Here to return to
AN aged friend, years ago deceased, who had seen much of the world, once observed to me, that he had never seen a more “scrupulous people,” to use his expression, than our Presbyterian congregation. The clergy of the town were always distinguished, at a period when to be a clergyman was to be much more an object of reverence than in these latter days, and when a boy in the street would scarcely venture to pass one, on the opposite sidewalk, without pulling off his cap. But they set their people an excellent example, though they did not always escape the censure of the over “scrupulous.” For instance, Mr. Murray, the accomplished scholar and divine to whom reference has already been made, was known to take no dinner in the interval of public worship, substituting for that repast a slice or two of bread and a few glasses of wine. Why such a fact, when everybody drank more or less wine, or something stronger, every day of the week, should have alarmed the conscience of Miss Betty Timmins, a maiden lady of a certain age, it seems difficult to conjecture. Nevertheless, she made a solemn call, one day, upon her pastor, and with such apology as she could muster for impertinence — at length out with it: “I must tell you, reverend sir, they do say you drink.” “Drink! Miss Timmins,” said Mr. Murray; “to be sure I do, don’t you? How can anybody live without drinking?” and the discomfited spinster retreated. Mr. Murray had a fund of humor. The parsonage was close by the house of his parishioner, the sheriff, and the adjoining jail and whipping-post in the charge of that officer, and in the last illness of the minister the official was in the habit of taking him to a drive. Once, as he was getting into the chaise, a friend passed by and he called out, “If you see any one inquiring for me, tell him the last you saw of me I was in the hands of the sheriff.” But after his time, and at the period of which I am writing, we had no less than three English ministers settled in the town, all educated upon the foundation of the celebrated Countess of Huntington. I recall, with vivid recollection, the figure of one of these worthies who called himself an “Independent,” as he proceeded to meeting on a Sunday: his high cocked hat, his flowing, black curled locks, — more in the cavalier than the Puritan fashion; his long blue cloak over his clerical gown, his bands, his knee-breeches, — objected to by a fastidious young lady, as “short pantaloons,” — his square shoe-buckles, and his ponderous cane. His person was somewhat short and thick, whence “lewd fellows of the baser sort” sometimes irreverently called him the “The Jack of Clubs.” But he was a really good man, with the most powerful voice I remember to have heard, and he preached, always an unwritten sermon, but with heads set down, anything but smooth things to his numerous congregation. Towards the close of his life he used to remark, that when he first came to this country, the topic of sermons was “Jesus Christ and Him crucified; now it was nothing but niggers and rum.” He was good at retort. Early one Monday morning he was going home from the market, with some mackerel which he had just purchased strung upon his cane. “Mr. Milton,” said some passer-by, “them mackerel was caught Sunday.” “Well,” was the reply, “that ain’t the fishes’ fault.”
One burden of this worthy minister’s Sunday prayer, during the sessions of Congress and of the State legislature, was, “Counsel our councillors, and teach our senators wisdom.” By many of the stronger faith of an elder day, his fervent supplications were believed to exercise a specific influence upon the atmosphere, particularly in bringing needed rain at a dry time. I have often heard it said, after the drought had continued a good while, — “Well, Milton has prayed for rain and now we shall have it.” This reminds me of an anecdote appropriate to the topic, in that very entertaining book, Dean Ramsay’s “Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character.” At one time when the crops were much laid by continuous rains, and wind was earnestly desired in order to restore them to a condition fit for the sickle, — “A minister,” he says, “in his Sabbath services expressed their wants in prayer, as follows: ‘O Lord, we pray thee to send us wind, no a rantin’ tantin,’ tearin’ wind, but a noohin’, (noughin?) soughin’, winnin’ wind.” In like manner, I have heard of a prayer preferred by a somewhat simple New Englander, who was overheard offering his petition behind a clump of bushes in a field:
“O Lord, I want a new coat — good cloth — none of your coarse, flimsy, slimsy, sleazy kind of stuff, but a good piece of thick, warm, comfortable broadcloth — such as Bill Hale wears.”
