by John Angell James
The readers of this tract are probably aware of the gracious provision for the civilization and comfort of the human race, which the Almighty Creator, by his wisdom and mercy, has made, in the formation of those coal-beds, which are to be found in such abundance in various parts of the earth, and especially in this country. They lie very deep beneath the surface of the ground; and by the labor of man, and in aid of machinery, the coal is dug out, and brought up from the pit for use. Usually a shaft, or large well, is sunk, to the level of the coal-bed, down which the colliers, by the aid of a steam engine, descend in a kind of bucket fastened to a rope or chain; and the coals by the same means are brought up.
The colliers are a hardy race of men, rough in their exterior, and unhappily much given to intemperance. They are a class by themselves. Their occupation exposes them to great and numerous dangers, from the collection in the pits of one kind of gas which is destructive of human life by stopping the breathing; and of another which is highly inflammable, and when a candle is brought in causes the most terrible explosions and loss of life. These accidents from the inflammable gas happen often from the carelessness of the men. Sir Humphrey Davy, by a bright triumph of science, invented a safety lamp, by which a candle may be kept burning without setting the gas on fire and causing an explosion. But the men sometimes neglect to take the lamp with them, and carry about a lighted candle uncovered, and the most dreadful consequences follow. Besides this, accidents often occur by the falling in of the earth from above, and of the coal which the men are digging out. Hence great numbers of them are killed, and others maimed.
Colliers are a much improved class of late; and this may be traced to the pious labors of various Christian ministers, and the diffusion among them of the benefits of education. As we shall see in the following narrative, the voice of instruction has followed them into the dark and dreary abodes of their daily toil, and the coal pit has resounded with the prayer of faith, and the song of praise.
Joseph Round was a native of Dudley, a town on the borders of the Staffordshire coal fields, from the picturesque castle-hill of which may every night be seen hundreds of fires from the blast furnaces, which light up the region around, and make it look as if in a universal conflagration. Joseph received his education in the Dudley Blue Coat School, and at the age of twelve years was sent to work in a coal-pit, where he soon imitated the vices of people older and more wicked than himself. As he grew up he became awfully profane, and was so notoriously addicted to cursing and swearing, that when told by the manager, on a particular occasion, to drive the horses employed about the pit's mouth, one of his companions cried out, "Oh, don't send Round, for he will curse and swear all the way." This vice stood not alone. He was wicked in other ways. Unhappily, he had not the advantage of a pious example in his parents. His father feared not God; and when the son became religious, was far more displeased with his prayers, than he formerly had been with his oaths: and when kindly admonished by his son would gruffly say, "Joe, mend yourself; mend yourself." Happy had it been for the father, if he had taken home this admonition to his own heart, and mended his own conduct.
When about the age of sixteen, one of Joseph's relations, who saw and lamented the course he was pursuing, prevailed upon him after much entreaty, to go and hear a minister of the gospel who was to preach not far from the house of his father. The text was announced, and it fell like thunder upon his ear, while it revealed to him, with terror, the danger of his condition: "The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God." The power of the Spirit sent these words like an arrow to his heart. He heard his sins declared, and his doom denounced. He saw for the first time what a wicked life he had been leading, and that his whole course had been rebellion against God. He went away a convinced and trembling sinner, and with the deep anxiety expressed in the Philippian jailor's question, "What must I do to be saved?" For nine days he continued in distressing anxiety. At home and in the coal pit, the uppermost thoughts of his mind, and the strongest feelings of his heart, were about his sin and his salvation. Neither what he saw and heard in his father's house, or in the dark scene of his daily toil, was allowed to turn away his attention from these great and momentous subjects. A soul in earnest for salvation, and all who would be saved must be in earnest, can allow nothing to divert it from this new object of desire. Finding little opportunity for prayer and reflection at home, Joseph walked into the fields in an agony of mind under the burden of his sins, and falling upon his knees, sent up a cry to heaven, for mercy to pardon the guilt, and for grace to subdue the power of his sin.
