I had the pleasure of reading Growing up in the 1850s: The Journal of Agnes Lee. You may not be familiar with Agnes, but surely you’ve heard of her father, Robert E. Lee. The journal was an interesting blend of daily activities, family, and faith. But I was most surprised to read Agnes’s testimony… especially when it brought back memories of my own. I came to understand what Solomon concluded, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” You can read my personal testimony here.
Before we pick apart Agnes’s testimony, let’s read it in her own words:
Staunton Thursday 9th April ’57
My precious Father,
I have something to tell you which I know will make you very happy. It is, I believe both of your daughters are Christians. I am sure Annie is, and O Papa I am resolved to doubt no longer that there has been a great and blessed change wrought in my wicked heart. That though I see now I am far more vile and desperately sinful than I ever had the smallest idea of, from this very knowledge I feel the insupportable weight of sin and the desire and the necessity of casting my burden at my Savior’s feet and finding rest and peace where alone it can be found. I often feel a sweet peace staling over me making me so very happy, calming my angry passions, and stilling my complaining tongue, a feeling of deep gratitude to my Father in Heaven who made me so wretched for some time to make me turn to Him, and to my Savior whose blessed promises of pardon and mercy to all who seek Him have raised me to hope and strive while before I was in despair at the awfulness of my sins. At first the struggle was dreadful. We had been studying McIIvain’s “evidences of Christianity.” Its beautiful style and interesting matter attracted me immediately. I did not then know, but soon found out, what momentous truths were most unquestionably proved it, and that he or she was worse than an idiot who could doubt the reality of religion. It set me to thinking, when I heard Bishop Johns was to confirm those disposed Easter. One Sunday when I had spent a most unprofitable day – at night I went into a room where two girls were weeping for their sins, then at once Mine stared me in the face in such awful magnitude – from that hour I had no rest. I wrote to Mamma she sent me a sweet confirming letter advising me to be confirmed if I had a single desire from henceforth to please God….. my tastes, my hopes, my pleasures, are very different from what they were, I have determined to lead a new life by God’s help. The tempter puts so many dreadful thoughts in my mind which I have much difficulty in putting down. The first and oh! a powerful one was that I was so young – to put it off and enjoy myself until I had become weary of the pleasures of this world then it would be very well, but now it would make me deny myself so many anticipated gratifications, that Christians were so gloomy and so criticized I never could expect to pass as one in the estimation of others. Then he would make me believe my repentance was not sincere, that it was just an uneasy fancy which would leave me as before, so I must ask for no advice – tell no one. O these and numerous other temptations have best me, dear Papa, and how can I thank God sufficiently that He has thus far kept me from falling back and has led me to strive on. I am sure I have always had your prayers and dear Mamma’s. O I pity the human being who has never known a christian Father and Mother! Grandma sowed good seed in my young heart and often have her hold instructions come to me when I most needed them, O may her sainted spirit know how I thank her!… He told us of the cause of our Savior’s dreadful sufferings. There He stood driving back the overwhelming wrath of an avenging God from a helpless guilty people! But my feeble pen is a mockery of his speaking language….Though I much fear it will soon pass away from the minds of many I feel sure there are some, may they not be few, where the Spirit has found an eternal abiding place….I have not yet thanked you for your last two letters, prized as usual. I am very grateful for your prompt long answers but, dear Papa, you must not deny yourself of needful slumber even though it deprive me of great pleasure but I can stand it better than you…I must stop or your eyes will be fatigued…Yours ever
What a beautiful and powerful testimony! Now, let us look back through it and glean what we can. Together, we’ll examine the basics of conversion.
1 Notice of Sin
Agnes: …there has been a great and blessed change wrought in my wicked heart. That though I see now I am far more vile and desperately sinful than I ever had the smallest idea of,…
Myself: I continued life with my filthy mouth, wicked thoughts, and sexual sins. I knew these actions were wrong, but it didn’t bother me enough to quit.