It must be admitted that the reverend person was rather rough in manner; but he had a truly kind heart. Like John Wesley, he was unfortunate in his domestic relations; a circumstance which doubtless tended somewhat to lessen the amiability of an originally good disposition. But, notwithstanding his various trials and we fear conflicts at home, no one questioned his piety. Indeed, one well acquainted with his character and experiences, when his death was announced, at once exclaimed, — “What a change! From pitching skillets, to handling harps!” There could be no greater contrast than in the person and character of our long and well-beloved Presbyterian minister, graceful in person, courteous and affable in demeanor, accomplished in ancient learning and in that portion of English literature which is styled classical; a devoted and affectionate pastor, a most able and persuasive preacher; of whom President Dwight, of Yale, is reported to have said, that there had been scarcely such a writer of pure English since Addison. With the exception of some failure of physical powers, towards the close of his life, he retained these admirable characteristics and accomplishments to the end of his more than ninety years. He always preached in gown and bands, with black gloves upon his hands, his nether limbs encased in small-clothes and silk stockings, until in later life he adopted the prevailing mode. We always knew when he intended to preach, because through several intervening yards and gardens we could see from our house the light in his study, at a distance, of a Saturday night. His morning discourses were usually admirable expositions of Scripture delivered without notes; his afternoon sermons were written exercises, and we so depended upon both, that it was a disappointment when we discovered that he was to exchange, by the absence of the usual light. He would descend from the contemplation of the highest themes, which address themselves to human reason and imagination, and from the relaxation of reading “Tully,” or Horace, or Pope, who was a special favorite with him, to the preparation of his fire-wood for domestic use, and doubtless this accustomed saw-horse practice tended very much to the promotion and continuance both of his bodily and mental health. In my childhood, he taught me and other, I fear, reluctant pupils all we were capable of learning of the Westminster Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, contained, at that time, in a small but miscellaneous volume called the Primer. He was a great lover of the writings of Cowper, which name, in the English manner, he always pronounced Cooper, and of the Psalms and Hymns and the lyrical productions, in general, of Dr. Watts; and long after I had grown up, he pointed out to me a verse in one of those Hymns, remarking upon a point which I do not remember to have seen noticed elsewhere, that it presented the finest specimen of alliteration in the language, as follows: —
“How vain are all things here below,
The eventual condition and standing of our Episcopal Church may be inferred from the fact, that its Rector, in early times, was chosen Bishop of the diocese, a dignity which he long piously and humbly enjoyed. Along the beautiful street on which St. Paul’s stood, and in its immediate neighborhood, were some of the more elegant residences of the town, and an air of superior gentility seemed to pervade the precinct, so that some caviller saw fit to call it St. James’s, in allusion to the Christian name of the excellent Rector who succeeded the venerable Bishop. He was, indeed, a most devoted churchman, looking upon all persons outside of his communion as sheep wandering from the fold, and used to say, that he considered the whole town as really belonging to his parish. He was a person very highly esteemed for his piety and sincerity, and as evidence of this repute, and of liberality on both sides, he preached, by invitation, and read the service in the Presbyterian meeting-house, on one occasion, at least, when our minister was absent and his own pulpit was supplied. We were then under another pastor; but some years before this manifestation of truly Christian toleration a controversy arose between the Rector and our Presbyterian clergyman, in regard to the obligatory observance of Christmas. It was conducted in the newspaper of the town, then published only on two days of the week, and to the multitude of readers appeared more spirited than edifying, as is the case with most polemical disputes. The worthy Episcopal Doctor had asserted on Christmas Day, that the observance of that festival was of universal Christian obligation. The Presbyterian Doctor took up the cudgels to demonstrate, that, although it was . proper and reasonable enough to keep the day, as a matter of religious edification, like a lecture-day, for example, by those who saw fit to do so, yet there was no authority, in this respect, binding upon the consciences of those who chose to disregard it. Both of the disputants were acknowledged gentlemen and scholars; but after much argument and learning wasted upon the subject, it is to be feared that the controversy, through the medium of a public journal, between two such highly respected controversialists, on a topic of religious practice, only gave too much occasion to the scoffer. Indeed, Johnnie Favor, the Episcopal sexton’s helper, one of those persons, reputed half-witted, who sometimes make very apposite remarks, observed, — “Well — Christmas here, or Christmas there, I’m not so narrer-contracted as to like to see the surplices of two such good men as your Doctor and my Doctor draggled in the dirt.”
