E-text prepared by Al Haines
A CIRCUIT RIDER'S WIFE
With Illustrations by William H. Everett
[Frontispiece: The old, burly country doctor bending above me.]
Philadelphia Henry Altemus Company
Copyright, 1910, by the Curtis Publishing Company Copyright, 1910, by Howard E. Altemus
TO THE MEMORY OF
I. I AM CHOSEN INSTEAD OF THE PRAYER MEETING VIRGIN II. I BUILD FOR MYSELF A MONUMENT MORE ENDURING THAN BRASS III. THE REVIVAL AT REDWINE IV. WILLIAM AS A LEADER OF FORLORN HOPE V. GOD'S ANNUALS VI. WILLIAM ENTERS HIS WORLDLY MIND VII. THE LITTLE ITINERANT—AND OTHERS VIII. I HOLD THE STAGE IX. WILLIAM AND THE FEMININE SOUL X. WILLIAM BECOMES A PRODIGAL XI. FINANCES AND FASHIONS XII. THE CHEERFUL LITTLE DOG THAT LED THE BLIND MAN XIII. WILLIAM WRESTLING WITH TRAVELING ANGELS XIV. CURIOUS FACTS ABOUT THE NATURE OF A PRIEST XV. SKELETONS IN WILLIAM'S DOCTRINAL CLOSET XVI. IN THE LITTLE GRAVEYARD BEHIND REDWINE CHURCH XVII. BACK AGAIN TO THE WORLD XVIII. CONSCIENTIOUS SCRUPLES ABOUT THE CHURCH
The Old, Burly Country Doctor Bending Above Me . . . . . Frontispiece
Brother Tom Pratt, a Prominent Member, Had Backslided
With Such Sad Hunger in Their Faces
"I'll Pay You, Parson. I'll Pay as Soon as I'm Able"
I Heard Him in His Study Singing
"It's Going to Be an Awful Night, Don't Go—She Is Not a Member of Your Church"
Then He Took Up with Job in the Scriptures
Not So Much for Him as for Fear He Would Not Understand
I AM CHOSEN INSTEAD OF THE PRAYER MEETING VIRGIN
If you will look back over the files of the "Southern Christian Advocate," published at the time in Macon, Georgia, you will find the following notice—by a singular coincidence on the page devoted to "obituaries": "Married—Mary Elizabeth Eden to William Asbury Thompson. The bride is the daughter of Colonel and Mrs. Eden, of Edenton; the groom is the son of the late Reverend Dr. and Mrs. Asbury Thompson, and is serving his first year in the itinerancy on the Redwine Circuit. We wish the young people happiness and success in their chosen field."
"Chosen field" had reference to the itinerancy, not matrimony. And that was my "obituary" if I had only known it. For after that, if I was not dead to the world, I only saw it through the keyhole of the Methodist Discipline, or lifted and transfigured by William's sermons—a straight and narrow path that led from the church door to the grave.
But now, after an absence of thirty years, I am addressing this series of letters to the people of the world concerning life and conditions in another, removed from this one by the length of long country roads, by the thickness of church doors, and by the plate glass surface of the religious mind. They will record some experiences of two Methodist itinerants and whatever I think besides, for they are written more particularly to relieve my mind of a very great burden of opinions. For William has been promoted. He has received his LL. D. in the Kingdom of Heaven by this time if there are any degrees or giving of degrees there, along with Moses and Elijah, and I doubt if there is a more respected saint in that great company. We buried him a year ago in the graveyard behind Redwine Church.
I was born in Edenton, a little white-and-blue town in Middle Georgia, and my name was recorded in the third generation of Edens on the baptismal registry of St. John's Church there. William was born somewhere in a Methodist parsonage, and his name is probably written on the first page of the oldest predestination volume in Heaven. In Edenton the "best families" attended the Episcopal Church. It was a St. John's, of course, though why this denomination should be so partial to that apostle is a mystery, for his autobiography, as recorded in the New Testament, reads more like that of a campmeeting Methodist than any other disciple's. As a child its presence there at the end of the shaded village street was real to me, like my mother's. I did not repent in it as one must do in a Methodist or Baptist church, but I grew up in it like a daughter in the house of the Lord. As a girl on Sabbath mornings I entered it with all the mincing worldliness of my young mind unabashed. Later I was "confirmed" in it and experienced some of the vanity of that high spiritual calm which attends quick conversions in other churches. And to this day there is something ineffably sweet and whimsically inconsistent to me in an Episcopal saint. The fastidious stamina of their spirituality which never interferes with their worldliness is so satisfyingly human. Piety renders them increasingly graceful in manners and appearance. In Heaven I believe Episcopalian saints will be distinguished from all others by stiff ruffs worn around their redeemed necks.
But all was different in the church to which William belonged, and in which he had been brought up for three generations. The "best families" are never in the majority there. You will find, instead, besides a few "prominent members," the poor, the simple-minded, the ne'er-do-wells morally, who have always flocked to the Methodist fold for this pitying reason, because they find that, if fallen, it is easier to rise in grace according to the doctrines of that church.
So, while William's father and further fathers had been engaged in the tedious mercy of healing and rehealing these lame, indigent souls according to various hallelujah plans, my mother and foremothers had been engaged in embroidering altar-cloths and in making durable Dorcas aprons for the unknown poor. This made the difference in our natures that love bridged. That is the wonderful thing about love—it comes so tremendously new and directly from God to recreate in us, and it is so divinely unprejudiced by what our ancestors did religiously or sacrilegiously.
To all appearances it would have been better for William if he had chosen for his wife one of those pallid prayer-meeting virgins who so naturally keep their lamps trimmed and burning before the pulpits of unmarried preachers. They are really the best women to be found in any church. They never go astray, they are the gentle maiden sisters of all souls, the faded feminine love-psalms of a benighted ministry who wither and grow old without ever suspecting that their hope was marriage no less than it is the hope of the giddiest girl. However, a preacher rarely takes one of them for his first wife. It is only after he has been left a widower with a house full of children that he turns imploring love-looks in their direction. And whatever is true in other churches, it will be found upon investigation that most of the excellent stepmothers so numerous in the Methodist itinerancy have been selected from this class. But William was not a widower; besides, love is the leveler of human judgments in such matters and the builder of new destinies. So I was chosen instead of the prayer-meeting virgin to be his wife—the gayest, wildest young heroine hoyden in the town.
We met by chance in the house of a mutual friend. I remember the day very well, so blue above, so green below, with all the roses in Edenton blooming. I was going to tea at the Mallarys'. I wore a green muslin, very tight in the waist, but flaring in the skirt like the spring boughs of a young bay tree. I had corntassel hair and a complexion that gave my heart away. Mrs. Mallary, a soft, match-making young matron, met me at the door and whispered that she had a surprise for me. The next moment we entered the parlor together. The room spun around, I heard her introducing some one, felt the red betrayal on my brow, and found myself gazing into the face of a strange young man and hoping that he would ask me to marry him. It was William, a college mate of Tom Mallary's, spending the night on his way to his circuit from a district meeting. He wore his long-tailed preacher clothes and looked like a young he-angel in mourning as he bowed and replied to me with his eyes that indeed he would ask me to be his wife as soon as it was proper to do so. This was sooner than any steward or missions mother in his church would have suspected. For, once a man is in love, his sense of propriety becomes naively obtuse and primitive.
There is little distinction between a preacher and any other man as a lover. William, I recall, made love as ardently as the wildest young scamp in Edenton. This was one of the thrilling circumstances of our courtship. I should not have been surprised if Tom Logan, or Arthur Flemming or any one of a half a dozen others had made me telegraphic dispatches of an adoring nature with his eyes, but I was flattered and delighted to have melted the mortal man in a young minister who always looked as if he had just risen from his knees. I do not know why women are this way about preachers, but they are, at least they were in my day, and, later, I discovered that the trait leads to curious complications. Meanwhile, I left the course of our true love all to William, feeling that a man who could smile like that must know what was proper. We were engaged in less than a week and married in a month. Women only are the conductors of protracted courtships.
Our wedding tour was a drive of twenty miles through the country to the parsonage on the Redwine Circuit. And the only one who had any moral impression of the day was the horse. I do not even recall the road except that it swept away like a white, wind-blown scarf over the green world, and that wild roses looked at me intimately from the fence corners as we passed. William had a happy amen expression, but neither of us was thinking of the living or dying souls in the Redwine Circuit. The horse, however, had got her training on the road between churches, and did not know she was conducting a wedding tour. She was a sorrel, very thin and long-legged, with the disposition of a conscientious red-headed woman. She was concerned only to get us to the parsonage in time for the "surprise" that had been secretly prepared for our coming.
