IN the records of the Baptist ministers of Kentucky, is traced with mournful pleasure the rise and fall of some of the brightest and purest men that ever adorned our or any other denomination. Some, ere they had fairly gained the horizon in the early morning of their power and promise, have suddenly melted away into the light of Heaven, setting, like the stars of morning, without a cloud. Such was Henry Lewis, and Robert Lillard, Robert Milliken, and Thomas Smith, and Perinaux Scott, and Napoleon Waller - a lovely band, whose talents, piety, learning and zeal, made their lives the center of a thousand hopes, as their death has been the source of deepest sorrow.
Others have gained the noon-tide of manhood. And after struggling up the steeps and rugged paths, and found the hard-reached eminence, looked forth on the broad field of promise. waving in rich harvest before them, have fallen in the midst of their labors, just as success was cheering them onward in their noble work. Such was William C. Warfield, was William and Walter Warder", was John L. Waller—men of pulpit power, of sound learning, and extensive influence; who, in the meridian of life departed from amongst us, but whose memories should be immortal. Of the latter class was the subject of this brief tribute of respect—John S. Willson. On the 28th of August, 1836, just as he had turned his fortieth year, his spirit broke from the wrecked tenement, to repose ever on the bosom of his Lord.
Childhood - A Mother’s Influence
He was born in Franklin county, Kentucky, July 13th, 1795. While John was an infant his parents moved into Adair county,
and settled near the town of Columbia. Of his childhood but little, of course, is known; yet that little speaks volumes. It tells of the mighty influence of a pious mother in directing the young spirit committed to her guardianship. . . and her untold joy in beholding her accomplished work. “From his earliest recollection,” says a contemporary, “the instructions and admonitions of his mother, accompanied with her fervent prayers for his salvation, made a deep impression on his mind.”* From his eighth to his fourteenth year, in compliance with his mother's wishes, he retired morning and evening and bowed in prayer before his God. In childhood, beside his mother's knee, he had been taught to repeat those beautiful words, “Our Father which art in Heaven,” and amid the joyous gush of boyhood, when the sports of the day were over, he would humbly bow and repeat that same prayer, His mother's voice had sung into his infant ears those simple words:
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”
And vivid in his recollection, and affecting to his heart were these lines ever after.
Youth - The Struggle
There is doubtless no period so interesting in the history of a human being, or which has such an influence on the character and after life, as that between fifteen and twenty. When the boy breaks the trammels of childhood, and begins to act the man, then the wildness, the wickedness of the boy develops the depravity of his nature, which was hidden or unnoticed beneath the sportiveness of childhood. Then the restraints of home are flung off and companionship is chosen; habits are formed and principles imbibed.
At fifteen, John Willson, to use his own words, “could no longer bear the unspeakable burden of religious duties.” The conflict between the admonitions of conscience and the propensities of a degenerate nature was mighty and constant. Now would the one, and then the other appear, to have won the victory.
* Baptist Advocate, 1836, page 4. vol. v. - February, 3.
Gradually the recollections of a mother's teachings and entreaties faded from his mind. Anxiously did she watch his wayward course, his progress in levity and sin. At last the struggle apparently ceased. The house of God was seldom visited; and the impulsive, whole-souled Willson, plunged into the wide sea of folly and irreligion. But for two years a mother's prayer followed him; nor in her heart did hope for him ever expire. And her prayers were answered; her hopes fulfilled.
His Conversation and Baptism
That able and eminently useful man of God, Isaac Hodgen, was then in the mid career of his abundant labors. Under one of his sermons, the gay, the light-headed John was suddenly aroused to his danger. “What shall I do to be saved,” was his solemn, earnest inquiry; and soon the mother, who had wept over her erring, careless boy, embraced him to her heart—the dead alive, the lost found. In the spring time of life, in his eighteenth year, a bright and joyous youth, John S. Willson, was baptized into the fellowship of the Gilead church by its pastor, Isaac Hodgen.
Gladsome a path as mortals usually tread, was his during the first four years of his christian pilgrimage. While others were restless and anxious about life's plans and aims, or sought in festive scenes for exciting pleasures, his buoyant heart overflowed with the raptures of redeeming love. Dignified in his deportment, and free from youthful indiscretions, his progress in the divine life was astonishing. He clung so near the cross, lingered so earnestly beside the mercy seat, that the light of hope seemed to beam on him without a cloud; and for nearly four years after his conversion, he was seldom saddened with a single doubt. And what sight earthly could be more lovely; or could angels look with more delight, than upon a young and ardent spirit quenching its thirst at the fount of mercy - lifting its immortal aspirations to the pure and the divine!