When did God ever turn away from the prayer of the penitent, and the groan of the broken-hearted sinner? He who is near to all that call upon Him, heard and immediately answered his supplication. Various passages of Scripture came vividly to his recollection, especially our Lord's words to the woman who had been a sinner, "Go in peace; your faith has saved you; your sins are forgiven you." He was then enabled to "behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." Having now really believed in Christ, it was a natural consequence that he should have joy and peace. For if we have no peace, how can it be known that we have faith? Joseph now went on his way rejoicing. From that time his faith worked by love, and proved its genuineness by the good works which it produced. Swearing was exchanged for praying and praising; sabbath-breaking for a right observance of God's holy day; and neglect of the house of God, for a regular attendance upon religious ordinances. In short, he became a new creature in Christ Jesus; old things had passed away and all things had become new. He was a converted man.
Religion, where it is genuine, implants in the soul a strong desire to be useful. One of the best evidences of our own salvation is an eager desire after the salvation of others. This evidence Joseph Round manifested. His first concern was for his own parents; for surely our unconverted relatives should lie nearest our hearts. He did not meet with the success in this quarter which he longed after, prayed for, and diligently sought. Though his charity began at home, it did not end there. He looked round upon the moral and religious condition of his fellow colliers and others, with a heart that yearned for their salvation. The first object of his zeal was the Sunday school, in which he became an earnest and devoted teacher. But it was not enough for him to do good to the children, he was concerned also for their parents. He began by entreating his companions in the pit to break off their sins by righteousness, and turn to the Lord. To aid him in this work he entered upon that labor of love which ever afterwards distinguished him, and became a distributer of religious tracts. He saw the adaptation and power of these little messengers of truth, and heralds of salvation, to instruct, awaken, and convince the sinner, and to lead him to Christ; and he went to the work of distribution with all his heart. At first, it is probable, he purchased tracts by his hard earnings. His means, however, were too slender for his zeal and its sphere, and he made many journeys to Birmingham, to obtain from benevolent individuals a more adequate supply. When those excellent clergymen, Dr. Marsh and Mr Mozeley, were living there, he frequently called upon them, and became known to them. He was also a frequent visitor, for his favorite object of obtaining tracts, at the house of the writer of this narrative, who, with would sometimes say, "What, come again, Round?" To which he would always reply with a smile, or some talk about the men in the pit. After a while he received a regular supply of tracts from a society connected with Carr's-lane chapel, Birmingham.
His first introduction of the tracts to these underground abodes was marked by as much prudence as zeal. He engaged the help and countenance of one of his companions, who was also a pious man, to sustain his courage and aid his exertions: and one day at meal-time he took out a tract, and said he had a nice little book, and asked leave to read it to those who were eating their dinner. This was granted. The men were so much pleased, that they declared if Round or his friend did not read a tract to them every day they would lose their share of the beer which was brought into the pit for dinner. To this they agreed upon condition that, on the other hand, those that did not listen to the reading, or should swear or tell an untruth, or should utter an indecent expression, during the day, should be subject to a like penalty. This law of the pit was kept in force until the pit was worked out, and, unusual as it was, answered its purpose of effecting a moral reformation in the conduct of the miners.
As one good thing generally leads to another, this practice of tract-reading soon gave rise to a prayer meeting among the men in the pit. This however was not at their master's cost by being held during the work-time. They were allowed an hour for dinner, half of this they took for eating their food, and the other half they appropriated to their holy fellowship round the throne of the Majesty of heaven and earth. And would they go with less strength or willingness to their toil after this double refreshment of both body and soul or with less preparation to meet the perils of sudden death, to which their labors exposed them? And can we think that He who delights to hear the voice of prayer, would turn away his ear from the supplications of those petitioners of the coal-mine? He did not—for many of them who had lived irreligious lives were converted by the grace of God, and souls were there "born again" of the Spirit. These pious habits were not confined to the pit in which Round worked, but were extended to others in the neighborhood and from many a shaft could be heard the song of the colliers' praises rising to heaven.
