A Visit to My Birthplace
James Smith, 1860
Once more I am here visiting my birthplace — may my visit suggest some profitable thoughts to my mind!
This is Brentford, with its old market, church-tower, and dirty streets. More than twenty years of my life were spent here. Oh, the mercies received, the sins committed, and the grace displayed in my experience here! The greatest change that can ever be produced in a man was wrought in me here. Every spot almost brings something to my remembrance calculated to fill me with gratitude or grief. But I will visit a few old spots, which may, perhaps, bring to my mind, and present to my eye, scenes which I may turn to profitable account.
At that old house, No. 5, I was born. I can never look at that old plaster dwelling without deep feeling. There my honest and industrious parents lived, and there my father, while I was yet a child, died. Who would have thought that the babe born in that place, under such circumstances — would be crowned with so many mercies, and be honored with so much usefulness.
In that yard was a very deep well, into which, soon after I could walk, I fell — and was only saved at the risk of another's life. There was but a hair's breadth between me and death! For a time my petticoats floated me — but I had sunk twice, and was just sinking the third time, when a man descended by the chain, caught me, held me until help was obtained, and my life was saved. Surely there is a special Providence over us, and we are immortal until God's purposes respecting us are accomplished!
Where that modern-built house now stands, once stood the cottage of Ma'am Banbury, where I learned the first rudiments of my mother tongue. Dear, kind old soul! Long since, her tongue, which taught so many, has been silent in the dust. Yonder is the soap manufactory, to which, soon after my tenth birthday, I was sent to work, to assist my widowed mother in procuring food for the family. There I first heard Unitarian perversions of the Word of God; there I learned to swear, and there I fell into sins which no one but a forgiving God ever knew. Oh, how wonderful the forbearance and long-suffering of God towards me!
There in New Brentford, is the Fellmongers' yard, where I was apprenticed, and spent nearly ten years of my life, where I learned to drink as well as swear, and was ripening for destruction — when God, in his sovereign grace, arrested me! Yes, it was grace, and grace alone, that changed my heart, and turned my feet into the way of peace.
In the corner of the Market-place stood the little Baptist Chapel, where I sometimes attended, and was more than once convinced of sin — but those convictions were stifled, and my danger became greater than before.
And now I stand before the spot, where a gardener's packing-room once stood, which was afterwards converted into a chapel, and in which God called me by his grace. Oh, the pains and the pleasures, the joys and the sorrows, the grief and the gladness I have experienced in that place! There I professed Christ, and was baptized in his name. From thence, I was sent out to preach the gospel, accompanied by a pastor's blessing, and the affectionate prayers of the Church. Oh, how I loved that place! But it is razed to the ground, and a new sanctuary erected near its site.
I am now in Boston Fields, a hallowed spot to me. Beneath that wide-spreading tree, near the bottom of the first of those fields, what seasons I have enjoyed! It was my sanctuary. When not allowed to pray or read my Bible quietly at home, here I repaired. Early in the morning and late at night have I worshiped here. Through the deep snow at daybreak I have come here to meditate and pray. Here I brought my burdens to cast them on my God. Here I brought my sorrows, to pour them into the sympathizing bosom of my Savior. Here also I brought my cares, that I might cast them on him who cared for me. No spot on earth was like this spot to me once. Here I could pray aloud, and no one hear me. Here I could sing the praises of my God, and no one disturb here. Here I often sat, and ate my mid-day meal, with my dear old Testament spread open on my knee. Here I composed my first sermon, and here, all alone, I tried my voice in attempts to preach. To this spot I brought the first young man whose heart I won for Christ, and here I heard him call on God for mercy. Here together we talked of Jesus, confessed sin, admired free grace, and anticipated the joys of Heaven. The first field of Boston, as I then called it, I shall never forget — no, not in Heaven. Dear old tree! Dear old spot! Forget you? Never! I have enjoyed too much of my Savior's presence there for that. My communion with God has been too frequent, too familiar, too sweet for that. But I must leave it now: farewell — and farewell forever, perhaps — one of the dearest and most hallowed spots on earth to me.
I am now rambling along some of the old lanes, where I have often spent hours in meditation, prayer, and praise. Often, after a hard day's toil, have I wandered in these lanes, and have enjoyed the presence of my God, until I have felt as if I were bathing in the river of pleasure. Right heartily could I say —
"The opening Heavens around me shine,
With beams of sacred bliss;
While Jesus shows his heart is mine,
And whispers I am his!"
But I have had sad seasons here, and have experienced darkness that may be felt. Oh, the horrid temptations, the dismal fears, the gloomy doubts, which have racked my soul, as I have paced these lanes in years gone by! What conflicts I have experienced here on the subject of my call to the ministry of God's Word, and how long it was before I could satisfactorily conclude that I was called to that work! Some appear to have no trouble upon this point; but I had much, and it lasted for several years too.
Here is the grand Junction Canal. I shall never forget my feelings as I paced the towing-path here one night. I had been foolishly praying for deep convictions, and as I sat in my lodgings, not far from this spot, a horror of great darkness fell upon me, violent convictions seized me, the fountains of the great deep within seemed to be broken up, and the most dreadful temptations were presented to me. I think, if ever believer felt the horrors of despair, I did that night. Oh, how I was tempted to plunge into the canal and know the worst of it! How did Satan urge, "If you are one of God's elect, you will be saved, though you end your life; and if you are not, you never will be saved, and therefore you will only know your doom a little sooner — and even Hell cannot be much worse than this. Pluck up courage, man; end the strife, and dare to know the secret." But, blessed be God, I was kept by the power of God, and at length the living water within began to spring up, a spirit of prayer returned, and my soul was delivered. Never have I dared to pray for deep convictions since — but have endeavored to warn others against such folly.
