work was done on earth, and she entered on her glorious employment of praising her God and Saviour through a boundless eternity.
This short account of poor Susan would give rise to many remarks. I shall confine myself to the following:
1. However ignorant any readers of this story may be, they cannot be more so than Susan was; and therefore they need not despair of becoming wise in the things of God, if they, like her, pray for Divine teaching. None that can read this account of her, are so ignorant as she was, for she did not know a single letter. But though you may not be quite so ignorant, you are certainly no less sinful: were I to ask you, as the Clergyman did her, “What is the state of your soul?” would you be able to answer better than she did? That you have a soul, you may believe; but of its fallen state, of the danger of its being for ever lost, or how it is to be saved from endless ruin, you perhaps could tell me but little. If you do not know the way of salvation, nothing can be clearer than this, that you are not in it; and if you die without knowing it, indulged as you are with the means of grace, your soul must be ruined; for it is written in the Bible, “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the people that forget God.” O let me now persuade you earnestly to pray that God would show you your real character; for indeed, unless he gives you a better heart than what you have, if you die, you will be wholly unfit for heaven. Perhaps you may never have prayed to God in your life; neither had poor Susan; for she knew nothing of that good and great Being; yet she used the means recommended, and found mercy and grace suited to her case, and so will you; God is as willing to bless you, as he was her. Often when I have been talking to poor people, and urging them to pray, they have told me that they do pray; and when I have inquired what words they made use of, they have replied, “We say the belief every night on going to bed.” Now what can show greater ignorance than this? For if you examine the belief, sentence by sentence, you will find there is not one petition in it. You do not ask God for one blessing, or to save you from one evil. It is entirely a confession of faith. It might be very proper for you to use this Creed, and make the following inquiries as you go along:—Do I believe in God, and acknowledge him to be the Giver and the Governor of all things? Do I believe in Jesus Christ as my only Redeemer, and in the Holy Spirit as my Teacher and Sanctifier? and so on. You may also, with great propriety, turn your acknowledgements into prayers; but if you have used the Creed, as if it were a train of petitions, you have gone over a number of words without the slightest knowledge of their meaning; you have only fancied that you were praying. But though to this hour you may have lived in perfect ignorance, and without any real prayer to God, yet think of poor Susan: she lacked wisdom as much as you do; the pious Clergymen met her, as by accident, and directed her to pray; this little book may meet you likewise in an unexpected way, and it urges you to the same duty. Do not turn a deaf ear to what is has said to you; nor say that you will attend to the concerns of your soul when, like Susan, you are brought near to the grave. This delay might prove fatal to you, for you have no assurance that you shall die of a lingering consumption. You may die by some sudden stroke; or you may be seized with a fever, and your senses may fail in a moment. You may have often seen people, when lying on a sick-bed, bewildered in their thoughts; so that when Christian friends have talked to them about prayer, or heaven, or hell, they have plainly shown, either by their words or their looks, that the subject was all new to them. And will you also leave what is of so much consequence to such a dreadful hazard? What, though you should have your senses to the last; if you neglect this warning, your heart may be hardened, and you may not again have the wish excited to partake of God’s salvation. That you may not defer to a future time, what you should instantly attend to, I will tell you what the Lord your God says in the first chapter of Proverbs, beginning at the 24th verse: “Because I have called, and ye have refused, I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; but ye have set at nought all my counsel; and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity, I will mock when your fear cometh: when your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish come upon you. Then shall they call, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me.” After having read this very awful passage, dare you now venture to say, “I will seek God at some future season.” If you should, your case and poor Susan’s would materially differ, and therefore I should cease to urge her example, as an encouragement to you. She instantly followed the directions given her; she began the very day the Clergyman talked with her, to pray for Divine teaching; and you have been told the happy consequence. But if you put off the advice this little book gives you, and make yourselves easy by resolving, that at some more convenient season[ix] you will attend to it, I cannot entertain a hope that you will ever be benefited by what has been said to you. Susan, in her health, never had the warning and the exhortations you have now had given you. She therefore never hardened her heart against the same calls. When she was invited to return to the God whom she had offended, she did not refuse. The very day in which she was told of her danger, she sought for a remedy; the very day on which she learnt that she had an immortal soul, she sought its salvation; the very day on which she heard there was a Divine Teacher, she bowed her knees, and intreated that he would teach her. But if you refuse to hear, now that God calls you; if you set at nought his counsel, and turn a deaf near to his kindest invitation – when your calamity and your fear come, he may awfully fulfil the threatening you have just read. O! think of the shortness of life at the longest; the uncertainty of it even under the most promising appearance for its continuance; and the variety of circumstances that may render a death-bed repentance impossible. Think likewise of the vast difference there will be, between having a station, in the last day, on the right hand of your Judge, and being driven to the left: and then determine whether you will, like poor Susan, begin to-day to implore Divine teaching, or whether you will put to hazard your everlasting welfare. The following lines show you the state of the careless sinner, as contrasted with that of a pious man, when they are brought near to the views of death.–
What scenes of horror and of dread,
Await the sinner’s dying bed!
