Part I - The Preparation of the Heart
3 - In the Eighteen - Twenties
It can readily be imagined that this account of Sukey Harley's conversion might be received with great reserve by Matilda's parents - the "gentry" and 'such as were fine scholars" to whom church-going belonged, as Sukey put it. There was quite a scattering of "Ranters" up and down the country, singing loudly of their joys, and possibly they would suppose Sukey to be infected by these. But Matilda, like Mary in the Gospels, pondered these things in her heart, and as years went on used to take one and another of her sisters with her to visit and talk with Sukey.
However, life was more than talk and memoranda writing. There was much to do in the daily round set up by a conscientious rector's wife. The visiting mentioned in the notes was not only for Bible reading and improvement. The girls came into contact with sickness and despair and death - often sharply sad for themselves when it was a little pupil or older child of promise. They would take and help administer home-made medicines and lotions according to their mother's advice. The sorrows and joys, births and marriages in every family would be of interest to the Rectory. The fluctuations of the coal-mines were always a source of anxiety to Pulverbach. This was not the developing Black Country. Sometimes the mines were sold out and there was no work until another buyer appeared. There were times when a gang of men would go off to mines further away in Staffordshire or North Wales and the wives and children were nearly starving until money was sent or the men returned. Yes, life was serious in those days, and there was plenty to discuss as the girls sat at their endless hand-sewing and cutting down cast-off garments for the poor.
The recreations of life consisted in being allowed books from Papa's library, in conversation and having neighbours in for a dish of tea. The servants, off-duty, could join with the older school children and embroider samplers under the Miss Gilpins" supervision. One is still in existence, dated 1820, done by the girl who came with the family from Somerset.
"Rebecca Kindwell is my name,
But Rebecca never finished the line, "God is my Salvation". About that date she left the Rectory and married John Hughes. By 1829 when her husband died she had five children. In her struggling life she was always under the kindly eye of the Rectory, and later in life the last line of that sampler was clearly fulfilled in her.
In 1816, a year after the Battle of Waterloo, Frances Gilpin, the sixth daughter, got married. Frances was a gentle girl, "of a meek, retiring, and affectionate disposition". Like Matilda, she wrote a short review of her early life. "From my earliest recollections," she says, "I was drawn to love the Lord, to love those I thought were good people, to love the Bible and all books I thought were good and religious. These I chose to read and would put away other books as doing me no good. My chief recreation was in searching out from the Bible texts on various subjects and collecting verses under different heads to form prayers, confessions, and thanksgivings. I delighted in this employment, nor did I follow it as a duty. I used to feel very much surprised and distressed that I could not keep my thoughts from wandering while at prayer and wishing to think of serious things.
"When about twenty I wrote down much, partly in the way of supplications. These writings I greatly prized, and thought all who read them would prize them too. But a great fear came upon me that it was all pride in me to write and prize them so much, so I had no rest in my conscience till with great reluctance at last I tore them up. This satisfied my conscience at the time, but I knew not that my pride remained."
Shortly before her marriage these words "fell upon her heart with a sort of fear and caution, "Hear, O my people, and I will testify unto thee: O Israel, if thou wilt hearken unto Me there shall no strange god be in thee, neither shall thou worship any strange god". She could not understand the meaning of these words, which, however, recurred vividly to her now and then as her life proceeded, and eventually she clearly saw the application and importance of the word so long hidden in her heart."
Her husband was the Rev. John Benson, M.A., of Bridgenorth, in Salop, a widower ten years older than her, with one child, if not more. Her marriage opened a new interest for her sisters, and soon we read of one and another visiting her. Mr. Benson was for some years curate of Upton Magna, outside Shrewsbury. The rector of that fine Church was the Lord of the Manor also, and his curates had to live with him at the big house called Downton. From there Frances could see on the horizon the hills of home, the Longmynd, and her sisters could drive over and spend a summer day with her. It is a beautiful part of the Vale of Severn, with Haughmond Hill rising behind and the Wrekin on the left. Frances's first boy was born at Downton in 1819. She had three sons before she went south in 1825.
