Michigan Conference
United Methodist Archives


Search Website

Adrian College:

Detroit Conference United Methodist Archives Facebookemail

Albion College:

Detroit Conference United Methodist Archives Facebookemail

John Motte Arnold

15 October 1824 - 5 December 1884

John Motte Arnold, D.D.

John Motte Arnold, D.D., was born in Acra, Greene County, N.Y., October 15th, 1824, and, without a moment's warning, passed to his heavenly rest from his family residence, in the city of Detroit, December 5th, 1884, in the 61st year of his age, leaving a wife and four children to mourn his departure from the incessant activities of a useful Christian life and from the dear society of those whom he loved so well.

His father, Joseph Arnold, of English descent, was a native of Duchess County, N.Y., and a minister of the Gospel in the Baptist persuasion, while his mother, of Dutch extraction, was the daughter of William Earl, of Durham, in the same great Empire State. It was from such a parentage, combining English pluck and Dutch persistency, that he derived that strength of character and tenacity of conviction and force of purpose and intensity of effort that were the palpable features of his personal history.

The youngest of four children, of feeble constitution, and losing his father when only one year old, he was left to the sole and tender care of his mother, who exerted her strength for his support and education as only a mother can, until he reached the age of eight years, when he was committed to the care of relatives, among whom he labored for his own support, enjoying common school advantages three months in each year until his seventeenth year, when he became a teacher. At twenty-one he entered an academical institution at Rochester, in this State, where four years of study laid the foundations of his intellectual character. His intention of completing his education by pursuing a full college course was frustrated by want of health.

Dr. Arnold's religious life had its beginnings in his childhood, under the influence and teachings of his pious mother, but his serious impressions and convictions seem to have been overborne by the frivolities of and temptations of life, for he himself says of his boyhood that it was "wild and passionate and desperate." His awakening from this condition is ascribed to a sermon preached at midnight at a camp-meeting, near Romeo, by Rev. D.C. Jacokes, when the elements of evil were so active and boisterous that a preaching service became an imperative substitute for rest and sleep; but it was not until six months after this event, when in his eighteenth year, in a revival meeting, that he consecrated himself to the service of Christ and experienced the joy of sins forgiven.

From that time his career as a Christian was one of undeviating fidelity to truth and duty, and was marked by zealous efforts for the cause of Christ. He was appointed class-leader, was soon after licensed to exhort, and in 1848 was received on trial in the Michigan Annual Conference, and assigned, as junior preacher, to Litchfield circuit, which appointment he filled the next year as preacher in charge. In 1830 he was stationed at Port Huron; in 1851-2 at St. Clair; in 1853-4 at Flint; in 1855 at Corunna; in 1856-7-8 he was Presiding Elder of Owosso District; in 1859-60 he filled Dexter Station; in 1861-2 he had charge of Woodward Avenue Church, Detroit, then (as now, under its designation of Central) the most responsible Methodist pulpit and pastoral trust in the whole State. One year more of pastoral labor in the Walnut Street Church, Detroit, completed his regular ministerial work.

From the year 1863 up to the time of his death, comprising nearly twenty-two years, Dr. Arnold had charge, at first of the Methodist Book Depository in Detroit, and later of the Michigan Christian Advocate as business manager and assistant editor, and finally as editor-in-chief. These years were to him years of unwearied activity. He considered himself as doing a most important work for the cause of true religion, and especially for the interests of his beloved church, and he invested all his energies in an enterprise having for its object the diffusion of sound religious literature. He rendered special service to the junior members of our ministry by affording them every possible facility to procure books for their libraries, at the same time directing their choice to those issues of the press that were the most valuable and the best adapted to their wants, for which service he had quite superior qualifications.

Taking the management of the Christian Advocate, his energies rose to a higher plane of religious activity and influence, and his life became one of increasing satisfaction and joy to himself and of greater usefulness to the ministry and the church. He traveled much, he preached much, he wrote much. That the Michigan Christian Advocate has been a success in the field of religious journalism is mainly due to the energy and untiring devotion of Dr. Arnold.

Dr. Arnold's character as a man presented the usual blendings of defects and excellences that exhibit human nature in its unexceptional conditions. His faults did not distinguish him broadly from the general type of Christian manhood. His virtues did not exalt his life above the criticisms meditated by thoughtful reflection on all human portrayals of goodness. He had his infirmities of nature, of passion, of temperament, and his self-knowledge precluded his ever making any professions of superior merit or excellence that might tacitly support the least claim to special exemption from the general failings of humanity. His likes and dislikes, both of men and things, were of the positive type. His friendships were in harmony with his tastes and temperament, and were not of such a general character as to spread his sympathies over broad areas of irresponsive materials. His nature was quite too practical to cultivate those ideal friendships that can only subsist by the slender though beautiful fibres of sentiment, and that strike no roots into the wants and realities of human life. His habits were somewhat tough and strong, as drawing their life from an unsleeping inward force, but he bravely asserted the mastership of their direction. Of his attributes and traits as a man of business, which position he occupied for so many years, and in which success is generally made the test of merit, it is sufficient to say that his defects were such as only a careful preparatory training could have precluded, that his failures were not associated with the highest degrees of foresight, and did not impeach his integrity, and that his manhood was improved by his final efforts to consolidate his affairs in wisdom and righteousness.