All this while Round's tract labors went on, and he engaged others to join him in this useful work. If he went to his club, he was seen to take a bundle of tracts with him, and was never terrified by a frown, (which indeed he rarely received,) nor was he dispirited by a refusal, nor made to blush by a sneer. His demeanor was so meek, so loving, and so gentle, (which is an essential qualification for a good tract distributor,) that very few were ever offended by his zeal. He called one day at the house of an aged man with a wooden leg, and offered him a tract, but he was repulsed with a frowning look and an angry refusal. Round gently expostulated, and retired. Nothing daunted, he went a second time, and having spoken a few loving words from a loving heart, and with a smiling countenance, again offered a tract. The man was somewhat subdued, and took it. On the third visit the tract was willingly and thankfully received, and was made a blessing to his soul. The lame man then became a distributor himself.
In the course of his walks, this man called at the house of an infidel, who surlily said to him, "We do not read such books here." With great good temper he replied, "Never mind, I will call again." On the next sabbath he fulfilled his word, when he met with a still more ungracious reception from the infidel's wife, who angrily and contemptuously said, "What an ignorant fellow you are! We don't want your books, and will not have them." He said the same words in the same unoffending, inoffensive manner, "Never mind, I will call again." Some might have been tempted to return railing for railing. But so must not a tract distributor. He must remember our Lord's words, "Bless those who curse you, and pray for those who despitefully use you." And also the apostle's exhortation, "In meekness instructing those that oppose; if God perhaps will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth." The next Sunday this man, who was named "Old Jack," went upon his rounds, and determined to give the infidel one more call. He knocked at the door, and the man himself opened it, when the tract distributer put his wooden leg within the door to prevent its being closed against him. On seeing this, his opponent tried in vain to shut it, and in a temper suited to his words, and to get rid as he supposed, of his troublesome visitant said, "Well, give me a tract." Of course the request was complied with. The following Sunday old Jack made another call, when the wife was so far softened as civilly to ask him in, and solicited two tracts, one for herself and one for her husband, who did not then happen to be at home. The result was the reformation, if not the conversion, of this individual, who renounced his infidelity, and with his whole family, from that time, regularly attended a place of worship. In writing to a friend and giving an account of this incident, Round said, "What has God wrought! Be sure and tell your tract distributers to 'call again.'" Yes, the mild and gentle perseverance which was so successful in this case, will be followed with similar results in others.
Joseph Round had connected himself with that body of professing Christians called Primitive Methodists, who, like the other sections of the Methodist body, employ, in addition to the regular preachers, laymen of approved piety and talents as "local preachers." Round was called to this way of labor, and in his humble ministrations was very acceptable to the poor people of his neighborhood. In this new capacity of an exhorter, he did not forget his former occupation as a distributer of tracts, but always carried a bundle with him; so that when it was his turn to go to the people, they hailed his visit with the saying, "Joseph is coming today, and we shall be sure to have some more tracts." This expectation attracted some, who but for the little books, perhaps would not have come for the exhortation.
The neighboring villages were not the only scenes of his labors as a preacher. He had a deep solicitude for his fellow colliers, and persuaded them to listen to his addresses in the place of their daily labor. Some extracts from a letter may be introduced here; which after Round's death was received from one of his acquaintances, written in answer to another inquiring about the estimation in which he was held in the neighborhood.
