THE CALL to become a minister of Christ's Church came to Mahlon Gilbert while yet a child. The strong religious atmosphere of his home, the missionary spirit of Zion Church, the direct appeal of his rector, the Rev. Mr. Foote, all made him regard the clergyman's office as the highest vocation in life. The friendship of Bishop Tuttle confirmed this feeling. In after years Bishop Gilbert said to one of his clergy, "I'd rather be the poorest minister in the hardest field than be at the head of any other profession."
For years he had kept this purpose quietly before him. For a time illness and uncertainty blocked the way, and a fainter heart would have lost hope and turned aside to other plans. That natural leadership among men which he had shown in school and college, had served him well; he had mastered his own soul, and with unwavering trust in God had taken up that work which would best help him forward to the desired end. Tested and made strong by sickness and disappointment, proved by earnest and successful service in a trying field, he now thought himself "truly called, according to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ ... to the Order and Ministry of Priesthood." With that utter self-forgetfulness which marked all his ministry, he began the study for Holy Orders, not thinking in this way to achieve distinction, but hoping thus to serve best both God and man.
In the fall of 1872, at the age of twenty-four, Mr. Gilbert entered the Junior Class of Seabury Divinity School for a three years' course of study. He was thus brought into close connection with the Diocese of Minnesota, which he was to serve so long and so well.
Seabury Divinity School, at Faribault, Minnesota, is one of several institutions founded by the Rev. Dr. James Lloyd Breck, the Church's devoted, and picturesque, and somewhat eccentric pioneer. He had come from Nashotah in 1850, and after laying foundations in St. Paul and vicinity, had labored with great self-denial among the Chippewa Indians. In 1858, Dr. Breck began work at Faribault, fifty miles south of St. Paul, and soon established a group of schools to which he gave the hopeful name of "Bishop Seabury University." This was before the coming of Bishop Whipple. When the Bishop made his first visitation to Faribault in 1860, the warm welcome given him by the men of the town, and "the prospect for the establishment of Church schools," led him to choose Faribault for his see and his home. Under his wise and inspiring guidance, there was incorporated that same year the "Bishop Seabury Mission," taking the place of the "University." From this foundation both Seabury Divinity School and Shattuck Military School for Boys were developed; in 1866 Bishop Whipple himself founded St. Mary's Hall for Girls. [See Bishop Whipple's Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate, Chapters VI., XVII.]
The spirit of the early days of Seabury Divinity School is shown in the character of its founders, Dr. Breck and Dr. Solon W. Manney, Churchmen of intense earnestness and devotion. The students called them "Dr. Rubrics" and "Dr. Canon." The opening words of Dr. Manney's will, written in 1869 upon his deathbed, reveal the man:
Being unexpectedly called to leave this world for another, I declare that I die in the Catholic Faith, as set forth by the Nicene Fathers. I commit my soul to the mercy of the Saviour who died for me.
Bishop Whipple's high ideal for Seabury is set forth in his Council address of 1873:
It has been my wish to train up men whose faith should be firm as the eternal truths of the Catholic Creed, and whose love and charity should be as broad as the Church is broad.
I do not want, and, God helping me, will not have here a training school for any party. I love all who love Christ. In these times we want men who know what they believe, and in their love for Christ will labor to bring back unity and peace to our divided Christendom. . . . We must preach the old apostolic sermons; we must tell of a real king and a real kingdom; we must show men a real brotherhood; we must measure all things by the love and faith we have in Christ. . . .
The West needs clergy of a peculiar type of character. There is a freedom here from social restraints that brings out in clear outline every man's individuality; every man speaks out his inner thoughts; he lives his life open to the eye of others; the skeptic states his doubts and unbelief without apology. Infidelity has a teacher in every man who has cast God out of his creed. The challenge to our faith is even bolder, because its advocate is only half-taught in his unbelief. We need men who understand these social problems. . . . Our teachers must be thoroughly acquainted with every phase of modern thought, and defend God's truth against all falsehood.
Seabury has kept close to this wise plan and this broad and high spirit. As a rule, her graduates have been true Churchmen, earnest in purpose and of high character, willing to serve faithfully in high or in low places, as it has pleased God to point the way. Many Seabury men are in eastern parishes, but the majority have found their work in the great West, for whose needs the School was especially founded. It was because Seabury had this aim and this spirit that Bishop Tuttle was glad to have his candidate come here for his theological education.
