My first sermons were to me the most tremendous endeavours of my life, because I felt the awful responsibility of standing in a pulpit, knowing that a great many people would be influenced by what I said concerning God, or the soul, or the great future.
When I first began to preach, I was very cautious lest I should be misrepresented, and guarded the subject on all sides. I got beyond that point. I found that I got on better when, without regard to consequences, I threw myself upon the hearts and consciences of my hearers.
In those early days of my pastoral experience I saw how men reason themselves into scepticism. I knew what it was to have a hundred nights poured into one hour.
I remember one infidel book in the possession of my student companion. He said, “DeWitt, would you like to read that book?” “Well,” said I, “I would like to look at it.” I read it a little while. I said to him, “I dare not read that book; you had better destroy it. I give you my advice, you had better destroy it. I dare not read that book. I have read enough of it.” “Oh,” he said, “haven’t you a stronger mind than that? Can’t you read a book you don’t exactly believe, and not be affected by it?” I said, “You had better destroy it.” He kept it. He read it until he gave up the Bible; his belief in the existence of a God, his good morals; until body, mind and soul were ruined—and he went into the insane asylum. I read too much of it. I read about fifteen or twenty pages of it. I wish I had never read it. It never did me any good; it did me harm. I have often struggled with what I read in that book. I rejected it, I denounced it, I cast it out with infinite scorn, I hated it; yet sometimes its caricature of good and its eulogium of evil have troubled me.
With supreme gratitude, therefore, I remember the wonderful impression made upon me, when I was a young man, of the presence of a consecrated human being in the pulpit.
It was a Sabbath evening in spring at “The Trinity Methodist Church,” Jersey City. Rev. William P. Corbit, the pastor of that church, in compliment to my relatives, who attended upon his services, invited me to preach for him. I had only a few months before entered the Gospel ministry, and had come in from my village settlement to occupy a place in the pulpit of the great Methodist orator. In much trepidation on my part I entered the church with Mr. Corbit, and sat trembling in the corner of the “sacred desk,” waiting for the moment to begin the service. A crowded audience had assembled to hear the pastor of that church preach, and the disappointment I was about to create added to my embarrassment.