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“So long Thy power has blest me, sure it still,
Will lead me on
The night is gone,-
The late Rev. James Wilson was a Scotchman. Counston, in the parish of Glencairn, near Dumfries was his birth-place. He appears to bave enjoyed some early religious advantages, and often spoke of a " pious ancestry,” as a greater blessing than either wealth or station, and more to be esteemed than if able to trace his descent from the highest title in the land.
Agricultural pursuits probably occupied his earlier days, but afterwards he became a cabinet-maker in the ancient borough of Dumfries. There, he found the advantages of Methodism, and spoke of a Joseph Baileff as his spiritual father, towards whom he cherished feelings of profound esteem.
At the age of twenty-seven he was found at North Shields, where he joined the Methodist New Connexion, and a supply being wanted in the Circuit, he was engaged in that capacity with the sanction of the Rev. Wm. Thom, President-of revered memory—who wrote him a very characteristic letter, bidding him God-speed. Milburn Place Chapel was a great trial to him, and for some time he never
could preach there without fear and trembling. One day, however, he found himself wonderfully encouraged by reading the 1st chapter of Jeremiah. “ The 17th verse," said he, “yielded me more relief under this depression of mind than I shall be able to express while I live. 'Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee: be not dismayed at their faces, lest I confound thee before them.' I bless Thee, O Lord, for thus in a measure delivering Thy unworthy servant from needless doubts and fears. Let a solemn sense of Thy presence always rest upon me, and I trust I shall not grieve Thee by fearing the face of man." Thus strengthened by power from above, he took courage and went forward in the path of duty trusting in the Lord. Nothing particular transpired during his ministerial probation, and in 1816 he was received into full standing as a minister, and appointed to Ashton.
Though not what might be called popular, Mr. Wilson was a good preacher, rather slow in speech, but possessing that great grasp of mind which commanded esteem and admiration. In 1821 he was stationed in the Halifax Circuit, with a residence at Todmorden. The congregation there was highly respectable and intelligent. Not knowing their new minister, they received him rather dubiously, fearing he might not prove quite equal to the venerable Scott whom he was appointed to succeed. Sunday morning found him in the pulpit and the congregation in their pews, listening to his first sermon. Friend Greenwood, a fine, intelligent old man, and known to be a good judge of sermons, was then a sort of oracle at Patmos. For a time he sat still near the pulpit with his eyes fixed on the preacher, as if literally spell-bound. At length his mental reverie was broken, and he audibly uttered the words, “Gooder and gooder, better and better.” The feeling so quaintly expressed appeared to be universal, and from that hour James Wilson's ability as a preacher was never again questioned in the Vale of Todmorden.
Mr. Wilson was a fine-looking man, well formed, and about the ordinary size. His complexion was dark, features oval, and the face flat, with a rather singular protuberance of the lower lip. The eye was full, clear, and expressive. He had a broad forehead, finely developed, and crowned with a good thick crop of black hair. His countenance usually wore the impress of deep thought, and as though no light thing could disturb its equilibrium. A mere casual observer might at times deem him to be reserved and unapproachable, but such impressions immediately vanished before one of his genial smiles.
The writer's personal acquaintance with Mr. Wilson commenced with his appointment to Sheffield in 1825. At that time the Saturday night's Band Meeting was in high repute, was well attended, and regarded as a sort of rallying point for the members. To the great
joy of all, the new preacher was there, and took his place at the head of the meeting. At the close of the service the preacher somewhat adroitly left his place at the table, pressed through the people, and took his stand at the door, so that only one could pass out at a time. Grasping the hand of everyone who left, he said, in a tone and manner singularly expressive, “God bless you.” The fine patriarchal spirit thus expressed appeared to find its way to every heart, and feelings were awakened at that vestry door which the lapse of time never effaced.