Toward evening the road narrowed and steepened and, looking up, we caught sight of it, a little wren of a house, hidden between two green shoulders of the world. The roof sloped until one could touch the mossy shingles, and the chimneys on either side were like ugly, voluminous old women who rocked the cradle of a home between them and cheered it with the red heart of wood fires within. In the valley below lived the people of Redwine Church. But the world was withdrawn and could only be seen at a great distance through the gateway of the two hills. One had the feeling that God's ancient peace had not been disturbed in this place, and this was a solemn, foreboding feeling for me as we reached the shadow of the big fruit tree in front of the house, and William lifted me lightly from the buggy, unlatched the door—it was before the day of rogues and locks in that community—and welcomed me home with a kiss that felt a trifle too much like a benediction.
There were two rooms; one was a bedroom, having a red, white and blue rag carpet on the floor and furnished with a home-made bed, a little stump-toed rocking chair, a very straight larger chair, and a mirror hanging over a table that was covered with fancifully notched blue paper. The other was the living room, and contained a cedar piggin and gourd on a shelf; a bread tray, dishpan, a pot and two skillets on another shelf near the fireplace, two split-bottom chairs, a table, and a cat. The cat was a large, gray agnostic. He never admitted William's presence by so much as a purr or a claw, and I have noticed that the agnostic is the only creature living who can treat a preacher with so much contempt. We found him curled up on the window sill next to the milk pitcher, sunning himself.
William went out to put up his red-headed horse, and I drew a chair before the shelf containing the bread tray, the dishpan, pot and skillets, and stared at them with horror and amazement. Why had William not mentioned this matter of cooking? I had never cooked anything but cakes and icings in my whole life! I was preparing to weep when a knock sounded upon the door and immediately a large, fair woman entered. She wore the most extraordinary teacup bonnet on her huge head that was tied somewhere in the creases of her doubled chin with black ribbons. And, on a blue plate, she was carrying a stack of green-apple pies nearly a foot high. Catching sight of the half-distilled tears in my eyes as I arose to meet her, she set the pies down, clasped me in her arms and whispered with motherly tenderness: "I know how you feel, child; it's the way all brides feel when they first realize what they have done, and all they've done to theirselves. But 'tain't so bad; you'll come down to it in less 'an a week; and you mustn't cry now, with all the folks comin' in. They won't understand."
She pointed through the open door and I turned in the shelter of her arms to see down the road a strand of people ascending the hill, dressed like fancy beads, each behind the other, and each bearing something in her hands or on his shoulders—and William standing at the gate to welcome them.
"Who are they?" I asked in astonishment.
"It's a donation party. I come on ahead to warn you. Them's the members of the Redwine, Fellowship and Macedonia churches, bringin' things to celebrate your weddin'. I'm Glory White, wife of one of the stewards at Redwine, and we air powerful glad to have you. So you mustn't cry till the folk air all gone, or they'll think you ain't satisfied, which won't do your husband any good."
That was my first lesson in suppressing my natural feelings. As the years went by I had more lessons in it than in anything else. And I reckon it is not such a bad thing to do, for if one's natural feelings are suppressed long enough one develops supernatural feelings and feels surer of having a soul.
The donation party poured in, Sister Glory White and I standing between the kitchen table and the fireplace to receive them. William acted as master of ceremonies, conducting each man and woman forward with great empressement for the introduction. Everyone called me "Sister Thompson" and laid a "donation" on the table in passing. I was not aware at the time of their importance, but as William only received two hundred and forty-five dollars for his salary that year we should have starved but for an occasional donation party. In fact, they are smiling providential instances in the memory of every Methodist itinerant. Upon this occasion they ranged from bedquilts to hams and sides of bacon; from jam and watermelon rind preserves to flour, meal and chair tidies. One old lady brought a package of Simmons' Liver Regulator, and Brother Billy Fleming contributed a long twist of "dog shank"—a homecured tobacco. The older women spread the viands for the "infare," as the wedding dinner was called, upon the table, and we stood about it to eat amid shouts and laughter and an exchange of wit as good natured as it was horrifying to bridal ears.
"So," said a huge old Whitman humorist that I afterward identified as Brother Sam White, as he clasped both my hands in his, "this is Brother Thompson's new wife"—as if I were one of a series—"you are welcome, ma'am. He's been mightily in need of a wife to perk him up. He's a good preacher, but sorter like my young horse Selim. There ain't a better colt in the country, only he don't show it; sperit's too quiet unless I lay a cuckle bur under his tail. And your husband, ma'am, what he says is good, but he don't r'ar and pitch enough. He can't skeer young sinners around here with jest the truth. He must learn to jump up and down and larrup 'em with it!"
All this was delivered in a bellowing voice that fairly shook the feathers in my hat. And it indicates the quality of William's ministry and the ideals of his congregation.
I BUILD FOR MYSELF A MONUMENT MORE ENDURING THAN BRASS
As Sister Glory White had predicted, I "came down to it" at once and soon learned to perform the usual feminine miracles in the bread-tray and skillets. Our happiness did not differ from the happiness of other young married people except that it was abashed morning and evening with family prayers—occasions when Thomas, the cat, invariably arose with an air of outraged good-breeding and withdrew to the back yard. William had long, active, itinerating legs in those days, a slim, graceful body, a countenance like that of Sir Walter Raleigh and eyes that must have been like Saint John's. They were blue and had in them the "far, eternal look." And in the years to come I was to learn how much the character of the man resembled both that of the cavalier and the saint. Also, I was to learn that it was no light matter for one's husband to have descended from an ecclesiastical family that had found its way up through church history by prayer and fasting.
A Presbyterian may make the most abiding forefather, because his doctrinal convictions are so strong they prenatally crimp the morals of those who come after him; and it may be that a Methodist ancestor counts for less in the third and fourth generation because his theology is too genially elastic to take a Calvinistic grip upon posterity, but it is certain that he will impart a wrestling-Jacob disposition to his descendants which nothing can change. So it was with William; he was often without "the witness of the Spirit," but I never knew him to let his angel go. He had a genius for wrestling in prayer as another man might have for writing great poetry. His words flew together into coveys when he fell upon his knees, and rose like mourning doves to Heaven, or they would be like high notes out of a black-Saul mood of the soul, and then they thundered forth from his lips as if he were about to storm the gates of Paradise. And sometimes, in the dramatic intensity of his emotions, he would ask for the most terrifying things.
At first as we knelt together there in the quiet little house with no one near for help but the hills, I was alarmed less Heaven should take him at his word, for if half his petitions had been granted we could not have lived in this world. We should have been scattered like the fine dust of a too great destiny. But presently, when nothing adequate to them happened during the night, I learned to have more confidence in the wisdom of God and less in William's. With him prayer was simply a spiritual obsession based upon a profound sense of mortal weakness and very mystifying to his young wife, who had cheerfully said her orisons from a book night and morning with an easy Canterbury conscience.
The Saturday after our marriage I accompanied him to Redwine, his regular appointment. It was the custom then to have preaching Saturday and Sunday. The church was withdrawn from the road into a dim forest of pines, black and mournful. Here and there, horses and mules bearing saddles or dangling harness stood slipshod in the shade, switching their tails at innumerable flies. Near the door was the group of men one always sees about a country church on meeting days. They are farmers who have an instinct for the out-of-doors and who, for this reason, will not go in till the last moment. Beyond the church, in the thicker shadows, lay its dead beneath a colony of staggering gray stones. Upon one grave, I remember, where the clay was freshly turned, there was a bouquet of flowers—love's protest against the sonorous sentence—"earth to earth and dust to dust"—which the other graves confirmed. The pine needles lay thick above them, and not a flower distinguished them from the common sod. They had the look of deeper peace, the long, untroubled peace of sleepers who have passed out of the memory of living, worrying men. These churchyards for the dead were characteristic features in country circuits, and I mention this one because ever after it seemed to me to be just inside the gateway of the Methodist itinerancy, and because, in the end, it came to be the home place of my heart.
I had never before been in a Methodist church. A certain Episcopalian conceit prevented my straying into the one at Edenton. And I was shocked now at the Old Testament severity of this one. There was no compromise with human desires in it, not a touch of color except the brown that time gives unpainted wood, not an effort anywhere to appeal to the imagination or suggest holy imagery. Only the semicircular altar rail about the narrow box pulpit suggested human frailty, prayer and repentance. On the men's side—for the law of sex was observed to the point of segregation in all our churches—there was a sprinkling of men with red, strong, craggy faces who appeared to have the Adam clod highly developed in them, a world-muteness in expression that seemed to set them back in the garden and to hide them from God on account of their sins. On the other side there was more lightness, more life and hope expressed in the faces of the younger women. But in the faces of the old there was the same outdone look of Nature facing God.
