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Sketches of Virginia
Chapter XVIII. - John H. Rice, D. D.


The birth-place of John H. Rice was in Bedford County, Virginia, in sight of the Peaks of Otter. Fearlessness, composure, frugality, open-handed hospitality, frankness, and deep religious feelings, characterized the region in which he was born. Plain fare, plain dress, little money, cheerful hearts, active spirits, capability of endurance, and shrewd minds, were to be found in log-houses in that fertile and magnificent county, lying south of the river James, and at the base of the Blue Ridge.

Benjamin and Catherine Rice had six children, Edith, David, John Holt, Sarah, Benjamin Holt, and Elizabeth. John Holt, the third child, and second son, was born the 28th of November, 1777. The father grew up in Hanover County, and was by profession a lawyer, a man frank in his manners, sociable in bis disposition, and shrewd in his apprehensions. A natural vein of humor, and his determined piety, made him a pleasant and safe companion, and a desirable friend. At the time of the birth of his second son, he was deputy Clerk of Bedford County, and ruling elder in the congregation of Peaks and Pisgah, the pastoral charge of his uncle, David Rice, afterwards known as the apostle of Kentucky. The mother, Catherine Holt, a near relative of the second wife of Rev. Samuel Davies., born and reared in Hanover County, possessed a gentle disposition and a cultivated mind, was domestic in her habits, and devotedly pious.

Mr. Rice lived upon a small tract of land belonging to the brother of his wife, the Rev. John White Holt, an Episcopal minister, and had an income of eighty pounds from the Clerk’s Office, in addition to the profits of his legal practice. His unsullied purity of principle and life, and his unsophisticated manners gave him influence and a high standing in society. Hospitality, in those days of simplicity, unincumbered with expensive entertainments, was the source of great enjoyment and mental improvement. The habits of the country ensured the visitor a cheerful welcome to a plentiful supply of any provision the host might have prepared, or was convenient. Of books the number was small, and the circulation of newspapers very limited; and the conversation of intelligent visitors, at the evening fireside, or the table of refreshment, was eagerly sought for the passing enjoyment, and the improvement of a rising family. Some of the finest characters of the Revolution, and the times succeeding, were formed under this social influence, this contact with enlarged and improved minds. The earliest associations of Mr. Rice’s young family were with the good and the intelligent. The uncle of the father, the pastor of the Presbyterian congregation, and the brother of the mother, an Episcopal minister, exercised an elevating religious influence in their familiar intercourse with the young people.

The son John Holt, when about two years old, appeared, after a long illness, to be near his end. He was taken from his cradle and laid upon the bed to breathe his last. Suddenly, to the surprise of the family standing around, and commending him to God, he began to revive. His recovery was rapid. His uncle Holt, declared solemnly, that he believed the child was spared for some great and good purpose, and charged the mother to bring him up piously for the work designed by divine Providence. He promised his aid in giving him a classical education. These words, like those spoken to Hannah, deeply impressed the mother’s heart; and, in after years, affected the child’s mind. Who can measure the influence of the thought — “I am called of God” — on the heart of a noble-minded child? Soon after this sickness his uncle, William Rice, taught school .in the neighborhood, at Coffee’s old field, and resided with the family. The little boy often went with his uncle to the school, sometimes riding on his shoulders; and the uncle amused himself by the way, and at home, in teaching the boy to call the letters, and spell words. The father was surprised to find that he could read, before he thought him old enough to be taught; and in his joy exclaimed — “that boy shall have a good education.” By the time he was four years old, he would sit on a cricket by his mother’s knee, and read aloud to her in the Bible, and Watts’s Psalms and Hymns.

When about eight years of age, he commenced the Latin Grammar at the school of his uncle Holt, in Botetourt County. That school being broken up in about a year, on account of his uncle’s health, he returned home, and was, for a time, under the tuition of Rev. James Mitchel, the son-in-law and successor of David Rice. He then came under the instruction of a number of teachers in succession in the neighborhood, from none of whom he received any particular advantage. The general impression on his mind, from the whole, was unfavorable to systematic study; the evil of which he felt many years, perhaps the consequences followed through life; first in the time lost in making acquirements in after years which might have been made in these, and then the effort to counteract a bad habit of thinking and acting. His mind, however, was slowly maturing, and gathering stores of miscellaneous wealth for future use.

