THE POOR MAN'S GUIDE AND FRIEND


Archibald Alexander
 

My little book I make for the poor rather than the rich, first, because our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ preached the gospel especially to the poor. Matt. 11:5. Secondly, because God commonly chooses his people from among the poor of this world, to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. James 2:5. And thirdly, because the poor have less time and opportunity to learn those things which belong to their peace, than others.

In some parts of the country, the people have pastors to watch over them and visit them; and if their teachers are faithful, they will, as often as they can, come to the dwellings of the poor with such lessons of instruction as they need. But there are other places, in which the people are as sheep without a shepherd. They have no one to guide them in true religion, and perhaps seldom have the opportunity of hearing a gospel sermon. Now for the sake of such I write, especially for the poor. Let no man be ashamed of 'honest poverty'. Our blessed Lord, though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor. None are poorer in this world's goods than he was; for he was born in a stable, and had a feeding trough for his cradle. And when grown up to be a man, he could say, "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has not where to lay his head."

When I say that this little book is for the poor man, I do not mean to pass by the woman—no; I consider her as perhaps more likely to profit by what I may write than the other gender. "In Christ there is neither male nor female." All partake of the same sinful nature, and all are children of wrath. All need the atoning blood of Christ, and no other foundation can be laid than that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus the Lord.

Let, I pray you, this little book come into your house, and be read, and taken care of. Let it be considered a friend, for the feelings of the writer, be assured, are of a friendly kind; and though he cannot go with his book, he will accompany it with his prayers. And he wishes to speak to everyone into whose hands it may fall, as if he were present. By this he desires to converse with the reader. And if it should happen to fall into the hands of some who cannot read, let them get the aid of their neighbors to read it to them. Join me in this short prayer for the blessing of God on the truth it contains.

A PRAYER.

O Lord, our Almighty Creator, kind Preserver, bountiful Benefactor, and merciful Redeemer, be graciously pleased to send light into our dark minds by the reading of this little book. So far as it contains a correct statement of truth, may it be made the means of leading our poor souls in the way of duty and of salvation, which we humbly ask, not on account of any worthiness in ourselves, but only for the sake of Christ, your beloved Son and our Mediator. Amen.

FIRST VISIT.

Friends, I perceive that you are poor, and have many troubles and difficulties to distress and disturb you. While others have more than heart can wish, and spend their days in ease and pleasure—your lot is to labor hard, and to eat your bread with the sweat of your brow. And often, with all your toil, you are scarcely able to obtain food and clothing. In the day of calamity, when sickness comes upon you, or on your wife—you are brought into great trouble. The children cry for bread when, alas, there is none in the house, and no money to buy a single loaf. At the same time, the very dogs of your rich neighbor have more food than they can devour. The thought of your poverty, and the abounding wealth of others, is apt to stir up a feeling of discontent and envy in your hearts. But this is wrong. God gives to whom he will, and withholds from whom he will. Besides, though the rich man has his good things in this world, he is in great danger of having nothing but evil in the world to come. I assure you, the rich man is not to be envied. He also has his vexatious cares and troubles in this life, as well as the poor; yes, often, while the laboring poor enjoy robust health, he is pining with disease. And while the poor man's sleep is sweet after his labor, the rich man is prevented from sleeping by care and anxiety for fear of losing his wealth. While the poor man has a keen relish for his coarse and homely fare, the rich man turns away in disgust from a table loaded with dainties; so that the rich man has not so much the advantage of the poor man as he seems to have. And the poor man has this in his favor, that there are fewer hindrances in his way to heaven than stand in the path of the rich man. Our Lord has told us that riches so stop the way to heaven, to those who possess them, that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven." This single consideration should make you contented with your condition. Not that it is a matter of course for a poor man to get to heaven. Alas, no! "For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it."

I have not found a more alarming text than this within the lids of the Bible. Those words, FEW FIND IT, should continue to sound in our ears until we have clean escaped from the "wrath to come," and have found refuge in the house of God's mercy. The poor man can no more enter heaven, without becoming a new creature, than the rich. Our Lord's words are, "Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of heaven." Some poor people who are great sufferers in this world, think that their many troubles here will somehow be an atonement for the sins which they have committed, so that they hope to escape punishment in the world to come.

When I was preaching in the mountains of Virginia, I spent a few days at the house of an aged widow. She was not poor, but she seemed to have more trouble than the poorest people I met with. From morning to night she was bustling and running here and there, and calling to the servants, and scolding at such a rate that I wondered that she did not weary herself to death. And this was not the course of one day only, but of every day. But let me say to her credit that I was never treated more kindly by anybody, and she was particularly kind to ministers of the gospel.

