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Children's Story Garden  >  The Sermon in the Wilderness

Girl standing in wild undergrowth, casting milkwood seeds to the breeze.

The Children's Story Garden

The Sermon in the Wilderness


"MY friend, I have explained that I must have the horse, and that I will deposit with thee his full value until his safe return within a week's time."

The tall man spoke a trifle wearily, as though he had had almost enough of the argument. It was a hot day on the edge of the great Pennsylvania forest. The dust in front of the Rockville tavern still hung in a cloud where the coach, on its weekly arrival from the distant city, had stirred it a-fresh. The group of farmers, waiting for mail and news of the outside world, had watched with curious eyes this stranger descend from the high seat beside the driver. They had noted the broad-brimmed hat, white stock, carpet bag and closely fitting "store" clothes that marked him as city-bred, and the foreign way he used his hands when he talked. Their natural distrust had melted, however, before the radiant smile of more than ordinary good-will that lighted up the blue eyes and wrinkled the lean face as he strode briskly toward them crying, "The peace of God be with you, my friends! From which of you may I obtain a horse for a journey into the wilderness?"

Several minutes of parley followed between the innkeeper and the stranger, not a word being lost by the eager group of listeners. This man insisted that he must travel for three days straight into the heart of the forest "along a way that would be opened" to him. The innkeeper objected that there was only one trail a horse could travel, and this exceedingly dangerous, with treacherous fords and rocky pitfalls. Did the stranger know that the three-days' trail led only to a lumber camp, and that honest men who valued their lives or their purses did well to avoid this place? Adventurous explorers had been known to enter the dark forest, never to return. "Was the gentleman's business so imperative that he would risk his life?

"It is my Father's business, and the most imperative in the world," answered the stranger calmly. "Should a hundred men beset my path, I should go on unharmed. I have received my instructions from Above and go without fear, for the Spirit upholds me. So, if I may hire a horse of thee ——"

At length a wiry little mare was brought out and a dozen hands helped saddle her. The stranger, though urged to remain over night, refused courteously, explaining that he carried food and was accustomed to sleep in the open. As he paid for the mare and was about to ride away, the innkeeper inquired, "What is your name, stranger?"

"Stephen Grellet, of New York, and I go to carry the message of God to those who will listen."

As the little mare and the man climbed the rough path and disappeared into the birches that edged the dark pines, one man remarked, "A Quaker, I know by his speech, and a godly man. But he cannot melt the hearts of those men with his soft tongue."

Stephen Grellet found a single trail winding now along the slippery banks of a rushing stream, now over treacherous moss-covered rocks, skirting steep cliffs, and twice plunging through the river where the mare was forced to swim. During the first afternoon he passed several clearings with little cabins, where children ran out to wave and call to him; but after this he saw no work of human hands except the logs left by receding spring floods along the banks. Though no sounds except those of the forest came to his ears, he moved with a radiance in his eyes and with a smile upon his lips, as though he were listening to the cheery words of a dear companion.

Early in the afternoon of the third day — a breathless day, when even the birds were voiceless and the low, pulsing drone of insects made the silence seem only more profound—Stephen Grellet found the trail widened into a corduroy road where horses had evidently been used to drag the logs down to the river bank. He noticed a pile of rusty cans and a piece of chain hanging on a branch. Then rounding a huge rock, Stephen suddenly found himself on the edge of a space from which all trees and underbrush had been cleared. Facing him on the far side stood a large three-sided log shed; to the left and right of this shed were several rough, closed cabins, the bark from their slab sides hanging in tatters. A pile of black embers in the center of the space added a last touch of desolation.

Stephen Grellet reined in his mare in great perplexity. The message that had come to him had been very clear, and as was the habit of his life, he had followed the leading of the Spirit in perfect faith. He knew that he was to come to this spot in the heart of the wilderness where a gang of woodcutters, far-famed for their lawlessness, had been operating, and here he was to preach the simple and holy truth of God's presence in the forest. It had not once occurred to him that, as evidently was the case, the lumbermen might have moved on deeper into the forest. He knew without question, however, that this was the place where he must preach. Alighting, he tied his mare to a sapling, leaving her to browse the long wood grass, and made his way to the central cabin where rough tables stood on a slightly raised floor. Mounting this platform, he faced the forest, a strange inner light making his face glow. During his long life he had travelled to the far corners of the earth, defying dangers and discomforts in order to carry the simple assurance of God's love to all people; yet never had he felt more completely the Divine Presence flooding through and around his whole being than when now he stood alone in the deserted camp, surrounded by the mystery of the forest. The afternoon sun, slanting between the brown tree pillars, fell upon a gold-green mass of ferns at his feet, and the fronds quivered, stirred by some tiny wood beast scampering through the stems.

