THOMAS SHEPHERD’ S CONVERSION
For Puritans the experience of conversion was central to their faith. Indeed, to become a full member of a Puritan church, one had to offer more than a record of good behavior in the community. The prospective member had to convince the church that a true personal conversion, illustrating that God had chosen that individual for salvation, had occurred. In the New England colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut, the candidate had to give a public account of conversion and was subject to questions from the congregation. The centrality of individual conversion led, quite naturally, to much introspection, examining of one’s experiences. Hence the profusion of autobiographical writing among Puritans. Here are excerpts from an intensely personal account of the Rev. Thomas Shepherd [1605-1649] who emigrated to New England in 1635 and was pastor of the First Church of Cambridge, Massachusetts until his death in 1649.
[Source: Excerpts from Shepherd's Diary,Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Publications, XXVII (1932 ), 360‑365.]
The first two years I spent in Cambridge was in studying and in my neglect of God and private prayer, which I had sometime used, and I did not regard the Lord at all unless it were at some fits. The third year, wherein I was sophister, [Sophisters were university students who bad demonstrated adequate mastery of logic; they could then participate in public disputations.] I began to be foolish and proud and to shew myself in the public schools, [The public rooms in the University where disputations were held.] and there to be a disputer about things which now I see I did not know then at all but only prated about them. And toward the end of this year when I was most vile (after I had been next unto the gates of death the smallpox the year before) the Lord began to call me home to the fellowship of His grace, which was in this manner:
(1.) I do remember that I had many good affections (but blind and unconstant) often cast into me, since my father's sickness, by the spirit of God wrestling with me, and hence I would pray in secret. And hence when I was at Cambridge I heard old Dr. Chadderton [Laurence Chadderton, Master of Emmanuel College, 1584-1622] the master of the college when I came and the first year I was there. To hear him upon a sacrament day my heart was much affected, but I did break loose from the Lord again; and half a year after, I heard Mr. Dickinson commonplace in the chapel upon those words "I will not destroy it for ten's sake." Gen. 19. And then again was much affected.
But I shook this off also and fell from God to loose and lewd company, to lust and pride and gaming and bowling and drinking. And yet the Lord left me not, but a godly scholar walking with me fell to discourse about the misery of every man out of Christianity, viz., that whatever they did was sin. And this did much affect me. And at another time when I did light in godly company I heard them discourse about the wrath of God, and the terror of it, and how intolerable it was , which they did present by fire, how intolerable the torment of that was for a time, what then would eternity be; and this did much awaken me. And I began to pray again, but then by loose company I came to dispute in the schools and there to join to loose scholars of other colleges and was fearfully left of God and fell to drink with them. And I drank so much one day that I was dead drunk and that upon a Saturday night, and so was carried from the place I had drink at and did feast at, unto a scholar's chamber, one Basset of Christ's College, and knew not where I was until I awakened late on that Sabbath and sick with my beastly carriage. And when I awakened I went from him in shame and confusion, and went out into the fields and there spent that Sabbath lying hid in the corn fields where the Lord who might justly have cut me off in the midst of my sin did meet me with much sadness of heart and troubled my soul, for this and other my sins which then I had cause and leisure to think of. And now when I was worst He began to be best unto me and made me resolve to set upon a course of daily meditation about the evil of sin and my own ways. Yet although I was troubled for this sin I did not know my sinful nature all this while.
(2.) The Lord therefore sent Dr. Preston [John Preston, Master of Emmanuel College, 1622-1628, a major influence on many of that college’s students who migrated to New England.] to be master of the college, and Mr. Stone and others commending his preaching to be most spiritual and excellent, I began to listen unto what he said, and the first sermon preached was Rom. 12: be renewed in the spirit of your mind. In opening which point, viz., the change of heart in a Christian, the Lord so bore my ears as that I understood what he spake, and the secrets of my soul were laid upon before me - the hypocrisy of all my good things I thought I had in me, as if one had told him of all that ever I did, of all the turnings and deceits of my heart, insomuch as that I thought he was the most searching preacher in the world. And I began to love him much and to bless God I did see my frame and my hypocrisy and self and secret sins, although I found a hard heart and could not be affected with them.
(3) I did therefore set more constantly (viz., 1624, May 3) upon the work of daily meditation, sometimes every morning, but constantly every evening before supper, and my chief meditation was about the evil of sin, the terror of God's wrath, day of death, beauty of Christ, the deceitfulness of the heart, etc. But principally I found this my misery: sin was not my greatest evil, did lie light upon me as yet, yet I was much afraid of death and the flames of God's wrath.
And this I remember, I never went out to meditate in the fields but I did find the Lord teaching me somewhat of myself or Himself or the vanity of the world I never saw before, and hence I took out a little book I have every day into the fields and writ down what God taught me, least I should forget them. And so the Lord encouraged me and I grew much.
