SYDNEY BLACK BIOGRAPHY - CHAPTER 5

SYDNEY BLACK

CHAPTER 5

LAST DAYS

THE first public intimation that all was not well with Sydney Black appeared in the month of November, 1902, when the readers of the little monthly paper issued from Twynholm Hall were advised that he was dangerously ill. He had been present at an Officers' Meeting on Wednesday, 5th November, and on reaching home had complained of severe pain. His indisposition increased in severity until it was apparent to his relatives that the illness was likely to be a prolonged one. The news of his affliction came as a great surprise and grief to many who had not discerned the signs of waning strength. He had appeared so strong and robust that it seemed impossible that anything serious could trouble him; but to those who knew him intimately it had been a matter for wonder that he had been able for so long to maintain the strain of his exacting and exciting life. The illness proved to be that distressing, and nearly always fatal ailment, Bright's disease. For years it had been slowly and insidiously working upon his splendid frame, until it was too late to check its ravages. The causes were only too obvious. Long hours without proper meals, due to no neglect on the part of those who loved him, but to his own temperament, which made him too impatient to delay his work for necessary food. Oftentimes he would return home at 11 o'clock at night, exhausted, wet through, and having had no suitable food since breakfast. His work as a preacher of the Gospel was in itself a great strain, for he never spared himself, but preached as if the eternal future of every one of his hearers depended on the words he uttered. To do this for twenty years, not twice in each week, but often ten or more times; to preach, as he did, with passion and vehemence; living himself in every sentence, feeling intensely every thought, pouring himself out in white-hot words; pleading, persuading, rebuking, denouncing; all this was to make demands upon the nerves and brain and body, which the strongest constitution could alone sustain, and that only for a time. Little wonder that the fiery soul fretted the body to decay.

The months passed sadly while hope alternated with fear. Now, he was a little better and was planning new work, to be undertaken as soon as he could be about again; later, the illness had taken an unfavourable turn, and anxiety was visible on the faces of his friends. Amidst it all, he maintained the utmost Christian fortitude and resignation, and even found strength to address letters of hope and encouragement to the Church at Twynholm and to individual members. Here is a letter written to the Church, and read at the morning meeting on 28th December, 1902:-

"BELOVED IN THE LORD,

"May grace, mercy and peace be abundantly realised by each of you throughout the services of the last Lord's Day of this waning year! May it, indeed, be with all of you, as it is with the writer, a season of faithful heart-searching and self examination; and above all, may there be all round much intense reconsecration to the life and service of our Blessed Lord and Master, Amen and Amen!

"I have greatly desired, in my bonds and affliction, to write to you for some weeks past; but have purposely deferred the opportunity in the hope of finding myself in a position to write both definitely and favourably as to my physical condition, and the prospect of a return to my much loved work in the midst of my brethren, and amongst the poor perishing masses of our fellow men, outside the fold of the Good Shepherd.

"With much sorrow, yet at the same time completely trusting in the wisdom and goodness of my Heavenly Father, I have to report to you that I am not able, as I had fondly desired, to write either fully or favourably. During the last few days fresh developments have manifested themselves in my condition, and I have been so very weak as to be quite unable either to write or study for more than a few minutes at a time.

"I desire specially to thank all those brethren who have forwarded such constant and affectionate messages, both written and verbal, during these long weeks of confinement; as also those who have so graciously ministered to my encouragement by their timely and helpful visits. May heaven's richest benediction rest upon them all!

"Bear up your afflicted brother at the Blood-stained Mercy Seat! Remember my thoughts and aspirations are with you around the Lord's Table on this bright resurrection morning. I have been immensely cheered to learn of the spontaneous and whole-souled manner in which several brethren and sisters have risen to the occasion, by coming forward and offering to 'be anything' or to 'do anything,' if so be that the glorious work we have in hand may be helped forward.

"Farewell, beloved fellow-citizens of Christ's Kingdom - just for the present!

'In holy duties let the day,

In holy pleasures pass away,

How sweet a Lord's Day thus to spend

In hope of one that ne'er shall end.'

"With warmest Christian affection and every good wish for the New Year.

"Your afflicted Evangelist and fellow-labourer in Gospel Bonds,

SYDNEY BLACK."

This letter is typical of several addressed by him to the Church during the last months of his life. Each of them expressed the same brave spirit of hopefulness with a quiet submission to the Divine will. At times the desire to be at work would make him impatient, for it was not easy for him to be still.