"The first time I fell in with this man was on a beautiful Sabbath morning, when he was standing beneath the canopy of heaven, with the people whom he was addressing all around him. I went up to listen, and the first words that caught my ear were, 'Let us view the enrapturing scene of redeeming love.' He then led his audience to Calvary, and implored them to flee from the wrath to come, and to take the water of life freely. I heard him finish his sermon, and then was anxious to know who the preacher was, and found he was a poor collier of the name of Joseph Round. I took the first opportunity when I went into his neighborhood to pay him a visit, and went to see where he was at work. I stood upon the bank of the pit, and, prompted by curiosity, I made up my mind to descend the shaft. On reaching the bottom, I was conducted into a large apartment cut out of the coal. All around this place were benches cut out of the solid coal. At one end was a pulpit, also cut out of the solid coal; and in the center and front of the pulpit was a missionary box cut out of the coal; and having engraved upon it the words Missionary Box. The steps to the pulpit were cut out of the coal. All around were pegs driven into the coal on which the men hung their hats. In the center of the little chapel was stuck a large thorn bush, on which the candles were hung when the service was being held. Here poor Round used to gather his fellow laborers, and point them to the cross of Christ. And as I looked round, and felt the solemnities of the place, I could not but exclaim, 'This is none other than the house of God and the very gate of heaven.' I had but one more interview with him before his death; and as we walked along the road together our conversation turned upon heaven and heavenly things. Among other remarks, he said, 'I am but a poor collier, and have nothing of this world's goods, but I would not change my hope of heaven for worlds.' All of a sudden he began to chant those beautiful lines of Dr. Watts, 'There shall I bathe my weary soul,' 'Oh,' said he, 'that we could fix our eyes always on the crown that awaits us in the skies—then,
'Fearless of hell and ghastly death,
He delighted to dwell upon such contemplations as these, that "those who have much forgiven, oh how much they love!"
Let us for a moment turn to the little chapel cut out of the coal, hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the earth, and in imagination behold the preacher and his audience. See them all, teacher and taught, with their flannel jackets, and their faces covered with coal-dust, listening in that extraordinary sanctuary to the pious, yet humble strains of heavenly mercy flowing from the lips of their fellow laborer, who had laid down his pickaxe to take up his Bible, while they all devoted a part of their dinner hour to hear an address which led their thoughts up from a coal pit to that city whose streets are of gold, its foundation of precious stones, and its gates of pearl. No gorgeous fabric in mediaeval taste, no gothic arch, or painted window, or clustered columns, or organ's solemn peal was there. But He who receives no glory from anything, but imparts it to everything, was there, according to His promise, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." He despised not the inelegant and uncouth strains in which His own redeeming love was poured into the ears of that humble audience by that lowly preacher, nor did He turn away from the rough unmusical voices with which the colliers sang, as they best could, His high praises. Yes, and there the tear of penitence sometimes rolled down their dark cheeks; and the life that is to last forever in heavenly glory was communicated by the Holy Spirit to their souls.
Joseph Round, in addition to these labors, was ever ready at the call of illness, and was often found at the deathbed of his neighbors, pointing the soul to Christ; and when the cholera was going like the destroying angel through the country, fearless of infection, he braved its terrors to administer instruction and consolation to its victims.
Neither religion nor usefulness exempts its possessor from the sicknesses, accidents, and calamities to which we are exposed in this world. The distinctions of the righteous are of another kind than this. Joseph Round was liable equally with his fellow laborers to the perils of his calling. Many were the escapes, and many the injuries he experienced during his life. Among the former may be mentioned a deliverance which was granted him about eleven years ago. He said to his wife one morning, "You may depend upon it there will be an explosion down at our pit this morning. It presses on my mind that something will happen at our place." Acting upon his impression, he did not go to his work. While he was at breakfast, some of the neighbors came running to his house in great consternation, with the information that an explosion had taken place, and that fourteen lives were lost. This is not necessarily to be considered as any special revelation of God. Round might have thought the pit dangerous the preceding day from something he noticed. Nor should it lead us to give too much weight and importance to mental impressions as indications of Providence or guides of conduct. It was certainly a great, and we may truly say, a providential preservation.
