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Sketches of North Carolina
Chapter XXXII - Rev. John Makemie Wilson, D.D., and the Church of Rocky River


NURTURED in the bloody scenes of the Revolution, Mr. Wilson was pre-eminently a man of peace. "No cases come to court from that part of Mecklenburg," was said significantly of Rocky River and Philadelphia, while he was pastor of these two large and flourishing congregations, numbering, at his death, more members than any other pastoral charge in the Synod, and composing originally but one congregation, by the name of Rocky River. His early years were spent at the place of his birth, about six miles east of Charlotte, in Mecklenburg county, North Carolina, within the bounds of Sugar Creek congregation. The event of his birth took place in the year 1769. His father was from England, and in early life was engaged in mercantile business in Philadelphia. From that city he removed to North Carolina, married, and settled in Mecklenburg county, and was actively engaged with the citizens of that section of country, that Tarleton, in his Campaigns, says was "more hostile to England than any other part of America" in carrying on the struggle for Independence. He died before the British army encamped at Charlotte in 1780, leaving three children. When the ravages of the enemy in South Carolina, particularly about the time of Buford's Massacre, drove the inhabitants from their houses to seek refuge in North Carolina, the families on the Waxhaw found refuge in Mecklenburg, and widow Jackson, with her son Andrew, resided for a time at the house of widow Wilson. The two boys, Andrew and John M., were of about the same age, and worked and played together, full of the spirit of independence, little conscious of the part they would afterwards act, one in the church, and the other in the state. The place in which Andrew Jackson passed his early years was claimed by North Carolina for a long time; but is within the bounds of South Carolina, as now settled by the mutual agreement of the States.

The congregation of Sugar Creek had for its pastor Rev. Joseph Alexander, who was one of the five pastors that regularly served their congregations during the distressing scenes of the war, between the Yadkin and Catawba Rivers. His compeers in service, Hall, Balch, McCaule and McCorkle, were no common men. In their congregations the regular instructions in the sanctuary, and the religious education of children, were less neglected than in those congregations around that were served by missionaries, and supplies sent out by the Synod of New York and Philadelphia.

An incident in the early life of Mr. Wilson was often referred to by his mother. When just beginning to walk, he strayed away to amuse himself, in a distant part of the yard enclosing the house. After a little time he was seen sitting on the ground apparently greatly pleased with some object lying by his side. His mother's approach but pleased him the more, in his dangerous sport. With breathless haste she seized him, quick as thought, and pressed him to her bosom, overcome with emotion; for he was drawing his hand over the folds of a large rattlesnake, apparently delighted with the smooth skin and bright colors of the reptile. his preservation was considered providential; and the thoughts and reflections connected with it had an influence on his future life. A pious mother could scarcely refrain from devoting such a boy to God's peculiar service, with an energy that must affect, not only her own, but also the mind and heart of her child. And we are not surprised to find that he was encouraged in early life to commence a literary course of study.

The intended college at Charlotte had been denied a charter by the king, though no money or any peculiar privileges had been sought from the government, and the colonial legislature had twice granted the request of the people of Mecklenburg, who were anxious for the education of their sons : and the invasion of North Carolina by Cornwallis, in 1780, had broken up the institution which was in active operation under Dr. McWhorter, from New Jersey, without State patronage, under the name of Liberty Mall. After the departure of time invading army, the exercises of the institution to supply the place of a high school and measurably of a college, were resumed under the directions of Dr. Henderson, a physician of eminence. At this school, when twelve years old, Mr. Wilson commenced his classical education. For want of funds the dumber of teachers was small, and the public attention was so drawn by the efforts to establish Mount Zion College at Winnsborough, South Carolina, under the talented president, the Rev. T. H. McCaule, that little was done for the Charlotte school except what might be accomplished by the enterprise of a few individuals.

his literary course was completed at Hampden Sydney College, in Prince Edward county, Va., then having for its President., that noted, and eminently successful preacher, John B. Smith, D.D., whose name is connected with that great revival of religion in 1788, and onward, the influence of which was felt in Virginia and Carolina, in bringing multitudes into the church, some few of whom still remain, just on the horizon of Life—and in raising up a host of preachers, whose labors have done much to spread the influence of the gospel over the South and West. For a classmate, he had Moses Waddel, afterwards distinguished as a divine and teacher of youth, having trained some of the most eminent men in South Carolina both in Church and State; and contested with him the first distinction at the graduation of the class.

