Extract from George Mockford, Wilderness Journeyings and Gracious Deliverances: The Autobiography of George Mockford, for forty years minister of the gospel at Broan Oak, Heathfield (J.C. Pembrey, Oxford; Isaac Mockford, Heathfield; 1901)
[George Mockford was born at Southern, near Lewes, Sussex, in 1826, the son of a poor shepherd. Out at work by the age of eight, he had very little schooling, but like a good many of his generation, he early became deeply concerned about his state of spiritual grace and about doctrinal issues such as ‘election’ and ‘predestination’. His account is not, therefore, a record of the factual events of his life, but a spiritual autobiography in an earlier tradition which reached back to the Puritans of the seventeenth century but was still occasionally employed in the nineteenth. For Mockford, childhood and youth were periods of trial, of wrestling with sin and temptation (about which he is not very specific) and, ultimately, of redemption when he broke from the Anglican church to become a dissenter. Shortly after this extract ends he began preaching, and eventually a devoted congregation provided him with a house and a chapel at Broan Oak, Heathfield, Sussex, where he was a pastor for forty years: he also practised as a herbalist, having a dispensary and treating patients for many miles around. He died in 1899, his autobiography being privately published by his widow in 1901. I am grateful to his great grand-daughter, Mrs. R.A. Barker, for permission to quote from the earlier pages. (John Burnett)]
I was brought forth into this world of sin and sorrow at a place called Southerham in the parish of South Malling, Lewes, Sussex, on December 27, 1826. My parents were poor, the occupation of my father being a shepherd. I was the eldest surviving member of a large family of twelve children, the first-born having died in infancy; and this being the case, I had, as soon as I was old enough, to be mother’s help, to nurse the baby, clean the house, and do sewing like a girl, so that I was not only prevented from playing with other boys, but also from going to school. I did go for a short time to a dame’s school, and thence for a little while to the British School at Lewes. My parents were what is called church people, who did not like dissenters; but they only went to church to have their children christened or to attend a funeral. We were taught the church catechism on a Sunday afternoon, were also instructed to use the Lord’s prayer, and for a time I was sent to the church Sunday-school. I was soon noticed as one paying great attention to my instructors, who I remember excited my wonder as to how they knew so much, and I had a great wish to be as wise as they: therefore I drank in very eagerly all they told me; and by their instruction the church and her ministers, ordinances, and ceremonies were soon looked upon by me as having something mysteriously angelic or heavenly about them; and being naturally very credulous, particularly of anything that had some mystery about it, I could easily be made to believe the statements of the mysterious, learned men, the clergy or church ministers.
I can remember, when quite young, having serious thoughts about the great God that made the heavens and the earth, of the judgment-day, and of hell. I remember what an effect some conversation between my father and mother had upon me when very young. I heard father tell mother that some person (mentioning the name) who lived in my mother’s native place was dead, and that in his lifetime he had sold himself to the devil for so much money. On the bearers attempting to lift the coffin in which the body lay, they could not do so because of its great weight; this could not be accounted for until they opened the coffin and found the body covered with brimstone, the smell of which was unbearable, and this they said was a proof that the devil was going to take him not hell for ever.
When about eight years of age I was employed, during the summer, to scare the birds from the corn, etc., for which I had a shilling a week, seven days to the week; for though the master went to church, the rooks would go on stealing the corn if they could.
When I was ten years old I was taken entirely from school to help my father in the capacity of shepherd-boy, for which I had two shillings per week, which I thought was a great deal, though I never had the money, as of course my father took it.