Mercy and Jane record a happy visit to Downton in 1824. Mercy is described as "most loving and lovable in every relationship of life", but her notebook discloses that everything had not always been happy in the recesses of her heart. When only about ten she had been frightened with doubts about the existence of God. Though I was but a child," she says, "also of a cheerful, contented disposition, I remember how oppressed I was by these thoughts. My continual inward thought was [like Sukey's] I want something to make me sure of the truth of all I hear about God and heavenly things. As I grew up I showed much love to the Bible and the ways of religion. I learnt to repeat much Scripture by heart. I used to visit the poor and attend the schools very zealously. This gained me the character of a religious person. Pride, vanity, and a good conceit of myself soon crept in. Yet I know that even then there was a 'still, small voice" speaking to me. There was still something in religion I knew nothing about. If at any time I heard anyone speak of God's inward teaching it went to my heart immediately. I said, "That is true religion; that is what I want".
"Once or twice my sister Matilda told me of the Lord's dealings with her. Oh, how I longed that I might hear and know the voice of the Lord speaking to me! The experience also of a poor cripple whom I met with at Leeds much struck my mind. But I found no resting place."
Mercy, like Matilda, was comforted by contact with Sukey Harley. She says, The outward witness to the truth which the Lord was pleased to afford me while as yet I had no inward witness was a poor woman who came to live in our parish. I felt that her experience wonderfully set forth the truth of the Bible. It confirmed in my mind all that I had for years felt sure one taught of God would feel. I used frequently to go to see her, and seldom returned without finding my faith strengthened and my hope encouraged, my own blindness and ignorance in the things of God more clearly shown me, and an increasing desire being given me to be taught of God as she was".
Sukey must have been pleased to welcome the rector's daughters to her poor cottage. Neither she nor they had any spiritual leader in those days, each was taught alone and from above, yet it appears from later comments taken down from Sukey that she had an instinctive feeling for the children of God. "You speak about my talking to others," she says. "I am this sort of woman - I canna' speak nothing till my Jesus comes and puts words into my mouth. Then I can speak - oh yes, I can speak then. When the Lord bids me, I can talk to one or another, and what I speak to them is according to my own experience. I tell them the truth when I have liberty from the God of heaven. Then I can go, I can go without any fear then. I donna fear man - I want nothing else but liberty from the Lord. Some be faint, they be weary, driven, searching all the while. They canna' find the road, tossed to and fro, to and fro. They tremble, they pray, they think God donna hear them: they think there is no God. Oh, they be in a dreadful distressed state. These be the children of God before He has brought them to know Him. These be they I am speaking of. How I love 'em dearly. I grieve for 'em, I mourn for 'em. I pray for 'em, I beg my God to have mercy on 'em for His dear Name's sake. I find great power from the Lord in praying for them. My Jesus tells me not one shall be lost. He will bring them all in His own time. He will never forget His."
How remarkably this reflects Mercy's outlook! This is what she writes,
"At this time I left off speaking to anyone on the subject of religion, under the idea of doing them good. I still used to visit among the poor and read the Bible to them, but I would say to myself, It's no good speaking on these subjects when I don't experience them: the time, I believe, will arrive when I shall know the truth, and then I shall be able to speak out of the abundance of my heart and to declare that which I have seen and heard. Nor could I at this time so constantly read the Bible to myself as I had done, or follow religious exercises. Often and often when I went into my room for this purpose I would find myself utterly unable either to pray or read.
In the year 1823 I went into Wales with some friends, and here, empty and void as I felt, I would fain have filled myself with the vain trash and treasures of this poor world. But there was still a something that prevented my enjoyment of them, though I eagerly followed after them in my imagination. I remember walking on the beach, hearkening to the roar of the waves, with the most wretched feeling of emptiness in my heart, and sighing because I knew not how to satisfy it.
Towards the latter end of the year 1824 my sorrow of heart increased, until one day I said to myself, I will go and pray to the Lord to relieve me; it may be He will. I went to my room and fell on my knees (I know the spot), and poured forth a prayer to Him whom I yet knew not, but whom I believed to be "a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat". O with what tender compassion did He at that time calm my troubled breast and send me relief!"