Certainly, a tone of unusual refinement pervaded the better educated class of the community in the old town, at the period of this relation, and not a little stateliness of manner was kept up by some of the older families. Indeed, I think they would compare very favorably in point of intelligence and manners, with persons of a similar class, as described by the great authorities heretofore referred to, and others, who have given us vivid pictures of social life in the Scottish capital. To be sure, the colonial days of distinct social rank had long gone by. But, half a generation before, the town had been one of the most flourishing and wealthy in New England, and to the counting-houses of its principal merchants young men resorted, even from the capital of the State, to learn the art and practice of business. Those who filled the several learned professions were persons of the highest eminence in their several callings, — drawing pupils around them who afterwards, and on wider fields of action, attained great names and some of whom occupied the loftiest civil positions in the land.
Among the students, for example, in the office of that great lawyer and judge, Chief Justice Parsons, while he practised at the Bar, and who subsequently attained eminence, were John Quincy Adams, afterwards President of the United States, and Rufus King, afterwards Senator in Congress from the State of New York, and twice Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain; and Robert Treat Paine, so celebrated in his day, as an orator and poet. 1 Of one of these eminent persons I heard a story, formerly, from a friend of very high character as a man and a lawyer, the late Hon. William Baylies, of West Bridgewater, Massachusetts. It seems that while Mr. King, then a young man, was in the practice of his profession in Boston he was detained in attendance upon court at Plymouth, until late on Saturday evening. It was necessary for him to be at home seasonably on Monday morning, and accordingly he mounted his horse early on Sunday, the ordinary mode of travel, in those days, and proceeded leisurely on his way. It was summer time; and in passing through the township of Hanover, in Plymouth County, he approached a plain wooden structure by the roadside, in which, as he could see by the assemblage within, the door and windows being open, that it was a time of religious service. Alighting, out of deference to the character of the day, he hitched his horse and quietly entered the building. It proved to be a Quaker meeting, and perfect silence prevailed. At length tiring of this state of things, Mr. King arose and began to address the assembly upon topics suitable to the day. He was an uncommonly handsome young man, and then and ever afterwards distinguished for extraordinary powers of eloquence. The Quakers listened with mute amazement and admiration to the discourse of some twenty minutes’ duration, when the speaker slipped out, remounted, and proceeded on his journey. The incident was the occasion of great and mysterious interest, for a long time afterwards, in the quiet country neighborhood. No imagination could conceive who the wonderful speaker might be, and many insisted it must have been, indeed, “an angel from heaven.” Some years afterwards, at the session of a Constitutional Convention in Massachusetts, Mr. King rose to make a motion. He had no sooner begun, than a Quaker member started up from a back seat, and, carried away by the first glimpse at solution of the long-standing mystery, cried out, “That’s the man that spoke in our meetin’.”
Provision for the instruction of youth was liberal, and not long previously the most famous, and I believe the longest established academy of the day, flourished in the immediate neighborhood, in all its glory. Of the school-books then in use, I cannot but think that one in particular, Murray’s English Reader, was a better manual than any other which has since been produced. For it was mainly made up of extracts from ‘ the writings of the best authors, in the best age of English literature, and I can answer that its lessons were calculated to make impressions on the youthful mind, never to be forgotten. But the prevalent idea, of late years, seems to have been to nationalize school-books, so as to narrow their teachings, and thus to make our future fellow-citizens partisans instead of men. But literature and learning are confined to no age or nation; and meaning in no sense to say a word which could abate the ardor of manly patriotism in any bosom, it is certain that much is to be learned from the history of other people beside our own; and I suppose there are standards of high intellectual attainment in the past, — in poetry and eloquence, and various ranges of thought and expression, — which never have been and are not likely to be surpassed. The deluge of modern transitory literature had not then begun to flow. But, to say nothing of the “Scottish Chiefs,” and “Thaddeus of Warsaw,” over the pages of which, doubtless, millions of youthful eyes have formerly shed copious tears, we had Miss Edgeworth’s writings, those of Mrs. Grant, of Laggan, the novels of Charlotte Smith, the Memoirs of Baron Trenck, and, perused a little stealthily, Peregrine Pickle and Roderick Random; and in poetry Henry Kirke White and Montgomery were favorites; nor am I ashamed to say, that Cottle’s “Alfred” was read aloud at our fireside of evenings, with an interest due to the story, perhaps, as much as to its poetical ability. Original American productions were few; the importation of new works from abroad was not large, and the demand for reprints a good deal limited. But we had the well-known books of sterling value at command, and our publishers occasionally favored us with new editions. One of my early studies was Guthrie’s Grammar of Geography, a ponderous volume of English manufacture, which belonged in our family; and I was fascinated with Pope at almost as early an age as that in which he first “lisped in numbers.” I see, by the way, that Forster, in his Life of Dickens, quotes from a letter of Scott, in which he refers to the scarcity of books at Edinburgh in his time.
