The Reverend William T. Sleeper

From “History of the Washburn Memorial Church”

Centennial Observance, August 13 to 22, 1961

  The Rev. William T. Sleeper was born in Dan­bury, New Hampshire, on February 9, 1819, and died September 24, 1904. He was educated in the Maine country schools, Phillips Exeter Academy, University of Vermont (where he took the course in a year less than the regular time), and Andover Theolog1cal Seminary, from which he graduated In 1853. He was ordained to the Christian minis­try on June 23, 1853.  

 Having come to Northern Maine as a mission­ary of the Maine Missionary Society he became the first pastor of the church he had been instrumen­tal in founding. In passing it should be noted that the Sherman Church was by no means the only one founded by Mr. Sleeper. For example, the Island Falls Church had been founded by him in 1859. William T. Sleeper was well equipped for the rugged life of a missionary In the northern parts of Maine. Early in life he had to work hard for the things he valued. Throughout his years at Phillips Exeter Academy, the University of Ver­mont, and Andover Theological Seminary he worked for his board. Looking back on the years spent at the Academy he himself wrote:  "I never wasted a moment. When I was not at work, I always took my singing-book or some other book which I was studying, and was thus learning something." He had started his education with three and a half dollars in his pocket. When he graduated nine years later with both B.A. and B.D. degrees he emerged "with no debts, gay spirits, good health, a thorough education, and a head, heart, and hands fit to serve his God and his fellows," as one of his biographers has written. 

   To show something of the winsomeness and ingenuity in making money the following example of his “procedure" can be cited. On his tour to sell books he would approach a farmhouse, sit down in the open doorway and ask the busy housewife whether he might be permitted to sing a song. His voice was evidently pleasing, because the housewives frequently asked for more songs. The sell1ng of the book was just a natural se­quence to the enjoyable event. 

Building in Sherman

  William T. Sleeper's gifts for work and his ab1l1ty to rally his fellow-men around a common cause soon was put to the test In Sherman. He came out with flying colors. Having spent some six years preaching in school houses and meeting with his people in their homes, and having seen the membership of the church grow, the time had come for a house to be erected both for the minis­ter's residence as well as for the church itself. It seems that the building of the parsonage was given primary consideration. Mr. Sleeper had been living in Patten. In those days of horse and buggy it meant a considerable inconvenience to travel the distance back and forth. So In 1867 the first subscriptions were raised for the building of the parsonage. Mr. Sleeper invested personal funds in this venture, and later, when moving to other fields of labor, the church bought his interest in the parsonage. That the church was able to erect a parsonage in addition to a church building at this time was a considerable achievement, espe­cially as we bear in mind that for several decades to come the Sherman Church was the only church in the Aroostook Association having a parsonage. On July 11, 1868, Mr. Sleeper moved from Pat­ten to the new parsonage in Sherman. This very same year saw the people of Sherman laying plans for a church edifice costing four thousand dol­lars. Twenty-four hundred had already been pledged, of which fourteen hundred was sub­scribed by the people in Sherman (who had also paid seven hundred dollars towards the parson­age).  

  The new church building was dedicated on June 25, 1871, ten years after the founding of the congregation. By this time the church had be­come well established. On May 25, 1866 it had joined the Aroostook Association of Congrega­tional Christian Churches and Ministers (then known as the Aroostook Conference), and the name had been changed to Washburn Union Church. A year later, on May 19, the name Wash­burn Memorial Church was adopted, the name that still perpetuates the memory of a liberal donor of the church. 

   There must have been much rejoicing in Sher­man as the young congregation ascended the steps into their brand new sanctuary to consecrate it to the service of God. The entrance to the church was down at the vestry in those days, and the pul­pit was on the opposite side of the church from where It is today. The introduction to the service of consecration was led by the Rev. J. E. M. Wright. With what feel1ngs of gratitude to God it must have been when Rev. William T. Sleeper offered the dedicatory prayer. The Rev. Horace James preached the sermon on the text 1 Cor. 12:4-6, "Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administra­tions, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God that worketh all in all." Having read these verses Mr. James preached on the topic "Diversity and Unity." He truly set the tone for the progress of this church, because "unity" has become a key-word for the Washburn Memorial Church. 

   Mr. Sleeper could look upon the work in Sher­man with a grateful heart. The church had grown and prospered under his ministry. He him­self had supervised the building program. He was the contractor for material and labor, the collector of funds and paymaster. 

Larger Fields of Service

    While Mr. Sleeper continued to be the pastor 'of the Sherman Church, his services were called for on a larger field. In 1870 the Governor of Maine appointed him agent of the Madawaska Schools. Later he was appointed supervisor of public schools in Aroostook County. This larger work necessitated much travel. On one such jour­ney he was thrown off the back of his horse and was injured seriously. A sample of the conscien­tiousness of this man can be seen in the way he faced the dilemma of failing to secure a teacher for a high school. He taught the class himself. Such was his influence in the class that a spiritual revival was experienced among the pupils. 

  During these years of service in larger fields he was unable to give attention to the church in Sherman. From 1868 to 1872 the following minis­ters served the Washburn Memorial Church: Rev. G. C. Moses, Rev. V. W. French, and Rev. D. L. Hardy. 

  Before we pass on to view the continuing min­istry of the Washburn Memorial Church, it must be mentioned that Mr. Sleeper contributed to the Church Universal through his gift of poetry. Such hymns as "Out of My Bondage," and "Ye Must Be Born Again" were written by him. These hymns have been a lasting blessing to millions. 

Excerpt from "The History and Genealogy of The Sleeper Family"
By David J. Sleeper  ( My Dad )

Hymns by William True Sleeper

William  True Sleeper became quite well known for his ministries, wrote a volume of poems and contributed extensively to the literature of his time. He wrote two hymns, “Out of My Bondage -Jesus I Come” and “Ye Must Be Born Again”.  Both of these hymns can be seen in the Stories Chapter.

We had an interesting coincidence concerning the first hymn, “Out of My Bondage -Jesus I Come”.  One time when we went to visit my brother, Freeman, in Virginia we took along a piano recording of this hymn. When we began playing the tape Mamie, Freeman’s wife, immediately began singing along with the music. Mamie was born in southern Virginia and was raised as a Baptist. Somehow this hymn, written in the early 1800’s in the desolate woods of northern Maine by a Congregational minister, ended up in a Baptist hymnal in southern Virginia.I have since found it common to find these hymns in different church hymnals.

Following is a story from the “Memoirs and Reminiscences of George Stebbins” about the origin of the other hymn, “Ye Must Be Born Again.”

On the Hymn Ye must Be Born Again

Words: William T. Sleeper, 1877

Music: George C. Stebbins. 

This hymn was written while Stebbins was helping Dr. George Pentecost in evangelistic meetings in Worcester, MA. During those meetings, one of the subjects preached upon was the “New Birth.” While presenting the truth, enforcing it by referring to various passages of scripture, Dr. Pentecost quoted our Lord’s words to Nicodemus, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, ye must be born again”….It occurred to me that by taking the line “Verily, verily, I say unto thee,” from the third verse, and putting it with the line, “Ye must be born again,” and by transferring the word “I” from the middle of the first line to the beginning, so it would read, “I verily, verily, say unto thee, Ye must be born again,” those passages would then fall into rhythmical form, and by the use of some repetitions if some suitable versus could be found …I spoke to Reverend ….William True Sleeper, one of the pastors of the city who sometimes wrote hymns, of my impressions and asked him if he would write me some versus on the subject. He acted at once on my suggestion and soon after came to me with the hymn…Before the meetings closed a musical setting was made.