In his thirteenth year, young Rice suffered a calamity in the affliction that came upon him, the death of his mother. Mr. Rice and his children saw more clearly from day to day, as weeks and months rolled on, the length and breadth of the distress that followed the bereavement. The guiding hand of Mrs. Rice being paralyzed, discomforts came in upon the family, and the widowed husband, like many another man, felt he had lost the comfort and charm of his house. John Holt was old enough to appreciate and remember his mother ; and through life he cherished a lively recollection of her form, her affection, and her instructions. She had already cast the mould of the boy’s, character, and laid the foundation of the man. The habit of entire self-c6ntrol so remarkable in him, he attributed, under the blessing of God, to the earnest persuasion and instruction of his sainted mother to govern his naturally hasty temper; and his thirst for knowledge and desire for improvement had been cherished, if not instilled, by her tender care.

When fifteen years of age he was permitted by his pastor, James Mitchel, to make a public profession of religion. He had witnessed the great revival in Bedford, the revival that began in Charlotte and Prince Edward, and was promoted by the labors of Smith, Graham, Legrand, Lacy, Mitchel, and Turner. From his earliest life in religion, he believed that true piety consists in a spirit of ardent devotion, deep penitence, love of purity, and an earnest attachment to Christ. He had trembled under the warnings of Mitchel, been agitated by the pathetic exhortations of Turner, moved by the persuasions of Legrand, and enlightened and impressed by Smith and Graham. The standard of religious experience formed in the churches about the time he became a member, he labored to erect wherever he preached in after life; rallying the church around that, he strove to lead her on to high achievements of godly living; a standard higher than any since the days of Davies, and having the elements of perfection.

On the division of the County of Bedford, in the year 1T84, Mr. Rice removed to Liberty, the new County seat. His worldly circumstances were improved by his marriage with a widow of the brother of Patrick Henry. The first Mrs. Rice excelled in tenderness and piety; the second in domestic management and success in worldly affairs. The step-mother not being deeply impressed by the abilities of John Holt, and perhaps not valuing at a high rate a liberal education, and consulting for the future welfare of the boy, proposed that, as the father probably would not be able to give him a farm, he should be put to some good trade. The father and the son objected. The son thought of nothing but an education, and the father cherished the desire, and God’s providence favored the child.

Dr. Rice used to tell some circumstances of his early life, characteristic of himself and the country. Cotton was reared as an indispensable material for clothing, and was manufactured in the family. Whitney’s cotton-gin was not then invented, and the preparation of the cotton for the spindle was a tedious operation, and gave employment to the fingers of servants and children the early part of the long winter nights. After supper, the children and servants were gathered round the blazing hearth, each with his regular task of cotton from the field in balls, to be freed from seeds and impurities. Pieces of the heart of pine, and knots saturated with turpentine, by a process of nature, supplied the place of candles and lamps. Burning on the hearth, they gave a splendid light. Where the rich pines abounded, candles were scarcely known m the domestic concerns. Thousands of families in the Southern and Western country at this time enjoy this light by night. By this, young Rice performed his regular nightly tasks of cotton picking, and then indulged his appetite for reading and study. “Often,” said he, “as the flames wasted, have I thrown myself at full length upon the floor, drawing nearer and nearer the decaying brands, and finally thrusting my head into the very ashes, to catch the last gleam of light.” Multitudes of Southern youths have conned their school tasks by the pine light; and men in high station have amused their visitors, by contrasting the simplicity of their boyish days with the luxuries of their grandchildren. Dr. Hill was accustomed to describe the cotton pickings with great glee.