Having heartily embraced the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, as containing the principles by which he would be governed, and the truths by which he hoped to be saved, he devoted himself to the work of the ministry of reconciliation; and chose as his preceptor in Theology, that pioneer of domestic missions in North Carolina, the Rev. James Hall, D.D., of Iredell county, whom he had known from his youth.

The Presbytery of Orange, at that time embracing all North Carolina, in time summer of 1793, gave him license to preach the gospel as a probationer; and according to a good custom of sending candidates on missions, the revival of which would be advantageous to time church, the ministers, and the community at large, he was sent by the commission of Synod, on a missionary excursion of many months through the counties in the lower part of the State. He then made his residence for some years in Burke county, in the midst of a shrewd, intelligent population, of Scotch-Irish origin, from among whom but few churches had at that time been gathered; and was ordained pastor about the year 1795. With the people of Burke county, he remained till the year 1801, when he accepted a call from the congregation of Rocky River and Philadelphia. While resident in Burke county, his labors, as a minister, were eminently successful in raising the standard of piety, in planting new churches, and adding to the numbers of the old ones; and when he left the county, he carried with him the high respect of the community at large, and the reverence of Christians.

While resident in Burke he was united in marriage with Miss Mary Erwin, the daughter of Alexander Erwin, of that county, and found in her an amiable, pious, and intelligent companion, and pastor's wife, for more than thirty years. he survived her about five years.

The congregation to which he removed in 1801, and in the service of which he spent his manhood and his age, originally formed but one, and that among the oldest in the Presbytery of Concord, or in the State. The precise date of the first settlements in that part of Mecklenburg included in the bounds of Rocky River congregation cannot now be known, but as early as 1755 a request for supplies from Rocky River appears upon the records of the Synod of New York. Mention is made of the destitute state of the neighborhoods of North Carolina, but the names of places are not given. But in 1755 "Synod appoint Mr. Clark to take a journey into Virginia and North Carolina, to supply the, vacancies there for six months, betwixt this and next Synod, particularly at Rocky River and Sugar Creek, at the Hawfields, Eno, Hico, and Dan Rivers." The Rev. Alexander Craighead retreating from the incursions of the Indians that were laying waste the frontiers of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, after Braddock's defeat, in 1755, visited this country, to which part of his flock had retreated from the Cowpasture. The time of his first visit cannot be precisely ascertained. In January, 1758, the Presbytery of Hanover holding its session at Capt. Anderson's, in Cumberland county, Virginia, directed Mr. Craighead to visit Rocky River on the second Sabbath of February. In the April following a regular call was presented from Rocky River for Mr. Craighead's services, which he accepted; an order was taken for his installation by Mr. Martin. This order not being carried into effect, the Rev. W. Richardson was directed, in September, to attend to the installation, while on his way to the Cherokee Indians. This it appears was attended to.

In the year 1761, in the list of places supplicating supplies from the Synod of New York and New Jersey, Rocky River has a place, and the naive of Daniel Caldwell, one of the first settlers, was on the list of members of Synod.

The first regular supply after Mr. Craighead of whom there is any account, was the Rev. Hezekiah James Balch, of Revolutionary memory, who by order of Synod was ordained in 1769, to accept a call from Carolina by the Presbytery of Donegall, by which he had been licensed as probationer in 1768.

Rocky River was one of the seven congregations that covered the region of country represented in the convention at Charlotte, of Declaration memory, and was no disinterested spectator of the doings and catastrophe of the Regulation.. The first settlers in the bounds of the congregation were all of the Scotch-Irish race, that landed in Pennsylvania, and after tarrying a short time there, or in Maryland, found their way to North Carolina. As was usual, they came in a company: Col. Robert Harris, on Reedy Creek his brother, Samuel Harris, on Clear Creek; Andrew Davis, on Reedy Creek; Moses Shelby, on Clear Creek; Wm. White and his two brothers, James and Archibald, on or near Rocky River.