About this time she went to Downton to stay with Frances, and this was very different from her disconsolate visit to the Welsh sea-shore. "Here," she writes, "the Lord endeared Himself to me. The remembrance of His mercy was much on my mind. How precious some of the Psalms were to me, especially the 23rd. 27th,34th, 116th, and 103rd; also the latter part of Is. 40. I used to read them over and over, and secretly repeat them all day long, feeling their application to myself. The Bible became such a treasure that to be left alone with it was my greatest happiness. It was during my stay there that my sister Jane came over to see me and told me of an experience she had passed through at Leeds."
Jane and Mercy were close friends, though Jane was a different personality from the "lovable" Mercy. Jane was critical, clever, and could be sharp tempered. But she, too, had been wading through despairing thoughts before experiencing the "exceeding beauty" she came over to tell Mercy about. She was twenty-four, and had been on a visit to her mother's sister, Mrs. Joseph Fawcett, of Leeds. Where she expected to be happy she was miserable, and her fears rose to such an agitation of mind that she dared not pray. O, she said, "if I did but know that the Lord had thoughts of peace to me and not of evil I should be satisfied! After remaining one night a considerable time on my knees without uttering a single petition, I arose to get myself a dry handkerchief, having wet with my tears the one I had by me. While standing by the drawer, He who knew well how to perform the cause I had in hand, suggested to my mind, "For what did Christ die? For what did He suffer?" I fell again upon my knees and said, "O Lord, remember that day - that day when the Saviour hung upon the cross! Do remember that day!"
"I again rose, but with a full, undoubted, and entire persuasion that now for the first time in all my life I had put up a prayer that would not fail of receiving its answer. While questioning with myself what these things could mean, there seemed presented before me a tremendous mountain which I must pass over. I was greatly alarmed and finding there was no means of escape, I said, "Lord, save or I perish!" Instantly He drew near and said, "When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee, and through the rivers they shall not overflow thee".
"The next day, June 11th, 1823 [she often reverted to this date in after life] as my Aunt Fawcett was reading the words, "I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end" (No! I can never forget it!) I saw a sea of unfathomable love before me, and I did believe and had a sight of the love of Christ which passeth knowledge. This was on a Thursday, and the next Sunday that portion of the Gospel was made so real to me, "Verily I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth". At the same time I felt what I had never felt before in these words, "O sing unto the Lord a new song: for He hath done marvellous things: His right hand and His holy arm hath gotten Him the victory". And I said, Lord, thou has gotten Thyself the victory over my heart. Thou art stronger than I and hast prevailed. And I sung a song of praise that day."
This was Jane's experience and the sisters found it wonderful to discuss it. Mercy says, "It struck my mind very much, and confirmed me more and more in the faith of God's inward teaching; and also it encouraged my hope respecting myself, especially as I had a little feeling now that He was beginning to instruct my soul. A short time after this I returned home, and continued for a while to feel the Lord's fresh comfort in my soul. But by degrees I lost it."
Mr. Benson was appointed Rector of Norton-sub-Hamdon in Somerset in 1825, and Frances had to leave Shropshire, not to see it again for nearly forty years. It was now an altogether bigger undertaking for the sisters to visit her, and when they went they stayed about a year. Mercy was the first to go there, in 1826, and entered with enthusiasm into the religious life expected of Rectory ladies. "I followed my own course," she says, "and becoming elated in my own esteem and that of others, I made a great outward show of religion. I went about endeavouring to turn, as I thought, sinners from the error of their way, not realising that lies still compassed me about and a deceived heart turned me aside."
Again she writes, "My views of religion became very exalted. I would try and make myself believe the blessings bestowed on the godly as recorded in the 91st Psalm and other places were given to me, but I never could be satisfied on that point. The religion I heard everywhere spoken did not satisfy me at all, although outwardly it was the same as my own".
Of Jane it had to be confessed: "The power of that experience at Leeds subsided and she became much confused as to the value of the teaching she had received. For some years she was left to walk in the light of sparks of her own kindling, and to join in a mere profession of religion, the smooth surface of this often being ruffled by inconsistencies of behaviour. Temptation to pride and anger often had the mastery of her".
