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Making the man

William Black was well born. The time was auspicious. The date of his birth is 1760, and with that date as a centre, despite the fact that the tone of public morality was low, there are names belonging to the period which suggest genius and influence. Edward Young had just published his “Night Thoughts,” Thomson, the poet and author of “The Seasons,” and Isaac Watts had just passed away, Lord Littleton had written “The Conversion of St. Paul,” Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” was being eagerly read by the people, Blackstone’s famous “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” had made a profound impression, Johnson had completed his “Dictionary” and Oliver Goldsmith was writing his immortal works. There were others who were in the heat of the literary battle. This period saw the beginning of the modern novel in the writings of Richardson, Fielding and Smollett, then too was published Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” Hume’s “History of England,” and Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” The two great literary frauds in our language were then given to the world in Chatterton’s “Poems,” and Macpherson’s “Ossian.” It was the age of Pitt and Burke, and Fox, of Horace Walpole and Chesterfield in English politics, Benjamin Franklin was then a potent force in America, Butler and Paley and Warburton, and Jonathan Edwards and Doddridge with many other equally powerful names were moulding the theology of the age.

Greater than any of these, however, were the Wesleys and Whitefield, as they raised both sides of the Atlantic to new ideals, and stirred the nation to a larger and deeper life.

William Black came into the world at a time when great events were being done, and though he was still young when he left the land of his birth, the silent and unseen forces which work upon men’s minds and souls could not be without their influence upon him.

He was born at Huddersfield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, an important market town, beautifully situated on a slope of a hill in the valley of the Colne, fifteen miles distant from Bradford, and a little over sixteen from Leeds. It was a place of considerable antiquity, being mentioned in Domesday, but its chief importance dates from the establishment of the woolen industry, being now the principal seat of the fancy woolen trade in England. Kirlees Park, three miles from the town, is popularly supposed to be the burial place of the famous Robin Hood.

When William Black was only five years old John Wesley preached to a large congregation in the Rev. Henry Venn’s Church in the town. This man of God was a zealous Methodist Churchman, who made Huddersfield the headquarters of extensive labors in all the neighboring region, sympathizing with the great Methodist revival, accompanying Whitefield on evangelistic tours, and for more than thirty years, he co-operated with the Wesleys and other workers in many parts of England and Wales. Though still retaining his connection with the Church of England, he continued in labors abundant, preaching in private houses, barns and in the open air, until old age. His son, the Rev. John Venn, became the projector of the Church Missionary Society. Methodism was firmly established in Huddersfield, and its influences were not unknown to the Black family. In 1767, one fourth of the members of the Methodist Church in the United Kingdom were in Yorkshire, and among the first settlers who came to Nova Scotia were some who were identified with that church, and had listened to Wesley and his preachers.

William Black, the father of the future pioneer and evangelist, was born in 1727, in Paisley, Scotland, a large manufacturing town noted for its shawls, great preachers, and the birthplace of Tannahill, the poet. He came of an independent family, as learned from the fact that his father kept a pack of hounds, and spent his leisure in the chase. When he attained his majority he became a traveller for a large industry, which necessitated some journeys to England, and there he met his future wife, and made his home in Huddersfield. The spell of Scottish literature must have fallen upon the young man, for Robert Burns, the poet, was then at the height of his fame, Alexander Wilson, a native of Paisley, had not yet won his place as a poet, though he too, emigrated to America, and became the pioneer and founder of American Ornithology, but there were other writers whose impress must have been felt by the Scotch youth.

In Elizabeth Stocks he found a lady of refinement and wealth, and the future missionary a good Christian mother. She had been converted at sixteen years of age, and her influence upon the home, and especially upon the lad was elevating, and destined to leave its mark upon the future. The father, with Scotch shrewdness, made a visit to Nova Scotia to spy out the land before removing his family from their English home. The mother watched tenderly over all the members of the family, but William, the second oldest, seemed to call for special care, and her tears and prayers found full fruition in after years, when she had passed to her reward. Frequently did she relate to her son William the story of her conversion, and with tears besought him to serve God. Alone she prayed with him, and pressed home upon his conscience the necessity of being born again. Surely this child was born well, and his future was not all of his own making.

He must have been a precocious child, or else his religious sensitiveness must have been induced by his mother’s teaching, influenced by the great doctrines of the Methodist revival. We are not now accustomed to hear a child of six years of age, bewailing his lost state in language suggestive of Bunyan’s condition, when he was under deep conviction of sin. He tells us that when he was five years old he had some serious impressions, and God’s Spirit began to operate upon his mind, and when he was six, he often wished that he was a toad or a serpent, because they had no soul, and were not in danger of being lost forever. Again he says, that many times before he was ten years old, he “would have overturned God’s government and dethroned the gracious Author of my being.” He enumerates his early vices and lashes his soul in despair. Such religious sentiments in one so young seem to mark him as one who had in his soul the elements of a monk, and we should not have been surprised had he become a zealous disciple of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Like John Wesley, whose escape from perishing in the burning of the Epworth parsonage is noted as a remarkable providence, William Black had a narrow escape from drowning in a large trough when a child, and this circumstance made a lasting and favorable impression on his mind. In his mature years he recalled the event with gratitude to God.