When Mahlon Gilbert entered Seabury the School had only fourteen years of history, and had graduated only twenty men, but among them were several of unusual ability and promise. The Church remembers with deep affection such apostolic men as George B. Whip-pie, Solomon S. Burleson, and William Jason Gold.
The Warden of the School, when Mr. Gilbert began his course, was the Rev. Dr. Thomas Richey, who was also Professor of Ecclesiastical History. Dr. Richey was afterwards called to the same chair in the General Theological Seminary in New York City, and was well-known as an able teacher and author. His churchman-ship was of the "advanced" type. In 1874 the Rev. Dr. George L. Chase became Warden and Professor of Homiletics. Dr. Chase was a man of artistic temperament and gentlemanly bearing, and his influence was strong for good. He was regarded "an ideal Warden."
The Rev. Dr. John Steinfort Kedney, a man of rare qualities of mind and heart, had recently entered upon his long and illustrious term of service as Professor of Divinity. Dr. Kedney was a profound scholar; as a metaphysician he had no superior in the American Church, and was a valued member of the Concord Summer School of Philosophy. His numerous volumes of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, might sometimes give pause to the reader, but his sermons were simple in language and style. [A member of the Cathedral congregation once asked him, "Doctor, why don't you use as simple language in your books as you do in your sermons?" Dr. Kedney replied, "The language of my books is the technical vocabulary which every student of theology must master."] His influence upon the School and upon the Church has been of inestimable value and inspiration.
Bishop Whipple himself lectured on the Pastoral Office; and Dr. Stirling Y. McMasters, rector of Christ Church in St. Paul, was lecturer on Apologetics. Rev. George C. Tanner, a graduate of the first class (1860), was Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Liturgies. [At the present time, Dr. Tanner, the venerable and the beloved, after years of notable service at Shattuck and St. Mary's, has returned to Seabury to teach once more Liturgies and Greek.]
The faculty was strengthened in 1873 by the coming of the Rev. William Jason Gold, who became Adjunct Professor of Exegesis. Afterwards he was Professor at Racine College, and at the Western Theological Seminary in Chicago. Dr. Gold is remembered as "a well-balanced theologian and a saint."
It was a group of teachers of noble character and unusual ability, whose impress showed itself on many able graduates of this period. Bishop Millspaugh of Kansas; Daniel Theodore Booth, for many years rector at Willmar; William Henry Knowlton, now Dean of the Mankato Convocation; and Edward Clark Bill, afterwards Professor of Liturgies and Homiletics, were all seniors when Mr. Gilbert entered the School. [Dr. Bill was for many years Precentor of the Cathedral In Faribault. He was a preacher of unusual directness and power. In a memorial volume published in 1892, Bishop Gilbert and others give rare tributes to his ability and his worth.]
A prominent member of his own class (1875) was the genial George H. Davis, a man greatly respected and beloved. After many years of noble service at Brainard and Mankato, Dr. Davis returned in 1905 to the Divinity School and until his death, two years later, filled the office of Warden with high acceptability.
Another Seabury friend, and closest of all, was Charles Augustus Poole, of the Class of 1876, Professor of Divinity since 1888. Dr. Poole was a Hobart graduate, a member of Gilbert's fraternity, and their friendship was unwavering unto the end.
Dean Knowlton, who was a senior when Mr. Gilbert came, and gave instruction in certain classes for some time after graduation, contributes the following recollections of his friend during the years spent at Seabury:
I knew him most intimately, for I roomed with him for three years, all the time he was here. I was then in charge of the "temporalities" at Seabury, and happened to be at the railway station in the fall of 1872, when I saw a young man who seemed to be a stranger. I asked him what place he wanted to find. He answered, "Seabury." There was something about him that made me "take to him" at once. Seabury happened to be full, so I took him to my own room.
Mr. Gilbert wore a full beard at this time, as he did through all his ministry. His height was about five feet, ten inches; and he was as straight as an arrow, with square shoulders.
At this time Shattuck School and Seabury were still closely united in administration, and the then Seabury Hall stood on the present Shattuck grounds, not far from the edge of the bluff. When we were at morning service at the Cathedral on Thanksgiving Day of 1872, word came that Seabury Hall was on fire. We hurried from the church, and ran across the bridge, up the hill to Seabury so fast that the exertion on my part brought on a severe hemorrhage, and I could do nothing to help. At my request Gilbert took command and led in the work of saving as much as possible from the lower floor. He was always a leader.