I took the liberty one day of saying to her mildly, "Why do you trouble yourself so much about the things of this world? You are now aged, and must very soon leave all these concerns; better turn your attention to the necessary preparation for the eternal world."

She burst out a crying, and said, "I cannot help it. I am a lone widow, and no man on the place to take the management; and if I did not scuffle as you see me doing, everything would soon go to wreck and ruin."

"Madam," said I, "I approve of your industry and energy in managing your affairs; but I think that some portion of your time and attention should be given to the concerns of your soul, which is undoubtedly 'the one thing needful.'"

Upon this her feelings became more violent, and in a crying tone she said, "I do not think that any poor creature ever suffered more than I have done. My husband died, and left me to take care of seven young children; and ever since I have been toiling and striving to keep things together, and to bring up my family in a Christian way; but I have had one trouble after another, so that my poor heart has often been almost broke. And I hope," said she, "that my Maker will consider what I have suffered in this world, and that he will not be so hard as to make me miserable in the world to come. I am sure I have suffered enough already."

"Dear madam," said I, "your worldly sorrows will never atone for one of your sins. The Bible teaches that godly sorrow works repentance unto life, but the sorrow of the world works death." She now became more composed, and listened with apparent seriousness to what I judged it proper to say.

This brings to my recollection a scene which I witnessed a few days afterwards, in the most out-of-the-way place I ever was in. It was at the base of the Blue Ridge, on the head of Smith's river, a branch of the Roanoke. This settlement is completely shut out from the rest of the world by high and steep mountains, and there was only one road by which a horse or wagon could go in or come out. The women rarely or never come out, and retain all the fashions of dress which were customary in the time of their grandmothers. Here I found a man who had been eighteen years an elder in the Presbyterian church, but had never had any true religion until within a few months of the time I visited the place. Two zealous ministers had found their way into this cove, and spent a week in preaching to the people. Among other fruits of their labors was the conversion of this elder, now nearly threescore years of age; and I do not know that I ever met with a young convert who seemed to have such a flow of tender feeling. He could not speak of his own wonderful conversion, after having been a professor in the church for nearly forty years, and an elder for eighteen years, without a flood of tears. He went about from house to house, and warned the people of their danger; and he seemed to feel that it was especially his duty to go to professors, many of whom he feared were asleep in their sins, shielded from conviction by the profession which they had made.

But to come to the point. This old man, but young Christian, had got hold of a Tract, which in those days was a rare thing in that country. Having read it himself, he could not rest until all his neighbors had heard it. It was, I think, on Saturday afternoon, a number of people, by his invitation, assembled in the log-house in which he dwelt. Though I was present, he did not ask me to read the Tract, but chose to do this himself. And seldom have I anywhere seen so many tears shed by the same number of people. When he came to anything of an affecting nature, he would stop to weep, and in the midst of his tears would give a fervent exhortation to the young people present. And what do you think this Tract was? Why, "Gregory's Legacy to a Daughter," which thousands have read without a tear.

I have related the foregoing anecdote for two reasons. First, to show the importance of faithful ministers occasionally leaving their flocks and going into the dark corners, where the gospel is seldom heard. I could relate many facts to prove the benefit of such a course. In a couple of weeks, they may do more good than in the whole year besides. The other reason is, to show the value of Tracts in the distant and dark settlements of our country. Because those little messengers are often undervalued near great cities and in old settlements, we must not suppose that they will not be valued where books are scarce, and where the gospel is seldom heard.

And now, my friends, it is time that you and I should rest for a while. Let this pass for my first visit. You see that I am a plain-spoken man, and do not stick very close to any one subject. Put the little book on the shelf until another opportunity, which I hope will be soon.

SECOND VISIT.

I see, friends, that you have hard work to make out a living in the world. This has been a hard winter, and your children have suffered for lack of good shoes and warm clothing. But now the spring comes on apace, and the grass begins to grow, and the early flowers to peep out of the ground. Now the sun rises high in the heavens, the days begin sensibly to lengthen, and the warm breezes to blow.