There was no service, from the standpoint of my Episcopal rearing; just a hymn, a prayer, and then William took his text, the Beatitudes—all of them. I have since heard better sermons on one of them, but the figure of him standing there behind the high pulpit in the darkened church with his eyes lifted, as if he saw angels above our heads, has never faded from my memory, nor have the faces of the old women in their black sunbonnets upturned to him, nor the drooping shoulders of the old men sitting in the amen corner with bowed heads. Somehow, there was a reality about the whole scene that we did not have at home with all the fine music and Heaven-hinting accessories.
He had reached the promise to the blessed peacemakers in the course of his sermon, the vision-seeing calm growing deeper in his eyes and the high look whitening on his brow, when suddenly a woman on the front seat stood up, laid her sleeping infant on the floor with careful deliberation, took off her black calico bonnet, stepped into the aisle, slapped her hands together and began to spin around and around upon her toes with incredible celerity. Her homespun skirt ballooned about her, the ruffle of her collar stood out like a little frill of white neck feathers. She had a fixed, foolish expression, maintained an energy of motion that was persistent and amazing, and gave out at regular intervals a short, staccato squeal that was scarcely human in sound.
Not a word was spoken; William himself was silenced as he watched the strange phenomenon. And I have often wondered since at the quality of that courage in an otherwise shrinking country woman which could cause her to rise, take the service out of the preacher's hands as serenely as if she had been sent from God. And this is what she really believed. And every other member of the congregation, including William, shared the belief that she had got an extraordinary blessing that day.
After all, it is a tremendous blessing to believe that one's God is within immediate blessing distance. In this connection I venture to add that it has always seemed to me a lack of comprehension which gives the Methodists the chief reputation for emotional religion, and it is certainly cheating the Episcopalians. For every time the service is read in an Episcopal church the congregation shouts the responses, quietly, of course, and by the book, but it is shouting just the same, and with a beseeching use of words both joyful and agonizing that surpasses any sporadic shouting of the Methodists.
After the sermon we had dinner on the grounds, for this was an all-day meeting with another service at the end of the day. And Saturday dinner on the grounds of a Methodist church thirty years ago was a function that appealed to the threefold nature of man as nothing else I have ever seen did. Socially speaking, all the best people in the community were present; the real best people, you understand. Spiritually, it was an occasion hallowed by grave conversation; for were we not within the shadow of God's house, in the sacred presence of the dead? It was gruesome if you had an Episcopalian temperament, but certainly it conduced to good breeding and sobriety. But, more particularly, there was the dinner itself set out of huge hampers on white cloths that appealed to the natural primitive man simply and honestly, without a single pretense of delicacy to hide the real grossness of the human appetite.
On this day plenty strewed the ground from Sister Glory White's basket to Sister Amy Jurdon's and Sister Salter's. There were biscuit the size of saucers and of the thickness of bread loaves, hams, baked hens, roasted pigs, more biscuit, cucumber pickles six inches in length, green-grape pies, custards of every kind and disposition, and cakes that proclaimed the skill of every woman in the church.
William advised me to eat as I had never eaten before or the women would think I did not like their cooking and would be correspondingly offended. I was expected to consume at least three of the great biscuit and everything else in proportion. Fortunately, I sat near a tangle of vines in which I discovered a dog was hiding, a hound who gazed imploringly at me through the leaves with the forlorn, backslidden-sinner expression peculiar to his species, as much as to say: "Don't tell I am here; maybe then I'll get a few crumbs later on." I not only did not tell, but I fed him eight of the biscuit, five slices of ham, and nearly everything else in reach of me except the cucumber pickles. I never saw a dog eat more furtively or so well.
Meanwhile, I was raising for myself a monument more enduring than brass in the hearts of my husband's people, as a hardy woman who could make herself one of them. William, who did not suspect the presence of the dog, grew faintly alarmed, but I persevered till the last man staggered surfeited from the feast. It was my first and, I may add, almost my only triumph as a minister's wife on a backwoods circuit.
After the night service it was arranged that we should go home with the Salters to spend the night. Sister Salter was the woman who had received the blessing. Brother Salter was not a brother at all—he was still in the world, a little, twopenny man with a thin black beard, sad black eyes and a perch mouth. But he was not proud of his godless state, especially as it compared with his wife's radiant experience; he was literally an humble sinner and showed it. We took our places behind them in split-bottom chairs in the one-horse wagon. Sister Salter was still in her baptismal mood and, as we rumbled on into the deepening twilight through the sweeting spring woods, she continued to sing snatches from the old hymns. Higher and higher her fine treble voice arose till the homing birds answered and every living thing in the forest felt the throb of the poignant melody—everything except the baby on her breast. It slept on as soundly as if it breathed her peace into its soft little body.
Night had fallen when we reached the house, a one-room log cabin.
"Light and go in," said Brother Salter. "I reckon the children air all in bed. You 'uns kin ondress and git in while me and Sally unhitches the horse."
We "lit" and entered the large room flooded with moonshining. There was a bed in each corner, and all occupied save one. This was evidently the "company bed." We knew by its opulent feather paunch, by the white-fringed counterpane and by the pillow-shams bearing soporific mottoes worked in turkey-red thread. One could not tell the age of or how many persons were already asleep in the other beds; but, judging from the number and varying sizes of the shoes that staggered and kicked up on the floor beside them, there must have been a hearty dozen, ranging all the way from adolescence down to infancy.
It is needless to add that we were apparently asleep and the covers over my horrified head when the elder Salters entered. Where they slept is still a mystery. But we were awakened very early the next morning by the sound of Sister Salter's voice singing, "His loving kindness, oh, how good!" as she rattled the stove doors beneath the cookshed in the yard. Three very young children were sitting half under our bed examining our shoes and other articles of apparel, and as many older heads stared at us from the opposite beds. My anguish can be better imagined than described, and the nonchalance with which William arose and assumed his trousers did not add to my opinion of him. I afterward learned that nothing was more common than this populous way of entertaining guests, and that he had long since become hardened to the indelicacies of such situations.
THE REVIVAL AT REDWINE
But this was only the beginning of social and spiritual surprises through which I passed. There was no culture among the people. They looked like the poor kin of the angels in Heaven, and they really did live so far out of the world that no bishop had ever seen them. I was divided between horror and admiration at their soul-stretching propensities, and it is difficult to describe the shock with which I faced the perpetual exposure of their spiritual nakedness. It was a naive kind of religious indelicacy, like the unguarded ways of very young children.
Brother Jimmie Meadows would confess to the most private faults in an experience meeting, and, if he did not, Sister Meadows would do it for him. They lacked the sense of humor, which, being interpreted, is a part of the sense of proportion. They shrank from the illuminating quality of wit as if it were a sacrilege—this auto-seriousness was even an important part of William's character. He put on solemnity like a robe when he was in the throes of thought.
The deadly monotony of Christian country life where there are no beggars to feed, no drunkards to credit, which are among the moral duties of Christians in cities, leads as naturally to the outvent of what Methodists call "revivals" as did the backslidings of the people in those days. So it came to pass, that year at Redwine, when the "crops were laid by" William faced his first revival, and I faced William. Spiritually speaking, we parted company. He passed into a praying and fasting trance, and my heart was nearly broken with the loneliness, for praying and fasting did not agree with me, and William seemed to recede in some mystical sense hard to define, so that I became a sort of unwilling grass-widow.
The revival was to begin at Redwine, when suddenly the rumor reached us that Brother Tom Pratt, a prominent member, had back-slided, and that nothing could be done there in a spiritual way until he was reclaimed. He was a large, fair, goat-lipped man with a long straw beard hanging under his chin, and he was said to be mightily gifted in prayer. But his besetting sin was strong drink, and he had recently been drunk. The simplicity with which William went about reclaiming him as a part of the preparation for the coming revival seemed to me almost too premeditatedly spiritual.
The revival proceeded, at first with awful chilliness, at length with flickering warmth. At last, after a very moving sermon on the prodigal son, the altar suddenly filled with penitents. I have often thought of it, the tenderness with which the good God founded our Scriptures for us, so they would fit the human heart to the uttermost generations of men. That story of the prodigal is the eternal love message from Him to us. Preach it anywhere, and the aching, shamed, dissolute rebel in us trembles and wants to come home. Here in this hill settlement, where scarcely any man had been ten miles from where he was born, it seemed that a hundred had been secret vagabonds in the terrible "far country." When the altar was full to suffocation William called on Brother Tom Pratt to "lead us in prayer." And he led us through a long night into the very morning of God. I wish it were the fashion to call oftener on outbreaking sinners to pray in church. Usually they have a stronger sense of the immediateness of the Lord than the long-winded saints do; and many a time since that night have I listened to the Heaven-turning eloquence of better men in prayer, but never have I heard a nobler petition for the forgiveness of sin.
