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Life of John Wesley Redfield
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CHAPTER 30

From Peekskill Mr. Redfield went, on invitation of the chaplain, to visit the Marine Hospital of New York city. Not knowing his congregation, he committed himself to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He was led to treat them with all the kindness he could command. The main drift of his preaching was to offer hope, and they would break down and cry like whipped children. Many were clearly converted, and some of them died soon after in the triumphs of the Christian faith. He staid but a short time, and after he was gone, some of them entreated the matron to send for him, “for,” they said, “nobody understands us as he does. The ministers who come here think we are a hard set and preach to us of hell; and that don’t do us any good, for we are used to that; but when one preaches to us kindly, that breaks us all down.”

When Mr. Redfield heard this he made inquiries in regard to these brokenhearted mariners who had come here to die, and found that many of them had served terms in the state’s prison; and, when discharged had changed their names and enlisted in the United States service. This made a deep impression upon him, and taught him that these men were not hypocrites; that the terrors of the law do such no good for they are already in a hopeless state of mind. Hope only can reach them.

He went from here to the Sing Sing state’s prison by invitation of the chaplain of that institution. Here he followed what he believed were the leadings of the Holy Spirit, and preached to the prisoners in the same manner that he did to the sailors in the hospital. He says: “I could not see that they were different from the mass of mankind. These had been caught, the others had not. I felt drawn to address their better nature; if possible to arouse it to respond to the truth and the call of God. I told them God condemned men when the decision is made to commit sin; while man condemned for the action only. I tried to show them that each had redeeming traits, and that they might, if they would, by the grace of God, rise to a life that would be acceptable in the world to come. That though men might look upon them as degraded and lost, yet they were capable of bearing the image of God. To men they might appear criminal., but with God all men are criminals. What if men do brand you with names of dishonor and disgrace, and chisel those names in the monuments of human remembrance; and what if you die unhonored and are buried in yonder prison graveyard, and no stone to mark the spot? if you will avail yourselves of the means God has provided, your names shall be written in the Lamb’s book of life, and angels shall keep watch over your sleeping dust, and in the morning of the resurrection you shall come forth to be honored by the King of kings.

“I did not attempt to apologize for their sin, or to soften the color of their crimes, but tried to refer the question of the difference between them and the rest of mankind to the judgment day, the proper place for the settlement of the question. I told them that it was honoring themselves to say to the Almighty, “Against thee and thee only have I sinned.”

“The magical effect of kind words addressed to their hopes was wonderful to behold: the dropping tear, the anxious look, with now and then a flash of gratitude, as they gazed upon a poor mortal like themselves, who instead of upbraiding them was endeavoring to induce them to try once more to rise to true manhood, and to aspire to the society of heaven.

“The next day as I passed through the prison, I thought I experienced some of the emotions of the Angel of Mercy. I was allowed to converse with some of the prisoners, and found some of them penitent, and quite a number of them genuinely converted to God. I was astonished to see the depravity and entire alienation from God of some. Some awakened ones desired me to step one side that they might talk freely to me. One among them, who had been sentenced for ten years, who had already served out five, and had given his heart to Christ, now with tears running down his cheeks, confessed that his sentence was just; and that God in mercy had allowed him to come to that place for his own good. He said he had not a relative or a friend to come to him in his disgrace, and yet he was so happy and so contented that he could not bear the thought of leaving the place lest the snares of the world should entrap him again. He said, “When I go to my cell and sit down on my bunk, Jesus comes and sits with me, and we have such sweet communion that I would rather stay here than lose it.”

“The warden told me that there were some prisoners so violent that they had to be kept with a ball and chain fastened to their ankles. They had once taken a stand in one of the cells, in defiance of the authority of the prison, refusing to obey orders.

“I asked if I might see them. The warden answered, “I don’t know whether it is safe.” I pleaded, “Just give me permission to go to them.” This was finally granted, and I went in and sat down among them without any manifestation of fear, and trusted myself to them. In the spirit of kindness I conversed with them. They claimed they had been greatly abused. But I appealed to their sense of right and wrong; that it was their duty to do right whether others did or not. My kindness of manner and speech, and my treating them as though they were reasonable beings touched them, and soon they consented to change their course and submit to the discipline of the prison.

“I found one man, a foreigner, who from not understanding our laws, had committed an offense in an effort to show kindness to one apparently in distress, and had received a sentence of five years at hard labor. The warden was greatly interested in his case, and was desirous that some one should make an effort to obtain a pardon for him. I undertook it with the assistance of another gentleman. It was necessary to get at all the facts in his case so as to lay them before the governor of the state. In order to have access to the man for this purpose, I was obliged to hire him of the state; and to meet the expenses, it was necessary to furnish him with employment. The only employment at hand that the man was fitted for required a second man, and one more skilled than he. The second man was a genius in his way. He was serving out his fifth sentence. He was very ambitious to excel, and loved to be appreciated, and withal very affable and agreeable. But he seemed to have a passion for stealing. The first man told me I must be on my guard or he would pick my pockets. He also told me that the man kept an old bag in a by-place in which he hid bits of coal and bits of cloth clipped from prison garments brought to him to be mended. In regard to the first of the two men, the effort to obtain a pardon succeeded, and he went forth a free man.

“While engaged in the effort to procure this pardon, I saw several instances of the fidelity of woman’s love in the face of disgrace brought upon the family. Wives came to visit their husbands who were prisoners, but though there were several married women in the prison, there was not a single instance of a husband coming to visit his wife during all the time I was there.”

During his stay at Sing Sing he held a series of meetings in the town. As usual, the doctrine and experience of holiness was made a prominent feature. There was much opposition, but victory was won for God and his truth, and many were saved.

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