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By Thomas S. Sheardown
1820 to 1826
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Spiritual Declension—Difficulties in Obtaining Fellowship—Unite The Covert Baptist Church—Commence Speaking in Public—Remarkable Feelings in a Dangerous Illness—Hunting For a New Home in the Woods—Am Led by a Stranger, and Settle on Cole’s Camp
As it regarded my ignorance of the ways and customs of a country so new and peculiar to me, I have hitherto been somewhat particular on several points, but will say no more at present, and now enter upon the darkest page of my history.
When we had become settled, after paying for my three acres of land, I had just seventy-five dollars to begin the world with. That was no discouragement to me. But my religious life was a great concern of mind. I attended church, the first Sabbath after I arrived at my stopping place. I thought it was the most singular congregation, and place of worship, that I had ever seen. But what astonished me most, was the preaching. I have no doubt of the goodness and piety of the minister, for God had done a great work by him. A short time before, he had moved Westward, and was then on a visit, to see his old friends, and attend to some unfinished business. I made some remarks relative to his preaching, when a gentleman replied to me, "Any person who finds fault with Elder T.’s preaching, cannot live in this community." But I thought I would continue to attend meetings, and form acquaintances with the church members. I had not yet reflected upon my peculiar situation, for I had left England without a church letter. While absent from the city where I had my standing, the few brethren and sisters, before referred to, who designed to form the fourth church, found that they were not able to sustain themselves; upon which, they dissolved, and joined other churches in the city. My father-in-law wrote, soon after, to let me know what had taken place. But I was not concerned, because I knew that I could obtain a standing in any regular Baptist church, in England, when God in his providence should cast my lot wherever there was such a church: all I would have to do, there, would be to prove my baptism, and give a relation of my Christian experience. I always said, when conversing with any of the members of the church, that I was a Baptist in my own country, and told them the circumstances under which I left; but no word of encouragement was given me, nor any invitation extended for me to become one with them.
In A Backslidden State
At that time, a strong temptation beset my mind, that I would say little or nothing about it—at all events, I would never lisp the first word that I had ever preached—and get along as best I could. I found my religious enjoyment to be wanting, though I continued to pray in my family, and pray in my closet—but not so frequently as I had been in the habit of doing. Very soon, I became backslidden in heart, and too much so in life. Still, I continued to meet with the church every Sabbath, and occasionally attended their covenant meetings, but all was cold and dark. They would ask me to speak, which I think I never refused to do; but something all this time was whispering within, that I had better live more like a Christian, and say less about it. Those were most painful days to me, and I thought any place better adapted to me than the church of Jesus Christ. I would rally at times, and feel very anxious for a standing in the church, but whenever I made any move towards it, I was always answered, "You can never get into the church, sir, in this country, without you bring a letter." I had always been honest in telling them my real condition; that I could give them evidence, in letters which I had by me, that I was a member, in good standing, of a regular Baptist church in England; also, I could give them the name of a brother, a deacon in the church, who saw me baptized, and knew my Christian walk and character, and who might easily be communicated with, for he was then living in the city of Philadelphia. All that, they would answer, will not supply the place of a letter. I told them the reason I had none was because the church had disbanded in my absence, and I was left alone in the world—but that, if I was in my own country, I should have no trouble in obtaining a standing in any church of our order. They never asked me how I would, and I never thought it best to tell them, for I did not think it was my duty to dictate to them, or to introduce new laws among them.
There were brethren in the church who I esteemed very much, but only one with whom I was perfectly confidential. When I received letters from England, they always were of a religious character, and I let him have the privilege of reading them, as they delighted him much. I now had a new trial, or temptation, presented to my mind: it was, that I had sinned against God in not remaining in the little village where I first preached, and that God had forsaken me because it looked as though I had forsaken them—and I could not return to my native land. In the first place, I had not the means to cross the Atlantic again. And in the second place, I had been alienated from the British government—from all support, recognition, or protection thereof—according to law. Therefore (I came to the conclusion) God had left me to myself, to take my own way, and to walk after the sight of my own eyes. The bitterness of such thoughts can be realized only by those who have experienced them. It appeared to be a settled point, in my mind, that I never should divulge the fact that I had once tried to preach.
