Elder Stephen Conte
Introduction - All This Is True
It may not be out of place to include here a few words sent me by Elder Hulan Bass of Texas, who wrote "Thank you profoundly for sending me the writing of your experiences in finally coming (Providentially being brought) to the TRUTH of the Finished Work of Christ in Blood Redemption and Atonement on on Calvary's Cross. May I have your written permission to share this writing with others with whom I communicate, as a testimony of the exact Old Line Position of the Old P.B.'s embracing the Apostles' Doctrine, Practice, Fellowship, Breaking of Bread and Prayers, including the Old Songs of Zion?"
I rejoice to hear that some have been edified through this account of the Lord's kindness to this poor sinner, and of His tender care for His dear flock. May it be so for you dear reader. It is offered unto your edification. The story belongs to the church, it is the Lord's gift to the Body, more so than to me personally, and so I tell it the way the Des Moines River Primitive Baptist Church understands it, for they have been witnesses from the beginning. Most are yet alive, and are able to vouch for all of it and more. Also there were present on that day some visitors from Hazel Creek Church in Missouri.
It would be a mistake to lift one sort of experience above another. All shine bright with grace, those who grow up in the footsteps of the flock no less than those who wander far astray. It's all free grace and the dying Lamb, the sinner's only Friend.
In ongoing love,
An Experience of Grace - Elder Stephen Conte
Well, it was a conversion to Jesus Christ.
Having been a minister in one of the liberal mainline churches for quite awhile before, my experience among the liberals was plenty bad enough. A collection of religious fads and political projects, even the devotional life had the character of a series of experiments.
But going into the Eastern Orthodox Church was not the relief I had hoped for; it was "out of the frying pan into the fire" as the saying goes. I found I had merely traded the doctrinal corruption of liberalism for the moral corruption of Eastern Orthodoxy. After I and a dozen other priests were thrown out of the priesthood by our archbishop for opposing his vices, I was thoroughly disillusioned. I resolved never to go to church again, not even for my funeral, and instructed my wife to that effect.
I thought it was all a cheat, a sham, and hypocricy.
I undertook to disprove Christianity and, in course of time, after trying to live without the Lord for several years, fighting Him in every public and private way I knew, I got so downcast I would wake in the middle of the night with cold sweats, feeling that I was falling in a black void in the grip and fear of death, seeing and feeling nothing but the passing away into dust of my life and of all whom I loved.
To comfort myself I took up my much-loved old dulcimer and sang folksongs until I got sick of them. After awhile, I thought my voice surely could find a better use than pirate songs and ballads of old fornicators such as Matty Groves.
In course of time I took up the music of the old 19th century shape-note hymnals Southern Harmony and the Sacred Harp, though strictly as folk music, to comfort myself with harmony, and with what I thought was nice mythology and fairy tales. I often thought of the songs and singers as a kind of Christianity without churches or preachers. Which was just what I thought I wanted at the time. So it seemed to suit me.
At first I didn't have a tune book, but I knew quite a few of those old songs already, and would walk the timber, singing them and crying out to God, often with tears. Especially, I was haunted by the Blood of Jesus, or rather by the thought that such a Man might even possibly have shed His blood for ME. The thought that such a thing could be done for me, and me hold it in utter disdain as I had, was more than I could bear. When I thought on it or sang of it, sometimes it would burden me so much, that I would have to get a hold of a tree just to hold myself up. Once my son came upon me in that state, which startled me and embarrassed him quite a lot, but I told him "Son, I can't stand the way I was living, and I have to find something better, so you will just have to bear with me, and let me alone for awhile".
Yet, for all that, it seemed the only thing that heard my voice was the empty sky, and the cold vastness of space offered no comfort whatsoever.
Thus the Lord let me taste the bitterness of life without Him, and to know the weight of His judgment, and little by little the Lord let me feel my desperate state and my need of Him, and as I went on I sang from my heart with increasing feeling, about the shortness, uncertainty, and misfortune of life.
"Death, 'tis a melancholy day to those that have no God." "And am I born to die, to lay this body down? Soon as from earth I go, what will become of me?"
That was what I wanted to know.
Then too, I gradually began to yearn for that peace and joy of knowing Him that I sensed in the music, and in the lives of some of the singers. I cried out to God "if there was a God", as I put it, that he would give me a little of that, if indeed He could hear me, and cared at all for me or for any man.
I liked the songs so well I decided to get some books so I would have more to sing. The first one I found was the old oblong hymnal "Southern Harmony", and the first song I opened to in it was the fine old tune "Samanthra", with the opening words "His voice as the sound of the dulcimer sweet is heard through the shadows of death...."
