« PreviousContinue »
Art. VIII. — LIFE AND DISCOURSES OF THE LATE REV.
G. W. WELLS.*
To contemplate the character of the pure and virtuous, is an employment at once pleasant and instructive. Men are formed to sympathize with what is excellent in principle and conduct, and while they study, they can hardly suppress the desire to imitate it. It is accordingly wise and dutiful to multiply accounts of departed ones, who during life were distinguished by traits and deeds which survivors would be better for copying. Nor is it essential to the best effect, that they to whom attention is invited, belonged to that class of persons who, possessing intellectual endowments of the highest order, and placed in circumstances most favorable for the display of them, succeed in gaining the greatest notoriety. Eminent moral worth and usefulness, unconnected with shining abilities, not only deserve commemoration, but exert an influence, at least in this community, it is gratifying to think, — far stronger and deeper as well as more salutary, than mere talent of any kind, however commanding; and writers may therefore believe they render the best service to society by furnishing their readers with examples of excellence, devotedness to duty, and success, like the one now under notice.
The volume in hand contains memorials, not of a man whom the world would call great, but what is incomparably better, of a Christian whose character and labors no one imbued with the spirit of the Gospel can meditate upon without strong feelings of admiration and delight. In presenting it to the public, the “Union Pastoral Association of Ministers” happily availed themselves of a fit opportunity both to express the sentiments of respect and affection they had cherished for a worthy brother, and to lay the community under obligations of gratitude for an interesting and useful book. The “Memoir," brief, but comprehensive and just and beautifully written, is from the pen of Rev. C. A. Bartol ; and for the selection of “ Discourses," made with so good judgment, readers are indebted to Rev. Messrs. S. K. Lothrop and A. P. Peabody.
* Practical Discourses. By GEORGE WADSWORTH WELLS, late Pastor of the Unitarian Church in Groton. With a Memoir. Boston: William Crosby. 1844. 12mo. pp. 290.
It was our privilege, nearly eighteen years ago, to be present at the ordination of the subject of this Memoir, in Kennebunk, Maine. Among those who took part in the services of the occasion, were Kirkland, Parker, and Ware, — alas, now no longer with the living on earth. We were witnesses of the interest shown by these excellent men in the young candidate for the sacred office; and we thought that no one, much conversant with him at that time, could fail to be struck with the proofs he gave of intelligence and purity of mind, of sincerity and singleness of purpose, of a disposition very serious and earnest, yet bland and cheerful, of manly decision and independence joined to great modesty of deportment, and of an affectionateness of temper which, notwithstanding his characteristic reserve, could not but reveal itself and win friendly regards. We marked him then as one eminently well fitted for his profession; as one destined to have, in an uncommon degree, both the love and the respect of any people, whom he might serve, capable of appreciating a conscientious, kindhearted, zealous, wise, and devoted pastor ; as one, too, who would be successful, in the best sense of the term whose influence for good, if it should not be wide, would certainly be deep and lasting. And so it has been. All who lived near him are ready to bear testimony to the great and salutary effects he produced within his chosen sphere of duty. To be talked about and sought after abroad, was not among his aims; he always preferred to confine his thoughts and labors to his own parish. His biographer thinks “ he withdrew himself too much from the notice and acquaintance of others," and feels “sure that nothing but this voluntary retirement prevented a much wider intercourse and fame, such as he secured wherever he could not keep his worth from being known.” At home, however, in the midst of the flock under his immediate care, his power was felt, as that of few others has been. And his influence was of the right kind; not so much what makes a people feel proud of their minister, as that which moves them to forsake their sins, fear and love God, and do their whole duty. In the language of the Memoir :
“The savor of godliness was in all his influence. Few have reached so simply and entirely, to the extent of the powers and opportunities granted, the ends of the ministerial profession.
The deep infusion of the Gospel spirit, which he effected in Kennebunk, will remain and go down to another generation. In Savannah, his work, though brief, had the same profoundness of nature. In Groton, the assurances are ample, of the prospering of the work of the Lord in his hand.”
Wherever he labored, the writer also states,
“ He reached his hearers' minds and hearts. He met with the most gratifying success. It was not the success of that loud and transient admiration which so often deceives both the preacher and the congregation, but the success of making the people more serious and religious inquirers, more bent upon personal virtue, and more imbued with devotion to God,"
We should like to dwell longer on the character and results of his ministry, if our limits permitted.