Several years of his childhood were spent with his maternal uncle, Mr. Thomas Stocks, at Otley, where he was placed at school. There he remained until he was about thirteen years of age, when the disciplinary rules of the school, and very likely a severe castigation, so annoyed him, that he left his uncle’s care and returned to his father’s home. His father was at that time making preparations for his voyage to Nova Scotia, and deemed it prudent to allow the lad to remain with his mother, though he had decided objections to his apparent ingratitude and stubbornness, in leaving the home of his uncle. Under the influence of his mother’s teaching and prayers, his religious impressions were deepened, but the jests of his companions at school made him stifle his convictions, and continue his career of youthful carelessness and sin.

In April 1775, the whole family, consisting of the father and mother, with four sons and one daughter, sailed from Hull, and after a prosperous voyage arrived at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they remained a fortnight, proceeding afterward to Cumberland, which they reached in June. A serious blow fell upon the family in their new home, by the death of Mrs. Black, about a year after they had settled in the province, she having been seriously injured when boarding the vessel at Hull. Unfortunately for the lad of sixteen, so sadly bereft of his good mother’s care and influence, he was thrown among gay companions, who in a new country gave free rein to their passions, in wild orgies by day and night. His evenings were spent in dancing and playing cards, yet amidst the frivolity he was unhappy, and he betook himself to prayer, that he might be able to break the chain of evil habits.

For three years this condition of affairs existed, and the spirit of unrest increased, with discord in the family, but the dawn of a better day was close at hand. There were several in the neighborhood who enjoy the honor of being the first Methodists in Canada, among whom were the families of Dixon, Wells, Trueman, Fawcett, Newton, Scurr, Chapman, Oxley, Donkin, Dobson and Weldon, whose descendants, with those of the Black family, remain with us till the present day.

Through the zealous labors of these families in class meetings and prayer meetings, there was a great revival in the spring of 1779, which stirred the whole neighborhood. Among those who were awakened and soundly converted, were all the members of the Black family. William was then nineteen years of age, and shortly afterward he wrote an account of his conversion to John Wesley, who introduced it in his journal, under date of April 15th, 1782.

The story of his spiritual struggles, his prayers for release from the burden of sin, and the great joy he experienced when light came to his soul, form a charming bit of biography. The change in his own life was thorough, the home was transformed by the conversion of every member of the family, and though he subsequently experienced doubts and temptations, he gradually grew in grace, being confirmed in the faith, until the Sabbath became a market-day in his soul.

Like every new convert he became anxious for the spiritual welfare of his fellow men, and first of all he became solicitous for the salvation of those in his own home. His father having married again, and all the members of the family being strangers to the joy of the forgiveness of sins, his first care was for their salvation. On the Sunday that he found peace, he spoke to his brothers one by one, waking them from sleep, and they too, were led into the light. Then he roused his father and stepmother, and they besought him to pray for them, and peace came to their souls. And the climax was reached, when next day his sister found the Lord. Thus the whole family through his exhortations and prayers, became earnest followers of Christ. Along with the joy of seeing all at home possessors of the joy of forgiveness, he set up the family altar, and then became anxious for the souls of his neighbors. As he passed them on the road he lifted his heart in prayer for their conversion, in company, he seized the opportunity of denouncing sin, much to the annoyance of some, but ultimately with spiritual profit. His early efforts at winning souls were so richly blessed, that he seized every opportunity of speaking of the good things of Christ.

In the summer of 1780, at a Quarterly Meeting held at Mr. Trueman’s, he received so great a blessing that he wept, and the same evening at Fort Lawrence he made his first attempt at exhortation. From that hour he exhorted or prayed at every meeting, and though his knees trembled with fear, his tongue was loosened, and he spoke with much liberty. During the following winter he was invited to Tantramar to hold meetings, and had great joy in seeing many led to Christ. Assisted by some of the old class leaders and local preachers, he travelled over the country, exhorting as often as his duties on the farm would permit.

His first attempt at preaching from a text was in the spring of 1781, when he visited a settlement on the Petitcodiac River, and the word was with power. With so many tokens of the divine favor, it was evident that he was a marked man, and though not quite twenty-one years of age, and without any special training, he was being literally thrust out, and seemed destined to be the man who should lead the forces, and lay the foundations of Methodism, far beyond the limits of his own neighborhood. The man possessed of gifts and grace, in whom the people had confidence, and who was singularly blessed in winning souls had come, and the stripling on the farm was called to leave the plough and go forth, to proclaim the great truths of the Gospel of Christ. He was truly a chosen vessel, and fitted for a great work.