Part II - The Answer of the Tongue
7 - The Vital Seed
HENRIETTA's London relations lived in Marylebone, a district rising just then into the handsomest suburb of London. The beautiful houses of Regent's Park stood glittering new, each with its busy stable and smart equippage. Broad Walk was a regular promenade of fashion. John Nash had completed the fine curve of Regent Street and the prosperous Londoners thronged these parts with their carriages and horses. One of the Jeffreys family had a villa on North Bank, its gardens sloping to the busy Regent's Canal. Charles took a house in Dorset Place (now gone), off Dorset Square, and Mrs. Nicol lived in the same vicinity.
But Henrietta breathes not one word of all this. Her heart was bent on meeting these servants of God she had read about and Charles had told her about. She goes on with her Narrative :
"I was kindly received, and introduced to some of their friends, especially Mr. Abbott; and in the evening we met for the purpose of their entering into conversation with me. I felt much embarrassed at first, expecting, from past experience, that I should have great difficulty to convey to their minds any just idea of the state I was in. But no sooner had I begun to stammer out a few words, all in confusion, than to my surprise I found them received with entire sympathy, and such a perfect understanding of my meaning that whenever I was at a loss to express myself, my sentence was taken up and finished for me exactly to my heart's content. Mr. Abbott, who especially spoke on that occasion, took up the thread of what I was trying to say, and described the secret workings and windings of my experience so minutely and so faithfully that it seemed little short of a miracle. This was new indeed to me and it convinced me that the truth of God was among them, in the same way that the woman of Samaria was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah when she said, "He told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?".
"I found my heart to join in unreserved union with theirs; and though I heard many things in their experience far above what I had yet reached, yet even such things did sweetly accord with and explain to me what little I had been brought to the knowledge of.
"The instruction I received here, combined with the various exercises I had gone through, enabled me to form a decisive judgment, and one which I know will be found according to truth, of the zealous profession I had formerly walked in. It was crumbled to dust before my eyes, so that there was not found in the bursting of it "a shard to take fire from the hearth or to take water withal out of the pit". I saw it to be a tissue of refined self-righteousness; and the sum of all that can be said of my then state is, that I had "a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge". All my attainments in that kind of religion I did now heartily renounce, and have never since desired to regain them.
"I now returned to Hertford very happy, sweetly assured that I was in the footsteps of Christ's flock. But being still very ignorant of the Lord's way of dealing with His people I took for granted that the light and comfort I now enjoyed would abide and increase, and that I should never get into such darkness again. Little did I know the difficulties that lay between me and my soul's desire (to obtain the testimony of God by the witness of the Spirit on my heart). Little did I think I had almost everything to learn, and, if possible, more to unlearn. I feared opposition from without but knew next to nothing of the opposition from within; the opposition that my own heart would still keep up in every form against the new principle implanted, as it were a grain of mustard seed, and which would be amply sufficient to destroy it if it were upheld by any power short of the power of God. I had to discover that the discernment of a sin is one thing and the power to subdue and expel it quite another.
"The joy I had felt when I first returned from London presently abated, and my impatient expectation of finding great things all at once was disappointed. Especially I found that the earnest spiritual violence with which I made sure of taking the Kingdom of Heaven by force was not at my command, so that I too often felt as dead, hard, and indifferent to all spiritual things as possible. I did not understand this in my ignorance; therefore it disheartened me and filled me at times with doubts as to the truth of those things I had lately heard and believed. I had felt confident that I should henceforth be proof against all that I might continue to hear laid to the charge of those whom I now so highly valued, but in my dark and bewildered state I found this was by no means the case. Someone informed me that certain among my friends were actuated by a very bad spirit, and at once Satan filled my mind with suspicions and crowded in proofs with such force that I was carried away. He made it seem clear that they were walking in a false light, insomuch that I resolved to renounce all further intercourse with them, and trembled at the narrow escape I had had of being entangled in a dreadful snare. But still the question would obtrude itself "What then will you do?" ... I do not think I ever felt such anguish as now filled my soul. Go back to my old profession I could not. At last I cried out in misery, "There's no way - all men are liars, all, all!". At this moment these words were spoken to my heart with indescribable power, "I am the way, the truth". In an instant I was delivered from all my trouble, and the discovery of this way was as new to me as if I had never heard of it before. Well may the Lord say, "Behold I make all things new" even in this sense; for I am sure that the very oldest and most well-known truth, when revealed by the Spirit to the Soul, is new indeed; yes, again and again, as often as it is revived.
