By Frank W. Boreham
The doctor was the worst man in Bartown, and that was saying a good deal. For Bartown had the reputation of being 'the wickedest little hole in all England.' It is Harold Begbie who, in The Vigil, tells its story. Dr. Blund, he assures us, spent most of his time drinking gin and playing billiards at 'The Angel.' In a professional point of view, only one person in the little seaside town believed in him, and that was the broken and bedraggled little woman whose whole life had been darkened by his debauchery. Mrs. Blund was never tired of singing the doctor's praises. When she introduced him to a newcomer, and told of his wondrous cures and amazing skill, he listened like a man in a dream. 'Dr. Blund,'--so runs the story--'Dr. Blund was twitching with excess of alcohol, and only muttered and frowned as his wife talked of his powers. The terrible old doctor, with his hairy, purple face and his sunken eyes, seemed to think that his wife was doing him the most dreadful dis-service. It was wonderful that this little woman, instead of shrinking from exhibiting her husband, should have so pathetic a faith in the dreadful-looking rogue that she evidently fancied that he had but to be seen to be chosen as medical adviser.'
Thus the story opens. It could scarcely be expected that such a wreck could hold together for long. Exactly half-way through the book I find Mr. Rodwell, the young rector, standing at the street-corner talking to Mr. Shorder, the wealthy manufacturer. They are interrupted. Mrs. Blund comes hurrying breathlessly round the corner.
'Mr. Rodwell,' she pants, 'please come at once! Dr. Blund! He's asking for you! I've been to the vicarage, I've been everywhere, hunting for you. Don't delay a moment, please!'
Richard Rodwell was an earnest young clergyman, who had ideas of his own about things; and the task to which he was now summoned was very little to his taste. He saw in Blund a man who had lived hideously and was now concerned to avert his just punishment. He tried to believe that there was some hope for such a wretch; but the attempt was not altogether successful. He bent over the dying man and talked of mercy and repentance and forgiveness. But the words did not come from his own soul, and they did not comfort the soul of the man to whom they were addressed.
'There's something else!' he gasped.
'There is nothing outside the mercy of God,' replied the vicar.
'It's in the Bible, what I mean,' returned the dying man.
'What is it?' asked Rodwell soothingly.
'It's a text, "Except a man be born again----" You know the words, Born again. What does that mean?'
The doctor, in his professional capacity, had often seen a child draw its first breath, and had been impressed by its utter pastlessness. It had nothing to regret, nothing to forget. Everything was before it; nothing behind. And here was a text that seemed to promise such an experience a second time! To be born again! What was it to be born again? The dying doctor asked his insistent question repeatedly, but the vicar was out of his depth. He floundered pitifully. At last the doctor, to whom every moment was precious beyond all price, lost patience with the hesitating minister and changed the form of his question. Looking fixedly into his visitor's eyes, he exclaimed:
'Tell me, have you been born again?' Rodwell hung his head in silence, and the voice from the bed went on.
'Have you ever known in your life,' he asked, 'a moment when you felt that a great change happened to you? Are you pretending? Have you ever been conscious of a new birth in your soul?'
The vicar fenced with the question, but it was of no avail. The dying man raised himself suddenly on an elbow. 'You can't help me!' he cried angrily. He seized Rodwell's wrist and held it tightly, fiercely. As he spoke, the fingers tightened their grasp, and he bent Rodwell's hand down to the bed, as it were for emphasis.
'You don't know,' he cried. 'You're pretending. The words you say are words for the living. I am a dying man. Have you the same message for the living and the dying? Have I a lifetime before me in which to work out repentance? You can't help me! You don't know! You have never been born again!'
Such a rebuke smites a minister like the sudden coming of the Day of Judgment. After his conversion John Wesley wrote a terrible letter to his old counselor, William Law. 'How will you answer to our common Lord,' he asks, 'that you, sir, never led me into light? Why did I scarcely ever hear you name the name of Christ? Why did you never urge me to faith in His blood? I beseech you, sir, to consider whether the true reason of your never pressing this salvation upon me was not this--that you never had it yourself!'