Mr. Wells was a native of Boston, born in October, 1804. While yet a youth he was deprived by death of his father. Him we never knew; but with his mother it was our privilege to be acquainted ; and when we say that few women excelled her in those qualities which chiefly ennoble and adorn the sex, we only express what all who were intimate with her believed and felt. Under her pious care, and favored with the ministrations of a pastor distinguished by the purity and fervor of his devotional sentiments, he began to manifest very early in life a regard for spiritual things. While connected with the University, which he entered in 1819, in the fifteenth year of his age, it was evident to his friends that the principles of a pure religious faith were strengthening and deepening in his soul. In the Divinity School at Cambridge, where he spent the usual term of three years, he gave proof not only of talents suited to the ministry, but especially of a seriousness of disposition, a gravity of deportment, a reverence for religion and its institutions, and a zeal for truth and duty accompanied by good sense, which are not common in persons of his age. Having completed his theological studies, he preached some time in Boston ; then in Baltimore ; and in 1827 was settled in Kennebunk. There he remained eleven years, when, on account of the severity of the climate, which affected his health unfavorably, he left the people of his charge in that town, with inexpressible regret, both on his part and theirs. For several months he supplied, with great acceptance, the Unitarian pulpit in Savannah. Having
returned from the South, with his health partially recovered, he was invited to the First Parish in Groton, where he was installed in 1838. After laboring in this field with good success a little more than four years, he again became the victim of disease, and died March 17, 1843, in the thirty-ninth year of his age.
It would seem that Mr. Wells always had the feeling that he should not live to be old. In a letter to a friend, written in 1833, he remarked :
"I do not know why it is, but I have the impression frequently and vividly made upon my mind, that I am not to have a long life. In all my reflections upon death, it seems to me that it is by no means a distant event. Perhaps this feeling arises from the early death of my brother and my father. It does not arise from any ill health, for my health is very good. However, if this impression makes me more earnest in my work, if I could realize that I have a great work to do, and but a short time in which to accomplish it, I should esteem it a happy thing."
How much his industry and perseverance were owing to this impression, we do not know; but, as his biographer says,
“ He persisted, perhaps to a fault, in laboring, when the state of his health, and the advice of his friends, and the counsel of his physicians, forbade. It was always so. Wherever his lot was cast, persevering toil was the attitude with which he stood in it. He would fain die with his armor on. And he did.”
The last time that he preached, which was the first Sunday in February, he was ill enough to be at home and on his bed. He did not leave his house after returning from that service. We will not dwell on the closing scene, though in all spiritual respects, a happy one. “The LIFE," he used to say,
5 let us look to our lives ;” and in our own view it is more important to know how one lives than how he dies. Suffice it to add, in the words of a near relative who was with him in his last days: “In sickness as in health, his entire disinterestedness was ever apparent.” “He was at all times cheerful.” 66 The same faith that animated him in life, failed him not in the hour of trial.”
In describing, in few words, the intellectual and moral qualities of the subject of this notice, we shall write from personal knowledge, not less than from the testimony of others. His mind was clear and discriminating;
strong, rather than brilliant; not rapid in its movements, but sure ; of a steady, firm, and decided cast, yet liberal and open to conviction. His judgment was sound, and his reasoning faculty possessed more than ordinary force. He was not deficient in imagination, though this was not among his leading powers; and while he had a turn for speculative pursuits, his efforts were chiefly on the side of the practical in life. His understanding was cultivated and affluent; but it cost him labor to bring out its treasures, in a way to satisfy himself — owing in part to a want of natural facility, yet more to the elevation of his standard of excellence. His conclusions on no subject were hastily formed, and he seldom proclaimed them inopportunely; but his opinions, when once matured, were definite and fixed; and when called on to declare them, he spoke with a manly decision, Respectable as were his intellectual traits, they were greatly surpassed by his moral and religious qualities. Which of these was the most prominent, it would perhaps be difficult to find any two persons who could agree. We were most struck with the beauty of contrast conspicuous in his character. He was quick to feel, but had perfect command of his emotions. His humility was remarkable, and so were his self-respect and his reliance on his own powers. He was modest and reserved, yet in the exigencies of duty he could utter the needful word and do the bold deed. His meekness was gentle as a child's, but he had the rock's firmness in matters of principle. He united spirituality of views with a taste and tact for affairs. He was full of energy, and his activity was ceaseless; but so quiet and unobtrusive were his movements, that they were hardly known except by their effects. His zeal in doing good, nothing could quench; few, however, exercised a wiser caution in the choice of ends and means. He was constantly showing himself capable of any self-sacrifice for the welfare of his people ; though in the bosom of his family it would seem, we are told, as if he could have no love to spare for others. The earnestness of his piety, as well as of his benevolence, often bordered on enthusiasm ; but it so mingled itself with his other qualities, imparting and receiving a modifying influence, that to none did it seem unnatural or extravagant, while advanced Christians felt it to be the charm of his rightly developed, consistent, and beautiful character.