"I was now full of joy, and made to feel Christ alone was enough, so that for some time I ceased to think of any man. But when by degrees I called to remembrance my London friends, I found the present light shone upon and revived what I had before felt among them; so that my union with them was sweetly confirmed. Afterwards I was reading the Bible and came upon this verse, "... Who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption". I felt an awe on my spirit in considering what a depth of truth lay under these words, and a longing desire that the Lord would some day open them to me by His Holy Spirit.
"The next day there was a religious meeting to be held at our house, and I attended as usual. [Henrietta, says her biographer, was by degrees finding it impossible to maintain communion with those who did not see the danger of an easy profession of religion, and was specially tried in attending certain meetings that had for some time been held at the Rectory by the easy and confident manner in which the promises of Scripture, any real entrance into which she found it so hard to obtain, were handed about from one to another.] Though I had so lately been happy, yet my spirit sank to such a degree that I believe I looked more dejected than usual, for the lady who conducted the meeting [doubtless far older than the young Rector's wife!] addressed herself particularly to me. I quite forget what she said, or what I answered, but I well recollect that she rejoined again, in a tone of expostulation, though I had not referred to the text, "Well, but surely we know that Christ is our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption", and then she looked round the room for confirmation of her too confident assumption. Some motion of assent was immediately made by all except one, whose case strongly resembled my own. I can hardly convey an idea of the way in which these words, so lightly spoken, fell on my spirit. In the light that I had obtained the day before I saw so clearly the hollowness of that showy profession that I was compelled from that time forward to withdraw from all connection with it.
"It was a great mercy to me that my dear husband gave me full permission to act according to my conscience in this and other cases. In truth the very same work was being carried on in his heart, and wholly independent of what was passing in mine, except that the account I gave him of my first visit to London tended to convince him that those who had conversed with me were themselves taught of God. He had not been in the same state with myself formerly, accordingly there was afterwards some variety in the way we were severally led. Yet I think I may say that the teaching in his heart and mine did truly harmonise so that we found sweet unity of spirit continually."
And how, now, did things go with Bernard?
"When first I discovered that the work of grace in dear Henrietta corresponded with what was set forth by our friends in London as the saving work of grace and would lead her in spirit to be united to them, I was greatly afraid; my heart sank within me," he says. "My wife being exercised in mind with a conviction deeper than I had yet felt of the greatness and difficulty of vital religion, was led freely to converse with some of these persons and to hear their counsel. They manifested so deep an acquaintance and solid understanding in every part of personal religion, such humility, tenderness of spirit, and reverence for God and His holy Word, that when the result of this interview was communicated to me I was afraid of daring any longer to fortify my heart against them. Not that I was brought to understand how far they were right and others wrong; but the fear of God so fell upon me that I began to feel, with dismay, that I was wrong myself. Who am I, I began to think, that I should rest in my natural faith and intellectual religion, which enable me to split hairs in doctrine, but leave me always in the dark as to my actual state in the sight of God!
"Very soon after this I received a particular help as I was walking up and down in my study, meditating thus: "I have always imagined I believed that real conversion is God's gift. It comes to this with me now - I must ask if it will please Him to grant me this mercy for Jesus Christ's sake". The help I speak of was not any bright hope that this would be granted, nor any beam of light to show me what the blessing was: but my mind sensibly received a new direction, and with it a spirit of anxious prayer, which, though often damped for a time, has never left me since. I saw that I understood but little, had no real contrition, no solid hope, no appropriating faith, but now, instead of labouring to frame these things, I saw that God's way set before me was to ASK for them; and that my sensible destitution of them all must be a matter for continual confession in prayer.