In connection with this reference to our means of intellectual cultivation, I am reminded of an incident illustrative of a faculty commonly attributed to Yankees, that is New Englanders, though there is reason to believe that some other parts of the country are quite as liberally gifted with the qualities of “Yorkshire.” It affords a striking instance of shrewdness on the one side, and of lamentable deficiency of it on the other. This was before the town had exchanged its original simpler mode of regulating its municipal affairs for the form of a city government. On a certain occasion the School Committee became dissatisfied with the master of one of the higher schools, after a brief trial of his qualities, and, as delicately as the subject permitted, requested him to resign his place. The master was not a native of the town, or of the “region round about,” so that it was a mere question of qualifications, real or otherwise, between himself and his employers. He demurred, unless his salary were paid him for the unexpired considerable part of the year for which he alleged himself to have been engaged; but finally consented, if the chairman of the committee would only furnish him with a certificate of honorable discharge. The chairman, at this easy rate of saving the town’s money, wrote it, without suspicion of its effect. Thereupon, the master read it, put it into his pocket, and by virtue of the document, demanded payment of the sum in question. It was paid; and the triumphant master forthwith proceeded —
“To fresh woods and pastures new.”
The state of things, in regard to our reading resources, was before the modern facilities for gadding about existed; and while those who find time lying heavy on their hands can now steam it a hundred miles to make a morning-call, journeying was then both more tedious and more expensive, seldom undertaken except as an affair of business, or with the deliberate purpose of a long-concerted visit; and a good part of the day was consumed in travelling half that distance by public conveyance. The consequence was, that people’s pleasures, with their duties, laid mostly at home, or near at hand. Hence family and friendly ties were more closely drawn. The better feelings of our nature were, I think, deeper, than when scattered over a wide but thin social surface; just as the water in a well is more concentrated, than if diffused in the basin of a pond. To some extent, therefore, wholesomely isolated, besides the ordinary round of not very formal visiting parties, there were reading circles, for those who were prompted by intellectual yearnings, frequented by young ladies and gentlemen, married or single, at which passages from the better class of books were read aloud by such of the male members as felt competent to the exercise, by turns. In fact, taking into view the intelligence, the inexpensive accomplishments, and the unaffected manners of the fairly educated among us, it has not fallen to the lot of most persons to meet with any society more really agreeable. St. James’s, however, and the congregation of the successors of those who founded the First Church, who had at length become what was called “liberal,” in contrast with the orthodoxy of the rest of the town, aspired to a higher degree of gentility and accomplishment than the commonalty; and, in evidence that we were not bigoted, my mother would sometimes allow me, when a boy, and desirous of some change, to attend service of an afternoon, at the latter place of public worship with some friends of the family who waited upon its ministrations. Of the diversions of the common people I particularly remember one under the curious name of a “Joppa Jine” (join); to which I allude from the oddity of its name, derived from a part of the town so called by the riverside, when several families of neighbors and friends contributed their respective quota of a common feast, and repaired to the island at the mouth of the river to enjoy a day of leisure and merriment.
In a certain class, the ancient pronunciation of many English words was maintained, doubtless brought by the ancestors of New England families from “home,” and transmitted to their descendants; such as airth for earth, fairm for firm, sartain for certain, pint for point, envy for envy, ax with the broad â for ask, housen for houses, his’n and her’n for his and hers, rare for rear; as, for instance, the horse rares up; and sounding the l in would. Common enough names, too, were clipped or contracted in English fashion. Thus, the names of Norwood and Harwood became Norrod in sound and Harrod in spelling; and the name of Currier, whether with any reference or not to the French Cuir, for leather, was not long since uniformly pronounced Kiah, with the long ï; Thurlow was strangely transformed into Thurrill; and Pierpont, often formerly spelled Pierpoint, with entire neglect of its derivation, was pronounced Pearpint, by old-fashioned people, the first syllable approximating to the original formation of pierre.
1 The late Mr. Edward Everett is authority (with me) for the story, that on the occasion of the visit of Washington to New England, in 1789, Parsons was appointed to deliver the address of welcome, on the part of the town, and said to his students, “Well, boys, I am to make this address. Now, go to work and write it, and I will deliver the best.” He chose the one prepared by Adams.