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William Black by John Maclean


A memorable year for Methodism and William Black was 1791, as on the second day of March of that year John Wesley passed away at City Road, London, surrounded by preachers and friends. Eight years before the young minister in Nova Scotia wrote to the aged man of God entreating him to send out Missionaries, and also expressing his desire to spend a year or two at Kingswood School, and the correspondence then begun was continued until death. With the familiarity of an old man toward a youth, William Black poured out his heart in his letters to his venerable leader, who in turn gave him counsel in his difficulties, sent him books, and treated him as a son, closing his letters with |My Dear Billy.| There would be a place for him in Kingswood School, but he was not urged to attend, as Wesley laid greater stress on piety than learning, and Nova Scotia could not well spare, not even for a year or two, such a brave and intrepid soul as William Black.

It was natural that the intercourse should exert a strong and abiding influence upon the mind and heart of the missionary, who sent reports of his work, sought advice amid the difficulties which confronted him, and spoke of his spiritual yearnings with the familiarity of a little child with its parent. John Wesley became the model upon which William Black formed his habits and character, and he succeeded well, in a country with greater privations and more difficulties in travelling than in old England. Like the great itinerant, he rose early in all seasons, preached every day, as often as time and distance allowed, kept a journal in which were recorded the notable events that happened in his work, or person, and as he rode over the rough roads, the broad sky became his study where he read many volumes every year. These were not done through any servile imitation, but because of an admiration and unconscious hero worship which compelled him to follow where he admired. Wesley was to William Black a saint, an ecclesiastical statesman, an acute and learned theologian, a great winner of souls, and above all a personal friend, and when he died his loss was greater than he cared to express.

With the passing of the Founder of Methodism, there were grave fears of disagreement among the preachers throughout the Connexion, and William Black shared in the general feeling, but Dr. Coke gave him peace, in his account of the harmony of the Conference following Wesley's death.

At the Conference held in Baltimore in November of the following year, several preachers were secured for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and William Black who had gone to the Conference, for the purpose of meeting Dr. Coke, was induced at the doctor's request to take charge of the missions in the West India Islands, in succession to Mr. Harper, who was elected Presiding Elder of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland. Leaving his family behind, William Black accompanied Dr. Coke to the West Indies, visiting the islands, where they found wickedness and bigotry so rampant that one of the Methodist missionaries was in prison for preaching before he had resided there twelve months, and in some other places the society had dwindled on account of terrible persecution.

The climate of the West Indies was so severe upon his nervous system that William Black had serious doubts as to his duty in remaining in the tropical clime, however he was induced by Dr. Coke to become Presiding Elder of the Leeward Islands and to reside at St. Kitts. After visiting the sphere of his labors and meeting the ministers at the Conference at Antigua, of whom there were thirteen present, he returned to Nova Scotia for his family. During this visit to the Province he found that the cause at Liverpool was in such a prosperous state, that there was great need of a place of worship, and with his accustomed zeal and determination, he started a subscription list and in a few days secured three hundred pounds. His return to the West Indies with his family was signalized by strenuous efforts for the salvation of the people, but his stay was destined to be short, as Dr. Coke became convinced that owing to changes in the Islands, and the importance of the work in Nova Scotia, it was necessary for William Black to take charge of his old field. Accordingly he was recalled after spending one year as Presiding Elder in the West Indies, and singular to relate, upon the day that Dr. Coke wrote his instructions for removal, the ministers were assembled in District Meeting at Windsor, and they passed a resolution asking that William Black be allowed to assume his position as General Superintendent of the Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland.

No sooner did he arrive and was reinstated among his brethren, than he threw himself with increased vigor into the work of consolidating and extending the congregations. Prince Edward Island was visited, where a cordial reception was granted him at Charlottetown, large congregations being present when he preached. At Tryon there had been a gracious revival two years previous under the ministry of William Grandine, the results of which were still apparent, the nucleus of a congregation had been formed at Charlottetown by a class led by Joshua Newton, Collector on the Island, which met at the house of Benjamin Chappel, and when William Black waited upon the Governor, Colonel Fanning, to thank him for the use of the Church, he spent an agreeable hour, conversing freely on the advantages of religion to individuals, and society in general, and the Governor closed the interview by expressing his friendship, with a promise of assistance in building a Methodist Church. Methodism had grown in the provinces during the years since it was established, so that in 1794, there were eleven hundred accredited members, not including the number of adherents who had not united with the church.

The journal in which William Black recorded his personal experiences, and gave a faithful account, though brief, of the extraordinary events which happened in his travels, the notable conversions, revival services and progress of the kingdom of God closes with the year 1794. Limited as it is in the range of its subjects, it was characteristic of the man whose sole aim was the conversion of sinners and the upbuilding of the saints. He was too busy to continue the record, and though there were many things coming under the range of his observation worthy of preservation, he was too modest to think of writing his reflections with any view to publication.