I was always rather delicate in health, and had no stamina about me for outdoor exposure; the food for us young ones consisting of little else than potatoes with a little bacon fat on them. Having commenced my new occupation in the winter, I felt it much; my feet and hands became covered with chilblains, which soon broke out into open sores, yet for a time I had to work getting the turnips out of the pie, as we used to call this heap of turnips, covered over with straw and earth. I had some old leather gloves on, but the dry earth used to get into my gloves and fill my sores, and so bad did they become that the doctor was called in, who ordered me to be kept at home for a week at least, and gave directions to my mother how to treat my hands and feet. I got better in a fortnight and went to work again, but caught a severe cold; indeed it must have been a bad attack of bronchitis, as I can remember how I had to labour for breath, and the weeping noise in my chest could be heard all over the house. For this again I had the doctor, but my father who was naturally strong and healthy, had no sympathy with his white-faced son; he said I must be hardened to it, or I should never be any use; so one of the means employed was to send me on frosty mornings to pull up the turnips in the field, laying hold of their frosty tops without gloves on. But as my father was remonstrated by some of the workmen on the farm about it, I did not go many mornings. The great ambition of my father being to save money, his study was that his children’s little strength and time should be all be put to such an account as would be conducive to this end. This kind of treatment had no tendency to foster love to him; I began to have a great dread of him, and all I did for him was done under fear of the lash.
I remember about this time, some young gentleman from Lewes often walked in the evening to Southerham, and seeing me in the garden at work would talk to me and give me tracts, etc., that produced sometimes solemn thoughts about death and eternity, and finding I was willing to listen, his visits were more frequent than was agreeable to my father, who said he was most likely some one learning to be a parson, so he busied himself with talking to others; but as for boys who had their living to get, he could not see the good of their reading or being religious.
But as I grew older in years, so I did in sin. I was encouraged to keep rabbits, and any profit I made by them was to be used in buying my own clothes. My father would have been pleased for us to buy all our clothes, thought he would not have encouraged me to do what I did to get profit, as I used to steal my master’s turnips and hay to feed my rabbits. At first I was much scared in doing it, but soon grew bolder by seeing some of the workmen, who kept rabbits, do the same. In a little while I could go into my master’s garden and orchard, and fill my pockets with fruit; but I had at times such guilt on my conscience on account of it, that when I have been out on a dark night, I have felt as if Satan was upon me, and would surely carry me off. I vowed and promised to do so no more, but as soon as the light of day returned, and I got into the company of those who could curse and swear, and take the name of God in vain, my resolution melted away like ice before the fire, and I began to join with those who went to the ale-house, and hear them sing songs. All I heard and saw there was quite congenial to my natural heart; I was delighted while in it, but O the guilt and fear I felt in walking home alone on a dark night after leaving my companions! I kept repeating part of the Lord’s prayer or some such language to keep the devil (as I thought) from grasping me; and on reaching my home, I have opened the door, and getting inside, have suddenly closed it to shut out the devil. There was no hatred to sin, no sorrow for it; but the dread of hell and punishment of sin often made me cry out, ‘Do save me; do pardon me, and I will lead a new life.’ I do believe that persons from the effects of natural conviction may have great sorrow and long much for mercy, and yet there be nothing in it but the workings of nature. I remember about this time being much alarmed. I attempted to take a jackdaw’s nest that was built near the top of a high chalk pit; I tried to reach it from the top by lying down and reaching over, when a portion of the earth underneath me gave way, and but for the presence of mind I had to work myself gradually back to my feet, I must have been dashed in pieces.
At another time I was passing through a field in which was a vicious ox. I did not see him until I heard him close upon me; I cried out, ‘Lord help me’, and ran towards a fence which I just reached, and leaped over as the ox overtook me, but the fence being on a bank stopped him. I had also a second deliverance with respect to this same ox, when I was trying to detach him and another from a cart; the men would go in front of them to take the locker out that fastens the cart to the yoke, but as I was afraid to do this I went in between them and the neb of the cart, and they started with me in that position, the ox pressing his body tightly against mine. I was so jammed against the neb that I could scarcely breathe; but suddenly the wheel of the cart came in contact with a wall, which stopped the animals, and the pressure being removed, I dropped on the ground, and the master coming along at that instant pulled me out from under the feet of the oxen. It was of course thought that I must be fearfully crushed. I was taken indoors and restoratives given me; but wonder of wonders, no harm had come to me beyond the shock to the system. How plainly we see the truth of the word of God, ‘Preserved in Christ Jesus, and called’…….