In the Spring of 1903 he was removed to Ventnor under the devoted care of his mother, and, for a time, it seemed as if the change had effected an improvement in his condition. Bournemouth was tried next, and hopes were further quickened by what appeared to be marked signs of returning strength, so much so that in July it was decided to try what a course of treatment at Matlock would do. A few weeks passed, during which it began to be increasingly evident that the favourable signs upon which so much hope had been based, were only the brightening flame which springs up before the light dies out. Late in August it was necessary to remove Mr. Black to his home in London, while he still had strength to travel. During the remaining weeks everything that love could do was done for him, and every attention was repaid a hundredfold by his gratitude and affection. His courage never wavered, nor did his belief in the Divine Wisdom ever falter. His cousin who visited him in July, when it was plain that his condition was most serious, wrote of "his bright, cheerful and intrepid spirit" as being "a revelation of the depth and breadth of his soul," and in the same letter she quotes the words of her husband:-

"I do not see how the most sceptical could have any other feeling for the Christian religion than one of re-awakened interest, upon seeing the consolation brought by it to this sincere professor of its truths as shown in his calm and courageous bearing. No anxiety or fear, nothing but serenity and unquestioning acceptance of God's will."

His sister, Mrs. C.W. Batten, who was constant in her attendance and untiring in her devotion, speaks of an occasion when, to use her own words:-

"I made a remark as to the strangeness of the Lord's dealing with him, while others, whose lives seemed useless both to themselves and everyone else, were spared to pursue their evil ways. He checked me at once, and with his perfect confidence and resignation, as at all times, told me never to doubt the working of an ever-loving Father; that He always acted for the best, and that he could trust Him absolutely whatever happened. His confidence and trust in his heavenly Father were ever perfectly maintained right to the end.

"He was always with him - 'Too wise to err, to good to be unkind.'

"During all his dreadful suffering and pain, his perfect resignation to His Father's will was a lesson which I think was deeply impressed upon all those who loved him and were privileged to come in contact with him."

On Thursday evening, 22nd October, 1903, at the age of 43, he passed away, after weeks of great suffering, borne with heroic fortitude. The news of his passing was sent out in terms which he himself would have approved: "Promoted to higher service."

The sense of loss which the Churches of Christ in this country experienced, found instant expression in the hundreds of letters which the bereaved family received, and were a remarkable testimony to the influence Sydney Black had exerted and the affection with which he was regarded by his brethren. To meet the universal desire of the community, amongst, and for whom, his chief work had been done, the parents consented that opportunity should be given to all who desired to do so to view their departed friend and comrade, and his body was removed to Twynholm Hall. Thousands of all sorts and conditions of people passed through the Hall, most of them showing unmistakable signs of grief and regard for their true friend.

The last discourse preached by Mr. Black was on the passage in Romans 6:38-39, "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord," and this text, with its confident ring of assured victory, found a prominent and fitting place in the funeral arrangements.

The interment took place in Fulham Cemetery on 27th October. It is surely one of the most unlovely of all London's burying grounds, surrounded as it is on all sides by dwelling-houses. The noise of the traffic and of the street cries falls harshly upon the ear. Row after row of gravestones stand in a desolating order, which hurts one to look upon. The foliage is very scant, and there is little to lift the heart or to soften grief. Yet this Acre of God was the most suitable resting-place for Sydney Black. It was the cemetery of the poor; it was here that so many were lying who had known him and whose last hours he had comforted; it was within sight of Twynholm Hall and the scenes of his ten strenuous years of self-denying labour. So to this place he was borne by young men, some of whom owed to him their knowledge of the Higher Life, and had been helped by him in their desire to play the man. Thousands of people, sad, sympathetic and orderly, lined the streets or stood around the open grave. The words of the Fulham Chronicle fittingly described the service and the scene:-

"Hope was the keynote of all that was said, and the solace for all that was done, and it found outward expression in complete simplicity. There was no pomp, and only so much visible grief as must still remain with bereaved men and women after the religion of the future life has done its best to comfort. It was a people's funeral - hardly more from the undertaker's point of view than an artisan's - and those who followed it were for the most part drawn from the ranks of the poor. One might venture to say that it was the sort of funeral, for these reasons, that Sydney Black would have wished."

The funeral service in Twynholm Hall was conducted by his aged and greatly loved friend, Mr. James Leavesley, of Leicester, who expressed, in simple and suitable words, the feeling of those present. The grand old hymn "Rock of Ages," a favourite of Sydney Black's, was sung, and many eyes were dimmed with tears.

