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William Black by John Maclean

VI. PERSONAL CHARACTERISTICS.

A man above medium height, stout in body and well built, clad in the fashion of the Methodist preachers of the day, with a benign countenance, his face smoothly shaven, a kindly eye, a mind ever alert, a genial temperament, and strong force of character which fitted him well for his aggressive work in a new and rough country, and you have a fair likeness of William Black. Without any college education, and with no pretentions as a scholar, he was far from being deficient in education. The preacher with his saddlebags quickly learned the value of time, as he travelled incessantly, and preached every day, and we are not surprised to learn, that he formed habits of study similar to those of the circuit riders of old England. With an intensity which is often bewildering, we read of him moving with incredible swiftness from place to place, studying at every opportunity to fit himself as an able preacher of the everlasting gospel.

His letters to John Wesley and other correspondents bear the impress of a cultured mind, in the grasp of the great doctrines which were under discussion, and the nervous strength, simplicity, purity and dignity of the language in which they are couched. The saddle, the open road, and the clear sky were his permanent study, and he read with the keen instinct of a student, whose hours were limited, as he had other work to do, and he must furbish his brain, and warm his heart by contact with the masters of literature who came at his call.

He was a constant reader of Wesley's Journal and sermons. When he was travelling to the General Conference at Baltimore, he spent his time on the vessel in study, as he writes: |Most of my time since I came on board has been occupied in reading, chiefly Flavel's Treatise on the Soul, Littleton's Roman History and Knox's Essays. Lord let none of them prove improfitable!| For spiritual growth he was accustomed to read religious biography, which is an excellent study, and he found much comfort and food for serious reflection in the Lives of John Fletcher and Whitefield. But he was not forgetful of the benefits of the solid studies which are needful for the Christian minister, and he applied himself with splendid energy to the Latin and Greek languages and works on theology. Matthew Richey who was well qualified to speak on the subject, because of his own training, and his acquaintance with William Black says: |During the time of our personal acquaintance with him, he possessed a critical knowledge of the New Testament in the original, which must have been the result of many years' application. In studying the Greek Testament, Parkhurst's Lexicon was his favorite thesaurus, and he knew well to discriminate the sound learning and theology with which that inestimable work abounds, from the fancies and eccentricities both etymological and philosophical, with which they are sometimes associated.| It was his custom for many years to read Thomas à Kempis Imitation of Christ at family prayer in the Latin tongue, his wife reading the translation while he followed her in the original, and Matthew Richey adds that while he |carefully studied the Greek Testament, he was not forgetful of the Latin language, in which his attainments were very respectable.| We have no record of the books he read or any account of his studies, but his Journal and letters show, that he was a student all his life, reading theology, history, biography and essays in literature with an economy of time, and an alertness, which put many of us to shame. With a yearning after wider culture he longed to go to Kingswood School in England, and when that became impossible, he devoted himself with greater enthusiasm to his studies, and employed John Wesley to send him books.

Although he was a model itinerant and was preaching every day, he pursued the method of training his own mind and instructing his hearers by courses on systematic theology, which is an ideal system for any minister. He writes: |In my last sixteen discourses I have taken a view of man in his primitive state, and in his fall, the consequences of his apostacy, to himself and to his posterity, the interposition of a Mediator, his offices, incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension into heaven, and session on the right hand of the Father. O, how wonderful is the process of redeeming love!| Living in a real world and deeply impressed with the needs of the people, he had no time to devote to any literary work, though he might have rendered some service by his pen to the cause of Christ, but modesty barred the way, and he was above everything else a pioneer evangelist. Only once did he consent to have one of his sermons published, and that was a discourse preached at Windsor, Nova Scotia, on Deut.33:13. |He made him to suck honey out of the rock.| When he preached a sermon on Bishop Asbury at the General Conference in Baltimore, and was importuned to have it published by that august body, he respectfully declined the honor.

William Black was a great Christian without any singularity or ostentation, ever bemoaning his lack of spirituality and yearning after holiness of heart and life. As he read the lives of great saints of other days, he prostrated himself before God, and craved pre-eminence in the attainment of the higher virtues of religious experience. Humility was one of the dominant factors in his life, which became a habit, through contrasting his actual acquirements in piety, with the saints held in much esteem by the Christian Church. He was extremely sensitive, and this subjected him to periods of mental depression, when he was severely tempted and almost given over to despair. Seasons of melancholy seemed to follow him all through life, especially at the beginning of the year, when he passed under review his life and work. But there were times when he renewed his covenant with God in writing, and when he was privileged to listen to some eminent preacher and mingle with his brethren, that the sky shone with a beauty which was divine, and bliss serene abode in his soul.

