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James Dodson

No words can be plainer than these: “We must through much tribulation enter the kingdom of God.” The truth of this declaration and warning has been verified all along the history of God’s people. It is true that in this respect the experience of one differs from that of another, not in kind but in degree. Christ showed Paul “how great things he must suffer for his name’s sake.” This is the meaning of the word persecution—suffering for Christ’s sake, and no other suffering is persecution. This word, like charity, is almost universally misapplied, being misunderstood through the ignorance of learned and unlearned; culpable ignorance of the Holy Scriptures. The language of Scripture is varied that no one may “err, not knowing the Scriptures.” “For the truth’s sake, for righteousness’ sake,” are of the same meaning as, “for Christ’s sake.”

But persecution differs in degrees. The vulgar notion is, that nothing merits the name of persecution but a violent death for one’s religion, whether that religion be true or false. But suffering for Christ’s name greatly varies in respect of its intensity. Ishmael persecuted Isaac by “cruel mockings;” and the attentive reader may easily perceive that all through the Bible the most grievous sufferings of the Lord’s people came from backsliders, renegades, and apostates. For confirmation of this historical and inspired truth, let anyone consult the eighty-third Psalm, noticing the eighth verse: “They have holpen the children of Lot.” Lot’s descendants took the lead. The same may be seen in the closing verses of the one hundred and thirty-seventh Psalm, compared with Obadiah, where the Edomites are the instigators of the Chaldeans. And Paul’s troubles came from his “own countrymen stirring up the Gentiles” against him. Does anyone need to be told that the Prelates were the instigators of the civil rulers in the martyrdom of our fathers in Scotland? We need not wonder that John “wondered with great admiration when he saw a woman (a church) drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus;” for however unnatural and cruel, the Bible proves its reality.

Sinless self-defense is generally allowed to be lawful; and when this is done in subservience to the cause of truth, then self-defense becomes a duty. So I understand Paul’s example as put on perpetual record in the “Acts (practices) of the Apostles.”

Being by descent, birth, education and actual fellowship intimately connected with a witnessing church, a church embracing in her profession more divine truth than any or all the “flocks of the companions;” and having been subjected on that account to my allotted measure of tribulation, I have already noticed some reproaches and accusations intended to affect my reputation and counteract my testimony. Although I dare not say with Paul, “I glory in tribulations,” I hope I have been “joyful in tribulation;” and that is sufficient for anyone’s present support in time of trial.

In the year 1840, a letter from a distance of 120 miles said it was reported there that “Mr. Steele was crazy, running wild through the woods.” Two years after, it was reported in the same neighborhood that I was dead. That such report got circulation was not strange; for “indeed I had been sick nigh unto death,” but I was mercifully “raised up again.” I afterward heard that a certain man, Allen Reid, did not believe the report, for he thought, though he “gathered not with us,” that “Mr. Steele had more important to perform.” I believe Mr. Reid’s prognostication was correct. Many years afterward, having occasion to be in Philadelphia during the progress of the civil war, one of our elders wrote me from Illinois that a report was circulated there that “Mr. Steele had been taken prisoner by the rebels and had taken the oath of allegiance to Jefferson Davis!” This rumor was indeed plausible, for the Southern army had the invaded Pennsylvania; and as our train progressed eastward, I saw numerous block-houses for defense along the rivers, Juniata and Susquehanna. Besides, when in Philadelphia, the citizens were in daily apprehension of the enemies’ approach to the city. In the early days of July, 1863, pastors were exhorting the males of their flocks to hasten the construction of earthen fortifications for defense; and some of them to inspire with ardor, shouldered a spade or shovel and marched in front of their followers. It was truly a time of imminent danger. Next day, the battle of Gettysburg allayed the apprehensions of the impending danger. In these circumstances, the rumor of my apprehension was quite natural and plausible; but the appendage of my oath of allegiance can be accounted for only by the fact preceding. That quondam brethren had called me either a “pro-slavery man in heart,” or at least of “pro-slavery affinities.” And now, that their political principles had practically silenced their pretended testimony, their feelings acquired homogeneous and spontaneous expression by stigmatizing me as a “copperhead.” But as this appellation was borrowed from the rebels, who applied it to their enemies in the North, its applicability to me seems awkward. It does not appear to fit in well. But malice is too imperious to study consistency. The adage is true, “We hate those whom we have injured.”

