He lived in stirring times, and belonged to a sect that moved the world, recreating the national conscience, without disturbing the religious world with a new heresy. In 1807 the slave trade in the British Empire was abolished, and the Methodist revival introduced a new philanthropy, which brought a fresh impulse into the nation for the reforming of the prisons, greater clemency to the penal laws, with a noble and steady attempt to better the condition of the profligate and the poor, and the first impetus toward popular education. Limited in his range of vision by distance from the great centres of civilization, and absorbed in his noble task of leading men in their quest after godliness, he still kept in touch with the larger questions which affected the nation, so far as the literature of that day permitted.
His closing years were spent in the quietness of his own home, with an occasional service suited to his failing health. With a sublime simplicity and faith in the goodness of women, he found a continual benediction in his wife, who was a lady of good judgment, possessing a cheerful spirit, and as earnest as he in her yearning after holiness of heart and life, and a burning zeal for the salvation of souls. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, where she frequently heard Whitefield preach, she came with her parents to Fort Cumberland, Nova Scotia, and settled there, when the British troops evacuated her native city, and in the summer of 1781 she was converted under the ministry of William Black. For the long period of forty-three years of married life, she was the devoted companion and helper of her husband in every good work. The training of five children devolved solely upon her, as she was left alone during the long and frequent absence of her husband on his missionary tours, yet she complained not, but counted it an honor to share the joys and sorrows of a Methodist itinerant. With the true instinct of a mother she governed her home in the fear of God. When she chastised her children, she did not forget their spiritual welfare, as it was her custom after punishment, to take them alone to a private room, and there to pray with the culprit, and seldom were these seasons unproductive of serious resolves of amendment. Her letters to her husband bear the impress of a saint, in their spirit of patience, sympathy with the erring, and quest after a better life. During a period of severe sickness in the family, when three of the children were laid low, and faint hopes were entertained for the recovery of Celia, the eldest, the faith of the parents was severely tried. While they were convalescing, the mother was attacked with a raging fever, and in her weakened condition, she was strongly tempted to doubt her acceptance with God. In her distress she mourned: "I have lived too much at ease. How could I rest without daily and lively communion with God." But the clouds burst, and she was enabled to rejoice, and praise God for all his mercies to herself and family. She was a saintly woman, active in her efforts for ameliorating the condition of the poor in the city of Halifax, during her long residence there. With her own hands she made garments for the needy, stimulated others in connection with the Female Benevolent Society, of which she was treasurer for several years, and by the sweetness and beauty of her life, helped many in the paths of righteousness and peace. During the last year and a half of her life she gradually declined in health yet she murmured not, and when the end came on August 11th, 1827, as she was surrounded by husband, children, grandchildren and friends, she bade them an affectionate farewell. The last to receive her blessing was her faithful and pious black servant, but her power of speech having gone, she raised her hands to heaven as an evidence of her faith and joy, and passed home at the age of seventy-three years. Thus lived and died one of the most beautiful spirits to be found on the pages of religious biography, gentle in manners, firm in action, with a chaste reserve, a noble type of heroic womanhood.
With the passing of his beloved companion, William Black felt keenly the vacancy in his home where ill-health kept him confined, and to ensure comfort and relieve the tedium, he was induced to marry Martha, the widow of Elisha Calkin of Liverpool, Nova Scotia, in the year 1828. This marriage was highly congenial, as the lady was possessed of an amiable disposition, and she ministered to his needs and together they enjoyed good fellowship, to his death, after which event, she returned to Liverpool, where she resided till she died.
The father of William Black walked through all the years of a long life in the ways of peace, and the son rejoiced that he had been honored in leading him to Christ. For the greater part of his life he lived on his farm at Dorchester, New Brunswick, dying there in 1820, at the age of ninety-three years. He was held in much esteem in the community being appointed in 1779, Judge of the Common Pleas, and in his old age he retained so much of his vigor, that when he was eighty-eight years old, he rode on horseback a distance of thirty miles to visit some members of his family residing at Amherst.
