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William Sherriff, Town Missionary

THIS well-known, self-denying, and much-respected servant of Jesus Christ, sunk at last to rest on Thursday evening, 9th July, 1891, in the 77th year of his age. He had been confined to bed for some months; but when I saw him on the Saturday before his death, he was bright and cheerful, and full of gratitude to the friends who had been so kind to him. Shortly after, congestion of the lungs set in, and after a brief period of unconsciousness he passed away. Mr Sherriff came to Girvan about 36 years ago, as agent of the West Coast Mission; and when that Mission gave up the station, the people of Girvan adopted him as their Town Missionary, in which capacity he has served them ever since. He had originally been a shoemaker in Carnoustie, Forfarshire, then a teacher in a country school, and finally a lay missionary among the poor. This latter work engaged his whole sympathies, and, I daresay, he would not have exchanged his position for the highest on earth.

So far as moral influence goes, it is always character that tells in the long run; and Mr Sherriffs character was a tower of strength to him. Everybody respected him, gentle and simple. His preaching might not be of the brightest, but his life added weight to his words; for his conduct was a living sermon of the truths he taught.

He had wonderful patience with the ungrateful and the undeserving, and could forgive until seventy times seven. One cause of his patience was his hopefulness. He never despaired of the worst. Sometimes, it is true, he would grow despondent, and ask me—"Did you ever know a man who had wrought so long in a place with such poor results?' I told him, of course, that every earnest worker had the same question to ask, from Isaiah downwards ; and quoted the saying of John Knox in his old days—"I'm grown weary of the world as the world is of me." But he at once looked up and said—"But I am not in the least weary of my work, dear; I could go on with that cheerfully as long as God wishes me."

The first feature of Mr Sherriff's character that struck those who knew him was his piety. He was eminently a God-fearing man. In all places, and under all circumstances, he remembered God, and was not ashamed to own Him. In voting for a minister, he said he always voted for the one who seemed converted. Before going to speak to a hard case, he would drop into a neighbour's house and ask wisdom in prayer to be enabled to speak the right word. In thanking me for some service I had rendered him, he said he did not know how to express his gratitude to God and me.

Perhaps the next feature that shone brightest in his character was his kindheartedness. A tale of distress at once melted him, and he would give away his last farthing. The money he was intrusted with to give to needful cases was always changed into threepenny pieces, and given away in that form. When I first took a number of the Poor on a Jaunt to Girvan, he came and addressed them, and gave each a penny by way of a keepsake. And he repeated this "keepsake" at our visit this year. A Maybole weaver, now dead, told me that many years ago, he had gone to Girvan seeking work, but found none. He was sitting in a lodging-house, having just enough to pay for his bed, when Mr Sherriff came in, and, learning the circumstances, gave him threepence to pay for his breakfast, being all he had in his pocket. After a few minutes, he came back again with twopence extra, which he had just discovered in another pocket.

Another outstanding feature in Mr SherrifTs character was his simplicity. He was transparently honest—"an Israelite indeed, in whom there was no guile." He was often deceived, but that circumstance never soured him. He went on to the end, hoping the best. Still, conjoined with this simplicity, there was a deal of Scotch shrewdness. I remember him telling me that he once drew up a list of some thirty death-bed conversions which he had confidence in. These people afterwards recovered, but one by one they all went back to their old ways, until he was left with only one, of whose stability he was beginning to have grave doubts. His conclusion was—"You can't tell when a man is converted. The man himself may be deceived. The only proof is continuance in well-doing."

A feature in Mr SherrifTs character that was plain to everybody was his faithfulness. He lived entirely for his work. How to get those meetings of his kept up was his great thought. No stress of weather, no scantiness in the attendance, ever daunted him. Not even was family affliction allowed to interfere with his public duties. When his wife lay dead in his house, he went on with his meetings in the country as usual. For, as a priest in the old times was forbidden to show any sign of mourning, so the work of God must be carried on by the minister, no matter how sore his heart may be within.

His preaching was entirely Scriptural, and his infallible model was Spurgeon. In fact, the Bible and Spurgeon were, latterly at least, his sole mental food. Occasionally, however, when addressing a meeting of the young, he would blossom into allegory, or relate an anecdote of his youthful days, in which there would be a dash of quiet east-country humour. One of his parables, relating to the tragic fate of one of his pet rabbits, I append to this notice.