In one of his seasons of refreshing, when he dedicated himself anew, he writes: |O my God, I am Thine by a thousand ties, necessary, voluntary and sacred. Sanctuaries, woods, fields and other places, have been witnesses of the solemn vows and engagements I am under to Thee, and when I presumptuously violate them, they will bring in their evidence against me. O! by thy powerful grace, preserve me thine, thine forever!| He longed to be like Christ, and yet he could say: |Some appear to be alternately in raptures, and ready to sink in unbelief and despondency: filled with joy, or overwhelmed with sorrow. In general my walk (at least outwardly) has been pretty even. Through the severest exercises I have yet met with, the Lord has not suffered me to be greatly moved. I do not remember that anger ever had a place in my heart for one minute against any one, since I first knew the Lord. If I felt it rise, I looked to the Lord, and was delivered. Blessed be his Name for this! By grace I am saved: and grace shall have the glory. I am never enraptured with joy, nor overpowered with sorrow: yet neither am I without joys and sorrow. At times I feel Jesus inexpressibly precious: and at such seasons I long for holiness, for a full conformity to the divine will.|

He was a man of prayer, rising early to be alone with God. Never did hunter pursue game with greater zest than he in his passion for the souls of men. His sermons had ever in view the conversion of sinners, and he often employed his pen in writing to individuals about salvation. Three of these letters addressed respectively, to Lawyer Hilton of Cornwallis, Major Crane of Horton, and James Noble Shannon of Horton, who afterwards removed to Parrsboro where he died, breathe a spirit of intense solicitude, and remind one of the writings of Richard Baxter the noble Puritan. In the letters he pleads with these gentlemen to seek salvation, and with such arguments, persuasive speech and love, that they were effective in leading them to Christ.

In conversation he was chaste in language and always spiritual. In one of his letters to his father-in-law, he pleads with him to be reconciled to God, and after pressing home the truth with fidelity without rudeness, he concludes; |This is the religion, in the propagation of which I desire to spend my life. This I recommend to my father. But I stop, perhaps I offend. I did not think of saying half so much. But this is my darling topic, and therefore I must beg you to bear with me.| He was charitable towards others, though he differed with them in religious belief, and with commendable liberality, he held both ministers and people of the Anglican faith in the highest esteem, and associated with the Baptists often preaching in their churches, even going so far, though believing in the validity of sprinkling as a mode of baptism, as to baptize by immersion, those who desired that mode of having the ordinance administered. Whilst holding tenaciously the doctrines and institutions of Methodism, he loved those who were united to him by a common faith.

During the first years of William Black's evangelistic labors, when several hundreds were converted and had joined the church, he was confronted with Antinomian teaching, through several visits from Henry Alline, who resided at Falmouth, Nova Scotia. Being called of God to preach in 1776, Alline itinerated through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, preaching a strange mixture of doctrines, which unsettled the people in the churches, and many withdrew and formed the denomination of New Lights or Allinites, a body which had some influence until his death at Northampton in New Hampshire, United States, on February 2nd, 1784, when it gradually declined and was absorbed by other denominations, especially the Baptists. Alline published his peculiar views in a volume, entitled |Two mites on some of the most important and most disputed points of divinity cast into the treasury for the poor and needy, and committed to the perusal of the unprejudiced and impartial reader, by Henry Alline, servant of the Lord to His churches.| A reply to this book was published in a volume by the Rev. Jonathan Scott, of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, which contains copious extracts from it. Alline misrepresented all the leading doctrines of Christianity, assailing predestination and election, maintaining the freedom of man's will and upholding the final perseverance of the saints, emphasizing strongly conversion, and that the soul is at the same moment completely sanctified, while sin remains in the body; denying the resurrection of the body, and though sometimes practising water baptism, he denied its utility. He was a man of good address, eloquent of speech and of a lively disposition, and there was no doubt of his piety, as he was a good man, and these qualities made him a successful evangelist. His rank Antinomian doctrines caused havoc among the Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist congregations in the places visited by him, and William Black mourned the withdrawal of two hundred persons in a little over a year from connection with the Methodist Church. It was very natural that the young evangelist should consult John Wesley on the matter, but the only help he received was a package of books, including two volumes of the writings of William Law, the great mystic, and instructions not to mention Alline's name in public, only to go on his way preaching the gospel. Though much depressed by the loss of so many members from the church, he had the satisfaction of seeing some return to the old fold, and toward Henry Alline himself he entertained respect. There remained no harshness, though the blow was heavy by the breach made in the congregations, as shown by a letter which he wrote to Alline when he was sick, in which, after speaking of the souls won for God, and his joy in Alline's success, he added, |Although we differ in sentiment, let us manifest our love to each other. I always admired your gifts and graces, and affectionately loved your person, although I could never receive your peculiar opinions. But shall we on this account destroy the work of God? God forbid! May the Lord take away all bigotry, and fill us with pure, genuine, catholic love!| That was charity indeed, but Henry Alline went on his way denouncing all who did not follow him.

William Black had no fine capacity for anger, for with his soul aflame with a holy passion he saw men and women as related to eternity, and he loved them. With an iron will he laughed at danger, without any austerity he was a great saint, his ideals were lofty, and cheerfulness sat upon his lips and shone in his face, a practical mystic was he without losing his head in the clouds, in brief, he was a man, a brave soul with a woman's tenderness, who held his eyes toward the Cross.

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