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He came to California in 1855. The Pacific Conference was in session at Sacramento. It was announced that the new preacher from Texas would preach at night. The boat was detained in some way, and he just had time to reach the church, where a large and expectant congregation were in waiting. Below medium height, plainly dressed, and with a sort of peculiar shuffling movement as he went down the aisle, he attracted no special notice except for the profoundly reverential manner that never left him anywhere. But the moment he faced his audience and spoke, it was evident to them that a man of mark stood before them. They were magnetized at once, and every eye was fixed upon the strong yet benignant face, the capacious blue eyes, the ample forehead, and massive head, bald on top, with silver locks on either side. His tones in reading the Scripture and the hymns were unspeakably solemn and very musical. The blazing fervor of the prayer that followed was absolutely startling to some of the preachers, who had cooled down under the depressing influence of the moral atmosphere of the country. It almost seemed as if we could hear the rush of the pentecostal wind, and see the tongues of flame. The very house seemed to be rocking on its foundations. By the time the prayer had ended, all were in a glow, and ready for the sermon. The text I do not now call to mind, but the impression made by the sermon remains. I had seen and heard preachers who glowed in the pulpit - this man burned. His words poured forth in a molten flood, his face shone like a furnace heated from within, his large blue eyes flashed with the lightning of impassioned sentiment, and anon swam in pathetic appeal that no heart could resist. Body, brain, and spirit, all seemed to feel the mighty afflatus. His very frame seemed to expand, and the little man who had gone into the pulpit with shuffling step and downcast eyes was transfigured before us. When, with radiant face, upturned eyes, an upward sweep of his arm, and trumpet-voice, he shouted, "Hallelujah to God!" the tide of emotion broke over all barriers, the people rose to their feet, and the church reechoed with their responsive hallelujahs. The new preacher from Texas that night gave some Californians a new idea of evangelical eloquence, and took his place as a burning and a shining light among the ministers of God on the Pacific Coast.
"He is the man we want for San Francisco!" exclaimed the impulsive B. T. Crouch, who had kindled into a generous enthusiasm under that marvelous discourse.
He was sent to San Francisco. He was one of a company of preachers who have successively had charge of the Southern Methodist Church in that wondrous city inside the Golden Gate - Boring, Evans, Fisher, Fitzgerald, Gober, Brown, Bailey, Wood, Miller, Ball, Hoss, Chamberlin, Mahon, Tuggle, Simmons, Henderson. There was an almost unlimited diversity of temperament, culture, and gifts among these men; but they all had a similar experience in this, that San Francisco gave them new revelations of human nature and of themselves. Some went away crippled and scarred, some sad, some broken; but perhaps in the Great Day it may be found that for each and all there was a hidden blessing in the heart-throes of a service that seemed to demand that they should sow in bitter tears, and know no joyful reaping this side of the grave. O my brothers, who have felt the fires of that furnace heated seven times hotter than usual, shall we not in the resting-place beyond the river realize that these fires burned out of us the dross that we did not know was in our souls? The bird that comes out of the tempest with broken wing may henceforth take a lowlier flight, but will be safer because it ventures no more into the region of storms.
Fisher did not succeed in San Francisco, because he could not get a hearing. A little handful would meet him on Sunday mornings in one of the upper-rooms of the old City Hall, and listen to sermons that sent them away in a religious glow, but he had no leverage for getting at the masses. He was no adept in the methods by which the modern sensational preacher compels the attention of the novelty-loving crowds in our cities. An evangelist in every fiber of his being, he chafed under the limitations of his charge in San Francisco, and from time to time he would make a dash into the country, where, at camp-meetings and on other special occasions, he preached the gospel with a power that broke many a sinner's heart, and with a persuasiveness that brought many a wanderer back to the Good Shepherd's fold. His bodily energy, like his religious zeal, was unflagging. It seemed little less than a miracle that he could, day after day, make such vast expenditure of nervous energy without exhaustion. He put all his strength into every sermon and exhortation, whether addressed to admiring and weeping thousands at a great camp-meeting, or to a dozen or less "standbys" at the Saturday-morning service of a quarterly-meeting.