I always rejoice in the return of spring, on account of the poor; for though it is a time of labor, to the 'industrious poor' it is a time of enjoyment. The ploughman relishes his homely fare, when in the evening he returns to his cottage; and the sleep of the laboring man is sweet. In the morning he rises with the first appearance of dawn, and is soon seen following his plough, or sowing his grain, or clearing up his new ground. If peace and kindness are guests there, the cottager has as much contentment as the rich: he relishes his food as well, he enjoys his sleep as sweetly, and experiences as much pleasure from the cheerfulness and affection and innocent prattle of his little ones. The rich man often is obliged, on account of diseases contracted by idleness and luxury, to live on brown bread and lie on a hard bed; his physician forbids him the use of the dainties with which his table is loaded, and he must undergo voluntary labor to exercise his diseased frame. While the poor man, who is industrious, enjoys robust health, and has no experience of those miserable feelings which arise from a diseased stomach and deranged nerves. He scarcely ever reflects that he has a stomach, except when he is hungry; and as to nerves, he is happily innocent of any knowledge of those sensitive chords.

The great curse of poverty is vice! Brutal anger and crudeness, sullen discontent, and rankling envy and hatred—are sufficient to bring misery into a paradise. And when you add to bad passions, which naturally spring up in the human bosom, the complicated evils of intemperance, you have some idea of the real miseries which are found in many cottages of the poor. Filth, disorder, and poverty, render them the seats of almost uninterrupted wretchedness. And soon disease will follow in the train of the evils mentioned—often chronic disease, painful and loathsome, and remediless. The whole mass has become corrupt; and the malady is often aggravated instead of being cured by quack medicines.

The poetical idea of a cottage can seldom be realized; yet sometimes there is an approximation to it.

When settled first as a pastor, I observed coming regularly to church a tall, neat, but plainly dressed young woman, whose manners were exceedingly retiring and reserved. She seemed to shun every opportunity of acquaintance; for as soon as the service was over she would be off, and on her way home. I learned, however, from a female friend of hers, that she was a girl of uncommon intelligence, and very considerable reading, and above all, that she was in reality what she appeared to be, eminently pious.

I was told that one reason of her shyness was continual mortification on account of the foolish and eccentric conduct of her father, who was a talkative and opinionated old man. In early life he had appeared very zealous in religion, and began study with his pastor, with a view to the ministry; but he had not steadiness to persevere, and having got a little smattering of learning, he became exceedingly vain and boastful. He had, indeed, an extraordinary memory for words, and would repeat whole chapters of the Bible verbatim. But he was not contented with the common creed, and adopted many strange notions, which he brought out and defended on all occasions. Sometimes, indeed, he would hold forth in public, and professed to have a divine call to make known the truths which he said had been made known to him; and the only thing which prevented him from often speaking in public was, that he could get no audience to remain to hear him. Besides this amiable and accomplished daughter, he had one son, who, though industrious in cultivating the farm, had much of his father's vain-glorious disposition. In all religious excitements this young man became very conspicuous, and by his ostentatious display produced disgust in almost every mind. The mother of this young woman was also still living, but being infirm and somewhat melancholy, she seldom left the house even to attend church.

On account of these circumstances, Eusebia generally appeared alone, and seldom was anyone invited to the house, which stood in a reclusive spot. It was evident, however, that disease was secretly undermining her constitution, and after a while she was no longer able to come to church; her seat became vacant. As the pastor of the church, I felt it to be my duty to visit her; but knowing the extreme sensibility of her feelings, I thought it prudent to use the mediation of her female friend before mentioned. After a considerable struggle, she consented to see me in company with her friend.

I was struck, on entering the cottage, with the perfect neatness and cleanliness of every article of furniture. Every curtain and bed-cover was purely white, and wove and spun with her own hands. She was unable to sit up, but lay reclined on a low bed in a small room adjoining the one which we first entered. Though distant always before, she now expressed strong satisfaction in seeing me, and said she had often derived much comfort from my preaching, but could never, until now, summon confidence enough to speak to me.

"I have," said she, "been kept back by foolish feelings of self-distrust, with which I now find much pride has been mingled. But I am persuaded that I am soon to leave the world. I am desirous of availing myself of the instruction and advice of one who is invested with the office of a teacher."

I asked her respecting her spiritual condition, and her views of death and eternity.

She said, that "during the few years which she had been a member of the church, darkness and doubt had hung over her mind in an almost perpetual cloud; that she had been looking for something in her own heart—which she could never find. She heard others speak of their ardent love to Christ; and of their overflowing joys; but her heart remained cold and insensible. At some rare times," said she, "I experienced a little reviving, and felt a degree of tenderness, being able to weep freely, which gave me some relief. But on cool reflection, I attributed those melting frames to the peculiar state of my body; for on examination I could not find that my views of divine truth were at all brighter than before. And," said she, "thus I continued until I heard you preach from the text, 'By grace are you saved,' etc., when you told us, if we wanted solid comfort, we must look outside of ourselves, and away from ourselves, to Christ and his perfect work.