His Marriage and Settlement
In his twenty-third year the pious Willson woed and won a sweet congenial spirit. The great misfortune in the life of any individual, is the choice of one for the closest and dearest relationship of
life, who is unfitted in cultivation, in temper, and in taste, for such companionship. But especially is this the case when the individual is a minister. To be linked to one who can participate in his joys, sympathise [sic] with him in his sorrows, cheer him on in his wearying work, and suffer cheerfully with him in the sacrifices he must make - this is a blessing indeed. And we say, that in the choice of Miss Martha Waggener, such a blessing was realized by John S. Willson. Calm and cheerful was his domestic fireside. From it sorrow was banished, and love took up its abiding place, filling it with sunny smiles; nor would its charms have ever been left by him who so much enjoyed them, but that strong as was his love of home, he loved his Redeemer and his cause still more.
His Call to Preach, and Ordination
In the history of the Baptist Ministry of Kentucky, the fact should never be lost sight of, that many of the strongest and most useful of our preachers have spent years in absolute ignorance of the talents which God had given them. A century of useful labor in a few cases that might be instanced, has thus been a dead loss to the denomination and the cause of Christ. For ten years the pious, talented Willson, was comparatively idle and useless, when his powers should have been in training or in action, fitting or employed in the great work to which he afterwards successfully devoted his life. How much buried talent is there now in our churches?
In 1822, at the age of twenty-seven, the zeal of Willson assumed a new and more useful aspect. He felt for souls. He would overcome his diffidence and offer a word of exhortation in the prayer meeting and conference. He would weep as he entreated sinners to fly to Christ. The church, surprised at the gift thus manifested, requested and licensed him to preach. Earnestly he commenced the glorious work; fruits soon followed; and in the crowded audiences (for such was no unusual thing) under his first pulpit efforts, saints were cheered and sinners won to the Redeemer.
His Labors - Lebanon Church
After preaching some time as a licentiate, he was set apart to the work of the ministry and received a call to become the pastor of the Lebanon church, Todd county, Kentucky. A revival soon followed, and many, the best fruits of his labors there, are still “following on to know the Lord,” while others have fallen asleep in Jesus.
Few men have been more useful than J.S. Willson. In Elkton, in the Bethel and West Union churches, in Christian county, perhaps not less than three hundred professions were made in connection with his labors. In the western parts of Kentucky the results of his labors are still traced; of central Kentucky the same may be said; while in Shelbyville a revival followed his preaching, more extensive, perhaps, than any of recent date.
The First Church at Louisville
While acting as agent for the Bible Society, in 1833, he became acquainted with the brethren in Louisville. His unaffected simplicity and earnest features won at once upon their hearts; and he received a unanimous call. He accepted, and soon moved into his new field of labor. Steadily grew the church under his administration; but his expansive soul was not to be confined within even that extensive sphere. Of ambitious schemes and plottings he knew nothing. A restless thirst for notoriety plunged him into no difficulties or conflicts with his brethren. John S. Willson never suspected that he was envied because of his position or talents. Yet his field of labor was everywhere—it was the world; and the interest felt for the denomination was not in proportion to his own probable elevation. He sought to win souls, and not gain influence. While pastor of the church in Louisville he carried the gospel to surrounding neighborhoods, and power accompanied wherever he went. Of one of these revivals, an account from the pen of the venerable George Waller will be read with interest; it was written at the time:
Great Revival at Shelbyville, KY
“On the Friday before the fourth Lord's day in (1835) a meeting was convened at Shelbyville by John S. Willson, and other
brethren in the ministry, most of whom participated freely in the glorious work which then and there commenced. This meeting continued fifteen days, in which time one hundred and one were added to the church in that place by baptism. The brethren, on their way home from Shelbyville, stopped at Bethel, five miles east of Shelbyville. Crowds who had been at Shelbyville, flocked to Bethel, and in three or four days seventy or eighty were received for baptism. This church continued to receive members, till in three months one hundred and nineteen were received for baptism. Burk's Branch shared lightly, but sweetly. Dover, Buck Creek, Elk Creek, Plumb Creek, Taylorsville, and Little Mount, have shared freely in this glorious revival. Others of us have borne an humble part in this good work. Among the the rest of my brethren it has fallen to my lot to baptize one hundred and twenty up to this time. Upwards of eight hundred have been added to the Long Run association in the last three months; and by accounts received, it is believed that not less than twelve hundred are the fruits of this revival commencing at Shelbyville.”