He had his trials and crosses. Those who knew him intimately learned to expect his mightiest pulpit efforts when the shadow on his face and the unconscious sigh showed that he was passing through the waters and crying to God out of the depths. In such experiences, the strong man is revealed and gathers new strength; the weak one goes under. But his strength was more than mere natural force of will, it was the strength of a mighty faith in God - that unseen force by which the saints work righteousness, subdue kingdoms, escape the violence of fire, and stop the mouths of lions.
As a flame of fire, Fisher itinerated all over California and Oregon, kindling a blaze of revival in almost every place he touched. He was mighty in the Scriptures, and seemed to know the Book by heart. His was no rose-water theology. He believed in a hell, and pictured it in Bible language with a vividness and awfulness that thrilled the stoutest sinner's heart; he believed in heaven, and spoke of it in such a way that it seemed that with him faith had already changed to sight. The gates of pearl, the crystal river, the shining ranks of the white-robed throngs, their songs swelling as the sound of many waters, the holy love and rapture of the glorified hosts of the redeemed, were made to pass in panoramic procession before the listening multitudes until the heaven he pictured seemed to be a present reality. He lived in the atmosphere of the supernatural; the spirit-world was to him most real.
"I have been out of the body," he said to me one day. The words were spoken softly, and his countenance, always grave in its aspect, deepened in its solemnity of expression as he spoke.
"How was that?" I inquired.
"It was in Texas. I was returning from a quarterly-meeting where I had preached one Sunday morning with great liberty and with unusual effect. The horses attached to my vehicle became frightened, and ran away. They were wholly beyond control, plunging down the road at a fearful speed, when, by a slight turn to one side, the wheel struck a large log. There was a concussion, and then a blank. The next thing I knew I was floating in the air above the road. I saw every thing as plainly as I see your face at this moment. There lay my body in the road, there lay the log, and there were the trees, the fence, the fields, and every thing, perfectly natural. My motion, which had been upward, was arrested, and as, poised in the air, I looked at my body lying there in the road so still, I felt a strong desire to go back to it, and found myself sinking toward it. The next thing I knew I was lying in the road where I had been thrown out, with a number of friends about me, some holding up my head, others chafing my hands, or looking on with pity or alarm. Yes, I was out of the body for a little, and I know there is a spirit-world."
His voice had sunk into a sort of whisper, and the tears were in his eyes. I was strangely thrilled. Both of us were silent for a time, as if we heard the echoes of voices, and saw the beckonings of shadowy hands from that Other World which sometimes seems so far away, and yet is so near to each one of us.
Surely you heaven, where angels see God's face,
Is not so distant as we deem
From this low earth. 'Tis but a little space,
'Tis but a veil the winds might blow aside;
Yes, this all that us of earth divide
From the bright dwellings of the glorified,
The land of which I dream.
But it was no dream to this man of mighty faith, the windows of whose soul opened at all times Godward. To him immortality was a demonstrated fact, an experience. He had been out of the body.
Intensity was his dominating quality. He wrote verses, and whatever they may have lacked of the subtle element that marks poetical genius, they were full of his ardent personality and devotional abandon. He compounded medicines whose virtues, backed by his own unwavering faith, wrought wondrous cures. On several occasions he accepted challenge to polemic battle, and his opponents found in him a fearless warrior, whose onset was next to irresistible. In these discussions it was no uncommon thing for his arguments to close with such bursts of spiritual power that the doctrinal duel would end in a great religious excitement, bearing disputants and hearers away on mighty tides of feeling that none could resist.
