Thoughts on Religious Experience

Archibald Alexander, 1844

Early religious impressions—Different results—Classes of people least impressed—Examples of ineffectual impressions

There is no necessity for any other proof of native depravity than the aversion which children early manifest to pious instruction and to spiritual exercises. From this cause it proceeds, that many children who have the opportunity of a good pious education learn scarcely anything of the most important truths of Christianity. If they are compelled to commit the catechism to memory, they are accustomed to do this without ever thinking of the doctrines contained in the words which they recite; so that, when the attention is at any time awakened to the subject of religion as a personal concern, they feel themselves to be completely ignorant of the system of divine truth taught in the Bible. Yet even to these the truths committed to memory are now of great utility. They are like a treasure which has been hidden, but is now discovered. Of two people under conviction of sin, one of whom has had sound religious instruction and the other none, the former will have an unspeakable advantage over the latter in many respects.

Many children, and especially those who have pious parents who speak to them of the importance of salvation, are the subjects of occasional religious impressions of different kinds. Sometimes they are alarmed by hearing an awakening sermon, or by the sudden death of a companion of their own age; or again, they are tenderly affected even to tears from a consideration of the goodness and forbearance of God, or from a representation of the love and sufferings of Christ. There are also seasons of transporting joy which some experience, especially after being tenderly affected with a sense of ingratitude to God for His wonderful goodness in sparing them, and bestowing so many blessings upon them. These transient emotions of joy cannot always be easily accounted for—but they are commonly preceded or accompanied by a hope or persuasion that God is reconciled and will receive them.

In some cases it would be thought that these juvenile exercises were indications of a change of heart, did they not pass away like the morning cloud or early dew, so as even to be obliterated from the mind which experienced them. Some undertake to account for these religious impressions merely from the susceptible principle of human nature, in connection with the external instructions of the Word and some striking dispensations of Providence; but the cause assigned is not adequate, because the same circumstances often exist when no such effects follow. Others ascribe them to the evil spirit, who is ever seeking to deceive and delude unwary souls by inspiring them with a false persuasion of their good estate, while they are in the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity. While I would not deny that Satan may take advantage of these transient exercises to induce a false hope, I cannot be persuaded that he produces these impressions; for often the people, before experiencing them, were as careless and stupid as he could wish them to be, and because the tendency of these impressions is beneficial. The youth thus affected becomes more tender in conscience, forsakes known sin before indulged, has recourse to prayer, and feels strong desires after eternal happiness. These are not what Satan would effect, if he could, unless we could suppose that he was operating against himself, which our Savior has taught us to be impossible.

I am of opinion, therefore, that these transient impressions should be ascribed to the common operations of the Spirit of God, and may have some inexplicable connection with the future conversion and salvation of the person. There is a common practical error in the minds of many Christians in regard to this matter. They seem to think that nothing has any relation to the conversion of the sinner but that which immediately preceded this event; and the Christian is ready to say, I was awakened under such a sermon, and never had rest until I found it in Christ; making nothing of all previous instructions and impressions. So, when a revival occurs under the awakening discourses of some evangelist, people are ready to think that he only is the successful preacher whose labors God owns and blesses; whereas he does but bring forward to maturity, feelings and convictions which have been long secretly forming and growing within the soul—but so imperceptibly that the person himself was little sensible of any change.

It may be justly and scripturally compared to a growing crop: after the seed is sown it vegetates, we know not how, and then it receives daily the sun's influence, and from time to time refreshing showers; and later, after a long drought, there comes a plentiful shower, by means of which, nutriment is afforded for the formation of the full corn in the ear. No one will dispute the importance and efficacy of this last shower in maturing the grain; but had there been no cultivation and no showers long before, this had never produced any effect.

Whether those who are never converted are the subjects of these religious impressions, as well as those who are afterwards brought to faith in Christ, is a question not easily answered. That they experience dreadful alarms and pungent convictions at times, and also tender drawings, cannot be doubted; but whether those "chosen in Christ" are not, in their natural state, subject to impressions which others never experience, must remain undetermined, since we know so little of the real state of the hearts of most men; but as there is undoubtedly a special providence exercised by Christ over those sheep not yet called into the fold, I cannot but think it probable that they are often influenced by the Holy Spirit in a peculiar manner, to guard them against fatal errors and destructive habits, and to prepare them, by degrees, to receive the truth.

We know very little, however, of what is passing in the minds of thousands around us. The zealous preacher often concludes and laments that there is no impression on the minds of his hearers, when, if the covering of the human heart could be withdrawn, he would be astonished and confounded at the variety and depth of the feelings experienced. Those impressions which manifest themselves by a flow of tears are not the deepest—but often very superficial; while the most solemn distresses of the soul are entirely concealed by a kind of hypocrisy which men early learn to practice, to hide their feelings of a religious kind from their fellow creatures. A man may be so much in despair as to be meditating suicide, when his nearest friends know nothing of it.