Bible: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight…” Psalm 51:3,4
2 Feeling Wretched
Agnes: …a feeling of deep gratitude to my Father in Heaven who made me so wretched for some time to make me turn to Him…
Myself: …These words echoed through my mind so often…
Bible: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” Romans 7:24
3 Turning to Christ
Agnes: …from this very knowledge I feel the insupportable weight of sin and the desire and the necessity of casting my burden at my Savior’s feet and finding rest and peace where alone it can be found…
Myself: …I had finally come to grips with the truth and would finally turn my whole life over to Him…
Bible: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9
4 The Lies of Satan
Agnes: …The tempter puts so many dreadful thoughts in my mind which I have much difficulty in putting down. The first and oh! a powerful one was that I was so young – to put it off and enjoy myself until I had become weary of the pleasures of this world then it would be very well, but now it would make me deny myself so many anticipated gratifications, that Christians were so gloomy and so criticized I never could expect to pass as one in the estimation of others. Then he would make me believe my repentance was not sincere, that it was just an uneasy fancy which would leave me as before…
Myself: …A few years later, the devil would attack my assurance. He would begin to plant doubts in my mind…
Bible: “He (Satan) was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” John 8:44
5 The Lie of a Comfortable Silence
Agnes: …so I must ask for no advice – tell no one. O these and numerous other temptations have best me, dear Papa…
Myself: …Now that I was certain of my salvation, Satan then tried to keep me quiet about it. By twisting Scripture, he reminded me that “pride goes before a fall” and it would be best for me to enjoy my salvation, but just don’t tell anyone else about it. His reasoning was that if I stood up and announced that I had security, what if these doubts resurfaced further down the road and I was proven wrong next time? How embarrassing would that be?! I had to admit, he had a point. And being my enemy, he knew my weakness was my pride. I didn’t want to tell everyone what I had discovered, only to be wrong and have to renounce it. …
Bible: “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to Him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:19, 20
6 The Faithfulness of Christ
Agnes: …and how can I thank God sufficiently that He has thus far kept me from falling back and has led me to strive on….
Myself: …I felt the Spirit speaking to my heart saying, “The same thing that proved you today will prove you tomorrow.” And at that moment Satan’s hold on me was finally shattered….
Bible: “I have not lost one of those You gave me.” John 18:9
Agnes: …I often feel a sweet peace staling over me making me so very happy…
Myself: …I cannot tell you the amount of peace that flooded my heart from this moment on….
Bible: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” Romans 5:1
Agnes: …my tastes, my hopes, my pleasures, are very different from what they were, I have determined to lead a new life by God’s help…
Myself: …It’s the strangest thing, but the things that I used to love, I was growing to hate, and the things that I had once hated, I was growing to love. It was impossible for me to hate my sin while I lived in darkness, just like it was impossible for me to have the Spirit of God living inside of me and not change into His image. Although I have come a long way in my walk, I feel that I must clarify that I do and can still sin. But when I do, I no longer love it. When I sin, it literally grieves the Spirit within me. To put it plainly, it feels dirty; it feels wrong. Remember, sanctification is a life-long process. No one will reach the end until they reach Heaven…
Bible: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” 2 Corinthians 5:17
What’s so important about picking apart Agnes’ testimony? Because she did an excellent job showing what conversion actually looks like. I once talked with someone who described the moment of conversion as warm, peaceful, and loving. Please understand me, I don’t bring this up to poke fun at her or anyone else. I only bring it up to make it clear what genuine conversion really looks like. The hour that the Spirit battles with the flesh is anything but an hour of peace, warmth, and love. Peace comes after conversion, but not during it. Love is present in God’s mercy and grace, but in the midst of the battlefield, the focus isn’t a feeling of love. The truth is, sometimes love hurts. I’ve always loved C.S. Lewis’s example of conversion in the life of Eustace from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace, who had turned into a dragon due to a greedy heart, had tried to cure himself. He washed and he scratched away his dragon skin, but it couldn’t get clean. He couldn’t get deep enough. Then Aslan pierced him with his nail, digging deep into the dragon flesh and cutting it away. Eustace talked about how it had hurt him at that moment but felt gloriously free just after. You see, when God works heart-deep it’s going to hurt. It feels like you’re being ripped apart as Eustice can clearly testify to.
If your testimony doesn’t include a recognition of sin, feeling wretched, a literal turning to Christ that resulted in peace, and a change of desires then you need to reexamine your salvation. Do not be alarmed to find Satan’s tricks and lies weaved into your experience, but hopefully you will also be able to proclaim Christ’s faithfulness to you both then and ever since then.
If you have some concerns and wish to discuss these things further, please email me. I’d love to talk with you.