David Caldwell, on Caldwell's Creek; and Adam Alexander on Clear Creek. Others probably carne with these, but their names are not known. As the tide of emigration was turned by the Indian depredations to the peaceful streams of Carolina, the settlements rapidly increased and formed a vigorous, active and independent part of the county. The Morrison family cave early to Rocky River from Scotland, making a short sojourn in Pennsylvania. There were three brothers, two of them lived to a great aye. The descendants of the Harris, Alexander and Morrison families have been numerous; of the latter, nine have entered the ministry, and others are preparing.

When the conflict was going on between the governor and those Regulators that lived in Granville, Orange and Guilford, the people composing this congregation, in the mass, favorable to their fellow-citizens and kinsmen in those counties, were not, nevertheless, united as to the course to be pursued. Not having felt all the provocations and impositions of the people of Orange and Guilford, they sympathized deeply, but were not prepared to resist the governor by force of arms. The orders of the governor for the militia of the western counties, to send their proportion of men to march under the command of General Waddel, called out Capt. Adam Alexander, one of the first settlers. how many of his militia company went with him is not known. That he was unnwilling to shed the blood of the Regulators, is readily seen by reverting to the course he pursued in persuading Waddel to retreat across the Yadkin, instead of engaging in battle or continuing his march to meet the governor.

But other citizens of Rocky River were more decided in their feelings and course, and openly espoused the cause of the Regulators, refusing to serve against them, and acting decisively for them. General Waddel, who was ordered to rendezvous at Salisbury, and wait for the militia to meet him on the 2d of May, was at his post with a considerable force, and delayed his march, to join the Governor, till he should receive the supply of ammunition expected at Charleston, South Carolina.

A convoy of three wagons, loaded principally with powder, was on the way, with a small force for a guard; passing through Mecklenburg county unmolested and unsuspecting, they were encamped for the night, on the Salisbury road, about three miles \vest of where Concord town now stands, Cabarrus being then part of Mecklenburg county, when a plan was suddenly proposed for the destruction of the powder, and as suddenly executed. Nine persons from the Rocky River congregation,—James, William, and John White, three brothers, and soles of James White, one of the first settlers on Rocky River; William White, a cousin of theirs; Robert Caruthers, Benjamin Cochran, Robert Davis, son of Andrew Davis, one of the first settlers on Reedy Creek; James Ashmore, and Joshua Hedley, with William Alexander, of Sugar Creek congregation, and perhaps one or two others, bind themselves with a singular and awful oath, to assist each other in the enterprise on hand, and keep the secret of their participation while there might be danger in the acknowledgment; and then blacking their faces and hands, and otherwise disfiguring themselves as Indians, about the breaking of day they seized upon the convoy, and permitting the drivers and their teams to go on unharmed with the guard, pouring out the powder upon the ground in one large pile, and laying a train, they set fire. The explosion was felt for many miles. Some thought it thundered; others that the earth quaked.

This event, With the unwillingness expressed by the militia to kill their countrymen, disheartened Gen. Waddel from forming a junction with the Governor. The secret for a time was well kept, notwithstanding the rewards offered for discovery, and the threats of condign punishment from the Governor and officers of the crown. At last one, under bodily fear, revealed the names of his fellow actors, and put them all to great trouble for a time, and inflicted lasting sufferings upon himself in his own reflections. The Declaration of Independence relieved them from further apprehension till the invasion by Cornwallis. The leader of the party was William Alexander, who, to distinguish himself from others of the same surname in the numerous class of Alexanders, was called Black Billy to the day of his death. His bones lie in Sugar Creek grave-yard.

Adam Alexander was one of the members of the convention that issued the famous declaration of independence, and served as colonel of the militia. During the war he was frequently in service. Moses Shelby lived upon the farm, and built the house occupied by Rev. Mr. Wilson, while pastor of the congregation. His family, part of them at least, were born in Maryland previous, to the emigration- to Carolina. John Query, one of the convention at Charlotte, belonged to the bounds of Rocky River. He, Adana Alexander and Moses Shelby, lived in the bounds of what is now Philadelphia, called for a time, Clear Creek. The two former were both elders in the church.

These few facts are mentioned to show the patriotism of the charge to which Dr. Wilson ministered the greater part of his active life. He labored with and for the men who acted in the Revolution, and for their children. And if the men that pitched their tents in this part of Cabarrus were like their descendants that meet at Rocky River and Philadelphia, as members of the church, they were men that loved their Bibles and Catechisms, and feared God.