"At that moment I seemed first fully to apprehend the freeness of divine grace. My crushed heart was encouraged and comforted. Christ appeared to me in a new light; and though some dark clouds have passed over my mind since, and some doubts have occasionally risen, they have been transient. And through the blessing of divine grace, I remain from day to day in a state of sweet composure. My sense of unworthiness and sinfulness is as great as before, but I have learned no longer to look for comfort to anything in myself, but only to Christ. I see a sufficiency in him for every need, and I am enabled to confide in him. He is my all and in all; my Prophet, Priest, and King. He is made unto me wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption—what more do I desire?

"Considering how naturally timid I am, I feel astonished at my own confidence and composure of mind. I hope, my dear pastor, there is no mistake in this matter; I hope that I am not embracing a delusion for the reality of God's faithfulness in his promises."

I told her that there could be no mistake in trusting everything into the hands of Christ; that the stronger our confidence in him the better, and the less danger of deception.

Though her frame was emaciated, there was a heavenly calmness and sweet serenity in her countenance. Not having been accustomed to such scenes, my own feelings were unusual. I could think of little else when absent from her, than the sweet and heavenly appearance of her countenance; and being urged to come often, I did not fail to avail myself of the privilege of sitting by her bedside and receiving edification from the gracious words which proceeded from her lips. Often have I wished, while beholding her countenance lighted up with pure and spiritual hope and joy, and beaming with the feelings of benevolence, that some infidels whom I know could have witnessed this scene; it would have been more effectual to convince them of the blessed reality of religion than a thousand logical arguments.

She continued in the same calm and comfortable state unto her death. A few days before her end, I visited her, and on my taking leave, anticipating her departure, she clasped my hand in hers and said, "My dear pastor, before I see you again, I shall be gone from this world of sorrow and sin. I thank you for all your kind attention to an unworthy creature. I go to meet my Savior—my best friend—Him who shed his blood for my salvation—I go to dwell with saints and angels in heaven forever. Farewell—I shall see your face no more in this world."

Being a young pastor, the scene made a deep and lasting impression on my mind. As I expected, the next tidings which I heard from Eusebia was a summons to attend her funeral. "Oh let me die the death of the righteous," for they have hope in their end. They are blessed, "and their works do follow them."

The foregoing narrative will furnish us with some profitable reflections.

1. We see that no situation in life is exempt from trouble. Piety in a cottage, with almost perfect seclusion from the world, with books, a few select friends, and access to the means of grace, would seem to furnish as complete an idea of happiness as we can readily conceive. All these advantages were fully enjoyed by this pious female, but still there was a worm gnawing at the root. Every rose has its thorn. Her affliction arose from a too exquisite sensibility, and too anxious a solicitude for the reputation of a parent. A corroding feeling of mortification depressed her spirits and undermined her health, and brought her to an untimely grave.

2. Some of the most perfect specimens of genuine piety are to be found far from the view of the mirthful and busy world, and often little noticed even by the majority of the members of the church. Piety flourishes and brings forth its precious fruit in the shade of retirement, observed only by a few select friends, and by that venerable Being who, though his throne is in the heavens, and eternity his dwelling-place, yet looks down with delight on every humble, contrite spirit; yes, condescends to dwell with them. "The humble spirit and contrite, is an abode of his delight."

3. We learn from the facts related above the superlative excellence of true religion. What else could produce such a dying scene as this? The deathbed was undoubtedly rendered the happiest on which this pious woman ever lay. There was here no sting, no terror, no pain; all was peace and joyful hope, and sweet and heavenly serenity. Could a fiction, a cunningly devised fable, produce such effects? Who can believe it?

If the mere prospect of heaven can afford such happiness, what must heaven itself be? If one drop, a mere foretaste, can so disarm pain, and fill the soul with divine consolations, who can conceive of the views of never-ending bliss which flow from the throne of God?

And to whom do we owe these high hopes and brilliant prospects? Not to ourselves, not to man, not to any creature; but to the eternal Son of God, to the beloved Redeemer, to Jesus, who knows by experience the miseries of death as a curse. He bore the curse, that his people might be exempt—the sting pierced his inmost soul, and henceforth lost its venom. He drank the bitter cup which sin had mingled, that it might forever pass from us.

"Jesus can make a dying bed
Feel soft as downy pillows are,
While on his bosom I lean my head,
And breathe my life out sweetly there."