Testimony of God's Grace in the Life and "Religious Experiences" of Archibald Alexander

Richard McIlwaine, like Archibald Alexander, served as president of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, from 1883-1904. In McIlwaine's autobiography, Memories of Three Score Years and Ten (pp. 112-115), he relates a story that is both a testimony to the grace of God in Alexander's life and writings, and an encouragement to us all to remember that one's legacy lives on after death, and that the seeds we plant for God's kingdom will bear fruit in his good time, no matter how long that may take. 

"Dr. Archibald Alexander died in the fall of 1851. He had been President of Hampden-Sidney College from 1796 to 1807, was closely connected with Rev. Dr. John H. Rice and was brother-in-law to Rev. Dr. Benjamin H. Rice. A memorial service, held in the Seminary Chapel, was largely attended by the students of both institutions and by the people of the neighborhood. In my youth I knew many ministers who were prepared for their work under his hand, and from them heard a great deal of him. At college I studied his little work on Moral Science, and later read his interesting books on the Evidences of Christianity and on Religious Experience and his Biography by his son, Rev. James W. Alexander, D.D. I early formed the opinion that, all things considered, his life was the greatest blessing ever conferred on the Presbyterian Church in America and to-day, after wide observation, acquaintance, and experience, I see no reason to doubt the correctness of this judgment. In support of this opinion, I beg to narrate the fol- lowing incident:

In December, 1858, I became pastor of the Amelia Presbyterian Church. In the course of pastoral duty I came into touch with a family of excellent social position, consisting of an old gentleman, a widower and not a professing Christian; a widowed sister, and a niece, both intelligent Christian women, with the lovely, gentle manners characteristic of the women of that day. The brother and sister were both aged and the niece advanced in years. They were in comfortable circumstances, possessed of a good residence and farm, plenty of servants, carriage and horses and ample means. I was told that the old gentleman had been a wicked man, a disciple of Tom Paine and along with a coterie of like spirits from Amelia and the adjoining counties of Nottoway and Powhatan, would assemble on Saturdays at a point in the upper part of Amelia, which they named Paineville, for a day of carousal and profanity. In due time I called, was invited into the parlor, where the gentle-mannered Christian women soon joined me and gave me a hearty greeting. After a time, perhaps half an hour, the door opened and in walked the old gentleman, the embodiment of the best external features of an old time Virginia gentleman; tall, erect, broad-shouldered, snowy-white hair, an intelligent, benevolent countenance; attired in the olden style, — ruffled shirt bosom, blue broadcloth coat with brass buttons, as sumptuously gotten up as if in attendance on an imposing public function. His reception of me was dignified and polite, though at first somewhat restrained with the air of a man of the world, who wants to know you better before he lets himself into your confidence. Presently, however, it came out in conversation that I had been a student of Hampden-Sidney College. This greatly excited his interest and led to the announcement that he also was an alumnus of that institution, having been connected with the College during the administration of Dr. Archibald Alexander, of whom he spoke with warm admiration, and I thought, even with a tinge of affection. After this there was no let-up in the conversation. The ice had been broken and a tie established between us. We were both attached to the College and to the memory of Dr. Alexander. When I arose to say good-bye he took me cordially by the hand, expressed pleasure at having made my acquaintance, and invited me to call when I could.

As I rode home that evening a sense of serious responsibility oppressed me. Here was a man on the verge of eternity. From all accounts he had led a grossly wicked life. So far as I knew, no minister of the gospel had access to him or had ever conferred with him on the subject of his soul's salvation. He never attended church or left his plantation, except on election day when he would go to the polls in his carriage, cast his vote, and return to his home. We were now on such terms that I could approach him. The obligation rested on me. But I was young and inexperienced. He was old and dignified and possibly might be offended and treat such an effort as an intrusion. I thought about it; prayed over it. At last it occurred to me that possibly I might obtain the access I desired through the medium of a book. On going to my book-case, my eye soon discovered a copy of Alexander on "Religious Experience," which I took down and, writing a courteous note of presentation, said, that after he had read the volume, I should be glad, with his permission, to call and converse with him on its subject-matter at any time he might appoint. The volume and note were conveyed to him a few days after from church by his sister, and the next time she met me she said, "Brother ---------- asked me to tell you that he will be glad to see you any time it suits you to call. I do not know what that means, but that is what he said."

I did call in a few days, was received in the old gentleman's chamber, found him attired not in the lordly apparel of the former occasion but in his plain every-day clothes, and after a conversation of an hour, concluded with prayer, left him believing that he was a true penitent and an humble follower of our Lord Jesus Christ. I saw him during the remainder of my brief pastorate in Amelia as often as my exacting duties would permit; and soon after I left, his death occurred. On my first visit to the county some months after his death, I was told that he had fully confessed Christ before men and in view of death spoke of me with affection and regret that I could not be with and minister to him. My present impression is that he was a Christian before I ever saw him, though he had not awaked to the consciousness of it.

It is a curious question, but worthy of thought and one which has frequently arisen in my mind: What is the connection between Dr. Alexander's life and this old gentleman's salvation? About sixty years intervened between their acquaintance at Hampden-Sidney and the time when he found peace in believing. May not Alexander's life, — something he said, something he did, his consistent Christian deportment, — have been instrumental in awakening the still small voice of conscience in that man's soul, which, palsied by a long course of sin, at last asserted itself and became a dominant force in bringing him, a humble, contrite sinner to the foot of the Cross. God knows! Let every Christian be careful so to direct his course in the world that his influence will be felt in winning men to God."