Whilst in Sheffield our devoted brother commenced a Theological Class (not very common in those days) which some sportively styled THE SHEFIELD COLLEGE. As an Institution, if such it might be called, it involved no costly establishment, and all its arrangements were simple, inexpensive, and unpretending, but perhaps not less effective on that account. A small vestry in Allen Street school supplied the class room. The text book was the Bible, and the Rev. James Wilson was of course the PRINCIPAL, lacking nothing but the name and emoluments of office. The Principal laid down the curriculum, gave lectures, directed his pupils' studies, examined and criticised their essays, and offered such counsels as were required. Six of those young men entered our Ministry and never left it. Others became local preachers, “ of whom part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.” The Rev. W. N. Hall, of our Chinese Mission, is the son of one of Mr. Wilson's oldest students in his Sheffield College, at the time of which we write.
Mr. Wilson's reading was immense, and the knowledge he thus. acquired, digested by a naturally vigorous mind, appeared to be inexhaustible. At the time to which we refer he preached ten sermons in a fortnight to one congregation; but often as he took the pulpit, his discourses were always fresh and remarkable for variety. A sermon from his exhaustless store was only like a vessel filled at an overflowing fountain without affecting the gauge of waters. In preaching, he always took care so to explain and illustrate his text that nothing more could be desired upon it. His ideas on this question are forcibly expressed in the charge he delivered to the young preachers ordained at Ashton Conference, 1838. "I greatly dislike those sermons,” he said, “with which the text seems to have nothing to do except as a mere motto—and then, as is generally the case, the poor bit of a thing attached to it is in every respect so unworthy of the Gospel and so unlike the text, that it resembles a beggar's wallet (which by-the-bye it generally is) hung upon a golden peg in the temple of our God, which in proportion as it attracts attention excites disgust by its unnatural associations.”
The writer once heard him preach an able sermon from Matt. vii., 21—"Not every one that saith unto me Lord, Lord, shall enter
the kingdom of heaven," &c. A few weeks afterwards he preached another sermon in the same place, from the same text ; which, though perhaps not less excellent in matter and arrangement, was yei so dissiinilar to the former, that it would have been difficult to detect two single sentences in which the sermons corresponded with each other. Reminded at the close of the service of wbat had taken place, he expressed surprise, and even questioned the correctness of the statement. He did not hesitate to declare his conviction that he had never, either in that pulpit, or in any other, previously preached from the text named. Referring, however, to his register when he reacbed home, he found the text entered, and also the time and place of preaching from it, which I had named. When we met again he took my arm and confessed his mistake. But,"
” said he, " how strange! I never make a sermon without first writing an outline, and having preached it, I always enter the text and the place in which it was preached. You sent me to my book, and there I found it entered at the very time and place you named. But though the register is there right enough, not a scrap of the sermon can I find. I have searched in all directions, but can find nothing of it.” “ Have you got that sermon ?” he asked. “Yes," was my reply; "I wrote it down at the time.” “ Which was the best ?" " The first," I replied. On hearing that, he playfully said, “Well, then, give it me, and perhaps I shall be able to make a decent sermon out of the two.”
Mr. Wilson had a strong affection for young men, and was erer ready to assist them in the cultivation of their minds and in preparation for usefulness. Great experience, and an extensive acquaintance with authors of every description, rendered his counsel as to books, reading, and study invaluable. "Money,” he said, in the charge we have referred to, “is worth nothing to a preacher, except to furnish his library and from thence to store both his head and his heart with all kinds of useful knowledge. A large library is not necessary; but a few standard works read with attention, and digested with prudence, will answer every purpose. I am fully persuaded, that including books of all sizes, from a folio to a 32mo, a minister's library, more especially an itinerant minister's, need not number more than one thousand volumes." He was often called a bookworm, and seeing him, as we often did, in a pretty large room, with every available inch on the surface of the walls, from the floor to the ceiling literally covered with books, we think there was but little room for him to repudiate such a charge. When he died, his library consisted of about four thousand volumes.
This reference to books reminds the writer of one of the characteristic notes he received from his old friend : “Perhaps you may ask,” he writes, “what I am reading ? Why I am reading as usual