The church was a darkened space rimmed with light from tallow candles standing on wooden brackets around the walls, and the space was filled with the bowed forms of men and women. Near the pulpit there was more light falling upon the dejected figures of the penitents clinging to the altar rail. Within the rail, kneeling facing them, William's face gleamed like the death mask of prayer.
There was a silence; then a voice arose from somewhere out of the deeper shadows, timid, beseeching at first, like a sad messenger of the outer darkness who had known all the torments of hell and trembled now before the throne of Heaven. But as the bearer of the petition gained courage from his very woes the volume of his voice increased until it filled the church. The rafters shook, and sinners fell prostrate in the chancel. This, however, was only the beginning. The great opera of Brother Pratt's spirit went on like a rude Wagnerian measure until none could resist it. Men arose from their knees shouting. Finally, the prayer-maker, who had risen in his passion and stood praying with his hands above his head, reaching visibly for salvation, fell exhausted to the floor.
The scene is no less amazing to me now as I recall it than it was that night thirty years ago as I sat, a trembling bride, in the remotest corner, praying privately and fervently that the Lord would spare me the sight of William taking part in it. I felt that if he did I should ever after have some earth fear of him. If preachers could only preach without thrusting us up too close to the awful elbows of God before our time!
It was the custom in those days always to conclude a Methodist revival with a "love feast"; you cannot have it where you cannot have an old-fashioned revival. One of the coldest functions I ever attended was a so-called "love feast" in a fashionable Methodist church at the end of a series of meetings. The men wore tuxedos and the women wore party gowns, high-necked, of course, on account of its being a church affair. And the only difference between that and any other social function was that a good many people were present whom the fashionable members never invited to their own homes and whom they treated with offensive cordiality on this occasion.
But at the end of the revival at Redwine there was a real "love feast." A great crowd had assembled, due to the honorable curiosity in the neighborhood to know who would "testify," who would confess his fault or proclaim that he had forgiven some brother man about a line fence between their farms or a shoat. It was, indeed, a sort of Dun and Bradstreet opportunity to know the exact spiritual standing of every man and woman in the community. And it was William's plan that the service should be held in the evening out-of-doors under the great pines. Torches of lightwood furnished the illumination. William stood beside a small table facing the congregation, who were seated on the benches that had been brought out of the church. After a song and a prayer that must have made the old saints sit up on their dust in the graveyard behind the church to listen, William gave the customary invitation.
"Brethren and sisters," he said, "we have had a gracious meeting and a mighty outpouring of the Spirit. It is meet and proper for those who have been helped, who feel that their sins are forgiven, who aim to live a new life, to get up and say so, and thus burn the bridges behind them. Come out on the Lord's side so everybody can see where you stand! I leave the meeting open to you."
"Brother Thompson," said a gray old man with meal on his coat, "I feel that I have been blessed durin' this meetin', and I ask the prayers of all Christian people that I may continue faithful to the end!"
"Amen!" said William, and there were general grunts of approval, for the miller was known to be a wonderfully good man.
"Brother Thompson," said a strange, shaggy young Adam, "I feel that my sins are forgiven me and that I am a child of God. I ask the prayers of all Christian people that I may continue faithful." He was a moonshiner who had destroyed his whisky and cut up his own copper worm and vats during the meeting. As he resumed his seat a little thin woman in a blue cotton dress sprang to her feet, hopped with the belligerent air of a fighting jaybird across the intervening space and lost herself in the arms of the regenerated moonshiner. She was his wife, the good woman who stayed at home and prayed for him of nights. Now she shouted and beat a tender tattoo with her little brown hands upon his bowed head.
"I jest can't help shoutin'," she cried. "I'm so glad he done it!"
He had "done it" three times before—reformed, only to fall again so soon as the corn was gathered in the fall. No one had confidence in him save this little blue-winged heart who loved him. It is no wonder women believe in God easier than anyone else does! They can believe with so little reason in men.
After this followed several triumphant testimonies. Sister Glory White began to shout sweetly and quietly in the amen corner, slapping her fat hands together and whispering softly:
"Bless the Lord, O my soul! Bless the Lord, O my soul! And all that is within me, praise His holy name!"
Presently there was an interruption. William had made the mistake of confiding one of the torches to Brother Billy Fleming, a "holiness man." Suddenly he leaped into the air, shouting and brandishing his blaze in every direction. The paroxysm of joy was short, however, and when quiet was restored, in the deeper darkness—for Brother Fleming's torch had gone out—a tall man arose from near the middle of the congregation. He had a bushy brown beard, a little apostrophe nose, childish china-blue eyes, and a thin high voice which gave the impression upon hearing it that he was at the very moment trying hard to squeeze through the eye of his needle, spiritually speaking. I recognized him as Brother John Henry, distinguished for having the most sensitive conscience of any man in the church. Now he stood with the tears in his eyes, too deeply moved for a moment to speak. Everyone leaned forward, for it was always a matter of interest to know what else was troubling Brother Henry's soul. At last, in a quavering treble he confessed with the air of one doomed to suffer terrible disappointment.
"Brother Thompson, you know, all of you know, I try to be a good man. But the flesh is weak. I git tempted and fall into sin before I know it. I'm sufferin' remorse now beca'se I set my old dominique hen twice and cheated her into hatchin' two broods of chickens without givin' her a day's rest between settin's! My remorse is worse beca'se a man can't apologize to a hen or make restitution!"
Such rarefied confessions were common, and this was one of many occasions when I disgraced William by snickering in the solemn pause which followed.
However, these faded daguerreotypes of memory suggest but faintly any idea of the people with whom I began my life as a minister's wife. I can only show their narrowness. I am not able to give the shrill high notes of faith in their lives. They made an awful business of being good. And the contrast between them and the witty, mind-bred, spirit-lost people of the world was startling indeed, but more to their credit than some are accustomed to think.
WILLIAM AS A LEADER OF FORLORN HOPE
For spiritual beings we do take with singular heartiness to the soil and spoils of this present world. The hope of immortality is more a fear than a hope with many of us. We do not like to see the open door of death that leads to it. So every good preacher is the shepherd of our misgivings, the leader of our forlornest hopes, the captain more particularly of men and women who are about to die, or who are seeking Heaven at last in a state of earthly disappointment and world exhaustion. I have rarely known a person in good health morally and physically, fortunately situated in life, who voluntarily sought the consolations of religion. I reckon the Lord knew what He was about when He turned His back and let Satan fill creation with snares and pitfalls and sorrows and temptations. If we did not fall into so many of them we should never get the proper contrite spirit to seek of our own will and accord after salvation. He would have been obliged to thrust it upon us and we might have been no better than the angels, without the great privilege of sinning our own sins or choosing our own virtues.
William was especially qualified for this business of leading hope after it had done with all earthly ties. He was intellectually opposed to what we know as reality. He entertained topographical convictions concerning the New Jerusalem, and he could give information about the Father's House as the old family homestead of the soul so definitely that one could see the angels on the gables and the Tree of Life shading the front yard. The simplest man in the congregation listened with enthusiasm and found himself recollecting it as if he were recalling scenes from his first life. But eternity is a danger none of us can avoid, and it never seemed spiritually intelligent to me for Christians to struggle so in that direction. Indeed, they do not, really. That Heaven-desiring enthusiasm is but the name of the pathetic courage with which they go to meet death because they have to go.
I recall the thanksgiving prayer of Brother Billy Fleming in this connection. In every experience meeting one part of his testimony was always in standing type—the ambition to be at home in glory, and particularly to rest in Abraham's bosom. But when a long fever brought him almost within kissing distance of Abraham's beard he made a mighty prayer that God would spare his weak and unprofitable life. Not only that, but William was called in to add his own petitions, which he did throughout the night of the crisis of the fever. I remained in the next room with Sister Fleming, a little silent saint who went about the world like a candle moving in a dark place, merely letting her light so shine. When the night deepened and we sat in it, clasped hand in hand, listening to the prayer concert in the sick man's room, I ventured to propound a question.
"Sister Fleming," I whispered, "I can understand why you want Brother Fleming to live, and why the rest of us do; but I can't understand why he has changed his mind so completely and wants so much to live himself. I have heard him say so often that he was not only ready and willing to go, but just longing to be with Abraham."
"Honey," she replied in the tone with which a mother speaks of the childishness of children, "them's one of the curiosities of the Christian religion, the things persons like Billy tells in experience meetings. I don't reckon the Lord takes the trouble to even forgive 'em, they air so foolish. I know Billy from A to Izzard, and, so far from layin' on Abraham's bosom, he couldn't git along with him till daybreak. He jest gits that talk out of his ambition and imagination, although, humanly speakin', Billy is a tolerably good man, and I don't reckon the Lord will have any cause to fling off on him when his time comes. But you can jest set this down, nobody in his right mind feels the way most folks say they feel in an experience meeting!"