Mr. Balch preached at Rocky River and Poplar Tent until removed by death, after a service of about six or seven years. About the year 1778, Robert Archibald was ordained as pastor, and continued for a number of years to preach at Rocky River and Poplar Tent, and teaching a classical school at Poplar Tent, in which some eminent men were educated.

During a vacancy in the church, after Mr. Archibald ceased to preach, the Rev. James Hall, of Iredell, and Rev. Joseph D. Kilpatrick, were sent by the Presbytery to hold a communion with the church. Those seasons were then preceded and followed by days of preaching to the great. congregations that would generally collect; and were often, as in this case, followed by special blessings. Although the church was without a pastor, a precious revival accompanied and followed this meeting, which resulted in great accessions to the church; and was one of the most blessed of the numerous revivals enjoyed by Rocky River church.

Mr. Alexander Caldwell, son of the venerable David Caldwell, was ordained as the pastor of these churches, 1793, and served them with great acceptance, until the year 1797. To superior mental endowments, and great acquirements, he added a fine person, portly gait, engaging manners, and eminent Christian character. But in the inscrutable providence of God, he was afflicted with the greatest of human maladies, and his fine powers and superior acquirements all ran to waste under the influence of a disturbed intellect. Archibald, his predecessor, of whom an account will be given in another place, a man of talents, was wrecked on the shoals of false doctrine and ungoverned appetites. For him, the congregation mourned in abasement, as for a fallen star.

But they wept for Caldwell, in compassion and amazement, as they beheld the ruins of a powerful intellect, unstained by crime, inoffensive from moral pollution, walking among them like the sun eclipsed, dimmed but unfallen.

The first symptom of the disease was melancholy, and through the remainder of his life, which was protracted to the year 1841, an air of pensive sadness hung upon his features. Studious, philosophic, cheerful, and devotional, he spent his time in adding manuscript to manuscript; always harmless, and peculiarly attentive to the private duties of a Christian, he attracted the attention, and awakened the sympathies of his whole circle of acquaintances. His immense collection of manuscripts exhibited reading, investigation, logical discussion; but a vein of disorganizing madness ran through the whole. One cannot reflect without emotion, upon the happy change that, in all human probability, death must have wrought upon his diseased mind, when his mortality was put off, and his immortality put on in the presence of God.

Mr. Wilson, the successor of Air. Caldwell, after an interval occupied by supplies, received his dismission from Quaker Meadow, and his calls to Rocky River and Philadelphia, at the same Presbytery, Sept., 1801. His ministerial course was worthy of the age in which he was born, and the instructors by whose instrumentality he was fitted for the work of his Lord's vineyard. If there be truth in the proverb that "he is the best fisherman who catches most fish," Wilson was among; time best of preachers and pastors. A brother minister, well acquainted with the circumstances, says—"It is believed that no such country congregation, as Rocky River, can be found south of Pennsylvania; and Philadelphia is among the largest in the .Presbytery of Concord. Since his death, each church has its pastor, which might have been so long before that event, but for the attachment to him as a roan and a Minister."

A successor to Mr. Wilson says of him—"I have formed a very high estimate of his learning, piety, and successful labors as a minister of .Jesus Christ; and this estimate I have formed almost exclusively from intercourse with the people of his former charge, and the fruits still visible of his long-continued labors among them. 'I'o this day his opinions and example are often referred to, as, after the Bible, of paramount authority, and that by almost all classes in the community. It is no doubt owing, in a great measure, to Dr. Wilson's training, that Rocky River congregation is (perhaps I might say) noted for the following particulars, viz.

1st. General, constant, and punctual, as well as respectful attendance upon the stated public means of grace. All the families attend church.

"2d. Their system, union and harmony of action in managing congregational affairs, especially in financial concerns.

"3d. The very manifest intelligence, especially of the older people, and particularly in religious knowledge.

4th. The attention which is universally paid to the Catechisms and other doctrinal instructions of the church."

"It was his custom," says the author of a sketch of his life, "regularly to hold examinations in the various sections of his congregations, in which the adults were examined in the doctrines and precepts of the Bible, and the children were catechised in the most condescending and affectionate manner. Such examinations were instrumental in diffusing a spirit of improvement, removing prejudices against the truth, increasing the amount of scriptural knowledge, and securing steadfastness in the faith of Christians. Hence, perhaps, few congregations can be found where there is more knowledge respecting the doctrines of religion, compared with their attainments on other subjects, than those to which he ministered."