I saw in the Texas Christian Advocate an incident, related by Dr. F. A. Mood, that gives a good idea of what Fisher's eloquence was when in full tide:
"About ten years ago," says Dr. M., "when the train from Houston, on the Central Railroad, on one occasion reached Hempstead, it was peremptorily brought to a halt. There was a strike among the employees of the road, on what was significantly called by the strikers 'The Death-warrant.' The road, it seems, had required all of their employees to sign a paper renouncing all claims to moneyed reparation in case of their bodily injury while in the service of the road. The excitement incident to a strike was at its height at Hempstead when our train reached there. The tracks were blocked with trains that had been stopped as they arrived from the different branches of the road, and the employees were gathered about in groups, discussing the situation - the passengers peering around with hopeless curiosity. When our train stopped, the conductor told us that we would have to lie over all night, and many of the passengers left to find accommodations in the hotels of the town. It was now night, when a man came into the car and exclaimed, 'The strikers are tarring and feathering a poor wretch out here, who has taken sides with the road - come out and see it!' Nearly every one in the car hastened out. I had risen, when a gentleman behind me gently pulled my coat, and said to me, 'Sit down a moment.' He went on to say: 'I judge, sir, you are a clergyman; and I advise you to remain here. You may be put to much inconvenience by having to appear as a witness; in a mob of that sort, too, there is no telling what may follow.' I thanked him, and resumed my seat. He then asked me to what denomination I belonged, and upon my telling him I was a Methodist preacher, he asked eagerly and promptly if I had ever met a Methodist preacher in Texas by the name of Fisher, describing accurately the appearance of our glorified brother. Upon my telling him I knew him well, he proceeded to give the following incident. I give it as nearly as I can in his own words. Said he:
"'I am a Californian, have practiced law for years in that State, and, at the time I allude to, was district judge. I was holding court at [I cannot now recall the name of the town he mentioned], and on Saturday was told that a Methodist camp-meeting was being held a few miles from town. I determined to visit it, and reached the place of meeting in good time to hear the great preacher of the occasion - Father Fisher. The meeting was held in a river canyon. The rocks towered hundreds of feet on either side, rising over like an arch. Through the ample space over which the rocks hung the river flowed, furnishing abundance of cool water, while a pleasant breeze fanned a shaded spot. A great multitude had assembled - hundreds of very hard cases, who had gathered there, like myself, for the mere novelty of the thing. I am not a religious man - never have been thrown under religious influences. I respect religion, and respect its teachers, but have been very little in contact with religious things. At the appointed time, the preacher rose. He was small, with white hair combed back from his forehead, and he wore a venerable beard. I do not know much about the Bible, and I cannot quote from his text, but he preached on the Judgment. I tell you, sir, I have heard eloquence at the bar and on the hustings, but I never heard such eloquence as that old preacher gave us that day. At the last, when he described the multitudes calling on the rocks and mountains to fall on them, I instinctively looked up to the arching rocks above me. Will you believe it, sir? - as I looked up, to my horror I saw the walls of the canyon swaying as if they were coming together! Just then the preacher called on all that needed mercy to kneel down. I recollect he said something like this: "'Every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess;' and you might as well do it now as then." The whole multitude fell on their knees - every one of them. Although I had never done so before, I confess to you, sir, I got down on my knees. I did not want to be buried right then and there by those rocks that seemed to be swaying to destroy me. The old man prayed for us; it was a wonderful prayer! I want to see him once more; where will I be likely to find him?'
"When he had closed his narrative, I said to him: 'Judge, I hope you have bowed frequently since that day.' 'Alas! no, sir,' he replied; 'not much; but depend upon it, Father Fisher is a wonderful orator - he made me think that day that the walls of the canyon were falling.'"
He went back to Texas, the scene of his early labors and triumphs, to die. His evening sky was not cloudless - he suffered much - but his sunset was calm and bright; his waking in the Morning Land was glorious. If it was at that short period of silence spoken of in the Apocalypse, we may be sure it was broken when Fisher went in.