The attempt at immediate effect, and the expectation of it, is one of the errors of the present times; indeed, it is the very watchword of a certain party. But let us not be misunderstood; we do not mean to say that all men are not under indispensable obligations immediately to obey all the commands of God. Concerning this, there can be no difference of opinion. But the people to whom we refer, seem to think that nothing is done towards the salvation of men but at the moment of their conversion, and that every good effect must be at once manifest. Perhaps some one may infer that we believe in a gradual regeneration, and that special grace differs from common only in degree; but such an inference would be utterly false, for there can be no medium between life and death; but we do profess to believe and maintain, that there is a gradual preparation, by common grace, for regeneration, which may be going on from childhood to mature age; and we believe that, as no mortal can tell the precise moment when the soul is vivified, and as the principle of spiritual life in its commencement is often very feeble, so it is an undoubted truth, that the development of the new life in the soul may be, and often is, very slow; and not infrequently that which is called conversion is nothing else but a more sensible and vigorous exercise of a principle which has long existed; just as the seed under ground may have life, and may be struggling to come forth to open day; but it may meet with various obstructions and unfavorable circumstances which retard its growth. At length, however, it makes its way through the earth, and expands its leaves to the light and air, and begins to drink in from every source that nutriment which it needs. No one supposes, however, that the moment of its appearing above ground is the commencement of its life; but this mistake is often made in the analogous case of the regeneration of the soul. The first clear and lively exercise of faith and repentance is made the date of the origin of spiritual life, whereas it existed in a feeble state, and put forth obscure acts long before. I find, however, that I am anticipating a discussion intended for another part of this work.

At present I wish only to remark further, that what has been said about early impressions and juvenile exercises of religion—is not applicable to all.

There are, alas! many who seem to remain unmoved amidst all the light and means by which most are surrounded in this land; and these too are often found in the families of the pious, and do actually pass through more than one revival without partaking of any unusual influence, or experiencing any strong religious feeling. Esau had a title to the birthright, and yet he so despised this peculiar blessing that he actually sold it for "some lentil stew". (Gen 25:34; Heb 12:16) Abraham, too, had his Ishmael, and Jacob a troop of ungodly children. Eli's sons were wicked in the extreme, and Samuel's came not up to what was expected from the children of such a father. Among all David's children we read of none who feared God, but Solomon. Those, however, who become extremely wicked have often resisted the strivings of the Spirit; and not infrequently the most impious blasphemers and atheists have once been much under the influence of religious light and feeling; but quenching the Spirit, have been given up to "believe a lie", (2 Thess 2:11) and "to work all uncleanness with greediness". (Eph 4:19)

We have said that there are some people who grow up to manhood without experiencing any religious impressions, except mere momentary thoughts of death and judgment; and these may be people of a very amiable disposition and moral deportment; and these very qualities may be, in part, the reason of their carelessness. They commit no gross sins, the remembrance of which wounds the conscience. Being of a calm and contented temper, and fond of taking their ease—they shun religious reflection, and turn away their thoughts from the truth, when it is presented to them from the pulpit. Some people of this description have been awakened and converted at mature age, and have then confessed that they lived as much without God as atheists, and seldom, if ever, extended their thoughts to futurity. Of course they utterly neglected secret prayer, and lived in the midst of gospel light without being in the least affected by it.

There is, moreover, another class who seem never to feel the force of religious truth. They are such as spend their whole waking hours in the giddy whirl of amusement or company. Full of health and spirits, and optimistic in their hopes of enjoyment from the world, they put away serious reflection as the very bane of pleasure. The very name of religion is hateful to them: and all they ask of religious people is to let them alone, that they may seize the pleasures of life while within their reach. If we may judge from appearances, this class is very large. We find them in the majority in many places of fashionable resort. The theater, the ballroom, and the very streets are full of such. They flutter gaily along, and keep company with each other—while they are strangers to all grave reflection, even in regard to the sober concerns of this life. If a pious friend ever gets the opportunity of addressing a word of serious advice to them, their politeness may prevent them from behaving rudely—but no sooner is his back turned, than they laugh him to scorn, and hate and despise him for his pains. They habituate themselves to think that religion is an awkwardly foolish thing, and wonder how any person of sense can bear to attend to it.

Very often this high reverie of pleasure is short: in such a world as this, events are apt to occur which dash the 'cup of sensual delights' while it is at the lips. Death will occasionally intrude even upon this mirthful circle and put a speedy end to their unreasonable merriment. O how sad is the spectacle, to see one of the 'votaries of fashion' suddenly cut down, and carried to the grave! When mortal sickness seizes such people, they are very apt to be delirious, if not with fever, yet with fright; and their meddlesome and cruel friends make it their chief study to bar out every idea of religion, and to flatter the poor dying creature with the hope of recovery, until death has actually seized his prey. Such an event produces a shock in the feelings of survivors of the same class—but such is the buoyancy of their feelings and their forgetfulness of mournful events—that they are soon seen dancing along the slippery path, with as much insane thoughtlessness as before!

