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THE CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH AT TERRE HAUTE, INDIANA, WHERE LYMAN
BY LYMAN ABBOTT
A MID-WESTERN PARISH DURING THE CIVIL WAR
IN 1860 Terre Haute was a town of eighteen thousand inhabitants, situated
a little south of the center of the State of Indiana, but on its extreme western border, not over six or seven miles from the eastern border of Illinois. It had two Methodist churches, one Baptist, one Episcopal, two Presbyterian (one of them Old School, one New School), a Campbellite, a Universalist, a German Lutheran, and a Roman Catholic church, in addition to the Congregational church to which I was temporarily called. It had also a school for the higher education of girls, known as a "Female College," and a State normal school, though I am not quite sure but that the latter was placed in Terre Haute a little later. The Polytechnic School, which is now one of the features of the city and one of the educational features of the State, was a later creation. But already in 1860 the city was something of an educational as it was something of a railway center.
The first settlers of the town had been largely French, and had given to the town its name-High Land. To one accustomed to the hills of New England it was not very high. It stood on a bluff rising probably between one and two hundred feet from the western edge of the Wabash River and about fifty feet above the prairie, which extended to the south and east. The local pronunciation gave two syllables to the first wordthus: Ter-ră Hōt. The brakeman on the train usually called out "Tar-hot." I wrote to my father-in-law in June following our arrival: "Terre Haute is a very beautiful town. German and Irish immigration has filled up. a part of this town, as of every one in the West. Pigs ornament the streets, and a part of the town is anything but attractive. But that which is occupied by the finer residences is very beautiful. The homes are surrounded by grounds and by fruit trees, many of them by beautiful gardens." The "best people" of the city were mostly from the Middle States-Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Maryland; a number also from Ken1 Copyright, 1914, the Outlook Company.
tucky. There were only two New England families in my congregation, and, so far as I know, they were the only ones in town. "Yankee" was distinctly a term of opprobrium. It did not take my wife long to find this out. We speedily came to regard ourselves as coming, not from Massachusetts, but from New York.
Mr. Ryce, who had conducted the correspondence with me, and who had recently moved into one of the finest houses in the city and on one of its best streets, within a few blocks of the church, sent to Cincinnati for the furniture to furnish a large spare room, and as soon as it came he and his wife made us their guests, overruling our protests and overcoming our hesitation. large room in the third or attic story was given to me for my study. A large table served the purpose of both desk and bookcase, for my library did not contain over a score of books-perhaps not so many.
I soon found that it was customary not to open the church for service on stormy Sunday evenings. The attendance was so small that it was thought not worth while. I asked Mr. Ryce if he closed his store on stormy days.
Certainly not." "Yet I imagine the attendance of customers is small." "Surely." "It would not be good business, would it?" "Certainly not." "Neither," I suggested, "is it good business to close the church. Let us keep it open; but let it be understood that there are only two persons whose duty it is to be present-the sexton and the preacher. If no one else comes, we will close the church and go home." We never had to close the church. The fact that the minister took the Sunday evening service seriously inclined others in the church to do so also. Partly this reason, partly curiosity to hear the new minister, added considerably to the evening congregation. I very soon organized a congregational Bible class which met one evening in the week at private houses. Membership was not confined to members of my own congregation; nor was any kind of faith or unfaith a condition of or a bar to membership. One member was an extreme Calvinist
from the Old School Presbyterian Church, who lived under the shadow of a perpetual doubt whether he was one of the elect, and always said, "If I am a Christian," and " If I ever get to heaven." He said to me once, in a burst of confidence, "I sometimes think I stand up so straight that I lean over backwards." I was of the same opinion, but whether I told him so I do not know. Probably not. It is not always best to agree with a man too cordially when he is confessing a fault. Another member had been brought up under Theodore Parker in Boston and Dr. Furness in Philadelphia, and had never attended church, I believe, before I came, though his wife had a seat in the church and his children were in the Sunday-school. The subject of our study was the life of Christ. There was absolute and untrammeled freedom of opinion; equal facility for the Calvinist to insist on verbal inspiration, and for the theist to deny all miracles and to interpret Christ's cursing of the fig tree as a sign of ill temper. It required a little tact and occasional authority to prevent a debate, but not much. required a good deal of preparatory study to make myself ready to meet so wide a range of opinion and questionings. But familiarity with the life of Christ was what I pre-eminently needed for my ministry. My class compelled me to acquire that familiarity, but it did for me much more. It enabled me, nay, it compelled me, to see how the life and teachings of Jesus Christ seemed to the average layman when applied to his life and his beliefs. I was able to get from my class, what the preacher is not able to get from his congregation, an immediate response; to see what the Gospels meant, not in the original Greek to the disciples in the first century, but in the English tongue and in their modern applications to all sorts and conditions of men in the nineteenth century. In short, it enabled me to study the Gospels not merely as literature, but as a guide to life. Thus the class furnished me with many a sermon, and I continued to carry out the plan my father had advised and I had adopted, of getting my equipment for the pulpit by a general study of the Bible, especially of the Gospels, and my themes from a study of my congregation. In this class I could do both at the same time and by the same process. That year's work in the life of Christ laid the foundation, not only for the life of Christ which I subsequently wrote, but for my life teaching of ethical, social, and spiritual themes.
