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DEAR, delicious, bygone country Sabbaths, how out of harmony bustle and striving seemed with your days! A woman minding her dairy or a farmer storing his hay made a scandal, and a certain decorous dignity was given to necessary labor. How the aspect of the landscape changed with the ending of the week's tasks! Individual life tells in the country. Farmers digging in their fields, dairywomen busy before their doors, loitering children, working oxen, all motions begotten of labor are greatly missed when withdrawn. The stillness of the Sabbath at my grandfather's was almost oppressive. Not a worker was to be seen, hardly a loiterer, only the silent processes of nature went on in the deserted fields. There was something sublime in this universal ovation of quiet to the sacredness of the day, in this giving to the Sabbath that full possession of rest ordained for it in its old creation. It was the instinct of a primitive and pure devotion, the spiritual expression of a people who knew of no compromise with duty. The keeping of the Lord's day meant with them a giving up of all workday pursuits. The thoughts of many of them may have run in profane channels, but if so they gave no outward sign. If they forecasted to themselves plans for the coming week, they told not of it, and the most eager worker of them all fell readily into the subdued spirit of the day.
The farmers used to sit much by the windows of their living-rooms and look complacently over their fields. No wonder they loved their lands, for these had given back, for yearly care and toil, an hundred-fold in health and delight. I seem to see the old miller, ready for meeting, lounging in a rush-bottomed chair outside his little red cottage under the hill. The mill has stopped its clatter, Molly loiters with her pitcher at the spring, and the gray old house-dog lies on the door-stone snapping at flies in the sunshine. The minutest feature of that Sunday morning picture comes back to me: the lazy drone of the bees about the hive under the cherry-tree; the row of sunflowers close by the garden-fence, tilting their faces up to the sun; the garden itself, full of savory herbs; and, above all, the trim, rotund miller, his ruddy face set off by a broad collar, and his meeting suit untarnished by meal or flour. He was always waiting there every sunny Sabbath morning, so that he became a permanent feature of the landscape as seen from my grandfather's porch-door. The unhewn, flat stone step of that door was a cheerful place. Close by it were the cucumber-bed, the dairy-bench, and the beehives. No pans were put out to scald on Sunday, the unpicked cucumbers grew apace, and the bees revelled in blossoms. It was the brightest, homeliest, rankest spot about the house.
A farm-house back-door is a paradise for weeds, and there is beauty in all these unbidden growths of the rank soil. They are overburdened with a wild scent, dense of foliage, deep of color, profuse of blossom, and prolific of seed. They locate themselves humbly and have few friends; but hardly one of them is without its use, and none of them would be unmissed from back-door vegetation. Here grew the unctuous cheeses of school repute; the beggarly plantain, close up to the steps, good for woodland poisons; edible dock and mustard, and many meaner weeds, redeemed by their riotous rankness. They were not worthless, for out from them came healing and food and dyes. They were not mean, for they were an outcropping of the force of the earth, and so were an eloquent miracle of the life of the year.
The miller's Sunday suit cost much effort, from the first clipping of the wool of which it was made to the final handling of it by Lucy and Hester, the two tailoresses, who measured and stitched and pressed at the rate of two shillings per day. It did not fit well, but for wear and tear it was unsurpassed; and its owner had the consciousness that it had been honestly paid for, and would not have for a long time to be renewed. The broad collars of the men were made of homespun linen, their boots were clumsy, their hands coarse and distorted by labor; but they were sovereigns of the soil; strong, brave, honest men.
The dress of the better-conditioned class of women was much finer. Many of them owned rich satins and brocades. This outlay was, however, only for once or twice in a lifetime, and the heirlooms of imported stuffs which have come down from my grandmother were, without doubt, her show-dresses for many years. There was something sweet in this exalting by fine apparel of a mother of a household, in this hinting of vanity in these simple women, who would gladly have bought and worn the silken fabrics which they could not simulate in their own webs.
Behold the stately pomp of my grandmother's church-going. Jonathan brings the two-wheeled chaise to the front door, and out from the " spare room" comes a shimmer of black satin and lace, and the figure of a woman, large, tall, white-haired, fair-faced, handsome, grand as any fashionable lady of to-day. In the hands which on the morrow are to help do the family washing she carries a folded kerchief of fine quality, a hymn-book, and a sprig of Southern-wood. She looks, as I remember her, with no mark of earthly toil upon her form and visage, like a quaint old portrait of a queen somewhere seen. Verily, what did this woman lose by the cheerful taking up of life's allotted burdens?
Wives and daughters of the less well-to-do farmers seldom owned more than one "best gown," and that of simple material; but their clean frocks looked wonderfully well, and the cheeks of the lasses were brighter than any ribbons they could buy. They were pleasant to behold as they walked in procession, every Sunday, to the meeting-house. The wild country round about ran riot with vegetation, and they were a part of its brightness.
There was chance for romance in those church-bound walks, and many a well-to-do young farmer chose to go across the fields with his lass rather than by the dusty highway. At meeting-time, by the gate of almost every green lane stood a lumbering market-wagon, waiting for the "gudewife" and her little ones, whilst the "squire" and the doctor passed by in pretentious chaise: The highway was thronged with eager worshippers, — fathers and mothers, lads and lasses, many little children, with here and there an old man or woman. All were resting, happy, reverent. When the crowd had reached the meetinghouse, the women and children and young girls passed in; but the fathers and older sons lingered around the porch, — the former to exchange greetings, the latter to stare at the blushing maidens. The young people were not free from that coquetry the seeds of which were sown in Eden, and which is as old as Eve. It took the girls a long time beforehand to adjust their simple dress. On Sunday mornings, Molly, the miller's daughter, used to plaster water curls upon her rosy cheeks. If her face was not adorned by them, she herself was truly made more lovely by this simple tribute to the church-door homage of her rustic lover.
The meeting-house was a quaint old structure, a fair specimen of buildings of its class in those days. It had the hanging, cylindrical sounding-board; high pulpit, with its trapdoor; railed altar; broad galleries; double row of small windows; and square pews, — the whole built of plain, unpolished wood. It was not planned by skilful architects, yet, despite the ugliness of this old meeting-house, there was about it a kind of solemn grandeur. It was lofty and roomy, and had the venerableness which long use gives to any structure. Cobwebs hung in its out-of-the-way corners; age had richly stained the rude carvings of its useless sounding-board; and curiously-twisted veins and knots had come out, in long years, all over the panels of its galleries. There is something pathetic in this creeping out of the veins and fibres of ancient wood — as if they were the soul of it — to meet the destroying touch of time. Rare also is the aroma of these dying woods, breathing out from such as are mellow and brown and streaked with age; found only in old, unpainted buildings.
On summer days, through the open windows of this ancient church came resinous breezes from the pine wood beyond it, sunshine, and the sounds of busy, ripening, summer life. It was filled also with a reverent spirit of worship, and by them all it was glorified into a solemn and goodly temple. The coming up of the minister's white head from the trap-door, the nasal twang of the long-queued deacon dictating to his choir, the contortions of the fiddler, were all accepted as a part of the service, and the people were as unconscious of any element of the grotesque in their worship as they were rich in faith and divine presence. The musical directors of ancient choirs might not have been good singers, but they were most devout choral worshippers of the Lord on the Lord's Day. Ancient meeting-houses had no chimneys, and the tiny foot-stoves of the women could not keep their bodies warm in winter. One can but think that perhaps the sturdiness of these ancient dames was in some measure due to the fact that the weakly ones were, in early life, winnowed out by exposure to such hardy customs.
My grandfather's old meeting-house on summer days was a picture-gallery, letting in rare landscapes through its windows. The meanest objects framed in these, and fixed by them upon a background of sky or verdure, became studies to tired, curious children, who let nothing pass by the doors unnoticed upon the visible highway. The stay-at-homes in the few neighboring houses were eagerly watched, and all the details of the houses themselves accurately scanned by them. They grew wise as to the habits and haunts of meeting-house spiders and bugs, and noted every bird-nested tree which could be seen from the pews. Every object within range of vision they knew well by sight. Nothing escaped them but the doctrines of the minister's long discourses.
What country-bred person will not recall with pleasure such unwitting Sunday studies of art, when he or she learned aerial perspective through the upper windows of a village church, and the best style of lawn-gardening from the landscape which stretched out from their lower panes to the horizon? All the natural beauties of the neighborhood were revealed; many secrets of form and sound and color were searched out until, through these primary dealings with nature, a glimpse was given of the fulness and richness and glory of the universe.