Death’s terrors all appear in sight,
To usher in eternal night.
His sins in dreadful order rise,
And fill his soul with sad surprise;
Mount Sinai’s thunder stuns his ears,
And not one ray of hope appears.
Tormenting pangs distract his breast;
Where’er he turns, he finds no rest:
Death strikes the blow; he groans and cries,
And in despair and horror dies.
Not so the heir of heav’nly bliss–
His soul is fill’d with conscious peace;
A steady faith subdues his fear,
He sees the happy Canaan near.
His mind is tranquil and serene,
No terrors in his looks are seen;
His Saviour’s smile dispels his gloom,
And smooths his passage to the tomb.
Lord! Make my faith and love sincere,
My judgment sound, my conscience clear;
And when the toils of life are past,
May I be found in peace at last.
2. The next remark suggested by the account of Susan Ward, is this – Divine teaching is at once necessary and efficacious. It is necessary, because none can be made “wise unto salvation” without it. The learned and the ignorant are upon a level here. It is only the Spirit of God that can discover to us our condition, as sinners, or the grand mystery of our redemption by Jesus Christ. How clearly is this stated in the second chapter of the first of Corinthians, and the 14th verse; “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Divine teaching is likewise efficacious: because no case can occur, in which this Teacher cannot remove all the darkness of the soul.—How very different, both in kind and degree, was poor Susan’s knowledge from that which is acquired by mere studying and reasoning. God, in this instance, as in many others, chooses the “foolish things of this world to confound the wise.” Human learning often leaves the mind utterly destitute of heavenly wisdom.—I knew a gentleman who said that he had studied learned books, and read many hours a day, and that for twenty years, in order that he might find out truth; but all this time he got farther and farther from it. At last, he began to suspect that he was wrong in his manner of seeking it, or he certainly should have obtained what he so earnestly desired. This led him to examine his Bible more than learned books, and he soon found that he had never once prayed for Divine teaching; he had “learned to his own understanding,” and therefore, at the end of twenty years, he knew nothing as he ought to have known. But as soon as he began to pray with earnestness, that God would show him where he was wrong, he saw with very different eyes; he then found that all his learning had served only to swell him with pride; and he forcibly felt the truth of that declaration, “Man by wisdom knows not God.” –There are many learned men who do not believe this, but they will one day wish that they (like poor Susan) had been without human learning, rather than that it should have proved a hinderance to their seeking for that wisdom which cometh from God.
3. The third remark which I make, is this – Where there is a change of heart wrought by the Spirit of God, there will be an earnest desire excited, that others may be partakers of the same grace. When Susan had learnt the worth of her own soul, she felt for her husband’s and her child’s, and then for her friends’ and her neighbours’. Nor did she satisfy herself with wishing them well; she exhorted, she warned, she prayed: and what she had found so efficacious in her own case, she earnestly recommended to others. It may with truth be affirmed, that where the worth of the soul is truly felt, there will be active endeavours to make others sensible of its value also. Those parents who neglect the religious instruction of their children, know nothing of that renewed state which leads to these active endeavours. This you may know by the answers which you can give to the following inquiries: Do you exercise your authority, and restrain your children from breaking the Sabbath? Where were they on the last Sabbath? Were they permitted to play in the streets or fiends, or did you conduct them to God’s house? Did you endeavour to instruct them at home; or, if you found yourself incapable of doing this, did you send them where they might obtain such instruction? If you could not read to them in the evening out of God’s Word, did you endeavour to impress their minds with serious conversation? Did you examine them in what they had heard at church, or tell them that they had immortal souls that must be happy or miserable for ever? Now if you answer to these inquiries, that nothing of this care was manifested by you, surely you know nothing of the worth either of their souls or your own. If you thought their’s, you would warn them to “flee from the wrath to come.” When you thought of your own, you would look forward to that solemn day of account, when parents and children must stand at the tribunal of God. When children perish through the neglect of parents, how awful the doom of those parents will be, no tongue can tell! O parents; if you could be spared the unutterable anguish of finding yourselves contributors to the eternal misery of your dear children, endeavour to turn them from the broad path in which so many are going to destruction, and try to allure them, especially by your example, into the narrow one, which leadeth unto eternal life.