I have never yet heard but two reasons why I “left the church,” or why I “left the Synod,” as the expression is varied. I had to cleave to the church by leaving those who had left her; and as to the alleged reasons, the first I notice is—“personal enmity to Dr. James R. Willson.” I merely say, I never knew any cause of enmity between us, as may more fully appear in my answer to the other alleged reason for “leaving the church.” This allegation draws deep: it involves an accusation so grave, so often repeated, and seemingly so well authenticated, that I do not beat the air, even in view of the difficulty of establishing the negative. The charge is that “ambition,” or as more frequently formulated—“Disappointed ambition caused Mr. Steele to leave the church.” An injurious imputation or slanderous accusation has generally but a single paternity. And if the slander be propagated through a direct hereditary line, it may with proximate certainty be traced to its origin. Now, if a preacher publicly declares in the pulpit, that “Mr. Steele would rather reign in hell, than serve in heaven,” the origin of the charge may be identified. It does not present me in a worse aspect than that of James Renwick and our blessed Lord (John viii. 48, 49). In replying to this greatest of charges, I would wish to copy after the example of “the meek and lowly Jesus”—“I have not a devil.”

Why should I hesitate to state in my defence the following facts, some of which are well known, and others can be established by documentary evidence or by living witnesses? When only two years in the ministry (1833), against remonstrance—for the very reason I assigned for declining the nomination to the office of Clerk of General Synod, I was unanimously elected. At that time I was clerk of three courts, General Synod, Western Sub. Synod and Ohio Presbytery. Surely these responsible offices, without emolument, might satisfy my ambition. On our way at that time (1833) toward Pittsburgh, Dr. James R. Willson proposed that I should edit a monthly magazine, urging his proposition with the promise of procuring “a hundred subscribers” by his personal exertions. I declined the honor. On my way West, I was detained in Pittsburgh over two Sabbaths, to get the Minutes of General Synod, 1833, through the press. I preached to the Old Lights of Pittsburgh and Allegheny. They were earnest with me to permit them to ask for my transfer to them from Brush Creek. I declined. Rev. T[homas] Sproull soon after accepted their call. After the death of Rev. John Cannon, his father-in-law, (Mr. Robert Brown, of Greensburg, Pa., I think the most influential elder at that time in the congregation), wrote me a lengthy letter. Besides other matters of public interest in the church, his principal object in writing was to ascertain whether I would give the people there encouragement to give me a call, assuring me of a unanimous vote in case of a favorably reply. I returned a respectful and negative answer. In the year 1838, when General Synod met in New York City, a second professor was to be chosen to cooperate with Dr. J. R. Willson in the Theological Seminary. On the day fixed for the election, after adjournment, Dr. Willson requested me to step aside for a private interview. I had not the least idea of his object, and just as little idea of the person who was to be chosen. The Doctor in the most friendly manner, asked if I would permit my name to be used as a candidate. I was indeed both surprised and disconcerted. After a momentary pause, I replied in a firm negative. I was utterly unfit for the office. He pressed me no little to consent and used two arguments.—If I would only agree to be put in nomination, he was sure—“he knew I would be elected;” if I declined, he “knew that Mr. Sproull would be chosen.” This was the first intimation to me of Mr. Sproull’s aspirations. But Mr. John Wallace, though not credited as sharp, was better acquainted with Mr. Sproull’s ambition than I: for he afterward remarked, “Did you not see how Sproull’s little speech got him the professorship?” Indeed, no; but I very likely would have seen the drift of the “little speech,” had I been a rival candidate. The reader is now left to form his judgment of my disappointed ambition and personal enmity to Dr. J.R. Willson—that man of God. Oh, that we had more like him in these days of spiritual declension and bastard zeal only for latitudinarianism!