When I was between sixteen and seventeen years of age, some unknown person came upon the Downs, and addressing me, said, ‘Well, my lad, do you like reading?’. I replied, ‘Yes’. ‘Then’, said he, ‘I will leave this tract with you, and when I come again I shall know how you like it’. I put it into my pocket, and thought I am not going to read that religious book; he might keep his book for aught I cared, but this thought came, ‘Well, you had better look at it, or you wont know what reply to given him when he comes again.’ So I took it from my pocket to look it over, but never did look it over in that sense, as all at once it looked straight into me. It was in this way. As I took the book from my pocket, these two scriptures met my eye, and went to my heart: ‘The soul that sinneth, it shall die’. ‘He that offendeth in one point is guilty of all.’ I was struck as with a flash of lightning; the book dropped from my hand, and I fell to the earth. How long I lay there, I cannot tell, but presently I began to crawl into a hedge near; I was afraid to look up, as I felt sure if I did, I should see the eye of God upon me from above; and while lying in the hedge, I cried for the first time in my life, in the language of the publican, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’. O what a solemn sight I had of the majesty, holiness, and justice of God! and I proved his word to be as a sharp sword, piercing my heart. I felt there was no hiding myself from God. I wished that I could find some place to hide myself from the presence of my angry Judge. How I got home that night I cannot tell, but such was the effect upon my body that I could scarcely walk. My parents were terrified at my appearance, and kept wanting to know the cause of my illness, but I could not tell them. Being able to eat but little, and sleep less, I soon became so ill that I was sent to a doctor, who examined me, and shook his head, but said,’I will try if I can do anything for you’. Every one supposed that I was in a rapid consumption. The church clergyman visited me, to whom I told my trouble; he laboured hard to comfort me, telling me God was very merciful, and only required us to do what we could, and he would do the rest. I puzzled him much because I was so anxious to know what my part was, and how much I was required to do. This he could not satisfy me about; but by reading the books he lent me, and attending to his instructions, I began to feel more quiet in my mind. As I was in real earnest to be right, I gave the greatest attention to my adviser, whom I held in much reverence. I felt sure all his instructions must be right, so I worked hard to do all he told me, and I soon could leave the rest, believing what he said, that God was a merciful God. I soon became quite religious, and was looked upon as such in the parish where I lived. I began to take tracts to people’s houses, and visited the sick, exhorting them to turn to God, repent and believe, and they would soon be as safe as I was. My case excited much interest, as the clergyman set me up as Christian young man. I was still very weak and feeble in body, and I could not get after the sheep, as I was not able to walk fast enough to keep pace with them as they passed from one part of the Downs to the other.
I remember one of the workmen on the farm saying to me one day, ‘Do you know what the doctor thinks of your case?’. I said, ‘No, what is it?’. ‘Well’, he said, ‘your father and mother do not want you to know, but the doctor says you cannot live long’. ‘Oh’, said I, ‘I am quite reading to die; my peace is made with God’. It is true I felt as I said, so wrapped up was I in a false peace, and so incased a false confidence; and had I then died, every one would have said what a good end I had made. I knew not my need of Jesus Christ, nor had I any faith in him or desire after him; my ground of hope of doing to heaven was the peace I felt – a peace that I had made with God, as I thought. O what a delusion of the devil! But so he deceives thousands. Of such it is said that they ‘have no bands in their death; their strength is firm’. ‘Like sheep they are laid in the grace, and death shall feed on them’. But my God had thoughts of peace towards me of a very different nature, blessed be his dear name.