About that time, I received a very interesting letter from my father-in-law, in England. In it, among many other things to which he referred, was the effect of the last sermon he heard me preach before I left my native land. Upon meeting with Deacon Porter, (the brother previously alluded to,) I said to him that I had another letter from England. He asked me if I had it with me; I told him I had. He said he would like very much to see it, if it was consistent. I said, "Certainly you can, my brother." I handed him the letter, having forgotten all about the preaching part until he had had it in his possession, long enough to read it almost through. I would have given anything I had if I could only have obtained it from him. But, strange as it may appear, not a word was said by him relative to the preaching. And, some years after, while conversing with him upon the subject, he told me that he thought it was some other individual whose preaching my father-in-law referred to, instead of my own. I had feared, for some time, lest he would leak it out to some of his friends; but, not hearing of it from any one, I concluded he had forgotten it, or must have overlooked it.
I employed myself, part of the time, in teaching school, and the balance of my time in laboring at anything that I could do. The state of my mind became more and more depressed, and I was alarmed at my situation. The church was supplied by different ministers, the greater part if not all of whom I trust now are in the better world. They at last obtained a pastor—a man in years, and I thought a very good man—high in doctrine, and strict in discipline. He was more like a preacher, to my view, than any I had become acquainted with in this country. I thought, now, perhaps, this man can do me good. So I kindly invited him to come and spend a day with me. He gave me the promise, which he fulfilled.
This, I think, was the Friday before covenant meeting. I frankly opened all my heart, and read to him my English correspondence, except the letter that spoke about the preaching. He had questioned me, and we had talked familiarly together. I had kept nothing back, in order that he might know my case just as it really was. Something, I do not now recollect just what, prevented me from going to the meeting. A good Dutch mother in Israel, with whom we were intimate as a family and neighbor, called at my house on Saturday evening, on her way home from the covenant meeting. I was busy cutting wood by the door. I went into the house to carry some wood, and found the old lay, weeping bitterly, and talking with my wife. I asked her what was the matter? She said, "I’m kilt, I’m kilt." I replied, "Sister L., what has killed you?" She said, "Our minister." "Why what has your minister done?" She said, "He told us to-day, in meeting, that he had been to see that foreigner who calls himself an Englishman; he had had a long interview with him; he is a very smart fellow," said Elder W., "and is capable of doing good, or a great deal of harm; and I would caution you against having anything to do with him." I thought, then, the last blow had been struck; that it was more than I could bear. Still, I continued to go to church on the Sabbath; but it was very seldom that I went to any other meeting.
Relief Comes, At Last
That good man died, soon after, and another pastor was chosen, in the person of Aaron Abbott. He very soon heard of me, and proved to be one of the most genial spirits I had ever met with on this side of the Atlantic. I found that he appreciated what I told him; we wept, and prayed together; and many of the dark clouds that were about my mind, were in a measure dissipated. He said to me, "Would it not be a privilege to you to belong to the church?" I said, "Yes; if I can not have a home in the church, I can not have any home on earth," for I told him I was entirely alone in this new world, (as far as kindred or connection were concerned,) except my family. Having made him acquainted with my situation, he said, "Now, my brother, is there any way that you know of, whereby you can become a member of the church?" I told him that I knew of a way, but I did not like to name it; it looked so much, to me, like pleading my own cause. He replied, "Name it to me; what we say is confidential." I told him the only way, as I viewed things, was that I should give proof of my baptism being legitimate, and that, if the church gained evidence that I was a Christian, they could receive me into their fellowship. He answered, "That is it. Now, will you and your wife attend the church covenant meeting?" I told him we would. "Then I will try to open the way to them."
We Join the Church
We attended. The circumstances were laid before the church, by the pastor. My heart was broken. I confessed my wanderings and alienation with bitter tears, I trust, of repentance. As soon as the brethren and sisters saw the thing in the light as presented by the pastor, they were astonished that they did not see it so before, and we were received into the church. That was a good day. Nevertheless, there were many things that corroded my very heart; but nothing equal to the continual anxiety growing out of the idea that I had excluded forever all the pleasantness that I had enjoyed while preaching to the people in the little village where I first commenced.
Take the Lead in Meetings
The pastor was a great lover of the old fashioned conference and prayer meetings. He often appointed them at different school houses, invited me to attend them, and, if there was no leader in the meetings, to take to lead myself. I was delighted with the invitation, and was willing to go anywhere, because it gave me opportunity to talk about the subject of religion. I was once in one of those little meetings, at the Kingtown school-house. God was refreshing my soul while speaking, when a good old mother, (Robinson by name) exclaimed, "Why, this foreigner can preach! You have preached," she said, "haven’t you?" I said I had always been in the habit of speaking on religion, more or less, ever since I was converted.
