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1632; Captain Michael Pierce, who was born in England, lived at Hingham and Scituate, and was killed by the Indians in King Philip's War, 1676; Thomas Holbrook, of England, who lived successively at Weymouth, Dorchester, and Medfield, and died in 1677; Matthew Gannett, who was born in England in 1618, settled at Hingham, was at Scituate in 1651, and died in 1695; Anthony Dodson, who was at Scituate in 1650. All these were ancestors on the father's side, while among those on the mother's side are found the names of Aiken, Howland, Perry, and Hathaway. It appears, therefore, that William J. Potter came of good old New England stock, including original Quakers, and at least one Indian-fighter who laid down his life in defence of the colony. But no clergyman or minister has been thus far discovered among his ancestors.
The materials from which this sketch of Mr. Potter's life is drawn are extremely meagre. Four manuscript journals covering portions of the period from 1847 to 1858, a few miscellaneous memoranda of his own, a few notes by his son, and a few pamphlets and newspaper cuttings,- these are the only data which have been supplied to me. Out of these scanty materials it is impossible to construct a connected story, or even to outline the course of devel. opment which, beginning with the Quaker boy on an old New England farm, ended in one of the wisest and best of men and one of the foremost religious reformers of our generation. Outwardly so peaceful and noiseless, inwardly so bold in thought and so rich in thought's results, his spiritual life flowed on like a river amidst the beautiful scenery of an old cultivated plain, yet brought down among the haunts of men an illimitable wealth of golden grains from the mountain fastnesses of his own being. All who knew him must rejoice that he lived long enough to concentrate this wealth in so beautiful a form as that of the series of lectures in Boston in which his life as religious teacher came to a memorable culmination. And multitudes who knew him not will now discover that, when he died, they had been "entertaining an angel unawares.”
The brief story of his outward career is easily told.
Born and brought up on his father's farm, Potter was educated in the district schools of Dartmouth and the Friends' school at Providence, Rhode Island. His home life was happy, and during his vacations he cheerfully helped his father in doing the farm work. In fact, it was his father's strong desire to see him make farming his life-work and carry on the old place as his ancestors had done, But William felt the stirrings of higher aspirations and capacities than could be satisfied by agriculture as a permanent occupation, and felt constrained to take up teaching as opening a field for their better development. In the end his father reluctantly consented that he should go to the Normal School at Bridgewater and fit himself for the life of a teacher. This school he entered, December 2, 1847, and during his second
term got some practical experience by instructing the entering class. On November 25, 1848, he began to teach a school at Kingston, and remained there till March 25, 1849; but he did not feel satisfied with his own success. While in Kingston, earlier desires to go to college were rekindled. May 1, however, finds him beginning a new school at Sandwich, with fifty scholars between the ages of twelve and seventeen. His stay was short; the school committee were not satisfied with the discipline maintained, and he returned home, May 26, to fit himself for college without a teacher. This difficult labor he pursued with more or less success till October 5, when he received a letter from Henry B. Wheelwright, preceptor of the Bristol Academy in Taunton, offering him a situation there. The salary was small, but he was to have Mr. Wheelwright's assistance in fitting for college. The offer was accepted, and he remained teaching at Taunton till May 15, 1850, when he returned home to resume his studies more uninterruptedly in preparing for the college examination. After some quite heroic work, he passed the examination successfully, and was admitted as a member of the freshman class at Harvard College, July 16, without conditions. The result was very creditable to him under his difficult circumstances. In August he joined his class in Cambridge.
Under date of September 19, 1850, only about three weeks after he began his college work, I find his first mention of the ministry, as follows:
“For several months my mind has been quite un
settled again as to what is to be the business of my life, owing partly to my disappointment in teaching, and partly to a kind of mental attraction which I have for some time experienced towards the ministry. Of course, I feel my entire unfitness, both in talents and in depth of religious character, for such a work; yet I cannot blind myself to the very obvious inclining of my mind towards it. What is the motive of the movement is not so easily perceived. I have not yet been able to fully analyze this tendency of my feelings, so as to discover whence it springs, how composed, and how much attention it is worthy to receive. About all I can say is that it exists, and has existed for nearly a year, but that previously the bias of my mind was rather against the ministry as a profession for myself. Is it the voice of duty or of inclination? Is it the natural, legitimate product of my own soul, to be heeded and observed, or is it a mere fluttering of fancy sent to try my judgment, and which is to be expelled as a hostile intruder? These questions, though important, I cannot yet answer. When I look forward to such a work, I see numerous obstructions rising up in the way of my ever becoming engaged in it, and some of them apparently insurmountable; yet the feeling haunts me still, and reason sets to work with imagination to devise means for clearing the path of all hindrances. Besides deficiency of talents and religious character, which alone seems sufficient to debar me from a profession now suffering from this very cause, there are other hindrances, arising out of the circumstances of my
past life and the nature of my present sentiments, peculiar to myself. I have not yet outlived the influence of the Quaker element in my education. My mind still has a kind of repugnance to learning to be a minister, though my reason finds nothing objectionable in it. Again, I can scarcely reconcile the idea of my becoming a clergyman with my present views of theology, churches, religious rites, &c. And what society or sect must I go with, believing with none? What creed should I preach, possessing none? I have in my mind, it is true, an ideal minister different from any real one whom it was ever my lot to know. But have I any reason to hope I could approach more nearly my ideal of a minister than I have approached my ideal of a teacher ? Thus the matter comes to my mind, presenting arguments pro and con, and receiving replies; but as yet there is no decision. In the meantime let me do present duty, and the future in due season will develop itself. More light will be afforded, as I use correctly present supplies."
During his freshman vacation, from December 1, 1850, to February 28, 1851, Potter kept school in Medfield, succeeding somewhat better than formerly in meeting the demands of his own exacting ideal. Probably he taught school more or less in the winter vacations of his later college years; but no journal has been found which gives a record of his college life beyond the end of his sophomore year.
He was appointed “orator" by “our class society” (Institute of 1770), and gave his oration to universal satisfaction at the close of that year. He became a