The reader will observe that the sense of guilt that I had felt was on account of actual or outward sins; I knew nothing of heart sins. I was a hearty devotee of my (falsely so-called) spiritual adviser, and at his earnest desire I was confirmed by the bishop. Being honest as far as I knew, I wanted to attend to all things in a way that would not break my peace; but I felt adverse to confirmation, and told my instructor that I shrank from it. And when he asked the reason, I answered that I understood I was to relieve my sponsors of their obligation made at my baptism, and take it upon myself; but I would rather not take it upon myself, as I considered they had promised so much, and now if I failed, all the blame would rest on me. His reply to this was, that as I had arrived to the age to which these vows were extended, even if I were not confirmed, my sponsors would be free of their responsibility, and it must rest with me. So I was confirmed, and then, of course, I was entitled to attend the Lord’s supper. This for some time I resisted, as that scripture so stood in my way, ‘He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself’. This word ‘damnation’ was very solemn to me, for I often feared I was not quite right so that church minister and I had several talks on the subject, and I was told that it ought not to read damnation, but condemnation, the difference being explained in this way, that it simply meant that persons who lived in drunkenness, adultery, or open sin, in partaking of the Lord’s supper did so unworthily, and this their sinful acts condemned them. So I was persuaded to attend, and I remember it was a very solemn act in my estimation; but I was greatly put out by seeing some at the table who I knew frequented the public-house, were often intoxicated, and cursed and swore. However, by these means I was engrafted into the church, bound by her bands, and safely folder, and it was suggested to me that I was now safe, and safe I thought myself….. I began to discover the doctrine of predestination and election as revealed in the scriptures, but O the enmity I felt against it, and against God on account of it! Where was the justice of God in it? I asked, as the doom of all was fixed, and that nothing man could do, would or could turn the mind of God. This was what I absolutely refused to believe. How hard I tried to make the word of God speak a different language! But the more I read it, the more I found the sovereignty of Jehovah set forth in its pages. The passage I particularly disliked was, ‘Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated’; so I tried to persuade myself that it was wrongly translated.
For months this deep distress continued, and my teacher the clergyman, and other church people who visited me, pointed out how wrongly I was acting in trying to look, as they said, into those secrets that belonged to God; I was putting a very wrong construction upon these doctrines. They tried hard to persuade me that Jesus Christ died for all mankind, quoting many passages to prove what they said, and I brought forward those parts of God’s words I had felt the power of in my heart, which were quite against the doctrine of universal redemption. Sometimes they pitied me, and sometimes they spoke harshly to me. My parents were advised to take any books away that I might have, as they feared my mind was already greatly impaired by much reading. The weakness of my body increasing, I was taken from the sheep, and removed to the farm-house to act as groom, and do anything the servants might require of me. This was supposed to be the only means of prolonging my life, as I should now be sheltered from the weather, and it was hoped that the good farm-house ale, of which I was permitted to take as much as I liked, would strengthen me, and the company of the servants bring me out of my melancholy state…. I had many talks with the clergyman upon different parts of scripture, and he would sometimes reprove me by saying I ought not to say this portion of the word of God meant so and so; he was my instructor, and I ought to know nothing but what he taught me. I remember on one occasion he said, ‘You talk like a dissenter’. I told him I knew not what he meant. ‘What is a dissenter?’, I enquired. His answer was that dissenters were a people who broke away from the church as sheep sometimes did from the fold. I understood him to mean people who went to chapel, and those I hated, as I had always been taught to look upon them as canting hypocrites, and what he said made me feel more bitter against them. And yet strange to say, there were two of them who walked past out house every Sunday on their way to Lewes, and they both spoke so kindly to me – one of them giving me a shilling on two or three occasions – and their manner seemed so different from that of the people who went to church, that I sometimes did wish I was like them. And when I have seen them pass, I have felt at times such a love to them that I was quite vexed with myself for being so silly as to have any regard to such deluded people, as they were represented to be…..