When preaching in Dover, the mayor of the town lent the ancient town-hall for the service, and in passing along, I noticed a large number of grated windows upon a lower level. These belonged to the prison cells, where persons committed for offences were confined. It struck me as a singular combination, that we should be preaching the gospel of liberty in the upper chamber, while there were prisoners of the law beneath. Perhaps, when we sang praises to God, the prisoners heard us; but the free word above did not give them liberty, nor did the voice of song loose their bonds. Alas! what a picture is this of many. We preach liberty to captives; we proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord; but how many remain year after year in the bondage of Satan, slaves to sin. We send up our notes of praise right joyously to our Father who is in heaven, but our praises cannot give them joy, for alas! their hearts are unused to gratitude. Some are mourning on account of unpardoned sin, and others are deploring their blighted hopes, for they have looked for comfort where it is never to be found.
The little circumstance mentioned fixed itself in my mind, and in private meditations thrust itself upon me. In my day-dream I thought that some angelic warder was leading me along the corridors of this great world-prison, and bidding me look into the various cells where the prisoners were confined, reminding me ever and anon, as I looked sorrowful, that "Jehovah looseth the prisoners."
The first cell is called the common prison—the ward of sin. All the human race have been prisoners here; and those who this day are perfectly at liberty, once wore the heavy chain, and were immured within the black walls. I stepped into it, and instead of hearing notes of mourning and lament, I heard loud and repeated bursts of laughter. The mirth was boisterous and obstreperous. The profane were cursing and blaspheming; others were shouting as though they had found great spoil. I looked into the faces of some of the criminals, and saw sparkling gaiety: their aspect was rather that of wedding-guests than prisoners. Walking to and fro, I noticed captives who boasted that they were free, and when I spoke to them of their prison-house, and urged them to escape, they resented my advice, saying, "We were born free, and were never in bondage unto any man." They bade me prove my words; and when I pointed to the irons on their wrists, they laughed at me, and said that these were ornaments which gave forth music as they moved; it was only my dull and sombre mind, they said, which made me talk of clanking fetters and jingling chains. There were men fettered hard and fast to foul and evil vices, and these called themselves free-livers, while others whose very thoughts were bound, for the iron had entered into their soul, with braggart looks, cried out to me that they were freethinkers.
I had never seen such bond-slaves before, nor any so fast manacled as these; but ever did I mark as I walked this prison through and through, that the most fettered thought themselves the most free, and those who were in the darkest part of the dungeon, thought they had most light, and those whom I considered to be the most wretched, and the most to be pitied, were the very ones who laughed the most, and raved most madly and boisterously in their mirth.
I looked with sorrow; but I saw a bright spirit touch a prisoner on the shoulder, who thereon withdrew with the shining-one. He went out, and I knew, for I had read—"The Lord looseth the prisoners," I knew that the prisoner had been loosed from the house of bondage. But as he went forth, his late bond-fellows laughed and pointed with the finger, and called him sniveller, hypocrite, mean pretender, and all ill names, until the prison walls rang and rang again with their mirthful contempt! I watched, and saw the mysterious visitant touch another, and then another, and another, and they disappeared. The common conversation of the prison said that they had gone mad; that they were become slaves, or miserable fanatics, whereas I knew that they were gone to be free for ever; emancipated from every bond. What struck me most was, that the prisoners who were touched with the finger of delivering love were frequently the worst of the whole crew. I marked one who had blasphemed, but the Divine hand touched him, and he went weeping out of the gate. I saw another who had often scoffed the loudest when he had seen others led away, but he went out as quietly as a lamb. I observed some, whom I thought to be the least depraved of them all, but they were left, and oftentimes the blackest sinners of the whole company were first taken, and I remembered that I had read these words—"The publicans and the harlots enter into the kingdom of God before you."
As I gazed intently, I saw some of those men who had once been prisoners come back again into the prison—not in the same dress which they had worn before, but arrayed in white robes, looking like new creatures. They began to talk with their fellow-prisoners; and, oh! how sweetly did they speak! They told them there was liberty to be had; that yonder door would open, and that they might escape. They pleaded with their fellow-men, even unto tears. I saw them sit down and talk with them till they wept upon their necks, urging them to escape, pleading as though it were their own life that was at stake. At first I hoped within myself that all the company of prisoners would rise and cry, "Let us be free." But no; the more these men pleaded, the harder the others seemed to grow, and, indeed, I found it so when I sought myself to be an ambassador to these slaves of sin.
I asked the guide where those were led who were released from the common ward. He told me that they were taken away to be free, perfectly free; but that before their complete gaol deliverance it was necessary that they should visit a house of detention which he would show me. He led me thither. It was called the solitary cell. I had heard much of the solitary system, and I wished to look inside this cell, supposing that it would be a dreadful place. Over the door was written this word—"Penitence," and when I opened it I found it so clean and white, and withal so sweet and full of light, that I said this place was fitter to be a house of prayer than a prison, and my guide told me that indeed so it was originally intended, and that nothing but that iron door of unbelief which the prisoners would persist in shutting fast made it a prison at all. When once that door was open, the place became so dear an oratory, that those who were once prisoners therein were wont to come back to the cell of their own accord, and begged leave to use it, not as a prison, but as a closet for prayer all their lives long. He even told me that one was heard to say, when he was dying, that his only regret in dying was, that in heaven there would be no cell of penitence. Here David wrote seven of his sweetest Psalms; Peter also wept bitterly; and the woman who was a sinner washed the feet of her Lord. But this time I was regarding it as a prison, and I perceived that the person in the cell did so consider it. I found that every prisoner in this cell must be there alone. He had been accustomed to mix with the crowd, and find his comfort in the belief that he was a Christian because born in a Christian nation; but he learned that he must be saved alone if saved at all. He had been accustomed aforetime to go up to the house of God in company, and thought that going there was enough; but now every sermon seemed to be aimed at him, and every threatening smote his conscience. I remember to have read in the Old Book I quoted just now—"I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon Me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for Him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for Him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn. And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart; the family of the house of Nathan apart, and their wives apart; the family of the house of Levi apart, and their wives apart; the family of Shimei apart, and their wives apart; all the families that remain, every family apart, and their wives apart." I noticed that the penitent, while thus alone and apart in his cell, sighed and groaned full oft, and now and then mingled with his penitential utterances some words of unbelief. Alas! were it not for these, that heavy door would long ago have been taken from its hinges. 'Twas unbelief that shut the prisoners in, and if unbelief had been removed from this cell, I say it had been an oratory for heaven, and not a place for disconsolate mourning and lamentation. As the prisoner wept for the past, he prophesied for the future, and groaned that he should never come out of this confinement, because sin had ruined him utterly, and destroyed his soul eternally. How foolish his fears were all men might see, for as I looked round upon this clean and white cell, I saw that the door had a knocker inside, and that if the man had but the courage to lift it, there was a shining one standing ready outside who would open the door at once; yea, more, I perceived that there was a secret spring called faith, and if the man could but touch it, though it were but with a trembling finger, it would make the door fly open. Then I noticed that this door had on the lintel and on the two side posts thereof the marks of blood, and any man who looked on that blood, or lifted that knocker, or touched that spring, found the door of unbelief fly open, and he came out from the cell of his solitary penitence to rejoice in the Lord who had put away his sin, and cleansed him for ever from all iniquity. So I spoke to this penitent, and bade him trust in the blood, and it may be that through my words the Lord afterwards loosed the prisoner; but this I learned, that no words of mine alone could do it, for in this case, even where repentance was mingled with but a little unbelief, 'tis the Lord, the Lord alone, who can loose the prisoners.