The year 1800 was spent in England, where he attended the British Wesleyan Conference which met in London, and during his visit he made a deep and lasting impression upon the hearts of many, by his zeal and modesty. He was welcomed as the founder of Methodism in British North America, and had the opportunity of meeting some of the leaders of British Methodism, especially Jabez Bunting, with whom he had several interesting and profitable conversations, and who remained till death one of his most devoted friends. In one of his letters to him while he was attending the Conference, Bunting wrote, |My letter will, at least, be accepted as an expression of that warmth of Christian affection and esteem which I shall ever feel toward you. Unworthy as I am of your friendship, I trust that a blessed eternity will confirm and perfect the attachment which my present short acquaintance with you has inspired and that, however separated on earth, we shall together spend an everlasting existence.| Two years later in another letter he says, |I often recollect with pleasure the agreeable and profitable moments we spent together at Oldham and Manchester, during your last visit to England, and am thankful to God that ever I knew you on earth, because I am persuaded that through his abundant mercy in Christ Jesus, I shall hereafter know you in heaven, and there be permitted to resume and perfect that intercourse and acquaintance, which here were so transient, and so speedily suspended by separation. In the General Assembly, and Church of the First-born, I hope to meet my honoured friend again, and to mingle with his, and with those of ten thousand times ten thousand others, my everlasting Hosannas to the Lamb that was slain. Even so, Lord Jesus! I was pleased and thankful sometime ago in a Love-feast at Saddleworth, to hear the testimony of one, who was awakened under a sermon you preached at Delph, from 'Behold I stand at the door, &c.,' on the Sunday you spent there with me in April 1800. I mention this to show you, that you have some seals of your ministry in these parts of the world, and that your labours of love among us were not in vain in the Lord.|

The kindness shown toward William Black during his visit to England, and the fact that he was born there, naturally induced him to entertain the idea of taking a circuit and spending his remaining years in the old land, but Dr. Coke was strongly averse to him leaving Nova Scotia where so great success had attended his labours, and his influence was unbounded. Feeling that he could not very well leave the care of the churches to others, without some provision being made for superintending them in the event of his going to live in England, he drew up a scheme of handing them over to the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States, and wrote to Bishop Asbury on the matter. There were however political difficulties in the way, and being unable to make satisfactory provision for supplying the churches with ministers, and the danger of disaffection in the event of a war between Great Britain and the United States, he decided to remain in Nova Scotia and continue his active duties. Possessed of administrative abilities of a high order, added to the skill and zeal of an evangelist, he was a man of mark, who could not be left in charge of a single circuit, but must have a wider field. Consequently at the Conference held in Philadelphia in 1804, Dr. Coke requested him to take a station in Bermuda for three or four years, and in order to conciliate the members of the church in Halifax by the temporary removal of their pastor, the Doctor wrote them a letter, in which he said, |Mr. Black has been your apostle for above twenty years, and it is now high time that he should be an apostle elsewhere. I have no doubt that he will have a society of six hundred, or perhaps one thousand members in Bermuda in four years. He may then, if he please, return to superintend the work in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but it will depend upon his own choice whether he return to you, or to England, or remain at Bermuda.| William Black consented to go, and went to New York, where he engaged his passage, but was prevented from reaching his destination by some persons from Bermuda who were opposed to Methodism, and were going by the same vessel, and used their influence so that the passage was cancelled. Two years later the British Wesleyan Missionary Committee requested him to become Superintendent of Missions in the West Indies, and Dr. Coke renewed his request that he assume charge in Bermuda, but he declined the appointment to the West Indies on the account of the severity of the tropical climate, though he was willing to go to Bermuda. The Nova Scotia District Meeting however intervened, and petitioned the British Conference that he might be allowed to remain Superintendent of Missions in the Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland, and there the matter ended.

Meanwhile the arduous duties of visiting the churches and preaching continued with much success, several new churches being built and numerous conversions, among whom was Colonel Bayard who commanded one of the British regiments at Halifax during the war, and afterwards settled about 30 miles from Annapolis. He had been strongly opposed to Methodism, but was led by William Black to a personal trust in Christ, and lived such a holy life that he became known as the John Fletcher of Nova Scotia. In the midst of a great revival which swept St. John, and through the District from Barrington to Liverpool, there came opposition from some preachers from Scotland, who spurned the idea of conversion, however success followed the faithful preaching of William Black and his fellow workers and many souls were led to Christ. In 1809 he was stationed in St. John, New Brunswick, where he spent two years, but his active ministry was drawing to a close.

The privations and incessant labors began to tell upon a strong constitution, so that in 1812 he was compelled to become a supernumerary, though not desisting altogether from rendering whatever service his health would permit in extending the cause that lay so near his heart. Along with the Rev. William Bennett he was delegated by the British Conference to attend the Conference in the United States, and lay before the members the question of Canadian Methodism retaining its allegiance with the British Conference, a task which was faithfully performed, though of a very delicate character.

Increasing infirmities kept him in retirement, though he managed in the spring of 1820 to pay a visit to the United States, where he preached before Congress, and the passion for souls was still burning in his soul, for the text of the sermon was, |What is a man profited, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?| Brave and ever resolute, he maintained his interest in the progress of the churches which he founded, and it was with a pathos born of love to his brethren, and the consciousness that his active work was done, that he wrote to the ministers at the District Meeting held in St. John in 1823, that he was unable to attend, and sent them his blessing.

This man of daring had a definite religious experience and all his preaching was with the individual in view, his sphere of labours was not large in extent of territory, but he widened it by incessant travel, without any show of rhetoric he won his way to men's hearts and that is eloquence, and he lived to move Eastern British America by translating his message in words imperishable, and lay foundations upon which others have built. He was no common man, but an empire-builder in the brave days of old.

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