Nothing which ever occurs tends so much to disturb the career of this multitude, as when one of their number is converted unto God. At first they are astounded, and for a moment pause—but they soon learn to ascribe the change to some natural cause, or to some strange capriciousness of temper, or disappointment in earthly hopes. Very soon you will see them as much estranged from such an one, although before an intimate friend, as if he had never been of the number of their acquaintances. Often his nearest relatives are ashamed of him, and, as much as possible, shun his company. How absurd then is it for any to pretend that men naturally love God, and only need to know His character to revere it! If there be a truth established beyond all reasonable question by uniform experience, it is, that lovers of pleasure are the enemies of God.

The class of speculating, moneymaking, business-doing men is probably as numerous, and though more sober in their thoughts, yet as far from God, and as destitute of true religion as those already described; but as we find these not commonly among the youth—but middle aged, we shall not attempt to delineate their character or describe their feelings. I must return to the consideration of early religious impressions which do not terminate in a sound conversion to God.

Some forty-five years ago, I was frequently in a family where the parents, though respecters of religion, were not professors. They had a sweet, amiable little daughter, eight or ten years of age, who had all the appearance of eminent piety. She loved the Bible, loved preaching and pious people, was uniform and constant in retiring for devotional exercises, and spoke freely, when asked, of the feelings of her own mind. I think I never had less doubt of any one's piety than of this little girl's. There was no forwardness nor pertness, nor any assumption of sanctimonious airs. All was simplicity, modesty, and consistency; she was serious but not somber, solemn and tender in her feelings, without affectation. She applied for admission to the communion—and who dare refuse entrance into the fold to such a dear lamb? Here my personal acquaintance ends. But years afterwards, upon inquiry, I found that when she grew to womanhood, she became mirthful and careless, and entirely relinquished her religious profession. My Arminian neighbor, I know, if he had the chance to whisper in my ear, would say, "I have no difficulty in accounting for this case; she was a child of God—but fell from grace." But I have never been able to adopt this method of explaining such phenomena.

There are few truths of which I have a more unwavering conviction, than that the sheep of Christ, for whom He laid down His life, shall never perish. I do believe, however, that grace may for a season sink so low in the heart into which it has entered, and be so overborne and buried over—that none but God can perceive its existence. Now that may have been the fact in regard to this dear child, for her later history is unknown to me. She may, for anything I know, be still alive, and be now a living, consistent member of Christ's Church, and may possibly peruse these lines, though if she should, she may not recognize her own early features, taken down from memory after the lapse of so many years. But the picture is not of one person only—but of many, differing only in trivial circumstances.

I retain a distinct recollection of another case of a still earlier date, and where the history is more complete. An obscure youth, the son of pious parents, in a time of awakening seemed to have his attention drawn to the concerns of his soul, so that he seriously and diligently attended on all religious meetings. He had the appearance of deep humility, and though free to speak, when interrogated, was in no respect forward or self-sufficient. Indeed, he was scarcely known or noticed by the religious people who were in the habit of attending prayer meetings. It happened that, on an inclement evening, very few were present, and none of those who were accustomed to take a part in leading the devotional exercises. The person at whose house the meeting was held, not wishing to dismiss the few who were present with a single prayer, asked this youth if he would not attempt to make a prayer. He readily assented, and performed this service with so much fervor, fluency, and propriety of expression, that all who heard it were astonished. From this time he was called upon more frequently than any other and often in the public congregation; for some people preferred his prayers to any sermons; and I must say, that I never heard any one pray who seemed to me to have such a gift of prayer. The most appropriate passages of Scripture seemed to come to him in rapid succession, as if by inspiration. Now the common cry was, that he ought to be taken from the trade which he was learning (for he was an apprentice) and be put to theological study. The thing demanded by so many was not difficult to accomplish. He began a regular course of academical studies, and his progress, though not extraordinary, was respectable. But, alas! how weak is man! how deceitful is the heart! This young man soon began to exhibit evidence too plain, that conceit and self-confidence were taking root and growing very rapidly. He became impatient of opposition, arrogant towards his superiors, and unwilling to yield to reproof administered in the most paternal spirit. When the time came to enter upon trials for the ministry, the Presbytery, to which he applied, refused to receive him under their care. But this solemn rebuff, instead of humbling him, only provoked his indignation, and, as if in despite of them, he turned at once to the study of another profession, in which he might have succeeded had he remained moral and temperate in his habits; but falling into bad company—he became dissipated and soon came, without any known reformation, to a premature death. Now suppose this man had been permitted to enter the ministry, the probability is that, though his unchristian temper would have done much evil, yet he would have continued in the sacred office to his dying day. "Let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall." (1 Cor 10:12)