I give next the evidence of Mr Bonar, then of Collace, who enters a little more into detail.
'Collace, October 20, 1841. — In the autumn of 1838, I came to be assistant minister of Collace, a parish of less than eight hundred souls. There was not much of open or gross vice among the people, but there had been a silent and perpetual flow of worldliness, secret vice, and lax morality, in which each countenanced his neighbour. Many who belonged to the Parish Church had good acquaintance with Scripture doctrine, but their religion was decency and formality. The season of Handsel Monday was a day of un-checked and open sin, and many really believed that drunkenness, riot, and folly at that time were no way sinful. There were scarcely any, even among those looked upon as superior to others in piety, who reckoned dances, songs, merry-makings, and occasional drinkings, as at all inconsistent with real religion. There were some among them who kept up the orthodoxy of the truth, but had almost totally lost its vitality; most of them resting contented with knowledge and intelligence, even deny- ing that it was the duty of a believer to be sure of his conversion, and attain to a full assurance of his interest in Christ.
During the first eight months of my settlement among them, the people began to manifest a great relish for ordinances and a great anxiety to be visited and catechised. The attendance at church became very regular and full, and Sabbath profanation very rare. A Sabbath school held in the church for younger children, and a morning class for those above fifteen, were both attended by almost all in the parish of the specified ages. I began a weekly prayer-meeting, which I conducted without any formality or system, expounding Scripture, and familiarly laying before them topics connected with revivals and spread of religion, or similar subjects. To this, the people nocked in crowds, even during the severest nights of winter. Still, I saw nothing of a real work of the Spirit. During the eight months, I knew of no soul converted, though I afterwards had reason to believe that there were two or three who, during that time, did get the first drops of grace. But the general state of feeling might be accurately expressed by the saying of an elderly woman, who stated her mind thus to a neighbour: " If Mr B. goes away now, he will leave us worse than he found us; for we are halting between two opinions."
It was at the end of these eight months that I received the call to be one of the deputation to Palestine and the Jews. Circumstances prevented me having it in my power to supply my place during my absence in the manner I desired, and on my return, the parish seemed to be in the very state in which I left it. They had read the letters sent to them from abroad with much interest and cordially welcomed our return. I immediately resumed the weekly prayer-meeting, with more hope of blessing than ever, as the Spirit had that year been poured out on other places. We hoped too, that, because of our love to Israel, God would remember us. I preached, as formerly, the plain doctrines of grace — the sinner utterly lost, requiring to be wholly saved by the Redeemer; the Holy Spirit's work in opening the soul of the sinner to receive these truths; and the sure and present forgiveness that is conveyed to him that believeth. I had occasion also to dwell much upon the necessity of a man being so thoroughly changed that he could not fail to know that old things were passed away; because, while the doctrine of conversion was admitted in the parish, it was at the same time a prevailing and obstinate error that a man might be a regenerated creature, though he was not himself aware of having undergone any change. This form of error was silencing the anxieties and fears of a vast number. I began now to hear of one or two meeting together for prayer; and the regular attendance at the weekly meetings was so remarkable that more than once I heard people say, " that surely there was something felt by them, or they would not come so often to hear the gospel on a weeknight." There was a great backwardness on the part of individuals to tell their state of mind. Two or three, however, came to me in distress of mind; one of whom, in telling me her case, said: " It was before you went to Jerusalem that I was struck; you said at a prayer- meeting that a soul must be pure, without a spot, if it is to enter heaven, and all the time you were away I thought on that, and how it could be, and this led me to seek the Saviour."
I was in the habit of getting those of my brethren, with whom I was most intimate, to assist me, such as Mr M'Cheyne of St. Peter's, Dundee, and Mr MacDonald of Blairgowrie. In the middle of April 1840, at one of our ordinary meetings on Wednesday evening, Mr Cumming of Dumbarney, and my brother, Mr Horatius Bonar, from Kelso, were assisting me. The night before we had kept a fast appointed by the Presbytery for the state of the Church, which had been attended with very solemn effects, and this night the meeting was fuller than ever. After Mr Cumming had prayed and spoken upon the scapegoat as a type of Christ, Mr Bonar followed and took the woman of Samaria as his subject. While he was pressing on all present the immediate reception of the offer of the living waters, many burst into tears, old and young, and among the rest, several boys of twelve or fourteen years of age. A deep and awful solemnity spread over the whole meeting, and, after the blessing was pronounced, fifty or sixty people remained in their seats, most of them in tears. Two or three old people came along the passage to speak with us, their faces wet with weeping, and this was the most affecting sight of all. We appointed another meeting for the following evening, and there the same scene occurred again; some were even more awfully impressed, and one cried aloud after the meeting was over. On Friday evening all was deeply solemn, but that night nothing external appeared. The results of this week were such as proved this to be a visit of the Holy Spirit — some drops of a shower. From this date onwards, I found the hearts of anxious people in a manner burst open. They would now freely tell their feelings and ask counsel and direction. This was not confined to persons of any particular age; several aged persons were among the number of the awakened; one of these said, in deep distress, " I have gone all my life thoughtlessly to the Lord's Table, and nobody ever warned me; " and another said, " Oh, if I had come to Christ sooner! " Of the young people who were that night very deeply awakened, I know three or four instances in which the impression has completely faded away; and the same is true of one or two elderly people. In some others the impressions of that season often to this day recur to mind, and they speak of it as a thing they cannot account for. In these cases, there has been no saving result. But there are many others, in whose cases the work of grace is evident and undoubted; and in this number, there are as many heads of families as young people. The general impression also, on the whole parish, has been very marked. At the communion, that same season, very many were alarmed and made anxious by having their attention directed to the truth that men ought to come to Christ before they come to His table; and that those considering themselves unconverted ought to stay away.
