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He belonged to the Church militant. In looks he was a cross between a grenadier and a Trappist. But there was more soldier than monk in his nature. He was over six feet high, thin as a bolster, and straight as a long-leaf pine. His anatomy was strongly conspicuous. He was the boniest of men. There were as many angles as inches in the lines of his face. His hair disdained the persuasions of comb or brush, and rose in tangled masses above a head that would have driven a phrenologist mad. It was a long head in every sense. His features were strong and stern, his nose one that would have delighted the great Napoleon - it was a grand organ. You said at once, on looking at him, Here is a man that fears neither man nor devil. The face was an honest face. When you looked into those keen, dark eyes, and read the lines of that stormy countenance, you felt that it would be equally impossible for him to tell a lie or to fear the face of man.
This was John Sanders, one of the early California Methodist preachers. He went among the first to preach the gospel to the gold-hunters. He got a hearing where some failed. His sincerity and brainpower commanded attention, and his pluck enforced respect. In one case it seemed to be needed.
He was sent to preach in Placerville, popularly called in the old days, "Hangtown." It was then a lively and populous place. The mines were rich, and gold-dust was abundant as good behavior was scarce. The one church in the town was a "union church," and it was occupied by Sanders and a preacher of another sect on alternate Sundays. All went well for many months, and if there were no sinners converted in that camp, the few saints were at peace. It so happened that Sanders was called away for a week or two, and on his return he found that a new preacher had been sent to the place, and that he had made an appointment to preach on his (Sanders's) regular day. Having no notion of yielding his rights, Sanders also inserted a notice in the papers of the town that he would preach at the same time and place. The thing was talked about in the town and vicinity, and there was a buzz of excitement. The miners, always ready for a sensation, became interested, and when Sunday came the church could not hold the crowd. The strange preacher arrived first, entered the pulpit, knelt a few moments in silent devotion, according to custom, and then sat and surveyed the audience which was surveying him with curious interest. He was a tall, fine-looking man, almost the equal of Sanders in height, and superior to him in height. He was a Kentuckian originally, but went from Ohio to California, and was a full-grown man, of the best Western physical type. In a little while Sanders entered the church, made his way through the dense crowd, ascended the pulpit, cast a sharp glance at the intruder, and sat down. There was a dead silence. The two preachers gazed at the congregation; the congregation gazed at the preachers. A pin might have been heard to fall. Sanders was as imperturbable as a statue, but his lips were pressed together tightly, and there was a blaze in his eyes. The strange preacher showed signs of nervousness, moving his hands and feet, and turning this way and that in his seat. It was within five minutes of the time for opening the service. The stranger rose, and was in the act of taking hold of the Bible that lay on the cushion in front of him, when Sanders rose to his full height, stepped in front of him, and darting lightning from his eyes as he looked him full in the face, said:
"I preach here today, sir!"
That settled it. There was no mistaking that look or tone. The tall stranger muttered an inarticulate protest and subsided. Sanders proceeded with the service, making no allusion to the difficulty until it was ended. Then he proposed a meeting of the citizens the next evening to adjudicate the case. The proposal was acceded to. The church was again crowded; and though ecclesiastically Sanders was in the minority, with the genuine love for fair-play which is a trait of Anglo-Saxon character, he was sustained by an overwhelming majority. It is likely, too, that his plucky bearing the, day before made him some votes. A preacher who would fight for his rights suited those wild fellows better than one who would assert a claim that he would not enforce. Sanders preached to larger audiences after this episode in his "Hangtown" pastorate.
It was after this that he went out one day to stake off a lot on which he proposed to build a house of worship. It was near the Roman Catholic Church. A zealous Irishman, who was a little more than half drunk, was standing by. Evidently he did not like any such heretical movements, and, after Sanders had placed the stake in the earth, the Hibernian stepped forward and pulled it up.
"I put the stake back in its place. He pulled it up again. I put it back. He pulled it up again. I put it back once more. He got fiery mad by this time, and started at me with an ax in his hand. I had an ax in my hand, and as its handle was longer than his, I cut him down."
