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TRADITIONS OF THE RURAL CHURCH
THE New England pioneers who penetrated the unbroken, trackless forests searching for suitable locations for future homes and who spared no physical effort in establishing these homes, would have regarded with contempt, if not with horror, the present day tendencies toward shorter and shorter hours of labor. For in their dictionary the term "recreation" was practically unknown.
No new settlement could be regarded as fairly established until it possessed a schoolhouse and a church. Naturally this involved much extra labor and personal sacrifice.
So the New England tourist of the present day is constantly finding these little old-fashioned emblems of self-denial tucked away, not only in small hamlets but at the cross roads. The influx of numerous people of different foreign nationalities and of the different religions, has in many instances left the churches a difficult problem, financial and otherwise, to the limited number of communicants yet remaining of the old New England stock.
Before so many of the younger generation became ambitious for city life and left the home farms to pass into the hands of strangers, these churches were very active centers of culture and uplift.
However, with human nature as it is, it could hardly be expected that there should not be some trying incidents connected with the close intimacies of the country congregation. The new pastor soon found that each of his parishioners had a very distinct individuality which was often calculated to jar upon other individualities of his flock. The nerve strain incident to preserving harmonious relations under these conditions was no doubt responsible in numerous instances for the "nervous dyspepsia" which has so frequently afflicted country ministers.
In the early days when barter rather than cash was the chief means of exchange, the parson's salary was necessarily small, at least in actual cash. To make up to him what they were unable to deliver in the way of real money, the pastor was made the subject of countless acts of generosity in the form of loads of wood, potatoes, pork and various other elements of family subsistence. However, the crowning act of generosity on the part of parishioners was the annual Donation Party.
Story of the "Raised" Biscuits
In a certain parish there was a clergyman whose family did not take very kindly to these rural substitutes for real money. Probably the minister's wife had "seen better days" before she became the partner of a struggling country pastor. And quite likely she may have expressed her disapproval of the stingy characteristics of some in the parish in the presence of her children.
The annual Donation Party at this parsonage was a great success in point of numbers, but the donations themselves were rather small. Each matron of the community was of course expected to furnish her share of the refreshments. Probably there was not sufficient team work in the "Ladies' Aid Society." At any rate, the pastor's wife found herself, at the conclusion of the evening's festivities, in possession of an extraordinarily large number of exceedingly durable "raised biscuits," the other donations being far below the proper standard.
It became necessary for the pastor and his wife to visit an adjoining town the next day, their children being left behind. During the absence of the parents there were developments which scandalized the entire neighborhood and filled the pastor and his wife with horror.
Shortly after their parents went away the children got busy. The residents of the neighborhood passing the parsonage during the day noted with mingled amusement and indignation the fact that each one of the wooden pickets surrounding the ample enclosure of the parsonage was surmounted by a raised biscuit.
It was a very hot Sabbath, but the faithful residents of the parish were practically all in attendance. The parson accepted even the most extreme views of the tense theology of that period. Therefore the faithful mothers of the congregation arose early in order that they might prepare all the children of walking age and upwards to appear in clean clothes and clean faces by the time the last bell stroke was heard.
Small Boy Who Scandalized the Congregation
In accordance with the custom of that period, there were no free pews, except for the extremely poor. The owner of each of these sittings after carefully packing his family away in the limited space available for that purpose, closed the door of his pew.
As before stated, it was a very warm day and little "Jabe," who for some family reason or other was at present living with his three maiden aunts, came to church attired only in his gingham shirt and cotton trousers. Jabe was not old enough to appreciate the solemnity of the occasion and it was beyond his understanding how people could be so foolish as to be willing to sit perfectly still for two mortal hours in church. Therefore, when he found that his attendance at church was inevitable that morning, he looked about to provide himself with diversion for the long period of hateful inactivity. The maiden aunts were very devout. They gave their entire attention to the parson. Except to occasionally lay a restraining hand on the "wiggling" urchin who was stationed between them, they seemed to have forgotten him.
In the pew immediately behind little Jabe and his aunts, there were several young girls. Even at this time it was often necessary to frown upon the effervescent spirits of girls in their teens. It can therefore be readily understood how horrified and scandalized were the "pillars" of the church, when in the midst of the service, one of these young ladies squealed hysterically. The minister ceased his discourse and one of the deacons hastily demanded an explanation, which even in that austere congregation seemed to be not only satisfying but amusing. Little Jabe on his way to church, loitering behind his faithful aunts, had spied a small snake on the roadside, pounced upon it and tucked it inside his little gingham shirt. When the pastor had got well along in "fifthly," Jabe had taken the snake by the tail and allowed his head to emerge from his shirt front with the above named disastrous consequences to the dignity of the morning service.
Without doubt the first essential for the success of the country pastor is the diplomatic instinct. He may be lacking in many other ways, and yet continue to retain the good will and support of his parish, provided that he can get in intimate contact with his people without wounding their peculiar sensibilities.
