Old Joe Conlee (1853-1929) was a dirty, ragged drunk. He spent every penny on liquor and begged on the street corners in Los Angeles for money to feed his addiction. Then, in 1897, a man from Conlee’s past recognized the emaciated beggar with the matted beard and invited him to his home. That encounter changed Conlee’s life.
Joseph Conlee didn’t start out on the streets. He was born into an evangelical Methodist family and was brought up in church and Sunday School on the prairies of Iowa. His parents encouraged him to enter the ministry, and he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa and a master’s degree from a Methodist seminary. He married a lovely Christian woman, Hattie, and accepted a small parish in Iowa. Conlee was a brilliant thinker and orator and soon moved up in the ministerial ranks.
Despite the outward appearance of spiritual maturity and success, Conlee’s heart was far from where it should have been. In seminary, his professors taught him that much within the Bible is mere superstition, encouraging him to read modern theologians who denigrated the authority of Scripture. He drifted away from the faith of his youth, even while pastoring a succession of growing Methodist churches in the Midwest and in California. He rejected what he called the “emotionalism” of his Methodist upbringing, instead opting to view things from a more “balanced” approach that would allow him to “see both sides of the question.” Instead of professing faith, he essentially became a neutral observer of faith.
Finally, when Conlee was pastor of the Methodist Church in Pomona, California, he told his wife that he could no longer stand his own hypocrisy. He had already denied that the virgin birth of Christ and the miracles in the Bible could have occurred. One Sunday, in the pulpit, he resigned his pastorate and told his congregation that he no longer believed the Bible.
The gifted writer transitioned easily to secular employment. He became the editor of the Santa Ana Herald and proceeded to establish his own newspapers, the East Los Angeles Exponent and the Covina Argus Independent. He sold these papers for a small fortune and became an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Examiner.
However, Conlee soon lost his newfound wealth and employment due to his growing dependence upon alcohol. The celebrated pastor, publisher, and journalist descended into inebriation, shuffling around in smelly rags. He became president of the Free Thinkers Association of California, an organization that promoted atheism. He gave lectures in which he would hold up his hand and challenge God to strike him dead. When nothing happened, he declared, “You see, friends, there is no God.”
But Conlee’s wife was a woman of prayer. She raised their five children without his love or support, and she prayed daily that her fallen husband would return to God. Then, in 1897 on a street corner in Los Angeles, Conlee encountered the man from his past who recognized him and invited him to his home. That man, a Christian doctor who had previously been a member of Conlee’s church, convinced Conlee that he needed a change in environment. Conlee agreed, and he ventured to Alaska, hoping to strike it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush.
In Alaska, Conlee discovered that life in the cabin “on the forty mile” — which described his location — was very lonely. He shared the small cabin with two other men — a Catholic and a spiritualist medium from San Francisco. Out of boredom, they began reading the small Bible that one of Conlee’s daughters had given to him. The medium became fascinated by the stories in the Bible, saying, “I had no idea there were things like that in the Bible.”
As they read the Bible more, their cursing and drunkenness became less frequent. Finally, after several months of Bible reading, the three men confessed to each other that they desperately wanted God to help them. They got on their knees and prayed loudly for hours, until they felt something happen on the inside of them. They then jumped up and started shouting, “Glory!”
Conlee returned to California in 1898, which was an answer to his wife’s prayers. He identified with the Pentecostal movement and ultimately became dean of the Bible college operated by the Bible Standard Church (now New Hope Christian College in Eugene, Oregon). Conlee’s testimony was widely distributed in the form of a tract, The Lonely Cabin on the 40 Mile, which was published by Gospel Publishing House.
What does the life of Joseph Conlee teach Christians today? Theological liberalism, which undermines the authority of Scripture, led Conlee to reject Christ, which resulted in the loss of his family, fortune, and career. Theological liberalism naturally leads to spiritual death and the decline of families and culture. The same forces are at work in the world today, attempting to infiltrate evangelical and Pentecostal churches, just as they did in many Methodist and other churches over 100 years ago. However, Scripture is God-breathed and continues to offer new life. Just as reading his Bible prompted Conlee to repent and regain his life, the gospel continues to offer hope and new life to those who have faith, repent, and cast their burdens on Christ.
Conlee’s story was published in the Dec. 19, 1936, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel. Read the article, “Christmas and Valentine’s Day in a Lonely Cabin,” by Charles S. Price, on pages 2-3 and 5 of the Dec. 19, 1936, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• “Tidings of Great Joy,” by Ernest S. Williams
• “How Far is Bethlehem,” by John Wright Follette
And many more!