"In January 1833 (soon after my mind received the new direction) I was preaching in the evening from these words, "Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified". My discourse was, in the letter of it, very evangelical, but I felt deep misgivings that I lacked a spiritual understanding in the power of the doctrines I set forth. And my concluding words were to this effect: "Knowing that neither you nor I can possibly enter into these truths aright without the special favour and power of God I charge it both on you and on myself to be instant in prayer day and night for this divine blessing". The words were only common, but I perceived a power as I pronounced them, then new to me, which. I believe I may add, has never since quitted me in preaching. It was not elevating, but humbling, as though in my spirit I sunk out of the pulpit amongst my people and was made in simple earnest to look up, with such among them as feared God, for everything from Him.
"All my laborious preparations for the pulpit faded out of me from that hour, and I waited on the Lord with fervent supplication to be Himself our teacher and to teach me what to say. The very next week I expressed my confusion, fear, and hope, the awakening and humbling I had begun to find, in a sermon on these blessed words, "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth and the life". From that time the opposition against me began; for some of them felt the sword of the Spirit cut asunder their flimsy profession.
"My friends in London (for so I began now to find them) when they perceived this tender conviction and serious seeking in me, were ready to acknowledge it at once as the hand of God for good. They showed an anxious caution themselves lest they should darken counsel by words without knowledge, but their fixed principle always was that what I had begun to feel, namely, real tenderness of heart, the fear of God and an anxious spirit of prayer accompanied by self-mistrust and humiliation, were the seed of all vital religion; that through the maintenance of the very same things they had been brought to all they had ever enjoyed; and that whenever any are preserved in this spirit it is manifest that God is leading them, though in "a way they knew not". Such as David, such as Paul will come down, and gladly too, even though they have been at times "caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words" to commune heart to heart with those who only begin to draw near, as I then did, for the first time, to the thick darkness wherein God dwells. And I am sure I found this with some of my friends, and knew it was "the unity of the Spirit" to be preserved "in the bond of peace"; that it was the unity of the brethren, pleasant and good, which David describes in Psalm 133. Nor can I describe to my reader the amazing difference I found between this kind of communion, which was both heart-searching and encouraging, and my former communion with others, which, invariably induced a false confidence, a secret self-pleasing, and so a deadening of spiritual conviction in my heart."
It was as early in their acquaintance as this that the Gilpins first invited James Abbott, the shoemaker, to stay with them awhile. He was a widower then, aged sixty-one. Perhaps it was in reference to this humble yet godly man that Bernard wrote, "If we would really maintain spiritual unity, we must expect that it will please God to search out and to mortify the secret pride of our hearts. Perhaps our taste is very fastidious, or our attainments in one direction or another considerable? (Or we may only think them so!) Then it will be a hard matter to discern the power of God manifested in mean earthen vessels, and very hard to overcome our deep prejudices. And I am sure in these matters I have had discoveries of my sin which have made me to tremble lest God should leave me to myself.
[James Abbott visited them several times in the following years, and they and their friends held his conversations and letters on spiritual things in high estimation. "Mr. Gilpin had such a sense of the blessing conveyed through his means," we read, "that he affectionately spoke of him as their Archbishop Abbott", alluding to the good archbishop of that name in the days of James I. 'so brightly," adds the writer, "may shine the grace of God in wisdom, patience, humility, sincerity, and love, and so useful may it make a man in the Church, though devoid of this world's wealth and of all the advantages of learning and of shining natural gifts."]
Bernard continues: "When the power of these things first began to work in me the effects could not be hid. They obliged me to withdraw from taking an active part in many things, even some things in themselves good, which I would willingly have attended to had I been able. Sometimes I thought I should be utterly confounded, since I, a teacher myself, who had been telling people for years how needful it was for them to be religious, must now become only a seeker. However, though I can truly say I was greatly confounded before God, I was never confounded before the people; nor, through His singular mercy, moved out of the way. Now, though I preached with much more tenderness and deep self-application than before, I began to perceive I was disliked by many, and many charges were advanced against me. But, being made very cautious in my walk, these resolved themselves into one, perhaps the hardest of any to bear with patience - that however well I meant I was greatly clouded in my understanding (if indeed I had any!) and perhaps partly deranged!"