I passed away from that cell, and halted at another; this, also, had an iron gate of unbelief, as heavy and as ponderous as the former. I heard the warder coming, and when he opened the door for me it grated horribly upon its hinges, and disturbed the silence, for this time I was come into the silent cell. The wretch confined here was one who said he could not pray. If he could pray, he would be free. He was groaning, crying, sighing, weeping because he could not pray. All he could tell me, as his eye-balls rolled in agony, was this:—"I would, but cannot, pray; I would plead with God, but I cannot find a word, my guilt has smitten me dumb." Back he went, and refused to speak again, but he kept up a melancholy roaring all the day long. In this place no sound was heard but that of wailing; all was hushed except the dropping of his tears upon the cold stone, and his dreary miserere of sighs and groans. But do you know, there was a little table in this cell, and on the table lay a key of promise, inscribed with choice words:—"The Lord looked down from the height of His sanctuary: from heaven did the Lord behold the earth; to hear the groaning of the prisoner; to loose those that are appointed to death." Now, thought I, if this man cannot speak, yet God hears his groans; if he cannot plead, God listens to his sighs, and beholds him all the way from heaven, with this purpose, that He may catch even the faintest whisper of this poor man's broken heart and set him free; for though the soul feels it can neither plead nor pray, yet it has prayed, and it shall prevail. I tried to catch the ear of my poor friend a little while, and talked to him, though he would not speak. I reminded him that the Book in his cell contained instances of dumb men whom Jesus had taught to speak, and I told him that Christ was able to make him speak plainly too.
I told the man that, whether he could pray or not, he was bidden to look at the blood-marks over his door; that the publican was justified by the blood, though he could only cry, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." I pleaded with him to receive the Lord's own testimony, that the Lord Jesus is "able to save unto the uttermost them that come unto God by Him," that He waited to be gracious, and was a God ready to pardon; but after all, I felt that the Lord alone must loose his prisoners. O, gracious God, loose them now!
We hastened to a fourth door. The door opened and shut behind me as I stood alone. 'Twas dark as Egypt in her plague! This was the black hole called the cell of ignorance. I groped as a blind man gropeth for the wall. I was guided by my ear by sobs and moans to a spot where there knelt a creature in an earnest agony of prayer. I asked him what made his cell so dark. I knew the door was made of unbelief, which surely shuts out all light; but I marvelled why this place should be darker than the rest, only I recollected to have read of some that sat "in darkness, and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron." I asked him if there were no windows to the cell. Yes, there were windows, many windows, so people told him; but they had been stopped up years ago, and he did not know the way to open them. He was fully convinced that they never could afford light to him. I felt for one of the ancient lightholes, but it seemed as if, instead of giving light, it emitted darkness; I touched it with my hand, and it felt to me to have once been a window such as I had gazed through with delight. He told me it was one of the doctrines of grace which had greatly perplexed him; it was called Election. The little light thus shed upon the poor man led him to seek for more. Another darkened window was called Human Depravity. The man said: "Oh, there is no hope for me, for I am totally depraved, and my nature is execrating vile; there is no hope for me." I pulled the rags out of this window, and I said to him: "Do you not see that your ruin fits you for the remedy? It is because you are lost that Christ came to save you. Physicians are for the sick, robes for the naked, cleansing for the filthy, and forgiveness for the guilty." He said but little, but he pointed to another window, which was one I had long looked through and seen my Master's glory by its means; it was the doctrine of Particular Redemption. "Ah!" said he, "suppose Christ has not redeemed me with His precious blood! Suppose He has never bought me with His death!" I knocked out some old bricks which had been put in by an unskilful hand, which yet blocked out the light, and I told him that Christ did not offer a mock redemption, but one which really did redeem, for "the blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, cleanseth us from all sin."