His plans of working included visiting (distinguishing, as he always did in his Reports, between short visits and long ones)—Tract distribution, and the loan of Spurgeon*s Sermons—Bible classes—with Prayer meetings on Sundays and week-nights, both in town and country. At one time, he opened a free evening school for reading and writing, and, latterly, he superintended a Home for poor Christians, which was supported by voluntary contributions. He also took a deep interest in Temperance work in the town and was never weary inveighing against what he called "the three poisonsWhisky, Tobacco, and Tea." Sunday and Saturday, wet and dry, late and early, he went about the discharge of his duties, and his health kept wonderfully good, and his spirits buoyant to the last.

He was somewhat old-fashioned in his views, and not easily turned out of his way. But nobody thought of quarrelling with one who was so manifestly sincere and well-meaning. Once, when lamenting his want of success, I asked him—"Did you ever pray, Mr Sherriff, for a little originality?" He smiled, and said he had never thought of that. But I don't think his heart would have gone along with that prayer; for he was intensely conservative, and liked to keep by the old paths, and even the old ruts. The only original practice he had was to go through the streets ringing a small bell, and reading out certain .verses of Scripture. And I once gladdened his heart by telling him of certain good effects from this practice that had come under my notice.

It would hardly be fair, perhaps, to judge of our Missionary by an intellectual standard. He knew his Bible well, but he had little other learning. In fact, he had little taste for other learning. One consequence of this was that his preaching was apt to become monotonous. He kept rigidly to the fundamentals, and never wearied going over the common evangelical round. But his earnestness of manner, his simplicity of life, his faithfulness to duty, and his overflowing kindliness of heart, made people think little of his intellectual deficiencies, and see only a man who put his religion into practice every day, and every hour of the day.

He had his own share of life's troubles. His wife, who predeceased him by six years, became blind before her death. His brother, too, became paralytic, and was cast upon his care. One by one his other relatives died, leaving him at the last a lonely, childless man. But he was humble, happy, and sweet-tempered; and I think every earthly desire he had was granted to him before he died. He was full of gratitude to the many friends God had raised up around him. What he was to the poor of Girvan, the poor themselves will know more fully now that he is gone; while as to the town at large, it is something to have had a man living for over thirty years in their midst whom everybody recognised as a sincere Christian and a worthy, useful man. Girvan gave him honourable burial; and when we left him in the Doune Cemetery, I could not but repeat over his grave.—"Here lies a good man; simple-minded, kindly-hearted, single-eyed, who served his generation faithfully by the will of God, and died leaving neither an enemy nor a wrong behind him.'"


Children, I will tell you a story about a little rabbit I once had. It had a nice house all to itself, with plenty of clover and green kail, not to speak of porridge and milk in the morning, with carrots and other dainties occasionally. And this little rabbit had not only a house, but a place to run about in, with ten wooden spars nailed across it, to keep the cats out, which you know was very necessary. But the poor silly rabbit did not understand this, and thought that the spars were put there merely to prevent it from getting out into the garden, which lay temptingly in view. And so one night it set to work, and scraped and bit its way through one of the spars, and was found lying outside next morning, killed by a cat.

Now, children, this story is a parable. You are the little rabbit, and God has placed you in this beautiful world; but there is an enemy abroad, and so, to keep you safe, He has set up ten commandments, which He warns you not to break, else the devil will be upon you. But many children are as senseless as the rabbit, and imagine that these commandments are not there for keeping the enemy out but for keeping them in; and so they break through the spars of safety, and find themselves in the power of the enemy.

But I need not blame children alone; for all the people in the world have broken out of the house God has provided for them. I look abroad and see these on every side. For what are drunkards, thieves, and sinners of every kind, but poor senseless rabbits, who have escaped out of their hutch by breaking through the spars? They wished to be free, and this is their end.

I did not come in time to save my little rabbit's life; but our Master has come to save us, and His warning to each of us this day is—Beware of breaking through the spars. Surely if the little rabbit had been saved out of the claws of the cat, it would never have sought to get out again. I do not know about that. But I know that many men and women, as well as boys and girls, never learn that lesson. Children, give heed to those words of Scripture:—"This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments: and His commandments are not grievous."

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