We were very pleasantly situated at Mr. Ryce's. Mr. and Mrs. Ryce were hospitality incarnate and urged us to remain; at least not to attempt to move until cooler weather. There seemed to be no danger that we should outstay our welcome. But we did not wish to stay its full measure. There were many reasons why it was better for us to have a home of our own. Boarding was not congenial either to my wife or to myself; and board was not easy to obtain. If," wrote my wife to her father, "we could have found a comfortable boarding-house, we should have done so, probably. But people here go to housekeeping on so small a scale that very few board or are prepared to receive boarders. As soon as a man has saved enough to buy a little lot of ground he builds the smallest thing for a house that he can live in, and only adds to it upon the greatest necessity. Those who are more abundantly supplied with the needful' have fine houses and gardens, but they do not like to take boarders and will not let houses, except such as are built in the small way of this country especially for renting."
This letter was written on August 4, four months after our arrival at Terre Haute. What had become of my original plan to spend the summer in Terre Haute and return in the fall, or in the following spring at the latest?"Man proposes; God disposes." Our proposal had been necessarily disposed of by the course of events. That the reader may understand those events, I must drop this narration at this point, and ask him to go back with me a quarter of a century to the history of the origin and development of the church to which I had been brought.
In 1834 (the year before I was born) a young man, Rev. Merrick A. Jewett, started from Baltimore on horseback to ride to St. Louis, Missouri, in search of a missionary field in the Far West. His theological education had been secured under an independent Presbyterian clergyman of Baltimore, and he was himself an independent in temperament and conviction. Whether he planned the horseback ride of a thousand miles because he thought it would restore his health or because he had so much health that he anticipated enjoyment from the ride, I do not know. He stopped on a Saturday noon in Terre Haute at the only inn of any pretension then in what was at that time a village of about eight hundred people.
"As the stranger came up from dinner
and stood upon the generous portico which extended over the sidewalk, across the entire front of the old tavern, his horse having been fed and brought from the stable, ready for him to resume his journey, he found a group of men examining his horse and commenting on its strength and beauty. In answer to a question from Captain Wasson, the landlord, as to ownership, Mr. Jewett stepped forward and said that the horse belonged to him. And who are you, sir?' name is Jewett; I am from Baltimore. am a minister of the Gospel on my way to St. Louis to seek a field of labor,' was the answer. 'And did you ride that horse all the way from Baltimore?' Upon receiving an affirmative answer, one of the company said, You needn't be in a hurry-just stay over Sunday, and it sha'n't cost you a cent, and we will have you preach for us.' These gentlemen, Mr. Jewett's first acquaintances, having prevailed upon the young minister to remain with them, although none of them were church members, used every effort to get a large congregation for the Sunday service. They secured the court-house, swept it out themselves, rang the bell, and by personal effort secured a large attendance. After the morning service notice was given that there would be preaching in the evening at early candlelight, and as many as could make it convenient were asked to bring a candle." 1
The young preacher had never addressed such a congregation. The congregation had never heard such a preacher. The population was not a church-going population. There had been attempts to establish a Presbyterian church, but without success. There was a little Methodist church which was visited with more or less regularity by a circuit preacher. Otherwise the town depended on the court-house for a church building and any preacher who happened to come that way for church services. The people thought the time had come when the village should have a church. An impromptu town meeting was called; resolutions were passed that it was highly desirable that the preaching of the Gospel should be established in Terre Haute and that the Rev. Merrick A. Jewett was eminently qualified to discharge successfully the sacred duties devolving upon the pastor of a church; a salary was pledged and a committee was appointed to ascertain from him whether he would consent to settle
From a paper read by Mr. Frederick A. Ross at the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the First Congregational Church of Terre Haute.
in the town as a minister of the Gospel. This was on the 13th day of November, 1834. His consent having been obtained, he went home to bring his bride back with him. Whether she came on horseback also history does not inform us. Immediately on his return, on the 29th day of December, 1834, the pastor-elect of the church, which as yet had no existence, invited all who loved Jesus Christ to meet together and organize a church. Six men and five women responded to the call. Behind them stood a considerable number of citizens who were not prepared to unite with the church, but were prepared to give it financial support.
The church thus organized continued for six years without any formal creed or any ecclesiastical connection with any of the denominations. Because it was not anything else it was Congregational, or, to use the more accurate English equivalent, Independent, and Mr. Jewett was re-engaged from year to year. Not until 1850 was the church formally received by a Council into the fellowship of the Congregational churches; at the same time Mr. Jewett was formally installed as its pastor. This occurred, however, approximately as soon as there were enough Congregational churches in the vicinity to make such fellowship real and effective.
In this history of the church I have thus far followed its official or semi-official records. It is interesting, however, to add that at the time of my life in Terre Haute I was informed that the chairman of the town meeting which invited Mr. Jewett to organize a church and which pledged to him a salary was a wellknown gambler, but a public-spirited citizen, who interested himself in getting a church in Terre Haute as he might have interested himself in getting a railway, a school, or a library, and no more thought it necessary to be a member of the church than he would have thought it necessary to be a stockholder in the railway, a pupil in the school, or a reader of the books. And I have narrated this history at some length because it is the only instance with which I happen to be acquainted in which a minister has been requested by a town meeting to organize a church and the church so organized has lived and prospered without any creed of any description either express or implied. That an entire community should recognize the need of a church, as it might recognize the need of a fire department or a public school system, seems to me to lend