His manner of preaching, free from all harshness, was strikingly characterized by a tenderness that reached the hearts of those for whom it was felt. He never pretended a fervency which he did not feel; and reverence for God appeared both in the matter and manner of his sermons. He valued men's souls, and feared his God. "He trusted in God to make him faithful and successful in his work. This dependence upon God for success, so far from relaxing his diligence, stimulated him to greater activity in preaching the gospel, and was the ground of his encouragement amid all his labors." "His zeal did not rise and sink, as the outward appearances of usefulness were bright or forbidding. But his life presented a uniformity of untiring effort, which seemed to flow from an unshaken confidence in the presence and blessing of God. This strong and humble reliance upon God proved how deep and abiding was the impression of the magnitude and responsibility of his ministry. Dr. Wilson earnestly desired and confidently expected success in his work,—and he was not forsaken to the curse of those who do the word of God deceitfully."

He regarded an unwillingness to submit to the decision of pious, judicious, and disinterested arbitrators, as evidence of a bad cause, or proof of malignity inconsistent with the spirit of true religion. He believed that the members of the church are competent to settle their differences by friendly reference to each other, and that they are bound to do so by the laws of the Lord Jesus Christ. So judicious and affectionate were his counsels on this subject, and such the weight of his influence, that it was comparatively rare for suits to be taken by the members of his churches to the civil courts.

After laboring with his people some eleven years, he yielded to their solicitations to open an academy for the education of young men, particularly as some of the members of his charge wished to educate their sons for the ministry. He opened his academy about a mile from his house, in 1812, and had a flourishing school while he continued to teach, which was about twelve years. Most of his pupils entered public life, and twenty-five became ministers of the gospel. The following is a list:—Rev. Messrs. Jas. Morrison, N. R. Morgan, Thomas Alexander, John Silliinan, John M. Erwin, Robert King, James B. Stafford, R. H. Morrison, Elam J: Morrison, Hugh Wilson, Samuel L. Watson, Thomas Davis, Cyrus Johnston, Henry N. Pharr, J. Le Roy Davies, Win. B. Davies, C. Le Roy Boyd, James Stafford, Alexander E. Wilson, James E. Morrison, Robert Hall, John H. Wilson, Dion C. Pharr, Wm. N. Morrison, A. R. Pharr. In about fifteen years fifteen young men from Rocky River entered the ministry, many of whom could not have received a classical education but for Dr. Wilson's academy. His students loved him, venerated and obeyed him; and under the discipline of his school felt impelled to efforts after goodness and excellence.

Punctual in his attendance on the judicatories of the church, in which he was an active and beloved member, his last visits from home were in attendance on the Presbytery in Morganton, in the fall of 1830, and on the Synod, whose sessions were held soon after in Hopewell. From peculiar excitement, he slept little during these meetings, and returned hone laboring under a degree of exhaustion from which he never recovered. Dr. Morrison, the author of a short memoir of him that appeared in the Watchman of the South, who had been one of his pupils and had grown up under his ministry, says—" It was our privilege to visit him not long before his death. Apparently impressed with the belief that the interview might be the last, he voluntarily and tenderly spoke of his prospects. He stated distinctly, and perhaps repeated it, that in facing death, he had no transporting views or rapturous feelings, but a firm and sustaining hope of heaven, founded solely on the merits of Christ. He alluded to the labors of his life, only to praise God for the tokens of his grace; expressed entire submission to the divine will in reference to his dissolution, and a joyful expectation of spending eternity in the presence and work of the Redeemer. Nothing could be more animating than the confidence be expressed in our Lord Jesus Christ."

His death, confidently expected by himself, came at last somewhat unexpectedly to his family, as he himself had intimated that it probably would. The last evening of his life, he sat up till his usual hour, conversing cheerfully with his family, showing no special symptoms of his immediate dissolution, and having walked about that day. About three o'clock in the morning, he called to his son Isaac, complaining of being cold, and uttering a few broken incoherent expressions, became speechless. About nine o'clock on the morning of Saturday, the 30th of July, 1831, his spirit passed away from earth to meet his Saviour in paradise.