The work of the Spirit has not ceased among us, though it has not spread to the extent we longed for and hoped. Many persons in neighbouring parishes have shared in our blessings. At the same time, we see verified among us the words of our Lord, " I came not to send peace, but a sword." We meet with scoffing, and suchlike opposition, from the profane in all the country-side, and not infrequently from cold and dry professors. Indeed, to these last I believe is to be ascribed a great check that the work received, as they used their influence and example to prejudice and cool the anxieties of many, and even led them to conform to the world. Nevertheless, there is now among us a godly seed, small in number, but decided on the Lord's side, rejoicing in the glad tidings.
1 1 could mention many individual cases that would illustrate the nature of the work among us. The mother of a family, who had long been anxious, was brought to peace one Sabbath while I was preaching on John iii. 16, " God so loved the world." She saw the love of God to sinners and was filled with such joy, that it seemed to her the most wonderful sermon she had ever heard. In coming out of church she inquired of others what they thought of the sermon, and then of her own husband, and could not understand how they were not all as fully occupied with it as she was, for " it did seem to her the most wonderful she ever heard." A young woman, who is a striking example of free grace, and who came to peace after dreadful distress, said to me, " I often wished to die since I found Christ, for I am afraid of sinning; but one day I remembered Christ's words, ' I pray not that Thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldst keep them from the evil.'" The same person underwent a great change in regard to her temper after she got peace, being ever after, as she said, able to be quiet and not hasty when provoked. Another, a mother of a family, who in her agony of soul was on the point of setting out to visit me at midnight, came to sudden peace while reading Mark xvi. 14: "He upbraided them with their unbelief" — perceiving that she was not pleasing Christ but resisting Him, by not venturing to believe. A sense of Christ's love filled her heart. The father of a large family, who had been long outwardly respectable, became more and more concerned. One evening he asked me to visit him after he came in from his work; and when I went, showed me a chapter in Guthrie's Saving Interest, " which," said he, " I could not have understood a few weeks ago, but which, I feel, just describes me now." That night he was quite unable to see the truth; but long after, at a prayer-meeting, when I preached upon Abraham's believing God, the Spirit opened his heart, and, as the meeting dismissed, he told me he had found what he sought. For several days after he was in some measure upset with joy; but that soon passed. He has continued to manifest a remarkable and most satisfactory change. His own account of the source of his joy to one who asked him to explain it was this: he turned to 1 John v. 1 1: " God hath given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son;" and said, " Now I believe that, and it fills me with joy." Another man, who has now reached very clear and scriptural views of salvation, when he became deeply concerned about his soul, was so conscientious that he gave up family worship, which he had formerly observed occasionally, " because he thought he was making his family suppose that he knew the truth, while, in fact, he only saw and knew his want of it."
Such is a brief narrative of what the Lord has done among us during these three years. It was His word alone which His Spirit blessed, — " the word that God sent preaching peace by Jesus Christ," accompanied by prayer in public and in secret. We have seen the steps of our God and King in His sanctuary, and we expect Him again. " O the Hope of Israel, the Saviour thereof in time of trouble, why shouldest Thou be as a stranger in the land !'"
The above extracts will give a better idea of that extraordinary work, which affected the whole town of Perth and its neighbourhood, than any description of my own could do. Having seen a good deal of it at the time, and heard of it from those directly concerned, I would only add that the half has not been told, nor indeed can be. In remembering the events of that period, one is stirred up greatly to desire the return of such days. Then it was that we knew something of what it was to be ambassadors for Christ; to preach in earnest; to be listened to in earnest, and not to labour in vain.
'Life of the Rev John Milne of Perth', by Horatius Bonar, pages 59-65