On my way home from that mobocratic Synod of New York, 1838, I stopped a few days in Philadelphia. I discovered that “young Mr. Willson,” the Doctor’s son, and his congregation were not harmonious. Two of the most influential members of Rev. James M. Willson’s congregation, as I then supposed and as I yet believe, dealt with me to give them a grant, and they would forthwith ask of Presbytery a disjunction from their present pastor. One of those men walked with me on the streets of the city for a considerable time, endeavoring to bring me into compliance with their wishes. At length he became so importunate that I had to “use sharpness,” showing him the irregularity of their method of procedure, especially this clandestine manner of it. At this he “felt cut,” ceased to urge; and never afterward manifested his former cordiality. Because this may seem to some an incredible temptation to ambition; though I give not the person’s name, he is yet alive; and he can vouch for the truth of this statement.

When, in the year 1864, I visited my native country a second time, several of the senior ministers of the Eastern Reformed Presbyterian Synod, had been recently removed by death; Paul, Alexander and C. Houston. Rev. Jacob Alexander had deserted that body, going over to the Free Church of Scotland. The residuary ministers were few, and inexperienced. The congregation at Water Side, Derry, was vacant. On my former visit, in 1853, I had preached in several of their congregations, and I was approached with a view to settlement in the place above mentioned, “as my age and experience were much needed among their young ministers.” Such was the argument used to prevail with me on that occasion. Of course, I could not identify with that party in their position.

Also in Scotland, the same year, the Reformed Presbyterian Synod having been divided only the year before, and the large majority having relinquished the church’s position, preparatory to going into the Free Church, only a small minority were left. I had preached at Newton Stewart and in Glasgow. Some warm friends expressed an earnest desire that I would give encouragement with a view to my settlement in Paisley; but, of course, I could not identify with that minority while in organic fellowship with those from whom I had been long separated on principle. Besides, from all I saw of the different parties on the other side of the Atlantic, I had no desire to locate in any of the British Isles. From all I could learn by personal observation and social intercourse among the different parties on both sides of the Channel, the severed fragments of the one mother church of my youth, were no more intelligent or faithful than similar parties in America.

Believing that the church of Christ is one by her divine constitution, and that she exists for the conservation and propagation of divine truth, to the honor of her King and the communion of his loyal subjects; the chief aim of my public life has been to promote these desirable objects, which I could not do by any zealous or ambitious exertions to effect a great aggregation of conflicting elements. Since the revolt of the ten tribes from the house of David, it has been the policy of the majority to charge the minority as “separatists, schismatics, rending the bowels of their mother,” etc. So, apostate Rome charges all Protestants as “heretics and schismatics.” She is the chief advocate for union—union with her: and this is the cry of all her daughters, and on similar ground - at the sacrifice of divine truth. All martyrs and confessors have preferred truth to numbers, worldly honors and wealth. Christ’s direction is, “Buy the truth,” at any cost, “and sell it not,” for any consideration. The Lord, knowing our propensity to imitate the example of others, especially a popular example, at an early period of our history, gave a solemn charge to each of us, “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.” Exod. xxiii. 2. To sacrifice the truth of God for the sake of union is a great evil, counteracting one of the ends for which the church exists. 1 Tim. iii. 15.

Finally, on this charge of “disappointed ambition”: As within the first year of my ministry I was tempted to change my ecclesiastical relations by an offer of exactly five times larger salary than was promised by my congregation: so, near the end of a long life and ministry, on my settlement in Philadelphia, a whisper soon reached my ear that one of the most influential elders of the United Presbyterian Church, who occasionally attended our worship, had said, “If Mr. Steele would only join us, I believe he would soon have the largest congregation of our church in this city.” It has been said, and I believe it is a true saying, that “popularity is a greater temptation than persecution.”

And now, again, in view of the foregoing statements as a part of my past experience, the reader is left to judge whether the accusations be true, or whether they look like “the reproaches of Christ.”