As for those undenominational London friends Bernard felt at first that he "could not bear the prospect which I thought this union unfolded of reproach and trouble, as well as perhaps in the end (in my individual case as a minister) separation from the Church, my place in which afforded me at that time my only means of support. But God enabled me seriously to ponder the matter, and to lay aside all thought of those dreaded consequences. I was both directed and encouraged to seek to improve the reproach I suffered by the timely correspondence of one of these London friends, so that I felt both in this and the other varied trials in which I was soon involved, that real Christian friendship and sympathy is invaluable."
And what did the Gilpin family think of this leaning towards unorthodoxy in Bernard, one of its youngest members? Matilda had gone to Norton to visit Frances, and although her visit was planned for a few months only it resulted in her absence for many years.
While at Norton Matilda and Frances received several letters from Bernard, enclosing some of the MS. ones handed about in Mr. Burrell's congregation. "From the knowledge she herself had of experimental religion. Matilda at once understood their language. Never, but in the case of Sukey Harley, had she been acquainted with any who manifestly walked in such frequent communion with God as those friends evidently did. She had often secretly believed there were many such instances amongst the people of God on earth, and had prayed that He would bring her into communion with such."
Of Frances we learn, 'she received much spiritual profit by the clear and faithful testimony given by these good men (made known to her through her brother at Hertford) according to which they walked in the fear of God. By this means she was encouraged to visit and converse on the things of God with several in her neighbourhood who manifested the fear of God". These two sisters, then, would perceive Bernard's position with great sympathy.
At Pulverbach it was different. We read Mercy's account. "I remember how I felt when I read my brother Bernard's first letter to us stating the change that had taken place in his soul. My father was ill when the letter arrived, and he gave it to me to open and to read over by myself. I took it into my room at night and read it. It was on December 18th, 1833. I was exceedingly alarmed at what my brother said. I thought he had surely imbibed some of the errors of the day. That chapter setting forth how it will be at the end of the world, that many false prophets and false Christs shall arise and deceive if it were possible even the elect, fell with a weight upon my mind. I thought surely these days were now already coming, and feeling as I did that I had no certainty of the truth stamped upon my own heart, my soul was thrown into confusion and terror. I thought it cannot be that I shall escape being deceived, for I am altogether ignorant of what the truth is. I fell on my knees at the foot of the bed and said with much anguish of spirit, "O Lord, I do not know Thy truth. I am quite ignorant. Wilt Thou teach me?". I deeply felt at the moment that if I trusted to man's teaching my soul would be lost.
"In my distress I wrote to my brother under the idea that he was wrong, but he answered me in the same strain as before, and soon after my sister Matilda began also to write to me in the same manner, and I knew not what to make of it all. However, my fears and secret desires to be taught aright did not continue long, but by degrees wore away, and were succeeded more and more by prejudice and enmity against all my brother and sister said; though I think a secret feeling that perhaps they were right would often press on my mind.
"At this time I was left to find pleasure in the world more than I usually had been, and the secret hope of attaining to something in religion as yet unfelt, which had been kept alive in my soul, began to fail. I used to find myself saying, Perhaps, after all, there is not more to be found that what I have attained to: so I may as well cease to expect anything. I spent a week in Shrewsbury at this time, and all these temptations and snares were then especially leading me astray. I found when I returned home a friend had come to visit us who had imbibed Irvingism. [Edward Irving, a Scotch Presbyterian and friend of Thomas Carlyle, had made a great name for himself in religion with a gift for oratory but held several grave errors, such as the attainment to angelic gifts and Christ's liability to sin: he lost himself in the end in a morass of "prophesyings" and "unknown tongues".] I heard much that she said, and hearkened attentively to it, and at times was inclined to think it was the very religion I had been in pursuit of when I had so earnestly desired to find the inward experience of many passages of Scripture that would come upon my mind."