Three hundred souls snatched from destruction! What stars to gem the crown of the sainted Willson! And this through the labors of the pastor of a large city church, who might have been occupying his time very profitably in building up for himself a name, or ornamenting his own enclosure with pretty and attractive flowers, or laying plans to rule or ruin the denomination. Wise men and great men, where and who are they: “He that winneth souls is wise,” and the greatest blessing a church and a denomination can receive or enjoy, is a ministry, with the true wisdom and greatness of a Willson.
His Last Labors
In the sultry month of August, his recreation from the city, was still toil, delightful and glorious, in the cause of his Master. Willing to spend and be spent for Christ, he could say in a higher sense than did the chieftain who, when asked to retire from the battle-field and seek repose, pointed his sword to the earth and said, “This is the place of labor,” and pointing it upward, “that is the place of rest.” Life, with him, was the battle-ground, and no relaxation or repose did he ask till the conflict was ended. With the Elizabethtown church he labored on; oppressed, feeble, sinking, he counted not his life dear unto him, so that he might finish his course with joy, and the ministry appointed to him.
Solemn as the grave were his addresses to the impenitent. He preached as though he knew he was just entering the eternal world. But his strength failed. The silver cord was loosed, and the golden bowl broken at the fountain. He started for his loved home, but at Shepherdsville it was evident that death had marked him for its victim. He could go no farther.
Death Scene of the Man of God
Home has joys which other spots can never impart, and loved ones there can soothe and cheer when the kindest attentions of friends fail.
Willson's home was doubly dear. His lovely children rejoiced ever at his longed for return. The eye of a fond infant looked brighter at his coming. And she who sung the lullaby over his cradle; who taught his lisping tongue to say, “Our Father;” who fellowed his wayward boyhood with her prayers; she who rejoiced with a mother's pride and a christian's gratitude over his success and usefulness - was there at his loved home to welcome him back from his noble work. Well might he long, especially when brought home by sickness, again to be with “the loved ones at home.”
From Shepherdsville slowly they bore him to Louisville. Long and weary did the journey appear. At last the home was reached. But death had been there before him. The mother, whose voice was ever the first to welcome back her son, lay there, a silent corpse - and the happy home had become the house of mourning.
He listened to the recital with placid resignation. He was carried to the bier where she lay, and looked upon her and wept. By his bed-side were his weeping wife and children. “Why,” he was asked, “have you desired for no one to pray for you?”
“I should not know,” he replied, “what petition could be offered in my behalf. God has done all for me that I wish him to do. He has satisfied every desire of my heart. He is all my salvation and all my desire. I have no will of my own. I submit all to Him.
The same resignation, the same trust and cheerfulness, continued through his brief illness. His family physician still living in Louisville, urged him to take one other prescription. He shook
his head, “The Lord calls me home,” he whispered, “no remedy will avail.”
“Mr. Willson,” said the doctor - he was not a religious man - “I have prayed from my soul to God to bless this medicine to your recovery, that God may make you yet the instrument of my soul's salvation.”
Ah, then a cord in that benevolent heart was touched. He opened his eyes and gazed with an expression of holy desire on the physician, at the thought of his conversion.
“I’ll take the medicine,” said the dying man. “To be useful I am willing to live and labor.”
Silence followed. His hand was held tenderly by his wife; his daughter was bathing his forehead. Friends sat round his bed. Not a word was spoken, and all seemed to feel that beings from the upper sanctuary were there watching that last struggle. The silence was now and then broken by the accents of the dying saint. “God bless my dear mother.” “Thou wilt be the widow's God.” “My little ones, Lord, I leave them in thy hands.” “Father, be with this poor church” “keep them thy Son, O, bless it.” “Mother,” he whispered gently, “I am coming after thee.”
His breathing shortened. They watched him in silence and tears. The farewell had been given. The angel of death was there. The man of God was going home. One struggling breath was heard. “O, Jesus, my Saviour, I know thou art mine,” were his last words, as his heart ceased its beatings. His eyes close in death, and his freed spirit went up with his sainted mother's to clasp the Redeemer's feet, his loved, his all.
They laid him in the grave. A simple slab marks the spot in the beautiful cemetery of Louisville, where sleeps the dust of the immortal, the holy, John S. Willson.
[S.H. Ford, editor, The Christian Repository, February, 1856.