As a matter of fact, Brother Fleming made a public thanksgiving prayer at the altar in Redwine Church as soon as he was able to get out.
This deliverance from a woman of such beautiful integrity was a comfort to me. For, while I endeavored to be a Christian along with William, I have never been religious. To feel consciously religious is, in my opinion, to become a sort of "bounder." And we all know how repulsive a "bounder" is in any circle of society. This is the objection to the "holiness people," they are presumptuous in professing a too intimate likeness and relation to God. I have never seen a sanctified man or woman yet whose putty-faced spirituality bore nearly so noble a resemblance to Him as the sad, thunder-smitten soul of some sinner who had had his vision of unattainable holiness. I am thankful that William was never guilty of the temptation to call himself "sanctified." Sanctification is a good thing to preach and a better thing to strive after, but the minute a man professes it he becomes less truthful and less intelligent spiritually, and he proceeds to develop along these lessening lines.
Still, while William did not outrage my reverence for him by a too high profession, I found him hard enough to follow. When during the first year, Sabbath after Sabbath, I saw him quicken the spirit of his congregation with hymns and prayers, and then, taking his text for a motto banner, start for the outskirts of eternity, I was probably the one person in his congregation who hung back for conscientious reasons. I looked at the weary people in the church, with such sad hunger in their faces, and then I looked through the open windows at the fair fields spread like love promises of peace to us in this life, and it seemed to me that possibly they had missed the cue somewhere and I declined to make even a spiritual investigation of that country beyond where the scenes of William's sermons were always laid. Very soon I experienced, also, a woman's fear that eventually I should lose some near and dear sense of my husband. There is, in fact, a highly-developed capacity for heavenly infidelity to earthly ties in most preachers, and the martyrdom of forsaking father and mother and even his wife in the spirit appealed to his spiritual aspirations. Many a woman has been deserted in this subtle manner by her minister husband. But I kept the fear of it to myself, never encouraging this attenuated form of piety in him by even opposing it. Meanwhile, I began to observe with very genuine admiration his heroism in leading forlorn hopes.
This brings me to one of the most important duties of a circuit rider, that of piloting the dying through the last shallows of the great sea. There is where hope is forlornest and where William was bravest. Pastors of fashionable churches rarely perform this office now. It seems that an up-to-date church member regards dying so private as to suggest the idea that some disgrace attaches to it. The minister calls, indeed, speaks cheerfully and conventionally of the Hereafter as of an opulent and famous city with a salubrious climate. He congratulates the candidate for immediate residence upon his new citizenship and takes his departure without the risk of disturbing his temperature with a hymn or a prayer. The proper time for both of these will be when he officiates later over the "remains."
I have sometimes wondered how a fashionable person feels who is obliged even to die by the doctor's orders and according to convention, repressing to the last those great emotions that have made us men instead of clods.
Far away in the country death brings more distinction. There, men and women have walked a lifetime in the fields, they have seen the sun rise and set, the stars shine, the rain fall, the corn grow—all by the will of God. And at the very last they are crowded by their great thoughts of Him, excited by the encroaching fact of His tremendous nearness. They need a priest, some one who has been "ordained" to lead them into the Presence. They have a sense of their ruggedness, their unkempt earthiness and their general unfitness for the great ceremony. The preacher must hold their hands until they cross the doorsill of the Audience Chamber.
Now, I will not say that William enjoyed officiating on these occasions, but they thrilled him, increased his faith. And it touched me to the very heaven of my heart when I discovered that if the dying man was unconverted, an "outbreaking" sinner, he was wont to omit the harder doctrines, and generously lift him to the Lord in prayer upon the easy pledge of faith. The Methodists are especially prepared by the very softness of their creed to afford quick relief to the dying—just repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved!
Looking back through the years, across many, many graves, it seems to me I can see the footprints of William shining yet in the dark of death nights as he journeyed forth to whisper hope into pale ears, and to offer his strange, unearthly consolation to those about to be left behind. Very soon after we were married there came a knock at the door one night and a voice crying:
"Come quick, Brother Thompson; old Davy Dyer is dyin'. Doctor says he can't last till daybreak, and he's hollerin' for a preacher same as if he hadn't been ag'in God all his life."
Davy Dyer was the blacksmith and the only infidel in the country, a grimy old Vulcan with white beard and the eagle's implacable eye. One of William's braveries was to go there to have his red-headed horse shod and to sit upon the edge of the anvil block while it was being done, and gently try to wheedle him toward Heaven. Now, however, at last he was to have the best of the argument. Davy was dying, about to be turned out of the house and home of his spirit, and he wanted the preacher to help him find another. He must have another. No matter how intelligent a man is, or how scientific his method is, there is something in him that he can't think back to dust, an unknown formula that belongs to the unknown.
The time was very short and William hurried away as if he had doves on his feet and the words of eternal life on his lips.
He returned in the opal dawn of the summer morning whitened and weary, but in his high ceremonial mood.
"He died in the faith," he answered calmly.
I had my doubts, my sniffing Canterbury doubts, but the bland light upon his face, an incandescence that he managed from somewhere within, silenced me. I never meddled with the coals on William's altar. And not long after the shriving of the infidel I had an unexpected opportunity to observe how easy he made it for his people to "die in the faith."
We were living a perfectly human day among the roses and sagebushes and bumblebees in our little garden when word came that Mrs. Salter had been suddenly stricken and was about to die "without the witness of the Spirit." There was a row of dahlias behind the blue-belled sagebushes requiring attention, and we had been so normally earth-happy digging about their roots. William had been so like other young men in his digressions that I could not help being depressed at the interruption. It seemed that some shadow of the other world was forever falling between us.
We came up out of our garden; William harnessed his horse, put on his longest-tailed black coat, changed his expression, and we drove away on our sad mission. For custom required that the pastor's wife should accompany him upon such occasions. Her care was to look after the stricken surviving members of the family while he gave his attention more particularly to the passing one. She must be ready to do anything from cooking the next meal to shrouding the corpse. The latter is a particularly garrulous business, and I was horrified to discover that it was so gruesomely entertaining to the women of the church and neighbors who helped. My first corpse was the young wife of a farmer, who had died of "the fever," as usual. Sister Fleming and Sister Glory White had helped me "lay her out." And each vied with the other as to the number and condition of the bodies they had prepared for burial, incidentally comparing points between them and the present one. The grand dignity of the dead woman's face did not appall them, but it frightened me.
"O Sister White," I whispered, trembling and covering my eyes from the sight of them cackling about the awfully disheveled bed and its burden, "don't talk so before her. She looks so much above us!"
"Lor', child, you'll git used to it. They all have it, that grand look, when they air dead. It don't mean nothin'. Once I 'laid out' a bad woman; there wasn't another person in the settlement that would touch her, so I done it, and of all the corpses I ever put away she had the grandest look. It sorter staggered me till I thought at last it was maybe the rest that come to her after the pain of sinnin' had gone out of her body. But you'll not be so squeamish about the way folks look when they air dead after a while. We had one pastor's wife that helped lay out fourteen bodies. But that was the year of the epidemic," she concluded, leaning over to stretch the shroud sheet. Little did I think then that I was already upon the eve of an experience that would far eclipse the record of that other preacher's wife.
We found Sister Salter lying dim and white upon her bed, surrounded by her family and friends. And the supreme tragedy of the hour for them was not her approaching dissolution, but it was that one who had testified so often and so victoriously of her faith had lost it at the crucial moment.
What followed is impossible to describe. It was not the terrible silence in the crowded room, not the battling breath and the shriveling features of the woman in the bed, not by contrast the green and happy calm of the world outside, but it was the awful voice of authority with which William spoke of things that no man knows, that frightened and thrilled us. If he had called me so from a grave where I had lain a thousand years I should have had to put on my dust, rise and answer him. He sat beside the bed and looked as Peter must have looked at Dorcas as she lay dead in the upper chamber of her house at Joppa. It was not the text he quoted, nor the hymns he chanted, but it was the way he did it. Clearly he was adding his faith to her forlorn hope. We saw her face change as if she had risen and was treading the waters in her spirit to meet an invisible presence. The fading light of the summer day showed the same rapt look on it that was there when she shouted that first Sunday at Redwine, and she passed like a sudden gleam into the darkness of the coming night.
William's joy was beautiful to see, but I had a sense of intrusion as if I had parted the wings of some archangel and had seen more brightness than it was lawful for a mortal to behold. So long as we are on this earth it seems to me better to follow the example of Moses and turn our backs when the Lord passes by, so that we shall see only the glory of His hinder parts.