The poor fellow had waked up the fighting preacher, and fell before the sweep of Sanders's ax. He dodged as the weapon descended, and saved his life by doing so. He got an ugly wound on the shoulder, and kept his bed for many weeks. When he rose from his bed he had a profound regard for Sanders, whose grit excited his admiration. There was not a particle of resentment in his generous Irish heart. He became a sober man, and it was afterward a current pleasantry among the "boys" that he was converted by the use of the carnal weapon wielded by that spunky parson. Nobody blamed Sanders for his part in the matter. It was a fair fight, and he had the right on his side. Had he shown the white feather, that would have damaged him with a community in whose estimation courage as the cardinal virtue. Sanders was popular with all classes, and Placerville remembers him to this day. He was no rose-water divine, but thundered the terrors of the law into the ears of those wild fellows with the boldness of a John the Baptist. Many a sinner quaked under his stern logic and fiery appeals, and some repented.
I shall never forget a sermon he preached at San Jose. He was in bad health, and his mind was morbid and gloomy. His text was, Who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered? (Job ix. 4.) The thought that ran through the discourse was the certainty that retribution would overtake the guilty. God's law will be upheld. It protects the righteous, but must crush the disobedient. He swept away the sophisms by which men persuade themselves that they can escape the penalty of violated law; and it seemed as if we could almost hear the crash of the tumbling wrecks of hopes built on false foundations. God Almighty was visible on the throne of his power, armed with the even thunders of his wrath.
"Who hath defied God and escaped?" he demanded, with flashing eyes and trumpet voice. And then he recited the histories of nations and men that had made the fatal experiment, and the doom that had whelmed them in utter ruin.
"And yet you hope to escape!" he thundered to the silent and awestruck men and women before him. "You expect that God will abrogate his law to please you; that he will tear down the pillars of his moral government that you may be saved in your sins! O fools, fools, fools! there is no place but hell for such a folly as this!"
His haggard face, the stern solemnity of his voice, the sweep of his long arms, the gleam of his deep-set eyes, and the vigor of his inexorable logic, drove that sermon home to the listeners.
He was the keenest of critics, and often merciless. He was present at a camp-meeting near San Jose, but too feeble to preach. I was there, and disabled from, the effects of the California poison-oak. That deceitful shrub! Its pink leaves smile at you as pleasantly as sin, and, like sin, it leaves its sting. The "preachers' tent" was immediately in the rear of "the stand," and Sanders and I lay inside and listened to the sermons. He was in one of his caustic moods, and his comments were racy enough, though not helpful to devotion.
"There! he yelled, clapped his hands, stamped, and - said nothing!"
The criticism was just: the brother in the stand was making a great noise, but there was not much meaning in what he said.
"He made one point only - a pretty good apology for Lazarus's poverty."
This was said at the close of an elaborate discourse on "The Rich Man and Lazarus," by a brother who sometimes got "in the brush."
"He isn't touching his text - he knows no more theology than a guinea-pig. Words, words, words!"
This last criticism was directed against a timid young divine, who was badly frightened, but who has since shown that there was good metal in him. If he had known what was going on just behind him, he would have collapsed entirely in that tentative effort at preaching the gospel.
Sanders kept up this running fire of criticism at every service, cutting to the bone, at every blow, and giving me new light on homiletics, if he did not promote my enjoyment of the preaching. He had read largely and thought deeply, and his incisive intellect had no patience with what was feeble or pointless.
Disease settled upon his lungs, and he rapidly declined. His strong frame grew thinner and thinner, and his mind alternated between moods of morbid bitterness and transient buoyancy. As the end approached, his bitter moods were less frequent, and an unwonted tenderness came into his words and tones. He went to the Lokonoma Springs, in the hills of Napa county, and in their solitudes he adjusted himself to the great change that was drawing near. The capacious blue sky that arched above him, the sighing of the gentle breeze through the solemn pines, the repose of the encircling mountains, bright with sunrise, or purpling in the twilight, distilled the soothing influences of nature into his spirit, and there was a great calm within. Beyond those California hills the hills of God rose in their supernal beauty before the vision of his faith, and when the summons came for him one midnight, his soul leaped to meet it in a ready and joyous response. On a white marble slab, at the "Stone Church," in Suisun Valley, is this inscription:
Rev. John Sanders.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivereth him out of them all.
The spring flowers were blooming on the grave when I saw it last.