Witnessing in a Desert Tavern

In the early years of the present century, my wife and I spent quite a little time in central California in gospel tent work, in holding cottage meetings, and in preaching in country schoolhouses and in any other place that was opened for testimony. In Kern City, now known as East Bakersfield, there were a number of French Roman Catholics who were brought to a saving knowledge of Christ. One of these, Mme. V——, was an exceptionally brilliant woman, of very high character, good education, and remarkably keen mind. M. V——, her husband, was a saloon-keeper, and after the wife’s conversion she naturally felt very much grieved that her support had to come from this line of business. She often spoke to her husband kindly about it and sought to lead him to Christ, but while he admired her greatly and had much respect for her judgment, it naturally irritated him that she should not approve of a business in which he had been engaged for many years and from which he had always made a good living and supported his family well. From time to time as I passed through the city, I would call upon the family, and I was always careful to go down to the saloon and have a personal visit with him rather than visit the home when he was not there. When both were present, they treated me with the utmost cordiality, and he never gave the least intimation of impatience with me because of my presentation of the gospel message, or because of the fact that his wife had been turned away from Romanism to accept Christ alone as her Saviour.

As time wore on, however, he became very restive, and finally decided to “pull up stakes,” as they say out West, and move to some part of the country where he hoped gospel preachers would never come. He sold his saloon and bought a cross-roads tavern, situated some thirty miles away from Bakersfield, right out in the heart of the desert. To this desolate place he took his wife and installed her as housekeeper and put her in charge of the kitchen, where she had the oversight of the preparation of excellent meals, served in true French style, which drew the cattlemen from all of the nearby ranches. Added to this, of course, were the attractions of the saloon and a dance hall, so that his place soon became a rendezvous for hundreds of young men seeking relaxation after their daily toil.

On my next visit, when I learned from Mme. V——’s sister of the change, I decided to go out and see them. I knew that I would not be a very welcome guest so far as M. V—— was concerned, and yet I felt sure he would be gentlemanly and courteous, as he always was, and I hoped my visit might be a cheer and a blessing to his wife, who, I understood, was feeling greatly cast down because of the circumstances in which she found herself.

I can see the surprised look on “mine host’s” face yet as the stage stopped in front of the wide porch and I stepped off with my bag. However, he came forward smiling and greeted me effusively, then called his wife, exclaiming, “I know she will be greatly cheered to see you again.” Sitting on the porch we had a happy time speaking of the things of the Lord, and at the same time she told me of the heavy burden resting upon her soul because she felt she was in circumstances unbecoming a Christian and yet over which she had practically no control. She was praying day and night that in some way the Lord might give a testimony to the frequenters of the tavern and also to her husband. I suggested at the supper table, where I was a guest of the house, that perhaps an hour might be set apart for a gospel meeting on the porch, or even in the large bar-room that evening, but M. V.—— assured me that that would never do. So I continued looking to the Lord for some other opening. About seven-thirty in the evening the cowboys began to come in from many miles around, until finally there must have been nearly a hundred horses tethered or hobbled outside, and that many men in the bar-room. I felt greatly burdened for them and continued to cry to God for an opportunity to witness for Christ among them. I was sitting on the porch when I heard a few notes played on a violin and caught a bar or two of an attempt at “There’s a Land that is Fairer than Day.” Then the cowboy who was trying to play exclaimed, “I wish some of you fellows could sing that old song, for if you could, I know I would be able to follow it on this fiddle. I have got an ear for music”

Now all my friends know that if there is one thing I cannot do, it is to sing; at least, in any proper way. But instantly I was on my feet and through the swinging door. Turning to the young man who had the violin in his hand, I said, “I’m not much of a singer, but I think I could at least carry the tune if you want to try to play the accompaniment.” “Fine,” he said, “go ahead, preacher.” And so, almost to my own amazement, and certainly not to the delectation of the ears of my audience, I started to sing the old song, and in a moment or two a dozen or more of the men who knew it took it up and sang until the very rafters were ringing with “In the Sweet By-and-by.” We sang all the verses, the fiddler accompanying in a perfectly furious manner, so that it seemed as though he

would break all the strings at any moment. When the song was over there was a great encore from the rest of the cowboys. They all shouted out, “Give us another, preacher; maybe you have got one that some of the rest of us know.” I said, “How about ‘Rock of Ages’?” Several intimated that they had known that years ago. So I lined it out verse by verse and we sang it through. Then came, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” I knew I did not dare attempt to preach, or M. V—— would feel that I was deliberately abusing his hospitality, since he had forbidden that, but I gave out the verses one after the other, and told a story in connection with the hymn, showing how a poor derelict had found Christ while it was being sung.

By this time the men were entering heartily into the whole thing and kept calling for one song after another. I do not remember the names of them all. At last M. V—— could stand it no longer. He and his bartender had done no business the whole evening and it was now ten o’clock. So he stepped out and exclaimed, “Now, boys, I think we have all had enough religion. Let us have a real, good, old-fashioned song, and I will dance while you sing.” He struck up “Little Annie Rooney.” The men took it up just about as heartily as the hymns, and he made rather a ludicrous figure as he gave a clog dance in the midst of them all. But no sooner was he finished than one of the men shouted out, “There’s nothing to that! Let’s have some more hymns while we have a chance. We don’t get a preacher very often. What about ‘How Firm a Foundation’? I remember that from when I was a kid; used to sing it in the choir back home.” And so we sang the grand old words to the air of “Portuguese Hymn,” and at the close another of the cowboys exclaimed, “I think we all ought to wind up with ‘AH Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.’ “ I wish my readers could have heard the way those men lifted old “Coronation” until the rafters rang again. Somebody called for a benediction. I offered prayer, and one by one the men came up to shake my hand and thank me, and then moved out into the darkness. Not one drink had been sold from the time the songs of the Lord began until the men left. As I stepped out of the bar-room I found Mme. V—— standing by the door, the tears streaming down her face. “Oh, thank God,” she exclaimed, “if my husband never hears another gospel message, he has heard it in those hymns tonight, and the testimony has gone out in his own bar-room to all those men.” M. V—— himself was very reserved and non-committal, but he gave no evidence of resentment. As I bade him good-bye the next morning, for he insisted that I should be his guest that night, I sought to give him a faithful word, for which he thanked me. I never saw him again. Shortly afterwards he was stricken with a malady from which he died, but I have always hoped that something might have reached his heart, and that some day I might see him and his dear wife, who has long since gone home to Heaven, in yon Glory Land.