The death of Sister Salter marked the beginning of an epidemic, or rather the return of the same one they had had some years before. It swept through the community with such deadly results that not a family escaped. And I had another view of the ministerial character. William spent all his time in the stricken homes of his people. It was not a sense of duty or conscience or courage that caused him to face the deadly disease with such fortitude, but it was the instinct of the shepherd for his flock. And he readily permitted me to accompany him with the curious indifference to consequences shown by those who have had their heads grandly turned by Heavenly thoughts. Life meant little to him, immortality meant everything. He risked his own life and the life of his wife because it is the nature of the true priest to care more for his people than he does for himself or his wife, just as it is the nature of the good shepherd to lay down his life for his sheep.
At the end of three weeks we had buried half the membership of Redwine Church and had received the secrets of many passing souls. For a man cannot die with his secret in him. It belongs to history and will not be buried. One old woman, Sister Fanny Claris, who had been a faithful member of our church for years, confessed to William at the very last that she had always wanted to be a Baptist, but that her husband had been a Methodist and she had "gone with him."
"If I could have been put clean under the water when I j'ined and not had sech a little jest flung on my head, seems as if I'd feel safer now," she wailed. "And I've took the Lord's Supper with sinners and all kinds when it was in my conscience to be more particular and take it 'close communion' style like the Baptists. Besides, I have believed in the doctrine of election all my life, and I ain't noways sho' about mine now, although I've tried to do my duty." The fading eyes looked at us out of the old face sternly crimped with the wrinkles she had made working for God under an alien creed.
"My soul's never been satisfied, not for a single day, in your church with its easy ways and shiftless doctrines," she concluded faintly.
For once William was silenced. It was not an occasion upon which to vindicate Methodism in an argument. Neither did he have enough tautness of conviction concerning certain terrible doctrines to meet the emergency of her dogmatic needs. And so she passed unshriven to the mercies of a God who is doubtless sufficiently broad-minded to have such baptisms properly attended to somewhere in Heaven.
But the dying are not the only ones who suffer most from the sickness of their hopes. There are men with beautiful souls born with little devil seeds in them somewhere that grow like immoral perennials and poison the goodness in them. They are the people who backslide so often, who repent so thoroughly, and who flourish like green bay trees spiritually when they flourish at all. They are usually regarded as moral weaklings, and it is the fashion of saints to despise them. This is because some righteous people now, as in Christ's day, are the meanest, narrowest-minded moral snobs the world can produce. Many of them are too mean even to afford the extravagance of a transgression. And rarely, indeed, do you see one with courage enough to erect himself again, morally, once he has fallen or been discovered as fallen. But among the backsliders of the class I have mentioned you will find the bravest moral heroes of the spiritual world, men who have the courage to repent and try again with an enthusiasm that is sublime in the face of the lack of confidence expressed in them on all sides. They are a distinct class, and as we went on in the itinerancy I learned to call them God's annuals. And William never was more beautifully ordained or inspired than when he was engaged in transplanting one of those out of his sins again into the sweet soil of faith. He had a holy gardener's gift for it that was as naive as it was industrious.
I recall one of these annuals on the Redwine Circuit. He was a slim, wild young fellow, with a kind of radiance about him; sometimes it was of angels and sometimes of the devil, but he always had it—an ineffable charm. He was brown and blue-eyed, with a level look that hero warriors have. And that was his trouble. He was made for emergencies, not for the long, daily siege of life. He was equally capable of killing an enemy or of dying for a friend, but he could not live for himself soberly and well for more than forty days at a time. Still, he had a soul. I never doubted it, though I have often doubted if some of the ablest members in our church had them, and if they were not wearing themselves out for a foolish anticipation if they expected eternal life.
It is possible for a man to behave himself all the days of his life without developing the spiritual sense. I do not say that such people have not got souls, but if they get to Heaven at all it will be in the form of granitoid nuts, and the angels will have to crack them with a Thor hammer before they can find the thing that they kept for a soul.
But Jack Stark, our Redwine annual, was too much the other way. His soul was not enough inside of him. It was the wind in his boughs that blows where it listeth. Periodically, he went on a "spree"; it was his effort to raise himself to the tenth power, because he had an instinct for raising himself one way and another. If, at the end of a week, he did not appear at the parsonage door, sober, dejected and in a proper mood for repentance, William went after him, plucked him up from somewhere out of the depths and proceeded at once to transplant him again in the right garden.
In all the years of his ministry I never knew him to lose hope in his annuals. He was always expecting them to become evergreens of glory. In dealing with them he had a patience a little like the patience of God, never reproaching them or threatening them with the time limits of salvation in this world; no man ever had a sublimer skill in dealing with the barren fig-tree elements in human nature.
Years after this time John Stark became Congressman from his district. And William died in the belief that he also became a "total abstainer." He probably was at the moment he told him so, but having studied the nature of spiritual annuals I may be pardoned my doubts. However, he will have his nursery place in Heaven, if for no other purpose than to furnish congenial employment to saints like William.
I have often wondered what would have happened if the prodigal son had been a daughter. Would the father have hurried out to meet her, put a ring on her finger and killed the fatted calf? I doubt it. I doubt if she would ever have come home at all, and if she had come the best he could have done would have been to say: "Go, and sin no more."
But "go," you understand. And all over the world you can see them, these frailer prodigals, hurrying away to the lost places.
In a rotting cabin, in an old field five miles from Redwine, lived one of them. Once a week she walked fourteen miles to the nearest large town to get plain sewing, and with this she supported herself and child. The field was her desert. For eight years no respectable woman had crossed it or spoken to her till the day William and I and the red-headed horse arrived at her door. She stood framed in it, a gaunt figure hardened and browned and roughened out of all resemblance to the softness of her sex; her clothes were rags, and her eyes like hot, dammed fires in her withered face. William sprang out of the buggy, raised his hat and extended his hand.
"My wife and I have come to take dinner with you," he said.
"Not with me! Oh, not with sech as me!" she murmured vaguely. Then, seeing me descend also, she ran forward to meet me, softly crying.
We stayed to dinner, a poor meal of corn hoecake, fried bacon and sorghum, spread upon a pine table without a cloth. But of all the food I ever tasted that seemed to me the most nearly sanctified. It was with difficulty that we persuaded the lost Mary to sit down and partake of it with us. She was for standing behind our chairs and serving us. After that she sat, a tragic figure, through every service at Redwine, even creeping forward humbly to the communion. She was not received, however, in any of the homes of the people. She might "go in peace"—whatever peace her loneliness afforded—that the Scriptures might be fulfilled, and that was all. They would have none of her. This was not so bad as it seemed. She was free, indeed. Having no reputation to win or lose she could set herself to the simple business of being good, and she did. The time came when the field changed into a garden and the cabin whitened and reddened beneath a mass of blooms.
But there was one man whom William could never lead when hope fell forlorn and the way seemed suddenly rough and dark. That was himself. This is why I cannot get over grieving about him wherever he is. Nothing that comes to him of light now can lighten those other days far down the years when he lost his way and had no one to preach to him nor lead him. For the one tragedy that marked the course of our lives in the itinerancy was not the poverty and hardships through which we passed, it was the periodic backsliding of William. This is a pathetic secret that I never mentioned during his lifetime. I did not even know for many years that all Methodist preachers who are not hypocrites have these recurrent down-sittings before the Lord when they become sorry penguin saints with nerves. It grows out of Nature's protest against the stretched spiritual perpendicularity with which they live, never relaxing their prayer tension on Heaven, rarely taking any normal diversion, losing their life purchase upon the objective through too much subjective thinking. Ministers of other denominations are probably not so often the victims of this reaction.
The symptoms of such attacks in William became as familiar to me as those of measles or whooping-cough. They were most apt to occur after what may be called long spiritual exposures—a series of "revivals," for example. He was taken with the first one, I remember, during a six weeks' protracted meeting at one of his churches on the first circuit. We were spending the night with a family in the usual one-room log cabin. We occupied the company bed while our host and hostess occupied one in the opposite corner. By this time I had become resigned to this close-communion hospitality and must have slept soundly. But some time after midnight I was awakened by the deep groans of my husband. Instantly I sat up in bed, and by the light of the moon through the window I saw his face white and ghastly and covered with sweat as if he were in mortal pain. His eyes were yawning at the dark with no real light in them. And his mouth was drawn down into Jeremiah lines of woe that are indescribable.
"William! William!" I cried aloud. "What is the matter?"
"Hush, Mary," in a tragic whisper, "don't awaken the Pratts. I have lost the witness of the Spirit. I must close the meeting tomorrow, just as the people are beginning to be interested. But it would be blasphemy to go on preaching, feeling as I do!"
"How do you feel?" I whispered, thoroughly terrified.
"As if God had forsaken me!"