'It was a terrible discovery to make,' says Mr. Begbie. 'To think that he--Richard Rodwell, Vicar of Bartown--knew so little of the nature of God that he could say no single word that had significance for this dying soul! He was dumb. The words on his lips were the words of the Church. Out of his own heart, out of his own soul, out of his own experience, he could say nothing.'
'Forgive me,' he said, as he bent over the form on the bed, 'forgive me for failing you. It is not Christ who has failed; it is I.' He turned to go. The dying man opened his eyes and looked at Rodwell sadly and tragically.
'Try to learn what those words mean,' he muttered. 'Born again! It's the bad man's only chance.'
They parted, never to meet again; and from another minister's lips the doctor learned the secret for which he craved.
It is very difficult to excuse Mr. Rodwell, especially when we remember that the words that the dying doctor found so captivating, and that he himself found so perplexing, were originally intended to meet just such cases as that of Dr. Blund.
'What is it to be born again? How can a man be born again?' asked the voice from the bed.
'How can a man be born when he is old?' asked Nicodemus, as he heard the Saviour's words uttered for the first time.
'When he is old!' To Nicodemus, as to Dr. Blund, there was something singularly attractive about the thought of babyhood, the thought of pastlessness, the thought of beginning life all over again. But to the aged ruler, as to the aged doctor, it was an insoluble enigma, an inscrutable mystery.
'How?' asked Nicodemus of the Saviour. 'How can a man be born when he is old?'
'How?' asked Dr. Blund of Mr. Rodwell. 'How can a man be born again?'
We all feel that, unless the gospel can meet just such cases as these, we might almost as well have no gospel at all. And yet we have also felt the force of that persistent and penetrating How?
Dr. Blund is no frolic of Mr. Begbie's imagination. Dr. Blund is the representative of all those--and their name is legion--who, in the crisis of the soul's secret history, have turned towards the Saviour's strange saying with the most intense wistfulness and yearning. Let me cite three instances--each as unlike the others as it could possibly be--in order to show that all sorts and conditions of men have at some time felt as Dr. Blund felt in those last hours of his. John Bunyan, the tinker of Bedford, was born in the seventeenth century; the Duke of Wellington, soldier and statesman, was born in the eighteenth century; Frederick Charrington, the London brewer, was born in the nineteenth century. From a great cloud of available witnesses I select these three.
As to John Bunyan, the story of the beginnings of grace in the dreamer's soul is familiar to us all, but it will do us no harm to hear it from his own lips once again. 'Upon a day,' he says, 'the good providence of God called me to Bedford, to work at my calling; and in one of the streets of that town I came to where there were three or four poor women sitting in the sun talking about the things of God; and being now willing to hear them discourse, I drew near to hear what they said; but I heard, yet understood not; they were far above, out of my reach; for their talk was about a new birth!'
'Their talk was about a new birth!'
'Ye must be born again!'
'I heard,' says Bunyan, 'but I understood not!'
'At this,' he goes on to say, 'at this I felt my heart begin to shake, for I saw that in all my thoughts about salvation, the new birth did never enter into my mind!'
Thus the soul of the sleeper awoke. He walked the streets of Bedford asking the old, old question, the question of Nicodemus, the question of Dr. Blund, the question of us all. 'How can a man be born again? How can a man be born again?'
From John Bunyan to the Duke of Wellington seems a far cry. But the transition may not be as drastic as it appears. Dr. W. H. Fitchett, who has made a special study of the character and achievements of the great Duke, recently told the story of a remarkable and voluminous correspondence that took place between Wellington and a young lady named Miss Jenkins. To this earnest and devout girl, her faith was the biggest thing in life. She had but one passionate and quenchless desire: the desire to share it with others. She sought for converts everywhere. A murderer awaited execution in the local gaol. Miss Jenkins obtained permission to visit him. She entered the condemned cell, pleaded with him, wept over him, won him to repentance, and the man went to the scaffold blessing her.