A well-known clergyman, who was extremely popular in several parishes, tells with much delight, his experience with a certain amiable old lady who received him very cordially one 'day when making pastoral visits.
This minister was a comparatively newcomer in the community and had never had an opportunity to really make the acquaintance of the lady in question. The conversation covered the normal range of small town subjects, the lady showing very considerable interest in the minister and his prospects and becoming more and more affable as the conversation continued.
Finally it became the proper thing for the minister to gracefully withdraw, which he did despite the urgent protest of his hostess to linger a little longer. As he was about to take his departure, she gave him a most approving look and dismissed him with the following words:
"I am so glad we have had this little visit. I am sure we shall all like you ever so much. Do you know you greatly remind me of the minister who was here when my husband and I first went to housekeeping. He died a driveling idiot.
In a remote village there was located a clergyman who divided his energies between two small parishes. Diplomacy was not his strong point. Probably not one-third of his hearers were communicant members. And under his austere ministrations, many who were fairly regular in their attendance showed a marked reluctance to allow themselves to be enrolled officially.
In consequence of this unwillingness to assume church responsibilities, the pastor held very pessimistic views as to their probable future and did not hesitate to make it fairly clear and definite when occasion permitted.
A great opportunity came to him and it may be truthfully said that he made the most of it.
Away back in the hills there was a young man of nineteen or twenty who had become greatly interested in a somewhat frivolous maiden of sixteen years. Psychologists of the present would have probably pronounced Jim's development as about equal to that of ten or twelve years. He was distinctly defective mentally, but a good worker on the farm and of generally amiable tendencies. Theology to him was as remote a topic as Babylonian literature.
But Jim had very definite views as to this girl. He was infatuated to the point of desperation.
The young lady in question considered it a great joke. One evening she would be very bland and agreeable and the next time Jim appeared, she would be very much the reverse. It is unnecessary to dwell upon the details which are too familiar to most people to require explanation. She was having a beautiful time tormenting poor Jim. One evening she carried it a little too far and Jim left her convinced that life was not worth living. Retiring to a lonely hilltop with a heavily loaded shotgun, he departed this life with almost incredible rapidity.
This unfortunate event created a wide sensation. Overwhelmed with remorse, the young lady could not sufficiently abase herself. Therefore, when the funeral was held in the little country church, she appeared first among the mourners, although there is not the slightest probability that she would ever have married poor Jim had he lived to continue his courtship.
Knowing Jim's amiable qualities, all of the community were sympathetic except the pastor. To him this situation presented the opportunity of a lifetime.
The keynote of the funeral discourse was soon made apparent by the text:
"And Paul cried with a loud voice: Do thyself no harm."
Whereupon the astonished congregation found that instead of having gathered to hear words of sympathy for the family bereaved by the insane act of a love-crazed youth, they were to hear words of condemnation and vituperation with direful warnings of eternal misery.
The more intelligent people listened with disgust, while those who seldom, if ever, entered the church, looked on with amusement. With the completion of the services, the people gladly withdrew from the ministerial presence and when safely outside, their general views were summarized by the comments of the local cobbler.
"Well, the parson certainly had it in for poor Jim; he held him out over Tophet for about an hour and then kicked him over in!"
On a certain July Sabbath the afternoon service in the little church seemed to drag. There had been a long morning service, and a session of the Sunday school earlier in the day, so it perhaps may not seem surprising that some of the congregation were seen to nod at times and then with renewed effort, concentrate their attention upon the minister.
The pastor of the parish was greatly beloved for his personal characteristics, but not greatly admired as a preacher. His oratorical process consisted of slow, rambling talks in a low monotone intermingled with occasional emphatic remarks in a very loud voice.
The breeze which had been coming through the open windows died away and the congregation became more and more drowsy. The pastor, amiable and considerate, was the last preacher in the world to resent somnolence on the part of his audience.
The sermon progressed and the pastor's thought was being slowly and laboriously laid before the few who were still awake. When he found it consistent with his system of discourse, he often projected an allegorical picture upon the mental processes of his hearers.
Suddenly raising his voice until it echoed and re-echoed throughout the edifice, he shouted:
"But there is a lion in the way!"
A rustle passed over the congregation and all the drowsy ones sat up, some few looking around hurriedly in various directions but becoming speedily reassured.
The fact that a combined circus and menagerie was advertised to exhibit in a nearby town within a few days might possibly have had something to do with the unexpected success of the pastor's allegory.
The enrollment in a certain community church was relatively small because of a diversity of the religious beliefs among the various families. Those who did not belong to the faith represented by the minister were indisposed at that period to accept membership in the church, even if they might be fairly regular in their attendance and assist in the church financially. Others, of course, were indifferent altogether.
Man Who Borrowed "Arabian Nights" from a Christian Woman
A man, naturally bright, but of limited education, had an unusually good excuse for not attending church. He had a very large family which taxed all his energies to support, and was sadly lacking in church-going apparel. One day, while at the house of a neighbor, he asked the woman of the household, who was a conscientious church worker, to loan him a book to read.
Thinking that' this man might enjoy tales of the marvelous, the woman loaned him a copy of an expurgated edition of "Arabian Nights." He took the book away with him and kept it for some time.
Finally one evening he brought it back. When asked if he had read the book through, he said he had read part of it, but it had troubled him. Asked for a more definite explanation, he expressed himself as follows:
"Well," said he, "to tell the plain truth, I was .shocked when I started reading. I could not understand how any Christian woman could loan me such a pack of lies as there is in that book!"
All of which well illustrates the different standards of the Victorian period as compared with those of the present day.
The congregation of a certain New England church, especially the feminine portion, were full of appreciation, admiration and sympathy for one of the deacons.
Woman Who Was Not Going to be a Pack Horse
This man wore a constant expression of submission and meekness. He was an exemplary citizen in every respect and was faithful in his attendance to the duties of his office.
There was a special reason why the women of the church so highly approved of the deacon. It was reported that his wife was very impatient with him. Gradually there developed an atmosphere of coldness toward the wife, more than counterbalanced by the sympathetic friendliness toward her husband. This was somewhat irritating to the lady in question, who so far as she knew had never transgressed any of the general laws of society nor of the church. After a while the deacon's wife became very unreconciled at the situation and from dwelling upon the matter she became probably more irritable than a deacon's wife should be.
One day some unfortunate event led this woman to express herself more freely to her husband than she had done for a long time. As usual he accepted her remarks with docility and calmness.
The deacon went to his room and the wife went about her tasks in a tumult of dissatisfaction with herself and the entire situation. She recalled legends of the deacon's early life which indicated he was of a very high temper. If he had only said something in self-defense, the situation would be more bearable. Shortly afterward she had occasion to go up stairs and as her felt slippers made little noise, she approached the conjugal chamber unnoted. Hearing the sound of her husband's voice, she stopped at the nearly closed door to listen.
The deacon was engaged in prayer and she listened to hear him express his thanks that although a wilful, perverse person, he had been permitted to have a cross to bear, or rather a thorn in the flesh in the form of his wife, in consequence of which he could develop patience, endurance and the various divine virtues.
The deacon's wife listened to the foregoing in amazement and then it all dawned upon her. Pushing open the door and quickly confronting her astonished husband, she said:
"I understand it all now. Perhaps you think I am going to be a pack horse to carry you to Heaven, but you will find out differently."
The legend says that the subsequent amiability and angelic sweetness of the wife eventually caused the deacon to appear almost irascible at times.
Among the regular attendants at a little country church, were a rather attractive, enterprising young lady and a very bashful young man.
Enterprising Deacon Who Proposed at the Grave
As may often be observed, under such circumstances, the vivacious young lady possessed great attractiveness in the eyes of the young man, but held back by his natural diffidence, he failed to make his admiration definitely known to the girl. She was not lacking in other admirers and so it happened that when the young man in question finally developed sufficient courage to ask the young lady to marry him, he was informed in the most gracious manner that while she had always esteemed him highly as a friend and might have even had a greater interest in him, a more self-confident rival had secured her promise to marry him.
The young man was naturally very much cast down. The apparent admission on the young lady's part that his answer might have been different had he been a little more prompt in making his wishes known, was especially depressing to him.
A few years passed and the young woman, who had apparently lived happily with her husband, was unfortunately left a widow. Her former admirer decided that he would not be backward this time, but just as soon as any decent period had passed, he would resume paying his addresses and thereby forestall any of the other eligibles of the community. He called upon the young woman and was graciously received and thus encouraged proceeded to carry on his courtship with a vigor and enthusiasm that to his own highly developed sense of the fitness of things, seemed to border upon impropriety. Finally he brought matters to a climax by again offering his hand and fortune to the blooming widow. Greatly to his chagrin he was informed, as before, that she was promised to another man.
This was hard luck indeed and the disappointed wooer was almost inclined to resort to that quite common rural expedient and marry some other girl "out of spite." But somehow this did not seem to square with his conscientious scruples and in fact there was no other girl about who seemed to attract him. It was a depressing situation indeed.
But, as sometimes happens, she who had been 'maid, wife, widow and again wife, once more became a widow. The twice disappointed devotee decided this time there would be no delays due to a fantastic sense of what was suitable and proper.
Accordingly the very next evening he called to see the doubly bereaved woman. She met him very cordially and his hopes arose high. Feeling that he had already made his regard for her sufficiently clear so that there need be no time lost in preliminaries, he gave but a few minutes' consideration to discussing the weather and other common topics before proceeding to the matter at hand. He asked her to marry him.
The young woman gazed at him sympathetically a moment and then murmured:
"I am so sorry but I am already engaged; Deacon Harris proposed at the grave!"