I had been in it long enough to know that the "witness of the Spirit" is the hero of the Methodist itinerancy, that a preacher without it is as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal, that he is in a role of a great play which has been rejected by the "star." I wiped the mourning dew from William's brow, laid my face against his and wept in silent sympathy. I saw something worse than disgrace staring us in the face—William deprived of his definition, William just a man like other men. I had come of a worldly-minded family who supported the church and sustained a polite it somewhat distant relation to Heaven. Religion was our relief like the Sabbath day, but it was never our state of being. And I was blandly of the earth earthly, but I suddenly discovered that the chief fascination of William for me was that he was not of the earth earthly, that his dust was distressed and stirred by strange spiritual instincts very different from anything I had ever known. And probably nothing was further from the intention of Providence when I was created than that I should become such a man's wife. But I had one enlightening qualification for the position. I loved William. I was called to that as he had been called to the ministry. And now, as I laid my face against his as the rose lies above the coffin lid, I was concerned only for William's peace.
"William," I challenged, "have you been doing wrong? Something really and truly wicked?"
"I must have," he replied with egregious sincerity, "but I thought I had been observing all my obligations with particular care."
"Then it's all right," I said. "God would not trifle with you about the witness of His Spirit, especially at such a time as this!"
It was not often that I showed such boundless confidence in the Lord's ways, and I was indeed far from feeling as familiar with them as I pretended. But the affectation comforted him and certainly it was no injury to the Maker of the heavens and the earth. William fell asleep at once and awakened in the proper protracted-meeting frame of mind next morning.
Many times afterward he experienced the same catastrophe, and these have been the only occasions in my life when I have put on the whole armor of God so that I might go forth properly to battle with the powers and principalities of William's darkness.
I used to wonder a great deal in those days about "the witness of the Spirit." Before my marriage I had heard little of it. I wanted to know what it was, but I never prayed for it myself. The thought occurred to me that what William called the witness of the Spirit might be the shoulder tap of his own spirit approving him now and then. But then came the deeper question, How did William come by his own spirit, that part of him which was neither flesh, nor bone, nor blood, but which had the power to make him sit up in the middle of the night to pray, and to make him fast maybe all the next day? At last I reached a comforting conclusion. That is one peculiarity of the human, he never rests upon any other kind of conclusion. What he thinks may be so, but if it is not comforting he thinks further on into the daybreak of Eternity till he gets something better, more satisfactory for his needs. This is why we shall always keep on finding God. There is something lacking in us to which God only answers. The conclusion I came to was this, that we are not all called to do the same things, that William was called to preach and pray, and the witness of his Spirit approved when he did it right. And I was called to look after William, to see that he did not pray too much or preach too long. And I always had that sweet inward glow which he called his witness when I attended most carefully to his needs. It may be a narrow way to look at it, but you couldn't live with William in any peace of mind without this witness of the Spirit. It would have made him unhappy to live with a person who couldn't claim it, and I've had mine these thirty years without having to pray or to fast to get it—a tender eye in me that regarded him and a heart that prayed for him.
WILLIAM ENTERS HIS WORLDLY MIND
This is the wonderful thing about the pure in heart—they do see God. And that was William's distinction. In spite of his own faults and of ethical errors in some of his preaching, he outstripped all these and did actually see God; and it made him different from other men who, however wise, do not see God. On this account I have no doubt that he fumbled more souls into the Kingdom of Heaven than some of the most popular tabernacle preachers of modern times.
Nevertheless, William had his worldly mind. There was an ancient Antaeus in him whose heel occasionally touched the strengthening earth, and he was as unconscious of it as a baby is of its expression. But, once he entered his worldly mind, he became as naively unscrupulous as any other man of the world. Never, in all the years we lived together, did he repent of these particular deeds done in the body. He could be brought to the very sackcloth and ashes for a supposititious sin that he had not really committed; but no man could make him repent of a horse trade, and I never knew but one who had the best of him in one. In common with all circuit riders he had a passion for horses, and a knowledge of them that would have made his fortune on the race track. This brings me to relate an incident which will serve to indicate the shrewdness and unscrupulousness of William once he took the spiritual bit in his teeth.
We were on the Beaverdam Circuit, and he had bought a new horse—a horse gifted with ungodly speed in the legs and a mettlesome, race-track temperament. On a certain Saturday, after services at Beaverdam Church, we were returning home in a light buggy drawn by the big, rawboned bay. When we came to a long stretch of good road William tightened the reins, took on a scandalous expression of Coliseum delight and let the horse out. Instantly the thin flanks of the creature tautened, he laid his tail over the dashboard, stretched his neck, flattened his ears and settled himself close to the ground in action that showed sinful training. William's expression developed into one of ecstasy that was far from spiritual, and I had much ado to keep my hat on. Presently we heard the clatter of another horse's feet behind us, and the next moment the bay was neck and neck with Charlie Weaver's black mare. Charlie was one of the younger goats in the Beaverdam congregation, whose chief distinction was that he was an outbreaking sinner and owned the fastest horse in the county. Instantly William's whole nature changed; he was no more a minister than the florid young man in the buggy that was whirling giddily beside us. He tightened his reins and touched the bay with his whip. The effect was miraculous; the horse leaped forward in a splendid burst of speed, the mare showed signs of irritation and broke her gait, and the two jockeys exchanged challenging glances. At that moment we rounded a curve in the road, and in the hot dust ahead there came to view a heavy, old-fashioned rockaway drawn slowly by a pair of sunburned plow-horses.
"Oh, William," I gasped, "do stop! That is the Brock carriage and this is a horse race!"
Brother Brock was a rich Methodist steward who not only owned most of the property in Beaverdam neighborhood, but the church as well. He was a sharp-faced man who gave you the impression that his immortal soul had cat whiskers. He fattened his tyrannical faculties upon the meekness of the preacher and the helplessness of a congregation largely dependent upon him to pay the pastor's salary and the church assessments. Any preacher who offended him was destined to be deprived of his subscriptions. Knowing this I took an anxious, economical view of the old rockaway heaving forward in the road ahead and vainly implored William to slacken his speed to a moral, ministerial gait.
In another moment it was over. The mare crashed into the rockaway on one side and the bay shattered the swingletree on the other with the forewheel of our buggy. The old plow-horses plunged feebly, then lowered their heads in native dejection, while the Brocks shrieked, root and branch. Never have I seen such a look of feline ferocity upon the human countenance as when Brother Brock scrambled down from his seat into the road and, with his mouse-catching eyes, added William Asbury Thompson, preacher, to Charles Jason Weaver, loafer, drunkard and horse racer, and placed the sum of them on the blackboard of his outer darkness. I sat in the buggy, holding the reins over the trembling, wild-eyed bay, while William descended and, with great dignity, tied up the disabled swingletree. There was not the slightest evidence of moral repentance in his manner, although he expressed a polite, man-of-the-world regret at the accident.
When Brother Brock resumed his place on the driver's seat and Sister Brock had ascended to hers with the cacklings of a hen who had been rudely snatched from her nest, and all the medium-sized and little Brocks were safely bestowed beside her, we drove on at a funeral's pace behind them. The bay was grossly insulted, but it was the only mark of humility left within our reach.
Three days later the Presiding Elder appeared at the parsonage door. He was a big man, riding a handsome gray horse and wearing a look of executive severity. I trembled with apprehension, for we had heard, of course, that Brother Brock had written to him preferring charges against William for horse racing. But now I had an astonishing and unexpected view of William's character. His worldly mood was still upon him, his Antaeus heel still upon the earth. He hurried out to meet Doctor Betterled, the elder, and, having thrown the saddlebags of his guest across his shoulder, stood apparently transfixed with admiration before the gray horse.
"I'd almost be willing to swap my bay for him!" I heard him say.
"Let's see the bay," replied Doctor Betterled guardedly.
Five minutes later, peeping through the kitchen window, I saw the mettlesome bay standing beside the big-headed, thick-necked gray, and the two men, each with one foot planted far forward after the manner of traders, facing one another with concert eloquence concerning the respective merits of the two animals. Presently they entered the house together, Doctor Betterled evidently in a cheerful frame of mind and William wearing his chastened look.
Late in the afternoon, when our guest rode away, he was mounted on the bay; but he had not mentioned the horse race of the previous Saturday. William stood, the genial host, bareheaded at the gate till the rider's back was turned; then he came into the house, dropped into a chair at the open window and fixed his eyes, with a deep frown above them, upon the gray horse asleep in his dotage under the apple tree in the barnyard.
"That horse has three windgalls, he is swinneyed in both shoulders, and I think he has a gravel in one of his forefeet!" he remarked in a tone of deep dejection.