I passed on and came to another chamber. This room, marked number five, was large, and had many persons in it who were trying to walk to and fro, but every man had a chain round his ankle, and a huge cannon-ball fixed to it—a military punishment, they said, for deserters from the ranks of virtue. This clog of virtue troubled the prisoners much. I saw some of them trying to file their chains with rusty nails, and others were endeavouring to fret away the iron by dropping tears of penitence thereon; but these poor men made but little progress at their work. The warder told me that this was the chain of Habit, and that the ball which dragged behind was the old propensity to lust and sin. I asked him why they did not get the chains knocked off; and he said they had been trying a long time to be rid of them, but they never could do it in the way they went to work, since the proper way to get rid of the chain of habit was, first of all, to get out of prison; the door of unbelief must be opened, and they must trust in the one great Deliverer, the Lord Jesus, whose pierced hands could open all prison doors; after that, upon the anvil of grace with the hammer of love, their fetters could be broken off. I saw a drunkard led out of his prison, rejoicing in pardoning grace. He had aforetime laboured to escape from his drunkenness, but some three or four times he broke his pledge, and went back to his old sin. I saw that man trust in the precious blood, and he became a Christian, and, becoming a Christian, he could no more love his cups; at one stroke of the hammer the ball was gone for ever. Another was a swearer; he knew it was wrong to blaspheme the Most High, but he did it still, till he gave his heart to Christ, and then he never blasphemed again, for that foul thing was abhorred.
In almost all prisons where they do not want to make vagabonds worse than when they entered, they have hard labour for them. In the prison I went to see, there was a hard-labour room. Those who entered it were mostly very proud people; they held their heads very high, and would not bend; they were birds with fine feathers, and thought themselves quite unfit to be confined, but, being in durance vile, they resolved to work their own way out. They believed in the system of human merit, and hoped in due time to purchase their liberty. They had saved up a few old counterfeit farthings, with which they thought they could by-and-bye set themselves free, though my bright attendant plainly declared their folly and mistake. It was amusing, and yet sad, to see what different works these people were about. Some of them toiled at the tread-wheel; they were going to the stars, they said, and there they were, tread, tread, tread, with all their might; but though they had been labouring for years, and were never an inch higher, yet still they were confident that they were mounting to the skies. Others were trying to make garments out of cobwebs; they were turning wheels, and spinning at a great rate, and, though it came to nothing, they wrought on. They believed they should be free as soon as they had made a perfect garment, and I believe they will. In one place, a company laboured to build houses of sand, and when they had built up to some height, the foundations always yielded; but they renewed their efforts, for they dreamed that if a substantial edifice were finished, they would then be allowed to go free. I saw some of them, strangely enough, endeavouring to make wedding garments out of fig-leaves, by sewing them together; but the fig-leaves were of a sort that were shrivelled every night, so that they had to begin the next morning their hopeless toil. Some, I noticed, were trying to pump water out of a dry well; the veins stood out upon their brows like whipcords while they worked amain without result. As they laboured, like Samson when he was grinding at the mill, I could hear the crack of whips upon their backs. I saw one ten-thonged whip called the Law, the terrible Law—each lash being a commandment, and this was laid upon the bare backs and consciences of the prisoners; yet still they kept on work, work, work, and would not turn to the door of grace to find escape. I saw some of them fall down fainting, whereupon their friends strove to bring them water in leaking vessels, called ceremonies; and there were some men called priests, who ran about with cups which had no bottoms in them, which they held up to the lips of these poor fainting wretches to give them comfort. As these men fainted, I thought they would die; but they struggled up again to work. At last they could do no more, and fell down under their burdens utterly broken in spirit; then I saw that every prisoner, who at last so fainted as to give up all hope of his own deliverance by merit, was taken up by a shining spirit, and carried out of the prison and made free for ever.
Then I thought within myself, "Surely, surely, these are proud, self-righteous persons who will not submit to be saved by grace, 'therefore He brought down their heart with labour; they fell down and there was none to help; then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He saved them out of their distresses.'" I rejoiced and blessed God that there was such a prison-house to bring them to Jesus; yet I mourned that there were so many who still loved this house of bondage and would not escape, though there stood one with his finger always pointing to the words: "By the works of the law shall no flesh living be justified;" and to these other words: "By grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God."