Young Rice was sent to Liberty Hall Academy; Rev. William Graham, in the meridian of his fame, presided. Mr. Edward Graham, the brother and assistant of the president, writing, in the later years of his life, says: “ his moral character was entirely correct; that he gave much of his time to miscellaneous reading, and was not particularly distinguished in his classical studies.” Young Rice manifested a desire of excellence, but never appeared ambitious of surpassing his classmates. . It is not probable that he studied one hour, during his academic life, with the desire of supremacy. His habits of mind did not fit him to shine in the class-room, and he was probably too indifferent to classic honors. After remaining at the academy about a year and a-half, he was recalled by his father, for reasons of a pecuniary nature. Mr. George A. Baxter, the pupil, and ultimately the successor, of Graham, was teaching an academy at New London. Learning the circumstances of young Rice, he invited him to pursue his studies with him, and be a partner of his room. He remained with Mr. Baxter about a year, reciting regularly in the school, and in his leisure hours perusing choice works of English literature. His acquaintance with the classics became intimate and correct, and the productions of his pen manifested the advantage of his English reading. Mr. Baxter considered young Rice correct in morals and pious, kind in heart, reserved in company, conversing on moral and religious subjects with propriety, but possessing little of that small talk essential to the cheerfulness of social circles. He gave no intimations of any extraordinary powers, or brilliancy of intellect. His mind was slow in its operations, but safe in its conclusions. The friendship formed between the teacher and his pupil ripened with increasing years; the one became President of Washington College, and the other Professor in Union Theological Seminary, which position he yielded by death to the friend and teacher of his youth.

Mr. Rice commenced the work of a teacher in the family of Mr. Nelson, of Malvern Hills, about thirty miles below Richmond. Judge William Nelson, while attending a session of the District Court at New London, made inquiries for a teacher for the family of his kinsman. Mr. Baxter recommended young Rice; and, with, the consent of his lather, he was engaged for the office. Patrick Henry being at this sessions of the court, the step-son of his brother’s widow was introduced to him in the court-house yard. The orator addressed a few words of encouragement to the youth, and said, “be sure, my son, remember the best men always make themselves.” Inoperative at the time, this sentiment was pondered, in after years, as a great historic truth in Virginia, among statesmen and divines. An eminent British statesman said, “No man can rise without patronage.” Patrick Henry, after untold mortifications, had risen to a commanding position; and the youth he addressed at New London, in his kindness, after efforts equally great, without the mortifications, left a name among the churches never to pass away.

With his father’s blessing, ten shillings in his pocket, and all his wardrobe in a handkerchief, he walked to James River, stepped on board a market boat, and floated down to Richmond. Canal boats, rail cars, and trunks of baggage, were unknown in those days; and young Rice would probably have been amazed at the luggage of some students in these days of progress in education. In, Mr. Nelson’s family he showed himself worthy of the great kindness he received, by his diligent attention to his duties as a teacher, his modesty, and obliging deportment. Here he was introduced to the highly polished society of the “Ancient Dominion,” at an age to feel its allurement, and its power to refine. He made himself agreeable to the family, and the numerous visitors. His high tone of honorable and refined intercourse with ladies, which rendered him peculiarly pleasing and useful in Richmond, and throughout Virginia, and wherever else he visited, was greatly improved by his social relations with the society of Malvern Hills. Naturally unsociable, he learned winning manners. With his kind heart and sound principles, he became irresistible, where he determined to please a social circle.

This improvement in his manners was bought with trials of heart. His sense of truth and justice was accompanied with a keen perception of the ridiculous and absurd. He could be pleasant in his remarks, like his father, humorous in his observations, and when excited or offended, keenly satirical. The world opened upon him with her enchantments, and touched his heart. His well arranged principles guarded him against the persuasives to sin, while the softening influence of refined society wore away his awkwardness, and reserve, and the greenness of boyhood. Religious society once familiar, now necessary to preserve the balance of his mind, and purity of his heart, was a rare enjoyment, almost a thing unknown. Men of sprightly minds and pleasing manners uttered in his hearing the sentiments that prevailed in Paris, and produced the arguments of the leaders of the French Revolution, which he was not prepared to answer, and by the novelty of which he was sometimes confounded. In the midst ot luxuries unusual, and prospectively beyond his enjoyment, and not congenial to his moral tastes, he began first to feel lonely; and then an indifference towards his fellow men came over him; and then lastly a strange coldness towards his God. He was passing the trial which in some form awaits all youth as they come upon the great theatre of the world. First, is the kind feeling towards all; then, as bitter experience makes them partially wiser, comes the. distrust of men which may he very general; then as the tide of affairs roll on, unless prosperous business, or kind attention of the good, or the internal influences of God’s amazing grace arrest the downward course, come misanthropy, hardness of heart, free thinking, perhaps dissipation, Atheism, and an unhonored death.