There is another deceit which many poor people practise upon themselves, which, though not suggested by the subject of this address, I take the present opportunity of exposing. How have I been grieved to hear a poor afflicted man or woman say, “Well, I shall have all my sufferings in this life; my troubles here will prevent me suffering hereafter.”—If this delusion should have fastened on your mind, what can I say to convince you how false your conclusions are? There is not one passage in your Bible, that, even in the most distant way, speaks a language like this. If an eternity of misery is threatened to every transgressor, who does not repent and believe in Christ for salvation, how can it be imagined, that even the most severe sufferings, for the short term of threescore years and ten, can atone for your numberless transgressions of the Divine Law? If the rich, and those that are in circumstances of ease, will go away into everlasting punishment, provided they seek not to the Saviour for his great salvation, what an immense disproportion would there be, between their punishment and the punishment of those who have been poor or afflicted in this life only! The one banished from the presence of the Lord for ever and ever, the other only doomed to endure the ordinary sufferings of mortality for a few years! Your Bible says, “The wicked” (whether rich or poor) “shall go away into everlasting punishment,” and “the righteous,” (and the righteous only) “into life eternal.” None but holy beings can be admitted into heaven; therefore, whoever dies unholy must rise at the last unholy, must have his portion with unholy spirits, and remain unholy for ever and ever. I hope you now see that present sufferings, however great they may be, will not prevent you, in the next life, from enduring eternal misery, unless those sufferings have been sanctified, and your soul renewed.
4. The last remark which I shall make is this – Those who know the way to heaven, seize every opportunity to direct others thither, even when there is but the shadow of a probability that the attempt will be successful. If the Clergyman had said within himself, “This woman is so ignorant, and at the same time so near her end, that to try to instruct her would be a useless effort;” he would not now have had occasion to bless God for being made the happy means of turning a fellow-sinner “from the error of her ways;” and she might have sunk into the grave under her dark cloud of ignorance, and have risen at the last to shame and everlasting contempt. What a very important event took place from what appeared a trivial circumstance, – that of meeting with a poor diseased woman, sitting by a sheep-fold! Here an opportunity presented itself of doing good; it was seized; God gave his blessing to what was said; and now, instead of howling for anguish of spirit, an immortal being, we have reason to hope, is admitted into that blessed state where there is no more pain, nor sickness, nor death; and the praises of her Redeemer are her blissful employment, day and night. Though when on earth she was poor and ignorant, yet being enriched with the righteousness of her Saviour, and taught by the Spirit of God the way of salvation, she is now one in that vast assembly which no man can number, who cast their crowns at the foot of the Lamb, saying – “Thou art worthy to receive all honour, and glory, and power; for thou hast redeemed us to thyself by thy blood!”
Before I finish this little book, let me inquire, What impression has been made on your mind while reading it? Are you convinced, that though you are ignorant, your ignorance will be no hindrance to your becoming a true Christian, provided you pray for Divine teaching? Do you believe the things that have been told you? If you do, surely some effects will follow. Like poor Susan, you will begin to-day to attend to what has been said to you. But if you lay the book, and all concern about its contents, aside together, you have read to no purpose, but to increase your future condemnation. If you have derived any benefit from reading it, you will make application, before you sleep this night, to that Divine Teacher who has promised to enlighten your mind, and has graciously offered to bestow wisdom on all who will ask him for it. Were I to tell you that there was a rich person in your neighbourhood, so kindly disposed towards all the poor in the parish in which you live, that whoever went to him, he would supply their wants; how would you all be flocking to his door, and crying, “O, Sir, I want this;” and another, “I want that;” and when his goodness had given you the things you asked for, with what joy would you return to your families; and I dare say you would feel thankful to me, that I had told you of so kind a friend.—But I have told you of one much more kindly disposed towards the poor, not only in one, but in every parish: and if you only go to him with the same sincerity of desire to receive what he has to bestow, and with the same importunity, that you would express if you went to ask for bread or clothing for your hungry, naked children, be assured you will not be sent empty away. Though you may not receive bread to support your bodies, he will give you what is much better, and will last much longer, and that is the Bread of Life. Now do you feel thankful for being told this? If not, I think that you must be convinced that you are more alive to the concerns of your body than to those of your soul? You are more anxious to attain “the meat that perisheth than that which endureth unto everlasting life.” Let me intreat you to think seriously what is the meaning of such passages in your Bible as the following:—“Give diligence to make your calling and election sure.” “Strive to enter into the straight gate.” “Pray without ceasing.” “So run, that ye may obtain.” “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” Are you cold and careless? How then can you claim the character of Christians? And what then can be more plain than this, that you remain, to the present moment, without that change of heart, which your Saviour, with a verily, verily, has told you must take place, before you can be admitted into the kingdom of heaven? Read, with serious attention, the third chapter of St. John and the third verse: He there says, Ye must be born again. Whoever, therefore, reads this little book, if he knows of no change of heart; if he finds that he does not strive to love and serve God more than he once did: if he does not feel that he hates and avoids sin more than he once did; if he does not love real Christians more than he once did; if he does not try to benefit his fellow-creatures, and he once did: whether the reader be rich or poor, he is to this moment in his sins; old things are not passed away, all things are not become new. —Nothing, therefore, can be more certain (if the Word of God be true) than that if death should find him in holy beings; his everlasting abode must be in that Hell, into which, not only all the wicked are turned, but likewise all the people that forget God.