At the graveside, Mr. George Collin, of Carlisle (who has since joined his friend in the heavenly land), spoke to the throng of people of the value, influence and example of the life of the departed preacher; ending his address on the note of victory. It was a memorable occasion and the speech was worthy of the subject and of the speaker.

On the Sunday following, the Fulham Town Hall was crowded by an attentive audience at a Memorial Service, addressed by Mr. Bartley Ellis, of Wigan, a friend who had know Mr. Black from his infancy. After an eloquent sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:54-57, Mr. Ellis spoke of his friend's work in the district, and concluded by pointing out the supreme value of early decision for Christ, and urged all to imitate Sydney Black in his devotion to his Lord and in his self-sacrifice for civic and social righteousness.

The foregoing is but a bare statement of services which were solemnly impressive, attended as they were by thousands of people, nearly all of whom had known Sydney Black, and of whom, many had reason to thank God for his life and service. The poor predominated, for he was their friend, but there were also present representatives of all shades of life and opinion - The Mayor of Fulham, Members of Parliament, notable amongst whom was the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Right Hon. D. Lloyd George, who had known and greatly esteemed Mr. Black; Guardians, Colleagues on the School Board, Members of the Borough and Free Church Councils, School Teachers, even Clergymen of the Established Church. All differences forgotten, all anxious to show by their presence and sympathy, their regard and admiration for Sydney Black's noble character, his consistent life, and his lofty ideals. The Churches of Christ throughout the country were represented by many of their best known members. It was the passing of an hero; and though there was the sense of loss, and many grieved that so useful a life should have been ended so early; yet there prevailed a feeling of solemn joy, through the consciousness that he had not laboured in vain, but that his influence would survive in homes brightened, sufferings relieved, and lives uplifted by his work.

In 1905, a Monument was erected in the Cemetery which bears the following inscription:-

"This stone is erected in loving memory of Sydney Black, of Twynholm House, Fulham Cross, who was promoted to higher service on 22nd October, 1903, in his 44th year. Much esteemed as a citizen, greatly beloved as a son and brother, highly revered as a Christian teacher.

"During his brief but noble life his exceptional gifts were consecrated to the service of God and the elevation of his fellow men; but his supreme delight was to preach the Gospel and win souls for Christ and His service. In the many abiding results of his labour, he being dead yet speaketh."

Two years after the death of his son, Robert Black, the father, entered into his rest, to be followed a year later by his wife. The parents and their son lie in the same grave.

Eight years have passed since Sydney Black's earthly activities closed, and one is better able to reach a just conclusion as to the value of his work and influence than when the sense of loss was too immediate. It is not easy for any one to say all that could be said of any personality, since character presents itself so differently to each of us, but the endeavour to assess the worth of such a man as the subject of this brief biography, is rendered comparatively simple by his dominant characteristics of thoroughness, fearlessness, consistency, and his invincible belief in the power of God through His word and by His Spirit. His thoroughness was apparent in matters of organisation, for he was a master of detail; everything was foreseen and provided for. The same quality was evident also in his speaking, and those who listened to his Gospel addresses could not fail to be impressed by the manner with which his subject possessed him. He would lose himself completely in his message, carried along in a flood tide of eloquence. This quality made for an unconscious exaggeration in speech and methods, and it was easy for those who were hypercritical to discover faults, but by those in earnest this was overlooked, because everything was so real to him. Everything he did was informed with the same spirit. In singing his voice would be heard above the rest, and he would live in every word of the hymn. A lady said to the writer recently, that she once heard Mr. Black join in singing the well-known words:-

"Escape thou for thy life;

Tarry not in all the plain,"

and the impression made upon her by his earnestness was such, that she felt that at all costs she must turn and flee, the danger seemed so near. It was this intensity of absorption in his message, this power of convincing others that made him so successful in Gospel proclamation.

He was as fearless as he was thorough. His Mission work brought him into contact with a phase of life which made it as much a part of Christian charity to rebuke and admonish as to help and encourage. In this, oftentimes difficult, task he did not fear to speak the truth, always in love, and in doing so was frequently misjudged. In other ways this quality was seen, for instance, when as a member of the School Board, disregarding the possible scorn of his opponents, and the almost certain laughter and sneers of the Press, he moved his resolution to censure the Duke of Devonshire. As a lad he made a stand for right, when he refused to join in a gambling raffle, promoted by the firm who servant he was, and as a consequence had to leave. A second situation was given up after one day's service, because those in authority were addicted to the stupid vice of swearing at their employees. In each case the young lad told his masters why he was leaving. This quality led him to despise the spirit of compromise, even where compromise would have been neither unwise nor unfaithful. A thing was either right or wrong, and he could never be brought to see that, at times, in a choice of two roads to a good end, both ways might be possible. He was quite devoid of diplomacy, and occasionally thwarted his purpose by his outspoken manner. It was literally true of him that he feared nothing, but grieving the Master whom he loved and served.

