Archibald Alexander was brought up in a religious home. He learned to read the Bible by the time he was five and within two more years had committed the Shorter Catechism to memory. Charles Hodge comments on "the inestimable advantage of a correct doctrinal education in his youth" (Alexander (1772-1851), born into a Scots-Irish family in Virginia, became a noted minister and first professor in Princeton Seminary. Quotations in this article are from chapter 1 of James M Garretson, Princeton and Preaching (Banner of Truth), reviewed in the October issue. The original source of quotations from Hodge is his "Memoir" in the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 27, no 1; other quotations from Alexander come from the biography by his son J W Alexander, The Life of Archibald Alexander (this volume has been reprinted by Sprinkle Publications and is available from the F P Bookroom for £12.50). These doctrines gave Alexander a foundation of knowledge when the Holy Spirit began to deal savingly with his soul.
While at school, he began to experience a sense of his sinfulness. At the age of 17 he became a tutor in the family of a General Posey, where a conversation with a godly millwright focused his attention on his need of being born again. About the same time he came in contact with a Mrs Tyler, an old Christian woman, who had problems with her eyes. She often had Alexander read to her, in particular from books by John Flavel. He acknowledged: "To John Flavel I certainly owe more than to any uninspired author".
Secret prayer was now his regular practice. But one day as he read, to Mrs Tyler, Flavel's sermon on Revelation 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock", his feelings overwhelmed him. He had to put the book down and go away to pray. He takes up the story: "No sooner had I reached the spot than I dropped on my knees and attempted to pour out my feelings in prayer; but I had not continued many minutes in this exercise before I was overwhelmed with a flood of joy. It was transport such as I had never known before, and seldom since. I had no recollection of any distinct views of Christ, but I was filled with a sense of the goodness and mercy of God; and this joy was accompanied with a full assurance that my state was happy, and that if I was to die then, I should go to heaven. This ecstasy was too high to be lasting but, as it subsided, my feelings were calm and happy. It soon occurred to me that possibly I had experienced the change called the new birth."
Hodge comments: "With instinctive wisdom, he left that question to be determined by his future conduct. He knew that the only satisfactory evidence of regeneration was a holy life. The reading of Jenks on Justification was attended with feelings of delight . . . . The way of acceptance with God became to him now 'as clear as if written with a sunbeam'." Alexander was still unclear if he was converted. Yet, he wrote: "if I had not the beginnings of a work of grace, my mind was enlightened by the knowledge of the truth, of which I had lived in total ignorance. I began to love the truth and to seek after it as for hid treasure." Hodge analyses his experience: "It would be presumptuous to express any confident judgement on the nature of the religious exercises above delineated. The 'joyful frames', more than once experienced, could of themselves decide nothing. The sources of such joy in the imagination, in the physical constitution, in the natural affections, are so numerous and so wonderful, that it is a familiar fact that such seasons are often experienced by those who give no satisfactory evidence of genuine conversion. But the clear apprehension of the truth, the cordial approbation of it, and desire for divine knowledge, are indications which can hardly be mistaken."
After Alexander's duties as tutor were over, he accompanied his minister William Graham on a preaching trip. "I understood his discourses," Alexander tells us, "and thought I could find the evidences of vital piety, as proposed by him, in myself. But hearing much of sudden conversions, and of persons being convulsed with severe conviction, I concluded that the hopes which I entertained must be fallacious and that they prevented my being truly convinced of sin." Though reluctant to speak about his experiences, he confided in Graham, "who made little or no reply". He also spoke to another minister on that trip, John Blair Smith, a noted preacher of the time. "I related to him my various exercises, but added that I had still fallen into sin after these exercises; upon which he said in his decided, peremptory way that then they were certainly not of the nature of true religion, which always destroyed the power and dominion of sin, and proceeded to account for the joy I had experienced on other principles." The possibility is that Smith misunderstood what Alexander was telling him about the continuing influence of sin in his life. But the result was that "from this time I abandoned all persuasion that I had experienced regenerating grace. My desire now was to be brought under such alarming convictions of sin as I had heard of in the case of others. But that evening, which I spent in the forest, I was greatly distressed on account of my exceeding hardness of heart. I rolled on the ground in anguish of spirit, bewailing my insensibility."
Hodge continues the account: "Happily he found in the Rev James Mitchell a wiser counsellor than his previous advisers. That gentleman sought an interview with him and drew from him the statement of his difficulty, that he had not 'experienced those convictions without which he could not expect to be saved'. To this Mr Mitchell answered that no certain degree of conviction was prescribed, that the only purpose which conviction could answer was to show us our need of Christ, 'and this', added he, 'you have'."
"He then", Alexander adds, "represented Christ as an Advocate before the throne of God, ready to undertake my case and able to save to the uttermost all who come unto God by Him. A new view opened before me at this moment. I did feel that I needed a Saviour, and I knew Christ as an Advocate was able to save me. This mere probability of salvation, after having given up all hope, was like the dawn of morning on a dark night; it was like life from the dead. From that instant I entertained a joyful hope that I should yet be saved. These new views affected me exceedingly. I was like a man condemned to die, who is unexpectedly informed that there is a friend who can obtain a reprieve. I was unable to say anything. My tears prevented utterance."