Now, there just aren't that many songs that mention the dulcimer. And the poetry about the shadows of death, well, it seemed exactly suited to me, under my circumstances. At that moment, the thought crossed my mind that maybe there was a God, and maybe He was in the matter, and maybe He was after me particularly in some way, perhaps to my good, or perhaps to punish my unbelief. For, if there was a God, I feared He would have nothing but wrath for me, for I had not lived as I should by any standard, not God's or man's or my own.
"Samanthra" reads on:
"Oh Thou, in whose presence my soul takes delight
On whom in affliction I call;
My comfort by day and my song in the night
My hope, my salvation, my all.
Where dost Thou at noontime resort with Thy sheep
To feed on the pastures of love?
Say why in the valley of death should I weep,
Or alone in the wilderness rove?"
Was there a way out of my wilderness after all? And where were those sheep, I wondered, and could I ever find them?
I thought to myself, and said to my wife one night, "If I ever find a church where they sing these songs, I might like to go there sometime, just to visit". She appeared rather shocked, as it went so counter to what I had been saying for years, but said nothing.
At that time I knew very little about Baptists, having held them in disdain throughout my church life. I knew even less about Primitive Baptists. But I noticed a great many Sacred Harp singings took place at Primitive Baptist churches in the South, and a great many singers and Sacred Harp authors who were Primitive Baptists.
And then, quite abruptly I noticed a little sign on a road near my home, a sign that I had never seen before, with directions to a Primitive Baptist church. It even gave their meeting times. I went to peek in the windows of the meetinghouse a few times when there was no-one around, to see what kind of hymnal they were singing out of, but I couldn't see inside to make it out.
Then I went on a Saturday to a far-away Sacred Harp singing where there happened to be a man selling books, the "Old School Hymnal", and I asked him what it was. He said it had nothing to do with the Sacred Harp, but was the hymnal of the Primitive Baptists. I grabbed it from him so hard and fast I supposed he thought I wanted to steal it and run out the door, but I just wanted to see what was in it. I bought the book, and when I saw what was in it, I got very interested. It seemed a great many of the hymns were right out of the Sacred Harp. I wondered whether those Primitve Baptists near where I lived might actually sing these songs themselves.
That day we sang #203 from the Sacred Harp, "Let sinners take their course, And choose the road to death; But in the worship of my God, I'll spend my daily breath", and I thought, alright, maybe there's nothing to it, but I can't do any better, I'll sing praises as long as I live, at least I won't be doing more sin and wrong anymore that way. I recall also that I stood in the square and led #457 "Wayfaring Stranger" that day.
Next day, Sunday, I was all alone at home and in my living room, listening to a recording: "Grace 'tis a charming sound, harmonious to the ear". I looked at my watch, it was a quarter past eleven and I presently felt that I wanted, above all, to be with the people who sang those songs, wherever and whoever they might be. I thought perhaps the little church wasn't even meeting then - I couldn't keep straight whether it was 1st and 3rd, 2nd and 4th, or even what Sunday in the month it was on that particular day. Compelled against all common sense, I headed for my car on a run, and, as I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt, tossed my better clothes in the back seat "just in case".
When I got to the church, I saw there were about ten cars in the lot. I sped up to the next corner and pulled my better clothes on, then hurried to the church and fell into a back pew as Elder Clyde Farmer preached the last 10 minutes of his sermon on Hebrews 11, on how we were strangers and pilgrims here below.
I saw the old shape note hymnals, I looked at the elder, and presently it struck me that he was preaching free grace. My heart broke wide open and dissolved in tears because I knew so well that that was the only way for the hopeless lost sinner that I'd proven myself to be, and I looked out the window, because I didn't want to look at anybody, being in the undignified state I was in, all wet with tears, and when I saw the graveyard I felt my feelings change for the better, and thought at last that I could lay there in peace and unafraid 'til the Morning Trumpet sounds.
Pause, oh my soul, and recall that day, that seat in that little meetinghouse!
"Through free grace and the dying Lamb, poor mourner's found a home at last".
The Lord disclosed Himself to me as I sat there, not to the eyes of mortal sight, but by the Spirit, and spiritually discerned; I saw everything as plainly as I saw the bench in front of me and the window to my side: He showed me Himself carrying the burden of all my sin on Calvary's dread cross. He showed me myself held safe in the hollow of His Hands, kept through all the years of my earthly trouble, wandering, and rebellion, as He sheltered and protected me there. He showed me the reason why I couldn't ever forget Him or be rid of Him, that it was impossible no matter how hard I fought Him, no matter how hard I tried, because He had set His love upon me and had made Himself one with me, joining and uniting Himself to me, loving me with an everlasting love and dying for me, and mercifully applying Himself to me when I could do nothing to appropriate Him to myself and indeed was undertaking to do the the very opposite.