And Matilda writes of these years, "As yet I knew not that the sin that dwells within must abide unto the end. Often in the midst of my darkness the Lord touched my heart in the reading of His Word, showing me His mercy and saying, "Fear not, I will be with thee, even as I said". Yet again and again I drowned all in unbelief, thinking it could not be really true. Thus I strayed from Him, though He was leading me in a way I knew not, and kept up that cry in my heart and that look to Him".
In 1828 Charlotte, the fifth daughter, died. She and Matilda had always been very closely united in spirit, and "for some years before her death she knew what it was to have real communion with God". It is Mercy who records something of Charlotte's end, beginning in great honesty by saying, 'so engrossed was I at that time with worldly things in my heart that to wait on Charlotte in her illness, or sit beside her and converse on eternal things was irksome to me, and if I could release myself from it I was glad. But my conscience pricked me about that all the time. Three weeks before her death I did give myself up to being constantly with her, and the Lord was pleased to whisper to my heart through a few words she said.
"One day as I sat beside her for several hours, after she had been silent for a long time, she said in a very low voice, though evidently in a tone of exultation, "I have got it". I asked her what she had got. She replied, "O, ask me no questions; that is my secret". She then asked me to repeat a verse of Scripture to her. I quoted, "My Beloved is mine and I am his - the chiefest among ten thousand and the altogether lovely". I know what I felt at this, for that peculiar persuasion which the Lord had implanted in my childhood (that there was indeed something to be obtained in religion) was not taken away, notwithstanding all my frowardness. And now that I heard this truth borne witness to by my sister my heart leapt within me. I kept her words by me, and thought when she was able to speak a little I would again ask her concerning this thing.
"A day or two afterwards I said to her, "Will you, dear, tell me one promise that has been fulfilled to you?" She said, "Yes, I will tell you, but it is my secret: I do not know whether I ought to tell you my secret. Perhaps I will tell you a part of it. The promise that was fulfilled to me was, I am thy Husband. You know it is "Thy Maker is thy Husband" in the text, but I had it, I am thy Husband". And then she added, "I asked you to repeat a verse and you said, "My Beloved is mine and I am His"; also you said, "The chiefest among ten thousand and the altogether lovely" and the verse I stopped you at when reading John 2I was, "Yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee"." She continued, "Yes, my Beloved is mine and I am His. Thou art mine! I shall not be ashamed. But, Mercy, this is not all my secret. I cannot tell you all of it".
"Then, Charlotte," said I, "those verses are also fulfilled to you, "The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him", and "I will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it", to which she said with peculiar emphasis, "Yes, quite".
'some hours before her death she said with great difficulty on account of the oppression on her breath, "Is this death?" and looking up, she added, "My Lord and my God!" She was thirty-five years old"
The year 1826 was remembered by Sukey Harley as the year her cottage was burnt down. Until settled "under Brom Hill" near Wrentnall, Sukey appears to have moved once or twice. This cottage that was burnt is described as "a lone house: no one lived within a half-mile except the man in the other half of it". The tragedy is described in Sukey's own words.
"It was Sunday morning. I was sitting alone; my husband and child were gone to Church. I was very poorly in body and sore distressed in mind. My heavy sins lay upon my heart. My Saviour had hid His face. My sinful heart and the crafty devil were all the company I had; we were shut up in the house together. He told me that my God had clean forsaken me, and that my blessed Jesus had hid His face from me for ever. He said I was never a child of God; that I had been all these years in a delusion; that my sins were too great to be pardoned; that I had sinned against pardoning: that the just and holy God would never call me His child; and all manner of things he crammed into my heart. One thing he said was that against March when high winds blew, the house would be blown down, and I tumbled into hell. Well, he had the upper hand of me, and I was sorely sifted in my spirit, and had no one word to answer to him because I felt myself so cursed. Oh what a woeful plight I was in on that dismal morning! I thought, well, what a thing this is! Is it true? Have I been all these years in a delusion? Just as I was thinking this, I perceived the smell of burning. The house filled with smoke, and I said, What, is the house on fire? I was so weak and poorly, I could hardly crawl to the door. I looked out and saw the roof of my house all on fire. Now the devil triumphed; he told me, and he almost made me believe it too, that this would never have happened to me if I had been a child of God. What, he said, don't you think God would defend one of His own children? You are none of His; you have been in a delusion all these years.