Dr. Robinson, of Poplar Tent, his long-tried and valued friend, his school-mate at Charlotte, his fellow student of theology, with Dr. Hall, of Iredell, and his near neighbor and co-laborer in the ministry for many years, reached his house on Saturday afternoon, according to a previous appointment, to spend the night and preach at Rocky River on the following Sabbath.

A large part of the Philadelphia congregation assembled with the congregation of Rocky River on Sabbath, and paid the last attention to the remains of the beloved pastor. The immense church of Rocky River being too small for the assembly, the corpse was placed in front of the stand or tent, in the beautiful grove occupied by the congregation for sacramental meetings, and the people gathered around. In that grove, sacred from recollections of communion services from time immemorial, and now hallowed by the first funeral rites of a pastor, they listened, with emotions unutterable, to the funeral discourse of the venerable man, who had come to visit, not to bury his friend; and then followed to the grave the remains of the minister under whose instruction the greater part of them had grown up to years of discretion, and many had obtained hopes of acceptance with God.

Of his nine children, five were sons; of these, two became ministers of the gospel. One, John Wilson, the successor of Dr. Hall, is still living. The other, Alexander E. Wilson, died in Africa. On account of an impediment in his speech, supposing that he could not be useful as a preacher, he had pursued the study and commenced the practice of medicine; but feeling the desire to spend and be spent in the labors of the gospel ministry increasing upon him, he gave up the very fair prospects by which he was surrounded in the pursuit of his profession, and devoted himself to the cause of missions in Africa, to which country the successor of Dr. Wilson, the Rev. Daniel Lindley, had turned his attention as the field of labor for which he would exchange the flourishing congregation of Rocky River. In company with his pastor, Mr. Wilson sailed to Africa. After many difficulties, the mission was established among the Zulu tribes with fair prospects; but the unhappy war between the natives and the colonists broke up the mission. Mr. Wilson was called by the providence of God to bury with his own hands his beloved wife, who had accompanied him from Richmond, Virginia, afflicted yet not dispirited by her death. The devoted woman having cheerfully encountered hardships to which she was unaccustomed, and as it appears unequal, just entered the little cabin built for her residence as a missionary, and found that in the mysterious providence of God, her life must end just when she supposed her missionary usefulness had commenced. Committing all things to the hand of Him whom she served, she was joyful in death, and sent to her relations and friends in America the cheering message that she was glad she had come to Africa, though she was to find so early a grave. After a visit to his native State, Mr. Wilson returned to Africa, and commenced the work of a missionary, with unabated zeal, on the Western coast. His race was short, being called to his reward on the day * * * of  * * * , he laid his bones in the soil of his intended field of labor, the offering from Rocky River, and the earnest of future blessings in that debased land.

"To comprehend how great a work Dr. Wilson performed, we should be able to tell into how many families he bore the words of instruction anal consolation, to how many souls he was the instrument of salvation, to how many minds he was the means of unsealing the fountains of knowledge; and not only how many ambassadors of Christ he was blessed of God in raising up, but how great their influence shall be for good on earth. * * * * No doubt, generations will pass before the witnesses of his useful ness below shall cease to meet him on high, and when the register shall be completed on earth, it will be remembered in Heaven."

"In the new grave-yard north of Rocky River church, to the left of the entrance stands the marble which marks the grave of this great and good man." The inscription upon the grave-stone of the only minister whose ashes repose with the congregation of Rocky River, is

Sacred to the memory of the learned, pious,
and venerable minister of the gospel, Rev.
John M. Wilson, D.D., who departed this life, July
30th, 1831, aged 62 years, for about 30 years the
able, and faithful, and beloved pastor of Rocky River
and Philadelphia churches. They that be wise shall
shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they
that turn many to righteousness, as the stars for ever and ever.

Dr. Wilson was about the ordinary height in person, of a remarkably pleasant, cheerful countenance; with a clear, blue, penetrating eye, and a fine forehead. Calmness, decision, and energy, were clearly indicated by his looks and movements. He was a rare combination of decision and force, with benignity and amiability.

Says one who sat long under his ministry, "It was amazing how he would hold the attention of his audience from beginning to the end of his sermon, using so little gesture, often manifesting deep feeling, seldom any excitement."


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