His consistency was as remarkable as his other qualities. "This one thing I do" was his motto in life; the one thing, being to serve his God with heart and soul and strength. Preaching the glorious message of salvation to sinful men and women, and applying the principles of the redeemed life in every practical way he could devise, was the course he followed throughout the twenty years of his public life. He did not divorce the spiritual from the social and the civic, nor keep his Christianity in a watertight compartment, but believed that Christ should rule in the political and the civic realms through His Spirit; and as His servant, Sydney Black brought to the throbbing problems and questions of the day, the same faith and enthusiasm that he gave to his distinctly religious labours; applying the principles of Primitive Christianity in his care for the children, in his work as Guardian and as Member of the School Board. In all things with him it was Christ first. He could have lived an easy, pleasant, self-indulgent life, for means and opportunity were within his grasp; or could have taken a place in the world of politics, and would have won a national fame by sheer force of energy, will and character, but he remained constant to his early ideal, and chose the better part that could not be taken away. He elected to live for God, and spared himself nothing if by any means he might win men for His Master. He took few holidays, regarding them as a hindrance to his work; and when from home, a large part of his time was taken up in planning new labours, in writing to those he was anxious to help, or in thinking out new addresses; all the time steadfastly keeping before him the work of his life. A favourite saying of his was, "Let us crowd into life's little day all the good we can," and his life was a constant and consistent exemplification of the words.

Sydney Black's grasp of Scripture truth was another striking characteristic, and along with it, and because of it, his faith in the Word, the Providence and the Promises of God was unshaken and invincible. He had read much, and was quite conversant with modern religious thought and criticism, but it had no power to unsettle his belief in the testimony concerning the Christ, in the power of His sacrifice, and the reality of His resurrection. He took the Acts of the Apostles as the guide for the Church in matters relating to order and organisation, and was inclined to be impatient with those who could not see the Truth as he saw it. To doubt with him was almost to sin. The way of the Lord was so plain that the wayfarer could scarcely fail to discover the road; if he did so, it was because of the blindness of his eyes or the hardness of his heart. So at least it seemed to this consecrated preacher and servant of God. Yet though he held strongly to his beliefs, he was always courteous to those from whom he differed, and willing to co-operate with them in any effort to alleviate the sorrows or to remove the disabilities of the people. He was a thorough optimist, not in any merely sentimental sense, for he knew, as few men, the evil that abounds; but his confidence that Truth must finally triumph was never shaken, no matter how strongly entrenched the forces of unrighteousness seemed to be. To slightly alter the words of Robert Browning: "He at least believed in soul, and was very sure of God."

The last words very truly express the whole secret of the success which attended the work of Sydney Black. He was very sure of God.

He was charged with egotism by those whose chief activity in life seems to be to spend their time in criticising the work and labours of those more earnest and enthusiastic than themselves; but no man ever attempted a great work for God without being exposed to taunts and misunderstandings. Sydney Black was no exception. He went too fast for some, was too extreme for others, too extravagant in his speech for those who prefer to take their religion sedately. Yet of all men he was the least egotistic. A sentence from a letter written just before he began his work in London exactly expressed his mind: "God has planted within my heart an undying resolve to live, labour and die if needs be, in the service of the people of this great city." "God has planted." In that phrase is the secret of his apparent egotism. He regarded himself as called of God, a servant upon whom the burden of souls was laid by his Lord. What right, therefore, had any one to criticise the work, since the worker had the approval of his conscience and the consciousness of the Divine guidance? He resented criticism if his critics were themselves doing little, if anything, for his Lord, but none who truly co-operated with him ever received anything but the most loving consideration for any suggestion they might make. He did not often ask for counsel, for he believed, as he half humorously said, "in a Committee of one," and was impatient with those who must first discuss a scheme in solemn conclave before attempting it. To him it was too much like "fiddling while Rome was burning." He could not be said to "suffer fools gladly," but no one could be more tender, more truly sympathetic than he when the sorrowing sought comfort, the distressed needed relief, or the sinful cried out for pardon. With regard to his extravagance of speech, the adjectives were often many and big. But what of that? They were part of his temperament, of his large-hearted endowment of mind and heart, and there were always greater nouns behind the adjectives. Redemption, Grace, Holiness, Life, Love, were his themes, and no adjectives were big enough for him when he set out to speak of the glorious love of God.