"The world may not like our Methodists, but the world cannot deny that they die well," wrote John Wesley, and this sentence has been transformed into the well-known maxim, "Our people die well." William Black knew the art of dying well, as he always stood on the threshold of eternity, and there was no need in his closing days to make special preparation, for with heroic gladness he had fronted the foe, all through the strenuous years, and was ever ready to cross the bar. In the autumn of 1834, the cholera was prevalent in Halifax, and he was deeply concerned for the people, though he was suffering from dropsy, and his end was near. The Rev. Richard Knight who was stationed in Halifax, and had Matthew Richey as his colleague, was with him in his last hours, and he gives an account of the closing scene. "'I trust sir,' said I, 'You now feel that Saviour to be precious whom you have so long held forth to others.' He said, 'All is well. All is peace, no fear, no doubt, let Him do as He will, He knows what is best.' I referred to his long and useful life. He said very impressively, 'Leave all that, say no more. All is well.' We joined in prayer, and his spirit was evidently very much engaged in the solemn exercise. On leaving the room I said, 'You will soon be in the glory of which you have so often spoken in the course of your long ministry.' 'I shall soon be there,' he said, 'where Christ is gone before me.' After which he sank very fast, and spoke little, and that with considerable difficulty. His last words were, 'Give my farewell blessing to your family, and to the society,' and 'God bless you. All is well.'"
Patient in life, he was triumphant in death, and though there was no exultant notes in his last testimony, his faith stood the supreme test, as he drew near the borderland. He died on September 8th, 1834, aged 74 years. The remains of Mary and William Black rest in the old graveyard at Grafton Street Methodist Church, Halifax, and near the vestry door are their tombstones and those of their children. Within the church there are marble tablets to the memory of these pioneers of the faith, who laid the foundations of Methodism in the maritime provinces, and in the Methodist Church at Amherst, Nova Scotia, there is a memorial window to the founder of Methodism in these parts.
There is a larger and more abiding memorial of the heroic figure who trudged over the country in quest of souls, and that lies in the silent influence of his life, and the permanence of his work. He was a great revivalist of the enduring kind, whose exhortations were not platitudes which spent themselves with the passing hour, but, being based on the leading doctrines of the Bible, remained as a spiritual impulse for the individual, and the church. In his History of the Methodist Church in Eastern British America, T. Watson Smith quotes a characteristic sketch of William Black and his wife.
"The personal appearance of 'Bishop' Black in his late years, says the Hon. S. L. Shannon, who remembers him well, was very prepossessing. He was of medium height, inclining to corpulency. In the street he always wore the well-known clerical hat; a black dress coat buttoned over a double-breasted vest, a white neckerchief, black small clothes and well polished Hessian boots completed his attire. When he and his good lady, who was always dressed in the neatest Quaker costume, used to take their airing in the summer with black Thomas, the bishop's well known servant, for their charioteer, they were absolutely pictures worth looking at. In the pulpit the bishop's appearance was truly apostolical. A round, rosy face, encircled with thin, white hair, a benevolent smile, and a sweet voice were most attractive. Whenever my mind carries me back to those scenes, the vision of the apostle John in his old age addressing the church at Ephesus as his little children, comes up before me as I think of the good old man, the real father of Methodism in Halifax."
When William Black was converted and began his career as the pioneer Methodist preacher in the maritime provinces, in 1779, there was only a small company in Cumberland, Nova Scotia, who reckoned themselves followers of John Wesley, but when he died in 1834, there were in these Provinces and Newfoundland, 3 Districts, 44 circuits, about 50 ministers and local preachers, with more than 6000 members of the church. But the denomination has grown since then, until in the year 1906, there are 3 Conferences, with 332 ministers, 194 local preachers, nearly 42,000 church members, 686 Sunday Schools with over 45,000 scholars, 716 churches, and 219 parsonages valued at more than two and a half million dollars, and then add to these statistics, the value of the schools and colleges belonging to Methodism in the maritime provinces and Newfoundland, amounting to 567,000 dollars, and we may well say, "What hath God wrought?"
Let us remember that when John Wesley died, there were only 287 Methodist preachers in Great Britain and Ireland, and 511 in the whole world, and we may well ponder the significance of the growth during the last hundred years in the new country where William Black was the leader and pioneer. The movement which began with Black has run through a whole century without rest or failure, the stream of conversions has continued to flow, and the spiritual impulse has been maintained, despite many changes in manners and modes of thought. The old tradition of Methodism being an aggressive force, embodied in the apt phrase "Christianity in earnest" is still true, as it emphasizes the great spiritual forces of religion, as distinguished from ceremonial and even church organization, as the essentials of our faith ever abide within. The message of the apostle of Methodism in the Maritime Provinces was charged with great truths based upon doctrine and experience, and the power which swayed the people under his preaching, has remained as an abiding spiritual force. In Black's Journal we have a charming bit of autobiography, which reveals the inner life of a man who has become a historic figure, and yet he had no desire for fame. He was an evangelist first and last, begetting influences more abiding than the centuries, and if you would estimate his worth, and measure the value of his work, look around. He lived in a religious atmosphere of his own making with the help of God, he learned the triumphant secret of religion, and he gave a noble challenge to the world, in a heroic life for Christ. The pulse of his life beats still in the twentieth century in the Maritime Provinces of the Dominion.