Exercises During Sickness
In 1825, I was taken severely sick, with what was called the "old lake fever." While confined to my bed, I had a great deal of reflection in reviewing my life. One day, my wife came to my bedside, and said to me, "Can you remain alone a little while?" I replied, "Yes, but where are you going?" She remarked, "I want to go down to the brook and do some washing." It was but a few rods from the house, and I told her by all means to go; that she might not be troubled about me. While she was absent, I passed through a scene that I shall never forget. I was looking at my watch, which was suspended where I could see it. It was just fifteen minutes to eleven in the morning. After this, whether asleep or awake I know not, but the first thing that appeared to me was every part of the known world in which I had ever been, either by sea, or land. It appeared as distinctly as though it were drawn out upon a map in living characters before me. Immediately after this, I saw ever sin I had committed, as distinctly and as clearly as I ever saw figures. The last and greatest sin of all appeared to be my neglect of preaching the Gospel of Christ to perishing sinners. The next appearance was, that I was in impervious darkness. I then saw all the iniquity of my life, in mass together, piled up like one mighty thunder cloud; and, rising up in the centre, was the sin of my keeping back from proclaiming the riches of Christ to my fellow men. At this moment, I appeared to be upon an inclined plane, about four feet wide. On my right hand, was a gulf more dark than the darkness I was in; and on my left, rising up like an immense mountain, was this black cloud of sins. The plane on which I was walking, inclined more and more towards the gulf; for it was a sidewise inclination. I thought that I still tried to keep walking forward, but the path became considerably crowded with travelers like myself. I could hear them dropping into the gulf, before me and behind me. Sometimes I thought I should lose my foothold, and fall into what I thought to be the bottomless pit. When it seemed as if I could not keep my feet much longer, I saw a little light, not larger apparently than a pin’s head. I thought something whispered, "Never mind your feet, but keep your eye upon the light." The light appeared to expand slowly. I do not recollect that I ever turned my eye from it. Suddenly, the plane became so inclined that my feet were just about to slip, when, instantly, the light shone with the greatest refulgence that can possibly be imagined; and at that instant, the darkened cloud fell just behind me, right into the gulf, with a tremendous crash. I appeared to be in universal space; and as my eyes reached into the far distant glories that were before me, I said, "Lord, I shall live, and I will preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ!" At this instant, my eye was upon my watch; it wanted twenty minutes to twelve. I was bathed in tears, and the subject of such abounding consolation as I had never experienced before. My wife came into my room a few moments after. I had turned my face the other way. She gently put down the covering, saw the situation in which I was, and exclaimed, "Are you worse?" her tears flowing in great profusion at the same time. I said, "No, I am better—I am better. Leave me alone. My choicest friends are only a burden to me." Such was the abounding consolation of soul and mind, the savor of which remained with me more or less through all my sickness.
My fever was of a very dangerous nature. It ran some thirty-one days before it arrived at its crisis. My senses were good, and my mind clear, all the time, with some very small exceptions. I was reduced so low that I could not raise my hand, and finally could not speak. While I was in this low condition, many of the brethren and neighbors were in to see me; and several of them I could hear talking to my wife, saying that I could live but a short time. It grieved me very much to see her weep under the influence of their conversation, for I felt confident that I should live, yet had not strength to speak and express my hope. I had had that assurance through all my sickness. One night there was standing by my bed-side, with others, my confidential friend, Dea. Porter. This was about eleven o’clock. I spoke out,. The spectators said, in my usual tone of voice, saying, "Dea. Porter, pray." The deacon at once said, "What do you want I should pray for, Bro. Sheardown?" I proceeded to tell him. All present were bathed in tears. The deacon said, "Stop! I am a child compared to you." Some said they thought I talked half an hour, others twenty minutes: but the most composed thought it might have been about fifteen minutes. When I had done speaking, my strength was almost entirely gone, and I was perfectly exhausted. I always loved to the hear the deacon pray; but, on that occasion, it appeared to me that it was the most insipid prayer I ever heard. I could hear the people say to my wife, "It is a revival before death; he will die about twelve o’clock." But the next day, my physician pronounced me better; the fever was broken, and he saw no reason, with good care, why I might not recover. My faith was in God, yet I believed in all the means that could be used. I felt afraid, at times, that my watchers might make a mistake in giving the medicine, and that might end my life. From that time, I began very slowly to amend; and, through the blessing of God, was finally restored to perfect health.
Desire to Remove My Home
This severe sickness did not appear to have undermined my constitution, for in a few months I was as hale and rugged as I ever had been, from anything that I could perceive. But my mind passed through a great change, and I was desirous of leaving the place. I inquired of every person whom I met, or was acquainted with, if they knew of a good place where I could obtain wild land at a cheap rate. I was finally told that in a place called Windfall Settlement, beyond Ithica, there was land, that could be obtained on easy terms. I thought I would not move prematurely; I would wait until I could see some person who had been there, in whom I could confide as giving me a correct account of the settlement.