Of his intellectual character and furnishings it is fitting to say a few words. He was naturally bright in intellect, and acquired knowledge with great facility. He could read in the Bible at the early age of six, and began its consecutive perusal at seven. He was a great reader in general literature, embracing everything relating to the great contest between Christianity and unbelief, and accumulated great stores of information, and by his conversation illustrated Bacon's maxim that "reading makes a full man," while his wit, somewhat caustic, and his repartees and anecdotal proclivities, sometimes wandering, perhaps in unsinning sociality, from the Garden of Eden, made his companionship a mental exhilaration. His best trained faculty was his memory, which always served him with unswerving fidelity. His reasoning powers were of the useful order, as being better adapted to the solution of facts than to the profound investigation of principles. He had no special lines and subjects of study which he pursued for years in all their ramifications, but was always ready to discuss all questions relating to human life and character and destiny. He laid no claim to real and exact scholarship in any department of knowledge, and yet appeared to no disadvantage in the society of cultured and scholarly men.

As a preacher of the gospel, as a minister of Jesus Christ, he has greater claims to our attention and regards than when viewed in any other light. The best years of his life were those wholly given to the work of the ministry, and this in all probability is true of every man called of God to preach the gospel. He was useful in the ministry in the highest sense of the term, in that God blessed his labors in the conversion of sinners, in that revivals of religion attended his efforts. His force of character, his persistency in securing results, were here seen in bold relief. He would lay hold of the convicted mind, struggling with the forces of sin and error and unbelief, and, with the pressure of solemn argument and appeal, urge the soul to prompt and immediate decision. So strongly and yet so quietly, without any boisterous declamation, would he hold such a soul in his grasp, that its only relief came through yielding to its convictions or waiting for the close of the service to break the electric chain. Who can doubt that his best service to Christ and His church was performed in those years when his only work was preaching the gospel? The reason why he gave any time and attention to business was the inadequacy of his ministerial support in those years and the difficulties in which he was thereby involved. To make suitable provision for his family he gradually drifted into the bookseller's trade, and finally plunged into the business struggles and difficulties of twenty years.

Dr. Arnold's preaching was the ministration of knowledge on all the themes of current pulpit discourse. It was practical rather than theoretical. He attempted no profound theological speculations in the pulpit. He had as little to do with those philosophical disquisitions, semi religious, semi-scientific, professedly deep, sufficiently shallow, that put such difficulties into the minds of the people as never before were brought to their attention. He spoke to men's intelligence and judgment, on such topics, in such language, with such illustrations, and such evident sincerity of conviction, as secured their attention, as awakened their interest, as led them to reflection. There might be no intellectual coruscations, no lofty flights of fancy, no grand soarings of imagination, no wonderful excursions of thought into far-off regions where only superior intelligences hold converse with the Infinite; but his calm utterances of truth as related to the soul, its wants, its dependencies, its laws connecting its existence with God and eternal realities, would leave an impression on the mind of an audience in favor of right living more valuable than gold and diamonds.

It is due to candor and truth to state that it is in the knowledge of many of the senior members of the Conference that Dr. Arnold's preaching at one time during his business life lost something of its evangelical flavor and qualities, and seemed to pay an unwarrantable obeisance to natural law, as if the plausible liberalism of the times had somewhat swerved his mind from the poles of supernatural truth and agency as exhibited in the gospel; but this aberration was of short duration. His manly intellect soon again asserted its supreme loyalty to the cross of Christ, and thenceforth his devotion to spiritual Christianity, as contradistinguished from the religion of culture with its beautiful discoursings on natural law, became the very passion of his renewed existence.

The last few years of his life, devoted to editorial labors, to ministerial services in the pulpits of his brethren, and to the private as well as public duties of the religious profession, command our unqualified approval and admiration. His growth in Christian life and usefulness during this last period of his history brought him into the warmest sympathies of his brethren. His mind reached that grand elevation so eloquently described by the great philosopher, where it "moved in charity, rested in providence, and turned on the poles of truth." What might be deemed excrescences on his character passed away under an influence as silent as the light, as transforming as a miracle. His sympathies became ennobled and magnetized by the spirit of Christ. His writings show an elevation of style, a clearness of diction, a beauty of conception, and a play of intellectual vivacity and radiance, quite superior to the literary qualities of his earlier productions. His religious experience became the profoundest reality of his existence. There were now no heights in the firmament of religious thought and life and love to which he did not aspire. He could speak of the peace that passeth all understanding. He possessed what baffles all the powers of language — a joy unspeakable and full of glory. The strength of his character never before appeared in such outlines of meekness and tenderness and spiritual beauty. He was really a new personality in the proceedings and history of our last Conference. His prayer in the Sunday morning service preceding the Bishop's sermon was such as we never before had heard from his lips. He had at length reached that stage where he had power with God; his petitions partaking of the ardor of the seraph and lifting the soul into the Awful Presence bs with the strength of the archangel. What then seemed to awaken a species of wonder was soon made plain by the interpretations of Providence. He was at that time walking with God in the laud of Beulah, and already in sight of the celestial city. In less than three months, while sitting in loving converse in his family circle, he instantly sank from his seat, and as she who had been his devoted wife for thirty-four years enclosed him in her arms of affection, he was not; God had taken him. Even no, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.

- Detroit Annual Conference minutes of 1855, pp. 54-58