"I stood upon the causeway, and kept looking at my burning house; but from that day to this I could never describe the deadly sickness, the frightful terror that seized my inmost soul. Oh, it is very solemn to speak of. I believed the devil's lies and took it for a real sign and standing proof that I was right down deceived in all my blessed hopes, and that I should never be found among the true elect children of God; and as I stood looking at the fire, I cried out with an exceeding bitter cry, "I am undone, I am lost, I am undone for ever!"
"Was it my house I cared for? No, but it was because I thought all my heavenly treasures were lost. Then I fell down all along upon the grassy bank before my burning house. I had no power either to attempt to save anything myself, or to call for assistance. As for going into the burning house, I dared not do it. I thought the flames were ready to devour me, and I was the guiltiest wretch; my sins, my black sins were ready to swallow me up. I kept lamenting my woeful case. What, I said, is this true? Have I been all these years in a delusion? Is my blessed hope come to nought at last? Is my precious Saviour clean gone for ever? Will He be favourable no more? Will He be no longer my Father, my Redeemer? Oh, what shall I do? Then I began to think what a blessed confidence I had had in Him, and how I thought He had told me Himself that I should be His child, and that He would save me and be a Father to me, and an almighty Redeemer. Then I began to think what a boast I had made of Him, and how I had published abroad to all the world that I had got a Saviour and a God: and now I thought, Is it all gone to this? What, is all my hope gone? Oh, what shall I do? Then I began to think what blessed things He had done for me. Why, said I to myself, I thought He had been pleased to reveal His Name in me and teach me to read His Word, and call Him my Saviour; and now has it been all a delusion? How can this be? Did He not teach me to pray to Him? and has He not times and times blessed His Word to me? And was it not Himself who taught me to read His Word? I thought it was He, I thought He had done all these things for me, and now is He going to forsake me? Oh, my woeful case, my sins, my heavy sins, my black sins! Oh, this is what has done it, this is what has done it. I cried out like David; yea, roared, in the disquietness of my soul.
"I suppose if anyone had come along and seen me lying all along upon the grass, and my house on fire, they would have thought me a desperate fool, and so I was, the devil's fool. But what could they have known about that?
"Well, I kept crying and bemoaning and lamenting myself thus. I hardly dared to look up to God for help; I thought He was clean gone, I almost feared, for ever. My sins had hid His mercy from me, and Satan told me my hope was gone for ever; all was lost. Ah,but it was not lost though; that was a lie! The blessed and merciful Lord in heaven, He heard my dolorous cry. Blessed for ever be His most holy and glorious Name, He heard my pitiful cry, He saw my tears; He had compassion on me in His own time, He came to my relief; He darted into my soul. He rebuked the tempter. Then was the devil vanquished. The blessed Jesus put him to flight in a moment, and the blessed Jesus took possession of my sorrowful soul.
"He brought joy in turn of my heavy sorrow. He assured me over and over again that He was my Saviour and my Deliverer, and that He would not leave me nor forsake me. I felt His precious blood sufficient to wash away all my sins, and my soul was joyful in God my Saviour.
"He strengthened me marvellously; it is impossible for me to describe rightly the wondrous change He wrought upon me. I who was so weak, so poorly, that I had hardly been able to crawl out of the house, and throw myself on the grass, in one moment was strengthened and invigorated and replenished with all I stood in need of. Then I banged into the burning house; I cared neither for flames nor falling rafters, nor timbers, nor yet for the devil my mortal foe, for my Saviour was with me; He was my defence. Oh, how safe I was! How safe I felt in Him! He and I were alone together in the burning house.
