VALENTINE BURKE was his name. He was an old-time burglar, with his gun always ready for use. His picture adorned many a rogue's gallery, for Burke was a real burglar. He had courage born of many desperate "jobs." Twenty years of his life Burke had spent in prison, and had a terrible tongue for swearing, especially at police officers and jailers. But in spite of all his wickedness the Spirit of God awakened him; and this is the substance of the story of Burke as told by D.L. Moody to a friend.
It was years ago when Moody was young, and not long in his ministry. He went to St. Louis to lead a Gospel meeting, and one of the big dailies announced that it was going to print every word he said - sermon, prayer, exhortation. Moody said it made him quake inwardly when he read this; but he made up his mind that he would weave in a lot of Scripture for the paper to print, and that might count, if his own poor words failed. This he did, and his printed discourses were sprinkled with Bible texts. The paper tried its best at putting big, startling headlines at the top of the columns. The people were either going to hear Moody, or read what he said.
Burke was in the city jail, awaiting trial for some offence. Solitary confinement was wearing on him, and he spent his time railing at the guards, or cursing the sheriff on his daily rounds. It was Burke's delight to curse a sheriff. Somebody threw a daily into his cell, and the first thing that caught his eye was a big headline like this:
HOW THE JAILER AT PHILIPPI GOT CAUGHT
It was just what Burke wanted, and he sat down with a chuckle to read the story of the jailer's frustration. Somehow the reading had a strange look, out of the usual newspaper way. It was Moody's sermon of the night before. "What rot is this?" he said to himself.
PAUL AND SILAS
A Great Earthquake
What must I do to be saved?
"Have the papers gone to printing such stuff?" He looked at the date. Yes, it was the morning paper, fresh from the press. He threw it down with an oath, and strode about his cell like a caged lion. After a time he picked up the paper and read the sermon. The restless fit grew on him. Again and again he picked up the paper and read its blessed story. It was then a strange something, from whence he knew not, came into the burglar's heart, and cut him to the quick.
"What does this mean?" he said to himself, "For over twenty years I've been a burglar and jail-bird, and I never felt like this before. What is it to be saved anyway? I've lived a dog's life, and I'm getting tired of it. If there is such a God as that man is telling about, I believe I'll find out, if it kills me to do it."
Away toward midnight after hours of bitter remorse over his wasted life, and with many broken prayers, the first uttered since he was a child at his mother's knee, Burke learned that there is a God. One who is able and willing to blot out the darkest record at one stroke. He found out the wondrous secret of the cross, how that on it Jesus Christ bore his many sins and put them all away forever. That night God saved the burglar; he believed the word of Christ and received everlasting life. Then he waited for morning, a new creature, crying and laughing by turns.
Next morning when the guard came around, Burke had a pleasant word for him, and the man eyed him with wonder. When the sheriff came, Burke greeted him as a friend, and told him how he had been led to Christ by reading Moody's sermon.
"Jim," said the sheriff to the guard, "you'd better keep an eye on Burke, he's playing the 'pious dodge', and the first chance he gets he'll be out of here." When the case came to trial, it failed through some legal entanglement, and he was released.
Friendless in a great city, known only as a daring criminal, he had a hard time for months. Men looked upon his face when he asked for work, and upon its evidence turned him away. But he was brave, and sustained by the mighty power of God he struggled on. Seeing how his sin-marred face told against him, he asked the Lord "if He wouldn't make him a better looking man, so he could get an honest job." And God answered his prayer, for Moody said that a year from that time, when he met Burke in Chicago , he was as fine a looking man as he knew. That was of the Lord, who did it for him in answer to his child-like faith.
After seeking in vain for a long time to find steady work, Burke went to New York , hoping, far from his old haunts, to find peace and honest labor. He did not succeed, and came back to St. Louis , much discouraged, but still kept by the God who had found him in the prison cell.
One day there came a message from the sheriff that he was wanted at the courthouse, and he went with a heavy heart.
"Some old case they've got against me," he said, "but if I'm guilty, I'll tell them so; I'm through with lying."
The sheriff greeted him kindly. "Where have you been, Burke?"
"In New York ."
"What were you doing there?"
"Trying to find an honest job."
"Have you kept a good grip on the religion you told me about?"
"Yes," answered Burke, looking him straight in the eye. "I've had a hard time, sheriff, but I haven't lost my faith."
"Burke, I had you shadowed every day you were in New York . I suspected your religion was a fraud, but I want to say to you that I know you have lived an honest Christian life, and I have sent for you to offer you a deputy-ship under me. You can begin at once."
From that time the tide began to turn. He set his face like a flint. Steadily and with dogged faithfulness Burke went about his duties, until the best men in the city came to know and recognize him. Moody was passing through, and stopped off to meet Burke. He was found in a room upstairs in the courthouse, serving as a trusted guard over a bag of diamonds. He sat with a bag of gems in his lap and a gun on the table. There was $60,000.00 worth of diamonds in the sack.
"Moody," he said, "See what the grace of God can do for a burglar. Look at this sack of diamonds! The sheriff picked me out of his force to guard it."
He cried like a child as he held up the stones.
Sometime after that, the Christians of St. Louis made ready for the coming of an evangelist, who was to lead a meeting, but he was prevented from coming. There was sore disappointment, until someone suggested that they send for Valentine Burke to carry on the meeting. He led night after night, and many sinners were saved from lives of crime and shame by the wonderful grace of God.
Burke's gentle and faithful life of service was greatly blessed of God in the city where he had been such a sinner. And when at last his work was done and his life was ended, the rich and the poor, the saints and the sinners came to the funeral. And now there are some whose hearts soften with a strange tenderness when the name of the burglar is recalled. And now Moody and Burke are met nevermore to be separated. It is a blessed story of God's mercy and salvation, of his power to save sinners.
"Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord:
though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool."