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A Minister of Ye Olden Tyme
By FANNY E. LORD
A better preeste I trow that nowher non is,
He waited after no pompe ne reverence,
Ne maked him no spiced conscience,
But Criste's lore, and his apostles twelve
He taught, but first he folwed it himselve.
* * *
WHEN we children used to visit at grandfather's farm in the country, we always took our healthy, childish appetites with us. There was a big round table that turned back against the walls and made an armchair when not in use as a table. On this were set for us little plates of that dull, pinkish shade of red, found only in old crockery. Around the rim in white-raised letters were mottoes from Benjamin Franklin, of the worldly wisdom which that famous philosopher always affected, and we children were earnestly enjoined to pay diligent heed to the precepts of this great and good man, so that we might become as wise in our generation as he was in his.
This was well enough for the more docile of the grandchildren, but I, my grandmother's namesake and much like her in temperament and in disposition, rebelled openly, when the plate before me read: "Always get up from the table with as good an appetite as when you sat down."
These plates and an old leather-covered Bible, kept in a little square cubby hole of a closet, high up over the brick oven, were the only relics of the old home that my grandmother had inherited from her father, the Rev. John Strickland. She was the youngest of the family of twelve and there was probably not much to be divided among them.
This Bible was worn with much reading and its leaves were yellowed with age. What attracted us most about it was its quaint wording. We soon became accustomed to the long s so like f in our copy books, and it ceased to be funny to us; but it was so queer that the Beatitudes all began with "Happy."
"Happy are the peacemakers;" "happy are the pure in heart," and so on through all those wonderful beatitudes that have carried peace and comfort to all the pure in heart and to the peacemakers down through the centuries since those divine words were spoken. The sight of this old Bible always seemed to unloose my grandmother's tongue. All through his long and arduous life of eighty-two years, her father had searched these Scriptures and had found there inspiration for his tasks, and comfort and support for the heavy responsibilities of his sacred office.
She, too, read and pondered deeply the precious words of the Book, for the uplift it gave her, in her daily round of monotonous duties. It was her guide of life, as it was the staff and stay of her beloved father, who was an influence and a power for good in the State of Maine in his day. A true pastor of his charge.
The records of him are few and brief, a paragraph or two in the archives of Yale of which he was an honored son and from which he graduated in 1761 at the age of twenty; a few in the annals of the towns where he ministered and served at the altar.
He was born at Hadley, Mass., Sept. 14 (O. S.) 1741. Died at Andover Oct. 4, 1823, at eighty-two years of age. Preached at Oak-ham, Mass.; in the settlements in Maine; Hudson, N. H., Turner, Maine, and Andover, Maine. Married Patty, daughter of Captain Isaac and Martha Stone of Oakham, Mass. She died at Turner, Maine, 1805.
If this brief record were all, it would hardly be worth while to transcribe it. But there are hints and glimpses into this life lived out so long ago, which reveal a character well worth knowing and which compel us to recast our fixed idea of what has crystalized in our minds as the stern, unyielding past and which make us realize that the human heart is the human heart, the world over, and beats the same in every age.
My grandmother's stories of their home life were vivid and eagerly sought by her grandchildren. The one we especially enjoyed was about herself, at four years of age. Here is the story, not as she told it, but with the facts as we remember them. Her raciness of speech was peculiar to herself and cannot be reproduced.
* * *
It is high noon by the sun in the zenith, high noon by the shortened shadows on the grass in the churchyard; and if these dials had failed to record the hour, the minister's sermon, drawing to a close, would have proclaimed it, trumpet loud, with unquestioned accuracy.
The Sabbath stillness of Turner village is broken only by the singing of birds and the patter of childish feet, as along the village street comes a quaint little figure, stumbling and tripping in her long skirt which is strangely out of proportion to the tiny waist and sleeves, by which her sturdy little arms are held fast as in the stocks.
As she draws nearer, to our consternation we recognize Fanny, the merry, wilful little lassie of the Rev. John Strickland, who is at this hour in his pulpit in the meeting-house, preaching to an attentive and reverent people on how to guide their errant lives.
The dress into which the plump figure of the child had refused to be forced and which was hopelessly ruined in the unequal struggle, is an exquisitely embroidered India christening robe, tender from repeated use and frequent launderings through many years.
Each one of the minister's large family had in turn been carried up the aisle robed in this beautiful garment, to the baptismal font and had there been consecrated to a life of unselfish service to God and man, with the fervent prayer that he or she might be brave to endure life's hardships to the end, and, clothed in the garment of Christ's righteousness be gathered at last to the mansions above.
Not only the minister's twelve, and as years passed on, some of his grandchildren, too, had been consecrated in this robe, but many of the parishioners also had been free to use it. It had seen good service through many years and now it was ruined beyond redemption.
Through the subconscious mind of this last little ewe lamb of the pastor's flock, the idea had somehow filtered that this was a garment of peculiar sacredness and veneration. Barely out of babyhood, too young to attend divine worship, she was yet feminine to her heart's core. Watching for her chance, she escaped from the vigilance of her elder sister who had been left at home to care for this eager, restless child, always ready for mischief of any sort, and at once instituted a thorough search for the christening robe. Her efforts were soon crowned with success.
Then began the valiant struggle to get into the narrow confines of the garment. The long skirt captured her fancy. In imagination she could see herself trailing its length along the garden paths. She pulled and tugged at the tiny waist and sleeves and when, at last, satisfied with her success, she ceased her efforts, the precious robe was one tissue of rags and tatters and slits; there was barely enough left of the original fabric to hold the rags together. But what difference did that make? Suddenly the child, radiant in the soul-satisfying consciousness of being charmingly attired, formed the resolution of going to meeting.
Very cautiously she slipped out of the rarely used front door, in a tremor of fear lest she be detected, and thwarted in her plans. Pausing not, nor once looking back, she took her way to the meetinghouse. Just inside, she hesitated a moment, bewildered. Recognizing her sisters by the familiar bonnets rising above the pew railing, serene and unruffled, up the aisle she stumbled and tripped in the impeding skirt and with quite the manner of the grand dame, she entered the minister's pew, and, in her stateliest pose, sat down beside one of her sisters, prepared to take her full part in the sacred service of the meeting-house, at this, her first appearance there.
The sister, in her dismay, had the presence of mind to fold her shawl about the disreputable, dilapidated little figure and shield her from the scandalized gaze of a curious congregation, until she could take the dear, naughty little sister home to the parsonage. To be punished? Oh, no.
To be sure, these were the days when parental discipline is reputed stern and unyielding, but the Rev. John Strickland was as far in advance of his times, in his tenderness and fairness toward children, as in his theology. His sympathies were always with the restless youth of his parish.
"Young people must have some recreation," he would say, "and dancing is as innocent as any." So his twelve children were all taught to dance. We are not told how his people received these liberal sentiments, but he was no weakling. If a thing was right, it was right. He would not have been out of place in our times. He would have fitted perfectly into the present day scheme of philanthropy which lays great stress on recreation for all ages and plenty of well-equipped playgrounds, under proper supervision, for the children.
* * *
A promise was sacred to him, however lightly given. Again we see the same little Fanny, who seems to be a genius for getting into the traditional kettle of hot water. She is sixteen years of age now, just as old as her mother was when she was married. She has the same feminine love of fine clothes that she manifested in her early childhood. And why not? This is the period when the minister's wife was expected to be the best dressed woman of the parish, to wear "real laces and silks that would stand alone."
To-day our little maiden is very fetching in her close-fitting riding habit or Josie of gray kerseymere, a delicate gray that sets off her black eyes and ruddy cheeks and creamy skin. She is going to a wedding with her father and has just mounted on the pillion behind him. A young man, bound for the same scene of festivities, rides up to the door, on a well-groomed steed. His look of dismay as he sees Miss Fanny already seated behind her father, is intercepted by the keen, alert minister.
"My daughter, did you promise to ride to the wedding with this young man?"
Vainly she coaxed and cajoled, and she was an adept in the art, no pleading availed, his daughter must, first of all, be true to her sacred word of honor, there was nothing more to be said. Very gently and gravely he lifted her from his horse and mounted her behind the waiting youth. And somehow our sympathy goes with the young man. If this is success, what is failure?
Another story reveals his firmness and tender love to his children, and his fixed purpose that the best should be theirs at whatever cost to his own quivering heart. Present pleasure at the expense of future good never allured him. Sylvester, his ninth child, was born with club feet. Surgery was then hardly more than a name and anζsthetics not yet discovered; but he had heard that club feet had been made shapely by bandaging them soon after birth, before the cartilage had hardened, and keeping them night and day encased in unyielding wooden shoes a long process and painful. The mother's heart shrank from the stern ordeal and refused to consent. But the father, looking into the future and seeing there the greater suffering and torture of the child, forced to go through life humiliated by his deformity, gently but firmly took his stand.
A great-hearted woman from a remote part of the parish took the baby to her home and for many long months cared for him and ministered to him. When he was returned to his parents, the little feet may not have been so shapely as modern medical science would have made them; Nature would never have mistaken them for her own artistic product; still, with carefully fitted boots, they were not noticeably unlike those of the more favored brothers and sisters.
It is the custom to decry heredity, yet among John Strickland's descendants the club foot has many times re-appeared, down to the present generation.
* * *
Even among the brief and dry statistical annals of the towns, where he was settled, there are interesting and curious facts inscribed. In the account of his installation at Turner then not a town but a proprietary settlement, called Sylvester or Sylvester-London the records, after having voted to call him as "a gospel minister," read "Voted a call at fifty pounds salary and voted a further tax of thirty shillings on each original right to pay his salary. Voted that Mr. Strickland be allowed a reasonable time to visit his friends to the westward annually." (Westward here means Massachusetts and Connecticut). "And that he should have the common land five years, rent free."
The vote, passed in a settlement not being considered legal, a number of men, among the proprietors, gave their bond "for fifty pounds, for his salary." This bond was to become null and void "when the town should be incorporated."
This was the action of the township. The vote of the church and congregation was: "In consideration of the great importance of having stated means of grace, settled in this place, and having heard the Rev. John Strickland a member of Salem presbytery for some time, and being satisfied with his principles in doctrine and discipline, his ministerial gifts and moral character, do make choice of him as our minister." He was installed September 20, 1784, by the presbytery of Gray. And the records still farther say "After his settlement the church and town enjoyed peace for several years."
The church increased to thirty members. It had been formed one month before his installation with a membership of fifteen twelve men and three women; a proportion strange and unfamiliar to our day. But sectarian differences arose; several of the church and parish joined with others of the near-by town of Buckfield and petitioned the General Court, as the Massachusetts Legislature was then called, for an act of incorporation as a Baptist Society. Soon a few more joined them. Then more went off as a Universalist society. Death and removal from town still farther decimated the following of Mr. Strickland. The few that remained entreated their pastor to stay by them.
A hero and true blue as every Presbyterian should be, he consented to remain and generously relinquished such part of his salary as the "property of those who had withdrawn was to the valuation of the whole town." Considering his large family, this was surely a heroic act of Christian faith and self-denial. If a gift is measured, as it should be, not by the amount given but by that which is left, as the widow's mite was measured by the Master, then this gift of the Rev. John Strickland was as munificent as any bestowed by Rockefeller or Carnegie or any other of our multi-millionaires. Then, too, Continental money had depreciated and had become almost worthless.
Soon after, affairs not improving but rather growing worse, the little handful of church members and parishioners who were left, thought it best to call an Ecclesiastical Council of the churches of Brunswick, Harpswell, Freeport and Topsfield. Each church was represented by its pastor and one delegate. They advised Mr. Strickland to try it for one year more, then if the difficulties remained, he should be free to ask for a dismissal and the church should grant it. At the same time, the Council, in view of this event, recommended the Rev. John Strickland as "a man of unimpeached character and sound in the faith."
As things did not improve, he was granted a dismissal by the church and people, May 18, 1797. After his departure, according to the Turner town records, "The town became a spiritual wilderness." Their affairs were finally carried to the Court of Sessions and there settled, complaint having been lodged there against them, "for neglecting to provide themselves with a public teacher of purity, morality and religion." When a church was again formed in Turner, it was organized as a Congregational church, instead of Presbyterian as before.
It is often only too true that one who has suffered persecution of any kind, especially religious persecution, is the most unsympathetic and intolerant of the belief of others. We see this among such good people as the Massachusetts Puritans. The Rev. John Strickland never hardened under his trials, his fine nature grew only the more mellow and tender and true. So when his daughter Lucy, abjuring the traditions under which she had been reared, became a Methodist, she was shielded in her home from the religious intolerance of the day. Except the good-natured raillery found in every large family, she met with nothing like martyrdom for her new faith. The Methodists then were easily recognizable by the conspicuous plainness of their attire. The hair was brushed with aggravating smoothness down the cheeks over the ears. Her merry sisters, alive to anything humorous, teased her by telling her that she wasted far more time in smoothing her hair to the requisite flatness, than they did in shaping the most worldly and elaborate of puffs and curls. Farther than this their fun did not go.