But in my observation of myself I did see my atheism: I questioned whether there was a God, and my unbelief whether Christ was the Messiah, whether the scriptures were God's word or no. I felt all manner of temptations to all kind of religions, not knowing which I should choose, whether education might not make me believe what I had believed, and whether if I had been educated up among Papists I should not have been as verily persuaded that Popery is the truth, or Turkism is the truth. And at last I heard of Grindleton [founder of a radical Protestant sect] and I did question whether that glorious estate of perfection might not be the truth, and whether old Mr. Rogers' Seven Treatises and the Practice of Christianity, the book which did first work upon my heart , whether these men were not all legal men and all their books so. But the Lord delivered me at last from them, and in the conclusion, after many prayers, meditations, [and] duties, the Lord let me see three main wounds in my soul: (1) I could not feel sin as my greatest evil ; ( 2 ) I could do nothing but I did seek myself in it and was imprisoned there, and tho' I desired to be a preacher, yet it was honor I did look to, like a vile wretch, in the use of God's gifts I desired to have; (3) 1 felt a depth of atheism and unbelief in the main matters of salvation and whether the scriptures were God's word.
These things did much trouble me, and in the conclusion did so far trouble me that I could not read the scriptures or hear them read without secret and hellish blasphemy calling all into question, and all Christ's miracles, and hereupon I fell doubt whether I had not committed the impardonable sin ; and because I did question whether Christ did not cast out devils from Beezlebub, etc., I did think and fear I had. And now the terrors of God began to break in like floods of fire into my soul. For three quarters of a year this temptation did last, and I had some strong temptations to run my head against walls and brain and kill myself. And so I did see as I thought God's eternal reprobation of me, a fruit of which was this dereliction to these doubts and darkness, and I did see a God like a consuming fire and an everlasting burning, and myself like a poor prisoner leading to that fire. And the thought of eternal reprobation and torment did amaze my spirits, especially at one time upon a Sabbath day at evening, and when I knew not what to do (for I went to no Christian and was ashamed to speak of these things) it came to my mind that I should do as Christ: when He was in agony He prayed earnestly, and so I fell down to prayer, and being in prayer I saw myself so unholy and God so holy that my spirits began to sink. Yet the Lord recovered me and poured out a spirit of prayer upon me for free mercy and pity, and in the conclusion of the prayer , I found the Lord helping me to see my unworthiness of any mercy, and that I was worthy to be cast our of his sight, and to leave myself with Him to do wit me what He would. And there, and never until then, I found rest, and so my heart humbled and cast down, and I went with a stayed heart unto supper late that night and so rested here; and the terrors of the Lord began to assuage sweetly.
Yet when these were gone I felt my senselessness of sin and bondage to self, and unconstancy and loosing what the Lord had wrought, and my heartlessness to any good and loathing of God's ways. Whereupon walking in the fields, the Lord dropped this meditation into me: be not discouraged therefore because thou art so vile, but make this double use of it: (1) loath thyself the more; (2) feel a greater need and put a greater price upon Jesus Christ who only can redeem thee from all sin. And this I found of wonderful use to me in all my course, whereby I was kept from sinkings of heart and did beat Satan, as it were, with his own weapons. And I saw Christ teaching me this before any man preached any such thing unto me, and so the Lord did help me to loathe myself in some measure and to say oft, "Why shall I seek the glory and good of myself who am the greatest enemy, worse than the devil can be, against myself, which self ruins me and blinds me, “ etc. And thus God kept my heart exercised and here I began to forsake my loose company wholly and to do what I could to work upon the hearts of other scholars, and to humble them, and to come into a way of holy walking in our speeches and otherwise; but yet I had no assurance Christ was mine.
(4.) The Lord therefore brought Dr. Preston to preach upon that text, 1 Cor. 1:30: Christ is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. And when he had opened how all the good I had, all the redemption I had, it was from Jesus Christ, I did then begin to prize Him, and He became very sweet unto me, although I had heard many a time Christ freely offered by his ministry, if I would come in and receive Him as Lord and Saviour and husband. But I found my heart ever willing to accept of Christ upon these terms; I found them impossible for me to keep that condition. And Christ was not so sweet as my lust, but now the Lord made Himself sweet to me and to embrace Him and to give up myself unto Him; but yet after this I had many fears, and doubts.
( 5.) I found therefore the Lord revealing free mercy and that all my help was in that to give me Christ and to enable me to believe in Christ and accept of Him, and here I did rest.
(6.) The Lord also letting me see my own constant vileness in everything put me to this question, "Why did the Lord Jesus keep the law, had no guile in His heart, had no unbrokeness but holiness there, was it not for them that did want it?" And here I saw. Christ Jesus's righteousness for a poor sinner's ungodliness, but yet questioning whether ever the Lord would apply this and give this unto me.
(7.) The Lord made me see that so many as receive Him He gives power to be the sons of God, John 1:12, and I saw the Lord gave me a heart to receive Christ with a naked hand; even naked Christ, and so the Lord gave me peace . . . .