"First, I got hold of my box of books, where my precious Bible was, and I flung it out of the window into the garden; then I went upstairs and heaved up the tub where the bacon was. I had been salting a pig that week; it was as much as two men could have carried downstairs, the flitches and hams lay together in the tub; I bore it up with the strength the Lord had given me, and by His help I carried it downstairs and took it out of the house and set it in the garden. Then I went to the clock and carried it out, weights and all. Then again upstairs and began to throw out the bedding; and next I set myself to unscrew the bedstead. While I was doing this, John Merrick, who had seen the flames at a distance, came running out of breath to my assistance. Poor fellow, he came wringing his hands, and making such an ado. Oh, Sukey, Sukey, what a bad job is this. How did this happen? What shall I do? Oh, poor fellow, if he could but have understood; but he could not have understood if I had told him. This was no bad job for me, for by it I proved the tender mercies of God to me unworthy. We soon got the bedstead down; then John went to the corner cupboard; in it there were three cups and saucers and all kinds of crockery ware, and there was a small jug of milk which had been given me in the morning. There was no time to take anything out of the cupboard, but John tore it away by main strength, dragging hooks and staples and all along with it out of the wall. Just as he had done this, there came crowds of people hastening to the place; they had seen the flames from a distance as they were coming out of church, and men, women, and children all in a throng hurried to the spot. I had enough helpers then. Ah, but it was the Lord who had done all for me. He had brought that sweet comfort into my soul, or what good would such as them have done for me?
"We soon got the house cleared. No one dared attempt to save anything out of John Morgan's house, for the fire having begun on his side of the house, the flames had reached too high before it was discovered. The people were all satisfied about it.
"I lost one small three-legged table, which I had lent him. Besides that, there was not one thing missing of all my goods. This was how the Lord would have it. It was all His doing. I hardly knew what I was about all this time I was saving my goods, my soul was so joyful in God my Saviour. I was clean beside myself, to think of His wondrous love to me, unworthy, black, polluted, hell-deserving sinner.
"When all the goods were out of the house, and the roof fell in, and the flames rose up, and the smoke, then I looked and wondered at it. It was a fearful sight to think what my sins had deserved, and what a deliverance the Lord had brought me. My soul had been just ready to fall into the lowest hell, and He stretched out His hand and plucked me from the burning. What great salvation He sent to my poor soul in that hour of darkness! I could take no thought about my poor body; but now He took care of that, and saved for me those worldly things which in that hour of darkness I could take no thoughts about. Bless the Lord, 0 my soul!
"When the people saw all the things I had carried out single-handed, they looked and wondered; there were many more things than what are named in this paper. My memory would not serve to tell them all; the loaves of bread, and pork pies, a whole peck of flour, I got them all out of the house together; how or which way I did it I cannot tell; but this I know, when I came to look at the loads of things I had brought out by myself, I truly wondered at it, and so did the people. Why, Sukey, they said, you never brought out that, you never carried out this! What, all by yourself? No, no (I might have said to them, but they would not have understood me); I did it? No, it was my God. He carried the things for me. This I know, for I had not the least power that ever was, till He sent that wonderful strength into my soul; aye, and into my body too. So by this I know it was His doing. I was wholly lifted out of myself, with the abundance of consolation which had flowed into my soul, by His restoring to me those blessed and heavenly things which I thought had fled for ever. I was taking no thought for my body, or earthly goods, all the while I was carrying my goods out of the house. It was surely the Lord who kept me alive that day in the midst of the fire. Yes, He kept me alive and gave me life, both bodily and spiritually; so I say, Let Him have all the praise.
"When I came to the corner-cupboard, not a single cup was chipped, nor the least thing broken or spoiled in any way. And there was the jug of milk standing on the shelf exactly as I had put it in in the morning, not one drop, or but one, spilled upon the board. Well, at the sight of that jug of milk, how His mercies came afresh to my mind, to think that He should put forth His hand to save my jug of milk! And the people all saw it and wondered at it; but as for me, I knew how it was: it was the blessed Lord's doings, to teach my soul His tender mercies.
"Well, the folks, they fetched a waggon, and put the things into it, and they were carried up to Star Coppice, where my sister Winnie Roberts lived; but I myself came down to Churton Square. Old Mat Spencer asked me into her house, and fetched a bowl of water to wash me. I was soot and black and smoke all over. Mr. Charles and Mr. Bernard came to see me. Mr. Bernard said to me sorrowful-like, 'sukey, where will be your home now? you have got no home"! Oh, I often think of them words - "You have got no home!" But my home is in heaven - yes, it is!"