Then, from the winning of the lowest, she turned to the winning of the highest. She fastened her eyes upon the Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo, the statesman of the hour, the most commanding figure in the three kingdoms. Wellington was then sixty-five, a man covered with honor and absorbed in public affairs. But, to Miss Jenkins, he was simply a great worldly figure, and, in 1834, she wrote a letter--a letter winged by many prayers--warning him of the peril of living without a sure, deep consciousness of the forgiveness of sins, through the redemption of Jesus Christ. Wellington's iron nature was strongly moved. He replied by return of post, and thus inaugurated a correspondence in the course of which he wrote to Miss Jenkins no fewer than three hundred and ninety letters. In the course of this amazing correspondence, Miss Jenkins begged for an interview, and it was granted. Miss Jenkins took out her New Testament and read to the old warrior these very words. 'Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God!' 'Here,' says Dr. Fitchett, in unfolding the story, 'here was a preacher of quite a new type! A girl's lips were reciting Christ's tremendous words: "Ye must be born again!" She was addressing them directly to him, and her uplifted finger was challenging him. Some long-dormant religious sensibilities awoke within him. The grace of the speaker, and the mystic quality of the thing spoken, arrested him.' To the end of his days the Duke firmly believed that, by means of this girl-prophet, God Himself spoke to his soul that day.
Mr. Frederick Charrington's story has been put on record by Guy Thorne. He was the son of the great brewer, the heir to more than a million pounds, and his time was very largely his own. He traveled and formed friendships. One of his earliest friends was Lord Garvagh. They traveled together, and, when they parted, Lord Garvagh asked Charrington if he would grant him one request. 'When you are quite alone,' his lordship pleaded, 'I should like you to read slowly and carefully the third chapter of John's Gospel!' Later on, Charrington met William Rainsford, and the acquaintance ripened into intimacy. 'Do you know what I wish you would do, Fred?' Rainsford said to him one day. 'I wish, when you are by yourself, that you would study the third chapter of the Gospel of John!'
'This is a very curious thing,' Charrington said to himself. 'My old friend, Lord Garvagh, and my new friend, Rainsford, both say exactly the same thing; and they both profess to be saved.'
Thus doubly challenged, he read the chapter with the closest attention, and was arrested by the words: 'Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God!' 'As I read,' he says, 'light came into my soul,' and he ever afterwards regarded that moment as the turning-point of his whole life.
Now, what did these men--these and a hundred thousand more--see in the strange, mysterious words that Jesus spoke to the aged ruler twenty centuries ago? That is the question, and the question is not a difficult one to answer.
A new birth! To be born again! What can it mean? It can only mean one thing. 'I wish,' somebody has sung----
I wish that there were some wonderful place
Called the Land of Beginning Again,
Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches
And all of our poor, selfish grief
Could be dropped, like a shabby old coat, at the door,
And never put on any more.
The words, if they mean anything, mean that there is such a place. A man may have a fresh start. In describing the greatest change that took place in his life--the greatest change that can take place in any man's life--Frank Bullen says: 'I love that description of conversion as the "new birth." No other definition touches the truth of the process at all. So helpless, so utterly knowledgeless, possessing nothing but the vague consciousness of life just begun!' Dr. Blund was thinking of the babes whose first breath he had seen drawn. So innocent; so pastless! Oh, to begin where they were beginning! Oh, to be born again!'
Dr. Blund cannot begin where they were beginning. He cannot enjoy again--at any rate in this world--the opportunities of growth and development that were theirs. But he can be born again! He can start afresh! Dr. Blund made that discovery on his deathbed, and, in talking of the dead doctor's experience, the young minister made the same discovery a day or two later. He felt his need; he turned in an agony of supplication to the Saviour whom he had so often preached; and he, too, entered into the new life.
'He made the great discovery,' Harold Begbie says. 'It had happened; the longed-for event had come; he stood by himself, all by himself, conscious now of the heart; no longer satisfied either with his own intellect or the traditions of a church. The miracle had happened. He had discovered the helplessness of humanity. He had discovered the need of the soul. He had begun at last to see into the heart of things.' He had been born again!
There are two kinds of progress. There is the progress that moves away from infancy towards youth, towards maturity, towards age and decrepitude. And there is a higher progress, a progress that moves towards infancy. 'Except ye be converted and become as little children,' Jesus said, 'ye shall not enter into the kingdom of God.' And the only way of becoming a little child once more is by being born again. It is the glory of the gospel that it offers a man that chance.