The old-time country pastors were greatly loved and respected by their people. They were treated with peculiar deference. They were accosted with humility and entertained with delight. They were poorly paid, but, like their parishioners, their habits were simple and wants few; and many of them eked out their living by the use of land lent them by thrifty farmers. The Congregationalist ministers were the most learned men of the times; generally close students, rigid in doctrine, stern in discipline, and given to long, many-headed sermons. Other denominations believed less in especial training for the pulpit and more in what was termed "a call" to preach. Laymen left their ploughs and became exhorters; and the genuine "call" often developed rare power to control minds. The eloquence and success of some of these "called" preachers of my grandfather's neighborhood have passed into tradition. They showed an acuteness in the selection and adaptation of texts which often proved the seed of great revivals. Said one of these pastors, venerable with age, as he bowed over the coffin of an old patriarch, named Jacob, who in the fulness of a healthy and honored old age had died suddenly in the night-time. "And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people." The utterance, the attitude, the aspect of the trembling old pastor were perfect, and more potent than any sermon upon this desirable ending of a long and worthy life. At another time, leaning over the pulpit, he pointed to the shrouded form of a strong man, stricken down by the wayside, and exclaimed, in low and searching accents, "Who among you will give heed to this? Who will hearken and hear for the time to come?" Waiting, with solemn impressiveness, answer came to him in the sudden uprising of every member of the congregation. This inspired old man was gathered to his fathers. He was greatly missed. Even little children mourned him, and for a long time the mention of his name brought tears.
In those days seldom was an aged minister cast off by his people because of his years. He was more apt to be endeared to them by his infirmities, and his speech to grow weighty with them in proportion to his past work and experience. The deference paid to him, especially by the young, was extreme. His learning, his freedom from coarser toil, his better attire, exalted the minister's vocation at any time of life; and when to the superiority of it was added the venerableness of years, he became to them a true patriarch; like the priests of old, as one ordained of God and not of men.
My grandfather's minister, when I used to visit the farm, was a trembling old man, with broken voice; but the thought of his dismissal never entered the mind of one of his hearers, and to talk of his death as a near probability cut their hearts as a personal bereavement. Gray-haired women spoke of him as belonging to a past generation. He had buried their parents, had given them in marriage, and brought his wisdom to bear upon the good and evil experiences of their after-life. He had been an eloquent man, and the inspiration of his speech had not yet quite left him. Indeed, there could be no eloquence more effectual than the simple appeals which came from the pious hearts and truthful lips of such well-tried pastors. From living so long with one people, they grew into their lives. There could be no joy or sorrow in the parish in which the beloved pastor was not called to share. The average sermons of those days, measured by rules of rhetoric, might, many of them, seem bare; but most of them were strong in logic, and they were all full of heart and truth, and so of power.
At noon, between Sunday services, the people scattered; in winter, with their lunch-baskets, amongst the nearest farm-houses; in summer the mothers, with their little ones, did the same, whilst the sturdy farmers lolled on the green. Lads and lasses strolled into the fields, where lovers sat down under the maples and oaks, or the willows by the brook-side. Children and sober maidens, like Hannah, were apt to turn into the church-yard. Many of the meeting-goers had some precious spot in that earth, and they never seemed to tire of reading the legends on the unpretending stones.
After the hour's nooning came the afternoon's service, just as long and strong in doctrine as that of the morning, and woe betide the uneasy youngster or dozing farmer upon whom the tithingman's watchful eye might fall. Sweet were the homeward walks, when lovers loitered and parents grew less austere. The rest of the day was wellnigh past, but its peace lingered. Its waning light fell with a soft glow upon fields and highway and home-bound worshippers. The latter, for a few transient hours freed alike from the cares which were past and the cares which were to come, grew kindly affectioned one towards another. This new-born life was decorous and sweet. Children joined one another; young hearts went out to meet young hearts; and, at the end of every green lane, neighbors parted with hand-shakes and good wishes. While this pleasant pageant was passing from the highway, the herds came up from the pastures. The duties of the new week crowded up to the twilight of the old Sabbath, and shortly the highway was deserted and silent.