Near this spot, too, another and very different scene presents itself to my view, for here I suffered violent persecution. Here I stood many an attack, and came off victorious. But here, once, when I joined for a time with the world, I was overcome, shamefully yielded, and brought darkness and distress into my soul. Oh, how often have I prayed in those lofts, and under those sheds, and others which are now gone! Many a precious answer to prayer have I obtained there! Many a spiritual blessing has been conferred upon me there! Oh, the sweet communion with God I have enjoyed, the assaults of Satan I have experienced, and the scoffs of men I have endured on the premises that face me now. But what a change has come over the place, once so familiar! and a much greater change has come over me and my circumstances. To God, all-wise, all-gracious, and ever-faithful, be all the praise!
I am now standing before a cottage once inhabited by my old friend, Charley H. He is gone the way of all flesh, and, absent from the body, is, I believe, present with the Lord. In this cottage a few of us used to meet for prayer and Christian conference. Here I first ventured to engage in social prayer; here I first attempted to expound a portion of God's blessed Word. Here hearts united and voices blended in the worship of God; and within these cottage walls myself and some of the companions of my youth tasted the sweetest joys.
I have now before me, the dwelling of my venerable friend, Walker, for many years a class-leader among the Wesleyans; on his dying bed my father requested him to keep an eye over me. The first prayer I ever heard offered for the salvation of my soul was from his lips, and though I bitterly hated his Methodism, being then bigotted to the Established Church, I nevertheless revered the man. Dear old saint, you have long been in Heaven. Often, when I visited this, my native town, have I seen you sit and listen, with delighted countenance, to hear me speak of Jesus — but we shall meet in the worship of God no more below. Your prayers for me were answered, and, from my heart, I have often thanked you for them; and though I shall no more hear your voice below, I believe I shall join with you in singing, "Worthy is the Lamb!" above.
On the other side of the street, opposite to where I now stand, is (what was) the habitation of my old friend, Lindsey. In that house I first opened my heart to my friend preparatory to joining the Church of Christ. From that house I took coach to go with my friend to Alton, in Hampshire, to preach my first sermon, and back to that house I came, with the foolish determination in my mind that I would attempt to preach no more. But my friend still lives, though not here, else I might record in my notes many an act of kindness, shown to me by him, for Jesus' sake. Dear brother in the Lord, may your last days be your
best, your holiest, your happiest days, and at evening-time may it be light! and when yourself and your beloved partner shall drop into the arms of death, may you both realize that you are only dropping into the arms of Jesus!
I have gone some distance musing, and am now before what was the residence of venerable Mr. S., always kind to me, notwithstanding disparity of circumstances, and his having often been annoyed by my youthful follies. Never, while memory lasts, shall I forget your fatherly love to me, in a season of deep trouble, nor the many wise counsels I have received from you. I was to have preached your funeral sermon — at least, it was one of your last requests to me — but, from distance and other circumstances, I did not even hear of your death, until some time after the solemn event. But I trust we shall meet where there is no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, for the former things have passed away.
I have come back nearly to where I started from, and here lived my pastor. For me he felt a pastor's love, and to me he showed a father's kindness. Dear old man, he had his faults — but who has not? I have — and plenty of them. It shall not be mine to speak of them, and for those who do, I only wish that their faults may be as few, and their virtues as many. I ever loved him. I love him still. Most ungrateful should I be if I did not. In that little parlor I received wise counsels, judicious cautions, and beneficial admonitions. Whoever may forget Andrew — I shall not. He blamed me when I saw, as I thought, farther than himself; but, having vented his honest anger, he manifested his love as warmly as ever. Dear old man, may your sun go down brightly and beautifully, and may your death-bed call forth the exclamation, "May my last end be like his!"
Oh, how many friends I had once at Brentford — and how I loved them! But I must leave off scribbling about them. Peace, peace be to the ashes of the dead, and grace, grace bo given to the living!
Brentford, perhaps I may see you no more, nearly sixty years have passed over me; my brow is now wrinkled, and my locks begin to turn gray — the days are coming, and the years draw near, when, if I am spared, the trials of age will come upon me.
But I know that my Redeemer lives; the covenant is ordered in all things and sure; the promises are truth; and God, my gracious God, is faithful. He will not leave me, and blessed be his holy name, he will not let me quite leave him. The Lord is my keeper, and, kept by his power, guided by his wisdom, and supplied by his providence — I shall reach my eternal home.
Sweet word, Home! What a glorious thought, Heaven is my home! What a home is mine! The home of patriarchs and prophets, the home of martyrs and confessors, the home of saints and angels, the home of Jesus and of God! Holy Spirit, prepare me for it; keep my eye fixed upon it; and, when my work is done, send a strong and loving angel to conduct me to it, for Jesus' sake! You, O Lord, shall guide me with your counsel, and afterwards receive me to glory.
This God is the God we adore,
Our faithful unchangeable friend,
Whose love is as large as his power,
And neither knows measure nor end:
'Tis Jesus, the first and the last,
Whose Spirit shall guide us safe home;
We'll praise him for all that is past,
And trust him for all that's to come!