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John Perkins Forbes was born in Middleboro, Massachusetts, March 25, 1855. He attended the public schools of Middleboro, and was, for a time, a pupil in Middleboro Academy. Later the family moved to Westboro, Massachusetts, and there he began the study of law. He soon found that he was not happy in this work, and in 1875 he entered the Harvard Divinity School. When he returned to live in Westboro it was as the chosen minister of the Unitarian Church and there he was ordained in 1878. There he also married the wife who was his loved companion and ardent fellow worker all his life. Five years of happy ministry in the First Parish of Arlington, Massachusetts followed his three years of service in Westboro, and then in 1887 he was called to the old First Parish in Taunton, Massachusetts. There his powers rapidly developed and in 1898 he was invited to serve the Church of the Saviour in Brooklyn, New York. All his experience thus far had been in old New England parishes, but leading this influential church was a challenge which he knew he must accept. He went to Brooklyn in the fall of 1898 and was the minister of the church until his death in the prime of his life on April 16, 1910.
John Forbes was a well-read man and had a well-stocked library but he was not a learned scholar. He wrote no books and made no special mark by any epoch-making address or famous deed. He was a friend, a comrade, a fellow worker who could always be trusted for sane counsel and self-denying labor, a man of wholesome, erect, magnanimous nature who rang true in every relation of life. By the brave old wisdom of sincerity, by unaffected good will, by stainless life and public usefulness he won the confidence and affection of the communities in which he successively lived. His was a well-balanced personality, genuinely self-forgetting, but for a cause in which he believed, he was self-assertive. He was wide open to enjoyment yet always quick in sympathy for sorrow; responsive to the charm of beauty in nature and art and literature but with a business sense that shirked no drudgery of detail; a spirit emancipated from dogmatism and pietism but possessed of a natural and healthy reverence. Into the varied activities of his time and place he threw the influence of the sober, righteous and godly life.
John Forbes gave himself, that is, unreservedly to the day-by-day work of a Christian minister. He could say, “This one thing I do.” He had an admirable equipment for preaching power. His presence was manly and dignified. He was six feet tall and broad-shouldered. His voice was rich and musical and his gestures varied and graceful. He made the most thorough preparation for every duty, public and private. The conduct of public worship was to him a fine art. Hymns, readings, and anthems were all selected with painstaking care. Everything was purposeful, orderly and pertinent. The sermons were direct appeals to conscience and heart. There were no obscurities or subtleties, no technical or professional vocabulary, no mystic raptures, no attempts to solve world problems—everything was lucid, coherent, and reasonable. He spoke directly and unaffectedly about the abounding joys and the grateful duties of the Christian life. In person, in discourse, in spirit, he illustrated the excellence of his favorite theme, “the grace of Jesus Christ.”
Here was a true leader in the things of the spirit and at the same time and in the best sense a man of the world. He had marked executive ability and could be relied on for good judgment, sagacious planning and discerning foresight. His mind was open and alert but he was temperamentally conservative, equally removed from tame attachment to mere traditionary thoughts and ways and from the mood of reckless innovation.
He served efficiently as an officer or director in a number of civic organizations, and he was a diligent and reliable member of the Board of Directors of the American Unitarian Association. His decisions were fair and impartial, his speech good-tempered, his unfailing courtesy not an outward show but a real attribute of spirit. He did not like controversy but had a genius for pointing out the comprehensive and healing principles that reconciled disputants in one wider view. Nothing was ever said in intolerance or pettiness and he never sharpened an argument with a taunt. He did not fight error and evil with scornful and contemptuous words but he knew how to overcome evil with good.
His gift of influence appeared conspicuously in his capacity to inspire high-minded young men to wish to be what he was and to serve as he served. By mere force of persuasive example he led a number of men to choose the ministry for a life work. He reverenced his own calling and delighted in its opportunities.
He was zealous for the honor of his church and his communion. His only son, Roger Forbes, followed him into the ministry and was the much beloved minister of the churches in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and Germantown, Pennsylvania. They were more like brothers than father and son. Both had the genuine modesty of those who live in the presence of aims greater than they can achieve, and thus delicacy of feeling and disinterested good will marked all their intercourse with others. By genial friendliness and appreciative sympathy and sagacious counsel they turned the dry deserts of experience into verdure and fruitfulness and in the valleys of despondency they opened springs of living water.