The duties of the University, the care of his churches, the calls made upon him by the denomination, his literary work, and an enormous correspondence, proved too great a strain upon his nervous system. Domestic afflictions also came with crushing force upon him. Three noble, promising, brilliant sons, one after the other, were taken from him by death in early manhood. His relations to his family were peculiarly beautiful and tender, and his grief for the loss of his children was intense.
These labors and trials were too much for his overtaxed system, and in August, 1871, while filling his pulpit at Bairdstown, he was prostrated by a nervous attack which came near terminating his life, He was unable to reach his home for several weeks and his friends all over the State despaired of his life. But it pleased God, in His kind Providence, to spare him for still greater usefulness. For an entire year or more he was unable to attend to the duties of his chair in the University of Georgia, and was forced to give up all preaching and all other active work. The Board of Trustees of the University of Georgia were exceedingly kind to him during his illness, and gave him a vacation of one year, continuing his salary We are indebted to the same kind friend previously quoted, Mrs. D. B. Fitzgerald, for the following beautiful and feeling description of the scenes preceding his illness, and the wonderful patience and courage he exhibited during its course:
In 1871, when already overtaxed, he conducted meetings at Antioch and Bairds, feeling within himself that he was giving way beneath his burdens, and impressed with the thought that the hour of his departure was near at hand. With an earnestness so deep that it seemed like prophecy, with an impassioned pathos he told them at Antioch that his work was ended. And as he looked over the congregation he saw some who had been sitting under his ministry from youth, until their heads were whitening with approaching age, and yet he had never been able to touch their hearts.
“Must I,” I asked, “leave you, as I found you, out of Christ? Must all my arguments, my entreaties, my prayers, be only so many millstones hanged about your necks to drag you down into perdition? My skirts are clear. I have warned you of Gods righteous indignation. I have wooed you by all the sweetness of Christs love.” Lifting his eyes, he said solemnly, God is my witness, I have not shunned to declare unto you the whole counsel of God, but O how can I leave you. For many of you, I feel it will be only a little while till we shall hold sweet converse in a better world, but for you who have resisted the power of the Gospel so long, must I stand in judgment against you?”
He talked as Aaron might have plead with Israel before he ascended Mount Hor, from which he was never more to return. And God gave him the desire of his heart in great measure, for men who had never been melted before came forward in the congregation, and with tears, asked the prayers of Gods people, and were afterwards united to the church, together with many others during the never-to-be-forgotten revival that followed.
He went from Antioch to Bairdstown, and the same scenes were re-enacted, and here he fell in his pulpit during the service. Often had he been heard to say, “Let me wear out, not rust out. Let me die in the harness.” And it seemed then he was to have his wish. For just in proportion to the great will power put forth to resist this illness, in like ratio was the reaction, and the result was a total collapse. He went down, down so deep into the dark valley of the shadow of death till there was no hope that he would ever be given back to us in this world. But God, who had guided him along such a remarkable career, meant there should be one more crowning excellence added to the well-rounded character, one more rich fruit to the already full cluster of Christian graces. He became an object lesson of the most beautiful patience, of the most humble submission to Gods will, a model for invalids. Nothing in his whole life was more wonderful, nothing more admirable, nothing that showed more fully how completely he loved and trusted God. Here was all his preaching crystallized into practice.
He had always been of slight figure, but was remarkably free from bodily ailments; his erect carriage, his alert movements, his quick, springing step showed that his physical organization was strong and enduring. He was wont to stretch out his right arm and say laughingly: “Nervous! Why I have no nerves! I am strung with tougher stuff than that. I work till I am tired, and when I lie down, I am asleep in two minutes after I get settled on my pillow.”
He rejoiced in this immunity from pain, and thanked God for the health he enjoyed. But when he was struck down in his most useful career, one who has not witnessed similar sufferings can form no idea of the intensity of his anguish. Only the sustaining grace of God kept him through that awful time. And yet he gave no sign of impatience, never a murmur of complaint. Domestic virtues shone pre-eminently in him. Never was a more devoted husband and father, and when this stroke fell on him it dried up every channel of joy in that household. His faithful nurses tended him with tireless vigilance and tender, enduring love. It was long before he was able to walk and as the prostrate nerves slowly regained their equilibrium, what avenues of torture they became, but never a word of repining. He gave no utterance to the despair that must have tugged at his heart many times when, after weeks of slow improvement he would relapse, and find himself again “at the bottom of the well,” as he expressed it. Hoping when he could, and patiently enduring when there seemed no ground for hope, he made the most of the situation. Never forgetting that life is a breath of God, and an inestimable boon, he religiously refrained from any imprudence, or indulgence that might result in harm. While greatly desiring to depart and be with Christ, duty required that he should be careful of the body which seemed so hopelessly wrecked. He had spent his life as a student and thinker; his keen and analytical mind had delighted in hard questions, but now he dared not even try to think. The least effort at concentration of thought brought keen suffering. Stripped of his strength mentally as well as physically, he could do nothing.
How vividly the writer recalls those trying days. Whenever the sun shone he would be much out in the open air, “taking a sun-bath” he called it. He would sit on the porch for hours. Before him stood the college buildings, and the chapel bell clanged out the hours of recitation, his colleagues passed to and fro, the students swarmed over the campus, the streets were full of busy men, and the hum and noise fell on his ear as he sat in enforced idleness. Day after day he sat, not fretting, but with the gentle docility of a little child waiting for Natures slow recuperation.
He delighted in the companionship of little children, and amused himself with their simple pleasures. With a smile, sadder than tears to those that loved him so much, he would say, “I am a child again myself. I have to be taken care of. I am powerless to help myself, but Gods will be done.”
As is said of Job, “in all this, he sinned not, nor charged God foolishly,” for many, many months he bore this crucial test. “They also serve who stand and wait,” and at no period of his eventful life did Dr. Mell preach more forcibly than during those dreary, painful days of suffering. He had taught by precept how God can satisfy the soul even in extremity of suffering, but he showed by unwavering example how fully he believed what he had preached. It seemed to his churches, left without a pastor, that God had stopped his work, his pupils mourned his absence from the class, his family were heartbroken to see how completely he had been overcome by disease, and they felt as if an irreparable loss had fallen upon them. And yet this dark background throws out in bold relief a brilliant picture. The wonderful exhibition of patient submission to God, of sweet reliance on Jesus, was the crowning excellence of his fruitful life, a richer legacy for his children than any his busy hands had accumulated. And when Gods glorious purpose had been served, and the faithfulness of his servant had been proven, He permitted him to be restored to health. And more than a decade of life was granted him. He preached as never before, his hearers caught a sweeter ring in his voice, his spiritual sight was clearer, his heart more mellow, and some of his sermons were matchless in their depth of tenderness and power. Like Paul, he could say, “I know in whom I have believed.” “I have fought a good fight, I have kept the faith, henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of life.”
After suffering for nearly a year his physician decided that it would be necessary to take a trip on the ocean in order to revive his prostrated nervous system and restore him to health again. As soon as his friends in Georgia and other Southern States learned of the decision of the physician they urged Dr. Mell to take a trip to Europe and generously clinched the argument by presenting him with a check for $1,000 to defray the expenses. This liberal proof of the great esteem and admiration in which he was held by his brethren all over the South touched him very deeply. The trip was taken, in company with his wife, and he returned sufficiently restored in health, to resume his duties at the University and as pastor of his two churches. Within a year or so after his return from abroad he fully regained his health and strength and seemed to take a stronger hold upon life than before. The Savannah church again elected him pastor in 1874, but he declined to give up his work in Athens, and with his churches at Antioch and Bairdstown.