We hear little of Patty Strickland, the wife of the Rev. John. One story of pre-revolutionary days has been handed down to her descendants, which reveals a human side of her character that greatly endears her to us.
It was when the excitement ran high over the retention of the tax on tea. As in the families of all loyal patriots, the use of tea was strictly prohibited in the home of the minister. One of their generous parishioners had given the minister's wife a goodly parcel of the much-prized, fragrant herb. Her husband reminded her that; as it was a matter of principle, none of the tea was to be used. Patty reasoned in her own mind, that as they had not bought the tea and therefore could not have paid the tax on it, it was quite right to use it. But the minister said "No! the principle at stake must be honored. No tea shall be used in my home however come by, while the obnoxious tax remains unrepealed." Patty was silenced but not in the least convinced. No, not she. She was plainly a woman with a mind of her own and she proposed to use it.
One fine morning the minister set out to make parish calls on several of the more remote members of his scattered flock in the outlying districts. On such occasions, he was accustomed to be gone all day. This was Patty's time. No sooner had her husband disappeared in the distance than she, putting an extra generous pinch of tea in the squat brown teapot and pouring upon it the water already bubbling and boiling on the hob, set it just inside the wide fireplace to brew. She could hardly wait until it was ready.
Suddenly the good minister, who had forgotten something of importance, appeared in the doorway and tea and teapot flew up the wide, yawning chimney, propelled by a vigorous arm. The law of gravity brought the fragrant remnants down, hissing and spluttering and scattering the ashes over the "clean winged hearth," and the question of using taxed tea was forever settled in that household; principle and patriotism were not to be tampered or trifled with by any of its members.
If it were ever fair to judge of a whole life by a single act, we might feel that Patty Strickland's conscience was more flexible and accommodating than that of her husband. But Patty was only a trifle past twenty years of age. One story more and only one has been passed on to her descendants.
It was at that solemn hour that comes to every one of mortal birth, when all disguises drop away and the soul is revealed in its naked simplicity.
Her last illness was agonizing. In the midst of a spasm of excruciating torture one of her daughters, bending over her, by words of endearment and sympathy, tried to show her how truly she entered
into her suffering and how gladly she would bear every pain to give Suddenly looking up into the daughter's face she burst out, in an ecstasy of triumphant joy:
"Jesus can make a dying bed
Feel soft as downy pillows are;
While on his breast I lean my head
And breathe my life out sweetly there."
These are not the words of a weakling in intellect or in conscience They ring true, like the victor's shout of triumph, when, after a life of training he bears away the palm of victory amid the rejoicing of his comrades. The height to which she attained could not be reached by a single bound.
* * *
The last twenty years of John Strickland's life were spent in peace, among a people whom he loved and who, in turn, loved and venerated him; who could appreciate his broad views, his scholarly attainments and his unswerving fidelity and adherence to truth and honor and conscience.
Andover, once called the gateway to the Rangeley lakes, is beautiful enough to be called the gateway of heaven and must have seemed especially so to him, coming from the turmoil and conflict of religious differences and dissensions.
His memory still lives there, fresh and green, with the worthy descendants of that sterling people. The public library which he helped to establish, was destroyed by fire. A list of the books remains to show how true was this son of Yale to the intellectual traditions of his beloved Alma Mater. Sylvanus Poor, the historian of Andover, has written of him: "He was probably a Presbyterian and was a minister and a man much beloved and respected. He was my minister for twenty years."
He might truthfully have added that he must have had financial ability that would have won him renown in Wall Street, else how could he, with his small salary, have brought up his large family to manhood and womanhood, well equipped for life? He and his family lived always the simple life, which made them strong to bear the burdens and endure the hardship and privations of their pioneer life and caused them to be immune to devastating disease. Death never entered that home but once and that was when the mother went during all the years of his pastorates, until he was taken, full of years and good deeds, to his well-earned rest.
The old church at Andover where he preached so long ago, has been moved and set up in a more favorable spot and remodelled with exquisite taste, a worthy memorial of him.
He died Oct. 4, 1823, and was buried where he would have chosen, among the people of his love in Andover, the beautiful little town in a cup-shaped valley, surrounded by mountains that must often have recalled to him those words of the inspired Hebrew poet of old: "As the mountains are round about Jerusalem so the Lord is round about his people from this time forth and even forevermore."