R J Johnston died at the age of 29. He had been active in preaching the gospel, and in 1889 sailed to Africa to serve the Lord in that continent. He died on the shores of Africa just as his ship arrived. Below there is a record of his conversion and a letter referring to gospel work in which he had been involved around the Drumnacanver district of N Ireland, before there was an assembly in that area. He had lived a short distance from the existing hall and was in fellowship in the Keady assembly. The letter, which is printed as it was received, is of interest as it is effectively a historical document which gives a flavour of gospel work at that time. It highlights the differences between that aspect of the Lords work then and now and shows how the Spirit moved in conviction and blessing in those days. This information was supplied by Mr Gordon Flanigan.
When I was a lad, going to Sunday School, I used to have serious impressions about my soul and where I would spend eternity. My plan then of preparing for heaven was the "doing" system, entirely ignorant of the new birth; and well-meaning people, for want of knowledge helped me on in this delusion. My parents who were, in their way, religious (but have since been converted to God), endeavoured to bring us up in the right way, and to comply with the customs of our denomination. When I was about the age of 7 they said, "Now, R J, you must go next time to the communicants class, and go forward to the sacrament", as they called it; and I, willing to do the right thing, consented to their request, and accordingly went to the class with a number of other boys like myself, who, for the first time, were going to become members of the "church".
For a few Lords Days we were taught everything that was considered necessary for communicants, in order to be admitted to the communion. And one of our leading teachers, in whom I had then a good deal of confidence, told us that we were about to take a vow that we were on the Lords side. In my simplicity I believed I was, and this gave me an amount of satisfaction for the time being. For a week or so before the sacrament day, and a week or two after it, I was pretty high in my own estimation, and tried to keep as straight as possible.
A few months had passed when I heard of two men who had come to the country to preach, who said they were saved, and that people who were saved knew it. I thought this was a very strange sort of preaching, for I had been taught to do the best I could, then hope for heaven in the end. However, I went to hear "these men", as they were termed, and one thing which impressed me that night was:
Ye must be born again,
For so hath God decreed
No reformation will suffice,
Tis life poor sinners need.
I did not try to get rid of it. I began searching the Bible, and in Galatians 3.10 I saw Gods sentence against the lawbreakers: "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them". For over a week I knew the wrath of God was abiding upon me, and that had I dropped dead I would have been in hell for ever - lost - the thought of which I could not bear. But thank God for the wondrous grace that led me to Christ through Isaiah 53.5. I read that "He was wounded for our transgressions", and, "With his stripes we are healed". Over seven years have passed since then, and I am saved to-day, and safe for eternity, all through the precious, precious blood.
I have scarcely room to say a little word to the reader, but I would say this. Anything short of being born again will leave you in the blackness of darkness for eternity.
Letter to Thomas Gibson, a friend who emigrated to New Zealand
I received your letter yesterday and was glad to hear from you. I was up at home this last week, or rather twelve days, and had meetings every night in Francies barn. It was packed full every night. On Sunday night we had not room for them all. We had to open the large doors and put up a ladder and sticks to form a tent and make the house so much larger; seven or eight professed to be converted. Andy Armstrongs wife, William Runny, a daughter of I Foster, Lizza McMullan, a boy named Sproll from Brookly, David McIlrath, and a few more. There was Lizza Dodds and some I am not sure about, but John Gibson, you know him, and J Runnys name was mentioned for fellowship last Lords Day. They were both up at all the meetings.
Lettesia was at two of them, was very anxious, was crying one night but thank God for the breaking down that there was - hardly one there who was not anxious. Sam McIlrath and Billy Dodds were there nearly every night. Billy never missed a night; at the last he began to give out hymns in the after meeting. Tom Dodds was very much broken down and made a sort of a profession on the last night. It was on Wednesday night there was a sitting of the patch lodge but not one from that side went, John was saying that they would not have many. The devil is losing ground there, praise God. The meeting commenced at half past seven on the last night; the house was fairly filled at eleven o clock. The two nights before that it was half past ten when we got scattered. Wednesday night a row had to stand against the back to leave room, and the power of God was realised by most of us. Maria Lawson took me round to the door and wanted to know how she would do with John. All I could tell her that our God is a living God and can overturn all difficulties. J Gracey is aroused up and thinking of coming out to Jesus.
Mary came up on Tuesday night and I had to come down to Belfast on Thursday. I was very sorry leaving in the middle of it, James McKinley came down every night. He will be there on Sunday evening again. Last Sunday we had a meeting in James Dodds at Brookly at half past four oclock, and Francies at half past eight but Francies was the best. I have not been at my work these three weeks but I mean, if the Lord will, to commence on Monday. I dont know yet, but God knows all about it and I have said, "Thy will be done".
I am in His hands, redeemed by Himself, He has the best right to me and I am willing, thank God, to be led by Himself. I suppose Willie and Isa are with you now. Saturday night Jammie McKinley was not down and we had a meeting at Francies for all who liked to tell their conversion. Joe McCall, your John, our James, Tom McMullan. Mr Foster told publicly how the Lord saved them and invited others to the same Saviour. Then after that I spoke from "Behold the Lamb of God". It was a very good night. The Lord gave blessing and it delights our hearts when we see sinners saved.
I was glad to hear about you having grace to testify of Jesus power to save over there and also of that one you spoke about who received Gods testimony about Him. Thank God for one - one soul from hell is worth worlds. We dont esteem the value of one soul as we should, Thank God I am saved from the burnings of hell; from the weeping and wailing, not only that, but saved, to be with Jesus in the glory. Were the whole realm of nature mine etc. I have told you all I know. I will close with love in Christ to you all, Willie, Isa and yourself.
From your brother in Him who will not tarry,
R J Johnston