So Mercy was no help to her brother at this crucial time. Neither it would seem, were any of the others, who must be included in his statement - "Now also I began to be beset in all directions by the kind solicitations of many of my former friends and my relations, who did not in the least enter into my feelings, but were strongly persuaded that I was wrong". These "kind solicitations" changed, as the months went on to "The indignation of my congregation, the contempt I was treated with, and the alienation of some of my dearest friends and relations".
The crux of Bernard's outlook at this time is stated thus: I laboured most of all, in preaching and conversation, to prevent my hearers from resting at ease on an uncertain foundation. One great hindrance I began now to feel in a more special and pointed manner than ever before. This was the fact that the occasional services of the Established Church do most of them involve a principle which increasingly appeared to me unsound, namely, that they refer to all persons alike addressed in them as being in the way to heaven. When I first began to feel myself seriously embarrassed by this I was severely tried indeed. I had no wish to be a Dissenter, nor to plunge myself, as it appeared, into great trouble by abandoning almost the whole of my income. Besides, I perceived I had been first awakened in the Establishment, and my ministry there had for a time been attended with some evident marks of the blessing of God. So all I found I could do was to "withdraw into the wilderness and pray"."
In June, 1834, Bernard received the following letter from James Bourne in London:
"Dear Sir, - Half-an-hour ago I had little thought of writing to you so soon, but hearing of your present trial excites me to pray that as you partake of the affliction of the children of God so you may also of the consolation. I believe you have been led in godly simplicity to beg of God to clear your way and to show you how you ought to go: so I believe that He will unfold the mystery in a way that we cannot in anywise foresee. Perhaps this very circumstance which seems big with ruin will, by the Lord's help, give you power to bear witness to the truth where you were least likely to have an opportunity of so doing. My prayer for you shall be that you may be fortified and emboldened to bear a clear testimony of the hope that is in you, and that you may give a scriptural ground for your proceedings, and may find power to leave the event with the Lord, and be much in prayer to be at His disposal.
"I have often, in the course of my life, been in such intricate circumstances as to think there could be no way opened for my escape; but by giving myself to prayer I have been astonished to find, when the time has arrived and I have almost despaired, the Lord has spoken these words, and others of the like sort - "The battle is not yours, but God's"; "Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation, there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling". I have found the verity of these precious words; and they have silenced all my fears and strengthened my hopes in future difficulties.
"Be very particular to attend to this my request: if any plans in the flesh are proposed in your mind, or any schemes of human prudence are held before you, reject them as you would a viper, and for this once try what being a fool for Christ's sake will do. Let patience have its perfect work; rely, if possible, on the Lord; be much in prayer, night and day; and believe me, the weaker you feel, and the more sensible you are of your want of power to manage the matter, so much the more likely you are to meet with God's protection. "He giveth power to the faint, and to them that have no might he increaseth strength." May the Lord protect you and Mrs. Gilpin, and make you willing to be nothing - hard lesson! Here let me quote for you both a part of our late friend's prayer - "O Lord, keep me very low, O keep me very low indeed! O Lord Jesus, do Thou do it, and save me as Thou didst her who sat at Thy feet, and washed them with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head: and Thou saidst her sins, which were many were forgiven, and she loved much". Get here, and all outward difficulties are easily righted. "The Lord exalts them of low degree, and to the poor in spirit salvation is sent.""
Evidently about this time a patron of the family, Lord Bexley (who had years before offered Bernard a post in the Bank of England), made several "kind and indeed generous offers" of help in this time of difficulty, and Bernard sent the letter on to his mentor for advice. For on June 22nd, we have this reply from Mr. Bourne.