"Oh, God—thou art here—here" he cried, stretching wide his arms. As if in answer, a low murmur breathed in the tree-tops, swelling nearer, moving the pine needles softly. Then a loud rustle, perhaps of a startled animal behind the cabin, gave Stephen Grellet the sense that all around him were the invisible eyes and ears of the forest folk. To them and to God he spoke aloud, his words, blending the faith and joy of his own soul with the dignity of the pines, the grace of the fern fronds, the vitality of the little scurrying beasts, and over all the softly moving Presence in the wind-stirred branches.

At last, silent, with head bowed, he heard far off the leisurely, bell-like notes of the thrush thrilling through the forest spaces. With infinite peace in his heart he mounted the little mare and rode away, back to Rockville and the world.

Six years later Stephen Grellet was in London. He had gone there, as he had gone into the forests of Pennsylvania, guided only by the Spirit. He had gone down into the narrow, filthy streets, where men and women seemed too sodden to understand when he told them of the love of the Father, and he had preached in dark prisons where men looked at him dully when he spoke of the Divine Light. Yet whenever he ceased speaking there were always some who crowded nearer, seeking to know more of this Being who had sent him to show them the way out of their wretchedness.

Late one afternoon, smothered by the stagnant air of the slums, he walked on London Bridge as the setting sun was throwing a broken red path on the oily water of the Thames. He was very tired, for he threw all his strength into the struggle to show to others the Light that burned in his own soul. As he stood looking at the spires of the vast city against the glow of the evening sky, he prayed for faith and peace. Suddenly the roar of London died in his ears and he heard again the gentle sighing of the pines in the Pennsylvania forest and the clear notes of the thrush. Just as truly God was with him here —

The revery of Stephen Grellet was shattered by someone seizing him roughly by the elbow. He turned quickly to face a broad, muscular man, with rugged face and eyes of piercing eagerness, who cried, in great excitement, as he peered into Stephen Grellet's face, "I have got you at last! I have got you at last!"

Stephen returned the gaze calmly, but could see nothing familiar about the man except that he was certainly an American.

"Friend," he replied, "I think thou art mistaken."

"But I am not — I cannot be! I have carried every line of your face in my memory for six years. How I have longed to see it again!"

"Who, then, art thou, and where dost thou think we have met?'? inquired Stephen.

"Did you not preach in the great forest of Pennsylvania, three days' trip from the village of Rockville, six years ago last midsummer?"

"I did, but I saw no one there to listen."

The man held out his hands to Stephen Grellet — strong hands that had known hard toil. "I was there," he replied, his voice full of awe as the memory rose again before him. "I was the head of the woodmen who had deserted those shanties. We had moved on into the forest and were putting up more cabins to live in, when I discovered that I had left my lever at the old settlement. So, leaving my men at work, 1 went back alone for my tool. •As I approached the old place I heard a voice. Trembling and agitated, I drew near, and saw you through the chinks in the timber walls of our dining shanty. I listened to you, and something in your face or in your words, or both, stirred me as I had never been stirred before. I went back to my men. I was miserable for weeks;

I had no Bible, no book of any kind, no one to speak to about divine things.

"At last I found the strength I needed. I obtained a Bible;

I told my men the blessed news that God was near us, and we learned together to ask forgiveness and to lead better lives. Three of us became missionaries and went forth to tell thousands of others of the joy and faith you brought into the forest."

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In The Children's Story Garden. Stories collected by a committee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting — Anna Pettit Broomell, Emily Cooper Johnson, Elizabeth W. Collins, Alice Hall Paxson, Annie Hillborn, and Anna D. White. Illustrated by Katharine Richardson Wireman and Eugénie M. Wireman. Published in 1920 by J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia.

Notes and links

The Sermon in the Wilderness
The outline of this story is given in "Stephen Grellet, Ambassador for Christ" by William Kilching. Published for the Friends Tract Association, 1907. (Historical Notes.)