He showed me that I had never truly proved to myself that there was no God or heaven-sent Bible, and he showed me that I could believe it if I wanted to. I said, "Yes, Lord, I do believe". How could I not believe it, He'd showed all the evidence to me in those moments, as He went about by His Spirit, setting my heart right with Himself.
I wept for joy and shame, joy for my Savior's love and shame for my many sins and denials.
And bless His kind compassion, in His love, His generous love, he showed me that what I had rejected was not Him, but the false Christ of the modern churches, and what I had shunned was not His church, the pure Bride, but the posturing harlot of Babylon.
And what a silly old fool I felt myself to have been, not able to tell the pure Bride from that painted lady!
And for it all, He showed me my pardon and redemption in His Blood.
My mind began to consider the idea of joining the church. I even dared to hope they might consent to baptize me in token of the clean slate I felt the Lord had given me.
When the doors of the church were opened for membership I shook hands with the elder. I said, "I want to join your church". He said, "I beg your pardon?" I thought, "Oh dear." I said, "I want to join your church". He said, "We'll take it under advisement".
I sat down and wondered what that meant, unacquainted as I was with the ways of the Old Baptists.
Then after shaking hands with the other people in line behind me, Elder Farmer got the church's attention and turned to me and asked me my name, and if I believed in Jesus Christ. I said "YES!" much louder than I had intended. I remember feeling kind of startled at that question and my answer, because I had not expected it or premeditated an answer. I had not entered the meetinghouse that day feeling myself to be a believer at all, and I hadn't yet become accustomed to considering myself to be one. But that's what he asked me, and what I replied. It felt good to confess the Name of the Lord that way, after my being so much to the contrary.
Elder Farmer told the church what I had requested, and then Deacon Roger Fligg asked why I went there, to that church. I said "because the songs of Zion are still being sung here". I also said something about the Lord's people being scattered on a thousand hills and hidden away, how glad I was I found them, and I said something about the Sacred Harp.
An elderly sister said she had been a member longer than anyone else, and she said it seemed to her "that after all the trouble he's gone through, if this fellow wants to join our church, he ought to be allowed to do so". That was Sister Edna Thompson. Several others expressed their agreement.
Then they put it to a vote, and I was in.
I was never so happy or confident on any day in my life, not until the next day, when I came in from mowing and my wife asked me what Deacon Larry Hanna had told me about the service, what had gone on before I got there. I said, "Nothing, he didn't tell me a thing about the service". I asked her what she meant. She said the deacon had just called on the telephone, to ask if he and Elder Farmer and some others might come over on Wednesday. She said he told her that, just before Elder Farmer preached, Deacon Roger Fligg had spoken in the stand and said "We've been praying for years that God would send someone to this church, and He is sending someone. When he comes, receive him, for on taking in such, men of old have entertained angels unawares".
Then Elder Farmer went up to the stand to preach, and, a little while later, I went rushing and tumbling into the meeting at a quarter to twelve.
Well, I was dumbfounded when my wife told me that, I had no words to express myself. My assurance was already abounding and my joy overflowing since I'd joined the church the day before, what could I say now? Oh, what assurance and comforts the Lord lavished upon me in those days, and in the days since!
Maybe it was prophecy or something very like it, I don't know what it was, but God was speaking through Deacon Roger at the same time as He was speaking to me in my living room, like Peter and Cornelius in the book of Acts. I found out later that the Old Baptists even had a name for it, they called such a thing a "Peter and Cornelius event", it happened so often among them.
And as proof against my doubt - the flesh being weak, as we know - the whole thing was witnessed by around a dozen sober-minded Old Baptists and duly noted by the clerk in the minutes of the church. In this remarkable way God let me know the whole thing wasn't some fiction or mood or imagination I'd worked myself into, but His own Almighty Hand of sovereign grace outstretched to save me in the midst of my days of this earthly pilgrimage.
That was just the beginning, it's continued apace from then 'til now, and it just keeps getting better. Glory to His Name!
What a marvel and a wonder it was, and is, and what a joy to relate these things!
Yet, I see so much in common between my experience, and what all the other Old Baptists write and tell of their experience, that I have confidence that it can be shared for the Lord's sole glory. The human part of it is common enough, otherwise I would not dare to, wish to, or bother to write it down; what would be the point? If it were not common to human nature, nobody else would be able to relate to it, and as such there's nothing to boast about, the darkness, sin and confusion of it all. But God's grace shines through, bright with hope and assurance.
That's enough for now, I can hardly begin to tell it, let alone get to the end of it.
Oh, hallelujah to the Lamb!