I had a great desire to locate in what was called a new country, providing I could find one that suited me. When I had been about eighteen months in America, I thought I would like to go and see some unsettled lands, but it was not worth while for me to go alone. Consequently, some time elapsed before I made a start. Unexpectedly, one of my neighbors said to me, "Some of us are going out to look out wild land: don’t you wish to go along?" I said to him, "Where are you going?" The answer was, "Somewhere west and south of the head of Seneca Lake." I concluded to cast in my lot with them.
There were five of us. We shouldered our knapsacks, stored with provisions sufficient to supply us when we got beyond settlers. They all had rifles, and told me I must have one too. I told them I might as well take a broomstick as a rifle, for I was a ignorant of handling a rifle as a cow was of handling a musket. So we went forth, and came to where Havanna now stands. There were a few houses there; one called a tavern, stood near the bank of the inlet. There we made one meal, to save our provisions. We then proceeded on our journey, and very soon found ourselves in a dense forest. Wandering along, toward night, we happened to come to a log house or shanty. The occupant was a Mr. Wakeman. He was very kind, and told us we must stay all night with him. He was poor as poverty, but entertained us with narratives of his own history and experience. He had fought in the last war, was taken prisoner by the British, and had been sent to one of the British Isles, where he remained three years a prisoner, which had very much broken down his constitution. In conversing with him, I found him a man of ardent piety; a Free-Will Baptist by profession. He had squatted in the woods, commenced a little clearing, and appeared very sanguine that he should get along in the world, and finally pay for his farm, (which he did, in time, and more too.)
Prospecting For New Settlements
In the morning, Mr. Wakeman gave us directions which way to go to find the best lands. We ranged the woods several days, and walked a good many miles. One lot of land he pointed out as being very superior; if we followed down a certain stream, we should come to an Indian camp, called Cole’s Camp. This, to be sure, was a beautiful spot; but I thought I would not live there for all the land I had seen. On our return home, night overtook us in a very dense forest, on what is now called Post Creek. We were in a balsam swamp. The night became very dark, and drizzling with rain. We exhausted all our means in trying to get a fire, but failed, and decided we must locate so that each man might "tree" if the wolves should come upon us. Soon after coming to this conclusion, we heard a cow-bell, when we plucked up courage, and started where we thought the bell was. We stopped to listen, and found it was coming towards us. It proved to be a boy with a yoke of cattle, and a small grist of corn meal in a bag hanging over the yoke. He had been to mill, at Printed Post, some fourteen miles from where his father lived. The oxen kept the path, and we followed on with the boy, making a very good rear guard for the little grist. These faithful cattle led us to the house of a Mr. Haskins, where we tarried for the night. This must have been something above what is now called Beaver Dams, in the town of Catlin. We found one or two other settlers in the morning. From thence we posted our way home between the Lakes. When I got home, my neighbors inquired how I liked the new country; I told them I would not live there if they would give me all the land I had seen.
Mr. Wakeman, Again
After this disgression, I will return to my preparation to go out to see the Windfall Settlement, before referred to. Spring time having arrived, people told me that it was the time to go if I wished to commence in a new country. My wife and I had talked the thing up, and the day was set for me to start. But the workings of Divine Providence I knew nothing of, until they manifested themselves to me. My wife and I were both from home. I do not recollect whether we had gone to meeting, or where, but I think not both to the same place, for I was the first who got home. My oldest child told me that there had been a man there from Catlin, with whom I had once stayed all night. He left his name as Bradley Wakeman, saying that I must not (for he had heard that I was going to move from Covert) go anywhere until I had been at his house again. His mind was deeply impressed that that was the place for me, and that God would make me useful to the people. The idea struck me with power, that God must be in this. How the man should have heard that I was intending to move, I do not know. I told my wife that I should not go to the Windfall Settlement, but should start in the morning for Catlin, and, if I felt no better suited than I did before, I would then go to the Windfall Settlement, as I had intended. After I had started for the old gentleman’s, I felt as though every step I took was like going home. Arriving there, I went out with him into the woods, and looked about. A certain lot of land, called No. 5, that he had showed me when I was first there, he informed me, was taken up, but that there was plenty more quite as good. The land had been in market but a short time, and settlers were beginning to drop in. I saw nothing in the country of that forbidding character that appeared to me the first time I was there. I finally went and viewed the lot on which the Indian camp, or Cole’s camp, was. It looked to me like a paradise, and I had no disposition to look any further. I immediately retraced my steps, went to the land agent, (who lived in Caroline, Tompkins county,) and articled for eighty acres, being one half of said lot.