He was not, however, always so happy as to escape without injury. In the course of twenty-seven years he was brought home six times, more or less hurt by the falling in of the coal. On one occasion he had his ankle put out in the pit, which, for want of skillful attention, was the cause, for some time, of much pain and inconvenience.
About six months before his death, as he was at his work in the pit, a considerable fall of coal took place, which much injured him. From this accident he so far recovered as to resume, though with considerable weakness, his employment in the pit, and his addresses to the people. About twelve days before his death he took a violent cold, which affected the parts that had been injured by the falling of the coal, and he was confined to his house, and eventually to his bed. During the last few months of his life, he often said to the men in the pit, "I shall soon put off my old flannel," alluding to the dress in which the miners work, "for a robe, and my cap for a crown." His glorious anticipations were soon to be realized. To one of his fellow laborers in the mine, who visited him in his sickness, he said, "We have often sung and prayed together, and spoken of ranging the sweet plains on the banks of the river; I shall soon be there." On being asked by this friend concerning the state of his mind, he replied, "I am still trusting in the Lord." He exhorted him to go on in the old way, and, under the influence of his ruling passion strong in death, desired him still to go to the friends at Carr's-lane for tracts, and to continue distributing them. "I do not know," said this friend, "that I ever visited one who was so composed."
On the morning of the day he died, he said, "I feel as I never felt before." "Do you know you are dying?" said his wife. "Yes," he calmly replied, "I do know;" and having uttered his last wish and prayer in words so often repeated by waiting, dying saints, "Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly," this poor but holy collier departed, to be with Him whom his soul loved. He died in the fifty-first year of his age. His funeral was attended by a large number of his friends, who were eager thus to testify their respect for his memory. His minister preached a funeral sermon for him, from the words of the apostle, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith."
Dr. Marsh, in writing to a friend, says of this humble and earnest follower of the Lamb, "Round was, I believe, a simple-hearted Christian, and a useful man among the colliers. He is out of the pit now, and in the palace." No one who knew him will question the truth of this testimony.
The history of this man is full of instruction.
1. Is not this a brand plucked out of the burning? and does it not prove and illustrate the grace of God in pardoning and sanctifying some of the chief of sinners? Who that heard poor Round blaspheming God, and shocking even ordinary swearers by his terrible oaths and curses, could have thought such lips would ever pray, such a swearer be as fervent in praise as he had been in profanity, and such a sinner be as anxious to save men's souls by his holy life and labors, as he seemed at one time to be to corrupt and destroy them by his example? But whom cannot the mercy of God forgive, and His grace sanctify? "The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin." "He is able to save to the uttermost those who come unto God by him." Him that comes to me I will never cast out." "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon."
Does any one ask the question, "What must I do to be saved?" I reply with the apostle, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved." Reader, you must be convinced of sin, be sorry for it, forsake it, while trusting wholly, confidently, joyfully in Christ for pardon, holiness, and eternal life. Whoever does this, whatever may have been his sins, for numbers, magnitude, and long continuance--shall be saved. It was thus that poor Round sought and obtained mercy.
2. What a blessed thing the religion of Christ is, which makes such a change in a man's character, mode of life, and standing in society! But for this, Round would have remained a wretched swearing man, and, in all probability, would have added various other vices to his profanity, lived a wicked life, and died a miserable death, as many of his companions did. But the grace of God which changed his heart, made him also a respectable and a holy man. He was pious, useful, and happy. Yes, the gospel received into the heart, makes us, I say, respectable and useful. So the apostle Paul said of Onesimus, "Who in time past was to you unprofitable, but now profitable to you and to me." Onesimus was a slave of Philemon, who robbed his master, ran away, heard Paul preach, was converted, and then this poor dishonest runaway slave, when changed by the grace of God, was useful even to an apostle, and became a minister of the gospel. Divine grace never leaves us as it finds us; it makes the robber honest, the lewd chaste, the drunkard sober, the swearer devout. To render us profitable and useful--is the sure effect of Christianity. And, then, usefulness with christian uprightness is the way to honor. Who does not respect a useful upright man? He is the salt of a corrupt world, and the light of a dark one. Such a man was Joseph Round.