"I would first consider the letter you have received which appears to have been written with much kindness. If I were to answer it I would not advert to the outward circumstances, but if possible, with the utmost godly simplicity declare that you are under spiritual difficulties and are making the Lord your refuge; that you by no means dare to run from your post, where you believe that God is instructing you. What the Lord may do for you is yet undiscovered; but you mean not willingly to give offence, nor to flinch from the cross when offence is taken against the truth. Be as short in your answer as such received kindness will admit of. Be on the defensive, explain nothing, clear nothing, leave as much difficulty upon curious enquiries as you can. "Be wise as serpents." Make God your counsellor, keep very private, very silent. While you are secretly labouring with God, He will openly work for you. To move out of the furnace before the Lord moves the cloud, would to me appear a very black mark. As I said in my last, "Venture to be nought". It will do you both good. Therein lies your safety and happiness. The road to it lies through many prickly thorns - to lose a good name - to be counted a fool for Christ's sake to be hated for the same cause. Sometimes heaven and earth seem combined to bring on our ruin; and so they are. There must be a downfall of the old man; he must be crucified. Here you will learn not to trifle with the message on which God has sent you."
All this counsel was exactly aligned with Bernard's feelings and was accepted with gratitude by him.
"It was not until July 26th, 1834," he says, "that I found any light in my dark way. I was greatly agitated in mind on that day, fearing lest I should too lightly handle those points which gave me so much concern relative to the abuse of the Lord's supper. It greatly distressed me to notice the blind devotion evinced by some in their attendance upon the Lord's table. I bent my whole strength, as God enabled me, against this subtle self-righteousness. This day, while I continued walking and crying in my heart to God, I thought my whole way seemed to get darker and darker, and my fears rose higher and higher. At last the impression deepening and clearing in my mind of the danger, especially in this self-confident age, of mingling the precious with the vile, I sat down and relieved my feelings by writing to my Diocesan, Dr. Kaye, and acquainting him with my intention to make a few verbal alterations in the sacramental, baptismal, and burial services of the Church to obviate the objections I felt concerning them. Many objections started up in my mind as I wrote, but all these were over-ruled by an authoritative intimation that the time was now come for me to act, and that longer delay would be sinful.
"I perceived I must be cautious to yield to no persuasion, to leave my public charge voluntarily, for indeed it would only have been dishonest to profess to be thus requiring time for reflection or taking advice when in fact my mind was fully made up, and that by the mercy and guidance of God Himself. [Actually, the Bishop did later suggest a voluntary retirement for a time.] After some time, the Bishop answered me with great moderation, and after I had rejoined, he chose to remain perfectly silent till official complaints were made of my non-conformity, when he was obliged to interfere. The matter was finally settled not till June, 1835."
This interim period was very valuable to Bernard, who sums it up thus: "I was kept, by the mercy of God, more desirous of pondering the path of my feet than of looking before me to future events, which seemed, if ever I anticipated them, only portentous and gloomy. I had a deepening impression of the difficulty as well as the importance of the work of personal religion; that the spiritual work of God in the heart, and the clear manifestations of it, and the continual progress of it in ourselves, and as far as He directs our influence, in others also, are the great objects of the desire, prayer, and spiritual labour of every true believer. Hence I never led my people aside to those superficial questions which my outward situation seemed rather to invite me to consider. And I know that in this cleaving altogether to that which is spiritual, I enjoyed a sweet testimony at times that God was with me of a truth, and made His own word, delivered by me, not to return void. So that these were the golden hours of my ministry in the Establishment, and I dared as little to shorten them by a day by any hasty act of my own, as to protract them beyond the time when God should appoint their termination.
"We naturally find distasteful the humbling power which the real entrance of the grace of God to us proud sinners always brings with it. We would leave it wholly out of our account, if we could. But the members of the Church militant cannot continue in a thriving spiritual state without the sore exercise of the cross, which is both outward and inward. And if the power of the Spirit be on us, we shall not be able to make light of this cross - a disposition which is most opposite to that wrought by grace. Indeed, throughout the whole of man's walk in the power of the Gospel there is the continuance of this broken and contrite heart which God will not despise. This is the very thing which makes the true Christian life and Christian conflict seem mean and inglorious in the world. Every other conqueror rejoices in his strength, but he who follows Christ in the regeneration finds his strength only made perfect in weakness. And it is very generally the case, on certain prominent occasions, that the strength is hidden while the weakness is made manifest."
As the Bishop left Bernard's case in abeyance, so we will leave Hertford for a short time and meet one of the other Cambridge young men again - Watkin Maddy.