Hodge's comments are worth quoting: "Dr Smith undertook to judge of the exercises of the heart, and to decide whether or not they exhibited evidence of regeneration. He led the inquirer to refuse to hope in Christ until he was satisfied he had experienced the new birth. He thus drove him to the borders of despair. Mr Mitchell pointed the wounded spirit to Christ, and bid him hope for acceptance on the ground of His merit and mediation. This brought peace. Had anyone persuaded the bitten Israelites not to look in faith on the brazen serpent until they felt themselves cured, they too would have despaired. Our first duty is to receive Christ and, in receiving Him, He brings conviction, repentance and all the graces and blessings of the Spirit."
However, Alexander continued unsure of his state. He himself describes a further stage in his experience: "Being much dissatisfied with my state of mind, and now sensible of the corruption of my heart, I resolved to enter on a new course and determined to give up all reading except the Bible and to devote myself entirely to prayer, fasting and the Scriptures, until I should arrive at greater hope. My life was spent almost entirely in religious company, but our conversation often degenerated into levity, which was succeeded by compunction. Telling over our private exercises was carried to an undue length, and instead of tending to edification, was often injurious. . . . .
"A young woman of my acquaintance . . . appeared more solemnly impressed than most of the company. All believed that if anyone had experienced divine renewal, it was Mary Hanna. One afternoon, while reading a sermon . . . on the need of a legal work preparatory to conversion, she was seized with such apprehensions of her danger that she began to tremble, and in attempting to reach the house, which was distant only a few steps, fell prostrate and was taken out in a state of terrible convulsion. The news quickly spread, and in a short time most of the serious young people in the town were present. I mention this for the purpose of adding that I was at once struck with the conviction that I had received an irreparable injury from the clergyman who had persuaded me that no such conviction as this was necessary. I determined therefore to admit no hope until I should have the like experience.
"I read all the religious narratives I could procure and laboured much to put myself into the state in which they described themselves to have been, before enjoying hope. But all these efforts and desires proved abortive, and I began to see much more of the wickedness of my own heart than ever before. I was distressed and discouraged, and convinced that I had placed too much dependence on mere means and on my own efforts. I therefore determined to give myself incessantly to prayer until I found mercy, or perished in the pursuit.
"This resolution was formed on a Sabbath evening. The next morning I took my Bible and walked several miles into the dense wood of the Bushy Hills. . . . I began with great earnestness the course which I had prescribed to myself. I prayed and then read in the Bible, prayed and read, prayed and read, until my strength was exhausted; for I had taken no nourishment that day. But the more I strove, the harder my heart became, and the more barren was my mind of every serious and tender feeling. I tasted then some of the bitterness of despair. It seemed to be my last resource, and now this had utterly failed.
"I was about to desist from the endeavour, when the thought occurred to me that, though I was helpless, and my case was nearly desperate, yet it would be well to cry to God to help me in this extremity. I knelt upon the ground and had poured out perhaps a single petition, or rather broken cry, to God, when in a moment I had such a view of a crucified Saviour as is without a parallel in my experience. The whole plan of grace appeared as clear as day. I was persuaded that God was willing to accept me, just as I was, and convinced that I had never before understood the freeness of salvation, but had always been striving to bring some price in my hand, or to prepare myself for receiving Christ. Now I discovered that I could receive Him in all His offices at that very moment, which I was sure at the time I did. I felt truly a joy which was unspeakable and full of glory.
"How long this delightful frame continued I cannot tell. But when my affections had a little subsided, I opened my Bible and alighted on the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of John. The sacred page appeared to be illuminated; the truths were new, as if I had never read them before; and I thought it would be always thus . . . I expected now to feel uniformly different from what had preceded, and to be always in lively emotion, thinking my troubles all at an end. As I had been much distressed by discovering the sins of my heart, and as I read in Scripture that faith works purification, I resolved to make this the test. At the time indeed I had no doubt as to the sincerity of my faith . . . . For several days my mind was serene. But before a week had elapsed, darkness began to gather over me again. Inbred corruption began to stir. In a word, I fell back into the same state of darkness and conflict as before."
Let us quote some final conclusions from Hodge: "The narrative . . . is surely adapted to teach us in matters of religion to look not at processes, but at results. If a man is led to forsake sin, to trust in Christ, to worship Him and to keep His commandments, it is of small consequence how these results were brought about. The attempt, however, is constantly made to force our experience through the same steps of progress with that of others. God deals with souls in bringing them to Christ and holiness variously . . . yet in every form accomplishes the same great work. Delay, suffering and waste of strength would be prevented if men could learn wisdom by the experience of others and be induced to believe that Christ will accept them just as they are, that waiting to become better or striving to attain certain states of preliminary feeling is only one of the various forms of unbelief. . . ..
"Then again, when men tell us that conversion is effected when their soul summons all its powers and determines to make God its portion, or purposes the general good, how does this agree with the experience of God's people? Is conversion, so far as it is a conscious process, a self-determination so much as it is a beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, as that glory is revealed to it through the Word and by the Spirit, taking the whole soul captive in admiration, gratitude, love and submission? Men do not create themselves; they do not come forth from the darkness of spiritual death to behold the light of God's countenance and the glories of the new creation by any energy of their own. The whole change is one of which man is the subject, rather than the agent."
This account illustrates the difficulties and the confusion many people encounter in passing from death to life. In later life Alexander believed that the saving change in his soul took place when he was still a tutor with General Posey; given Alexander's deep understanding of the work of the Spirit - seen in his useful volume, Thoughts on Religious Experience - one is reluctant to argue. But far more important than to discover the precise time of his conversion is the fact, evident from his later life, that he was truly born again.
The article of K.D. Macleod is taken by permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, November 2005, edited by the author. Website of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland: www.fpchurch.org.uk