As a boy John Knox was quick and impulsive with a sense of humor that made him a favorite with his companions. Parental restraint kept him in bounds and his religious training had its effect. The Sunday School and church services occupied his time on the Lord’s day. No whistling or amusement of any kind was allowed.
John Knox was made a Sunday School teacher and he felt it quite a responsibility to be an instructor of the young. He had an examination before the minister and elders, and passed as a fit person to take the communion and, with much reverence, he sat down with others and partook of the bread and wine.
This religious devotion increased for he began to visit the sick. He read the Scriptures to them and then got down on his knees and prayed for them. No doubt to many he appeared a very promising young man and one who might shine some day as a minister of their church.
The religious part was only one side of the life of John Knox McEwen. He was still in the world and enjoyed its pleasures. Like his father, he was very musical and used his talent not only in the church but in many social gatherings which made him very popular. His brother, William R., said to me one day, “John Knox delighted to walk before the Orange procession on the Twelfth of July morning playing his fife for the Orangemen.” At twenty-one years of age he was pretty well satisfied with his religious attainments but was still a stranger to God.
The year 1874 was marked by a special visitation of God in the city of Belfast. Through the American evangelists, Moody and Sankey, many souls were saved and the interest spread to towns and villages around. Messrs. James Campbell and James W. Smith had also seen the power of God manifested in several places for over a year. The preachers opened up a work in Dromore. Very bitter opposition marked the meetings from the start until, as Mr. McEwen described it, “an uproar was heard all over the village, stones and mud flew in all directions.” Just as in the city of Ephesus long ago, when the Gospel was preached and many believed and confessed Christ, the evil books were publicly burned and “so mightily grew the Word of God and prevailed,” Acts 19:20. But when the devil raged and the multitude came together, we read in the thirty-second verse, “Some therefore cried one thing and some another: for the assembly was confused; and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together.”
Confusion also was seen in Dromore but there were many trophies of grace. The great change wrought in many lives was so convincing that many proclaimed, “We never saw it on this fashion.” The Word of God proclaimed by these two Scotsmen was clothed with power. As someone said, “Their preaching made the stoutest heart to tremble,” and many believed and turned to the Lord.
John Knox McEwen attended the meetings and was moved by the Holy Ghost—he had a terrible awakening. His religious activities looked to him now as “filthy rags.” He often said, “I was nothing but a Christless sinner on the way down to hell.” This startling discovery was a surprise to all who knew him but a greater surprise to himself. A young man who was a companion of his and a skeptic was awakened and saved at the meetings. His life before conversion was well known to John Knox, but the marvelous change wrought in his friend made McEwen even more sure that he was building on the sand.
However, the happy day dawned upon him. Using his own words again, “I began to examine the foundation on which I was resting my soul for eternity and found it nothing but sinking, shifting sand. The Word of God took every prop from me and I was left without a shred to hide me from a sin-hating God. Standing on the brink of an eternal hell, with nothing but the thread of life to keep me out of it, not knowing what to do or where to turn I was pointed to that verse which has given many a poor sinner rest to their weary soul—John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ Blessed words, yes! Those who are saved alone know the blessedness of such a message.”
It was in a cottage meeting the great transaction took place. The words of John 3 had fallen as balm upon his guilty conscience. The newborn soul arose and, walking around that farmer’s kitchen, his tongue seemed loosed as he sang:
Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Safe on His gentle breast,
There by His love o’ershaded,
Sweetly my soul shall rest.
The peace and joy that filled his heart was boundless. It was truly to him the beginning of days and the first month of a new year.
When he entered the barn where James W. Smith was holding forth the Word of Life on the following night, a large crowd was listening to the wonderful story of grace. The preacher stopped, called out to the young man who had just come in, “John, are you saved yet?” He was rather startled by such a question in such a public manner. He replied, “Yes, Mr. Smith, thank God I am saved.” “Come up here and tell us about it.” The newborn soul ascended the platform and, with shaking body and trembling voice, he told how God saved him.
The inward change wrought in the heart of this young man was wonderful. Peace with God was to him like heaven already begun. There was a hunger now for the Word of God, a thirst for things unseen. This became like the manna that fell on the desert sand for Israel and the water from the great depths. Nourished and refreshed by God’s great provision, he felt a constraining power to testify boldly to relatives, friends, and neighbors as to what the Lord had done for him.
Although his family circle were by profession members of a church that had light from God in the past and had suffered persecution, yet this living manifestation of Christ seen in this newborn soul drew forth bitter opposition. He was censured for what they called presumption in being sure he was saved and ready for heaven.
Believer’s baptism was taught as the command from the risen Lord in Matthew 28. This caused further opposition and made the Covenanters and Presbyterians resent such teaching, calling it utterly false. But many who had been saved during the great revival in 1859 and subsequent years, were being greatly revived in soul and enlightened as the Scriptures of truth were opened up by these servants of Christ.
These people declared openly that infant sprinkling was not found in the Bible and that many were being deceived by that doctrine. One evening in the open river many were “baptized, both men and women.” James W. Smith stood in the water and one after another went down and were baptized. It came to John Knox McEwen’s turn. Mr. Smith addressed him, “John, you have died with Christ and this is the day of your burial: buried to the world, its sins, its pleasures, its ambitions, and its politics, but raised to serve Him in newness of life.”
There are few we have ever known who so literally fulfilled what was shown forth in figure in his baptism. A clean cut from the world in all its forms and ways and a living union with Christ in glory. This continued with unabated zeal for seventy years until the earthly tabernacle was taken down.