His influence upon the Churches of Christ in this country was very marked. He was greatly beloved by the brethren, as much for the charm of his personality as for his powers as a preacher. He loved them for Christ's sake and knew no distinction of rich and poor; he was as glad to be in the home of the poor as in the mansion of the well-to-do. His greeting of each was equally warm and cordial and was entirely free from condescension or patronage. As a guest he was delightful, his cheery face, his warm hand-shake, his hearty infectious laughter made his coming an event to be remembered in many a home. As a preacher of the Gospel he brought about a decided change of view amongst the Churches. For many years the preaching which prevailed had been concerned with the doctrinal presentation of Truth and especially of certain phases, almost to the exclusion of evangelical truth as to sin and salvation. The desire was to emphasise the need for the restoration of Primitive Christianity, to plead for a return to the Apostolic simplicity and spirit; to find the basis of Christian unity in the teaching of the Word of God; and in this connection to call attention to the importance and place of Baptism in the Divine plan. This was a necessary and God-honouring work, and no one emphasised this phase of truth more than Sydney Black, but in addition, he urged upon the Churches the duty of appealing to sinful men to come to Jesus, on the ground of His love, His passion, and of their own great need. Mr. Black's view was that if men could thus be won for Christ, they would readily follow in the way of repentance, to witness an obedient and good confession in the Divinely appointed ordinance of Believers' Immersion. He pleaded with the Churches to put first things first. Instead of antagonising the religious opinions of the various denominations, he would have the Churches present a positive Gospel afire with the spirit of divine love. In his own words: "To dispel the darkness by showing the light." It may be that he put this view with something of crudity and over emphasis, but with such effect, that, as time went on, a gradual change took place in the form and manner in which the message of Salvation was presented; so that while not abating a whit of the insistence upon the foundation truths upon which the Churches are built, there is today a more truly evangelical note of urgency, of personal pleading, and a more constant uplifting of the Saviour of the World. In other words, while faithful to the testimony of the Apostles, the Churches have been led to a clearer study of the Gospels.

The esteem in which Sydney Black was held by his brethren is fittingly shown in the resolution which was passed at the Annual Conference held at Wigan in the year following his death. It was as follows:-

"That the brethren in Conference assembled desire to place on record their profound sense of loss sustained by the Churches of Christ in the lamented death of our beloved brother Sydney Black. They also express their high appreciation of his rare talents, untiring zeal and consecrated life, all of which he so cheerfully and lovingly laid upon the Altar of service for the Master and for the good of humanity. Furthermore they gratefully acknowledge the grace of God manifested in the noble example which our brother has left behind him, and pray that it may be emulated by the young brethren amongst us."

This reference to the young brethren was specially appropriate, for Mr. Black's influence upon young men was quite remarkable. To them he was at once teacher, companion and friend. He won their respect and inspired their affection. Here is an extract from a letter received recently from one of his young men:-

"Together with a few other young men, it was my privilege to come into touch with Sydney Black during the most impressionable years of our lives, and his influence upon us will never pass away. We still think of him and speak of him in the most affectionate terms, for we owe more to him that we shall ever be able to tell. Our conceptions of Christian consecration and service are traceable to him. It was his inspiring personality, his contagious enthusiasm and his unselfish devotion that moved us. We love his memory."

He understood the nature of the temptations that beset young men. He invited their confidence, detected their weakness, and was ever ready with wise counsel and admonition to point them to the source of strength.

"God buries his workman, but his work goes on," and today the activities of the Fulham Cross Mission and of the Church of Christ meeting in Twynholm Hall are as vigorous as ever. Under the capable direction of Mr. Robert Wilson Black, aided by the consecrated service of his brother-in-law, Mr. Charles W. Batten, there has been no falling off in efficiency, and the needs of the people are still met by constant and unwearied devotion on the part of leaders and workers. The Church grows in numbers and in grace; the same Gospel story is proclaimed, not, perhaps, with the same characteristic emphasis, but with a zeal reflecting that which burned in its first Evangelist, of whose life this is the record. From the human standpoint it seemed a sad loss and waste of precious usefulness and influence that he should be called hence in the fullness of his powers, and when, ordinarily, life should be at its best, yet so it was, and we can but bow to the Divine decree. His influence abides, the memory of his consuming zeal for holiness, of his irresistible and contagious enthusiasm for the salvation of men, of his faithfulness to principle, and of his genial and winning personality will remain as an encouragement, an example and a joy.

SYDNEY BLACK INDEX