3. God sometimes employs the humblest instruments to do good. Round was only a poor collier, and yet there is no doubt he was the instrument of converting many sinners from the error of their ways, and saving many souls from death; and having turned many to righteousness, he will be among those who, in another world, will shine as the stars in the firmament of heaven.* God delights to honor feeble instruments who work for Him in simplicity and godly sincerity, because their weakness magnifies His power. There is a work of God for everyone who has a heart to do it. He has placed the 'luxury of doing good' within reach of the shortest arm. Who cannot distribute a few religious tracts, or speak a word to a wicked companion, and enforce this by the power of a holy example and the spirit of believing prayer? Round was a holy man, as well as an active one; the flame of his zeal was fed by the oil of his piety. He was blameless and harmless, without rebuke, or he would have done little good. And he was a happy man, as everyone must be who is both holy and useful. Poverty does not take away all a man's opportunity of benefiting his fellow creatures, therefore let everyone aspire to the honor of doing good.
* The writer of this tract has received a particular account, on which he can rely with confidence, of Round's usefulness, which is as surprising as it is delightful. It is probable that twenty people were truly converted from the error of their ways by his distribution of tracts; and far more than thirty from his pious exhortations, of whom many became exhorters themselves. The testimonies to his holiness and usefulness have come from various sources.
Joseph Round was a collier, and it is probable that this tract will be read by some who are engaged in the same way. To such, the word of exhortation is now addressed. Is not this a beautiful character which is here exhibited? Do you not admire it? Do you not wish to be like it? You may be like it if you take the right method to obtain it. Desire, intensely desire it. Say within yourself, "Oh that I were like Joseph Round!" Go to God in earnest prayer, and say, Lord, make me holy like Joseph Round." God's grace can do for you what it did for him. He did not make himself what he was; it was God who did it—and he can and will do the same for you if you heartily desire it, and pray to him for it. Attend public worship; go and hear the gospel preached; "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." You remember it was by going to hear a sermon that Joseph was converted. What a text that was which he heard, "The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God!" How truly solemn and awful! Even to forget God habitually will send a man to hell; how certainly then to live on constantly in sin against him will do so!
Do consider how suddenly you may be cut off in your sins. You know the danger of your calling as a collier; you know how many are yearly killed in the pits; you have seen the mangled corpses of those who were hurried out of time into eternity, without a moment's leisure for repentance, or a prayer for mercy. You know how wickedly many of them lived up to the very moment of their death. How dreadful it is to be sent in an instant from the place of sinning to the place of suffering! Ah! if you continue in sin, impenitence, and unbelief, this may be your case. Does not the thought make you tremble? Well then, repent of your sins; believe in Christ for pardon; pray without delay for the Holy Spirit to sanctify you. Delays are dangerous. Hear what Solomon says—"He that being often reproved, hardens his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy." These are indeed solemn words. How often have you been reproved by the attacks of disease, by the visitations of the pestilence, by the destruction of your companions, as well as by the word of God, the voice of the preacher, and the stings of conscience; and yet you have hardened your neck. Oh, be wise to consider your sin, your state, your prospect, while yet your "judgment and damnation linger." Remember, even Divine patience has its limits, and should you be suddenly cut off in your sins by one of the accidents so common, no remedy, not even the gospel, can then reach the case. Then, as you have lived, so you will die, so you will stand before God, without remedy. No blood of Christ, no advocate will plead for you then. But now there is a remedy in the cross of Christ. Flee to that without delay, and join in the prayer with which this tract is now closed—O almighty God of grace and mercy, show your long-suffering and pardon, and save me as you saved this man. Let me, and let many a one of those who shall read this tract, be, like him, a brand plucked out of the fire, a monument of your abounding grace, to sing your everlasting praises, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.