I laughed and felt more nearly kin to him morally than I had ever felt before. There was a squint-eyed shrewdness in the way he involved and disposed of the Presiding Elder that was wittily familiar to me, and all the more diverting because William never suspected the Machiavellian character of his conduct. He kept his eye on God, as usual, letting not his soul's right hand know what his left one was doing.
But, going back to Brother Brock and the subject of Methodist stewards in general. The preacher soon discovers that the rich ones are the most obstreperous. And besides the good ones, the rich, obstreperous ones are divided into two classes. The first class consists of those who threaten to resign if everything is not done according to their desires, which they hide and compel you to find out the best way you can. Occasionally a preacher gets into a community where everybody in the church—from the janitor to the steward and treasurer—has this mania for threatening to resign.
I shall never forget William's first experience with such a church. It was in a little village where human interest consisted in everybody hating, suspecting or despising everyone else. He went about like a damned soul, trying to restore peace and brotherly love. But they would have none of either. Each steward approached him privately and tendered his resignation, giving reasons that reflected upon the character of some other steward. Then the organist tendered her resignation because the Sunday-school superintendent had reflected upon her playing, and she retaliated by reflecting upon his unmarried morals. When the superintendent heard of her complaint and withdrawal he at once sent in his resignation, because he did not wish to cause contention in the church.
William afterward discovered that they treated every new preacher the same way, taking advantage of the opportunity to damage each other as much as possible and to try his faith to the limit. But the delightful thing about William was that where his patience and faith gave out his natural human blood began to boil, and when that started he could preach some of the finest, fiercest, most truthful Gospel I have ever heard from any preacher. So it happened in this church.
When he was in certain spiritual—or, to be more precise, unspiritual—moods he refused to shave, but wore the stubble on his chin, either by way of mourning or defiance, as the case might be. On this Sabbath he presented a ferocious chin to the congregation, after having waited patiently for all of the resigners to take their respective prominent places in it. He preached a short sermon with the air of a plagued, unkempt angel; then he took up the resignations and read them out exactly as he read the church letters of new members, accepting each one and giving the reasons why. It was the most sensational service ever held in that church. In the first place, to accept their resignations was an unprecedented proceeding and the last thing they had expected him to do. The custom had been for the preacher to persuade them to keep their offices, which they had done from year to year with an air of proud reluctance. But the sensation was when he stated, literally, what each had said of the other—calling no names, of course—and saying that he was glad that these sinners had had the humility to give up positions of trust and honor in the church which they were evidently unfit to fill. He hoped before the end of the year they would be restored spiritually and worthy to perform the services they had formerly performed. Meanwhile, there was nothing left for him to do but to appoint a committee of sinners to attend to the stewards' duties until these should be reclaimed from their backslidden state. He named half a dozen young men who roosted on the back benches after the manner of happy, young lost souls, and I do not know whether it was astonishment or mischief that led them to accept with such alacrity the obligations imposed upon them. But William has always claimed since that they were the most active and effective stewards he ever had, that it was the first year he had ever received his salary in full, and the congregation was thoroughly cured of the resignation habit.
The second class of obstreperous stewards is easier to manage. The quality of their perversity is exactly that of the mule's. William never had to move a church, get a new roof on one or an organ for it, or even a communion table, that some well-to-do steward did not lie back in the traces, back his official ears and begin to balk and kick mule fashion. Often they were good men in every other particular, but they were simply queer reversions to type—which indicates that at one time, not so far back in the history of evolution, all men were mules.
The only way to manage them is to wait till they change their minds, just as the driver must wait upon his stubborn donkey. For you can never move one by reason or by threats. He would die and go to the wrong place rather than give up his point. This is why you will see some churches going to rack, antiquated and out of touch with the life about them. Look inside and you will find some old mule steward stalled in the amen corner, with his ears laid back at the pulpit or at the other stewards.
I pass, without giving details, over several years; they were much like these first ones. I soon learned, however, that life in the Methodist Church was all uphill or downhill at a smart spiritual canter. In these days it is nearly as easy to be a Methodist as it is to be an Episcopalian.
One rarely sees now the hallelujah end of a human emotion in a Methodist church. Recently, when an old-fashioned saint gave way and scandalized the preacher by shouting in one of our fashionable city churches, the stewards took her out, put her in an ambulance and sent her to the hospital. And I am not saying that the dear old soul didn't need a few drops of aromatic spirits of ammonia; but if every man who shouts at a political rally were sent to the hospital for treatment the real sick would be obliged to move out to give them room. As for me, I contend that a little shouting is good for the soul; it is the human hysteria of a very high form of happiness, more edifying to unhappy sinners than the refrigerated manners of some modern saints.
Anyhow, I say there were no level grounds in Methodist experience in William's and my early days in the itinerancy. No matter how young or old or respectable they might be, those received into membership were expected to show signs of awful conviction for sin, to repent definitely—preferably in solemn abasement at the church altar—and to experience a sky-blue conversion. There were no such things as we see now—boys and girls simply graduating into church membership from the Sunday-school senior or junior class. I am not saying it is wrong, you understand; on the contrary, it would be much better for the church if it did more spiritual hospital work among the kind of people who are too bad even to go to Sunday-school. I think they all ought to be taken into the church and kept there till they get well spiritually and decent morally. Then they might be discharged as other cured people are, to go back into the world to do the world's work properly instead of improperly.
As it is, one trouble with all the churches is that they have too many incurable saints in them, men and women who pray too much and do too little, who cannot forget their own selfish salvation enough to look after other people's without feeling their own spiritual pulse all the time they are doing it. Of late I've sometimes suspected that it is nearly as debilitating to stay in the church all the time as it would be to stay in a hospital all the time.
But I am telling now how things were twenty-five and thirty years ago. After conversion an honest Methodist's life was divided into two parts—the seasons when he was "in grace" and the seasons when he was out of it. Naturally, the preacher had his hands full looking after such members instead of having his hands full, as he does now, attending committee meetings and mission classes and what not, for the ethical uplifting of the native poor and the foreign heathen. For, if old Brother Settles, of Raburn Gap Church, was up and coming, resisting temptation and growing like Jonah's gourd spiritually, apt as not young Brother Jimmy Trotter, of Bee Creek Church, had backslid and gone on a spree.
There was never a night when William's family-prayer instinct did not include both of them with equal anxiety, and often he would reach back into past circuits for some especially dear sinner and remind the Lord to have mercy on him also, while He was at His mercies. He could forget the saints he had known, easy enough, but he clung year after year to the sinners he had found, name by name.
If the redeemed really do wear crowns in Heaven, with jewels in them to represent the souls they have helped to save, I know William's will not look very handsome. There will be no flashing diamonds or emeralds in it, but he will have it set with very common stones to symbolize the kind of souls that were most dear to him. There will be a dull jade for the young country woman that he brought back home from the city and saved from a life of sin, and, maybe, a bit of red glass for Sammy Peters, the young man with whom he was wont to go through such orgies of repentance on account of Sammy's many scandalous transgressions. And he will have a piece of granite beaten down into fine gold for the old man who repented before it was too late. And I reckon he will be sitting somewhere upon the dimmer outskirts of Paradise most of the time, with grandly-folded wings, holding the thing in his hands instead of wearing it on his head; and he will be recalling those for whom the stones stand, with a tender homesickness for them. For even in Heaven he will be lonely without them, his dear, straying sheep.
Always the people we served were poor, and, of course, we were a trifle poorer. The circuit rider is not only a priest to his people, but he is a good deal of a mendicant besides. William rarely returned from an appointment or from visiting among his flock that he did not bring with him some largess of their kindness. This made pastoral visiting an amiable form of foraging and had its effect on character. We were continually struggling against the beggar instinct that is dormant in every hopelessly poor man. We were tempted within and without. Sometimes we could not live on the salary paid, neither could we refuse the gifts offered without giving offense. If it was winter he would come back with the pockets of his great-coat stuffed with sausage, or there would be a tray of backbone, souse and spareribs under the buggy seat. If it was summer the wide back would be filled with fruit. One old lady on the Raburn Gap Circuit, famous for her stinginess, never varied her gift with the seasons. It was always dried peaches with the skins on them. But, as a rule, we received the very best they had to give, and with a fragrant openheartedness that sweetens memory. This is the glory of the itinerancy: if the preacher sees the worst of the people, knows their faults and weaknesses better than any other man, he also knows their virtues better.
Once, when we were far up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the people had no money at all except that which they received for a few loads of tanbark and with which they paid their taxes, we came to desperate straits. Now, it so happened that year that the women in a rich city church sent out Christmas boxes containing clothing and other necessities. We were fortunate enough to receive one of these, and I flourished forth in singularly fashionable garments for a season, while William made a splendid appearance in the cast-off dinner suit of a certain rich but wicked Congressman. The swaggering cut of the coat, however, gave almost a sacrilegious grace to his gestures in the pulpit.