The fire proved to be a blessing, for it led to the separation of the two schools, and the present Seabury Hall was soon begun on the grounds a mile to the south, where Dr. Breck had built his "Mission House" a dozen years before. For a few weeks Gilbert and I were taken in by Col. Robert Scott, Commandant at Shattuck; but after Christmas the Trustees rented a hotel, and there Gilbert roomed with Byrde until Sea-bury was complete.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1873, just a year after the fire, the Divinity School took possession of the new Seabury Hall with great rejoicing, and this anniversary has been kept ever since as a special School Day. Gilbert and I chose rooms facing the Campus, on the second floor, at the head of the stairs on the right. Our study is room No. 30 to-day; his bedroom was No. 29, and mine No. 31.
Gilbert was a diligent student. As a matter of conscience he studied bard at Hebrew and did fairly well; but he was particularly interested in Church History, and History generally. He was as well informed in the general history of the world as any man I ever met.
While in the School he went out occasionally as a lay-reader; but he was not strong enough to do much work outside. I well remember that after the great storm of '73 we thought we would make a visit to Northfield; but by the time we reached Barreltown the sleigh had tipped over seven times, and we were glad to turn back.
Gilbert was always orderly, and neat in his clothing. He was unselfish to a fault. I can't imagine his doing a mean thing.
The city of Faribault, with its various well-known institutions, must not go undescribed, for it is in many ways unique. On the west side of the so-called Straight River, which winds leisurely along from south to north, lies the business and residence part of the town, with the Court House, Cathedral, and other churches of various communions. On the east side, along the bluffs which rise above the river, are situated on ample and beautiful grounds no less than seven flourishing schools. Three of these are State Schools, for the Deaf, the Blind, and the Defective, now occupying large and well-planned buildings of great number and variety, and having over 1500 pupils. Here are also four prosperous schools, of quite different character, under the care of the Episcopal Church, with large stone buildings of dignified architecture: Shattuck Military School for Boys; St. Mary's Hall for Girls; Seabury Divinity School; and the new St. James' School for little boys-- a group of remarkable institutions, with noble history, and noble promise for the future.
The Seabury Campus has perhaps the greatest natural beauty; it comprises over twenty-five wellwooded acres, bordered on two sides by deep ravines-- a quiet academic retreat. The scenery around Fari-bault is of varied character and of great natural beauty. To the west there is rolling prairie with a number of large lakes; to the east there is a series of hills from which one gains wonderfully picturesque views of the city, the schools, and the open country far beyond.
Amid such surroundings, with inspiring teachers and helpful companions, the three years of theological study passed quickly, bringing much conscious progress in education, and much unconscious development and growth. It seems just to say that those who knew him at this time expected of Mahlon Gilbert good things rather than great. One schoolmate, who knew him then and later most intimately, says, "I was so close to him that I could never quite appreciate or understand his great success. He deserved everything that came to him, but it was not because of qualities which usually bring greatness--supreme ability of intellect or administration. He was great in other ways."
The writer's conviction is that much of Mahlon Gilbert's greatness lay in his marvellous capacity for friendship, and his consequent power to inspire and bless. In his preaching, in his conversation, he knew how to appeal to the best in his hearers, lifting them up to the presence of God, revealing to them the Divine Friendship through his own warm and glowing heart. The record of his ministry will be the simple story of "a man who never thought of himself," "a man who never did a mean thing," "a man greatly loving, a man greatly beloved."
In the spring of 1875 the theological course was completed, and on Friday June 18, Mr. Gilbert was graduated from Seabury with the degree of Bachelor of Divinity.
On the following Sunday, June 20, the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, at the Cathedral in Faribault, Bishop Whipple ordained to the diaconate four members of the graduating class. Two of these were candidates for Orders from Minnesota--George Henry Davis and Israel Tremaine Osborne; one was a Yale graduate, Frank Whitney Blake, who died in October; the fourth was Mahlon Norris Gilbert, who was a candidate from Bishop Tuttle's jurisdiction, but by his Bishop's request was ordained by Bishop Whipple.
Mr. Gilbert had spent the first long vacation during his course at Seabury with his parents in Morris. The second summer he spent in Minneapolis, assisting the rector of Holy Trinity Church, the Rev. George L. Chase. He now went east to visit his home again, and, as it proved, to see his father for the last time. On August 8, 1875, he preached in old Zion Church, with many friends and relatives as interested hearers. Morris had always expected good things of him, and through all his ministry he was warmly welcomed whenever he revisited his old home.
During this stay Mr. Gilbert joined the Masonic Fraternity, and continued an active Mason all his life.
In September he returned to the far West, to begin his ministry under Bishop Tuttle, in Montana.