Young Rice never knew, till this time, the power within him to hate his fellow man, nor the bitterness, that hidden under ridicule and sarcasm, could amuse and sting the world, and torment the possessor’s heart. He knew he had a power that might be fearful or amusing, but its two edges he found out by-some inward wounds that were healed by a kind mother’s hand in Prince Edward. He remained in the family of Mr. Nelson about a year and a half. On a visit to his father’s house he was seized with a violent and protracted fever. During the progress of the disease he fathomed the excellence of Deism, of the French Moral Philosophy, of the being without God in the world: and the line soon reached the bottom. Deism became his abhorrence on principle and on feeling. He sounded the grace of the gospel, and like the God from whom it flowed, it was without shore or bottom, an ocean in which he might swim for Eternity. The one might be charming in the revelries of a voluptuous city, the other was the help of a sinner as he approached his God with the veil torn from his heart. The world now appeared to him, empty as a treasure, false as a support, lovely as a work of God ; and full of wisdom and goodness, as man’s place of trial. The cheerfulness and piety of his father were priceless in his eyes. His heart was broken, and not healed ; the fashion of Christ was appearing, but not the full image of unsullied brightness that shone out in succeeding years. The work of reconstruction was reserved as the work of another agency more winning than sickness.

On the restoration of his health he sought employment as a teacher. Bearing in the kindest remembrance the family in which he had been employed ; and carrying with him their warmest wishes for his prosperity, and enjoying their friendship through life, like all youth pleased with “novelty and fond of change,” he turned his attention to another part of his native state. Hearing that a tutor was wanting in Hampden Sidney College, he sought the office. The Presbytery of Hanover held its fall session, Oct., 1796, at Bethel Meeting House in Bedford. Besides Mitchel and Turner, the co-pastors of his native congregation, Lacy, Alexander, and Lyle, were present. The father of Mr. Rice, as an elder, was member. The ministers were all deeply interested in the College, and some of them warm friends of the father, and prepared to favor the son. With such introduction as he could procure he made application to the trustees, by a personal interview.

With his bundle in his hand, he proceeded on foot through Campbell County, and part of Charlotte to Prince Edward; and found that the trustees were in correspondence with Robert Logan of Fincastle, and waiting a final answer. Encouraged to expect the appointment if Mr. Logan declined, and anxious to know the event he returned to Bedford, crossed the Blue Ridge, and waited on Mr. Logan. Returning to Prince Edward with a communication from Mr. Logan declining the office, and recommending Mr. Rice to the attention of the trustees, this long pedestrian journey was crowned with success; he received the appointment.

Major James Morton, Treasurer of the Board, took him to his residence to remain the short time intervening the commencement of his labors as teacher. From that visit Willington became associated, in the heart of young Rice, with all that is kind, and excellent, and lovely. The Major advanced a small sum of money for some claims due in Lexington, and furnished him with clothing for the winter. And Mrs. Morton, in her kind and Christian manner, won his confidence. The intimate friendship that followed, Dr. Rice always acknowledged as having a most controlling influence throughout his whole succeeding life. He had passed his childhood in retired life; in his early youth he had been with the polished world; and now he was introduced to a sphere of activity in pursuit, and seclusion in living, under the influence of Christian example of the most endearing domestic nature at Willington, in Mrs. Morton; and the most admirable public exhibition in Archibald Alexander. In Mrs. Morton he seemed to himself to find his own dear mother revived, and by that name he called her long before the thought was formed that she might be so in reality. With the confidence of a son he laid open to her his distress of soul, and told her his hopes and fears, and the perplexing experience through which he had passed. Her counsels and instructions were, by the blessing of God, the means of rescuing him from the hardening influences of an infidel philosophy, which he could neither believe, or with clear reasons decidedly reject; they closed the springs of bitterness, and opened the fountains of benevolence. He used to say of Mrs. Morton — “It was impossible to know such a woman without thinking more kindly of his fellow-men for her sake.” During the winter the pupils were few and the duties of the teacher light. The hours not required in teaching and preparation for recitations, were devoted to literary reading and composition. He practised the celebrated rule of reading some well-written piece, and then, without relying upon verbal memory, attempting to reproduce the style and thoughts of the author. He wrote narratives and essays, and made compends of important treatises. His facility in composition, in after years, may be traced to the efforts at improvement made at New London, and his early residence at Hampden Sidney.


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