With A Past
The winter after her husband's death Ellen White spent in California. She would center most of her activities in that state until she left for Europe in 1885. Returning from Europe, she settled in Healdsburg, California.
The Adventist Church grew rapidly, and Seventh-day Adventist camp meetings soon dotted the landscape during the summer. Mrs. White spoke at as many of them as she could. The crowds that gathered to hear her sermons greatly appreciated her spiritual, practical talks.
After she spoke at the Selma, California, camp meeting, a friend introduced her to a six-foot man whose tanned face revealed that he had spent much time outdoors. The man seemed deeply moved by his meeting with Mrs. White. Taking her hand firmly in his grasp, he said, “I'm thankful that I can speak with you.” They discussed different religious topics for several minutes, and he appeared highly interested in what she had to say. She instinctively tried to encourage him in his religious life. Later Mrs. White met an acquaintance in the main tent. “You know that tall man you met a little while ago?” he said, pausing to chat a moment.
“He's had a fascinating life.” Briefly he sketched what he knew about the man.
Many years earlier the stranger had come into contact with Adventists and became interested enough to observe the Sabbath for a while. But then other matters caused him to gradually drift away.
California was still frontier country then, and law and order had only a slim hold on many of the cities and towns in the state. Large numbers of people openly used violence and force to gain whatever they wanted. Robbery and murder were common.
Some of the man's friends lived outside the law, and he became entangled in their crimes. Eventually he robbed and stole and began to burn barns and houses, a common way of getting revenge then. Proudly he boasted of crimes, such as sheep-stealing, and people were afraid of him.
But one day his life began to change. Curiosity and boredom led him to attend a series of religious meetings conducted in Fresno by E. P. Daniels, an Adventist evangelist. At first the man considered the meetings only a form of nightly entertainment. Then after several nights the minister presented the subject of confession. The sermon deeply bothered the criminal. As he applied the speaker's words to himself, he paled at the thoughts which turned and twisted through his mind, and his mental agony became unbearable. He slipped out of the tent. The cool night air calmed him somewhat, and he went back into the tent. Daniels’ words continued to burn into his mind. A few minutes later the criminal again walked out of the tent. But an unseen force drove him back to his seat. A third time he tried to leave the tent, but he found himself back inside even quicker than before. The room seemed to grow hotter and hotter, and perspiration streamed down his face. Suddenly, terribly dizzy, he thought he would faint. Satan and Christ struggled for possession of his heart.
Finally the meeting ended, and the people streamed outside. Exhausted, the man rested a moment to gather his strength. Then he pushed through the crowd to Daniels and said, “I must talk to you.” Desperately he described his life and what he had just gone through to the evangelist.
“Is there any hope for me?” he said, asking the eternal question of one who has suddenly realized his true state from God. “I am lost—lost forever. Will you pray for me? Please pray. I'm afraid even to go home lest God destroy me.”
Leading the man to one side of the tent, Daniels dropped to his knees. The distraught man sobbed in agony as he listened to the evangelist's prayer. The prayer soothed his troubled mind, and he felt peace come over him as he realized that God had forgiven his past life. The two stood and shook hands.
“Now,” the former criminal said, “I have much to do—much to do. For example, I stole thirty-one sheep from a man in Selma. I must go and confess to him.” Daniels wondered if he should encourage the man to confess to his sheep-stealing and other crimes, since he would surely be thrown into prison. Yet it was the right thing to do. The man had already made up his mind. “I would rather go to prison and stay there than think that I was not willing to do my part, even though God has forgiven my sins,” he said, understanding Daniels’ thoughts. He knew the dangers he faced.
Prisons during the nineteenth century were terrible places. Disease and unhealthful conditions prevailed. Prisoners received poor food, and in some jails the inmates died from starvation. In most prisons the inmates could not talk to each other, and some guards inflicted frequent punishments, such as whipping or flogging. Some penitentiaries confined men in tiny cells with no chance for exercise. Others had factories in which they used the prisoners like slaves, making them work for twelve to fifteen hours a day. Daniels knew that his new convert had every reason for trying to avoid going to jail.
Accompanied by a friend who had often committed crimes with him, the man rode out a day later to make things right with the people he had wronged. Wandering across the San Joaquin Valley and coming over a rise, the two men saw another horseman approaching. The converted man recognized the rider as one of the people he had robbed. Reining his horse in the shade of a tree beside the road, he waited for the rider to approach.
The farmer, a man who prided himself on being the local disbeliever of Christianity, recognized him and began to tremble. He wondered if he could whip his horse
about fast enough to escape. But the repentant criminal was too close. The farmer watched in horror as the man who had once robbed him slipped off his horse and ran and knelt before him. Shock replaced the horror when the man began to ask forgiveness for his robbery.
“When did you begin to act like this?” the agnostic asked in amazement. “What has changed you? I didn't know that any religion would make a thief ask forgiveness. Tell me man, what has happened to you?”
Looking up at the farmer with a strangely softened expression, the converted criminal explained that he had gone to the Selma Seventh-day Adventist camp meeting, and that God had changed his life there.
The farmer pushed the brim of his hat back and thought a moment, then glanced down at the man kneeling on the ground. “Well,” he said finally, “I think I'll go to that meeting and see what it is they have to offer.” He urged his horse forward and disappeared over the rise, a little cloud of dust marking his passing.
The converted man went from one town to another throughout the San Joaquin Valley, admitting and confessing his many crimes to the people he had injured.
Word of his deeds traveled widely, finally reaching the attention of the local authorities. They called a grand jury to investigate the matter, and the jury summoned the former criminal to appear. When questioned whether the stories they had heard about him were true, he confessed to all the crimes he had committed. Startled, the jury listened, then withdrew to another room.
“What will we do with him?” the head juror asked.
“He's admitted to enough crimes to keep him in prison the rest of his life.”
“We have no choice,” someone commented. “The law says he must go to jail.”
The head juror frowned. “Would you imprison a man like that—one who had had such a complete transformation? God has forgiven him, and he has asked forgiveness from those whom he has wronged. I think he deserves our forgiveness, too. I would rather have my right arm cut off at the shoulder than see a man like that go to jail. I recommend no action be taken against him.”
The others finally agreed.
The story of this conversion spread even faster after the grand jury refused to bring the man to trial. People knew that only God could lead a man to repent and confess so many crimes despite danger that he might have to go to prison. A church that could change a man's life so completely must have Christ behind it, they decided, and its teachings must be correct. Many persons began to take an interest in the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a result.
When Mrs. White heard the stranger's story, she marveled at what God could do. She breathed a sigh of relief that she had taken the time to encourage the man after the friend had introduced him. The conversion of the ex-thief was one of the greatest advertisements the Adventist Church could have, the greatest witness to its claim as the true church.
D. A. Delafield and