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The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life
Chapter XI - Religious Life (continued)


FROM what we have already said as to the life and ministry of John Black, those who know the type of character such a ministry is calculated to produce in the people, will be able to imagine this chapter and much more than it can contain, even should they not read it at all. But for many who may not have studied in the religious sphere the history of cause and effect, let it be written for the honor of the pastor and the people and for the glory of God. When the missionary came, as we have said, the colonists rallied around him loyally, and once the flood of the following year had gone down and possibilities of permanence became clearer, they set about the work of building the stone church that still stands on the edge of the prairie,

unhurt and impregnable against the warring of the elements. In the building of that church one of the most noticeable things was the absence of all adventitious-schemes for providing means, for the people, though poor in money, had a mind to work and opened the church free of debt. Building in those days was no easy or inexpensive task. The stones had to be brought across the prairie some fifteen miles, and were hauled on single sleds with oxen, almost one stone at a time, while all the lumber for floors, roof, pews, etc., had to be sawn by hand in the old-fashioned "saw-pit," in which one man above and another below pursued through the livelong day their tedious and laborious task. Yet in due time the church was finished, with walls between two and three feet thick of stone "rough-casted" on the outside; long pews were made, with a few square ones near the pulpit, the pulpit and precentor’s desk were set on high, a gallery was constructed, and the whole work was of such a thorough if rugged kind that it stands unimpaired to this day, except where some alterations have been made. A bell was set in the high steeple, and there for all these years it has rung out its Sabbath summons across the plain, and has tolled the requiem over the young and old who lie buried around the church in the "city of the dead." Knowing something of the rugged strength and ability of many whose dust lies there, and who, had their environment been different, might have made their influence felt beyond their own circle, I never stand within the precincts of that God’s acre without thinking on those lines in Gray’s "Elegy";

"Some village Hampden who with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood."

To the people whose bodies were buried there from the homes around, religion was a real and a vital thing. Thoroughly schooled in the standards of their Church, the Bible above all was their Book, and, undisturbed by any critical theories, they believed it as the Word of God from the sublime "In the beginning" clear through to the last triumphal acclaim of the Apocalypse. Hence the Book entered into the very fibre of their being, and gave them an unbending strength in life and infinite comfort down in the death-shade at the close.

In the matter of their Church and their minister, though differences of opinion would sometimes arise, loyalty and duty had been their ruling ideas, from church attendance right on to such material support as they were able to give. The church services and the prayer-meetings were religiously attended, and in all kinds of weather and at all seasons the minister was sure of a goodly number whenever the time of service came. To the cottage prayer-meetings, held in the farm-houses on the winter nights by the light of tallow dips, we have seen men come long distances in weather severe enough to make that mode of travel very unpleasant. In their midst John Black stood for all that was true and good, and though the younger people may have felt sometimes that his religion was of a stern type, they knew that be was sternest of all with himself, and hence he was regarded by all the people of the district with a love and reverence almost unbounded.

As an example of his rigid sense of duty, we recall once a literary meeting in which some dialogue was being rendered, and in the course of which some apostrophe to the gods occurred; but when it was to be repeated Dr. Black said, "Please omit those profane expressions" —an incident somewhat disconcerting to the reciters, but characteristic of a man who felt that homage should be paid to one only, the living and true God. As an illustration of the way in which he was reverenced by all, it is worth while to relate another incident, told by one who was present at the time. A social tea-meeting was in progress in one portion of the settlement, called Little Britain, when a burly half-breed, a man of immense physical strength and, withal, a noted bully, entered in a mischievous state of intoxication, and began by word and act to make things very unsafe for those with whom he came in contact. He was one of those men who become excited almost to madness by liquor, and so all attempts to quiet him only made matters worse, and things were becoming serious when some one thought of Dr. Black being next door. He was at once sent for, and coming up to the bully put his hand upon his shoulder and called him by name. The man turned fiercely around, but when he saw the venerable face of the minister of Kildonan he sank down with the most profuse promises that he would be quiet, and he kept his word. Verily it must have reminded those present of the fierce demoniac calmed out of his violence at the touch and word of the Christ.

In their religious life the Kildonan people were not demonstrative, but the opposite. Reticence is characteristic of the Scottish nature in any case, and the "bodily exercise" and religious athletics of some present day "evangelistic" methods they did not profess to understand. We remember the first "revival" service held in the old church. Services were being held in the neighboring town of Winnipeg, and when request was made by those in charge to come to Kildonan, Dr. Black, though not, perhaps, much acquainted with the methods to be followed, consented, so as not to stand in the way of possible good to the young people. The regular service in the church was always conducted with the utmost decorum. At the opening hour the minister, in gown and bands, came slowly up to the pulpit, but I can see the horror and amazement of the people as the "evangelist" came up the aisle pulling off a fur coat and talking volubly about the weather, etc., as he went. At one of the meetings some man from Winnipeg, after a few words, called upon all who were Christians to stand up. No one arose, and when a second and a third appeal were in vain, the man turned to the old minister and said something implying that it was strange he had no Christians there after all those years. An old elder present could stand a good deal, but he could not stand anything like a slur on Dr. Black, and so he arose and addressed the speaker in words to this effect: "There are Christians here, but we do not show our religion in that way. We have not been brought up to it, and what is more we do not want it. If you have a good word of truth for us we will be glad to hear it, but if you have nothing better to say than asking us to stand up you had better sit down." It is scarcely necessary to say that the method was not followed at subsequent meetings. The elder referred to in this incident is, in many respects, a type of the character produced under Dr. Black’s ministry. He stood by his minister equally in all the circle of his work. He faithfully seconded the minister’s efforts in pastoral visitation, and to this day is one of the first to be found at any sick-bed of which he hears. Somewhat brusque in manner and somewhat unpolished in address, people need to know him to appreciate him, but where he is best known he is most loved. At prayer-meetings we have known him differ from a later minister, a young man whose staunch friend he was, on the interpretation of a parable (and we are bound to say the elder was right on the point in our view), but no minister who appreciated true worth would resent the opinion of a loving and devoted helper to whom the Bible was the best beloved and the best known of all books. I remember once, in a neighbor’s house, assisting a son to place the body of his father in a coffin which this elder had made and brought to the house.

I recall the apparently indifferent manner in which the elder acted and spoke as he was directing us, but the members of that family knew well w hat a bleeding heart he was hiding under his brusqueness, and how, ere he left their humble dwelling, he would lead them in prayer so that the heavens would seem to open above them in their sorrow.


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